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Ukraine: The end of the show or the beginning of the next chapter?

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The outcome of the presidential elections in Ukraine has triggered lively comments by Western experts. Nearly all publications have described the victory of comedian Vladimir Zelensky a “sensation to be expected.” However, the events of recent years have taught many commentators to react cautiously. Therefore, the most far-sighted observers were wondering how the results of the Ukrainian elections will affect the West and its policies?

Even though the colorful and detailed recounts of the triumph of the new president has pushed many important issues to the background, they did not completely outshine the need to explain the reasons for the crushing defeat of a man who, throughout all the five years of his tenure, looked entirely and solely to the West. As it happens, the main reason for the success of a candidate who admits he has little, if any, political experience, is that “a significant percentage of the population” is dissatisfied with the policies of the outgoing President Poroshenko. According to Deutsche Welle, “after five years of Poroshenko’s rule, Ukraine is still on the list of the poorest countries of Europe. As before, investment is in short supply. The judiciary is not independent. Corruption and cronyism are ye to be tackled. In the end, Poroshenko found himself in pretty plight amid  many a corruption scandal that shook his inner circle”.

Also noteworthy is the fact that attracted the attention of Carnegie Europe one month before the start of the voting: the Ukrainian elections “are of no particular interest to Western media.” Lack of strong interest from the Western press and public was all the more surprising since Ukraine “is in the heart of the current confrontation between Russia and the West.” As a result, due to lack of attention to the Ukrainian elections, Carnegie experts predicted, one of the two most likely scenarios — Zelensky’s victory – could catch the West unawares.

Judging by the first responses, this is exactly the case. On the eve of the elections, having no idea of “what to expect from Zelensky,” and considering Tymoshenko “unpredictable,” the EU considered re-election of Pyotr Poroshenko as the least risky scenario, expecting that he “will ensure the continuation of what has already been done.” Now, after the elections, according to deputies of the European Parliament and experts surveyed by Deutsche Welle, “Zelensky remains a “ black box” for Brussels. That he spoke little with journalists, did not give press conferences and campaigned primarily in social networks, is known as “modern populism.” The Europeans “are currently eager to know about the position of Zelensky regarding the EU, Russia and key reforms in the country.” “Zelensky is practically unknown in EU political circles.” It was just before the second round of voting that “Brussels … began to realize that a change of the head of state was likely in Ukraine.

As for the opinion of Europeans on cooperation with Poroshenko, they feel “disappointment, although of varying degrees.” It looks like he did not live up to their expectations of five years ago. However, Europe expressed similarly grave fears in relation to the winner of the elections: “Does he really personify the change people are counting on?”. “Brussels is disappointed about the way the election campaign was held in Ukraine after the first round.” What dominated public discussions was issues, such as “testing for drugs and whether or not the election debate will take place, rather than what course the country should follow“. Europeans are also concerned about Zelensky’s populism, in particular, his statements about the timing for the initial stage of integration with the EU and NATO to take place in 2023. “When EU politicians hear the question how realistic it is, their diplomacy evaporates:”No. It is absolutely impossible.” “Not only is Ukraine not a candidate for membership – there are quite a few within the European Union who are against granting it such a status.” The year 2023 is seen, at best, as an “optimistic but unrealistic deadline.” The main reason behind such reactions is that the former, pro-Western president, neglected important reforms, meddled with the judicial system, turned a blind eye to the “omnipotence of the oligarchs” and did not fight corruption.

According to a number of experts from Ukrainealert blog of the American Atlantic Council website, it’s the West that has largely contributed to Zelensky’s rise to power. Proceeding from the West’s alleged efficiency at combating corruption, which has never been proved valid in practice, right after the events of early 2014, Western donors zealously embarked on providing the funding for journalists and activists who reported on corruption in Ukraine. This quickly led to a stark discrepancy between the high-profile revelations against corrupt high-ranking officials and the next-to-zero legal consequences for them. As a result, the bulk of criticism was showered on Ukraine’s new authorities. Even in the West, a public exposure leading to criminal charges does not work “perfectly well.” In the conditions of Ukraine’s extremely weak legal and law enforcement institutions, high-profile campaigns have provoked but a powerful wave of public discontent, sheer cynicism and, at times, indiscriminately blatant criticism of the government. What we observe today is the consequences of this – people are ready to support a “virtual candidate who dodges important questions and keeps away from debates.”

Thus, during the Sunday elections the Ukrainian society “rejected the current status quo.” The status quo which the West has both turned a blind eye to and criticized over the previous five years and which it ultimately grew tired of. “Uncertainty” is what characterizes Western policy in Ukraine of recent years. The West’s indecisiveness will “turn out badly for everyone,” – warn critics of the current situation from the Atlantic Council. Meanwhile, according to Carnegie Europe, typical for Ukraine were “chronic corruption and erosion of the rule of law.” “Democratic institutions were subjected to systematic destruction on account of flourishing nepotism and the power of oligarchic clans.” The coming to power of Zelensky can create conditions for re-designing the political course. But only on condition that forces supporting Ukraine in the West “will treat the current situation with utmost seriousness.”

The West has both something to count on and something to fear, the European branch of the American resource Politico believes. On the one hand, Zelensky is expected to continue a predominantly pro-western course, especially in foreign policy issues. On the other hand, his ties with the oligarch Kolomoisky, his readiness to break away from the oligarchic circles, are causing a lot of concern in Europe and the USA. “I’m not so much worried about Russia’s influence,” because “no Ukrainian politician can be pro-Russian and maintain or win power,” – remarks Timothy Ash, an expert at London-based BlueBay Asset Management. Another thing is that the new president could fall victim to manipulation by Kolomoisky. There can be no two opinions on the “Kolomoisky issue”, – the well-known western expert Anders Oslund corrects his colleague. Should the new president of Ukraine give any reason to suspect that Kolomoisky has any influence on his policies, this will mark a “political death” for Zelensky.

Meanwhile, the new president’s lack of experience in political issues is already making itself felt. According to BBC, Zelensky has already demonstrated poor knowledge when discussing important diplomatic issues; in the meantime, he has summoned a number of influential experts as his assistants. The new president is thereby trying to demonstrate to the Ukrainian public that even if he himself is not competent enough, he is able to put together a team of competent advisers. Right now, “the comedian had the last laugh.” However, new upheavals on the Ukrainian political landscape “will not surprise anyone.” But the West should not be surprised, since the new “wave of populism” came from there. Observers rank the new president of Ukraine along with Donald Trump. Like Trump, Zelensky fought in the elections not as a politician, but as a TV showman and businessman, openly flaunting lack of political experience. Other election favorites have opted for “undisguised populism” too. For one, Yulia Tymoshenko, “aggressively criticized the reforms carried out by the last two governments and promised cheap gas and higher wages.” And even the incumbent President Poroshenko “discarded the image of a reformer” and vied for re-election “under the patriotic slogan“ “Army, Language, Faith” ”.

As a result, the victory went to Zelensky, who, at the very beginning of the election campaign, was compared by some in the West not with Trump, but with Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, who rushed into the Italian and European politics as one of the leaders of the “Five Stars” Populist Movement. However, the “case of Zelensky” may be fraught with more danger. Unlike Grillo, whose popularity grew along with the strengthening of the organizational structure of his movement, Zelensky has no political organization at the moment. Given the situation, further developments in Ukraine and around it will largely depend on who and how will fill this political vacuum. According to a witty remark by The Economist, Ukrainian politics has always resembled a reality show. And now this show is turning into reality.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

Did Russia Really Win in the 2008 August War?

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Eleven years have passed since the short Georgian-Russian war started on August 7-8 in 2008. As every discussion on who started the war generally is, the Georgian-Russian one too is about finding moral grounds for military actions which both sides took at the time.

Morality in geopolitics, and the Georgian-Russian conflict is indeed caused by pure geopolitical calculations, is at most times a superfluous thing. All these years the Russians have been trying to convince the world and the public inside the country that the Russian military moves actions and subsequent recognition of the independence of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions were the only possible and correct actions to be taken. The Georgians also have their dilemmas: some marginal political figures still believe that it was the Georgian government that was most to blame for the catastrophe of 2008. Though close geographically, these diverging narratives and the constant need to prove one’s own truth says a lot about how far apart Georgia and Russia have grown in the past decade.

11 years since the war and it is still unclear what Russia has gained from its military and diplomatic actions since 2008. True, military build-up in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region limited Tbilisi’s ability to become an EU/NATO member state. Moreover, Russian intervention into Georgia in 2008 also showed the West how far Moscow can go if a strategic decision is made to draw Georgia into the alliances. At the time (August-September 2008) those seemed to be long-term (strategic) victories for Moscow. In international relations and geopolitical calculations, you can stop a country from attaining the aims harmful to you, but in the long run you will be unable to reverse the process by forceful actions alone: you have to provide a counter-policy to turn an unfriendly state into an amenable neighbor.

Put all of this into the Russian case. More than a decade has passed since 2008, only a few not-so-important states recognized Georgia’s territories as independent entities. The Georgian public is overwhelmingly anti-Russian, the last hopes of a grand geopolitical bargain – the return of the territories in exchange for reversing EU/NATO aspirations – have disappeared among the Georgian public, and support for western institutions so far has only increased.

In the end, though Moscow waged a reasonably costly war in 2008, took and still experiences a diplomatic burden for its moves against the West, and has yet to attain its grand geopolitical goal of reversing Georgia’s pro-western course. Politicians in Moscow, at least strategists behind the scenes, all understand that Georgia’s persistence, which seems naive today, might turn into serious business if Russia’s geopolitical positions worsen elsewhere in Eurasia.

Indeed, there are signs that Russian influence is set to diminish further in the former Soviet space as the country’s economy is unlikely to be attractive to the neighboring states. Imagine a scenario where Russian internal problems (Putin’s upcoming succession, economic downturns, China’s rise, stronger Ukraine, etc.) weigh ever stronger upon the Russian decision-makers in the 2020s, then Georgia’s western aspirations might become more concrete – it will be easier for the West to make a strategic decision to draw Tbilisi into EU/NATO.

Overall, Russia definitely gained significant results in 2008, but in the long run it did not change the strategic picture in the South Caucasus, though it did produce a grand design for geopolitical domination in north Eurasia: years after the war, Moscow initiated its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to draw its neighbors into one economic space – a prerequisite for building a world power. Ideally, it should have attracted Russia’s major neighbors and it would have served the people of the former Soviet space economically. But Moscow failed to get Ukraine and other states involved: without Kiev, the EEU, if not dead, is at least a marginal project. This means that Russian policies towards Georgia and the wider South Caucasus remain the same as before 2008 – keeping foreign powers out of the region, while failing to provide an alternative vision for Tbilisi.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Lithuania’s new chief of defence has no chance

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Lithuania’s new chief of defence, Major General Valdemaras Rupsys calls himself a realist though it seems as if he is a fatalist with no hope to change anything in the national armed forces.

In a detailed interview with BNS Valdemaras Rupsys demonstrates his inability and even lack of hope to modify national military system. He distinctly reveals his plans.

Major General Valdemaras Rupsys says he will seek to accelerate new armored vehicle and artillery system purchases if the country’s defense spending makes this possible.

The key words here are “if the country’s defense spending makes this possible”. The matter is Lithuania itself can rely only on foreign financing and help to strengthen its defence. Thus, he informs that a number of Boxer IFVs are currently being delivered to Lithuania. Renamed “Vilkas”, or “wolf” in Lithuanian, the vehicles will be provided only to two battalions of the Iron Wolf mechanized infantry brigade, in Rukla and Alytus. It should be noted that Mechanized Infantry Brigade “Iron Wolf” is the core unit of the Lithuanian Army and forms the country’s contribution to NATO collective defence. But even this unit will not be provided with all necessary vehicles and equipment.

The brigade’s other two battalions, in Rukla and Panevezys, will continue to use old M113 armored personnel carriers, with plans to replace them with more advanced vehicles by 2030. No budget money – no vehicles!

Major General Valdemaras Rupsys admits that the only thing he can definitely do – to speak to the authorities. “We’ll definitely have to speak to the ministry about whether there are possibilities to replace their platform earlier than planned,” the general told in an interview. “Plans call for doing so in around 2030 but everything depends on financial resources. There won’t be any drastic decisions to replace the acquisitions that we are already planning now,” he added.

When he answers to the question if the Iron Wolf brigade needs tanks he is very flexible and says that “being aware of our means and financial capacity, I don’t dream about tanks right now. We don’t have such plans.

Another question is if he dreams about fighter jets in the Lithuanian army. And he again says – “No, I don’t today. I am a realist and don’t dream about things we cannot have.”

The worst thing is his full satisfaction with the existing situation. He will not even try to change things. In terms of conscription system he shifts the responsibility on the political leadership, on the whole, which should decide on that. And then what is his responsibility? Does Lithuania need such a chief of defence who decides nothing from the very beginning?

Obviously, Lithuania has no money, but according to Major General Valdemaras Rupsys Lithuania even lacks of ambitious either to be a strong country. Possibly, this aim could be reached at the expense of others. At least he is honest.

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Eastern Europe

Polonia: Poland’s diaspora policy

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In 2007, the Polish authorities for the first time adopted a government program to promote cooperation with the Polish diaspora (Polonia) and Poles abroad. In 2002, they introduced May 2 as Day of Polonia and Poles Abroad.

The strategic objectives of this program for 2015-2020 include support for the development of Polish language and culture among Poles abroad, strengthening Polish national identity among representatives of Polonia, contributing to the popularity of Polonian organizations abroad and the return of Poles living abroad to their homeland, establishing economic, scientific and cultural contacts between Poland and Polonia .

The Polish Foreign Ministry estimates the number of members of the Polish diaspora, including ethnic Poles and people of Polish descent, at 18-20 million, one third of them were born in Poland. Polonia and the Poles rank the sixth if we compare the proportion of members of the diaspora abroad with the population of the country of origin. 18% of tourists visiting Poland are members of Polish organizations abroad and ethnic Poles.

The largest Polish diasporas are in the USA (9.6 million according to 2012 reports), in Germany (1.5 million) and Canada (1 million). Poles are also living in France and the United Kingdom (0.8 million in each), the Netherlands (0.2 million), Ireland and Italy (0.15 million in each), the Czech Republic (0.12 million), Sweden and Norway ( 0.11 million in either), Belgium (0.1 million). In countries such as Austria, Spain, Denmark, and Iceland, members of the Polish diasporas number less than 100 thousand people.

According to the Polish Foreign Ministry, more than 1 million Poles and people of Polish descent live in post-Soviet countries. According to the ministry, these estimates are not accurate – for one,  in Belarus, the most “Polish” republic of the former USSR, the number of Poles and people of Polish origin could amount to up to 1 million (official reports estimate the number of Poles living in Belarus at 295 thousand).

Lithuania comes second by the number of Poles residing there – (250 thousand), the third is Ukraine (144 thousand), then Russia (47 thousand), Latvia (46 thousand) and Kazakhstan (34 thousand) – the fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.

Polonia is conditionally divided by the Polish Foreign Ministry into ten functionality-based geographical groups: 1. Lithuania 2. Belarus 3. Ukraine 4. Latvia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic 5. Western European countries (Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, etc.). 6. USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand 7. Other European countries 8. Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia 9. Brazil, Argentina 10.Other countries of the world.

This division was carried out on the functional, rather than numerical basis and there is no universal approach as to how to categorize Poles living abroad – each of the above mentioned countries sets its own requirements for working with Polonia. People who have Polish roots but do not speak Polish and who reside in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Brazil are regarded as Polish diaspora by Warsaw. In this case, there is a need to popularize Polish informational and ideological products for Polonia in these countries in the language of the country of residence with emphasis on the economic and cultural components and projects for the study of the Polish language.

The latter bears particular importance. In Brazil, for one, there are more than a dozen Polish language courses. People who go there are provided with social benefits and all the necessary documents – student ID passes for students, work certificates for teaching staff (teachers get discounts 33% to 49% on public and rail transport in Poland, etc.), certificates of Polish schools for distance learning, etc.

Given the presence of anti-Russian sentiment in Poland’s policy, it is not surprising that Russia, the republics of the Caucasus, and countries of Central Asia are among those that Warsaw accuses of breaching the rights of ethnic minorities, including Poles, which is not true. Working with Polonia in these regions carries a clear ideological touch, as historical grievances prevail over culture and economy. By intentionally inciting conflict, concocting accusations of violating the rights of ethnic minorities,Warsaw equips itself with ideological tools to justify its aggressive Eastern policy towards Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

In particular, there are noticeable attempts by Warsaw to force Polish organizations in Russia to participate in anti-Russian propaganda campaigns, especially regarding retrospective assessments of Russian-Polish and Soviet-Polish relations. Polish diplomacy cites the unsuccessful Polish uprisings of the 18th-19th centuries, exiled and repressed Poles of the tsarist and Stalinist times, return of Poland’s western lands to Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus following the Red Army’s Polish campaign in 1939, etc.

The Polish Institute of National Memory (PINP), being an exclusively ideological structure, is on the list of state institutions and ministries that are responsible for cooperating with Polonia. A projecttitled “The Next Stop is History” has been launched in order to promote the historical and ideological heritage of Poland. Implemented within the framework of the Polish diaspora program of the Department of National Education of PINP in several countries at once (conferences, exhibitions, symposia, film screenings, lectures, military sports games), the project has no geographical restrictions and is conducted with the participation of certified teachers.

Let us focus on some characteristic features of the Polish diaspora policy:

– the prevalence of economic aspects while establishing cooperation with ethnic Poles living in the USA, EU and South America;

– a powerful propagandistic and political emphasis and a minimal presence of  economy while dealing with Polonia in countries of the former USSR;

– abandoning tactics of interaction with Polonia which presuppose acting through Polonian organizations only and which have proved ineffective;

– coverage by social, cultural and other projects of the largest possible number of ethnic Poles, in the first place, those who are not members of diaspora organizations;

– absence of heavy vertical hierarchy in disapora organizations in favor of horizontal links and shuttle diplomacy;

– contribute to the formation of a protest and opposition-minded stratum amongst the young in countries of the former USSR (Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine) with further placement of its representatives in local government structures, the media and other socially important projects. 

Summing up, we can say that Warsaw’s diaspora politics abroad are focused on strengthening its positions in the Western community and pursuing unilateral and controversial goals in the eastern direction. From our partner International Affairs

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