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How Ukraine’s War Is to Be Settled: Zelenskiy, Crimea, and Donbass

Eric Zuesse

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On April 30th, Ukraine’s Central Election Commission announced that after the final voting tabulations (which included more than 13% of Ukrainians living abroad), Volodmyr Zelensky had beaten the sitting President, Petro Poroshenko, by a vote of 73.22% to 24.45%. The biggest single issue that Ukraine’s new President will be dealing with is going to be whether to continue, or to end, Ukraine’s war against its two break-away regions, Crimea in the extreme south, and Donbass in the far east.

Ukraine’s ‘civil’ war had started in late February 2014, when the United States’ longstanding efforts at regime-change in that country (in order to install an anti-Russian government in the European country that has the longest border with Russia) finally succeeded. These efforts succeeded there in much the same way that the U.S. regime’s efforts at regime-change in 1953 Iran did, and that the U.S. regime’s efforts at regime-change in 1954 Guatemala did, and that the U.S. regime’s efforts at regime-change in 1973 Chile did: by means of a bloody coup. In each case, the U.S. coup replaced an existing democracy and it installed instead a fascist dictatorship, which was promptly followed by a ‘civil war’ when the U.S.-installed dictatorship targeted for extermination and/or expulsion the leaders and voters for that overthrown democracy. In each of these coup-cases, the first task of the newly installed dictatorship was to eliminate enough of the voters who had voted for and backed the democracy, so that any future ‘elections’ would install only other fascists and thereby continue that government as being a U.S. vassal-nation.

A month before Zelenskiy’s April 23rd electoral win, UAWire headlined on March 23rd, “Front-runner in Ukraine’s election race names condition for returning Crimea”, and reported that Zelenskiy had suddenly made the radical statement: “Crimea will return only when power changes in Russia. There is no other choice.” This view accepted the likelihood that Crimea would remain as a part of Russia (which it had been for hundreds of years until 1954 when the Ukrainian Nikita Khruschev, as the Soviet dictator, arbitrarily gifted it from Russia to his own homeland). Zelenskiy’s statement directly contradicted the view that Ukraine’s Government had emphatically stated ever since the U.S. Government’s successful February 2014 coup (which was hidden behind massive grassroots anti-corruption demonstrations at Kiev’s Maidan Square) replaced Ukraine’s neutralist, simultaneously pro-Western and pro-Russian, Government, by the present rabidly anti-Russian U.S.-imposed regime. This U.S.-installed regime promised, repeatedly and consistently, that it would invade and conquer Crimea, and would thereby restore it to Ukraine, as Crimea had been, from 1954 to 2014.

That UAWire report also quoted Zelenskiy’s remark about the other breakaway region from Ukraine, Donbass: “Residents of Donbas should ‘realize that they are Ukrainians,’ stressed Zelensky.” This too constituted a radical break away from the U.S.-imposed Ukrainian Government’s repeated promises (which U.S. President Barack Obama had strongly supported) to retake Donbass by force — not by any means of convincing Donbassers about anything. The American regime’s view was that the residents of Crimea and of Donbass should have no say in whether or not they are to be ruled by Ukraine’s Government. 

None of the other candidates in the Presidential contest veered apart from the U.S.-installed regime’s consistent line of war against Russia and of retaking both Crimea and Donbass. All of them promised victory against Russia.

Zelenskiy thus won this election as the peace-candidate in the race. Ukrainians had finally become sick and tired of being at war against Russia, and that’s the main meaning of Zelenskiy’s enormous 73% win.

This victory by Zelenskiy represented actually the will not of the U.S. regime, but of the EU regime, which had never been quite as eager as the U.S. regime was to conquer Russia. On March 15th, France’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Isabel Dumont, communicating privately to Ukraine’s then-existing Government. Writing on behalf of all seven of the G7 Ambassadors, she warned Ukraine’s far-right Minister of the Interior, Arsen Avakov, that “the G7 group is concerned by extreme political movements in Ukraine.” Those “extreme political movements in Ukraine” were Ukraine’s two racist-fascist, or ideologically nazi, political parties, Svoboda and Right Sector, both of which had provided the shock-troops, which had worked for the U.S. regime during the coup, and which subsequently led in the new regime’s ethnic-cleansing campaign to kill as many as possible of the residents in Donbass. (90% of the Donbass voters had voted for the Ukrainian President that Obama overthrew.) America’s Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty headlined, on March 22nd, about the March 15th G7 statement, “G7 Letter Takes Aim At Role Of Violent Extremists In Ukrainian Society, Election”. This reported that the G7’s concern referred specifically to “products of the Azov Battalion.” That battalion is (though RFERL carefully ignored the fact) a self-organized blatantly white-supremacist Ukrainian organization of members both of Svoboda and of Right Sector. Azov’s founder and leader, Andrei Biletsky (or “Beletsky”), calls his movement “Ukrainian Social Nationalism,” and he has laid out in writing its program as “racial purification of the Nation” and specifically as being a return to “old Ukrainian Aryan values forgotten in modern society.” His followers had, under Obama (during and since the coup), powerfully helped to install the far-right post-coup regime, which regime now possibly could finally end — Obama’s coup in Ukraine thus to become terminated in abject failure (which it actually already is) and perhaps ultimately even to become abandoned by the Europeans. So: Zelenskiy will need will need to be very concerned with what the EU’s leadership wants. If Ukraine now were to lose the EU’s continued support, it would become totally isolated.

The EU’s new position on Ukraine is decidedly less American than it had formerly been. It’s no longer much respecting the U.S. regime. It falls more into line with what Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has advocated for and helped to negotiate for in the Minsk accords (which the U.S. regime refused to particiate in). He wants Donbassers to be restored again into the electorate of the Ukrainian Government, but only in a way which those people themselves participate in helping to shape — and not (as the U.S. regime has constantly championed) by means of coercion: by military force (war).

Here is how Russia’s position on Donbass evolved into this fixed and steady policy:

On 19 September 2014, I headlined “Russia’s Leader Putin Rejects Ukrainian Separatists’ Aim to Become Part of Russia”, and reported the momentous news that Putin had finally decided not to allow the former Ukraine’s far-eastern Donbass region to be admitted into the Russian Federation, in any such way as he had, just a half-year before, on 16 March 2014, allowed Crimea in — simply by means of a majority-vote of the residents there to abandon Ukraine and to join Russia.

Then, a year later, on 12 September 2015, I bannered “U.S.-Installed Ukrainian Regime Now Fears Return of Donbass to Ukraine”, and reported that, and explained why, “for Ukraine to re-absorb the breakaway region, Donbass (its two districts Donetsk and Lugansk), back into Ukraine, would be politically disastrous, unless the residents there are eliminated.”

The reason for that “politically disastrous” was made clear by the voting-map for the 2010 Ukrainian Presidential election, which election had been won by the Presidential candidate who had advocated for Ukraine to have cordial relations both with Russia to the east and with the European Union and the U.S. to the west: Viktor Yanukovych. (The voting percentages for him are indicated on that map as the places that voted for “Janukovych”). The dark-purple part of that voting-map indicates the areas where Yanukovych had won by 90% or higher, which was the highest support in all of Ukraine, and almost all of the dark purple area is in Donbass. This is the reason why the Obama-installed regime wanted to eliminate those people. They could vote out-of-office Obama’s Ukrainian regime. So: if those voters aren’t permanently eliminated from Ukraine (or ethnically cleansed from Ukraine), then the U.S. regime’s control over Ukraine’s Government won’t be able to last long, and probably won’t even survive beyond the next Ukrainian elections. In other words: the U.S.-installed Ukrainian regime depends, for its very existence, not only upon the U.S. regime, but also upon eliminating from any future Ukrainian election the voters who live in Donbass. That’s the reason why “U.S.-Installed Ukrainian Regime Now Fears Return of Donbass to Ukraine”. At least between the time of ther U.S. coup and Zelenskiy’s win, Ukraine’s regime demanded the land in Crimea and in Donbass, but with the voters there either dead or gone as refugees to Russia — but definitley not participating in future Ukrainian elections.

Only in this light can the recently reaffirmed news that Putin wants the residents of Donbass to become Ukrainians again, become correctly understood: Putin doesn’t want a U.S.-stooge-regime to be ruling next door in Ukraine. He wants those pro-Russian residents to be voting in Ukraine, and he has no need for them to be added to Russia’s electorate. Their presence in Ukraine’s electorate reduces Ukraine’s anti-Russia policies, and thereby increases Russia’s safety. So: this is what Putin wants.

Thus, on 19 April 2019, Reuters headlined “Putin’s INTERVIEW-ally advised the new president of Ukraine to agree with Moscow and reclaim the Territory” of Donbass, and reported that a Ukrainian legislator who serves as a rare negotiator between Ukraine and Russia, “Viktor Medvedchuk, a significant figure of the Ukrainian pro-Russian opposition,” is urging Ukraine’s newly elected President, Vladimir Zelenskiy, to negotiate with Putin the return of Donbass to Ukraine. The article closed by saying, of Medvedchuk, that:

his party “opposition platform-for life”, which occupies the second place according to the polls, may be ready to cooperate with Zelensky after the October parliamentary elections, But the decision will be taken for each individual case. Zelenskiy hinted that he would not want to join the coalition with the Medvedchuk party and did not say whether he would be ready to work with him on an ad hoc basis.

And, then, on 23 April 2019, UAWire headlined “Russia to offer Zelensky deal on gas and the Donbas”, and reported that:

Moscow sees a chance to improve relations with Ukraine following the outcome of the presidential elections in Ukraine, announced Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Monday as he commented on the results of the second round of voting after which 41-year-old Vladimir Zelensky won with over 70% of the vote. …

According to Medvedchuk, who had traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin and representatives of the Russian government two weeks ago, Moscow promises a 25 percent discount on gas if Ukraine agrees to resume direct purchases from Gazprom instead of reverse flow purchases from European countries as has been the case since 2015. …

Moscow’s main goal is to return the territories of the Donbas controlled by the pro-Russian militants to Kyiv on its own terms.

A deal on how to implement peace in the east of Ukraine can be reached “within a few months” and enforced within “six to eight months”, Medvedchuk said, adding that any negotiations on this issue should be conducted by Kyiv, Moscow and the two breakaway pro-Russian regions.

If Zelenskiy takes up Russia’s invitation, then the sticking-points will be:

Can ways be found that will persuade the residents of Donbass, whom the U.S.-imposed Ukrainian regime has been trying to exterminate and/or force to flee into neighboring Russia, to become again citizens of Ukraine? If, indeed, “any negotiations on this issue should be conducted by Kyiv, Moscow and the two breakaway pro-Russian regions,” then the residents in Donbass (who had voted around 90% for Yanukovych and since then were bombed and even firebombed by the U/S.-installed Ukrainian regime) would have a say in their own fates. How could they vote to become Ukrainians, after that — Ukraine’s war against  them? The inducements would have to be pretty strong.

Zelenskiy would, in that scenario, be seeking to absorb those voters back again into what would now be Zelenskiy’s own electorate, and therefore he would probably be voted out-of-office in his re-election campaign. Would he be willing to do such a thing? Well, if he were to be strong for Donbassers’ rights and for the Ukrainian Government’s protection of them, then maybe, because then he’d win Donbassers’ votes at least as much as Yanukovych did. That would be the end of Obama’s impact upon Ukraine.

Whereas, in The West, the war against Donbass is portrayed as Russia invading that part of (the former) Ukraine in order to ‘grab’ ‘another piece’ of its territory, the reality is that it’s an invasion there by the U.S.-installed Ukrainian regime in order to make sure that Donbass’s voters will never again be voting in any Ukrainian elections. One of the reasons that the publics in the U.S. international empire endorse their regimes’ aggressions against Russia — and against any nation’s leader (such as against Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Viktor Yanukovych, Hugo Chavez, and Bashar Assad) who is friendly toward Russia — is the rampant fraudulent headlines such as was epitomized in the 7 December 2018 The Week magazine, “Ukraine: Is Russia trying to take another chunk?” It’s hardly a free press in the sense that the empire’s propaganda says it is. It’s a deceit-machine. The publics within the empire are overwhelmingly deceived, especially about international relations (which is what’s necessary in order to be able to increase the empire).

CONCLUSIONS 

The Minsk accords and all the rest are now just PR. The residents in Donbass have become stranded between two governments — one which wants them dead or otherwise gone, and the other which doesn’t need them but which does whatever it can to help them to survive where they are, until they finally accept becoming again ruled from Kiev.

If I were to venture a guess as to what the outcome of this will be, it would be that Zelenskiy will give the war-weary residents both in Ukraine and in Donbass — and also the residents of Crimea, which Putin did accept into Russia — what they want, while Ukraine extracts from Gazprom and Russia whatever discounts they can get, in return for reducing Russia’s costs to maintain the people in Donbass. 

What will happen if that doesn’t? Maybe, long term, Donbass will be able to become admitted into Russia, without the U.S. regime and its allies invading Russia on the excuse of there having been ‘another land-seizure by the dangerous and aggressive Russian dictator Putin’ (or his successor). But, post-coup, Ukraine’s leaders need to satisfy the U.S. and its allies (now especially the EU), and so the U.S.-led group will then ultimately determine what Ukraine does regarding Donbass. 

Only if the U.S. too somehow gets a peace-President can Donbassers have peace. If Zelenskiy doesn’t follow through on the peace-path and the U.S. wants the war against Donbass to resume, then that’s what will happen: the war against Donbass will resume. 

A way needs to be found to restore Ukrainian voting rights and social services to Donbassers and yet to allow Donbassers to be protected by Russia against Ukraine’s nazis. It won’t happen unless there is a U.S. President who wants peace with Russia, instead of conquest of Russia. Zelensky said “Crimea will return only when power changes in Russia. There is no other choice.” But the reality is that Crimea will remain as a part of Russia, and that Donbass will return to Ukraine only if and when America’s Government finally and truly ends its side of the Cold War, which Russia’s side ended in 1991 while the U.S. side secretly continued on right into the present, aiming ultimately to conquer Russia.

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010

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What awaits Ukraine after US presidential elections?

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Who is the man that Kiev wants in the White House – Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Joe Biden? For a country like Ukraine, so sensitive to external influences, this is an overarching issue.

Joe Biden’s election in November would bring Ukraine into Washington’s sharper focus. However, important as this may seem to Kiev, this attention may prove excessive. During Biden’s vice presidency this attention was so intense that it bordered on personal interest, and, ultimately, even interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs.

On the outside, the love affair between Ukraine and a possible Democratic president will most likely express itself in US support for Kiev’s confrontational actions and statements. With Biden at the helm, Washington could even try to influence the Minsk process. Kiev has on many occasions declared its desire to bring Washington and London into the Minsk talks. Neither the British nor the Americans have so far responded to this call, but the US Democrats are sure to ramp up their activity on this track. One should not expect too much here though, and a mere statement by Washington that the Minsk accords need to be revised will already come as a breakthough for Kiev. As for President Trump, he just couldn’t care less about the negotiations on Donbass, which he views as having nothing to do with America’s interests.

On Biden’s watch, Washington could resume the previous format of interaction between the US State Department and Kiev and bring back the post of the State Department’s special representative in Ukraine, which until the fall of 2019 was held by Kurt Volker – a semi-official channel of interaction that formally demonstrated Ukraine’s importance to the United States. The resignation of Volker, who failed to fully implement what he had been tasked by Trump in a country he did not care much about, could lead to the elimination of the position of the State Department’s special representative for Ukraine, as an unnecessary catalyst for US-Ukrainian relations. This means that the usual diplomatic channels (embassy) between countries are quite enough, that the interests of the president can be taken care of by trusted people (Giuliani), and issues of international politics should be resolved with Putin and Europe (Merkel and Macron), which is not doing enough to uphold Ukraine’s interests. To demonstrate the importance of the Ukrainian track, however, Biden may bring back the position of the State Department’s official representative in Ukraine.

With regard to Crimea, Ukraine is already urging NATO to build up its presence in the Black Sea to counter Russia’s alleged “aggression” and its “militarization of the occupied Crimea.” Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhepparova [representative of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, banned in Russia – D.B.) has called on NATO to expand its foothold in the Black Sea region.

“The security of Ukraine and NATO are inseparable, and strengthening cooperation in the Black Sea is our common priority,” Dzhepparova wrote on her Twitter account. Under Biden, the United States can intensify its efforts in this direction.

The issue of NATO’s presence in the Black Sea region is always on the agenda, regularly escalating in connection with various events – in 2014 in Crimea, the war in Syria, etc. Last autumn, the RAND Corporation think tank published a report on how best to counter Russia’s influence in the Black Sea region. Its main conclusion is that due to the West’s shortsighted policy towards the two regional powerhouses – Russia and Turkey, as well as its underestimation of the political power wielded by their leaders, who subordinate their domestic and foreign policies to their countries’ interests, and not those of the “new world order” and “democratization,” it has lost this region and something needs to be done about it.

For Biden, the need “to do something” could become a source of confrontation with Russia. Biden could be all too happy to do this “something” through NATO, seeing this as a sign of support for Ukraine and Georgia, an opportunity to rein in Turkey’s growing assertiveness and bring Bulgaria and Romania closer into the game by stoking confrontation and militarization of the region with a possible supply to them of coastal missile systems. In general, one can expect an uptick in military-political interaction in the form of active cooperation between Ukraine and NATO, as well as arms deliveries.

The arrival of a Democrat to the White House may also ratchet up the internal political struggle in Ukraine, where the nationalist opposition, conditionally led by the “friend of the Democrats,” ex-president Petro Poroshenko, may try to regain power. Poroshenko, meanwhile, is being charged with high treason, corroborated, among other things, by his recorded conversations with Biden – both politicians have cases that they would very much like to hush up. Besides, the nationalists’ activity will inevitably impact the Minsk process, and, possibly, the situation along the disengagement line in Donbass.

What can Kiev expect from President Donald Trump? Less interference in its domestic affairs – once reelected, Trump will most likely lose interest in the active search for compromising evidence on Biden, although he is unlikely to give up this matter altogether. It will all depend on further confrontation between him and his opponents. The main danger for Trump after his re-election will be not so much the Democrats as such, but the political and social processes unfolding in the country, above all the Black Lives Matter campaign. The only thing that may get Trump interested in Ukraine is his ongoing confrontation with China. The United States is enthusiastically blocking the sale of Ukraine’s Motor Sich engine building corporation to the Chinese company Beijing Skyrizon Aviation.

The Americans see the deal as a security threat, since it would provide the Chinese with new aviation technologies. As for Motor Sich, the company has been forced to make a deal with the Chinese because of the loss of the market for its products and the breakdown of supply chains with Russia after 2014.

Blocking Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and attempts to disrupt energy cooperation between Russia and Europe (Nord Stream-2 “) is another factor that Trump and Kiev look eye to eye on, even though Kiev says that the continued transit of Russian gas across its territory is a guarantee of Ukraine’s European integration. Trump’s interest in Ukraine will depend on his pragmatic view of geopolitics and economics, as well as the political threats he may see coming from Kiev.

In an hours-long interview, President Zelensky’s former chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, thus described the system of relations existing between the United States and Ukraine: “In general, there are three tracks, three points of negotiations with the United States. The first is intelligence and security services. We are blind kittens here, really, and all our military capabilities, the capabilities of our special services are information that the international community shares with us. And besides the war, these are drugs, crimes, security. These are plans in general, analytics – we have no analytics. The second negotiating track is diplomatic service. [On this track, according to Bohdan, conversations begin and end with the fact that NABU (National Security Agency of Ukraine, headed by Artyom Sytnik) created on Washington’s orders, is an important and untouchable organization – D.B.] And our third negotiation track is financial organizations. ‘Give me the money.’”

Democrats and Republicans alike perceive Ukraine as a buffer zone between Russia and Europe, Russia and NATO. Ukraine will remain a platform for creating reasons for sanctions, justifying sanctions, an active participant in and an accomplice to sanctions processes. Obviously, the sanctions confrontation over Nord Stream-2 is just beginning, and Ukraine, as a party fearing the loss of transit, has long been calling for sanctions against this Russian-European project.

Any of the two contenders for the White House will talk about providing financial assistance to Ukraine, with Trump being more pragmatic, and Biden – more “rhetorical.” With Biden in power, the Ukrainian economy could be reduced to handouts.

The US will not go overboard with its interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs though, because this is a costly affair (Ukrainian oligarchs have enough money to conduct any political campaign of any scale. Why would Washington spend money if it can exert influence or clinch an agreement?) Lobbying the interests of private individuals or politicians that are to Washington’s liking is no problem – suffice it to recall the story of the Burisma Company that tarnished the reputation of the Biden family. Influencing the political landscape by persecuting politicians and oligarchs is also an option (recall the recent cases of tycoons like Dmytro Firtash and Ihor Kolomoyskyi).

President Zelenskiy and many other Ukrainian politicians, dependent on Washington, now face the daunting and, at the same time, important task of choosing the right course of action before the US elections. According to some Ukrainian observers, Zelensky made his choice after long hours of brainstorming with his trusted confidants. It looks like this: “No sudden movements [until November 2020 – D.B.], no progress in the investigation of the criminal case against Biden and his son Hunter, no Burisma and no Derkach tapes. We imitate a “stormy discourse” in the Minsk format, pretend to support the “Belarusian Maidan,” but we lie low and carefully compare the ratings of Trump and Biden.”

In a nutshell, Ukraine is seen by Washington as just a platform for serving America’s geopolitical interests, which is also being used for party-political and private interests. Will anything change for Ukraine depending on who wins the November 2020 US elections? My answer is no.

From our partner International Affairs

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Azerbaijan-Russia Ties Face Increasing Challenges

Emil Avdaliani

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Russia-Azerbaijan ties face increased challenges as Baku accused Moscow of purposefully stoking the conflict by providing arms to Armenia. It is notable that this rhetoric develops when Turkey is particularly vocal in its military support for Azerbaijan. Though it still remains to be seen whether these signs evolve into a concrete policy shift in Azerbaijan, hopes for diplomatic solution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict recede, and Turkey and Russia up their military support for Baku and Yerevan.

Azerbaijan-Russia relations face increasing challenges as the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus evolves. A series of events tested the bilateral ties and there is an increasing amount of evidence that some reconsideration of foreign policy on Azerbaijan’s part could be taking place. 

The first challenge was the July fighting on Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier, far from the actual source of conflict – Nagorno Karabakh. What could have been a relatively unnoticed confrontation, it drew international attention due to the geostrategic infrastructure which runs near the fighting zone in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region. Those are:

  • Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines, which deliver Caspian oil to the Black and the Mediterranean Seas;
  • South Caucasus natural gas pipeline, which will send Azerbaijani gas to the EU and plays a key component in Turkey’s emerging strategy of positioning itself as regional energy hub.

In addition, the region also has the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars (BTAK) railroad (unveiled in 2017) and rarely mentioned the fiber-optic cables linking Europe with Central Asia. The Tovuz corridor also has a crucial Azerbaijan-Georgia highway, which allows Azerbaijan to connect to the Black Sea.

Thus in July Azerbaijan faced a threat to its major income. Damage to the infrastructure would also diminish the country’s geopolitical weight as a safe source of oil and gas. While fighting in or around Nagorno Karabakh takes place occasionally and at times reaches a serious level, such as in 2016, it nevertheless fits into the overall narrative of more or less predictable military scenarios which military and political leaders in Baku would expect. The Tovuz fighting, on the other hand, goes against most military narratives and required Baku’s tougher reaction. This is how the ties with Russia, Armenia’s major economic and military ally, come under intense scrutiny in Baku.

It is has always been a long-term challenge for Azerbaijan. Baku occasionally expresses its concerns on Russia’s military support for Armenia, but the criticism has usually been aired though newspapers and media rather than by high-level political figures. This changed following the July fighting.

Reasons are multiple. First, Russia (using its 102rd military base in Gyumri) and Armenia launched snap combat drills on July 17-20, just as the fighting in Tovuz region was still unfolding. Second, a series of flights of Russian military cargo planes to Armenia took place right after the July fighting. 

In a notable change of tone the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev surprisingly publicly complained to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, stating that the recent reports on allegedly increasing Russian military support (400 tons of military hardware) for Armenia raise concerns and questions in Azerbaijani society. Perhaps as a reaction to growing bilateral differences, the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu visited Baku to assure the Azerbaijani public that the flights were not of a military nature, but rather transported materials for the 102nd military base.

However, the affair did not end there as a senior adviser to Aliyev, Hikmet Hajiyev, on August 29, following Shoigu’s visit, claimed that “the explanation by the Russian side is not entirely satisfactory.” This effectively meant publicly refuting the Russian defense minister’s statements, further aggravating differences between the two states.

A September 1 article by Nezavisimaya Gazeta claimed that Azerbaijan had readied 500 Syrian militants in preparation for a “blitzkrieg against Armenia” and that Turkey has its troops on Azerbaijani soil. Baku vehemently criticized the report calling it “slander and [a] dirty campaign against our country.” 

Yet another sign of troubled ties is the September 6th decision by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry opting out the Russia-led “Caucasus-2020” military drills (planned to be held in the southwest of Russia). Only two servicemen will be sent as observers. Though officially no concrete reasons for the withdrawal were given, it is possible to link the decision to Azerbaijan’s recent grievances at Russia.

Some larger reasons too might be at play motivating a change in Azerbaijan’s rhetoric. The Minsk Group, the body that aims to facilitate the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is faltering. No concrete way to resolve the stand-off is present and the July fighting has just showed that diplomatic tools are receding. A vacuum is being created for regional powers to fill in. This is how Turkey comes to play an increasingly larger role in Baku’s strategic calculus.

Indeed, as the July fighting unfolded Turkey has been especially supportive of Azerbaijan. For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted “Turkey will never hesitate to stand against any attack on the rights and lands of Azerbaijan, with which it has deep-rooted friendly ties and brotherly relations.” Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar even warned that Armenia will be “brought to account” for its “attack” on Azerbaijan. Then large Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises followed.

Turkey’s calculus here is clear as the country needs to defend the vital oil, gas and railway infrastructure coming from Azerbaijan. And considering how far has diplomacy receded around Nagorno Karabakh issue, Turkey and Russia are set to play an even larger military and economic role in the South Caucasus. For the moment open rivalry will be avoided, but for Moscow and Ankara the region represents yet another area of covert competition along with Syria and Libya.

However, casting Azerbaijan-Russia relations as deteriorating is not entirely correct. Intensive cooperation still exists between the states. Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jeyhun Bayramov, paid an official visit to Russia on August 26 at the invitation of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.

In late August-early September Azerbaijani servicemen participated in the “Tank Biathlon” and also won the Sea Cup competition – both held as part of the “International Army Games – 2020” organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

It is still hard to see whether Azerbaijan’s changing rhetoric towards Russia is more than just a temporary, tactical maneuver. It could be a clever diplomatic game Azerbaijan has always pursued since 1990s – namely, facing its larger neighbors against one another. Nevertheless, the rhetoric and recent political decision signal a search for reconsideration of some basic elements in Baku’s strategic vision. Turkey’s bigger role is likely to be sought more intensively, while hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict would further recede.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

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Putting People in Control of Their Land to Realize Ukraine’s Potential

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Land reform will allow Ukraine to capitalize on its economic potential and improve the lives of Ukrainian people – but a lot still needs to be done before a successful land market opening.

I have now had the privilege of being the World Bank’s Regional Director for Eastern Europe for a little over two months. Returning to Ukraine after almost twenty years, I have been impressed by many recent achievements on Ukraine’s reform path.  Many of these are complex, and consequential – creating an independent gas transmission system operator that is already helping safeguard Ukraine’s gas transit revenue; continuing, in the face of opposition and setbacks, to strengthen anti-corruption institutions; undertaking the difficult process of resolving non-performing loans in state-owned banks; and moving, amidst the unprecedented global pandemic, to protect pensioners and other poor and vulnerable Ukrainians.

Today, the immediate challenge Ukraine faces is the COVID-19 pandemic – first to immediately reduce both the mounting toll on health and lives, and then to rebuild livelihoods and incomes. But what reforms are most needed to restore and even improve incomes for the average Ukrainian in the aftermath of the epidemic?

There are many that are required. But for me, the greatest promise is offered by the set of measures around agricultural land reform. Here again, much has been accomplished, most notably when, this past March , the Rada voted to end the nearly two-decade old moratorium on the sale of farm-land. This was a critical first step to unlocking Ukraine’s greatest source of growth. But it is not enough. The next and necessary step is to advance fundamental measures around the governance of land – to allow ordinary people and local governments to benefit from their land without intimidation, bureaucratic interference or corruption.

Land reform that truly allows owners and users to take control of their land can be transformative. By World Bank calculations, for Ukraine as a whole, this can permanently add almost one percentage point a year to economic growth. For landowners currently leasing out their land, this could provide up to  $3 billion every year. For rural residents and small farmers, this can create some  $24 billion of collateralizable assets that allow them to invest in irrigation, horticulture or non-agricultural small enterprises. And for local communities and local governments, this can provide an income stream of up to  $2 billion annually to better the lives of Ukrainians.

The Ukrainian authorities have already made enormous strides in this direction by passing a package of legislation that reduces raider attacks and land-related schemes, makes land data publicly accessible, and allows local communities to plan land use.

But there is much more legislation around land governance that is needed to ensure all the benefits of land reform for every Ukrainian. And just passing the laws is not enough – once that is done, there is the need to draft implementing regulations, to set up institutions to administer these regulations, and to actually implement measures.

Moreover, for improved land governance to lead to more investment, and thus income, it is especially important that Ukrainian landowners or land users be aware of their rights and how to exercise them, and have these rights protected. This is particularly true for small and medium farmers. They must be able to have any actual or attempted violations of their rights redressed quickly. Farmers and other private participants must know how to use land as collateral to access credit. Banks and other financial institutions must be able to professionally assess the value of the collateral and have the incentives to lend to smaller borrowers. Once relevant laws and regulations are in place, there is thus a need for a broad-based legal awareness and a financial literacy campaign.

All of this takes time – and time is running out.

By the most conservative estimates, the needed regulations, institutions and implementation could take at least nine months. The land market opens on 1 July 2021. So, it is essential to pass the appropriate laws by the end of September, at the very latest.

If this deadline is missed because of entirely avoidable delays, there is a real risk that on the date the land market opens, Ukraine will miss this golden chance. Even more, there is the danger that opening the land market in the absence of these strong legal and regulatory safeguards will result in an echo of the 1990s privatization – leaving the market vulnerable to the powerful and well connected and actually worsening land-related corruption and inequality.

Together with our partners, the World Bank has long advocated land reform as a key for Ukraine to develop the productive potential of its abundant land resources. We see this as central to revitalizing the incomes of average Ukrainians, especially in rural areas.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unlock the sector’s growth potential through investment in high value-added crops and agri-processing and, most important, to transform the welfare of millions of Ukrainians. Ukrainian parliamentarians and policymakers have to ensure that we do not miss it.

World Bank The article was first published in Ukrainska Pravda

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