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Imperative of an EU-Russia strategic reset

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Russia vs. the European Union. It is relationship based and built upon a long history of protracted political conflict. Lately, with the crisis in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed to Russia, the diplomatic relations between the two sides have reached a new historical low.

But more importantly, the mistrust among the peoples residing in both sides has reached a new high. Unavoidably so. Since the Western and Russian media started to be viciously launching campaign-like news reports, there is nothing but confusion and loss of perspective by both the peoples and their representatives. The big question is whether this would be the case if the US politics were not involved in the game. Would still Russia and the EU have so many excuses to be driven apart; politically, culturally and ideologically?

Recently an unusual event on the “Imperative of an EU-Russia strategic reset”, took place in Vienna, in the UPF Austria headquarters in partnership with IFIMES and its fiery representative Prof. Anis Bajrektarevic. I say unusual, as for one thing, the panel was composed by two megatons of political and diplomatic status; Dr. Walter Schwimmer, former Secretary General of the Council of Europe, and H.E. Anwar S. Azimov, former Russian ambassador to the OSCE HQ. But even more importantly, the audience was composed of a rare mix, raging from young students, women associations, interfaith dialogue groups, experienced professors and diplomats to high rank military officials and foreign attachés. The outcome was intoxicating; thanks to the inflammatory panel inputs and the reality-driven, hands on, questions from the audience. An amazingly rare openhearted, attentive, non-finger-pointing or bully-blaming and constructive discussion on what drives EU and Russia together. Or as H.E. Azimov noted: ‘in a constructive natural alliance rather than a strategic partnership’.

After the warmhearted welcome by Peter Haider, UPF Austria President, Prof. Bajrektarevic made more than a challenging opening:

“The lonely superpower (US) vs. the bear of the permafrost (Russia), with the world’s last cosmopolite (EU) in between. Is the ongoing calamity at the eastern flank of the EU a conflict, recalibration, imperialism in hurry, exaggerated anti-Russian xenophobia or last gasp of confrontational nostalgia?

Just 20 years ago, the distance between Moscow and NATO troops stationed in Central Europe (e.g., Berlin) was more than 1.600 km. Today, it is only 120 km from St. Petersburg. Is this a time to sleep or to worry? ‘Russia no longer represents anything that appeals to anyone other than ethnic Russians, and as a result, the geopolitical troubles it can cause will remain on Europe’s periphery, without touching the continent’s core’ – was the line of argumentation recently used by Richard N. Haass, President of the US Council of Foreign Relations. Is it really so?

Is there any intellectually appealing call originating from Russia? Is it a lonely champion of antifascism and (pan-)Slavism? Is Slavism, identity, secularism and antifascism being abandoned in Eastern Europe, confused perhaps by the mixed signals from the austerity-tired Atlantic Europe and über-performing Central Europe?

For the EU, Ukraine is (though important) an item of the Neighborhood Policy and for the US it is a geopolitical pivot. And for Russia, it is all this plus emotional attachment. Without Ukraine, to what extent is Russia Christian and European? Is the EU a subject or a hostage (like Ukraine) of the mega-geopolitical drama whose main stage is in the Asia-Pacific theater? What is the objective here – the final score (territorial gain) or an altered style of the game (new emotional charge added to the international relations)? What is a road map, an exit, a future perspective – relaxation or escalation? Hegemony, hegemoney, or a global (post-dollar) honeymoon?”

The event was about to begin:

Consecutively, there were two statements on the table that they were the cause of awe and intellectual training. The one came from the H.E Asimov, when suggesting that ‘Russia was never against Ukraine joining the EU, but it was against letting this move harming the economic and defense related interests of Russia’. Pointing out actually, the reality, that a sovereign country cannot make a sovereign decision without consulting all natural and strategic allies. Then he went to add, that Russia in this case is simply a Mediator in the conflict; a mediator who sympathizes with the people of Southeast Ukraine. As for Krimea, the referendum and the accession that followed, it was just a matter of historical justice; and exerted the willingness of his country to generously participate in a funding scheme for the reconstruction of the post conflict Ukraine. That is beyond doubt a narrative that people in Europe have not yet been afforded the chance to hear, process and evaluate.

On the other hand, Dr. Schwimmer, a veteran and master of diplomacy and proven enthusiast of the idea of Russia being viewed as a part of Europe, stated that he believes that Russia has not yet finished its transformation after the communist dictatorship. He illustrated the fact that Russia is, besides any strategic and geopolitical ideas, an indispensable part of the European culture and identity. Hence, when he made the provocative and pioneering hypothesis of Russia applying for an EU membership, he argued that the EU, if Russia will fulfill the conditions, would have no grounds in rejecting it.

Russia joining the European Union. That is definitely food for thought and subject of perpetual intellectual puzzle. Both sides have flaws in their communication strategies towards each other. Both sides have flaws in their communication strategies towards their own people. Both sides are inextricably interwoven in all possible aspects, from culture to economy. Dostoevsky is Europe’s favorite, Russian Christianity is putting Russia on a different list than, let s say, Turkey and 50% of Russian trade occurs with the EU; and these are only tiny examples of a long list of reasons suggesting not only natural alliance but true unity. Nonetheless, this idea seemed to shock everyone. Why?

Let us put things into perspective. Ukraine. An interesting aspect of the Ukrainian conflict is its multidimensional character; as it started as an intra-state social struggle and along its evolvement it transformed to an inter-state conflict. The interaction between parties caused new issues to emerge or single issues to create multiple issues.

Imagine the tensions in the form of a tree. On the roots of the Ukrainian conflict tree lie: 1) the weak Ukrainian state as a solidified democracy with clear goals, and means to achieve these goals, that enjoy the respect and support of the majority of the people; something that provides the ground for foreign interference; 2) the economic impoverishment of the Ukrainian people, that fuels social unrest; 3) the differentiated perception of history, as well as the, as such perceived, cultural differences of the Russo-phones and Galatic groups of Ukraine, that makes centrifugal powers within the society possible; and 4) the long history of inharmonious diplomatic relationship between Russia and the West, and especially the US.

The latter aspect is illustrated by what many see as a culmination of many years of grievances with what Putin sees as an unfair international system. “They say we are violating norms of international law … It’s a good thing that they at least remember that there exists such a thing as international law – better late than never,” said Putin. Adding to this irritation is also a sense of injustice and unfair victimization from the west that has long been a feature of Russian political thinking. Sochi is a recent sore point. The 2014 Winter Olympics was Putin’s pet project, costing $50bn (£30bn), yet the build-up was permeated with noise about gay rights and security concerns from the west, and only a handful of heads of state visiting the games.

On the leaves of the tree lie: 1) the different form of communication and political conduct between Russia and the West (the Kremlin does not like win-win solutions. It likes outcomes in which it wins, and its detestable Western rivals lose; and the EU finds this notion of geopolitics old-fashioned and unappealing, when geo-politics are happening on its doorstep); 2) the financial dangers for all parties from further escalation and consequent destabilization of the region; 3) the crippled alliance between the US and the EU, as the fallout from Edward Snowden’s leaks of secret material from the National Security Agency has weakened the transatlantic alliance.

For the time being, everything seems as a dead end. For the time being, the EU seems trapped between the US and the Russian narratives. For the time being, Russia fails to see Europe independent from NATO. For the time being, the EU fails to find a constructive way to deal with Russia, forming a holistic approach that has a perspective of decades to come and be consistent to it; no wonder though, as the EU faces existential threats itself.

The idea of unity is out there though, and time shall come that Russia will not be an ‘outlaw-most wanted’. Everyone has flaws, but it does not mean that the world should be deprived of them; not just like that.

Russia

Russia lacks sufficient number of migrants to fulfill its ambitious development plans

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Despite various official efforts, including regular payment of maternal capital to stimulate birth rates and regulating migration policy to boost population, Russia is reportedly experiencing decreasing population. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, Russia’s population currently stands at approximately 144 million, down from 148.3 million.

Experts at the Higher School of Economics believe that regulating the legal status of migrants, majority of them arriving from the Commonwealth of Independent States or the former Soviet republics, could be useful or resourceful for developing the economy, especially on various infrastructure projects planned for country. These huge human resources could be used in the vast agricultural fields to boost domestic agricultural production. On the contrary, the Federal Migration Service plans to deport all illegal migrants from Russia.

Within the long-term sustainable development program, Russia has multibillion dollar plans to address its infrastructure deficit especially in the provinces, and undertake megaprojects across its vast territory, and migrant labor could be useful here. The government can ensure that steady improvements are consistently made with the strategy of legalizing (regulating legal status) and redeploying the available foreign labor, majority from the former Soviet republics rather than deporting back to their countries of origin.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has been credited for transforming the city into a very neat and smart modern one, thanks partly to foreign labor – invaluable reliable asset – performing excellently in maintaining cleanliness and on the large-scale construction sites, and so also in various micro-regions on the edge or outskirts of Moscow.

With its accumulated experience, the Moscow City Hall has now started hosting the Smart Cities Moscow, international forum dedicated to the development of smart cities and for discussing about changes in development strategies, infrastructure challenges and adaptation of the urban environment to the realities of the new normal society.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia lacks sufficient number of migrants to fulfill its ambitious development plans. He further acknowledged that the number of migrants in Russia has reduced significantly, and now their numbers are not sufficient to implement ambitious projects in the country.

“I can only speak about the real state of affairs, which suggests that, in fact, we have very few migrants remaining over the past year. Actually, we have a severe dearth of these migrants to implement our ambitious plans,” the Kremlin spokesman pointed out.

In particular, it concerns projects in agricultural and construction sectors. “We need to build more than we are building now. It should be more tangible, and this requires working hands. There is certainly a shortage in migrants. Now there are few of them due to the pandemic,” Peskov said.

Early April, an official from the Russian Interior Ministry told TASS News Agency that the number of illegal migrants working in Russia decreased by 40% in 2020 if compared to the previous year. It also stated that 5.5 million foreign citizens were registered staying in Russia last year, while the average figure previously ranged between nine and eleven million.

On March 30, 2021, President Vladimir Putin chaired the tenth meeting of the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations via videoconference, noted that tackling the tasks facing the country needs not only an effective economy but also competent management. For a huge multinational state such as Russia, it is fundamentally, and even crucially important, to ensure public solidarity and a feeling of involvement in the life, and responsibility for its present and future.

At this moment, over 80 percent of Russian citizens have a positive view on interethnic relations, and it is important in harmonizing interethnic relations in the country, Putin noted during the meeting, and added “Russia has a unique and original heritage of its peoples. It is part of our common wealth, it should be accessible to every resident of our country, every citizen, everyone who lives on this land. Of course, we will need to review the proposal to extend the terms for temporary stay of minors of foreign citizens in the Russian Federation.”

President Vladimir Putin has already approved a list of instructions aimed at reforming the migration requirements and the institution of citizenship in Russia based on the proposals drafted by the working group for implementation of the State Migration Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025.

“Within the framework of the working group for implementation of the State Migration Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025, the Presidential Executive Office of the Russian Federation shall organize work aimed at reforming the migration requirements and the institution of citizenship of the Russian Federation,” an official statement posted to Kremlin website.

In addition, the president ordered the Government, the Interior and Foreign Ministries, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Justice Ministry alongside the Presidential Executive Office to make amendments to the plan of action for 2019-2021, aimed at implementing the State Migration Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025.

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Nobody Wants a War in Donbass

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image source: euromaidanpress.com

Any escalation is unique in its own way. Right now there’s a combination of unfavorable trends on both sides, which are leading to an escalation of the conflict. This combination creates additional risks and threats that weren’t there before.

On the Ukrainian side, the problem is that the president is losing his political position and becoming a hostage of right-wing and nationalist forces. Many of the reform initiatives that he came to power with have stalled. Political sentiments are changing within his faction. They’re saying that with his recent steps, in particular the language law and the closure of television stations that Kyiv dislikes, he’s starting to stray towards the agenda of his predecessor, Poroshenko. And this means a weakening of his position. Probably, he’s already thinking about re-election and how he will look during the campaign. Here, the trend is unfavorable.

On the other hand, there’s the arrival of Biden, who will always be more attentive to Ukraine than Trump. There’s an expectation that the U.S. will be more consistent and decisive in its support for the Ukrainian side in the event of a conflict. This invigorates the forces that are looking for an escalation.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh also played a role. They said there was only a political path to resolving the conflict, but in Karabakh [the Azerbaijanis] used force and made real progress. This motivates the people who think that military force can resolve a conflict. Moreover, Ukraine is carrying out defense cooperation with Turkey, so there may be hopes that the balance of forces will shift in Kyiv’s favor.

There’s also a radicalization of the political leadership of the DNR and LNR. They say that [full-scale] war is, if not inevitable, than very likely—and Russia must intervene. The idea that the DNR and LNR should join Russia is gaining popularity once again. This is facilitated by Russia’s actions. In the last two years, the mechanisms for granting Russian citizenship to residents of the LNR and DNR have changed. Hundreds of thousands of LNR and DNR residents are already citizens of the Russian Federation, and Russia has—or at the very least should have—some obligations towards its citizens. This gives hope to [the residents] of the LNR and DNR that if an escalation begins, Russia won’t remain on the sidelines and we will see large-scale intervention. Without Russia, the conflict will not develop in the favor of the republics.

As for Russia, our relations with the West continue to deteriorate. There’s Biden’s statement about Putin being a killer, and relations with the European Union. We are witnessing an accumulation of destabilizing trends.

I don’t think anyone wants a real, big war, since the costs of such a conflict will exceed the political dividends. It’s difficult to predict what such a conflict might lead to, given that the stakes are very high. But an unintended escalation could occur.

Hopefully, all of those involved have enough wisdom, determination, and tolerance to find a positive solution. So far, we are far from a serious conflict, but we’re closer than at the beginning of April 2020 or 2019. Unfortunately, we’re headed downhill, and it’s difficult to say how long it will go on.

To prevent a [full-scale] war from starting, the situation in Donbass needs to be stabilized. That’s the first task. In recent weeks, the number of ceasefire violations has been increasing, and the number of victims is growing. We need to return to the issues of the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the OSCE mission, and monitoring the ceasefire.

The second task is to discuss issues of political regulation. The main uncertainty is how flexible all the parties can be. The Minsk agreements were signed a long time ago, [but] it’s difficult to implement them in full, there needs to be a demonstrated willingness not to revise them, but to somehow bring them up to date. How ready are the parties for this? So far, we aren’t seeing much of this, but without it we will not advance any further.

The third issue is that it’s impossible to resolve the Donbass problem separately from the problem of European security as a whole. If we limit ourselves to how we fought in Donbass, Kyiv will always be afraid that Russia will build up its strength and an intervention will begin. And in Russia there will always be the fear that NATO infrastructure will be developed near Voronezh and Belgorod. We have to deal not only with this issue, but also think about how to create the entire architecture of European security. And it isn’t a question of experts lacking imagination and qualifications, but of statesmen lacking the political will to seriously deal with these issues. Because if you reduce everything to the requirements of the formal implementation of the Minsk agreements, this is what we’ve been fighting about for seven years already.

I think that Ukraine will now try to increase the political pressure on Moscow and get away from the issue of the Minsk agreements. And going forward a lot depends on what the position of the West and U.S. will be. To what extent and in what format will they provide support in the event of an escalation? This is still an open question. And, I think, even Biden doesn’t know the answer to it.

From our partner RIAC

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Updating the USSR: A Test for Freedom

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Thirty years ago, on March 17, 1991, the only all-Union referendum in the history of the USSR took place. One question was put to a vote: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedoms of a person of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” Almost 77 percent of those who voted said “yes” to the preservation of the USSR in an updated form. The authorities of Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Estonia refused to hold the referendum on their territory. By that time, the legislative and executive bodies and institutions in these republics were already controlled by secessionist forces, which did not hide their intentions to leave the USSR.

The March 17 referendum at that time was the only convincing attempt to appeal to public opinion on the most important issue of the political life of a huge country. However, the results did not change anything — by December 8 of the same year, the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine decided to dissolve the USSR. The referendum itself became the beginning of the end of a unique state — an experiment in the vast expanses of Eurasia. By that time, the republican elites were already ready to take power and wealth into their own hands; the events of August 1991 spurred this readiness — in Turkmenistan, where almost 100 percent of the population voted to preserve the USSR, on August 22, 1991, all enterprises were placed under republican control.

All the republics of the USSR met the new year in 1992 as newly independent states. For some of them, this status was a long-awaited event, for which they had fought. Others were, according to former Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan Apas Jumagulov, “thrown out of the union, cut off as an unnecessary part of the body.” Many economic ties broke off immediately, while others collapsed gradually; the rest survived and were even strengthened. In politics, everyone was left to their own problems. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan plunged into bloody political and interethnic conflicts during their first years of independence.

The path of the countries that emerged from the ruins of the USSR over the years was the road to gaining their own subjectivity in international politics. With great difficulty and despite all odds, Armenia and Moldova are coping with this task. The majority — Russia, Azerbaijan and all the countries of Central Asia — were able to solve the problem more or less successfully. Georgia and two Slavic republics — Belarus and Ukraine, were hanging in the “limbo” between external management and full-fledged statehood. The three Baltic republics quickly transferred their sovereignty to the European Union and NATO. In their independent development, they had to make, in fact, the only decision, which, moreover, was due to historical reasons and external circumstances. This decision was made and now the fate of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia cannot be perceived outside the context of Russia-West interaction.

For the rest, the direct link between success in creating their own statehood and the scale of interaction with the West (Europe and the United States) is quite obvious. This historical fact reveals a relationship between the ability of small and medium states to ensure their sovereignty and the interests of the great powers in their neighbourhood. Such powers were Russia and the European states, united into the European Union simultaneously with the collapse of the USSR. Also, an important role was played by the United States, which always sought to limit Russian opportunities and supported the newly independent states. At the same time, an attempt to choose in favour of closer relations with the West to the detriment of Russian interests in all cases, without exception, led to a very shaky statehood and the loss of territory.

The dramatic fate of Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine shows that the strong collective institutions of the West are capable of exerting a stabilising effect only on those states that directly became part of them.

In all other cases, no matter how complete absorption becomes possible, an orientation towards these institutions only leads to the use of small countries in a diplomatic game with bigger partners.

Therefore, the experience of the development of such major players as Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan is indicative — they were able to confidently form their own statehood, without finding themselves in a situation of choosing between conflicting poles of power. Their main resource turned out to be a rather fair demographic situation. But not only this — the population of Ukraine has also been and remains large by European standards. Kazakhstan is a success by this indicator; equal to the average European country or small Asian states.

Therefore, the ability of most of the countries of the former USSR to build relatively independent and stable statehood played no less important role. In many ways, this ability was established during the years of the Soviet Union’s existence. Founded on December 30, 1922, it was not just a continuation of the Russian Empire, which had collapsed five years earlier. Its main distinguishing feature was its unique model of state administration, based on the full power of one political party. As long as the unique position of the Communist Party remained in the Soviet state, the experiment could exist. With the abolition of Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR, its days were numbered regardless of the desire of the population or the real readiness of the elites to take full responsibility for what was happening.

The USSR model of state structure, new by historical standards, created the conditions for a rather unique experiment, within the framework of which union republics were created, none of which, except for Russia, Georgia and Armenia, had the experience of centralised state administration within the territorial boundaries that they acquired within the framework of the USSR. At least the peoples inhabiting them can boast of a significant experience of statehood as such. Thus, most of the countries of Central Asia trace their ancestry back to great empires or urban civilizations of past centuries.

The Baltic republics were always on the sidelines — their independent statehood arose during the collapse of the Russian Empire and existed as such for almost 20 years before being incorporated into the USSR in 1940. Russia has returned to its historical state of being a major European power or empire of the 19th century, with the development of a multinational and multi-faith society central to its development objectives. In fact, Russia has not lost anything really necessary for its survival in international politics.

The peculiar structure of the USSR formalised the situation in which the former outskirts of the Russian Empire ceased to be part of the Russian state, although Moscow served as the centre of the union. Russia among them was in the most ambiguous position — it did not have its own most important institutions of Soviet statehood — the party organisation and the republican State Security Committee. Russian nationalism was subjected to the most severe and consistent persecution by the Soviet authorities.

The vast majority of republics within the USSR, for the first time, received the experience of building their own state and their national elite.

The backbone of the ruling class was the Soviet and party nomenklatura, which all took power, with few exceptions, after 1991. Even in Tajikistan, where the first years of independence were overshadowed by the civil war, it was this part of society that was eventually able to establish control over the situation. In other Central Asian countries, elites formed on the basis of the state tradition established during the Soviet era, gradually supplemented by representatives of a new generation that grew professionally after the collapse of the USSR.

Thirty years is a sufficient period to assess the results of the independent development of the countries that emerged from the republics of the former USSR. Now the period of their growing up can be considered complete; ahead is an independent future. Russia is increasingly feeling independent and not particularly obligated to its neighbours. In any event, Moscow will continue to follow a moral imperative of responsibility for maintaining peace and strictly ensure that its neighbours correlate their actions with Russian security interests.

From our partner RIAC

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