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Defeating Systemic Corruption? Anti-Corruption Measures in Post-Revolution Ukraine and Armenia

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Ukraine and Armenia offer case studies on the challenges of recovering from post-Soviet authoritarian legacy, fraught with rampant corruption. As a matter of fact, systemic corruption has long condemned the two post-Soviet countries to a vicious circle of underdevelopment, bad governance and inability to implement fundamental economic and political reforms. Not surprisingly, the anti-corruption reforms have been put at the heart of post-revolution state-building in both countries.

Notably, Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko’s government significantly reduced the corruption, particularly in the gas, banking, and government procurement sectors. As a sign of moving the fight against corruption to the highest possible policy agenda, the Ukrainian government introduced the National Anti-Corruption Bureau  and the Specialized AntiCorruption Prosecutor’s Office NABU as well as Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO)  established in 2015 with the participation of civil society and donor countries. Yet, the effectiveness of these institutions has been questioned by several observers, pointing to insufficiency of anti-corruption measures amidst unrelenting efforts by power  groups to retain their outsized influence over law enforcement and justice. In essence, Poroshenko’s steady decline as a political powerhouse significantly owed  to his failure to eradicate corruption.

Meanwhile,  VolodymyrZelensky’s promises of defeating rampant corruption resonated with Ukrainians, who placed a great deal of faith in his ‘game-changing’ agenda.

The Rada’s first day was marked with the adoption of important pieces of anti-corruption legislation, including the removal immunity from prosecution for MPs and the proposal to provide the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) with the right to undertake autonomous surveillance.

Moreover, Zelensky’s anti-corruption efforts resulted in investigations and subsequent arrests of  some of President Poroshenko’s associates, including Oleg Hladkovsky, a top Defense official; a People’s Front party MP and the former head of the Rada’s defense committee SerhiiPashinsky; ex-deputy minister for the occupied territories Yuri Hrymchak; and Poroshenko Bloc MP YaroslavDubnevych, etc. Furthermore, Zelensky put the High Anti-Corruption Court into action,  that passed a bill   reinstating criminal liability for the illicit  enrichment of officials.

Similarly, the post-revolution government in Armenia criminalized  illicit enrichment and intensified its anti-corruption campaigns. The government pushed for a series of high-profile trials against former senior officials, most notably ex-president  Robert Kocharyan, former high-ranking officials Manvel Grigoryan,  Aram Harutyunyan, Seyran Ohanyan and others. This extended to former defense minister and outstanding former ruling Republican Party member, Vigen Sargsyan, who was charged with “abuse of power,”  as well as to former  Chief of Police Alik Sargsyan  –  charged   with   covering up  illegal post-election crackdown on opposition protesters in Yerevan in 2008 and with  destroying evidence of the “overthrow of the constitutional order” led by then President Kocharyan. However, these arrests and investigations have not yet led to court rulings. Essentially, both Pashinyan’s and Zelensky’s fight against corruption has so far focused on punishing former governments’ members or associates. The question remains if the anti-corruption measures will move beyond selective prosecution of former officials to the unequivocal application of “zero tolerance for corruption” principle.

This, in turn comes down to the furtherance of democratic reforms , leading to the advancement of good governance  practices and eradication of the systemic corruption in both countries.Some  critics have been skeptical about the effectiveness of anti-corruption reforms in these countries, positing that while governments   embark on “crowd-pleasing affairs,” much needs to be done to address the more systemic problems that the new governments inherited.

Both Zelensky and Pashinyan have placed a special emphasis on defeating judicial corruption. While former Ukrainian President Poroshenko hailed the  judicial reform  as “the mother of all reforms,” there was not much to reinforce government’s pledges of fundamental reforms.

In an effort to rectify this, in autumn 2019, President Zelensky embarked on judicial reforms. More specifically, he dismissed the High Qualification Council of Judges (the body responsible for attestation and selection of judges), announced plans to reload the Higher Council of Judges (the highest self-governance body of judges) and halved the number of Supreme Court judges.   Remarkably, while the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe,  praisedZelensky’s government’s judicial reform, it expressed concern over certain aspects of the reform, pertaining to “important issues of the rule of law” in Ukraine. The Commission criticised the situation, where the politicians are seen to get too much power to determine whether the sitting judges remain in their position or not. Similarly, the judicial corruption is one of the most harrowing challenges facing Pashinyan’s government. Following the controversial release of second President Robert Kocharyan in May 2019, Pashinyan contended that the judiciary is a remnant of the former corrupt system which would cook up conspiracies against the Armenian people.  As a result, he called for a mandatory “vetting” of all judges to the all the courts in the country because of their ties to the previous regime. The tension between Pashinyan’s government and the “remnants” of the former regime reached a point, where the Armenian parliament adopted a bill on holding a referendum on suspending the powers of a majority members of the Constitutional Court. Pashinyan would largely treat the current Constitutional Court as an impediment to completing the revolution in Armenia. More specifically, it was regarded as an instrument that prevented the people from exercising their right to form a government in the country in the 1996, 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 presidential elections. Notably, PACE co-rapporteurs for the monitoring of Armenia, called on Armenian political players to refrain from actions and statements that could be perceived as exerting pressure on the judiciary.  Essentially, Pashinyan threw his weight behind changing the Constitutional Court, contending that the latter represents the corrupt regime of Serzh Sargsyan, rather than the people of Armenia. Furthermore, he regarded the opponents of the referendum as “anti-state” forces.

Overall, the judicial reform remains as big challenge in both countries, as its success is critical to breaking with the authoritarian legacies.

 Based on the comparative analysis of anti-corruption strategies in developing countries, there are three main  observations to make regarding  Ukraine’s and Armenia’s trajectories.

First, in both countries corruption has been deeply entrenched and a result of the post-soviet authoritarian legacy. Essentially corruption has permeated every section of society and become a way of life in both countries . A major impediment to democratic state building, including fight against corruption in Armenia  and Ukraine is related to prevailing post-Soviet “informality”. The use of informal networks and connections in exchanges of favours, gift-giving along with other informal activities have been been deeply ingrained in both Ukrainian and Armenian societies. Therefore, the state apparatus, as well as education, healthcare, judiciary and law enforcement have long been dominated by informality.Thus, quite often the  institutions that have been set up to fight corruption  run up against deeply entrenched habits of graft in society and politics. Even though it would be an oversimplification to contend that Armenian and Ukrainian societies are congenitally hooked on graft as a way of life, the “culture of corruption” will not disappear overnight. Studies show that Ukrainian citizens tend to  “condemn” high-level corruption”  yet “regard petty corruption as a justifiable evil”. As a matter of fact, countries with long histories of informal illiberal practices and corruption often face tremendous challenges in eradicating these blights .Therefore eradicating the culture of corruption and informality should be an urgent priority on the reform agendas of new Ukrainian and Armenian governments.

 Second, one of the biggest challenges of anti-corruption reforms in developing and particularly transitional countries is the persistence and prevalence of corrupt practices by political and economic elites. More specifically, the residual influence of oligarchy presents a threats to the fight against systemiccorruption. Clearly, the political elite’s robust commitment to eradicating systemic corruption is indispensable. Meanwhile, inconsistencies and the weakness of a commitment lead to a situation, under the banner of “zero tolerance for corruption” governments keep playing a “tolerant corruption” game. Although political will may not be sufficient, it is a necessary condition to defeat corruption. The case of Romania demonstrates that the political will to defeat corruption may well make up the absence of a tradition of the rule of law and democracy. More specifically, the European Union pressure, along with the electoral pressure and the political will of the domestic political elite combined to ensure the establishment of the rule of law and defeating corruption in the Romanian judiciary .

Third, external factors including the anti-corruption programs of international donors have proved conducive to the fight against corruption.  While Ukraine’s choice for Europe and fervent desire to irreversibly depart from the orbit of the Russian influence is a crucial impetus to defeat corruption, Armenia’s centrality in the Russia-led socio-political order has remained intact. Nevertheless, Pashinyan’s government’s anti-corruption efforts prompt to posit that international efforts may well resonate with prevalent social norms in Armenia. A question remains if the legitimacy of the anti-corruption norms promoted particularly by the European Union will lead to their smooth implementations in Ukraine and Armenia.

Last but not least, the lessons from the successful anticorruption crusades of Singapore and Hong Kong show the need for anticorruption reform initiatives to be participatory and inclusive of all stakeholders including public and private sectors as well as civil society. Thus, it is absolutely essential for Armenian and Ukrainian civil society organizations to further develop institutional and professional capacity to contribute to anti-corruption reforms and influence their implementation.

Overall, the grounds for cautious optimism need to get reinforced to ensure that systemic corruption will no longer undermine democratic state-building in both countries.

Aram Terzyan, PhD, is a visiting senior lecturer at UNESCO Chair of Human Rights, Democracy and European Studies of Brusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences and research fellow at Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, USA. E-mail: aramterzyan[at]gmail.com .

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Eastern Europe

The Emerging Nakhchivan Corridor

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As the details of the Karabakh deal are being fleshed out, the stipulation on the new corridor through Armenian territory has caused great debate. Beyond the signatories of the deal, Iran and Georgia are particularly worried as any meaningful change to the connectivity patterns in the South Caucasus could harm their transit capabilities.

The 2020 Karabakh war ended with major Russian diplomatic success on November 9 when a tripartite agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia was signed. The surrounding seven regions were to be returned to Baku, while Russian peacekeepers would guarantee the security of the truncated Nagorno-Karabakh. Though the exact role is yet to be confirmed, based on the rhetoric from Ankara and Baku, some sort of direct Turkish military involvement on Azeri soil is likely to materialize. 

More importantly, however, Turkey gained a land corridor to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan. The stipulation in the document reads: “Armenia guarantees the security of transport links … for unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and cargo in both directions” between mainland Azerbaijan and the exclave of Nakhchivan, which are separated by Armenian territory. Moreover, “Transport control is exercised by the Border Service of the Federal Security Service of Russia. By agreement of the parties, the construction of new transport communications connecting the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Azerbaijan’s western regions will be provided.”

The stipulation is a major breakthrough for Turkey as it would allow the country to anchor its influence on the Caspian Sea and perhaps, in the longer term, look even further towards its Central Asia kinsmen. 

This would create a major dilemma for Iran and Russia, as Tehran and Moscow have historically perceived the Caspian Sea as a condominium between themselves (plus the littoral states since the end of the Soviet Union). Potential Turkish involvement could disrupt this equilibrium and especially Iran’s standing. However, this is highly hypothetical. After all, it would need years if not decades for this scenario to be realized and even then Turkish influence could not be as large as Chinese or Russian – two major forces in the region.

What bothers Iran is a potentially major shift in the region’s transportation routes. For decades Azerbaijan has been dependent on Iran for transiting energy and other supplies to Nakhchivan. The new Karabakh deal could change it. Armenia will now guarantee the opening up of a corridor through its territory to allow Azerbaijan to transport goods directly to Nakhichevan. Quite naturally, this limits Tehran’s leverage over Baku.

However, Javad Hedayati, who heads transit operations in the Iranian transportation ministry, announced that Iran is likely to stay a favorable route for trade despite the planned opening of the new corridor. “It is likely that this corridor will merely accommodate local traffic between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan,” said Hedayati.

Ankara has long been working on using the Nakhchivan corridor for geopolitical purposes. This is proved by the quickness with which the Turkish government announced the plans to build a railway to Nakhchivan following the November agreement. This comes on top of an earlier announcement of a gas pipeline construction to the exclave, and underlines the seriousness behind the Turkish intention, at least regarding the section from the Turkish territory to the exclave itself.

Much, however, remains unclear about the new corridor on the Armenia territory itself. First of all, will the road be used by the Turks and Azerbaijanis only? Considering the level of mistrust in Ankara and Baku towards Moscow, whose forces will be controlling this corridor, it is highly unlikely that Azerbaijan and Turkey will be willing to commit large financial resources to rebuild links on the Armenian land. After all, will the corridor be the Armenian territory, or will it fall under the tripartite administrative regime? These are arguably the defining questions which remain unanswered. One could also imagine constant incidents along the corridor as Armenia will remain unhappy with the stipulation. Transit fees could soften Yerevan’s position, but why should Russia be interested in the operation of the corridor? If the corridor is operational, these troublesome questions will have to be managed between the two sides sharing no trust in the other. These dilemmas were well summed up in the words of the Iranian official Hedayati. He stressed that Armenia could prevent Turkey’s access to the corridor for transfer of freight or passengers through Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan and further to countries to the east of the Caspian Sea.

Georgia is worried

One country which is particularly worried with the potential development of the new corridor is Georgia. Various pipelines, roads and a major railway transit the country from Azerbaijan on to Turkey. This has been a backbone of Georgia’s regional importance since the end of the Soviet Union and indeed served as a major attraction for larger players such as Europe and the US.

Quite naturally many in Tbilisi have begun to think whether this enviable position could be challenged. The consensus thought is that in the short and medium term no reshuffling in the region’s connectivity patterns is likely to take place. Even in the longer term, if the above mentioned uncertainties around the new corridor are resolved, many still believe that Baku and Ankara would not trade the already built and functioning railway and pipeline infrastructure, which runs through Georgia, for the Nakhchivan alternative. Perhaps the corridor will serve for ensuring local connections, perhaps limited trade (though highly unlikely).

After all, Georgia has been officially engaged in the trilateral partnership with Turkey and Azerbaijan for nearly a decade. The endurance of the format has been tested by changes of governments and region-wide geopolitical transformations over the last decade. Each country of the three needs the others. Turkey wants a more stable Georgia with deeper economic and energy relations, while Azerbaijan needs Turkey’s backing. Georgia, under pressure from Russia and, given that it is located between its two fellow members of the cooperation, dependent on transit, in turn needs both Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Georgia also sees its position as straddling between two large regions – Europe and Central Asia. The 826-kilometre Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway unveiled in 2017 enables the delivery of cargo between China and Europe with a haulage duration of approximately two weeks. Up to eight million tons of cargo may be carried via the railway by 2025.

Abandoning this transit corridor would undermine the efficacy of the South Caucasus transportation and energy corridor. This makes the extent of the Nakhchevan corridor quite limited. Perhaps, what the region is likely to see is the growing interconnectedness of the exclave with the Turkish territory. The emergence of a major corridor through the Nakhchivan is likely to happen if, at minimum, a meaningful improvement of Turkey-Armenia relations takes place. 

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch.de

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Eastern Europe

«Crimean Platform»: Kiev set on opening a new diplomatic front

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Even though the so-called “Crimean Platform”, as a new unrealistic project to retrieve Crimea, arouses no questions and the  agenda of the Kiev initiators is clear, further  developments require a close scrutiny, the more so since the  political situation is versatile, given the impact of presidential elections in the  USA and the activity of Turkey. Although the «Platform» will do nothing to translate the declared agenda into life, it will contribute to finding solutions to a number of issues on Kiev’s diplomatic agenda, or so they hope .

Kiev’s plans for the “platform” are extensive enough – it will operate on different levels. The first level is a high  one with the participation of heads of state and government, the second level embraces foreign and defense ministers, the  third- incorporates interparliamentary level, the fourth – brings together non-governmental experts.

Kiev is planning to re-set former initiatives and create a new instrument of pressure on Russia, this time against the Russian status of Kiev.  

Among the most significant details is that the “platform” was launched by the  Kiev Mejlis of Crimean Tatars (banned in Russia). For  those lost in contemporary Mejlis policy the Crimean Platform is a new pillar and an upcoming political springboard which will make it possible for Kiev to boot its international activity.

A statement about the project was made by Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Djaparova, a  de facto Mejlis representative, and possibly, a creation of the Turkish lobby. She is now presenting the “platform” in the media, having proclaimed the key agenda – “to return the issue to thehigher level of international attention”.  What is behind such wording?

The Crimean Platform is yet another distractor from the Minsk Agreements, which  Kiev has no intention of implementing. All these games – the change in the composition of the three-party contact group, injections of some ideas, even armistice – all these go into use but have nothing to do with promoting and fulfilling the  agreements, since nothing has been put into practice of the agreements of the Normandy Four summit in December 2019. For this reason, there  can be no meeting in the Normandy format, without which the Minsk process will be stuck and will not move towards implementing the  agreements. According to Ukrainian political analyst, Ruslan Bortnik, the current situation has certain bonuses for Zelensky: «Yes, there is a steady armistice inside Ukraine, which the authorities are trying to sell as peace. I think that the authorities are quite content about this situation, that is, freezing of conflict for the  Zelensky team marks huge  success. On the one hand, this means absence of war, which draws a heavy burden on the public conscience, on the other hand – this is no-return of the disloyal electorate of Donbass in case of reintegration». In the opinion of the expert, this situation suits Europe as well. How interested Europe is in delaying the Minsk process will become clear by its activity within the  Crimean Platform, which is why the project deserves attention.

But the most important thing why it all came into being is, to my mind, Kiev’s need for a new platform in order to see its old dream come true – to drag the USA into the participants in the proceed. Washington, if it is quick enough to  return to international politics, which will be the  case if Joe  Biden wins, will likely be  interested in  taking a closer look at Russian interests, the  more so in  the  Black  Sea Region, possibly in cooperation with Turkey. It’s in this way  that the project may allow Kiev to guarantee the inclusion  of  countries such as Turkey and the USA – something the Minsk format will never endorse.

Kiev has already announced the  approximate date of the Crimean Platform big summit. Not accidentally, the event has been set for May 2021, Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba said, adding that involvement in the Platform of the USA is a key issue, but while elections in the USA are still under way, Washington’s vision of Ukraine is unclear. In case of Biden’s victory we can expect a renaissance of American attention to Ukraine, while Trump may  remain pragmatically indifferent. The possible summit, its forma and participants will become the first indicator of the level of the Platform, though the prospects for this project, considering the position of Russia,  are more than vague.

It is interesting to know what issues the participants in the Platform will raise.  Even though the main points could be predicted right now, it is interesting to know  how the participants in the Platform will formulate the water blockade of Crimea. Above-menioned Djaparova, speaking on October 21 at an international conference on “the issues of water supply and use of water resources of Crimea in the eonditions of Russian occupation”, coined an incredulous explanation to the water genocide: “Deputy Minister reported that Crimean ran into water shortages because of militarization of the peninsula following the occupation, and also, the artificial change of demographic composition. Due to the arrival of Russian troops and ordinary Russians, she said, the demand for freshwater increased dramatically. As a result, the existing resources were used up in 6 years».A unbelievably cynical statemenet!

Meanwhile, Ukrainian experts are already pointing to risks and the uselessness of the project.

«The first of the risks stipulates that this Platform may turn into Crimean “Minsk” – a useless and ineffective venue» (but who can stop Kiev from making it effective?)

«The second risk is a complete loss of Crimea in a third country, for example, in Turkey. Ukraine and Turkey share their interest in terms of liberating Crimea, but they may overdo it and Crimea may  find itself a Turkish metropolis and part of Ukraine». Here comes the  importance of Mejlis  again. If Kiev takes the Turkish  threat seriously, which will see Mejlis as an instrument of fictitious transformation of Crimea into a Turkish metropolis, we will witness one of the lines of struggle inside the Platform. Part of this struggle will be efforts to reduce the influence of Mejlis and the blockade  of Turkey.  

The Third risk is formulated in the following way: If Zelensky starts to aggressively advance in the direction of implementation of the project, there is a threat of new combat operations in Donbass. A strange assumption, but let it be on them.

The fourth  risk – the Platform will become yet another venue maintained by the Ukrainian side the only outcome of its work being the creation of certain information. In my view, this is the most realistic scenario.

To expect that the Crimean Platform will help Ukraine retrieve Crimea is unrealistic, to say the  least. But at the  same time, it could serve as a political instrument, in case of support of the EU, Turkey and the USA, which could create extra tension on the border between Russian Federation and Crimea.  

From our partner International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

Russia and the Judgment of Solomon in Nagorno-Karabakh

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On November 10, 2020, Moscow announced its decision to send peacekeeping troops to Nagorno-Karabakh following the attack of its Mi-24 helicopter over Armenia, thus putting an end to more than six weeks of intense fighting and several decades of skirmishes between the pro-Armenian separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.

Russia’s choice is resembling that of the Judgment of Solomon in which King Solomon of Israel ruled between two women both claiming to be the mother of a child. Solomon revealed their true feelings and relationship to the child by suggesting the baby be cut in two, each woman to receive half.

For Azerbaijan, Russia’s intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh is only a partial success. After several weeks of fighting, Baku’s troops had an undeniable advantage with more modern equipment, including drones from Israel which made it possible to destroy Soviet Armenian equipment used by separatists on the territory. The liberation of Shusha (Shushi) on November 8, 2020, and the progressive exhaustion of the pro-Armenians heralded a total victory. The news of the arrival of peacekeepers was unfortunate at a time when everything seemed to be going in a positive direction for Baku.

In the eyes of Yerevan, this news is also mitigated. The Armenians and separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh thus avoided a possible total defeat, but the arrival of Russian troops marks the return of Shusha (Shushi) and multiple occupied territories on the periphery of the historic land of Nagorno-Karabakh under the control of Azerbaijan.

For Russia, this choice is not an easy one, both financially and diplomatically, and announces multiple upheavals on an international scale. To begin with, the Kremlin will henceforth be responsible for the protection of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh (on both sides), insofar as a withdrawal of Russian troops will lead to a return of hostilities which will target inhabitants on both sides. Furthermore, Moscow will once again appear to be a disruptive force in the eyes of the West and in particular the Minsk Group at the OSCE. Russia, the United States and France are co-chairmen of the Minsk Group, and the presence of Russian troops means that the Kremlin is, therefore, the only country able to decide the future of the conflict, giving the Kremlin an undeniable advantage that France and the United States are unlikely to appreciate. Finally, on a financial level, ensuring a permanent military presence comes at a financial cost. Moscow is going to have to invest in a force on the ground, without being able to withdraw it and not gaining any benefit from it as the two countries will continue to hate each other. This is why the USSR was reluctant to send troops to Nagorno-Karabakh during and after the 1988-1994 war.

In the end, the Kremlin would notably benefit indirectly from a military presence in a region of the world where Russia was absent, but also through the export of arms to the two protagonists. Armenia has all the interest in aligning itself with Moscow’s diplomatic position and continuing to buy Russian equipment in order to win the Kremlin’s favour and avoid a withdrawal of peacekeepers. Azerbaijan should do the same and purchase even more Russian equipment and move closer to Moscow diplomatically to attract Russia’s endorsements to reclaim even more occupied territories.

Contrary to the Judgment of Solomon, Armenians and Azeris are not ready to accept the separation of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russia is entering a new part of the world without knowing if it will ever be able to withdraw from it. This could lead to unpredictable consequences within the Minsk group and in relations with Turkey, which had given diplomatic support to Azerbaijan.

The 1988 CIA report “Unrest in the Caucasus and the Challenge of Nationalism” already mentioned the reasons underlying Moscow’s reluctance to intervene in Nagorno-Karabakh, not being able to stem the Armenian and Azeri aspirations to regain total control over the territory and incurring a considerable financial cost for the Kremlin. Russia sending peacekeeping forces on November 10, 2020, including 1,960 soldiers, 90 armoured vehicles and 380 units of special vehicles and equipment, goes back on the decision taken by the Kremlin in 1994. It is not yet known how Ankara and the new American President will react to such news.

From our partner RIAC

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