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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

What Will Bring Generational Change to Georgia?

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Those who study modern Georgia often focus on large issues such as the country’s relations with Russia, aspirations to join NATO and the EU, or simply internal political processes.

What remains largely undiscussed and possibly with far reaching effects on the future of Georgia, is the generational change.

Georgia is amidst a generational change. True, the occasional protests which have taken place across Georgia throughout 2019 often featured youngsters of various political affiliation, still the critical mass of large-scale demonstrations would be filled by much older generations (born in the 1970s and 1980s). However, this is bound to change in the coming few years. Those born after the collapse of the Soviet Union will approximately, by 2024, dominate the street protests, whether small or large.

They will be increasingly opposition-minded, protesting even a small scale mistake by any government ruling Georgia. This is not to say that they will be linked to any concrete party; their actions will be more characterized by traditional activism so common in the West.

Any future Georgian government will experience difficulties staving off the demonstrations, which in turn will lead to much higher responsibilities from political forces. This will also be a generation which will not remember the 1990s or United National Movement’s rule (2003-2012), but will be mainly forged in 2012-2020/22.

On a much higher level, the 2020s will be also characterized by gradual changes in Georgia’s ruling class (even if we presume it to be a very divided one). Those born in the 1980s and 1990s will constitute the absolute majority of low- and mid-level positions in government and non-governmental organizations. This will have a major impact on how the country will be run. It is likely that more attention will be paid to establishing a more effective administration, improving the level of education, economy, and the military. The new Georgian elite, predominantly born in a post-Soviet country, will also be more amenable to public demands.

Those generational changes will also affect major Georgian parties. Members aged just under 30 will eventually strive to gain bigger roles inside the parties. However, since the party leaderships will be unwilling to cede their primary roles, there is a big likelihood we will see the creation of a number of new splinter parties. Thus, one of the major certainties for the 2020s is a sharp increase in pro-Western parties.

Current opposition forces are also likely to lose whatever popularity they enjoy, as younger generations will adhere to newer, predominantly pro-Western, political entities.

Major influence will be put on the Georgian political elite, which I discussed in earlier pieces. Though currently there is an extremely divided political elite in the country, in the 2020s there will be a gradual increase in coordination between different new political groups on basic foreign and internal state interests. This will be a major rupture with the developments Georgia has experienced since the 1990s.

The generational change will also have a gradual but nevertheless big geopolitical influence. One of the features will be a steep decline in the knowledge of the Russian language and general attraction the Russian culture has had for older generations in Georgia. This will mean that pro-Russian forces will lose even the slightest attraction they currently enjoy in Georgia.

These generational changes are directly tied to the regional geopolitics. Though Moscow influences Tbilisi through its military presence in Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, on the ground the balance is shifting significantly and not in Russia’s favor. Eventually, it all will come down to what culture people are more attracted to. It is based on this that grand strategic shifts or allegiances to alliances are made.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanians fight for silence

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The Ministry of Defence of Denmark has made an important decision supporting human rights of Danish citizens.

Thus, Denmark’s new fleet of F-35s, which are to replace the F-16s currently in use, will arrive at Skrydstrup air base in South Jutland starting in 2023. When the new air force is finally ready, far more neighbours will be bothered by the noise exceeding limit values, calculations by the Danish Defence Ministry show. The 100 worst-affected homes will have to suffer noise levels of over 100 decibels, which is comparable to a rock concert or a busy motorway.

The noise pollution from F-35s is projected to exceed that of the F-16s, though noise pollution from F-16 also bother locals. Discontent of citizens reduced their confidence not only in the Ministry of Defence but in their current government and NATO as well.

Thus decided to compensate the victims.This step has improved the image of the armed forces and showed the population the care that the Ministry of Defense shows to a residents of the country.

A similar situation has developed in Lithuania. Lithuanian citizens demand compensation from the Ministry of National Defense due to high noise level made by fighter flights from Šiauliai airbase as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.

Lithuania is a NATO member state and contribute to the collective defence of the Alliance. Thus, Šiauliai airbase hosts fighter jets that conduct missions of the NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.
Citizens also initiated on-line petitions in order to attract supporters and demonstrate their strong will to fight violation of human rights in Lithuania.

According to peticijos.lt, the petition was viewed more than 5 thousand times. This shows great interest of Lithuanian society in the subject.At the same time existing control over any political activity, as well as silence of current government and Ministry of National Defence don’t allow people openly support such idea. All websites with petitions demand the provision of personal data. Nobody wants to be punished and executed.

The lack of response is not a very good position of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence in case Lithuania wants to prove the existence of democracy. Denmark is a prime example of a democratic society caring for its people.

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Eastern Europe

Georgia Returns to the Old New Silk Road

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Georgia has historically been at the edge of empires. This has been both an asset and a hindrance to the development of the country. Hindrance because Georgia’s geography requires major investments to override its mountains, gorges and rivers. An asset because Georgia’s location allowed the country from time to time to position itself as a major transit territory between Europe and the Central Asia, and China further away.

This geographic paradigm has been well in play in shaping Georgia’s geopolitical position even since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of modern technologies. Thereafter, Georgia has been playing a rebalancing game by turning to other regional powers to counter the resurgent Russia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran (partly) and bigger players such as the EU and the US are those which have their own interest in the South Caucasus. However, over the past several years yet another power, China, with its still evolving Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been slowly emerging in the South Caucasus.

This how a new Silk Road concept gradually emerged at the borders of Georgia. In fact, a closer look at historical sources from the ancient, medieval or even 15th-19th cc. history of Georgia shows an unchanged pattern of major trade routes running to the south, west, east and north of Georgia. Those routes were usually connected to outer Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian hinterland.

Only rarely did the routes include parts of the Georgian land and, when it happened, it lasted for merely a short period of time as geography precluded transit through Georgia: the Caucasus Mountains and seas constrained movement, while general geographic knowledge for centuries remained limited.

It was only in the 11th-12th cc. that Georgian kings, David IV, Giorgi III and Queen Tamar, spent decades of their rule trying to gain control over neighboring territories with the goal to control the famous Silk Roads. Since, foreign invasions (Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, Russians) have largely prevented Georgia from playing a major transit role for transcontinental trade.

This lasted until the break-up of the Soviet Union. After 1991, Georgia has returned to its positioning between the Black and Caspian seas, between Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Major roads, pipelines and railway lines go through Georgian territory. Moreover, major works are being done to expand and build existing and new Georgian ports on the Black Sea with the potential to transform Georgia into a sea trade hub.

A good representation of Georgia’s rising position on the Silk Road was a major event held in Tbilisi on October 22-23 when up to 2000 politicians, potential investors from all over the world, visited the Georgian capital. The event was held for the third time since 2015 and attracted due attention. In total, 300 different meetings were held during the event.

The hosting of the event underscores how Georgia has recently upped its historical role as a regional hub connecting Europe and Asia. On the map, it is in fact the shortest route between China and Europe. There is a revitalization of the ancient Silk Road taking place in Georgia. This could in turn make the country an increasingly attractive destination for foreign investment. Indeed, the regional context also helps Tbilisi to position itself, as Georgia has Free Trade Agreements with Turkey, the CIS countries, the EFTA and China and a DCFTA with the European Union, comprising a 2.3 billion consumer market.

Thus, from a historical perspective, the modern Silk Road concept emanating from China arguably represents the biggest opportunity Georgia has had since the dissolution of the unified Georgian monarchy in 1490 when major roads criss-crossed the Georgian territory. In the future, when/if successive Georgian governments continue to carry out large infrastructural projects (roads, railways, sea ports), Tbilisi will be able to use those modern ‘Silk Roads’ to its geopolitical benefit, namely, gain bigger security guarantees from various global and regional powers to uphold its territorial integrity.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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