While very few Americans (and Western Europeans for that matter) would be hard pressed to successfully locate the Republic of Abkhazia on a map (it’s the northwest corner sandwiched in between the Russian Federation and Georgia, its western shores lapped by the Black Sea), even fewer (de facto, no one) would be able to tell you that for the last month a very curious and potentially tense international situation has been brewing there over the holding of presidential elections. There has already been plenty of local and regional coverage over just how the first two rounds have gone for President of Abkhazia. In short, no one won a commanding victory in the first round, which automatically triggered a second round run-off between incumbent local leader Raul Khajimba and head of the opposition party, Alkhaz Kvitsiniya. In that second round, which just took place last week, Raul Khajimba was declared the winner in an extremely close race (39,793 votes for Khajimba vs. 38,766 for Kvitsiniya). Kvitsiniya has subsequently spent the past week declaring the illegitimacy of the election, even going so far as to take the decision to court with the Central Electoral Commission, which reviewed the complaint and ultimately decided unanimously to uphold election results. Kvitsiniya is still hoping to garner enough local, regional, and international support to nullify the elections, claiming illegitimacy basically on two principles:
Khajimba did not garner a 50% majority share of the votes in the second round run-off (his percentage was 47.39%).
The overall amount of ‘against all’ in the election was 3,155. This amount, combined with the amount of votes received by Kvitsiniya, exceeds the amount tallied by the declared winner and thus it is illegitimate that Khajimba should be President.
There are two immediate problems at the local level with this logic. Firstly, there does not seem to be a provision in Abkhazian electoral legal documents that demands a second round run-off winner has to receive more than 50% of the votes cast. It seems as if people who favor Kvitsiniya are taking the first round rules (in which any candidate that received more than 50% of the overall vote would have automatically won the presidency and no second round run-off would be necessary) and applying them arbitrarily to the second round. But again, it is not clear that Abkhazian electoral law stipulates this and there is some documentary evidence to show the opposite is true: in the second round, you simply need to win a simple majority against the main opponent. Secondly, the idea of combining the losing candidate’s votes together with the ‘against all’ tally is simply absurd and ludicrous. Those in support of Kvitsiniya seem to be very conveniently arguing that a vote ‘against all’ is obviously a vote against Khajimba. Even more conveniently, they are also forgetting that a vote ‘against all’ is without doubt a vote against Kvitsiniya as well. So, the idea that his supporters have an exclusive right to take the ‘against all’ vote for their own favor is ridiculous. After all, if you add the ‘against all’ votes on the same principle and give them to Khajimba, his overall total now becomes 42,948, which is actually 52.55% of the overall vote, which would make null and void Kvitsiniya’s first complaint of illegitimacy. Not surprisingly, supporters of Kvitsiniya strive to keep these numbers out of the media.
The idea of local elections, even at the ‘presidential’ level, across areas of the former Soviet Union being hotly contested, with claims of corruption, chicanery, and unfair double-dealing, is not exactly surprising. This type of controversy has happened all over the Post-Soviet space since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. And there are plenty of extremely talented political analysts and electoral observers all over Russia and Georgia fully capable of covering this race. The race itself does not explain why I am so interested suddenly in Abkhazian affairs. What intrigues me most is how much foreign affairs, Russian-American relations, and global power competition are embedded within these elections while Western observers try to claim innocence and pretend that the current tense state between Russia and America does not play a role. Note that at the very beginning of this article I mentioned the declared winner of the Abkhazian Presidency was the local leader Khajimba. Most western media outlets are using the term ‘separatist’ to describe him but conveniently NOT explaining what this ‘separatism’ means. Khajimba is a local resident of Abkhazia who in the past has been a member of Parliament in Georgia and has previously participated in presdiential elections in Abkhazia in 2004, 2009, 2011, and 2014. This was all before there was ever any formal conflict or tension with Georgia and Russia. Khajimba simply believes the best future fate of his native region lies with more sovereignty and independent governance for Abkhazia by Abkhazia. For him the issue is not about whether Russia or Georgia should control Abkhazia at all. He has even put in his own case in court to push for this, but through the proper legal process and with respect to the rule of law. It has been the opposition opponent and his group that have tried to block, postpone, and delay this court petition, subverting the rule of law de facto. This subtlety is missed in the West and instead Khajimba is painted with the broad and negative brush, ‘separatist.’ That record should be corrected.
So when more than a dozen western countries come out against not just the election results but actually against the very holding of elections at all (calling them a ‘sham’ and ‘fake’), it is not so much about legal precedents as it is about America fearing the Russian bogeyman, seeing Abkhazia destined to go the way of Crimea – back into the territorial fold of the Russian Federation – regardless that Khajimba has never uttered any desire for that to happen. Russian readers can be forgiven if they do not know that since Crimea rejoined the Russian Federation, every single western media outlet, bar none, has addressed that event as the ‘annexation’ of Crimea. To date, I am the only Western scholar I know on record as using the term ‘secession’ instead. What’s in a word? Quite a bit, actually. The use of the term ‘annexation’ implies forced compliance and non-voluntary action. ‘Secession’, on the other hand, means the opposite. Since Western analysis of Russia today is incredibly biased in portraying Russian interests as always heavy-handed and manipulative, Crimea will always be ‘stolen’ rather than a willful vote of the majority of the local population to decide their own future political status. Abkhazia, to me, is very much in a similar position with the election of Khajimba as President. Perhaps more cynically, it is highly doubtful the United States really cares so intensely about the ‘territorial integrity’ of Georgia. It is also highly doubtful that it truly believes hard data and factual evidence shows that Abkhazia would be better off under Georgian rule rather than under its own management.
The only real reason the United States voices such staunch opposition is simply because it is an American cardinal interest to keep Russian dominance within its own regional neighborhood tamed. At the time, many in the West warned that Crimea was going to be a ‘stepping stone’ to Russia taking over other parts of Eastern Ukraine, and then Poland, and after that the Baltics. Of course, none of that has even come close to happening, with Russia not really showing that much interest in causing so much regional disruption. Not surprisingly, no one in the West has recanted those dire predictions and or admitted to being wrong about declaring the ‘rebirth of a violent new Russian empire.’ So people should be forgiven if they are not willing to listen now to similar American claims about how allowing Abkhazia to become closer in diplomatic and economic terms with Russia will signal a new cascade of annexations, where soon enough there will be no more Caucasus at all but a new Russian empire in its place. The American boy who cried about the Russian power wolf. Again.
The greater philosophical questions worth debating deal with power. Who has the right to secede? Who does not? What reasons are legitimate to change territorial allegiance or membership status in a given country? What reasons are illegitimate? Should such considerations be a strictly local issue, based on the true and fair political will of the local people expressed through elections? Or are these considerations at the mercy of greater international powers, rendering regions like Abkhazia nothing but pawns in a greater chess game taking place on the international stage? It is beyond the scope of this article to answer those questions. But this article does warn all readers from believing anyone who would give easy and trite answers to such complex, profoundly problematic questions, with Russia always conveniently being placed in the role of villain.
Latvia risks to turn to a ghost state
Latvia 2020 population was estimated at 1,886,198 people at mid year according to UN data.
At the beginning of 2022 population of Latvia accounted for 1 million 876 thousand people, which is 17.5 thousand people fewer than a year ago.
The current population of Latvia is 1,826,608 as of May 17, 2023, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data.
For many years Latvia has suffered from a so-called “brain drain”, a phenomena when young highly trained and qualified people emigrate from the country. Since Latvia became a member of European Union and Schengen Area and when working in other countries became especially easy, the human capital flight from the country has intensified and reached high figures, when Latvia lost many residents due to emigration.
The number of young people continues to has decline sharply. At the beginning of 2022, there were 234,500 boys and girls aged 13 to 25 living in the country. This is 12.5% of all residents. Behind the reduction of this group is not only a decrease in the birth rate, falling living standards but also emigration. The young and talented people prefer not to stay here.
One new reason for youth to leave the country has appeared this year. Latvia reintroduces compulsory military service. The decision was made by the country’s parliament on April 5. Latvia has not had compulsory military service since 2007 when it was abolished.
From 2024 onward, the number of conscripts will increase. The plan is to call up 7,500 Latvians every year, starting in 2028. This will increase the size of the army from over 22,000 soldiers to 50,000, including territorial defense and reserves.
The Baltic nation feels threatened due to the war in Ukraine. But, new public surveys show that many young men are not convinced that compulsory military service is the right reaction. Only a small share of people back compulsory military service.
Young men are known for their rebellious ways. So, it’s hardly surprising that the Latvian government’s recent decision to reintroduce compulsory military service has not gone down particularly well with them.
Far fewer people wanted to become professional soldiers. There have not been any national opinion polls conducted on the topic recently. But a study in May 2022 found that more than 40% of Latvians opposed it. According to Maris Andzans, a professor at Riga Stradins University, who wrote in a February briefing for the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, support was lower among younger respondents, with only 34% in the 18-24 age group supportive of the idea.
In Latvia, there is also another segment of the population that doesn’t like the idea of military service. Some members of the country’s Russian-speaking minority are skeptical about what they perceive as the country’s pro-Western course. Russian-speakers make up about a quarter of Latvia’s 1.9 million-strong population. Joining the Latvian army to “fight against your own people” is not something they wanted to do. So many are planning to leave. So, a phenomena of “men drain” when young highly trained and qualified people emigrate from the country because of unwillingness to serve.
Russia and Georgia Working Towards Improving Bilateral Relations
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest decree to review the visa regime for Georgian citizens and relaunching Tbilisi-Moscow flights between the two capitals starting May 15, has sparked antagonism among members of the European Union. Putin signed the decree waiving the visa requirement for Georgian citizens. In another decree, the president canceled the ban for Russian air carriers to perform flights to Georgia and on selling tours to the country.
According to the document, “from May 15, 2023, citizens of Georgia may enter the Russian Federation and leave the Russian Federation without visas, on the basis of valid identity documents.” In addition, a decree was issued to lift restrictions on flights to Georgia, which have been in force since July 2019.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili branded these decisions as provocative, while Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili said that he welcomed the visa-free travel and direct flights. Russia introduced visas for Georgians in 2000. Georgia waived the visa requirement for Russians in 2012.
According to several media reports, the United States and the European Union have warned Tbilisi about the risks of sanctions in the event of the resumption of air traffic with Russia. Both Russia and Georgia have had cross-haired relations down the years. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were severed by Tbilisi in 2008 after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia, like any other former Soviet republics, to some extent have reservations on their political relations with Russia. In a number of post-Soviet republics prefer dealing with the United States and the European Union. Russian authorities are aware of these facts and trends, while policies are still considered or seen as hard and dominating.
Addressing the third Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club on May 16, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin said that some Central Asian countries and the former Soviet republics are showing little appetite for risk and, there also signs that may join sanctions against Russia.
However, he warned that any artificial severance of ties with Russia may cause more damage than the costs of any secondary sanctions. The senior Russian diplomat emphasized that Russia is seeking to consistently intensify its strategic partnership with these countries across the region. With with the bulk of them experiencing economic transformations, more foreign investments are trickling in from the United States and European.
Despite that, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili expressed hope that European partners would understand the importance of the decision to carry on trading with Russia because trade is among the broad interest of and the proximity as a factor for Georgia.
Georgian Airways launches its Tbilisi-Moscow flights starting May 20, the Civil Aviation Agency has already issued a permit to Georgian Airways for flights, to be operated seven times a week, to Russia.
The Russian Transport Ministry said that after the restrictions are lifted, Russian airlines will also fly between Moscow and Tbilisi 7 times a week using domestic aircraft. Red Wings, whose fleet is comprised mainly of Russian SSJ100s, quickly announced they were ready to start flights to Georgia if they could receive the necessary permits. Three Russian airlines have applied for direct regular flights to three Georgian airports including Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi.
Restoring flights between Georgia and Russia in 2023 could bring $300 to $400 million in additional revenue for the Georgian tourism sector, Georgian Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili said at a briefing after a government meeting held May 15.
Davitashvili noted the successes achieved in the tourism sector in the post-pandemic period and expressed hope that this year the flow of travelers from Russia will increase even more, as well as from other countries, in particular from neighboring Azerbaijan.
The Deputy Prime Minister stressed that it would not be “pragmatic” to turn down direct flights between Russia and Georgia. That the country’s population would positively assess the efforts that the authorities are making to improve the country’s economy. At the same time, Davitashvili stressed that the country’s course towards joining the European Union remains unchanged.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s relations with former Soviet republics has remarkable difficulties due to several factors. Georgia, like all the former Soviet republics, has its political sentiments, viewpoints and approach towards Russia, which mounted ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine since February 2022, and has currently come under a series of stringent sanctions.
Russia, Ukraine to receive African Delegation for Potential Peace Plan
Local Russian and foreign media awash with the latest potential peace efforts, this time, from African leaders. Presumably this group of peace-makers, headed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, will demonstrate collective efforts at resolving the heightened political differences between Russia and its neighbouring Ukraine.
According official sources monitored by this author, the peace plan is backed by African leaders of Senegal, Uganda, Egypt, the Republic of the Congo and Zambia. Four of those six African countries – South Africa, Congo, Senegal and Uganda – abstained from a U.N. vote last year on condemning Russia’s invasion. Zambia and Egypt voted in favour of the motion.
Zambia has historical ties with Russia. Uganda is a U.S. ally on regional security in East Africa, but Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has spoken of his country’s friendship with Russia and its neutral position in the war in Ukraine. Previously, the African Union, regional economic organizations have officially called for the adoption of diplomacy mechanisms and negotiations through which to end the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
Last year in March, Senegalese President Macky Sall and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, held discussions on the main aspects of the special military operation and on the importance of humanitarian issues and suggested ending the conflict through diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a phone conversation May 12, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Putin supported his idea of several African leaders participating in the Ukrainian settlement. The South African leader pointed out that the Ukrainian crisis negatively impacts Africa because it triggered growing food and fuel prices. “A group of African heads of states took the view that Africa does need to put forward an initiative, a peace initiative, that could help to contribute to the solution of that conflict,” he added, according to report by Singapore’s CABC radio station.
Ramaphosa said he spoke with Putin and Zelenskyy by phone over the weekend and they each agreed to host “an African leaders peace mission” in Moscow and Kyiv, respectively. “Principal to our discussions are efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the devastating conflict in the Ukraine,” Ramaphosa was quoted in media reports.
According to Russian media, a group of African countries is in the process of coordinating the terms and timeframes of its visit to Moscow and Kiev in order to lay out their Ukrainian reconciliation initiative. It said further that “the modalities of the trip are being worked on with both countries. It’s a group of African Heads of State.”
It said the governments of Russia and Ukraine had agreed to receive an African delegation, whose goal is to find a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian conflict. Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zelenskyy have given their consent to receive the African delegation in Moscow and Kiev.
Details of the plan have not been publicly released, although Ukraine’s stated position for any peace deal is that all Russian troops must withdraw from its territory. But Ramaphosa said the United States and Britain had expressed “cautious” support for the plan and the U.N. Secretary General had also been briefed about the initiative.
Considered one of Moscow’s closest allies on the continent, South Africa says it is impartial and has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions on the war. Last week, it rejected claims by U.S. ambassador to South Africa that weapons were loaded onto a Russian vessel from a naval base in Cape Town in December. Reports said Ramaphosa had opened an inquiry into the allegation.
South Africa is preparing to attend the next Russia-Africa Summit in July 2023 in St. Petersburg. In August, it will host the next BRICS gathering in Durban. The BRICS group of nations are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. With BRICS as an example, China has attempted playing a crucial role in the conflict resolution between Russia and Ukraine.
China has been, so far, offering to mediate possible peace talks, an offer clouded by its show of political support for Moscow. Beijing released a proposed peace plan in February, and a Chinese envoy is preparing to visit Russia and Ukraine. But there appeared to be little chance of an imminent breakthrough to end the war since Ukraine and its Western allies largely dismissed the Beijing’s proposal.
The Kremlin wants Kyiv to acknowledge Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, which most nations have denounced as illegal. Ukraine has rejected the demands and ruled out any talks with Russia until its troops pull back from all occupied territories. Ukraine is determined to recover all Russian-occupied areas.
Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan also includes a tribunal to prosecute crimes of aggression, which would enable Russia to be held accountable for its invasion. Zelenskyy had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 14, later saying he sought support for Ukraine’s peace plan from the pontiff.
As a new world is awakening to the worsening situation, it is necessary that all countries must be guided by the principles of non-interference, respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Due to its ‘special military operation’ that it started in February 2022, Russia is currently experiencing a raft of sanctions imposed by the United States and Canada, European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and a host of other countries.
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