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Trump Meets the Baltics

Dr. Andris Banka

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Donald Trump welcomed the heads of Baltic states to the White House this week. It was supposed to be a celebration of their centennials and a tribute to shared ideals of freedom and democracy. In ironic twist, as Baltic leaders touched glasses with the host, it was precisely his illiberal views that have shredded the US credibility and strained transatlantic relations.

The presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, however, put on a tightly scripted charm offensive during the meeting. One can decode their behavior as follows: Trump may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.

Former US Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, while quibbling over the Baltic policy at the margins, never questioned the US commitment to collective defense. With his remarks about conditional security guarantees, Donald Trump had stepped into a new territory. This, naturally, unsettled many in Eastern Europe. A recent poll found only 16.1% of Lithuanian’s have trust in the current White House incumbent.

In hopes of shaping the US policy in more favorable direction, Baltic representatives have looked for all possible levers and keys. Cutting across party lines, they managed to arrange visits of influential Congressional power brokers and extract statements of unconditional support. One the one hand, they have taken comfort in the actions of Congress, which has systematically sought to punish Russia for its misdeeds.

But they are also aware of the fact that vast power and potential for unilateral action lay in the Oval Office. Hence, systematic effort has been made to establish links with people close to president’s ear – Mike Pence, James Mattis, H. R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, last two of which are already out of the administration.

At a time when many allies were trembling about the appointment of a new national security adviser, the Baltics may have quietly cheered. When in summer Trump questioned if he would automatically leap in defence of the Baltics, John Bolton had called it ‘a massive failure of deterrence’ and suggested that the President retract his statement. But targeting people in Trump’s orbit may as well be a losing strategy. Simply put: anyone could be next in the firing line.

No one in the Baltics wanted Donald Trump as a gift – an erratic man at the wheel. One must admit, however, that his ambivalent presidency has prompted allied governments to hold up a mirror and engage in some self-inspection. Opposing Vladimir Putin is easy: he jails opponents, grabs foreign lands and orders brazen assassinations. To figure out how to deal with Trump, illiberal leader of the free world, requires significantly more skill and statecraft.

Trump has left allies with an unpleasant choice: either you hitch your wagon to an aspiring authoritarian in the service of national interest or stand up to his improper behavior while endangering your most valued partnership.

Pragmatically, the Baltic coping strategy, knowing Trump’s thin-skin, has been to weigh words carefully and avoid airing of any personal criticism. Instead, they have looked for every opportunity to compliment the man in the Oval Office. During the April 3 meeting, Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite even bizarrely suggested that Trump’s ‘unpredictable leadership’ has somehow put ‘very good pressure to all of us, all members of NATO’.

Stephen Walt, a leading realist thinker, has incisively observed that ‘when you really need allies, you can’t be too choosy’. The Baltics need all the friends they can get, which also explains their uncritical praise of Trump.

However, there is also real a danger of swinging too far in attempts to please populists and autocrats. In one instance, Baltic lawmakers have already demonstrated their willingness to abandon democratic principles in the name of vital security concerns. All three governments were unwilling to back any EU punishments on Poland, a country that has seen the rule of law and democracy unravel.

The Baltics can and should retain willingness to oppose the US at the policy level. A case in point was the UN vote on Jerusalem. Despite threats that ‘names will be taken’, Estonia and Lithuania did not bow to US pressure and rejected proposed recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (Latvia shamelessly abstained). Their opposition, however, was couched in diplomatic language so that it does not catch Trump’s personal radar.

Perhaps this is the only possible balancing act in the Trump era – staying out of TV headlines and twitter feed – mediums that are crucial for the US president, while still challenging the administration on policy in measured and bureaucratic fashion. After all, it is his own public image that President Trump is most concerned with, not the details and intricacies of actual policies.

For any country, reconciling interests with certain set of values can be a very narrow corridor to walk. But it is also something that the trio of Baltic countries must aspire to if they want to belong to the family of mature democracies.

As these republics reach one hundred years of modern statehood and celebrate their impressive achievements, they should recognize that it is not only Moscow’s blunt power tools that pose risks to their democracies. Values of freedom can also be eroded in seemingly innocent fashion by cozying up to disgraced Western demagogues. This is their challenge at 100.

Dr. Andris Banka is Assistant Professor at Cag University. He has previously written extensively on the Baltic countries defense matters in outlets such as World Politics Review, Canada Open, The Small War Journal, Real Clear Defence and New Eastern Europe, among others.

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Eastern Europe

The phenomenon of the Islamic world- Ilham Aliyev

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At the end of the twentieth century – at the beginning of the 21st century, world politics differ by its complexity and diversity. It is too important that Azerbaijan, which proclaimed independence twice during the twentieth century, maintained its this independence during the period full of globalization, international integration and social contradictions. Under such complicated historical circumstances, the prominent politician and statesman, the well-known and respected person in the world – Ilham Aliyev’s commitment and successful realization of this responsibility can be characterized as the golden age of modern Azerbaijan history. Conduction of successful foreign policy during his term as head of state has had a significant impact on the future life of Azerbaijan.

The Republic of Azerbaijan, established normal international relations with all the countries of the world after gaining independence, and in the frame of good relations with the Muslim countries, it also protects the interests and interests of the Islamic world within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and continues to cooperate with these countries in accordance with the requirements of international law. In this regard, strengthening of Islamic solidarity in the world is one of the priority issues in the foreign policy of Azerbaijan. Namely from this point of view, declaration of 2017 year as “Islamic Solidarity Year” by decree of the  President Ilham Aliyev dated January 10, 2017, is an indicator of  humanistness of our state leader and at the same time it is a positive example of our country’s sensitive attitude to the Islamic Countries Union. Islamic solidarity does not only mean the solidarity of Islamic countries. This is a kind of challenge, regardless of religion, to the world’s people to live in friendship, brotherhood and multiculturalism conditions.

It is well known that sectarian wars, civil wars in the Middle East and as a result, emerged certain socio-political tensions indicate that Muslim countries are in great need of moral solidarity. The controversial political processes happening in the world, the emergence and increasingly widespread of warlike states in different countries, the strengthening of religious confrontation, and the deepening of the prejudiced attitude towards Muslims emphasize the necessity level for solidarity among people, nations and states. It can be said that one of the main reasons for exacerbating the myth of Islamic terrorism, the threat of Islamophobia, and strengthening the oppression of Islamic countries should be sought in the absence of unity and solidarity among these countries. Faith differences, contradictions in interests and positions and etc. leads to serious disagreements, and sometimes severe confrontations. Islamic religion, its sacred values, are insulted by the Islamophobia and those who are exposed to the poisonous propaganda against Islam. The bloody events that took place in the Islamic countries during last years, especially in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria are confirmation of our opinions. Cradles of ancient Eastern culture such as Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Kirkuk, Basra and other cities are subject to serious destruction as a result of wars in Iraq and Syria and constant clashes, monuments of Islamic culture in these cities are destroyed. Caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad are given in the Western media, mosques, the holy book-Koran is burnt. The Western world’s official structures do not just condemn the acts of vandalism, but on the contrary, they protect, honor, and appreciate the performers of those acts.

The main purpose of the “Islamic Solidarity Year” is to strengthen the unity of the Muslim world and to show that Islam is a religion of peace and culture, and to achieve this goal, as President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said, first of all, reconciliation between different sects that have historically damaged Islam should be established. The announcement of the year 2017 as the “Year of Islamic Solidarity” in Azerbaijan is a challenge to the West, which is strengthening its attacks on the Islamic world annually and promoting a new “crusades” in the 21st century. This is also a call for Islamic countries to be vigilant against the crafty intentions of the West, to demonstrate unity and solidarity. Ilham Aliyev made this important step and expressed the his own position and the position of the state of Azerbaijan. As Azerbaijan has distinguished from other states with its multicultural and tolerant values throughout its history. Islamic solidarity is also a part of this context, and this shows that President Ilham Aliyev gives great importance to the solidarity of the Islamic world. As political scientists point out, some initiatives have been made to call Muslim countries to get unified around religion. For the first time in history, the head of our state has sent a political message to the Islamic world, pointing to the importance of acting from unified position, to achieve unity and at the same time integrate into the world. It should be noted that the Order of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan on the declaration of 2017 year as“Year of Islamic Solidarity” states: “The Republic of Azerbaijan has established mutually beneficial relations with the Islamic world by being selected as a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, ISESCO and other respected organizations joining muslim countries and has been an organizer of a number of important cultural forums of global importance. Azerbaijan has made a great contribution to the founding of tolerance environment, multiculturalism, intercultural and intercivilizational dialogue, and the promotion of Islamic values in the world. The prestige gained by Azerbaijan in the Islamic world got its expression in this results that Baku and Nakhchivan cities declared as a capital of Islamic culture in 2009 and 2018 respectively. And the decision to hold the IV Islam Solidarity Games in Baku in 2017  create favorable conditions for our country to take the next practical steps in strengthening the Islamic solidarity. ”

Only state leader of the country like Azerbaijan,  where multiculturalism and solidarity are established, and citizens of different nationalities, religions and sects live in peace, has a moral right to give such a decree. The promotion of the Islamic Solidarity initiative is related to the challenges of the present and controversial processes that take place because of various reasons in the Islamic world. As it is seen here, the importance of Azerbaijan’s reputation in the Islamic world, as well as the need to strengthen the solidarity of Islamic countries, as well as the actuality of holding the Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku, the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan in 2017, have been extensively and logically expressed in this decree. With Islamic solidarity policy, Azerbaijan, as unifying facility of the Islamic world, confirms that these religious values are indeed, humanistic, moral values and reinforces belief to being of these ideas are an effective means of creating a shared living and stability environment not only in the Islamic geography but also in the entire world. Azerbaijan, which has created a partnership of cultures and ideas between East and West, fulfills the function of a of solidarity bridge, thus demonstrates its commitment to universal values, as well as its commitment to the highest values of the Islamic religion, which had a special place in the past and continuing to keep its value today. Thus, Azerbaijan uses all the means to establish steady stability in a globalizing world and propagates the peacekeeping, reconciliatory position in a unique way that is essential for today.

We suppose that this humanist initiative of the President of Azerbaijan, Mr. Ilham Aliyev, will promote the expansion of cooperation relationship between Muslim countries in the world and further strengthening of the Islamic solidarity. The strengthening of Islamic solidarity, in its turn, will play an important role in ensuring tranquility and peace in the Middle East and other regions.

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Eastern Europe

Economic Growth of Ukraine Depends on Completing Pending Reforms Quickly

MD Staff

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Ukraine’s economy grew by 2.5 percent in 2017, the second year of modest growth, according to the World Bank’s latest Ukraine Economic Update.  Growth in manufacturing, services, and construction was robust, but weaknesses in the agriculture and mining sectors, together with delays in key reforms to further strengthen investor confidence contributed to the modest overall growth performance.

“Faster growth is needed to improve living standards for the people of Ukraine who continue to hurt from the economic crisis of 2014-2015,” said Satu Kahkonen, World Bank Country Director for Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. “This will require decisive measures in the next few months to complete pending reforms to bolster investor confidence and safeguard macroeconomic stability.”

Economic growth is projected at 3.5 percent in 2018 if pending reforms in anticorruption, land markets, state-owned banks, and privatization can be advanced in the next few months. This would provide an important signal to investors. If reforms are delayed, growth could drop below current levels in an uncertain macroeconomic environment as financing risks rapidly increase.

Ukraine faces major financing needs to repay public debt and fiscal pressures from higher public sector wages and social benefits in 2018 and 2019. Mobilizing adequate international financing by completing pending reforms in the months ahead will be important to maintain macroeconomic stability.

Meeting the fiscal deficit target of 2.5 percent of GDP in 2018 will require improving targeting of housing utility subsidies, making further wage increases contingent on measures to optimize the school and hospital network and public-sector staffing, and identifying affordable options to update public sector pensions.

Fiscal Pressures and Reform Options …

According to the World Bank’s Special Focus Note on fiscal pressures and reform options, Ukraine has made progress in reducing its large public spending since 2014. However, sustaining these gains while also improving the effectiveness of public services will require implementation of reforms in education, health, public administration, pensions, and social assistance in a fiscally affordable manner.

Public expenditures increased significantly in 2017, by 11.7 percent in real terms, reaching 41.5 percent of GDP, due to the doubling of the minimum wage and over 40 percent increase in wages of teachers and doctors. Spending on social programs also increased.

The recently adopted reforms in education, health, and public administration seek to improve compensation for teachers, doctors, and public servants to strengthen incentives and attract quality personnel. Achieving this in a fiscally affordable manner will require coordinating further increases in salaries with time-bound measures to optimize staffing and the school and hospital network.

The social assistance package in Ukraine is not only fiscally costly—costing 5 percent of GDP in 2017, but is also poorly targeted—with only 30 percent of assistance going to the bottom 20 percent of the population. Fixing this will require improved targeting of the large HUS program.

The recently adopted pension reform helped improve adequacy of benefits and stabilize fiscal costs. Additional initiatives going forward should avoid undermining these core objectives of the pension system. The timeline to create a funded pillar system by January 2019 needs to be reconsidered since this will undermine contributions to the pay-as-you-go system, create contingent fiscal liabilities, and face inadequate availability financial instruments.

Background

Since May 2014, the World Bank Group has provided a total of more than US$5 billion to Ukraine (including 4 development policy loans, 7 investment operations and 1 guarantee) from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD).

The World Bank’s current investment project portfolio in Ukraine amounts to US$2.5 billion.  Investments support improving basic public services that directly benefit ordinary people in areas such as water supply, sanitation, heating, power, roads, social protection and healthcare, as well as private sector development. Since Ukraine joined the World Bank in 1992, the Bank’s commitments to the country have totaled over US$12 billion in about 70 projects and programs.

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Eastern Europe

Baltic States: Missed opportunities in global politics

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We are living in the world where the facts “who makes” and “where it is made” are much more important than “what for” issue. Nowadays the world political scene is divided between superpowers supported by their allies. In order to punish each other for having opposite views the sides criticize any step made by the opponent.

Unfortunately, this happens even in case of evident necessity. It is not the secret that the modern system of international security is unable to perform all demanded functions any more. It needs to be reformed. Another question is who and where will decide.

The most likely political platforms for this are the United Nation Organization and OSCE. But the preparatory stage for any new decision should become different forums and conferences, such as the Munich Security Conference and the Moscow International Conference on Security.

This year the Munich Security Conference took place on February 16-18. More than 30 heads of state and government and over 100 cabinet ministers from across the globe came together at the forum for discussions on major international security challenges. As far as the Baltic States concerns, President of Estonia, as well as Lithuanian and Latvian ministers of defence did not miss the event because it was of great importance for the future of their countries and all Europe.

Just another situation developed in March. In Moscow an annual International Conference on Security was held on April 4-5. The fight against terrorism and other pressing security challenges were one the agenda. There is not a single person who is not affected by the discussed topics.

Many European countries considered it unnecessary to visit the event. It makes no sense to blame them for this choice. They have a strong and common view on what is happening in the world. But if abstract from the current geopolitical situation and confrontation between Russia and the West, politicians should see such kind of forums as a chance to find even weak possibilities to make the world safer. Probably the main reason for not attending the event is in the fact that politicians forgot how to listen to each other. They forgot that only discussing controversial issues makes possible to reach a consensus.
Another issue that deserves attention is the list of participants, which is of great interest to the analysts. According to the Russia’s Defense Ministry, representatives from at least 95 countries, three deputy prime ministers, 30 defense ministers, 15 chiefs of staff, 10 international organizations and military delegations have come to participate in the International Conference on Security. They include defense ministers of India, South Africa, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Armenia, Mozambique, Serbia, and Israel. Thus, almost half of the UN member-states (total number is 193) sent representatives to the Conference.

It becomes evident that Russia really has powerful partners and allies that are ready to discuss even difficult questions and find mutually beneficial solutions. Those who came do not necessarily agree with Moscow and support its foreign policy but they clearly understand that unfortunately without Russia it is impossible to improve the International Security system.

This fact admitted Thomas Greminger, secretary-general for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He stressed that Russia is a key partner in issues of the European security. But the Baltic States blinded by hatred to Russia ignore ignored the event thus putting political ambitions higher than common sense.

It is obvious that Russia is not satisfied with NATO’s actions near its borders. NATO in its turn disputes the lawfulness of Russia’s behavior. Every day confrontation becomes harder and leads to the arms race. The only way out is to discuss things and find the way out. The Baltic States as usual lost the possibility to express their position on key international security issues and be the active actors in global politics.

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