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Eastern Europe

GUAM Could Be Turned into an Effective Bloc

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GUAM (initially called GUUAM), an organization for democracy and economic development, was established in 1997 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It served as one of the first regional models which linked the Black and Caspian seas, and it had a primarily economic role.

This was a time when the newly independent states were keen to get a geopolitical initiative in their hands. Russia was weak, while the West seemed powerful.

The participant states of the project are interesting from a geographic point of view. Ukraine, controlling most of the Northern Black Sea littoral, Azerbaijan as a starting point of crucial trade and a resource corridor, and Georgia in between serving as a connection point for the two seas. At one point, Uzbekistan was a member, which potentially allowed the GUUAM (abbreviation of the participant states: Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) to extend to the heart of the Central Asian region. The GUUAM member states has one common aim of limiting Russian geopolitical influence through being able to dispose of/export their own resources to world markets and not to Russia.

However, the project failed to work in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though the prospective alliance came into being against the background of Russian geopolitical weakness, nevertheless, the GUUAM members were still heavily reliant on Russian economic, military and, generally, political benevolence. These circumstances limited the effectiveness of the project.

The aim of the Russian state in the 1990s, when Moscow was constrained by its inner limitations, was to prevent any western-led projects that could draw resources from the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Moreover, the Russians, quite rightly, also feared that such nascent economic projects would eventually evolve into political entities. As said, GUUAM was one such initiative and it took Moscow’s constant attention to forestall its further development.

As a result, Uzbekistan withdrew from the project in 2005 and Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, with all their weaknesses, were unable to keep up the prospects of the GUAM project. Moreover, although all member states shared an inner distrust of Russia, they still failed to coordinate their foreign policy moves with one another.

Still, as with many similar regional projects, the GUAM initiative might be weak, but it is far from dead. One of the rules for regional cooperation projects is that their effectiveness depends on foreign support and the geopolitical situation in the region. As such, a reinvigoration of the project has been seen of late, with the leaders of the member states renewing their meetings at the highest possible level. In 2017, the 20th anniversary of GUAM was celebrated, while in 2018 yet another meeting was held with the participation of high dignitaries.

One might argue that the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus and around the Black Sea now favors the reinvigoration of the GUAM initiative. All the member states, except for Azerbaijan, share difficult relations with Russia. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have Russian troops on their territory, while even Azerbaijan must try to balance the Russian influence. All member states now consider themselves as part of a single front to constrain Russian geopolitical moves.

Moreover, in the 1990s and early 2000s, GUAM members had poorer energy and transportation links than are seen in the 2010s. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is one of those projects which allows the GUAM states to circumvent Russia.

From a global perspective, GUAM could become an interesting project for the EU and the US. Both confront Russia’s moves across the Eurasian landmass and the two might view GUAM as a good basis for creating a veritable geopolitical front for Russia’s containment.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

Eastern Europe

Hope for ‘long-elusive progress’ in negotiating peace in eastern Ukraine

MD Staff

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Since the fighting began in early 2014, educational facilities on both sides of the contact line have been damaged or destroyed. © UNICEF/Aleksey Filippov

Marking the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Minsk II agreement, the UN political chief told the Security Council on Tuesday, that along with the Minsk Protocol and the Minsk memorandum, it remains “the only agreed framework” for a negotiated, peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, also recalled that the Secretary-General has consistently expressed the UN’s “strong backing” for the lead role of the Normandy Four, the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), and the OSCE to find a peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and called for “a revitalization of these efforts”.

Making progress

Since her last update in mid-July, Ms. DiCarlo offered hope for “long-elusive progress” in implementing the Minsk provisions, including key security and political aspects.

“Most notably”, she said, “on 9 December, and after a three-year hiatus, the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met in Paris under the so-called Normandy Format” and called for, among other things, immediate measures to stabilize the situation.

The leaders committed to fully implement the ceasefire and to support an agreement within the contact group on three areas aimed to disengage forces and equipment.

“They encouraged the Trilateral Contact Group to facilitate the release and exchange of conflict-related detainees and committed to supporting an agreement within the Group, on new crossing points along the line of contact, based primarily on humanitarian criteria”, she said.

Moreover, she said that the participants recalled that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission requires secure access throughout Ukraine to fully implement its mandate.

Referring to her first visit to the country in December, she noted that her “interlocutors were clear…to see tangible progress in the negotiations”.

While many stressed the need for greater involvement of women in the peace efforts, some looked to improve the humanitarian situation for ordinary people and others to strengthen political that would support initiatives to ensuring sustainable peace.

Concerning reports

Disturbing reports of ceasefire violations across the contact line near Zolote are “deeply concerning”, she said, calling them “a stark reminder” that in the absence of sustained political will, “there is a very real risk of backsliding and further violence”.

“At this pivotal time, I hope this Council will encourage all stakeholders to do their utmost to ensure sustained positive momentum in the negotiations and display the political will and flexibility to reach agreement on the key steps forward and focus on the implementation of agreed commitments, including first and foremost commitment to a durable ceasefire”, she stated.

Impact on civilians

In eastern Ukraine, the armed conflict continues to claim lives, cause injuries, restrict freedoms and negatively impact basic human rights.

“The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has regularly reported on the human rights situation and on violations”, Ms. DiCarlo lamented.

The UN is particularly concerned for those along the contact line, who remain the most vulnerable.

“Civilians are paying the highest price in this crisis. 3.4 million people – including the elderly, the disabled and children – require humanitarian assistance and protection services”, she informed the Council.

Moreover, humanitarian access and the protection of civilians are everyday challenges.

“Water, education and health infrastructure continued to be severely impacted by the conflict, reducing access to those facilities for civilians living there” she said, adding, “attacks on civilian infrastructure must stop”.

Wider repercussions

She pointed out that as the UN and partners seek unimpeded and sustained access to reach the most vulnerable civilians, the 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan remains severely underfunded and the 2020 Plan requires $158 million.

“This conflict continues to exact an unacceptable humanitarian toll on the Ukrainian population”, she concluded. “It destabilizes overall peace and security in Ukraine, but also potentially in the region as a whole”. 

Political will lacking

The newly appointed Special Representative of the OSCE’s Chairperson-in-Office in Ukraine, Heidi Grau, outlined the latest discussions in the TCG, saying its activities have “remarkably intensified over the past six months”.

She spoke of disengaging forces and recommitting to a ceasefire, as well as on political and economic aspects.

However, she bemoaned, “despite undeniable achievements…trust and political will are still lacking for a real breakthrough”

“I hope that the TCG’s reinforced working plan, to which the sides have acquiesced, will foster change in that respect, too”, she said in closing.

For his part, Halit Çevik, Chief Monitor of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission, said the overall security situation on the ground.

He cited a number of ceasefire violations, saying “political commitment to a ceasefire…has yet to be translated into concrete implementation on the ground”.

“What lays ahead in the coming months is crucial”, he stated, underscoring an urgency to maintain momentum toward peace.

The key elements to address the security situation are set out in the Minsk agreements.

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Eastern Europe

President Zelensky at the MSC 2020: An Epistemological Shift toward Reconciliation

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Source: MSC / Kuhlmann

On Saturday February 15, Ukrainian President Zelensky reiterated his pledge to end the conflict in the Donbas during his tenure, in a speech that contrasts with his predecessor. President Zelensky’s priority has shifted towards the “mental return of Donbas and Crimea” an expression he coined to characterise his new policy.

A new storyline:

Former President Poroshenko repeated ad nauseam that Ukraine was containing a Russian invasion of Europe.  Years of counter-productive rhetoric contributed to a standstill in the negotiations and reinforced the quasi-independent status of the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk (LNR and DNR) whose reliance on Russia only increased, as Petro Poroshenko isolated them further.

In April 2018, authorities in Kyiv renamed the anti-terrorist operation in the Donbas region, calling it an operation to deter Russian aggression. Designating Russia as an aggressor state barely altered Russian position and its relation with Ukraine, yet the most important consequence of rewording the operation in the Donbas is the indirect acknowledgement that LNR and DNR authorities are not terrorists. As a matter of fact, the LNR and DNR have never been listed on any list of terrorist organisations, be it in Ukraine, Europe or the United States.

Already in April 2018, the peace organisation based in the Netherlands, Pax highlighted the opportunity of the Donbas Reintegration Bill as a way “to direct the process of conflict resolution in Ukraine towards peace-building instead of further escalation of violence.” This assumption was somehow ascertained by a July 2019 poll conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation. According to this poll, only 17% of Ukrainians support establishing peace in the Donbas by means of force, and 49% believes that some compromises should be made for the sake of peace. The door was opened for President Zelensky.

A change of characters

President Zelensky opted for an approach that radically contrasts with his predecessor who abused of his anti-russian stance to hide the lack of socio-economic improvement in Ukraine. The May 2019 presidential election, followed by parliamentarian elections constituted a reminder of the root causes that drove Ukrainians to revolt several times since 2004, namely the thirst for functional institutions. A recent NDI study confirms that:“Ukrainians remain united in the desire that their country becomes a fully functioning democracy.

During the election campaign, Volodymir Zelensky promised to resolve the conflict, understanding that there is no development without peace. Consequently, authorities engaged in an epistemological change readjusting state priorities by first winning back the Donbas. After years of war, it is obviously taking colossal efforts to overcome doubts and reticence, as some hardliners still constitute potential spoilers towards reconciliation. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the population, including in the security forces and voluntary battalions are inclined to explore new options, as their daily problems are now listened to. For example, turning words into practice, new authorities decided to extend the provision of public services to Ukrainians living in the Donbas and Crimea. Equally, the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons provides aid to those who have fought and those who are suffering from the conflict.

Ukraine reloaded

In October, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to recognize birth certificates issued by the self-proclaimed authorities in the Donbas. Such symbolic inclusive gesture is a statement to welcome back its newborn citizens, granting them basic rights under Ukrainian Law. According to a September report, UNICEF estimates that 750 schools were damaged, affecting the education of 700’000 children since 2014. Therefore, new authorities pay special attention to education, understanding that the young generation is central in building peace.

At the end of October, the city of Mariupol hosted a Unity Forum, attended by the highest instances of the country. Participants, including diplomats from the US and UK openly discussed unity and reconciliation. Interestingly, an entire session was devoted to transitional justice and basic principles for post-conflict settlement. Authorities are resolutely engaged in efforts to reducing human rights violation and restoring the rule of law all over Ukraine. All of this does not go unnoticed; the UN human rights watchdog, the UNOHCHR welcomed the positive changes in the country in its latest report, and endorsed governmental support towards transitional justice.

Today, transitional justice is increasingly debated tanks to the top-down policy to engage in a unity dialogue. Professor Senatorova, member of the Legal Reform Commission under the President of Ukraine, has recently launched a Centre for International Humanitarian Law and Transitional Justice. According to her: “It is today, and not after the conflict is over, that we have to formulate our vision for tomorrow. People living in the occupied territories and all those who suffered because of this war should get clear answers on post-conflict rebuilding and transitional justice measures. Unfortunately, mistrust remains high due to the presence of proxy elements, mistakes made by Ukrainian authorities, but also due to the lack of expertise in formulating clear social, legal and humanitarian response. The task of the experts working in the Centre for International Humanitarian Law and Transitional Justice is to build such expertise and overcome hindrances towards peace and reconciliation. We stand for the elimination of discrimination of the people living in the occupied territories, IDPs and all those, who became the victims of this conflict. Our objective is also to create mechanisms for establishing the responsibility of both sides for crimes committed since 2014. Among these mechanisms we advocate for a truth commission. People on both sides have suffered enough, and they deserve to get reparations, satisfaction, transparency and peace.”

International Ovatio

Prior to the 2019 elections, the international community was perplexed about Ukraine’s lack of reform and the general stagnation. Recently, the EU has praised the implementation of reforms and the fight against anti-corruption. In a virtuous circle, Ukraine and Russia settled their gas dispute, agreed on gas transit, prisoners are exchanged and talks under the Normandy format have resumed. At the Munich Conference, President Zelensky voiced his intention to organise elections across Ukraine, including in the Donbas. Surely, no major breakthrough or peace deal is to be expected in the near future because trust, pardon and justice will take time. Yet, as authorities understand that there is no violent resolution to the situation in the Donbas, they are focusing on the solution rather than the problems.

“If in five years, we will end the war, bring our people back, then I did (became president) for a reason”, concluded the President Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference.

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Eastern Europe

Russia’s Changing Economic Attitude towards Abkhazia & Tskhinvali Regions

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Looking at the arc of separatist states on the Russian borders, there have recently been interesting developments which might signal a new approach in Moscow’s policies.

Ukraine’s Lugansk and Donetsk, Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, Moldova’s Transdnistria region – all these territories were helped and maintained in one way or another by Moscow. In some cases, Moscow recognized independence (Georgia’s territories); in others, it pursues a federalization model (for example, in Ukraine and previously in Moldova).

Models of support differ, but the geopolitical agenda remains the same for all territories: preventing Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine from becoming fully-fledged members of NATO and the EU.

If so far this policy has been successful, its long-term prospects, however, are doubtful. Preventing the NATO/EU membership of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine does not prevent deeper cooperation between these states and the West. In fact, this approach has resulted in the creation of an arc of states geopolitically hostile to Russia. This increases instability and serves as a constant diplomatic pressure on Moscow’s foreign policy.

Moscow’s control of those separatist states has been based on direct financial and military aid. But the Russians were also interested in the economic benefits those regions could bring to Moscow. Decades have passed since the end of the Soviet Union, and the separatist regions have transformed into veritable appendages to Russia, with Russian money serving as the only economic lifeline. Though there were at times genuine measures taken in Moscow to raise economic and social conditions in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, the policy has largely failed. Abkhazia and Tskhinvali have become predatory entities which pin their survival on Moscow’s money and military might.

A decade or two ago, when Russia was on the rise economically, this state of affairs was still acceptable to the Kremlin. However, the Ukraine crisis of 2014 resulted in large economic sanctions with Russia’s GDP having experienced a sharp decline. As a result, control over expenses became stricter.

Vladislav Surkov’s resignation in January 2020 from his curating position in the Kremlin, over the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region and eastern Ukraine, came as a result of this changing attitude within the Russian political elite. This is the case not only with Georgia’s territories, but also with eastern Ukraine. There too expenses are high, while economic benefits are not.

There is also a question of the political elites of the separatist entities in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which failed to provide Moscow with clear ideas on how they are willing to raise the economic and social conditions in their territories.

These changes in attitude are not only dictated by immediate economic concerns. True, the expenses the Russian budget bears should not be overestimated, as spending tens of millions of US dollars does not represent a big fraction of the Russian budget.

What we are seeing here is more about those deeper developments in the thinking of the Russian political elite, which span the entire period since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russian political elites have grown increasingly unwilling to spend money abroad if there are no benefits on the ground. And it is not only about winning in a geopolitical sense, as was the case in the 1990s or 2000s: Moscow is now increasingly tending to seek a mixture of both economic and geopolitical benefits.

We are then likely to see in the coming years Moscow’s stricter approach to spending in the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions. This could further complicate an already difficult economic and social situation in these two Georgian territories, as well as causing deep reverberations in the structures of politics classes in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. However, even these measures are not set to improve the internal situation. For Moscow, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali are adjacent territories and despite some hopes in Tskhinvali, there is little chance that Russia will be looking to annex those lands.

Thus, in the long run, Russia’s policies towards Abkhazia and Tskhinvali have reached a certain deadlock. Those territories now only serve a geopolitical purpose: preventing Tbilisi from NATO/EU membership, but not full-scale cooperation between Georgia and the West.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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