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Ukraine: Geopolitical View of the Interested International Actors

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The geopolitical position of Ukraine at the current stage of development of international order is complicated and somewhat challenging. The country is in the zone of interest of the USA and the Russian Federation, as well as Europe. This makes it a point of contention between powerful international actors.

The first question is — why it is so difficult to find a shared vision for the solution of the conflict? In the discourse of all the sides of the conflict, we see intent on finding and realising a solution. The main problem is the lack of trust between all parties, lack of trust between Russia and western countries. Trust between the Ukrainian and western elite is higher, but also contains some elements of alertness. Trust was destroyed from all the sides, both Russian and western. The situation is complicated by misunderstandings regarding intentions and proposals.

When we are in the situation of crisis — it means a lack of trust between the parties of the conflict. The question is how we can rebuild trust and further negotiations. The discourse in official media and official government statements show the intention to continue the dialogue, but at the same time, we see that the dialogue is quite difficult.

What is it trust? — It is a opportunity to predict the behavior of the trusted partner [1]. The previous behaviour of the partners is not a good base for trust in the situation of the current Ukrainian crisis. Even during peaceful times, each agreement passed through a long and complicated process of negotiations. For example, regular gas crisis’s between Russia and Ukraine.

At the same time, common values present an opportunity to rebuild trust. How can Russia, Ukraine and western partners understand that they have shared values? — the negotiation platforms, on the base of international institutions, such as Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), etc. In this article, I aim to look at the global structure and the roots of the Ukrainian conflict, in the context of historical, socio-cultural and political aspects.

The typology of international actors and the structure of their interests

The Ukrainian case shows different examples of strategies and frames [2] of external politics, used by different types of international actors toward the other state. I will name three types of actors that exist (not taking into account international organizations, global terrorist networks, criminal networks, etc.). In this article, I will discuss the goals and strategies of the Nation-State, Quasi Empire, and Nationalizing State. Each of these actors has certain peculiarities in creating international politics and agenda. All of them are engaged in the Ukrainian situation.

National State

The Nation-State model is most common in the world. It is a phenomenon of the modern period and is considered to be the only variant of state. The borders of a Nation-State are strictly defined and protected by the political regime of the country. State unity is based on a common nation (state language, citizenship). The Nation-State “looks inside” itself and tend to protect the borders and the inside unity of the country [3].

Quasi-Empire Project

Then quasi-Empire elements on the post-soviet space (after the collapse of USSR) the Russian Federation still have not constructed the national state in the classical view. Or the same elements of the quasi-empire project we can observe in the behaviour of the USA. Nowadays, we cannot speak about empires in the full sense of the word, but some elements can still be found. Some previous empires are on the transition way towards Nation-State, but the empire legacy still has its’ impact [4].

The borders of the nation empire are not finally defined and political elites look at the opportunity to enlarge the territory or to influence somehow on the other states and communities. Before the Ukrainian crisis, such ideas were rather marginal, but the political crisis in Ukraine moved the issue into the official discourse.

This approach is typical for quasi-empire and unacceptable by the Nation-States. — Here is the first point of misunderstanding and lack of trust. Why do empire nations believe they have the right to other states? — Because it still does not have a common understanding of its nation. Usually, it is a multinational and multi-confessional state and needs institutions different from those of the Nation-State.

Nationalizing State [5]

The territories, which were under the empires usually, become nationalizing states. Nationalizing state is a kind of transition situation (but it can be so for a rather long period). Such states emerge after the collapse of big empires or other countries. The nationalizing state usually moves towards the Nation-State: so the task is to create a nation and to define the borders.

The nation is also in the process of creation, but usually, it is created on ethnic base. The same situation is in Ukraine now; the current political elites tend to support the idea of the Ukrainian nation (Ukrainian language, certain historical myths), at the same time most of the people who live in the East and South of the country are automatically excluded from this nation criteria. The nationalizing states usually became the sphere of interest of quasi-empires.

Society without a State

After 2014 we also can see the marginal area of Donbasss, on which some unique social and political processes are developing, described by James Scott [6]. These societies try to escape hierarchy of any kind. Based on cultural flexibility, pragmatism and self-reliance of autonomous communities. Once this kind of society is formed — it will be a difficult task to reintegrate it back to a Nation-State.

Why is it important to know the type of actor when we speak about external politics and conflicts? The case is that the behaviour and expectations of a Nation-State will radically different from the ones of a quasi-Empire. The main aim of a Nation-State is to protect the borders, which were defined and legitimized. Quasi-Empire aims to have potential territorial or cultural growth. That is why the idea of soft power was created in the USA and is so prevalent in the Russian Federation now — these states would like to influence the territories much outside their borders. In this case, the external politics of nationalizing states are reactive — they can only react on the impulses from quasi-empires, and struggle for their national identity and diffused borders. Donbasss is in a unique situation as it is not much needed in Europe or Russia. It is more likely that we can find institutes created to avoid any form of state and obedience.

That is why Europe blames Russia for annexing new territories; at the same time, it is seen in Russia as the historically logical process of state-building. And Russia blames the EU and the USA for the violation of regional security. Both of them blame each other for making Ukraine dependent.

The Ukrainian National Identity and Europeanization

Ukraine first embraced the European path during the 2004 revolution. Institutionally, this path implies the country’s aspiration to join the EU and NATO. Recent amendments to the Ukrainian constitution legitimize this drive.

The European identity is historically a superstructure above the national identity. Ukraine’s main problem is its aim not to follow the traditional procedure and therefore try to skip the phase of forming its own national identity in its desire to join the European family.

Essentially, Ukraine is replacing the notion of Ukrainism with that of Europeanism. Democratic institutions are paramount for European countries as they are the integrating base of the rule of law that makes up the Union. However, Ukraine does not give value to the institutions’ content and operation, but to their own existence.

As for Ukraine, the very idea of Eurointegration resulted in an escalation and subsequent loss of part of the country’s territorial integrity in 2014. Historically, European institutions have only been partially effective in heterogeneous societies with contrasting socio-cultural backgrounds. For the population of eastern Ukraine, Soviet values have proven to be even more important than they are for Russian citizens. In his research on national construction in post-Soviet territories, Vladimir Lapkin determines the post-Soviet secession phenomenon, in a process backed not only by a classic nationalist impulse but also by the nostalgia of the Soviet past. Lapkin asserts: “These ‘special separatists’, unlike ‘classical separatists’ who attempt to oppose their ethnonational project to the dominating ethnic nation (or its simulacrum), promoted ideas that were absolutely impossible within the political prevailing of the imperial universality of the 1990s and 2000s. In the absence of a better example, an ‘idealised USSR’ or a ‘revived Russian state’ is often appealed.” [7]

Consequently, Ukraine’s European path towards the EU and NATO easily turns into a semiotic myth because it embraces the idea of a universal solution for many problems Ukraine faces today, including those concerning the economy, social sphere, territorial integrity, and government’s legitimacy. The underlying idea towards European integration and the subsequent introduction of European institutions may actually create the potential and necessary motivation for action. Perhaps, the myth existence regarding the future integration with the EU and NATO may bring about prosperity, nonetheless completely negates any initiative or attempt to actually achieve anything.

None of the presidential frontrunners deny that the drive towards Europe could be difficult or even fatal. The approach of Ukraine needing to become part of the EU and NATO due to Russian aggression is a temporary one. It only aims to secure the current regime legitimacy and will be no longer useful once Russia has begun restoring its relations with the West afterwards the enduring crisis. That is when Ukraine will once again be faced with the great problem of rebuilding its sovereignty statehood.

Russian vision of the Conflict

The global perception of the crisis in Russia is based on the post-soviet legacy. It is closely related to the process of creating a Russian identity, defining the borders and strengthening positions as a global actor.

The interest towards the situation in Ukraine is high among Russians. Therefore, the Russian population is keenly following the Ukrainian elections, given the close economic and other personal ties (likelihood of having family between the two countries). Analysis conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center explored popular opinions within Russia regarding the Ukrainian elections, and the results were quite interesting. “The Russian populations’ awareness of the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections is rather high: 79% of Russians have heard of the election campaign including 18% who are following the campaign closely”. At the same time, fears of possible manipulations are widespread among Russians, with 68% of those polled believing that the election results will be falsified by the Ukrainian authorities and thus won’t be representative of the will of the people. More than one and every ten respondents (12%) believes that while there might be certain violations, but they will not influence the overall results. Altogether, the elections do not inspire much credibility in Russian society, doubting even about their legitimacy.

If we consider general attitudes towards Ukraine in Russian society, the radical positions have not changed much. On the one hand, one of them is that Ukraine is an example of fair and transparent elections. On the other — Ukraine is a “historical fault”.

On Russia’s side, Crimea is not an issue for discussion anymore, after Russia feels it has settled questions concerning security in the Black Sea and, more broadly, security for the Russian speaking community in the region. That is why now Russia’s main goal is to move towards a peaceful resolution of the current conflict with Ukraine, excluding the Crimea issue from the future negotiation process. Based on my research and observations, I believe Russian interests in Ukraine can be summarized in three key points:

First, Russia is highly interested in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and reintegration of Donbasss in Ukraine. In this respect, the Russian Federation is concerned about the rights of the Russian-speaking population in addition to their safety, and this issue will rank high on Russia’s agenda.

Secondly, Russia aims at rebuilding its economic ties with Ukraine, since Moscow is still Kiev’s largest trade partner: according to World Bank data, in 2017 Ukrainian export to Russia was 3 943 217.84 $ (9.08%), by comparison — Poland is the second (6.28%) and import — 7 196 562.10 (14.56%), China is the third (11.41%).

Third, despite the conflict, labour migration from Ukraine to Russia remains a reality. Russia is interested in qualified workers and students coming to study. Ukraine remains the main country of origin of migrants to Russia, even if the number has decreased (137,700 in 2018 as opposed to 150,100 in 2017) and there is a trend of more Ukrainian citizens to leave Russia.

I would like to attract your attention to one citation from Russian President speech to the Federal Assembly in 2014:

“It was an event of special significance for the country and the people, because Crimea is where our people live, and the peninsula is a place of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralised Russian state. It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus”.

He speaks about strategic importance, development of the Russian nation, and a centralized Russian state. And all of these things are now connected to Crimea. Each country has to have a historical heartland. For the Russian Empire, it should be the Kievskaya Rus, which is now situated in Ukraine. In fact, Russia and Ukraine struggle for the same territories to be their heartland. This citation shows us a new ideological reality in Russia.

Accordingly, Crimea became the centre of civilization for Russian identity. It is a new ideological reality of internal Russian politics, which should be considered as crucial in policymaking decisions. In this sense, we can argue that putting the Crimean issue in the negotiation agenda will lead to a more radical Russian position.

Russian and Ukrainian Struggle for History

In the current situation, we find not only the negotiation of an attempted settlement to the East Ukraine armed conflict, a new stage of information and ideological confrontation also seems to be developing a rivalry between Russia and Ukraine over the interpretation of their past. In fact, the fabric of the history of the Kievan Rus looks very much like a blanket, with each country trying to pull all of it to their side.

What we have seen so far has been sluggish but definitely intensified by the media struggle, textbooks, movies and other cultural areas for the exclusive right to interpret the same historical facts. Why can’t these two states share a common history, and why is it so important to possess a unique past?

In his address to the Federal Assembly (December 2014), President Vladimir Putin mentioned Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev in the Crimean context, which was perceived by a large part of the society as a legitimation of the peninsula´s affiliation through the myth of restoration, the historical truth and the preservation of continuity in traditions, culture and statehood. To this end, Moscow will erect a memorial to Vladimir on Vorobyovy Hills to honour the 1000th anniversary of his death. In his turn, Ukrainian President Poroshenko released an executive order to commemorate Grand Prince Vladimir as the “founder of medieval state Rus-Ukraine,” while the Russian State Duma responded by accusing Kiev of attempting to privatize the memory of Russia’s Baptizer.

Having made history as the ruler who baptized Rus and bolstered its statehood (the key features attributed to him by history textbooks), Grand Prince Vladimir has recently emerged as a substantial stumbling obstacle of Russian and Ukrainian politicians’ mutual comprehension.

In Russia, the deep-rooted historical legitimacy and continuity of historical epochs have not practically undergone any revisions, with all projects to interpret and describe history (Sergey Solovyov, Vassily Klyuchevsky, Sergey Uvarov’s triad of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality) working to build a single, non-contradictory historical model of development. With some slight variations, this scheme was taught both in the Soviet period and following the disintegration of the USSR. Nobody questions the Kievan Rus as the source of statehood and the Moscow Princedom and later the Russian Empire as its successor.

However, the political decision to annex Crimea had been perceived ambiguously both in Russia and abroad and hence has required additional legitimization. The new mythologem is intended to smoothly integrate the current political reality into the existing legitimization model and provide it with additional fixtures.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the legitimization of its statehood is a much more complicated affair. The executive order of the former president, Poroshenko, to honour Grand Prince Vladimir was meant as a reminder that this relevant period is an inherent part of Ukraine’s history. Within the current quagmire of problems over the legitimacy of borders, Ukrainian national identity and diminishing political support, this order was designed to preserve available structures and the legitimacy model. Because of this, the political effect appears quite questionable.

Compared to Russia, historical legitimization is a much more complicated endeavour for Ukraine. En route to statehood, Ukraine felt the impact of the powerful state and ideological machines of the neighbouring Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. And it was Mikhail Grushevsky who launched the construction of the model for a unique Ukrainian history when Nation-States emerged after the breakup of these empires. His project primarily reflected the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was briefly implemented during the revolutionary reforms in the Russian Empire. The scheme was revived in 2004 by the instigators of the Orange Revolution and the former president, Pyotr Poroshenko.

In 1898, Mr Grushevsky released the first volume of History of Ukraine-Rus that contained a compilation of facts intended to substantiate the historical independence of the Ukrainian people by tracing an alternative succession of historical stages. He rejected the unity of eastern Slavs, drawing a line between the Ukrainian-Russian people and Great Russians. Before Mr Grushevsky, Ukrainian history had one way or another been integrated into the history of Russia and Poland, the neighbour powers which controlled Ukrainian territories. Accordingly, his innovation suggested an alternative model of historical development and a new succession in the continuity of state entities seen as the forerunners of modern Ukraine.

Mr Grushevsky discarded the Muscovite version of history, insisting that although the Kievan Rus transferred some forms of the socio-political order to the Great Russia lands, there was no full-fledged continuity between the Kievan Rus and Moscow Princedom. The Tatar invasion undermined the socio-political basis of the Kievan Rus. East of the Dnieper River, these traditions were practically ruined, with only some of them preserved on the right-hand side and advanced in the Galitsk-Volyn Princedom and later under the rule of Lithuania and Poland. The history’ version developed by Moscow was also unfit for legitimizing Ukrainian statehood because the emergence of the Ukrainians as a separate people was dated to the 14th-15th centuries, thus something absolutely unsuitable for Mr Grushevsky as the ideologue of the Ukrainian statehood.

As before, the key issue still lies in establishing the successor of the Kievan Rus. Prior to the appearance of Mr Grushevsky’s interpretation, the succession of the Kievan Rus and Tsarist Russia had been universally recognized (see V.M. Solovyov, V.O. Klyuchevsky). The incorporation of the Kievan Rus period into the historical roots of a state proceeds from the establishment of a certain state entity through a certain ethnic groups. Proponents of the unity of the three eastern Slavic peoples agree that the Kievan Rus was set up by the Slavs, who later gave rise to the Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians. In his History of Ukraine-Rus, Mr Grushevsky not only substantiated the autochthony of the Ukrainian ethnos’ origin but also firmly insisted that the Kievan Rus belonged to the tradition of the Ukrainian statehood.

This concept smoothly resonates again in the current official Ukrainian debate because it provides grounds for the logical construction of national identity. Ukrainians assert that Moscow was built on its own, borrowing practically nothing from the Kievan Rus under immense Tatar influence.

Although this is ancient history, the two historical paradigms are popular in modern politics, with the described myths being only a fracture of the entire mythology arsenal employed in the debate. The history of the Great Patriotic War actually plays the same role, the most cited issues being the dichotomy of the Soviet troops and collaborationists on occupied Ukraine territory, the odious Stepan Bandera, Golodomor, etc. The interpretation of concrete events and the formation of myths (as semiotic systems) helps to assign friends and foes and additionally validate political decisions.

Conclusion

Although Russian and Ukrainian leaders use the same historical facts surrounding the Kievan Rus, their motivation differs. While Russia wants to add additional legitimacy to its political decision over the voluntary entry of Crimea into the Russian Federation, Ukraine is trying to restore the shattering legitimacy of its state borders and the national identity of its population.

The use of historical facts is a long applied instrument for fueling an entire political context, usually with quite material consequences. In fact, turning the status of Crimea into the historical centre of Russian statehood may create a stumbling block during zero-sum international negotiations. If the partners opt for a more constructive approach to handle other issues, Crimea should be off the agenda. Ukrainian legitimacy appears more threatening. Independent for over 20 years, Kiev has failed to generate a state-wide identity and is now trying to revitalize older models, which have regrettably demonstrated their ineffectiveness after Maidan 2004. The country will face the irreparable loss of its legitimate borders and government, as well as the identity of its population.

In a situation like this, Russia and the West appear to have coinciding interests in handling the issue of Ukraine’s legitimacy because neither would like to see a Somalia-style failed state at their borders. This move should be affirmative, shedding the extremes a la “Ukraine is not a state,” etc. since this is a field for determined efforts to establish a constructive myth for a state on the verge of a breakdown.

Speaking on the possible steps towards the successful Nation-State for Ukraine:

First, Ukrainian politicians need to come up with a uniform set of values and legitimacy that would be relevant to most of the country’s population. We could hypothetically suggest the idea of the country’s independent economic development. With its favourable geography, Ukraine may well become an economic hub, a target for effective investment, and a growth point for innovative projects. For this to happen, however, the country first needs to shed its dependence on any single strong external actor, be it Russia, Europe, the U.S., or, in the longer term, China. It would be fairly possible to create effective, law-governed economic institutions without joining the EU and NATO.

Second, Ukraine needs to mould its youth in a way that would facilitate negotiating practices and an ability to achieve a compromise. No matter how skilful the Western European advisors may be, Ukraine will have a hard time introducing democratic institutions unless society revises its long-standing habits. Introducing brand new institutions is always a complicated process that involves breaking established behavioural patterns. This is primarily the mission of educational establishments. The mere drive towards Europe is not going to unite the nation in any significant way.

Ukraine should also stop picturing Russia, or any other country, as its nemesis because this only works as a short-term solution. Seeking out external enemies is only good as an interim method of legitimising a government and securing public unity. The method has a number of disadvantages. First, consolidating against an external enemy requires a particular exertion of forces; no system is capable of holding out for long under stress. Second, the external enemy’s environment may change radically. Third, a country that is defending itself expends much of its strength on defence, not on development.

Russia is a significant international actor for Ukraine, and Kyiv will need to come up with some new kind of format for relations with Moscow sooner or later. This will happen after the frozen conflict has ceased to suit the key decision-making political actors. Prior to the inevitable talks, both parties will have to establish a negotiating position. It would be wise to start the talks with the less painful issues, but searching for such issues poses a special intellectual problem for conflict mediators. It is fairly possible that one of these steps will involve establishing a dialogue along the lines of Track II expert diplomacy.

A possible conflict solution for Donbass — giving Crimea back — will entail a significant transactional cost and a very high price for Russian elites. It is impossible in the current political situation, as we see the new nation and state legitimacy model. The connection of Donbass and Crimea issues will lead to more confrontation. If we put the Crimean issue outside the agenda, we can look at the following possible variants for the regulation of the conflict.

-Donbass as separate state — the variant of Transnistria.

-Donbass as part of Ukraine. Possible only on the basis of wide autonomy. At the same time, there is needed a process of economic reconstruction, without ethnic or language issues.

-Donbass as the part of Russia, the less possible one.

The second variant is considered to be the most peaceful for the international community. Nonetheless, we still have the army of Donetsk and Lugansk which are interested in their own profit. So for Russia and Europe, it will be very important to change the official discourse and start to see not the enemies, but rather strategic partners.

First published in “Geopolitical Challenges of European Security in the South Caucasus and Ukraine 19th Workshop of the Regional Stability in the South Caucasus Study Group, 16/2019 Vienna, October, 2019”. From our partner RIAC

[1] Uslaner, Eric: The Moral Foundation of Trust. Cambridge University Press 2002.

[2] Uslaner Goffman, Ervin: Frame analysis: an essay on the organization of experience. Harvard University Press 1974.

[3] Uslaner For Nation-State see: Habermas, Yurgen: The European Nation-State And The Pressures Of Globalization. In: New Left Review. 235/1999.

[4] Uslaner Kaspe, Svyatoslav: Imperii I Modernizatsiya. Obshaya Model I Rossiyskaya Specifika. Moskva, 2001.

[5] Uslaner Brubaker, Rogers: National Minorities, Nationalizing States, and External National Homelands in the New Europe. In: Daedalus. 124/1995, pp. 107-132

[6] Uslaner Scott, James C.: The Art of Not Being Governed. An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press 2009.

[7] Uslaner Lapkin, Vladimir: Problems of Nation Building in Multi-ethnic Post-Soviet Societies: Ukrainian Case in Comparative Perspective. In: Polis. 4/2016, pp. 54–64.

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Eastern Europe

Latvia becomes a victim of the East-West confrontation

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The foreign policy of Latvia has been providing a surprising case of balancing policy between economic wisdom and political situation for some decades. Being the EU and NATO member state, Latvia managed to fulfill its commitments and at the same time Riga maintained fruitful relationship in the economic sphere with neighbouring countries – Russia and Belarus. And this despite the fact that these two countries are seen by the European Union and the Alliance as opponents rather than friends.

But cooling of the EU and NATO’s relations with Russia made such a balance impossible and forced Latvia to take such political decisions that totally harmed its economy. Thus, Latvia has gradually become a victim of the East-West confrontation.

Only one of the negative results of this confrontation is dramatic reduction of transit cargo. Russia’s cargo volume has fallen sharply.

Russia’s decision to build its own ports and divert traffic to them has become a direct consequence of the EU economic sanctions imposed against Russia.

In October, the largest decrease in Latvian ports was for coal transported to the main coal terminal on the Russian Island in Riga. Of the planned average of 118 wagons, only 39 were received per day.

The more so, in October, the Russian side did not coordinate 94% of the requested amount of coal cargo – customers wanted to receive more than 4,800 coal wagons to Latvian ports, but got only 279. In November, 100% of the requested amount was not agreed, which means a complete stop of coal cargo delivery. And it is clear that gradually less and less cargo will pass through Latvia and maybe not at all because of the destructive foreign policies toward relations with Russia.

On the one hand, Latvian authorities understand that the country needs Russian cargoes. Latvian Minister of Transport Tālis Linkaits points out: “It is the need of the Latvian state to ensure the operation of the infrastructure of “Latvijas dzelzceļš”. And we are interested in every ton of cargo that could come through Latvia or to Latvia.” On the other hand, during the annual Rīga Conference which took place in November Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg both emphasized that Russia remains a threat. “Russia remains a great big problem,” Kariņš said. Latvia as well as other Baltic States deployed NATO troops on its territory and thereby endangering good neighborly relations with Russia and regional security in general. Russia has taken measures to build up its military capabilities as well.

Former President of Latvia Valdis Zatlers says: “Prayers will not help. This is Russian policy.”

Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevichs admitted: “I don’t understand what we sometimes have in Latvia, that it is somehow difficult for us to drive in the middle of the road – to be proportionate, to be principled in matters of principle, to be practical, but not to carry from one ditch to another.”

So, Latvia maneuvers between politics and the desire not to lose important partner. Russia in its turn does not hide its intention and is not going to play along. If Latvia’s political views prevent it from developing fruitful partnership with neighbour states, this is Latvia’s choice. Latvia’s economy today is hostage to its foreign policy.

Latvia’s failure in cooperation with Russia reflects the bleak economic prospects if Russia ceases to see the region as a territory of special economic importance. In recent years, Moscow has already made it clear that it considers the gain in the struggle for the region too small to participate in it.

The situation resembles an old Latin proverb: “Between two stools, one falls to the ground.” Latvia is almost on the ground.

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The State of Civil Society in Belarus and Armenia: Challenges and Opportunities

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Large crowds have demonstrated their anger at the results of the presidential election in Belarus. Photo: Kseniya Halubovich

 A vibrant civil society has long been thought to be a crucial instrument for political change in countries in transition and a key component of a democratic society.

While civic activism was critical to the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia, and posesformidable challenges to Aleksander Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule in Belarus, a question remains as to whether or not civil societies have the capacities to evolve into powerful agents of democracy in the two post-Soviet countries. 

The two countries share much in come in terms of their communist past and close alliances with Russia, vividly manifested in their being members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO. Moreover, the post-Soviet transition of both countries has been marred by a series of authoritarian malpractices, ranging from centralization and personalization of power to extensive crackdown on civil liberties and political freedoms

In both countries civil society organizations have been characterized by their organizational weakness, and marginality in terms of their social base, financial assets and influence over policy making.

Controlling the mass media and civil society has been crucial for Europe’s ‘last dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko’s rule. As a result, freedom of association has been extremely limited in Belarus, where the registration of groups remains entirely arbitrary, while the foreign funding to NGOs is treated as interference in the country’s domestic affairs. Only a few human rights groups continue to operate, amid huge harassment by the government. Alarmingly, in 2018, the Criminal Code of Belarus introduced the prospect of large fines for unregistered or liquidated organizations, thus aiming to curbtheir activism.

Moreover, the lack of a vibrant civil society has led to a situation where Belarusians have huge misconceptions about civil society organizations and do not tend to use the available resources within civil society and human rights organizations to defend their rights

The situation in Belarus turned upside down in the wake of 2020 presidential elections, that unleashed a huge wave of civic activism: hundreds of thousands of Belarusians raising their voices and taking to the streets.

The anti-government protests following the 2020 presidential elections show that the Belarusian opposition and civil society have the potential to challenge the status quo meticulously preserved by Lukashenko.

Nevertheless, it would be misleading to treat the successful actions by protesters or even civil society representatives per se as s shift in a robust or “emerging” civil society. The question remains as to if protests are organized by well-established and institutionalized organizations, or do groups emerge spontaneously out of the protests themselves?

By contrast, the Armenian civil society organizations enjoy considerable freedom and face less harassment by the government. While civil society played a critical role in the “Velvet Revolution,” the absence of an umbrella organization or clearly reform-oriented movement in Armenia, seems to leave the fate of the societal coalition that brought Nikol Pashinyan to power uncertain. Not surprisingly, the societal coalition started to break into pieces as Armenia endured tremendous setbacks in the war against Azerbaijan in November 2020. Overall, the demonstrations leading the revolution showed the “Velvet Revolution was a one-time fairy tale, rather than a feature of a vibrant civil society. Meanwhile, civil society organizations and activists need to move beyond the victory in the street and pursue victory in town halls and elections, with the growing realization that the “Velvet Revolution” now needs to be in people’s minds and behavior rather than in downtown Yerevan .

Despite the growing number of civil society organizations (there are more than 4,000 registered civil society organizations, mainly non-governmental organizations (NGO), absolute majority of them are inactive with little to no potential to represent certain interest groups. NGOs are especially weak in terms of their social base, funding and heavily depend on foreign donors. 

Arguably, the Russian oversize influence over Belarus and Armenia has been one of the core challenges to a vibrant civil society advancement in both countries. Of all the Eastern Partnership countries, Armenia and Belarus is by far the most vulnerable to Russian influence. This reflects its structural dependence on Russia in the economic, energy, security, geopolitical, as well as socio-cultural spheres, particularly in case of Belarus.

Belarus displays a series of characteristics that allow Russia to have a strong impact on civil society. These include a weak national identity, issues around language, the prevalence of Russian information in the media, exposure to Russian information warfare, as well as the presence in Belarus of Russian government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Notably, within its strategy of promoting Eurasian integration within the Eurasian Economic Union and beyond, Russian propaganda would frequently target Armenian NGOs by framing those which are Western-funded ones as threats to Armenian-Russian relations. Such claims would be followed by the calls for ‘neutralizing’ them through information campaigns and other methods, including through the legislature. Not surprisingly, the 2017 amendments to existing NGO legislation in Armenia, with imposed restrictions on their activities, would be largely viewed as a direct result of the mounting pressure emanating from Russia.

Boosting CSOs Actorness

Studies show that the path to a vibrant and consolidated civil society has two main dimensions. The first dimension boils down to the changes in the nature of civil society relations with the state and society and its potential and ability to induce reform, or what is often referred to as “change on the outside”. This has much to do with increasing their impact on public policy and practice, not least through engaging more with their constituencies and improving their interaction with public institutions and actors. It has not been uncommon for post-Soviet societies to treat civic associations as threat to the power and stability of the state together with the conviction that the state bears the responsibility for the wellbeing of the society.

Moreover, the CSOs’ tendency to prioritize relations with Western donors over engagement with citizens would result in their treatment as donor-driven, rather than community-oriented organizations. Meanwhile, greater engagement and effective communication with various social groups is critical to breaking down the public misconceptions about CSOs and their activities.

Thus, the “change on the outside” is instrumental in dissolving the apathy of the wider public leading to their shift from spectators to actors.

A major impediment to civil society in both countries is prevailing post-Soviet “informality” in the form of behavioral practices, such as considerable tolerance towards informal governance, the use of informal networks and connections in exchanges of favors, phone justice, corruption, etc. The latter has long condemned both countries to a vicious circle of underdevelopment and bad governance. Even though it would be an oversimplification to contend that graft is a way of life it takes a long time for deep rooted behavioral practices to change. Therefore, both governments, as well as CSOs have a crucial role in eradicating the informality and culture of corruption in both societies, not least through promoting liberal values and good governance practices.

The second critical dimension is “change on the inside”, related to the nature of civil society per se: such as the way it is organized and operates. This in turn has a great deal to do with the development of adequate institutional and professional capacity in civil society organizations and networks as a vital tool for influencing policy making. The institutional development at the organizational level includes building organizational capacities for governance, decision-making, and conflict management, as well as clarifying organizational identity, values and strategy of impact.

The latter is of crucial relevance as a lot of CSOs in both countries were established in response to certain needs or funding priorities with no predefined mission, strategic plans and organization structure. That said, they were doomed to failure in terms of addressing the specific needs of their constituencies.

Overall, these changes and reforms are vital to the advancement of a vibrant civil society that can become an agent of democracy in both countries.

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Eastern Europe

Can economic cooperation contribute to sustainable peace in Karabakh?

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A major step has taken towards the Karabakh conflict on November 10, 2020. The century-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has undoubtedly, entered a different phase with the signing of a trilateral statement by Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia. Before this, in late September, Azerbaijan has launched a successful counter-offensive to implement the UN Security Council Resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884) through liberating its territories that were under Armenian occupation for almost 30 years. As a result of the military campaign, Azerbaijan was able to get back the majority of the strategic points in Karabakh including the historic city of Shusha. 

While the protests broke out in the Armenian capital Yerevan, when PM Pashinyan publicly declared that he was obliged to sign the agreement to prevent its army from a total collapse, the Azerbaijani side enjoyed the victory by massive celebrations in Baku. The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev signed the statement on a live broadcast, and right after, addressed the nation and familiarized the Azerbaijani public with the context. As the details revealed by President Aliyev, it became obvious that the agreement was the capitulation of the Armenian side.

Afterward, the consequence of the “44-day war” was described as “a defeat both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena” by the Armenian President Armen Sarkissian. Namely, the agreement comprised the unconditional withdrawal of the Armenian troops from the occupied territories within a definite schedule, the return of all refugees, and the deployment of the Russian peacekeepers in the several points of Karabakh. Furthermore, the cardinal element of the statement is that there was not a word about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Apparently, the overwhelming military advantage of Azerbaijan induced the Armenian government to come to the negotiation table and finalize its illegal military presence within the boundaries of a neighboring sovereign state.

The agreement further articulates the opening of all communications, restoration of economic and transport links. Due to the stipulated economic notions, the statement possesses a significant role for lasting and sustainable peace. In this context, if Armenia would ensure adherence to the principles of the trilateral statement, the possible economic consequences will encapsulate in two dimensions: regional and global.

The regional dimension or local basis encompasses joint initiatives and shall include Georgia as well. For instance, the “South Caucasus Economic Union” could emerge to build high-quality cross-border infrastructure, to establish intraregional supply chains, and to form stronger financial links. The project rationale derives from the recognition that the development of an integrated South Caucasus, which can guarantee peace and spur growth in all fields, requires multiple, cohesive, and long-term efforts. Thus, the fundamental prerequisite for Armenia is to terminate all the hostilities with neighboring countries.

In the mutually assured peace environment, Azerbaijan and Armenia would strongly benefit from enormous savings on conflict-related fiscal expenditures. Military expenditures could be lessened by 2% of annual GDP in both countries to a reasonable level as in the countries at peace. Besides, Azerbaijan could eventually save expenditures for supporting refugees amounting to 0.4% of annual GDP, thus diminishing total expenditure by 2.4% of GDP yearly. Armenia could save annual expenditures of 0.9% of GDP for supporting the local economy in Nagorno-Karabakh and 0.1% of GDP in interest payments, thus saving 3% of GDP every year. Such massive fiscal savings would enable both countries to avert the budget-related issues and at the same time substantially increase spending in social spheres by eliminating any budgetary pressures.

In the global dimension, South Caucasus is capable of creating opportunities for sustainable growth. The ongoing conflict was generating an elevated extent of risks, which were constituting several constraints for the capital flow to the region. Since an opportunity has emerged to settle the conflict thoroughly regarding the trilateral statement, the effect that it would create in the future on ratings, risk premiums on bonds, loans and equity, investment, and finally, economic growth are likely to be very positive.

The South Caucasus region, acting as a link between the Middle East, China, Russia, and Europe, has immense strategic significance. Previously opened the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, today serves as the shortest way to deliver Chinese goods to Turkey and reduces delivery time to Western Europe. This project was developed within a larger Trans-Caspian International Transit Route, as part of the Belt & Road Initiative.

Within the scope of the agreement, Azerbaijan gained a corridor that links the mainland to the exclave Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic through the Zangazur region of Armenia. The new corridor seems to be a more efficient alternative from distance and timing aspects. Thus, the agreement can be characterized as pivotal since it will not only stimulate the regional development credibly, it will transform the region into a hub of the international supply chain system, as well.

Undoubtedly, the foremost economic issue will be compensation as Armenia officially approved itself as the aggressor state in this conflict with the sign of PM Pashinyan on November 10. According to the United Nations, the overall damage to the Azerbaijani economy has estimated to be around $53.5 billion in 1994. Recently, President Ilham Aliyev stated that foreign experts are going to be invited for the up-to-datecalculations of the total damage as the result of the occupation.

After a longstanding negotiation process, the situation has been exacerbated, and inevitably, processes oriented to the military theatre. This trilateral statement can forestall the risks of resumption of the military operations in this phase. Here, strengthening the capacity to manage the conflict and promote peace through regional economic integration, trade facilitation initiatives, and other policy measures will be on the agenda. There is a plethora of similar practices in the world so that it might lead to a feasible solution.

The Karabakh conflict was making South Caucasus one of the most explosive regions in Eurasia. Nevertheless, from this moment, the focus shall be on the peacemaking process as it yields considerable economic benefits. As mentioned, the flow of investments to the region will tremendously increase, whereby the states in South Caucasus will be able to maximize their economic potentials. For Armenia, it is time to act on facts and realities rather than dreams. So, it should renounce territorial claims and start to rational cooperation with neighbors for a better future.

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