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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

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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