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Zelensky’s Presidency is Unlikely to Change Ukraine’s Foreign Policy

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The polls after the second round of presidential elections in Ukraine gave Volodymyr Zelenskiy more than 70% of the public’s support. Zelensky, 41, challenged the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, who has already admitted his defeat.

Questions which occupied analysts around the world were two-fold: how possible is it that a new president would be able to change the internal situation (battle with corruption, etc.) in the country; second, what will happen to Ukraine’s foreign policy?

The situation inside Ukraine will require meticulous work on behalf of the new president. The elites might be unwilling to accept his propositions and policy moves, which could create tensions. What is clear, though, is that the ordinary population would be supportive of even radical moves to clear the country of corruption and ineffective governance.

On the foreign policy front, Ukraine’s major issue will be the war in Donbas and relations with Russia. There have been fears that with Zelensky at the helm, Ukraine’s foreign policy would radically change in favor of Russia. In fact, it will be very difficult for him to do this, as in the last five years since the Ukraine crisis broke out following the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine has ratified the Association Agreement with the European Union, the non-signing of which actually deposed the former president Viktor Yanukovych, and has received visa-free access for its citizens to the EU (except for the UK and Ireland) and four other Schengen-associated countries.

Moreover, Kiev has reinforced the Ukrainian army amid the ongoing conflict and contained the conflict with Russia to eastern Ukraine and the Azov Sea.

On a cultural level, recently, Ukraine’s Orthodox Church gained autocephaly (independence) from the Russian Church. On the economic front, too, there have been changes, as Ukraine’s trade has been redirected to Europe rather being mostly dependent on Russia, as was the case before 2014.

Thus, it is highly unlikely that Ukraine’s foreign policy will change under Zelensky: there are simply too many economic, military and ideological moves made that connect the country to the West.

Zelensky may indeed meet Putin and even soften his rhetoric towards Russia, but on a grander level of state politics, he will not change Ukraine’s view of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas. A recent spectacular rise of national self-consciousness among ordinary Ukrainians will not tolerate any U-turn to the country’s foreign policy. A democratically elected Zelensky is also a hostage of Ukrainian public opinion.

The Russian public is watching the peaceful changes in Ukraine with great interest and even hopes for a similar process inside Russia. The large neighboring Slavic country, Ukraine, will have a greater influence on the Russians than, for example, Georgia’s path to democratization. Georgia’s successes have been small due to the country’s size as well as cultural differences. Moscow, therefore, could easily bend the narrative and argue that Georgia’s recent successes are minimal and contemptuous.

With Ukraine it is different. While the Russians have been arguing since the 2014 that Ukraine’s problems were the result of a “divorce” with Moscow, now they see real results of the democratic changes in Kiev. Public debates, peaceful co-existence of rival candidates and, most importantly, presidential changes; all this is deeply hoped for and expected at least in some sections of the Russian population.

Zelensky’s win also shows that among post-Soviet Slavic states, Ukraine is in fact the only one which has regularly changed heads of the state. Thus, this development might also have an influence on Belarus where eventually the time will come when long-ruling Alexander Lukashenka will have to make a choice between an independent Belarussian successor or Belarus integrated into Russia (and talks about this latter development have become common in media resources of late).

Zelensky’s presidency and the way he was chosen undermines Russia’s narrative, where the success of Ukraine would be against a common cultural, even geopolitical, perception among the Russian elites that Kiev has historically been unable to achieve anything without Moscow’s support.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Eastern Europe

Quality of Life in Latvia is not a priority

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Four presidents, 14 governments and eight Seimas have changed in Latvia over the past 20 years. The country joined the European Union and NATO, and then switched to the euro. But have Latvians become better off? Has their quality of life improved? Statistics shows that the general well-being of population remains very low. Political turbulence only worsens the situation.

Thus, according to Numbeo.com portal, one of the largest databases on the cost of living and quality of life worldwide, Lithuania and Latvia are the worst Nordic countries for quality of life.

Quality of Life Index by Country 2019

The leaders of the rating are Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Latvia showed the lowest result, the quality of life index here is 149.15 points. In Lithuania, the result is slightly higher – 156.36 points.
Numbeo experts took into account the purchasing power of the population, safety, health care, the cost of living and some other factors.

It is noted that the world ranking of countries for the quality of life is led by Denmark, Switzerland and Finland. Estonia took 11th place, Lithuania – 29th, and Latvia – 34th.

The more so, experts said that the proportion of shadow economy in Latvia rose by 2.2 percentage point last year to 24.2 percent.

The shadow economy proportion in Latvia has risen for the past two years in a row.

EU-SILC survey gives another frightening indicator. According to eurostat.ec.europa.eu, Latvia, as well as Estonia and Lithuania are top three EU countries in terms of poverty risk among pensioners.

Political and economic short-sightedness has lead to the state when the Baltic States have become the first battlefield in case of war between NATO and Russia.

The United States is preparing for the use of nuclear weapons in Europe along with non-nuclear countries, said Vladimir Ermakov, director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Experts point out that military airfields in the Baltic States and Poland have already been prepared to receive NATO aircraft that can carry tactical nuclear weapons. If take his words seriously, this means the end of the Baltic States’ existence.

The behavior of the authorities guaranteed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia the status of the first battlefield, despite the fact that in the event of war, economy would be completely destroyed and population would disappear.

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Eastern Europe

How the Caspian Sea joins the Black Sea

Asim Suleymanov

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In the development of international cooperation and the deepening of industrial cooperation, the leading role belongs to the formation of a network of international transport corridors. It has a special place in solving transport problems associated with the expansion of interstate transportation, economic, cultural and other ties, with the creation of an international transport infrastructure that has common technical parameters and ensures the use of a single transportation technology as the basis for the integration of national transport systems into the global transport system.

Developing corridors are to play a system-forming role in the economic and social development of the territories along which they pass. Their creation is directly related to projects for the development of sectors of the economy and social sphere.

If a modern transport corridor connects the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, it will lead to uninterrupted cargo transportation between Asia and Europe. New opportunities for the regional states will be opened up. This was confirmed by the first meeting of the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Romania, Georgia and Turkmenistan, held in mid-March 2019 in Bucharest.

According to its results, a political declaration was signed. The document reflects the determination of the four states to implement the project of an international freight route between two seas by joint forces.

As expected, the corridor between the two seas will have a real impact on the standard of living in the participating countries and cause a sharp surge in business activity in neighboring regions.

The idea of the project is to make full use of the geographical proximity of Romania, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as well as the capabilities of the ports of Constanta in Romania, Poti in Georgia, Baku in Azerbaijan and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan.

New transport route will allow establishing a direct connection between the port of Constanta and the Danube River, and then the rivers and canals on the European continent, that will open access to Central and Northern Europe.

In general, the Caspian-Black Sea region is becoming links of a single Eurasian transport network.

The main question is how to direct the necessary volumes of cargo along this route, which would make its work profitable and profitable. To meet these challenges, in the near future four countries have planned to create an expert working group, optimize working procedures, harmonize tariffs, identify remaining infrastructure and legal constraints, and jointly promote the project at the international level, including in the course of interaction with the European Union. But it will not be easy for them to achieve all these ambitious goals.

The closest allies of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia, support all the projects aimed at strengthening economic cooperation between Baku and other countries of the Caspian-Black Sea region. Moscow and Ankara are lobbying for the creation of a transport corridor between the two seas.

Azerbaijan once again demonstrates that it is becoming one of the most important transport hubs of Eurasia – a transit hub in which the East and the West are tightly tied.

This country is interested in East and West, not conflicting with each other, but driven forward by the single energy of partnership.

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China’s changing interests in South Caucasus

Orkhan Baghirov

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President Ilham Aliyev and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing Photo: Azertac

On April25-28,“Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation” took place in the capital city of China. From South Caucasus region only Azerbaijan leader Aliyev was in the list of 36 top-Level attendees (Diplomat, April 27).As the Azerbaijan was participating first forum in 2017 on ministerial level, visit of President in second forum demonstrates intention of both sides for close cooperation within the framework BRI.

Despite fact that China’s strong ambition to enter European market through BRI makes Georgia one of the most important players in the region (it has FTA both with China and EU) its high-level officials did not attend the forum (Emerging-Europe, January 3, 2018).

Generally, South Caucasus region was not in the Chinese focus when the BRI project was unveiled in 2013.Its attitude to the region has changed afterwards. Being part of the Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor, South Caucasus has strategic importance for China. At the same time, transportation projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and Anaklia Deep-Sea Port has increased significance of the region.

From geopolitical point of view stability in Azerbaijan and Georgia’s political problems with Russia creates ground for Chinese presence in Caucasus. It is clear that having political problems with West Russia is not willing to confront China. Therefore, using these opportunities and establishing good relations both with Georgia and Azerbaijan China is able to avoid its biggest rival in Eurasia and use shortest way to European markets (Trend.az, April 10).

Importance of South Caucasus countries within the BRI framework is not same. Armenia has less potential for BRI. It does not have enough transportation infrastructure and its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey closed. Armenia has a potential to become a corridor to markets of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Iran. However, it does not have borders with the members of EEU and  railway project between Armenia and Iran is not viable due its high costs ($3.2 billion) and less importance in commercial means (Vestnikkavkaza, August 25, 2018).Also, China has borders with two biggest members of EEU and could easily reach EEU markets through them. 

In the case of Georgia, China is the biggest foreign investor. China’s Hualing Group controls Kutaisi free industrial zone (FIZ), owns Basis Bank, hotels, wine export enterprise. It also constructs “Tbilisi Sea New City” near Tbilisi Sea in which company has already invested around 150 million dollars (hualing.ge).Another Chinese company CEFC Energy owns 75% of Poti FIZ (Cbw.ge, March 20).

Unlike the Georgia, mostly state-owned Chinese companies have invested in Azerbaijan. One of these companies CTIEC Group constructed biggest cement factory in Azerbaijan in 2014.China also has a great interest on Baku International Sea Trade Port as it is one of the main ports within BRI. Based on intergovernmental grant agreement China transferred $2 million worth equipment to the port (Azernews, April 4, 2018).

Despite fact that Azerbaijan is China’s key trade partner in the South Caucasus (it accounts 43 percent of China’s trade turnover in the region) it has massive investments in Georgia (Azernews, April 25). It mostly related to political orientation of these countries. Georgia follows more western orientation that made it more attractive for China while Azerbaijan implements balanced strategy and it does not want to feel China’s pressure. Besides, Azerbaijan is not in need of financial assistance like Armenia and Georgia as it has enough financial reserves.

However, recent developments of Sino-Azeri economic relations within the framework of the Second Belt and Road Forum creates new perspectives for China’s presence in South Caucasus. During the forum 10 agreements worth of 821 million USD has been signed  (Azvision.az, April 24). These contracts cover different economic spheres of non-oil sector including the construction of a tire factory in the Sumgayit chemical-industrial park, the creation of a 300-hectare greenhouse complex in the Kurdamir region of Azerbaijan, and the construction of agrological industrial parks in the Guba, Goychay and Khachmaz regions (Turan.az April 24).If we take in account that Chinese investors have invested800 million USD in the economy of Azerbaijan since independence, obtained agreements in the forum worth of same amount shows China’s growing interest in Azerbaijan.

Nevertheless, it does not mean that China’s preference of Georgia has changed. Within the BRI project both Azerbaijan and Georgia are of geopolitical importance for China. It is in China’s interest to boost bilateral relations with both of countries. It is apparent that China already has considerable investments in Georgia and now it is time to deepen cooperation with Azerbaijan. At the same time Azerbaijan is not going to cross limits of its balanced policy. Chinese companies that signed agreements in second forum are government affiliated companies as well. It again shows that Azerbaijan is willing to deepen cooperation without creating room for pressure in its domestic economy.

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