Connect with us

Eastern Europe

President Zelensky’s evolution: One step forward, two steps back



President Zelensky’s course is levelling off – it is evolving to match the “traditional Ukrainian reality.” However, Zelensky started his presidency by swimming against the current, which became clear from his election statements.

From the very outset, the voices of those who believed in him, who admired the novelty of his program, were louder than those of the skeptics. This was because Zelensky did inspire a hope which was essential for most Ukrainians, so tired of economic problems, of the conflict in the southeast and the never-ending hysteria on the Ukrainian political scene.

Minsk Agreements

In order to secure implementation of all the declared changes in foreign policy, which focused, first of all, on the pursuit of the Minsk Agreements, Zelensky had to go against the nationalist mainstream in the country, as well as against the policy of his Western sponsors regarding Russia.

Consequently, we can assume that while making high-profile promises to settle the conflict in the Donbass, to “reintegrate the Donbass”, Zelensky knew only too well that in the conditions of Ukrainian political reality the only thing he could achieve was a truce and an exchange of prisoners. Although we cannot rule out political romanticism and lack of experience, which inspired hopes for more. 

In September 2019, it became clear that Zelensky was determined not to ignore the Minsk Agreements, like his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, who, nevertheless, had signed these agreements, but to revise them. It was this revision that the efforts of the Ukrainian side in the contact group were set on at meetings of political advisers to the heads of state of the Normandy Four. At first, Zelensky mentioned the “Steinmeier Formula”, then came the “Zelensky Formula”, which was not articulated properly.

The much-anticipated meeting of the Normandy Four in December 2019 was approached by Zelensky with a rhetoric which was based not so much on the rejection of the “Steinmeier Formula” as on the revision of the Minsk Agreements. In the course of the summit the parties came to agreement on:

• the implementation of the “Steinmeier Formula”;

• further steps towards the withdrawal of troops;

• expanding the OSCE mandate – 24-hour ceasefire monitoring

• the exchange of hostages.

The parties to the talks failed to agree:

• on amnesty;

• on how to control the border despite the agreement on the “Steinmeier Formula”;

• on what it means to grant special status to the republics of Donbass;

• on the need for a direct dialogue between Kiev and the republics of Donbass. 

The positions on which the managed to reach agreement comprise relations between Ukraine and other states, foreign policy, whereas what they could not agree on is Zelensky’s domestic and anti-Russian maneuver.

What makes this maneuver particularly strange is that it is at odds with a Steinmeier Formula paragraph on border control. As it turns out, Zelensky agrees to act on all of the formula’s provisions except one key point without which it loses its meaning.

On another point – what a special status of the republics of Donbass means – Ukraine began diplomatic, or rather, domestic political games before the meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group ahead of the H4 summit. Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadim Pristayko said that Donbass should not expect any special status, while the special status of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) as part of Ukraine could take effect only within the framework of a decentralization policy and without amending the country’s Constitution. Later events confirmed Ukraine’s intention to sabotage the Minsk Agreements regarding a special status for the DPR and LPR.

The reasons for this position on the part of Zelensky, his administration and ministers are that Ukraine is so affected by the peculiarities of the internal political process that its leadership is not ready to take action on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. In addition, despite the majority in parliament and the opportunity to use national resources to cement power, it fears that there will appear nationalists, who, as has already happened before, can become an instrument of political struggle.


The economic sphere did not become a breakthrough area in solving Ukrainian problems. Many of Zelensky’s campaign promises remained unfulfilled for  resource-related, political, or other reasons. Pledges such as “long-term low-cost loans,” “building roads in line with European standards,” “providing all citizens with access to high-speed Internet,” etc. ,  will apparently remain only words on his election program, as they run counter to the interests of Ukrainian oligarchs. There were also statements that, being ever-greens for presidential programs in Ukraine, nevertheless, each time caused battles but were not translated into life by any of the predecessors. Zelensky’s program included a provision on the “formation of a free land market”, which turned into a land reform, which had already been  voted on in the first reading and the pursuit of which will make it possible to obtain external resources to support the Ukrainian economy and secure the fulfillment of social commitments by the state. What is meant is the IMF loans. After voting on land laws, the Prime Minister of Ukraine Alexey Goncharuk outlined plans for the future openly expressing hopes for financial assistance: “Ukraine has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate the rapid and successful implementation of the reforms declared by the president, our government, and parliament. In recent weeks, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill on trade in agricultural lands and approved in principle a bill on “unbundling”, which has already been signed by the president. Therefore, we hope to agree on a new long-term program of extended financing [from the IMF-D.B.], which will back our efforts to accelerate economic growth. ”

The land reform will create, on the one hand, the conditions for providing Ukrainian agro-holdings with more land plots, while, on the other hand, it can lead to foreign expansion into the Ukrainian land market, which will fall under the control of foreign companies. These companies will be able to determine the range and fate of Ukrainian agricultural products not only in foreign markets, but also in the domestic one.

The Ukrainian society and political forces have reacted to the land reform with protests, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland faction has switched to the opposition,  Chairman of the presidential party, Servant of the People, Alexander Kornienko, has expressed fears commenting on the land reform in the second reading: “I think we will face rallies, provocations, and most likely, attacks on the deputies.”

Such fears are far from groundless. According to research by the sociological group “Rating” conducted in October 2019, 53% of Ukrainians are against the lifting of the moratorium on the launch of a free land market, 31% are in favor. Most citizens oppose the sale of land to foreigners – 69%. Deputies continue to consider the land law parallel to the continuing protests under the Ukrainian parliament building.

Law on Language

In January, the Ukrainian MPs, the majority of them being members of Zelensky’s “Servant of the People” Party, adopted a law on education that discriminates against the Russian language and minority languages. This is suggestive of Zelensky’s evolution in the direction of the so-called “Ukrainian national patriotism.” This takes place despite the fact that he became president to a large extent thanks to the support of Russian-speaking communities in the south and east of Ukraine.

History and  memory

Unlike the  onslaught on the language which can be seen, no matter how sad it may sound, as the traditional policy, the issue of historical memory takes Zelensky’s evolution to a new level and cause serious damage to the president’s image as a leader who pledged to restore peace in Ukrainian lands and in the souls of Ukrainians .

On January 27, while visiting Poland on the occasion of the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, Vladimir Zelensky de facto accused the Soviet Union, as one of the parties, of unleashing the Second World War. He put the liberation of the death camp to the credit of the Ukrainians: “We will never forget Igor Pobirchenko, the commander of the T-34 tank, who, together with the crew, was the first to break into Auschwitz; all soldiers of the shock battalion of the 100th Lviv division, who entered the camp under the leadership of a Poltava resident of Jewish origin Anatoly Shapiro. Together with the soldiers of the 322nd Division of the 1st Ukrainian Front, they set it free.”

Apparently, according to the “cunning” plan by Zelensky, his advisers and speechwriters, the names of the division and of the front — Lvov and 1st Ukrainian — should be enough for the ill-informed Western public to assume that it was the Ukrainians liberated the camp. Such details as the fact that all the above-mentioned military units were part of the Red Army and included representatives of different nationalities, were ignored completely – they do not fit into the logic of his speech, particularly, his statement that the Holocaust resulted from a conspiracy plan between Germany and the Soviet Union.  That’s it – no more, no less!

This is not just a fraud or suppression of facts – it is an attempt to falsify history. There is no need to hurt the feelings of “Western democracies” and recall the Munich agreement of 1938, to recall that anti-Jewish laws were adopted in the Third Reich back in 1935, and that Jewish pogroms took place in 1938. And what Zelensky described as a “conspiracy” between the USSR and Germany in 1939 was the Non-Aggression Pact.

How can one account for such an interpretation of history from a head of state? One thing is clear: President Zelensky went through a severe reform school in Ukraine and in the West and has learned his lessons well – the Third Reich was defeated, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, so you can easily make them accountable for everything, and after diplomatic battles with Poland over honoring the “heroes” from among “Ukrainian nationalists” – make Poland a “present”- a statement that coincides with the position of Warsaw.

Apparently, this is not what a significant part of Ukrainian voters, primarily in the south-east of Ukraine, who voted for Zelensky, expected to hear from a front-line soldier’s grandson. By and large, the president of Ukraine had no political reason to make such a bow of reverence in relation to Poland.


This and other steps by President Zelensky are clear signs of an ongoing transformation. Highly unlikely that Zelensky has no idea what he is doing and saying. Nor is it likely that he does not understand the consequences of all this. Obviously, this shows his intention to worsen confrontation between Kiev and Moscow. If that is your choice, Mr. President, go ahead.

Zelensky has failed to turn the boiling nationalist oil of Ukrainian politics into a warm bath for himself. Rather, he expects this “boiling oil” to become his “warm bath”. He came to power thanks to powerful electoral support and well-known slogans. But, unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself. Candidate Zelensky once stated that, unlike the then President Poroshenko, he intended to “sit down at the negotiating table with Russia,” bring peace to the Donbass, and much more. Now more and more events and facts add to the opinion that Zelensky may follow the political trajectory of his predecessor, whose supporters has dropped in number to the level of a “Poroshenko sect”. 

From our partner International Affairs

Continue Reading

Eastern Europe

Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus



The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.

The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.

It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.

The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.

The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.

In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.

Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.

Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.

With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.

The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.

The Western stance

The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.

Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.

Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.

The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.

The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.

Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.

Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.

Georgia’s position

Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.

Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.

The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”

The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.

Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.

But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.

The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.

Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.

After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.

Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

Author’s note: first published in dailysabah

Continue Reading

Eastern Europe

An Impending Revolution



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

Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.

The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.

The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.

On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.

European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.

Continue Reading

Eastern Europe

The 44-Day War: Democracy Has Been Defeated by Autocracy in Nagorno-Karabakh



The people of Artsakh are seen as pro-Russian. Is this Pro-Moscow assessment of people of Artsakh accurate, and why Russian peacekeepers are welcomed in Nagorno-Karabakh?


The Republic of Artsakh and its people developed the nation’s democracy for approximately three decades. Back in 1991, Artsakh held a referendum on its independence, as well as democratic elections under a barrage of Azerbaijani rockets. The people of Artsakh accomplished this step by themselves, being convinced that without freedom of the individual, there is no freedom for the country. The Artsakh National Liberation Movement was nothing but a struggle for freedom and the right to decide one’s own destiny.

The development of democracy was not easy for a war-torn country with ade-facto status, limited resources, lack of institutions, combined with the threat of resumption of hostilities and the temptation of using elements of authoritarianism in governance as well as in the public mood. 

Nevertheless, during the last three decades, the people of Artsakh have managed to develop working democratic institutions, ensure political pluralism, and form effective human rights institutions. The vivid examples thereof are the 2020presidential elections held on a competitive basis, a 5-party Parliament, and the constitutional mechanisms for the separation of powers.

It is noteworthy that the full spectrum of democratization in Artsakh has been carried out by the country alone, without the direct support of international governmental and non-governmental organizations, and despite the numerous appeals by the civil society of Artsakh made to them.

However, Artsakh’s democracy has been highly regarded not only by parliamentarians, politicians and experts who have visited Artsakh, but also by the international organizations, such as Freedom House in its Freedom in the World annual reports. In these reports Artsakh is on the list of partly free countries, making progress in ensuring political and civil liberties each year, while Azerbaijan holds on to a not free status all the while making regressive steps in every aspect.

The people of Artsakh believed that the development of democracy would inevitably strengthen the position on unimaginability of any vertical relationship with dictatorial Azerbaijan. The people of Artsakh believed that they were keeping the eastern gate of the European civilization and its set of values. The people of Artsakh believed that those in West involved in the conflict settlement process, particularly France and the United States would view the Artsakh struggle with an understanding that it was created by their examples and ideals of freedom.

And what did the people of Artsakh receive as a result of believing in the West? They faced a new war and a new bloodshed unleashed by the same Azerbaijan. They also faced a harsh reality in the form of gross violations of human rights, war crimes and destruction of their cultural heritage. The principle of equality and self-determination of peoples in general, and the notions of freedom and human rights in particular completely collapsed before the eyes of the people of Artsakh.

One doesn’t have to be a military expert to understand that Artsakh, a small country with limited resources and capabilities, could not on its own resist Turkey-backed Azerbaijan for long, especially given the direct involvement of Turkish command staff and thousands of mercenaries from the Middle East terrorist organizations in the conflict, and the use of advanced military technology likethe banned weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

What did the people of Artsakh need to prevent this war? The answer would have been the de jure recognition of Artsakh that at least would have dampened the possibility of a new war, put an end to the century-old conflict, and establish long lasting peace and security in the region.

Instead of recognizing their unalienable right to self-determination, a new war was imposed on the people of Artsakh. As a result of this war, the people of Artsakh were left with a devastated country, thousands of dead and wounded compatriots, a new generation of refugees and IDPs, dependence on the peacekeeping mission for physical security, a “neither peace nor war” situation, as well as an uncertain future.

Russia wanted to come to Karabakh and so it did. Russia is in Artsakh not because the people of Artsakh were dreaming of weakened sovereignty while they continued to think of what West would do, but Russia came to Artsakh because Russia, unlike the West, acts rather than speaks. When on the one hand there are European and American concerns expressed in empty statements and on the other hand there are Russian peacekeepers and tanks, there is no room left for thinking long.

Let’s look at the values in which European Union, United States, Canada, and the rest of the so called “civilized world” believe in: the ideas of human rights and freedoms which they been advocating for years across the world. Now let’s try to see what is left from them all. Maybe once can find an inspiration for writing new books and sharing ideas about the future of humanity vis-à-vis the civilized world. Perhaps, in the European Union, in the United States, in Canada, and in the rest of the so called “civilized” world, their population may enjoy the ideals of human rights, but the people living in small and unimportant countries are often deprived of such rights. Perhaps the Western intellectuals and authors will write books on how the West left the faith of the people of Artsakh to the hands of the terrorists while empowering the Turkish-Azerbaijani dictators with their indifference and inaction. Indeed, for the West, the lives of the people of Artsakh are not valuable just because they are from a ‘gray’ zone, because they live in a country that doesn’t officially ‘exist’. These discriminatory phrases are definitions time and again used by the Western officials. It is what it is. The West, however, should not forget to celebrate Zero Discrimination Day and quote articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Later, when Turkish expansionism and terrorism will knock on the Western doors, the West will remember those unimportant people from an unrecognized country that absorbed the first blow. At that juncture, the West will also remember how it admired the people of Artsakh’s endurance and collective resistance, but at the same time left them alone in their fight against terrorism and modern military technology. Perhaps, for the West it is just like watching a fun action movie with popcorn and cola.

Having 193 or 194 member-countries in the United Nations (UN)as a result of recognition of Artsakh would not change the existing international legal order, however, it could serve a textbook example for rising democracies and a lesson for the dictatorships and international terrorism. By not recognizing the right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination, the West is burying the concepts of human rights, freedoms, and democracy, thereby paving a way for the next military-political adventures of dictators. The West should decide. The longer the West spends on thinking without any concrete action, the further the region will move away from it.

Continue Reading