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The Blame Game: Finding Fault in Greater Caspian Human Rights

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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A wonderfully informative, if also somewhat depressing, report has just come out from The Foreign Policy Centre, based in London, where the effort was made to understand why there seems to be a lack of transparency and accountability across Parliamentarian International Organizations as concerns recognizing and documenting and challenging human rights abuses across the Post-Soviet space, including the Greater Caspian region.*

More specifically, the investigation capitalized on access to data and personnel within the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The chief purpose was to basically assess the assessors: were the organizations put in charge of supposedly overseeing the proper development of human rights and civil governance across the former Soviet Union actually doing their duties effectively and compellingly. If not, why?

Together with previous studies conducted by fine organizations like the European Stability Initiative in Germany, the overall conclusions are not inspiring. The relatively famous concept of ‘caviar diplomacy’ (which has been written about at length in a previous issue of our own Greater Caspian Project), where favors are performed or misdeeds are forgiven or dismissed in exchange for personal gifts and benefits, has seemingly been accented by a veritable plethora of other complicating factors, all of which serve to undermine the proper promotion of human rights and good governance across this great region. These complicating factors in addition to ‘caviar diplomacy’ break down as follows:

Lack of knowledge: In short, most Parliamentarians across Europe put in charge of a particular country often have no direct experience or educational training on said country. Perhaps worse, efforts to ‘engage and learn’ can often be relegated to extremely short trip visits with highly ‘managed’ excursions organized by country authorities that, obviously, have a vested interest in showing the Parliamentarian in question the rosiest of pictures and most progressive of achievements. As a result, reports produced by the international organizations tend to be terribly skewed and inaccurate.

Belief in ‘the power of persuasion’ through active engagement: This is something akin to a political neo-paternalism, where the European actors in question believe that the only way to evolve and progress ‘emerging democracies’ is to give them benevolent guidance and engagement. In other words, success depends on the Western Europeans being able to show the ‘ungovernables’ how to govern. Even if done with the best of intentions, it is easy to see how quickly this tactic can go off the rails in terms of respect and responsibility. Even weaker seems to be the belief that there is a direct causal link between ‘dialogues’ and ‘structural change.’ So far, at least, that causal link seems decidedly thin.

Circling the wagons: For Parliamentarians there seems to be an ‘empathizer’ element for their fellow Post-Soviet/Greater Caspian legislators, in that they recognize their learning peers often face far harsher and more critical political crises, barriers, and obstacles. Consequently, this empathy identification is incurring a forgiveness quotient on transgressions against human rights and civil freedoms, or at least the ability to ‘understand’ how some slips can occasionally happen. In America, this would most often be categorized under the rubric of ‘not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater.’

Parties of the world unite: Many parties across Europe forge international alliances with each other. As time goes by, some of these partnerships form deep ties as literal bridges between East and West. There is at least compelling anecdotal evidence to suggest that some of these bridges have induced negative consequences, where members of the European bodies seem willing to be less harsh on violations when taken by members of sister organizations and parties. The European People’s Party, for example, took a light-handed approach to human rights violations in Georgia when the sister party United National Movement was in power. When UNM fell out of power and moved into the opposition role, however, EPP suddenly seemed more enthusiastic and vociferous about touting governmental transgressions coming out of Tbilisi. This same trend also tends to make very weird alliances of disparate groups with wildly varying agendas and interests. In the confusion, local populations will suffer from bad governance that never gets called out. The most colorful example of this is how the European Democrats group brings together Britain’s Conservative Party, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, Azerbaijan’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party, and some of Armenia’s ruling elite parties. This kaleidoscope of political agenda-confusion only seems to create a lack of coherence and consensus on rulings over human rights and good governance.

Political ‘realism’: In this case realism is just code for foreign-policy-strategic-business-as-usual. As in, a country in the West, while sincerely being concerned about human rights and good governance in all states, is not going to be so concerned about it as to limit, constrain, or hinder its own pursuit of national interests and security. So whether it is the prioritization of new economic opportunities, trade, and investment or some country forming a strategic lynchpin in a greater global security plan against terrorism, it is clear that human rights and good governance are ‘flexible priorities’ that will rise and fall according to the importance of other states’ considerations of their own realpolitik.

Anti-Imperialism: This is something of a rather strange international version of American ‘political correctness’ in the late 20th century. In this case we have a strange unity between the radical left and the radical right, laying claim that any Western nation giving lectures or making demands about human rights ‘standards’ is akin to a moral imperialism and an ignorance of unique cultural traditions. The implication being that the so-called less-developed political cultures of the former Soviet Union/Greater Caspian region need to be left alone to develop their human rights standards at their own pace and in line with their unique cultures. Amazingly, this has some traction with Parliamentary bodies across Western Europe.

“All politics is local”: To utilize a political cynicism, this finding indicates that how much a Parliamentarian cares, or does not care, about human rights abuses in any given country is a direct reflection of how big or how small that country’s diaspora may be within his/her own constituency back home. This obviously creates a wildly diverse sliding scale of empathy and importance, with none of the assessment values based on empirical reality or critical gravity. Rather, it is just about whether or not the Parliamentarian in question can politically afford to pay attention to it or ignore it. Too often, whichever version plays best with the home crowd seems to be the option that carries the day.

“Caviar-flavored” diplomacy: Unlike the previously mentioned caviar diplomacy, which is a simple and brazenly open system of corruption via bribery, extortion, and/or blackmail, caviar-flavored diplomacy is perhaps a level below but still ultimately detrimental. In this case it describes political/economic/diplomatic behavior that is clearly inappropriate and unethical but is not immediately transactional in nature. This usually involves a tit-for-tat quid pro quo, where in exchange for a Parliamentarian’s willingness to look the other way or not criticize too harshly an improvement in personal networking contacts will occur or lucrative economic opportunities will be promised. There is some evidence that this is becoming favored over straight caviar diplomacy simply because there is at least some element of plausible deniability for the Parliamentarian, as the payoff comes later on, thereby making it harder to draw an explicit link between a particular vote and the benefit.

What we can ultimately see from these findings is that the tendency in the West to shake its diplomatic head in disgust at the lack of progress on important issues like human rights and good governance across the greater Caspian region is insincere, as it is not taking place in a political vacuum. Many of the structural barriers like corruption and lack of institutional history are not only being exacerbated by the very people meant to be responsible for improving the situation, but it is arguable that the conditions sometimes become worse because of the involvement of the overseeing group from the West. We should try to remember this whenever we read the unfortunate reports coming out of the region on human rights and proper governance: dark diplomacy, unfortunately, seems to be just as prevalent in the overseers as the overseen.

*For the full report, please see: Institutionally blind? International organisations and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union, edited by Adam Hug, Foreign Policy Centre, London, February 2016.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at: https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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Eastern Europe

Canadian soldiers’ nightmare in Latvia

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Latvia’s Defense Ministry reported that January 9 a change in the top brass of NATO’s enhanced forward presence in Latvia took place. Lieutenant-Colonel Philippe Sauvé took over command from his Canadian compatriot Lieutenant-Colonel Steve MacBeth, thereby concluding the rotation of the third group of troops deployed in Latvia.

In an interview with a French-language Canadian news site immediately prior to his departure for Latvia, Sauvé noted the main threat to the Canadian troops deployed in Latvia. To his mind this is not a threat of military aggression itself or any super weapon. He scares of NATO disability to counter disinformation or leakage of unwanted information. He said “troops would need to be on their guard against disinformation during their deployment.” “We are aware of fake news, we take it seriously, and when there’s misinformation we make sure we correct that information. Everything that we do is transparent,” he said.

Though the commander tries to persuade the population and himself in the ability to win the information battle for the minds of ordinary people, it seems as if he was not sure of what he was speaking about. The worst thing is he cannot rely on his troops and, thus, provide security of the Latvian people.

States’ security is the main aim of NATO presence in the Baltic States. But NATO strategy of counting disinformation does not stand up to scrutiny.

Very often “exposing myths” looks only like regret. Such strategy cannot be successful. The urgent need for NATO is to exclude accidents that can be interpreted as crimes against the local population. Soldiers are not fully educated about local cultural and religious background; they do not understand the features of character and national behavior. It means they cannot defend people whom they do not really respect and understand.

Thus, the results of foreign soldiers’ misconduct have been transferring in disbelieve in foreign military support. The results of investigation of such accidents, involving foreign troops, cause hatred towards not only the guilty soldiers, but to the whole contingent. The more so the NATO officials’ attempts to hide the results make the situation even worse.

People who read real news about, for example, real car accidents with the involvement of NATO troops deployed in their country have right to be against such military presence. They think locals should not be victims of badly trained foreign troops. And fake news is not the main problem.

Fake news is only fake news and no more. But they appear only if there is ground for rumors. It is easy to stop spreading fake news. It is enough not to give a handle to it.

The matter is NATO troops in the Baltic States deserve critics for their disability to behave in accordance with national features, to maintain their responsibilities properly. Car accidents, drunken brawls, disrespect, violation of moral norms in the countries where NATO deploys troops are only some of the causes that make their presence ineffective. Fake news depends on journalist personal conscience and culture, as well as misconduct of troops in the foreign countries should be a matter of NATO command’s competence.

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What UK defense minister was doing in Odessa, or a taste for farce

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History repeats itself. This popular maxim also rings very true today. Many episodes of the Crimean War are still fresh on the memory of Russians, French and the British. Disregarding the sanctions and “annexation,” Britons and French nationals keep coming to Sevastopol to take part in a historical festival, donning period costumes and engaging in mock battles.

And yet, the distant successors of those who fought Russia during that war still remember, on a genetic level, how Russian soldiers kept fighting on against the tallest of odds (during one of the battles fought  in Sevastopol, mortally wounded and bleeding members of a Russian regiment still refused to plead for mercy and, instead, continued fighting the enemy with their bayonets) even at lunch, after five in the evening, and, most unpleasantly, at night. The war fought not by the book, the freezing cold of the Crimean winter and the well-known “balaclava” headdress is something Russia’s foreign guests will never forget.

It still looks like the lessons of history have been lost on some representatives of the British elite. In December 2018, Britain’s Defense Minister Gavin Williamson arrived in Odessa in southern Ukraine to vent his outrage about the detention by Russia’s Coast Guards of three Ukrainian boats at the approaches to the Kerch Strait, and express London’s support for a second Ukrainian naval foray into the Sea of Azov. It was not Williamson’s first visit to Ukraine though – in September 2018, he bravely spent a whole 20 minutes on the line of disengagement in Donbass.

London is backing up its military-diplomatic efforts with real action.

“At 20:30 local time, on December 17, 2018, the Royal hydrographic survey ship HMS Echo sailed into the Black Sea via the Bosporus Strait. This modern reconnaissance ship is designed to conduct operations in support of submarines and amphibious operations. It can share adapted information almost in real time. (…) This is the first NATO warship to enter the Black Sea in the wake of the Azov crisis to demonstrate the UK’s support for ensuring freedom of navigation in the region,” Ukrainian expert Andrei Klimenko happily wrote.

In the mid-19th century, Britain regarded Russia as an enemy in the Big Game, and opposed it using political and economic means available to it. Simultaneously, it was the case of an empire facing off against another empire – in the Balkans, in the Caucasus and over the straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles). Britain no longer rules the seas, but its keen interest in strategic straits, such the Kerch Strait, is still very much alive.

London’s strategy, being implemented as part of the anti-Russian bloc, can best be described as “I’m doing all I can.” However, the former empire is playing an ever increasing role now that Ukraine is not being viewed by US President Donald Trump as an object worth of any effort. Still, there are powerful anti-Russian forces out there, which will not just sit and watch the presidential elections in Ukraine and, even though they have lost their patron in the person of the US president, they remain hell-bent on making Ukraine instrumental in their efforts to ramp up the conflict with Moscow.

Washington is reviewing international agreements and withdrawing its forces from Syria focusing instead on playing spy games, but now on its own territory, to fight the “Russian threat,” “Russian aggression,” and most importantly – “Russian intervention.” The central events and characters here are the Mueller investigation, the case of Maria Butina, and the recent detention in Moscow of a former US Marine, Paul Whelan, on charges of espionage.

But this is not enough, so you need something else, more dramatic and attention-grabbing, preferably done by someone else.

No matter how opposed to Trump’s policies some top officials in the US government may be, they still can’t afford to openly defy the president and thus destroy the country’s power institutions. And here political analysts  come up with a very interesting version: “Therefore, England takes the burden of orchestrating the Ukrainian-Russian war in its own hands. Well, not England as such, but, rather, the real masters of both England and the United States (…) Poroshenko may not venture a provocation, and to make sure that he gets no ideas about giving up on the war, the British defense minister arrived in Ukraine. (…) Britain is bringing pressure to bear on Kiev to go to war with Russia in the coming week, period.”

Although a second foray into the Kerch Strait planned for the coming week never happened, the plan itself hasn’t gone anywhere. A follow-up to the provocation in the Kerch Strait has gone beyond the time frame outlined by the martial law President Poroshenko imposed ahead of the presidential election, but the threat of new provocations fraught with a confrontation  lingers on nonetheless.

The law “On the adjacent zone of Ukraine,” signed by Petro Poroshenko in December 2018, provides a legal basis for actions by the Ukrainian military and diplomats by expanding Kiev’s border and customs control in the Black Sea.

“In the adjacent zone, the State Border Service of Ukraine will prevent violations of national immigration and sanitary legislation. Border guards will be able to stop vessels, inspect them, detain or seize vessels or their crew members, with the exception of warships and other state ships used for non-commercial purposes.”

The new law sets the stage for further provocations against Russia by portraying it as “an aggressor and invader,” backing this up with “irrefutable evidence” and showing it on TV.

The coordinated nature of the actions and intentions by the “friends” of Russia in ensuring “free navigation in international waters” is too obvious to ignore. Following the provocation in the Kerch Strait, the US guided-missile destroyer McCampbell was allegedly spotted in the vicinity of a Russian naval base in Vladivostok.

US Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said that the ship had carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation.

“The USS McCampbell sailed in the vicinity of Peter the Great Bay to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other Nations,” McMarr told CNN.

She emphasized that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

Britain’s policy of the past few years has been pretty strange. Execution-wise, its actions are perceived as a farce and essentially as a tragedy for the country’s political elite. London is taking cue from Kiev, with its actions and “projects” (the Skripal case and the Salisbury subproject) very much resembling Ukrainian projects. London came up with the “Skripal poisoning,” and Kiev – with the day-long “Babchenko’s murder” circus.

Sadly, this anti-Russian trend translates into a real policy based on farce and fakes, which does not change the essence of London’s foreign policy projects based on fakes.

Ukraine, for its part, continues its attempts at “coercion to conflict,” which may bring about a clash of civilizations, since this is an attempt to influence the decisions of the “core states of civilization (Samuel Huntington). However, the conflicts that Ukraine has been involved in and has initiated are the result of outside bidding and made possible thanks to the support from and sanctions by external forces.

Ukraine’s foreign policy is by and large determined by the logic of its policy at home. Ending up as a zone of inter-civilization conflict, Kiev is willy-nilly trying to rebuild the cultural foundations of the Ukrainian state and society.

The West appears all set to extract Ukraine from the sphere of the political, economic and socio-cultural influence of Russia. It is within this framework that Kiev and all sorts of other actors are working as they try to achieve their domestic goals thus stoking up tensions and radicalizing both the country’s political forces and some elements of the Ukrainian society.

All this farce and grandstanding by European and overseas leaders and politicians still fails to smokescreen the potential threats to the security of the Russian Federation. In this sense, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait should be viewed as a place where the West may attempt a series of “tests” similar to the November 2018 attempt by Ukrainian naval boats to break into the Sea of Azov. The recent “heroic” cruise by US naval ships 100 kilometers off Vladivostok, presumably to “challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other nations,” could be repeated also in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, along the Northern Sea Route, in the Arctic and the Baltic Sea.

The Black Sea region thus becomes a model of counteracting the “sea claims of Russia.” Indeed, it is a really volatile region with an unstable Ukraine ready for any provocations, Crimea, reunited with Russia (plus the Crimean Bridge), a high-handed NATO member, Turkey, which maintains close contacts with both Russia and the West, and the Caucasus region. It poses a problem for Russia due to the flurry of potential and real threats existing there, but it is also a problem for Russia’s “friends,” because of the high degree of security of the Crimean border and other borders of the Russian Federation. This combination of security and threats makes the Black Sea region an ideal place for all sorts of provocations and endurance tests.

Well aware of Russia’s strength, the West is trying to test Moscow’s determination with small, albeit significant, provocations, such as the Ukrainian naval ships’ attempt to enter the Sea of Azov on November 25, 2018. The West is equally aware of Russia’s response to such provocations by Kiev. What is not so clear to the West, however, and London’s activity attests to this, is how Russia will respond to similar passages by multinational flotillas. This uncertainty could only stem from a desire to trigger a conflict or from misguided thoughts about Russia’s indecisiveness to enter into a serious confrontation with the West.

Whatever grounds London or Washington may have for organizing a second cruise to the Crimean Bridge, no matter how many ships will take part and the flags they will sail under, Russia will do all it takes to protect its territory, border, water area, and important infrastructure.

The question London has to answer now is how will the former empire get out of this situation? There are only two options available: either to stage ever new provocations or continue grandstanding and firing verbal broadsides.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

2019: A difficult political year in Lithuania

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2019 will be a big political year in Lithuania, with elections in national focus. Lithuania will hold presidential, municipal and European Parliament elections this year.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite in her traditional New Year congratulation message was very restrained and short-spoken. She clearly understands that she did nothing outstanding to be proud of. This message looked more as a warning. It could be read between the lines that she warned of a new difficult year with the same unsolved problems.

The outgoing president said that “there are many challenges ahead next year – on the international arena and domestically.” It is hard to disagree. Lithuanian politics in 2018 has not been shaped by brilliant economic, social or military policy decisions or results.

Thus, Lithuanian politician, Kęstutis Girnius, is also sure that the coming year will not be easy. He said that the prolonged massive teacher strikes at the end of the year is a very important thing to remember in 2019. “Teachers and medics are those professional groups in Lithuania that always stand up and speak up. Neither this government nor the previous ones were able to solve their issues.”

The authorities did not consider those groups’ problems important in due course and as a result they faced national defiance. Much more seriously the authorities treated the Russian threat, though yet only potential.

In the past year, the military budgets of the Baltic countries swiftly overcame the two percent barrier. The region’s political elite concentrated on anti-Russian rhetoric, very often to the detriment of their economic interests. Though authorities need to recognize the impossibility to change the political course of the giant Russia. For example, Lithuania’s 2 percent of GDP on defence expenditures will not stop Russia, but could seriously harm the welfare of its people. Supporting the US’ idea of increasing defence expending, at the same time Lithuanian government overlooked the real problems of teachers and doctors putting them at risk of poverty.

The more so, the authorities believe in vain that ordinary people do not understand the threat of an armed conflict between Russia and the US on the territory of the Baltics. Providing the territory for conducting large-scale maneuvers the Baltic States irritate Russia and necessitate her to deploy troops closer to their borders. Closed circle: even small increasing of defence capabilities in the Baltic States causes huge increasing of defence capabilities in Russia.

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