Connect with us

Eastern Europe

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

Published

on

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

Continue Reading
Comments

Eastern Europe

Armenia-Iran: Good neighbourly relations absolute necessity

Published

on

Some experts believe that Iran’s cooperation with Armenia could become costly for the latter owing to the ever increasing hostility demonstrated by US President Donald Trump towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. They predict that American sanctions and extensive pressure on Iran could throw Armenia into a kind of blockade.

What comes to mind in connection with this is the words that are thought to have been said by Napoleon Bonaparte: geography is destiny. Even though it could not always be the case but it definitely is with the Caucasus. There are few if any regions whose military, strategic and economic significance would combine with unprecedented ethno-religious diversity on a fairly small territory with historically conditioned disputable issues. This naturally creates all the conditions for an atmosphere of permanent tension which over the last two centuries has repeatedly exploded in armed conflicts and wars.

In the 21st century, the situation in the Caucasus is formed by a most sophisticated political gamut of bilateral and multilateral relations among three former Soviet republics of Transcaucasus – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, and also, not in the last place, by the Caucasian states of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Besides, one should not forget about the military and political influence of non-regional countries, first of all, the United States, the European Union and Israel.

Undoubtedly, today we are witnessing the influence of multiple forces in different areas of  Caucasian politics, and these forces are dragging Caucasian states into various alliances. Moreover, the regional policy of each of the South Caucasian states is determined by a variety of factors that spring from the specifics of bilateral and multilateral relations.

But we will not analyze the whole spectrum of complicated and entangled relations between groups of countries and within groups proper. We will focus on relations beween Iran and Armenia.

What is the role of Armenia, taking into account the US anti-Iran sanctions?

Iran is the largest multi-ethnic state in the Middle East. Present day Iran is home to more than 40 nationalities, each at a different level of socio-economic development. The multi-million population of Iran is ethnically related to the peoples of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia.

For centuries, Iran has been maintaining close economic and cultural ties with the peoples of the Transcaucasus. But its relations with Armenia stand out as somewhat specific.

Significantly, the first state formations of Armenia and Iran appeared in the VII – VI centuries BC, that is, nearly 3 thousand years ago. Since then their territories and regimes have undergone numerous changes, but Armenians and Persians, as state-forming ethnic groups, have passed through the centuries unchanged.

An idea which is deeply rooted in both the Iranian and Armenian consciousness is that Persians and Armenians boast ancient culture that cannot be thrown into oblivion. This explains cultural ties between the two nations and a comprehensive respect for the specifics of each other’s national and religious mentality.

At present, Iran is home to more than 200 thousand Armenians. Iranian Armenians enjoy substantial rights. Under the Constitution of Iran, they have guaranteed representation in parliament and local councils. Not so long ago, Russian Orientalist Karine Gevorkian reported that in 2018, a young Armenian woman was appointed head of the financial department of the Iranian oil company.

The Armenian Christian community is the largest of its kind in Iran. Functioning throughout the country are about 200 Armenian churches and about 30 Armenian schools. Some universities have departments of the Armenian language and culture. Iran publishes books and magazines in Armenian. Also, there are Armenian theatrical, cultural, and sports societies, and the Armenian Club.

It should be pointed out that Iranian Armenians are taking an active part in the social and political life of the country.

Naturally, Iranian Armenians maintain permanent ties with the Republic of Armenia, which undoubtedly cements Iranian-Armenian relations at the state level.

Although Iran and Armenia are not comparable in their scope and position, as history and current geopolitics show, they need each other.

Iran is interested to maintain ties with Armenia, in the first place, because, as it was already mentioned above, the country is home to an influential Armenian community. Secondly, given that the Armenian diaspora exists in many countries of the world, it could become a kind of bridge connecting Tehran with the capitals of other, not always friendly, states where an Armenian community is also active. Also, it is through authoritative Armenian lobbies that Iran could secure favorable political and economic solutions. Thirdly, the territory of Armenia, as a neighboring country, is important for Iran as a corridor to the North (through Georgia) and further to Russia, which is clearly beneficial for Iran considering the current  geopolitical situation.

Armenia, in turn, is also interested in friendly relations with neighboring Iran, not only on account of links between the Armenian diaspora and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran assumed a fairly balanced position regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, by refraining from backing fellow believers from a neighboring country and complying with the Minsk format, the decisions of the Minsk Group (OSCE).

Moreover, the continuing trade and economic ties between Armenia and Iran have become, to a certain extent, a lifeline for Yerevan. Blocked by Turkey and Azerbaijan from two sides, Armenia  has only two windows to the outside world: via the borders with Georgia and Iran. Therefore, for Armenia Iran is of vital importance. The Armenian-Iranian border, running through the Araks River, is the shortest for two countries – a mere 35 km. Nevertheless, this border is of great importance, both for Armenia and for Iran, being used for developing trade and economic relations between the two countries and promoting touristm. Statistical data say Iranians (and not only Armenian) enjoy visiting Armenia.

In recent years, Armenia and Iran have seen a successful implementation of various economic programs. One of the first projects was a bridge erected across the Araks River. Also, two high-voltage power transmission lines have been built, a third one is currently under construction.

One of the key areas of economic cooperation between Armenia and Iran is provided by an interim agreement signed in May 2018 between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) on the creation of a free trade zone. Thus, there have appeared opportunities for merging the 180-million market of the EEU with the 80-million Iranian market. Since Armenia is the only EAEU country that has a land border with Iran, it plays a crucial role in cooperation between the EAEU and Iran, which provides it with an opportunity to develop its relations with Iran.

Undoubtedly, Armenia and Iran’s shared interest in bilateral cooperation envisages good prospects for the future. However, it is not that simple, as there have arrived new times, both for Yerevan, and Tehran.

In 2018 Armenia saw a change of government, as a result of which Nikola Pashinyan was elected Prime Minister. There have been changes in domestic policy. As for foreign policy, at least in relation to Iran, there have been no particular  changes and, in all likelihood, there will not be any. Given the present-day conditions, good-neighborly relations between Yerevan and Tehran are not a luxury, but an urgent need.

In this regard, Nikola Pashinyan’s official visit to Iran in February 2019 is of special significance. During the visit the two parties held high-level talks with the participation of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who rarely receives foreign guests. The negotiations were held in a fairly warm atmosphere, with both sides underscoring the importance of bilateral relations and expressing readiness to exert efforts to develop them.

In the course of above-mentioned talks, representatives of Armenia and Iran signaled the high level of political cooperation, emphasizing yet again that the current level of economic cooperation does not match the full potential of the parties involved. Although by the end of 2018, trade turnover between Armenia and Iran had reached $ 364 million, which is the highest figure since 1991.

Among major projects of the Armenian-Iranian bilateral economic cooperation program is  the construction of the third power line, the implementation of the Meghri hydropower project, the North-South highway corridor, trilateral and quadrilateral economic cooperation with Georgia and Russia.

What makes the visit to Iran by Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan special is that Iran is under the US sanctions. In 2018, a transitional year for Armenia, the United States subjected Iran to unprecedented pressure. In addition, the US “secondary sanctions” were imposed against all countries, legal entities and physical persons of foreign countries which dare to maintain relations with Iran. This meant a challenge for Armenia, in many ways economically connected with Iran.

In October 2018, US National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to secure support for US plans to further isolate Iran. Reports say Washington is lobbying for the closure of the Armenian border with Iran through opening the border with Turkey.

While in Yerevan, Bolton told Prime Minister Pashinyan that since the United States will pursue the policy of sanctions against Iran, the Armenian-Iranian border is a “big problem.” Pashinyan responded by saying the following: “We respect the requests and national interests of any country, but Armenia has its own national  interests, which do not always coincide with the interests and ideas of other countries.” But as they say, there could be options.

It is necessary to emphasize that Washington, despite its hostile policy towards the IRI, has always had to tolerate cooperation between Armenia and Iran. Such tolerance is due to the US awareness of the geo-economic situation of Armenia, which, without extensive ties with Iran, will face social and economic problems. In addition, as said before, the Armenian lobby has a lot of sway in Washington, especially in the US Congress, which does not give much say to Iran’s opponents with regard to Armenia. That this is true is confirmed by the absence of any US sanctions against Armenia. That’s why John Bolton all but voiced proposals, and not warnings or threats. Suren Sargsyan, Chairman of the Armenian Center for American Studies, said recently, “Washington is fully aware of the situation and the realities that exist in the region. This means that the United States will never pressure Armenia into rejecting Iran or Russia. And this is good, because Washington knows that we will not survive without Iran and Russia … “

As is known, besides the United States Iran has another “big friend” – Israel. Apparently,  the strengthening of Armenian-Iranian relations is not welcome in Jerusalem, and Yerevan is aware of this. The Armenian diplomacy has taken sophisticated measures to neutralize the negative Israeli reaction. Right after Prime Minister Pashinyan’s visit to Iran, Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigor Hovhannisyan paid a visit to Israel, where he discussed opening an embassy in Israel “in order to bring bilateral relations to a new high”. The Armenian delegation also focused on organizational issues related to the upcoming visit to Israel by Armenian Prime Minister Nikola Pashinyan and Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan.

In all likelihood, the main point of Prime Minister Pashinyan’s foreign policy agenda and the main goal of his government is tolerance and absence of problems in relations with foreign countries: with Moscow, with Tehran, th Washington, with Brussels, with Jerusalem.

Thus, it is possible to conclude that the change of government in Armenia and large-scale US sanctions against Iran and its partners did not affect the stable nature of Armenian-Iranian relations. In these conditions, the Armenian-Iranian border is unlikely to ever be closed – a complete blockade of Armenia is highly impossible. Moreover, the small Armenia, pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy, has become an important factor in ensuring security in the South Caucasus. 

From our partner International Affairs

Continue Reading

Eastern Europe

China Set to Increase its Influence in Georgia

Published

on

China-Georgia relations since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been positive in both the economic and overall political sense. However, they are often overestimated by analysts in Georgia and elsewhere. Bilateral trade growth as well as a gradual increase in Chinese investments in Georgia have oft been hailed as exceptional and a marked sign of increased Chinese influence over Tbilisi.

True, economic growth has been taking place, but this has been but a small portion of the real potential. In fact, despite analysts’ positive views, Georgia and the South Caucasus transit corridor has yet to feature in official versions of the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Overall, China has been cautious. Russia’s factor too might have been at play when Beijing only minimally involved itself in the economy of Georgia. But the biggest obstacle has been geographic barriers such as the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus range, difficult Georgian terrain as well as the Black Sea.

Still, in a number of articles for GT, I have suggested that the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is not static in nature and, like any other trade routes in ancient or medieval periods, it does respond to rising challenges and opportunities. Another suggestion was that Georgia, if it improves its railroads, roads and ports infrastructure inside the country, will become more attractive to China and its BRI.

Indeed, there are signs proving this scenario. On 24 May, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Georgia. This is crucial as it is the first official visit of a Chinese foreign minister to Georgia in 23 years. According to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the focus of the minister’s visit was to understand more about Georgia’s future and its potential as an important transit state.

The visit to Georgia came as a part of the Chinese delegation’s regional trip. China and Armenia on Sunday signed an agreement for mutual visa exemption for ordinary passport holders.

The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the visit to Georgia confirmed the “clear vision” of China regarding Georgia and its role in China’s plans for large-scale projects. Here, most likely BRI was meant, a clear emphasis on Georgia’s potential as a transit state. “Trade, investments, transport, as well as partnership within the frames of international organizations, were set as the major priorities for future cooperation,” states the Georgian Foreign Ministry.

The Chinese Foreign Minister said that “China is implementing a foreign policy which is based on the principles of peaceful coexistence. We are ready to develop friendly relations between our countries further. We have a firm position that all countries are equal, regardless of their size. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and other countries.”

China’s interests in Georgia are also intricately linked to the latter’s territorial problems with Russia. For Tbilisi, it is important that China supports it on the issue of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. Indeed, the issue of the Georgian occupied territories was also raised during the meetings and Georgian officials mentioned the “high importance” of Chinese support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Chinese delegation’s visit follows the Georgian Minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Maya Tskitishvili’s, trip to Beijing, where she attended the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. More importantly, she signed an agreement on cargo and passenger transportation with Chinese Minister of Transport Li Xiaopeng.

Overall, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister’s visit to Tbilisi has been important, but attention in the Georgian media was only paid to official statements; no analysis has yet been made. However, what is crucial is the timing of the visit, as China and the US are locked in a geopolitical battle over influence in the Indo-Pacific world. Since Georgia is close to the US in terms of military and political cooperation, it will be interesting to see how far China-Georgia cooperation will go. One thing is likely to happen: Beijing will try to increase its influence in Georgia through economic and various political moves.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Times

Continue Reading

Eastern Europe

Quality of Life in Latvia is not a priority

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Latest

Trending

Copyright © 2019 Modern Diplomacy