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President Zelensky at the MSC 2020: An Epistemological Shift toward Reconciliation

Source: MSC / Kuhlmann

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On Saturday February 15, Ukrainian President Zelensky reiterated his pledge to end the conflict in the Donbas during his tenure, in a speech that contrasts with his predecessor. President Zelensky’s priority has shifted towards the “mental return of Donbas and Crimea” an expression he coined to characterise his new policy.

A new storyline:

Former President Poroshenko repeated ad nauseam that Ukraine was containing a Russian invasion of Europe.  Years of counter-productive rhetoric contributed to a standstill in the negotiations and reinforced the quasi-independent status of the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk (LNR and DNR) whose reliance on Russia only increased, as Petro Poroshenko isolated them further.

In April 2018, authorities in Kyiv renamed the anti-terrorist operation in the Donbas region, calling it an operation to deter Russian aggression. Designating Russia as an aggressor state barely altered Russian position and its relation with Ukraine, yet the most important consequence of rewording the operation in the Donbas is the indirect acknowledgement that LNR and DNR authorities are not terrorists. As a matter of fact, the LNR and DNR have never been listed on any list of terrorist organisations, be it in Ukraine, Europe or the United States.

Already in April 2018, the peace organisation based in the Netherlands, Pax highlighted the opportunity of the Donbas Reintegration Bill as a way “to direct the process of conflict resolution in Ukraine towards peace-building instead of further escalation of violence.” This assumption was somehow ascertained by a July 2019 poll conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation. According to this poll, only 17% of Ukrainians support establishing peace in the Donbas by means of force, and 49% believes that some compromises should be made for the sake of peace. The door was opened for President Zelensky.

A change of characters

President Zelensky opted for an approach that radically contrasts with his predecessor who abused of his anti-russian stance to hide the lack of socio-economic improvement in Ukraine. The May 2019 presidential election, followed by parliamentarian elections constituted a reminder of the root causes that drove Ukrainians to revolt several times since 2004, namely the thirst for functional institutions. A recent NDI study confirms that:“Ukrainians remain united in the desire that their country becomes a fully functioning democracy.

During the election campaign, Volodymir Zelensky promised to resolve the conflict, understanding that there is no development without peace. Consequently, authorities engaged in an epistemological change readjusting state priorities by first winning back the Donbas. After years of war, it is obviously taking colossal efforts to overcome doubts and reticence, as some hardliners still constitute potential spoilers towards reconciliation. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the population, including in the security forces and voluntary battalions are inclined to explore new options, as their daily problems are now listened to. For example, turning words into practice, new authorities decided to extend the provision of public services to Ukrainians living in the Donbas and Crimea. Equally, the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons provides aid to those who have fought and those who are suffering from the conflict.

Ukraine reloaded

In October, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to recognize birth certificates issued by the self-proclaimed authorities in the Donbas. Such symbolic inclusive gesture is a statement to welcome back its newborn citizens, granting them basic rights under Ukrainian Law. According to a September report, UNICEF estimates that 750 schools were damaged, affecting the education of 700’000 children since 2014. Therefore, new authorities pay special attention to education, understanding that the young generation is central in building peace.

At the end of October, the city of Mariupol hosted a Unity Forum, attended by the highest instances of the country. Participants, including diplomats from the US and UK openly discussed unity and reconciliation. Interestingly, an entire session was devoted to transitional justice and basic principles for post-conflict settlement. Authorities are resolutely engaged in efforts to reducing human rights violation and restoring the rule of law all over Ukraine. All of this does not go unnoticed; the UN human rights watchdog, the UNOHCHR welcomed the positive changes in the country in its latest report, and endorsed governmental support towards transitional justice.

Today, transitional justice is increasingly debated tanks to the top-down policy to engage in a unity dialogue. Professor Senatorova, member of the Legal Reform Commission under the President of Ukraine, has recently launched a Centre for International Humanitarian Law and Transitional Justice. According to her: “It is today, and not after the conflict is over, that we have to formulate our vision for tomorrow. People living in the occupied territories and all those who suffered because of this war should get clear answers on post-conflict rebuilding and transitional justice measures. Unfortunately, mistrust remains high due to the presence of proxy elements, mistakes made by Ukrainian authorities, but also due to the lack of expertise in formulating clear social, legal and humanitarian response. The task of the experts working in the Centre for International Humanitarian Law and Transitional Justice is to build such expertise and overcome hindrances towards peace and reconciliation. We stand for the elimination of discrimination of the people living in the occupied territories, IDPs and all those, who became the victims of this conflict. Our objective is also to create mechanisms for establishing the responsibility of both sides for crimes committed since 2014. Among these mechanisms we advocate for a truth commission. People on both sides have suffered enough, and they deserve to get reparations, satisfaction, transparency and peace.”

International Ovatio

Prior to the 2019 elections, the international community was perplexed about Ukraine’s lack of reform and the general stagnation. Recently, the EU has praised the implementation of reforms and the fight against anti-corruption. In a virtuous circle, Ukraine and Russia settled their gas dispute, agreed on gas transit, prisoners are exchanged and talks under the Normandy format have resumed. At the Munich Conference, President Zelensky voiced his intention to organise elections across Ukraine, including in the Donbas. Surely, no major breakthrough or peace deal is to be expected in the near future because trust, pardon and justice will take time. Yet, as authorities understand that there is no violent resolution to the situation in the Donbas, they are focusing on the solution rather than the problems.

“If in five years, we will end the war, bring our people back, then I did (became president) for a reason”, concluded the President Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference.

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Eastern Europe

China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian society is left shaken by plans to raise retirement age

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This month Lithuanian society is left shaken after spreading the news about the increasing of the retirement age. In Lithuania, the retirement age has increased every year since 2012 and by 2026 it will be 65 years. Previously, discussion surfaced on whether raising the retirement age to 72 would help offset Lithuania’s ageing population issues.

As Lithuania’s demographic situation continues to worsen, the European Commission estimates that the number of working-age people capable of supporting pensioners will go down in the future. Brussels says that increasing the retirement age could be a solution.

The existing average in Lithuania is now 57.5 years. It should be said that Lithuania expects to reach a life expectancy of 65 years only in 2030.

In some years there will be 50 retirees per 100 working people and it will have crucial implications for public finances and may require raising taxes. At the moment, 35% of the country’s population are aged over 55.

Before prolonging its working age, Lithuania should address the relatively poor health and low life expectancy of its population. Before they even reach retirement age, many people in Lithuania are unable to work due to high prevalence of chronic, non-infectious conditions.

It’s necessary to focus on increasing healthy life expectancy in Lithuania, instead of weighing up the idea of increasing the retirement age, Irena Segalovičienė, presidential adviser has said.

Taking into account the fact that men in Lithuania live an average of 14 more years from the age of 65, and women an 18 more years, Vilnius residents are not impressed with such an idea.

The officials are afraid of possible protests which could lead even to the government resignation.

Thus, late Thursday afternoon millions of French workers were still on the streets protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned pension reforms.

Lithuanian officials were quick to announce that it’s inadequate to consider a 7-year increase in the retirement age at this stage. Most likely, the news was deliberately disseminated in order to study public opinion on this issue.

Discussion is most toxic now, and will continue in Lithuania because wasting money on defence, government puts aging population at risk of poverty and death.

At the same time, the government calls for more defense spending. Together with Poland and the UK, Lithuania is leading a push within the NATO to agree to higher spending goals. In 2023, the country’s national defense budget will reach 2.52% of its gross domestic product (GDP). According to Zilvinas Tomkus, Lithuania’s vice minister of defence, Lithuania is ready to spend even more on the modernization of its armed forces and military infrastructure. The more so, spending money on defence procurement today will not improve Lithuania defence today. The modernized weapons, vehicles and equipment will be available only in some years while old Lithuanians need money right now just to survive.

Thus, chosen political priorities do not reflect the current social and economic situation in the country and even worsen it.

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