Minsk Is The World’s New Diplomatic Capital
Perhaps you’ve never traveled to southwestern Ohio. But you’ve probably heard of the Dayton accords, the 1995 agreement that ended the Bosnian war.
Same with Schengen, a tiny wine-making village in Luxembourg and the birthplace of European visa-free travel. Or Maastricht, the capital of the Dutch province of Limburg, where the treaty leading to the creation of the European Union was signed.
Now, the capital of Belarus has become the latest city whose claim to fame may remain forever tied to a much-discussed act of diplomacy: the Minsk I and Minsk II cease-fire agreements aimed at bringing peace to eastern Ukraine.
Prior to the war in Ukraine, Minsk’s notoriety rested in large part on its Soviet time-capsule qualities and the bad behavior of its entrenched leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who oversaw the beating and arrest of hundreds of opposition activists following his controversial reelection in 2010.
But for the past several months, Lukashenka has gone from “Europe’s last dictator” to gracious host-with-the-most.
Speaking to Russian television on the second day of the Minsk II talks on February 12, Lukashenka ebulliently recounted the locally sourced menu — omelets, cheese, milk products — served to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, and frenemy Vladimir Putin, who had just pulled a largely fruitless all-nighter.
“They drank several buckets of coffee to sustain their bearings,” he added. “My business was to fetch ammunition, so to say — to ensure a good mood, to provide food, to arrange drinks.”
(According to the analytical firm Topsy, “Minsk” that day received more than 325,000 mentions on Russian and English-language social media, more than either “Putin” or “Merkel.”)
Until recently, the prospect of Minsk flipping omelets for some of the world’s most powerful leaders would have been unthinkable. Lukashenka and nearly 200 other officials have spent years under a European travel ban following the 2010 election fracas.
The ban has forced the Belarusian leader to content himself with trips to China, Latin America, and the Vatican. But Lukashenka’s new role as a dutiful diplomatic host has raised expectations that ties between Belarus and the West may begin to normalize.
EU member Latvia, the bloc’s current president, has indicated it may invite Lukashenka to an Eastern Partnership summit it is hosting in May. And Minsk’s ties with Beijing have paid off in ways that even the EU can’t ignore — like the new “silk route” railway line, passing through Belarus, that links China to Western Europe.
In the meantime, Minsk — which in 2014 successfully hosted the Ice Hockey World Championships — has continued to expand its hosting duties at home.
Belarus’s Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makei last month held talks with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. This week, Makei is hosting the North Korean foreign minister, Ri Su-yong, a meeting aimed at “building up constructive relations.”
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Latvia risks to turn to a ghost state
Latvia 2020 population was estimated at 1,886,198 people at mid year according to UN data.
At the beginning of 2022 population of Latvia accounted for 1 million 876 thousand people, which is 17.5 thousand people fewer than a year ago.
The current population of Latvia is 1,826,608 as of May 17, 2023, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data.
For many years Latvia has suffered from a so-called “brain drain”, a phenomena when young highly trained and qualified people emigrate from the country. Since Latvia became a member of European Union and Schengen Area and when working in other countries became especially easy, the human capital flight from the country has intensified and reached high figures, when Latvia lost many residents due to emigration.
The number of young people continues to has decline sharply. At the beginning of 2022, there were 234,500 boys and girls aged 13 to 25 living in the country. This is 12.5% of all residents. Behind the reduction of this group is not only a decrease in the birth rate, falling living standards but also emigration. The young and talented people prefer not to stay here.
One new reason for youth to leave the country has appeared this year. Latvia reintroduces compulsory military service. The decision was made by the country’s parliament on April 5. Latvia has not had compulsory military service since 2007 when it was abolished.
From 2024 onward, the number of conscripts will increase. The plan is to call up 7,500 Latvians every year, starting in 2028. This will increase the size of the army from over 22,000 soldiers to 50,000, including territorial defense and reserves.
The Baltic nation feels threatened due to the war in Ukraine. But, new public surveys show that many young men are not convinced that compulsory military service is the right reaction. Only a small share of people back compulsory military service.
Young men are known for their rebellious ways. So, it’s hardly surprising that the Latvian government’s recent decision to reintroduce compulsory military service has not gone down particularly well with them.
Far fewer people wanted to become professional soldiers. There have not been any national opinion polls conducted on the topic recently. But a study in May 2022 found that more than 40% of Latvians opposed it. According to Maris Andzans, a professor at Riga Stradins University, who wrote in a February briefing for the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, support was lower among younger respondents, with only 34% in the 18-24 age group supportive of the idea.
In Latvia, there is also another segment of the population that doesn’t like the idea of military service. Some members of the country’s Russian-speaking minority are skeptical about what they perceive as the country’s pro-Western course. Russian-speakers make up about a quarter of Latvia’s 1.9 million-strong population. Joining the Latvian army to “fight against your own people” is not something they wanted to do. So many are planning to leave. So, a phenomena of “men drain” when young highly trained and qualified people emigrate from the country because of unwillingness to serve.
Russia and Georgia Working Towards Improving Bilateral Relations
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest decree to review the visa regime for Georgian citizens and relaunching Tbilisi-Moscow flights between the two capitals starting May 15, has sparked antagonism among members of the European Union. Putin signed the decree waiving the visa requirement for Georgian citizens. In another decree, the president canceled the ban for Russian air carriers to perform flights to Georgia and on selling tours to the country.
According to the document, “from May 15, 2023, citizens of Georgia may enter the Russian Federation and leave the Russian Federation without visas, on the basis of valid identity documents.” In addition, a decree was issued to lift restrictions on flights to Georgia, which have been in force since July 2019.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili branded these decisions as provocative, while Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili said that he welcomed the visa-free travel and direct flights. Russia introduced visas for Georgians in 2000. Georgia waived the visa requirement for Russians in 2012.
According to several media reports, the United States and the European Union have warned Tbilisi about the risks of sanctions in the event of the resumption of air traffic with Russia. Both Russia and Georgia have had cross-haired relations down the years. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were severed by Tbilisi in 2008 after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia, like any other former Soviet republics, to some extent have reservations on their political relations with Russia. In a number of post-Soviet republics prefer dealing with the United States and the European Union. Russian authorities are aware of these facts and trends, while policies are still considered or seen as hard and dominating.
Addressing the third Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club on May 16, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin said that some Central Asian countries and the former Soviet republics are showing little appetite for risk and, there also signs that may join sanctions against Russia.
However, he warned that any artificial severance of ties with Russia may cause more damage than the costs of any secondary sanctions. The senior Russian diplomat emphasized that Russia is seeking to consistently intensify its strategic partnership with these countries across the region. With with the bulk of them experiencing economic transformations, more foreign investments are trickling in from the United States and European.
Despite that, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili expressed hope that European partners would understand the importance of the decision to carry on trading with Russia because trade is among the broad interest of and the proximity as a factor for Georgia.
Georgian Airways launches its Tbilisi-Moscow flights starting May 20, the Civil Aviation Agency has already issued a permit to Georgian Airways for flights, to be operated seven times a week, to Russia.
The Russian Transport Ministry said that after the restrictions are lifted, Russian airlines will also fly between Moscow and Tbilisi 7 times a week using domestic aircraft. Red Wings, whose fleet is comprised mainly of Russian SSJ100s, quickly announced they were ready to start flights to Georgia if they could receive the necessary permits. Three Russian airlines have applied for direct regular flights to three Georgian airports including Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi.
Restoring flights between Georgia and Russia in 2023 could bring $300 to $400 million in additional revenue for the Georgian tourism sector, Georgian Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili said at a briefing after a government meeting held May 15.
Davitashvili noted the successes achieved in the tourism sector in the post-pandemic period and expressed hope that this year the flow of travelers from Russia will increase even more, as well as from other countries, in particular from neighboring Azerbaijan.
The Deputy Prime Minister stressed that it would not be “pragmatic” to turn down direct flights between Russia and Georgia. That the country’s population would positively assess the efforts that the authorities are making to improve the country’s economy. At the same time, Davitashvili stressed that the country’s course towards joining the European Union remains unchanged.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s relations with former Soviet republics has remarkable difficulties due to several factors. Georgia, like all the former Soviet republics, has its political sentiments, viewpoints and approach towards Russia, which mounted ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine since February 2022, and has currently come under a series of stringent sanctions.
Russia, Ukraine to receive African Delegation for Potential Peace Plan
Local Russian and foreign media awash with the latest potential peace efforts, this time, from African leaders. Presumably this group of peace-makers, headed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, will demonstrate collective efforts at resolving the heightened political differences between Russia and its neighbouring Ukraine.
According official sources monitored by this author, the peace plan is backed by African leaders of Senegal, Uganda, Egypt, the Republic of the Congo and Zambia. Four of those six African countries – South Africa, Congo, Senegal and Uganda – abstained from a U.N. vote last year on condemning Russia’s invasion. Zambia and Egypt voted in favour of the motion.
Zambia has historical ties with Russia. Uganda is a U.S. ally on regional security in East Africa, but Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has spoken of his country’s friendship with Russia and its neutral position in the war in Ukraine. Previously, the African Union, regional economic organizations have officially called for the adoption of diplomacy mechanisms and negotiations through which to end the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
Last year in March, Senegalese President Macky Sall and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, held discussions on the main aspects of the special military operation and on the importance of humanitarian issues and suggested ending the conflict through diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a phone conversation May 12, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Putin supported his idea of several African leaders participating in the Ukrainian settlement. The South African leader pointed out that the Ukrainian crisis negatively impacts Africa because it triggered growing food and fuel prices. “A group of African heads of states took the view that Africa does need to put forward an initiative, a peace initiative, that could help to contribute to the solution of that conflict,” he added, according to report by Singapore’s CABC radio station.
Ramaphosa said he spoke with Putin and Zelenskyy by phone over the weekend and they each agreed to host “an African leaders peace mission” in Moscow and Kyiv, respectively. “Principal to our discussions are efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the devastating conflict in the Ukraine,” Ramaphosa was quoted in media reports.
According to Russian media, a group of African countries is in the process of coordinating the terms and timeframes of its visit to Moscow and Kiev in order to lay out their Ukrainian reconciliation initiative. It said further that “the modalities of the trip are being worked on with both countries. It’s a group of African Heads of State.”
It said the governments of Russia and Ukraine had agreed to receive an African delegation, whose goal is to find a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian conflict. Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zelenskyy have given their consent to receive the African delegation in Moscow and Kiev.
Details of the plan have not been publicly released, although Ukraine’s stated position for any peace deal is that all Russian troops must withdraw from its territory. But Ramaphosa said the United States and Britain had expressed “cautious” support for the plan and the U.N. Secretary General had also been briefed about the initiative.
Considered one of Moscow’s closest allies on the continent, South Africa says it is impartial and has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions on the war. Last week, it rejected claims by U.S. ambassador to South Africa that weapons were loaded onto a Russian vessel from a naval base in Cape Town in December. Reports said Ramaphosa had opened an inquiry into the allegation.
South Africa is preparing to attend the next Russia-Africa Summit in July 2023 in St. Petersburg. In August, it will host the next BRICS gathering in Durban. The BRICS group of nations are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. With BRICS as an example, China has attempted playing a crucial role in the conflict resolution between Russia and Ukraine.
China has been, so far, offering to mediate possible peace talks, an offer clouded by its show of political support for Moscow. Beijing released a proposed peace plan in February, and a Chinese envoy is preparing to visit Russia and Ukraine. But there appeared to be little chance of an imminent breakthrough to end the war since Ukraine and its Western allies largely dismissed the Beijing’s proposal.
The Kremlin wants Kyiv to acknowledge Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, which most nations have denounced as illegal. Ukraine has rejected the demands and ruled out any talks with Russia until its troops pull back from all occupied territories. Ukraine is determined to recover all Russian-occupied areas.
Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan also includes a tribunal to prosecute crimes of aggression, which would enable Russia to be held accountable for its invasion. Zelenskyy had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 14, later saying he sought support for Ukraine’s peace plan from the pontiff.
As a new world is awakening to the worsening situation, it is necessary that all countries must be guided by the principles of non-interference, respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Due to its ‘special military operation’ that it started in February 2022, Russia is currently experiencing a raft of sanctions imposed by the United States and Canada, European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and a host of other countries.
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