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Transport corridors in Eurasia: All roads lead to Russia

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At the end of September, the EU and Japan signed an agreement designed to add a new dimension to these two global economic powerhouses’ joint effort in the field of transport, energy and digital technology. This expansion of ties between the Old World and Japan is seen by Western media as a counterweight to, and even a pushback against China’s One Belt, One Road mega-project. What are the prospects of various projects dealing with the ongoing competition between transport corridors in Eurasia?

The EU-Japan rapprochement itself is symptomatic and by no means accidental. The efforts that the United States has been bending the past 2-3 years to unravel the existing international system, which in the course of the past decades has brought political and economic dividends primarily to the world’s most developed countries have intensified with the US also becoming increasingly self-serving, openly ignoring and even harming the interests of its nominal allies. As a result, the leading countries of Europe and Asia increasingly feel the need to strengthen the “global, multilateral order” that can solve problems that no country can solve on its own, from climate change to free trade  themselves, without the US. 

Economic integration in Eurasia is just one such area. According to many leading German media outlets, “an expansion of the Eurasian trade zone bypassing the US-controlled shipping lanes spells a disaster” for America.  To fend off this threat, Washington relies entirely on sub-regional projects, preferably under its own patronage. In the mid-2010s, the United States unveiled its conceptual vision of a future for the Asia-Pacific region, namely – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the New Silk Road initiative for Central Asia. In Europe, the US plans are primarily of a military- strategic nature, assigning for NATO the role of a re-integrator of the European continent in the event of an EU collapse. Simultaneously, the Trump administration persist with its attempts to drive a wedge between the EU’s western and eastern members by backing initiatives proposed by a number of Central-East European countries, and encouraging the development of local transport corridors and trade communities, leaning on the United States, instead of Europe, let alone Eurasia.

Meanwhile, European experts have been discussing the prospect of the EU leading the camp of supporters of maintaining liberal international trade standards as one of the best strategies for Brussels to go for. A similar view has been gaining traction also in Japan, which is increasingly suspicious of Trump’s “crude protectionism” and arm-twisting in trade negotiations. And, adding to all this, are Washington’s new demands for increasing the cost of maintaining American troops. After the United States withdrew from negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan was one of the main proponents of keeping the talks going. No longer instrumental in the US efforts to “contain China,” a new-look TPP is able to more flexibly build its relations with the world’s second biggest economy, all the more so since China is viewed by almost all TPP participants as a key trading partner. Moreover, Japan is actively working on the implementation of the 15-sided free trade agreement in Asia and the Pacific, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), to cover half of the global economy, and where the US does not participate, while China does.

As part of this policy, the EU and Japan announced in July that they were setting up a free trade zone between them. And now, they have also signed an infrastructure deal to coordinate transport, energy and digital projects linking Europe and Asia. According to the leaders of Japan and the EU, this is about building up ties between the Indo-Pacific region and the Western Balkans and Africa, as well as setting up a sea route, “leading to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.” However, infrastructure projects should not “create huge debts” and depend on “one country.”

But is the new Japanese-European “corridor” capable of becoming efficient without promoting partnership relations with other countries?

There exist various projects of economic integration in Eurasia – both between individual regions and those covering all or most of the regional states. Integration projects, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Customs Union promoted by the Russian Federation are actively developing, both politically and economically. China relies on the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), which officially embraces most of the countries of Asia and Europe. Japan, for its part, has come up with a comprehensive strategy of Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In terms of the development of transcontinental transport corridors, Russia is in a favorable position. However, its transit potential for the development of trade between Europe and Asia is currently used at less than five percent of its capacity. Meanwhile, a sizeable share of infrastructure facilities in Eurasia (railways and highways) is oriented to Russia and which, according to RBC, can twice shorten the time of cargo traffic between Asia and Europe. In addition, Russia’s geographical position provides unique opportunities for optimizing existing transport corridors and creating new ones, in both meridional and latitudinal directions. And also for creating temporary and permanent corridors through a combination of rail, road and sea transport infrastructure. “The most promising transport corridors are the Northern Sea Route, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the North-South Corridor.”

Most recently, the Russian authorities finally approved plans for building a highway connecting China with Europe and running across Kazakhstan and Belarus. It is planned that hundreds of millions of rubles invested in this project within the next six years will help modernize and expand the transport routes that run through the territory of Russia and a significant part of the former Soviet Union, including the Arctic region. The highway will prove the viability of a project to successfully pair the Eurasian integration formats promoted by Moscow and Beijing with Russia’s national transport infrastructure modernization project. At the end of October, the head of Russian Railways, Oleg Belozerov, confirmed many leading German companies’ interest in participating in the construction of the St. Petersburg – Moscow – Nizhny Novgorod high-speed railway. Road and rail corridors can become the most cost-effective way of cargo shipment across Eurasia, replacing air transport, and in many cases, existing sea routes. According to the German newspaper Heise, Russia could  become the center of the “Eurasian economic space stretching from Portugal to China” and consolidate it, “which can lead to a redistribution of power and to the isolation… of America.”

Another promising long-term strategic project is the 7,200 km North-South International Transport Corridor (INSTC) to combine road and rail routes.

“It will connect the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with the Caspian Sea through Iran, with subsequent access to Northern Europe via Russia.” At the end of 2018, it became known that Russia had released the first tranches of a credit line to finance INSTC. When speaking at the First Caspian Economic Forum in Turkmenistan, held in August, 2019, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called INSTC “a promising area” that reduces by 2.5-fold the time of cargo delivery “from Europe via the Caspian to the Near and Middle East and further on to South Asia and back.” Russia’s long-term partnership with India, (which is the world’s fifth economy), and also with Iran and Azerbaijan, will play an important role here.

On the latitudinal plane, Russia offers potential partners a project for the development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). In the medium- and long-term period, commercial shipping along the NSR looks more and more attractive, because in some cases northern routes are between 1.5 and 2 times shorter than the main ones. The Chinese are already well aware of this, as they are promoting the concept of connecting the Polar Silk Road, which is designed to provide the People’s Republic with natural resources and alternative shipping routes for export, which, by 2020 will account for 5 to 15 percent of the country’s foreign trade volume, with the Russian NSR. Chinese investors have bought into a number of large industrial and infrastructure projects implemented by Russia beyond the Arctic Circle, including Yamal-LNG. According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “China’s ambitions in the region do not seem to clash with Moscow’s yet.”

Moscow and Beijing are working out the experience of their strategic cooperation primarily when it comes to the economic convergence of the EAEU and the SREB. In June 2018, the two sides completed the Joint Feasible Studies on Completing the Eurasian Economic Partnership Agreement, which envisages liberalization of trade in services and investments, cooperation in the field of electronic commerce, in matters of competition, protection of intellectual property, etc. It is proposed to open the Agreement to all interested states. On October 25, 2019, the Agreement on trade and economic cooperation between the EAEU and the PRC entered into force. Speaking at the plenary session of the 11th investment forum “Russia is Calling!” on November 20 of this year, President Vladimir Putin noted that Moscow and Beijing were working to establish a free trade zone (FTA).

As noted by the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, this is not just about the integration of transport routes. “The goal is to link production and markets at every stage,” as well as creating an “institutional base” in combination with modernization of infrastructure and development of production “within its framework”. So, the planned construction of a high-speed fiber-optic communication line between Helsinki and Tokyo, which is being handled by the Russian PJSC Megafon and the Finnish Cinia Oy Company, would serve as an example of the digital integration of Europe and Asia.  Megafon’s Strategy and Business Development Director Alexander Sobolev noted that “the Russian Arctic offers the shortest physically possible route between Northern Europe and Asia.”

Russia is ready to expand ties with the European Union in other areas too. Indeed, President Putin came up with a long-term plan to create a Russia-EU free trade zone as early as in 2010. Russia continues to propose moving from competition between projects of “European and Eurasian integration” to their integration. To fully participate in Eurasian integration, the EU first needs to figure out the role it is going to play amid the current erosion of transatlantic relations. And secondly, how it intends to confront the growing threat of internal division. As for Russia, in spring 2019, it reiterated through its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov its sustained interest in seeing the EU member-states join the Comprehensive Eurasian Partnership.

As we all know from history, the logic of developing mutually beneficial economic ties can help overcome the most deep-seated political and diplomatic contradictions. In the case of Eurasia, it looks like the processes of expanding trade and other economic relations are able to smooth over many geopolitical differences, and even completely resolve some of the existing political conflicts. At the same time, attempts to ignore Russia, or to minimize its role in continental integration, are extremely counterproductive.

From our partner International Affairs

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On international relations, the public is clueless, democracy fails

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Nothing is more important to the people in any nation than international relations, because that includes national security, peace and war, and also includes the nation’s economy, which depends heavily on foreign trade. 

Take, for example, the big issue in Finland and Sweden, the decision whether or not to join America’s NATO anti-Russian military alliance. To join that alliance would cause Russia to target the country as being an enemy nation if there is to be a war between America and Russia — which now seems increasingly likely. These nations weren’t targeted by Russia in the past (neither Finland nor Sweden is), because they weren’t Russia’s enemies in post-WW-II times. So: joining NATO would create an enormous and entirely new national-security threat to the people there. But, apparently, they either don’t know this; or, if they do, then they don’t think it’s important; and, so, it doesn’t affect their opinions on whether or not to join NATO — which their leaders are now determined to do. Apparently, Finns and Swedes are being led into this monumental decision on the basis of ignorance, if not of inattention, to the issue of the potentially grave threat to their national-security that might be entailed by their joining NATO. 

To judge from what is being reported in the press, public opinion on the matter, in both countries, ignores the issue of whether being targeted as an enemy, by Russia, even factors, at all, in their opinions, on whether or not their country ought to join.

Turkey’s AA News agency headlined, on May 23rd, “Swedish public … have mixed thoughts about country’s NATO membership bid”. None of the respondents volunteered that concern (about whether becoming an enemy of Russia might reduce, instead of increase, their nation’s safety and security) when asked “how they feel about the sudden urge of their country to become a NATO member.” The closest answer which was volunteered to that was “if you poke the Russian bear too much, it might react because Putin has totally no regard for any laws of war”; but no preference, one way or the other, was cited from that individual.

Alleged experts on the subject were similarly ignoring the issue. On May 13th, France 24 News bannered “In Sweden, misgivings over rushed debate to join NATO”, and reported that, 

“It’s not Sweden deciding the timeline, it’s Finland, because they share a 1,300-km border with Russia”, said Anders Lindberg, political editorialist at Aftonbladet, an independent social democratic daily.

Sweden is otherwise more accustomed to lengthy government-commissioned inquiries on major issues, aimed at fostering debate and building consensus so that decisions are broadly anchored in society.

In contrast, a security review on the pros and cons of NATO membership prepared by the parties in parliament was pulled together in just a few weeks.

The rapid U-turn is also remarkable given that the country “has built its identity on its neutrality and military non-alignment,” Lindberg added.

Support for NATO membership has soared in both Finland and Sweden since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But while a record 76 percent of Finns are in favour of joining NATO, Swedish public opinion is more divided, with recent polls indicating that between 50 and 60 percent back the idea.

On April 20th, Reuters headlined “Growing majority of Swedes back joining NATO, opinion poll shows”, and reported 

 A growing majority of Swedes are in favour of joining NATO, a poll showed on Wednesday, as policy-makers in both Sweden and Finland weigh up whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should lead to an end to decades of military neutrality.

The poll by Demoskop and commissioned by the Aftonbladet newspaper showed 57% of Swedes now favoured NATO membership, up from 51% in March. Those opposed to joining fell to 21% from 24%, while those who were undecided dipped to 22% from 25%.

The March poll was the first to show a majority of Swedes in favour of joining NATO.

Sweden has not been at war since the time of Napoleon and has built its security policy on “non-participation in military alliances”.

But like Finland, the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a “special military operation”, has forced a radical rethink. Both countries are now seen as highly likely to join the 30-nation alliance.

The article didn’t even mention the issue of whether becoming targeted by Russia’s missiles might possibly endanger Swedes far more than protect them by NATO.

On March 23rd, Business Insider headlined “Finland’s people now strongly back joining NATO, poll says, a massive political shift that would enrage Russia”, and reported: “A survey of people in Finland found that a majority wanted the country to join NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine. The survey by the Finnish Business and Policy Forum Eva think tank found that 60% of people supported Finland joining NATO, a massive jump from previous years.” It closed:

Ilkka Haavisto, the research manager at Eva, said of the results: “Russia has shown that it does not respect the integrity of its neighbors. “The war in Ukraine has concretely shown what the horrors of a defensive war on Finland’s own territory would be and made it clear that NATO countries cannot use their military forces to help defend a nonaligned country.”

No mention was made that joining NATO would cause Finns to become targets of Russia’s missiles, perhaps even of nuclear missiles. 

On May 9th, The Defense Post bannered “Overwhelming Support for NATO Bid Among Finns: Poll”, and reported “Around 76 percent of Finns now want the country to join NATO, up from 60 percent in March, according to the poll commissioned by broadcaster YLE and conducted by research firm Taloustutkimus.” The same day, YLE headlined “Yle poll: Support for Nato membership soars to 76%”, and reported that, “Backing for membership in Yle polls has grown from 53 percent in February to 62 percent in March and 76 percent in May. Before the Russian attack on Ukraine, a majority of Finns had long opposed membership.” No mention was made there, either, regarding Finns’ possible thoughts on whether becoming targeted by Russia as being an enemy-nation might possibly create massive new danger for Finns, vastly more than any possible increase in Finland’s national security might result from joining Russia’s enemies.

Also, none of the alleged news-reports mentioned that, when Russia, on February 24th, invaded Ukraine, it was the result of a war which actually had started eight years ago in February 2014, when the U.S. perpetrated a bloody coup disguised as a ‘revolution’, that replaced Ukraine’s neutralist government, by a rabidly anti-Russian government, which then promptly started a civil war against Russian-speaking Ukrainians, especially in Ukraine’s far east and south. Neither Sweden nor Finland is in anything like that situation regarding Russia — at least not yet.

How can democracy work if the public are in the dark, and are being kept in the dark? And are satisfied to remain in the dark? When their government is taking them to war? Maybe even rushing them into a war? Maybe into WW III? Is this really democracy? Who profits from whatever it is? If this is true in Finland and Sweden, then is it true in every country? Is there any way to change it — to produce a democracy that cannot be manipulated so that it is functioning against the most important interests not only of foreign publics, but of its own public? Does anybody even discuss these problems? Why not?

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Is European humanity skin deep?

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At the border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova at Palanca, refugees stand in line. © UNICEF/Vincent Tremeau

When talking about security the most common line of thought tends to be war and the actors involved in the attack, however, all the people who had regular lives within those territories that are jeopardized are as important. With the increasing tensions and armed conflicts happening within the Twenty First Century, the movement of people searching for shelter has increased. More asylum seekers leave their home countries every single day and contemporary politics is still struggling to find a way to catch up. Europe, history wise, is the zone of the world that deals with more refugees wanting to enter the continent due to different factors: geography, proximity, democratic systems, level of development and more. Nevertheless, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, true sentiments towards refugees are now being put on display.

Even though all refugees are fleeing their countries because their lives are in mortal danger, authorities and government officials do not seem to care. Processes to apply for the refugee status are getting harder and harder. In Europe, to apply for a refugee passport, people are asked for identifications, online questionaries and many other unrealistic aspects that if not answered correctly, the whole process is cancelled. It is ridiculous to believe that when people are scaping in order to stay alive, they will take under consideration all these requirements to receive help, sometimes even from neighboring countries. Which inevitably leads to the following question: why are refugees accepted based on the legality of their applications and not of their status?

By 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees reached European shores, which caused the so called refugee crisis. They came mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq: countries torn apart by armed conflicts. Similarly, with Russia’s invasion over the Ukraine in 2022, only few days deep within the fighting,  874,000 people had to flee their homes. Nonetheless, the issue seems to be that, for Europe, not all refugees are the same. When the refugee crisis in 2015 was declared, the European Union called for stopping and detaining all arriving refugees for around 18 months. There was a strong reluctancy from Europeans towards offering them shelter. On the contrary, countries such as Poland and Slovakia have said that Ukrainian refugees fleeing will be accepted without passports, or any valid travel documents due to the urgency of the situation. Therefore, stating with their actions, that Ukrainian refugees are more valuable or seem to be more worthy of help than refugees from Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.

Correspondingly, it is true that not all countries inside Europe deal and act the same way towards refugees, be that as it may, with the current refugee crisis it has been proved that they all share strong sentiments of xenophobia and racism. For instance, Hungary is a country that refused to admit refugees coming from outside Europe since 2015. In 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orban described non-European refugees as “Muslim invaders” and “poison” to society, in comparison with Ukrainian refugees who are being welcomed without hesitation. In the same way, Jarosław Kaczyński, who served as Prime Minister of Poland and is the leader of the Law and Justice party, in 2017 said that accepting asylum seekers from Syria would be dangerous and would “completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country”. Furthermore, Germany in 2015 with Chancellor Angela Merkel in charged said that they would accept one million of Syrians. Although, as time passed, Europe’s solution was to make a deal with Turkey, who is not part of the European Union, to close the migrant route. Moreover, the promise of letting refugees integrate into German society was not fulfilled since. Seven year later, an impressive amount of refugees are still in camps and centers, with their lives frozen in time. Sadly, most European governments gambled towards the idea of sending them back once the armed conflict was over, without caring for the aftermath of war’s destruction.

The common narrative until now pushed by leaders, politicians, and mass media has been that Ukrainians are prosperous, civilized, middle class working people, but refugees coming from the Middle East are terrorists, and refuges from Africa are simply too different. Despite, refugees are all people who share similar emotions and struggle to grasp the fact that their lives may never be the same; having lost their homes, friends, family and so much more. Plus, being selectively welcomed based on their religion, skin color or nationality by the continent which’s complete rhetoric is universal rights, just adds another complex layer to the issue. Conjointly, the displacement of people due to war displays how regular individuals are always the ones who suffer the most in consequence to the interests of the few that represent larger powers. Hence, greed, envy, and cruelty are stronger than recognized, even in a developed continent such as Europe.

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What Everyone Should Know About Preventing Ethnic Violence: The Case of Bosnia

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Image source: srebrenica.org.uk

When the Balkans spiraled into violence and genocide in the 90’s, many wondered what caused this resurgence in militant ethnic nationalism and how a similar situation may be countered.

***

The 1990’s were a vibrant decade, that is unless you were living in the Balkans. 1995 was especially bad, as the 11th of July of that year marked the Srebrenica Massacre, which saw Serbian soldiers murder over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims over the span of two weeks. This shocked the world, as it was the first case of a European country resorting to extreme violence and genocide on ethnic lines since World War II. After World War II, the idea that a European country would resort to genocide was unthinkable. As Balkan nations continue to see the consequences of the massacre after over 25 years, it is increasingly evident that more needs to be done to curb ethnic violence.

We must first investigate key causes of ethnic violence. According to V.P. Gagnon, the main driver of ethnic violence is elites that wish to stay in power. Ethnic nationalism is easy to exploit, as creating a scapegoat is extremely effective for keeping elites in power. This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia, which had previously seen high levels of tolerance and intermarriage in more mixed areas that saw the worst violence during the war. Stuart J. Kaufman argues that elites may take advantage of natural psychological fears of in-group extinction, creating group myths, or stereotypes, of outgroups to fuel hatred against them. While they may take different approaches to this issue, Gagnon and Kaufman agree that the main drivers of ethnic violence are the elites.

David Lake and Donald Rothchild suggest that the main driver of ethnic conflict is collective fears for the future of in-groups. Fear is one of the most important emotions we have because it helps secure our existence in a hostile world. However, fear can easily be exploited by the elites to achieve their personal goals. In a multiethnic society such as Yugoslavia, the rise of an elite that adheres to the prospects of a single ethnic group could prove dangerous and sometimes even disastrous. The destruction of Yugoslavian hegemony under Josip Broz Tito and the resulting explosion of ethnic conflict at the hands of Serbian elites in Bosnia underline this because of the immense fear this created.

Regions with high Serb populations in Bosnia sought independence from the rest of the country when they found themselves separated from Serbia by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Republika Srpska was formed by these alienated Serbs. The leadership and elites in Serbia riled up the Serb population of Republika Srpska by stereotyping and demonizing Bosnian Muslims as “descendants of the Turkish oppressors”. This scared the Serbs in Bosnia so much so that they obeyed the elites of Serbia in supporting and fighting for the independence of Republika Srpska by any means necessary. As was seen in Srebrenica, they were not opposed to genocide.

We know how the elites fuel ethnic tensions to secure power as well of the devastating effects of these tensions reaching their boiling point. But what could be done to address ethnic conflict? David Welsh suggests that a remedy for ethnic conflict could be the complete enfranchisement of ethnic minorities and deterrence towards ethnic cleansing. This means that we must ensure that ethnic minorities are able to have a say in a democratic system that caters to all ethnicities equally. Fostering aversion to genocide is also vital toward addressing ethnic conflict because it is the inevitable result of unchecked ethnic conflict.

There is also the issue of members of ethnic groups voting for candidates and parties on ethnic lines. For example, in the United States, White American voters have shown to prefer White candidates over African American candidates, and vice versa. Keep in mind that the United States has a deep history of ethnic conflict, including the centuries-long subjugation of African Americans by White Americans.

Ethnic violence is horrifying and destructive, but it can be prevented. The first measure would be the establishment of a representative democracy, where members of all ethnicities are accurately represented. Another measure would be to make ethnic conflict and ethnic stereotyping taboo so that the average person would not resort to genocidal behavior once things go wrong. Lastly, making people feel secure is the most important step towards preventing ethnic conflict. If the people feel secure enough, they will not even need to think about ethnic violence. In short, while it is important to consider the differences of the various ethnic groups in a multiethnic society, it is vital that each group is kept represented and secure, free of any fears of subjugation.

While the case of Bosnia was extremely unfortunate, it provides an integral view into what could happen if perceived subjugation and fear of eradication reaches a breaking point. As was seen in Bosnia, ethnic violence can be extremely violent, resulting in untold suffering and death. That is why we must take necessary steps towards de-escalation and remediation of ethnic conflicts. These measures can, quite literally, save millions of lives.

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