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Russia–Germany: Crisis of Political Confidence as a Factor in Asymmetrical Relations

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In 2020, Germany and Russia celebrate several important anniversaries in their bilateral relations, marking events that did much to lay the foundations of the two states’ current cooperation: 65 years since diplomatic relations were established between the Federative Republic of Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 50 years since the Treaty of Moscow was signed, 30 years since the reunification of Germany and the signing of the founding agreements related to this, including Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany and Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Good-Neighbourliness, Partnership and Cooperation. They were signed in August–November. In these months of the anniversary year, the bilateral relations are facing major tests.

Officially, the stages in Russia–Germany relations are measured not in anniversaries but in legislative periods of Germany’s governmental coalitions that formulate their own four-year foreign political agenda. Traditionally, Russia is part of this agenda and Germany’s programme in relation to Russia is determined by the factional makeup of the German Government, the current international situation and the domestic political processes in Russia. The latest coalition agreement between the CDU/CSU bloc and the SPD was concluded for the period between March 2018 and September 2021. It contains statements about Russia violating the European world order (“annexation” of Crimea, intervention in the east of Ukraine), about there being great potential for civil and public dialogue and economic cooperation, about Germany’s commitment to the idea of a common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The coalition members believe that “Germany is sincerely interested in good relations with Russia and in close cooperation with a view to ensuring peace and resolving important international problems” though “Russia’s current politics compel us to be particularly careful and flexibly stable. … The goal of our Russian policy remains: a return to relations based on mutual confidence and a peaceful balance of interests allowing the parties to once again achieve close cooperation.”

Moscow’s relations with Germany are determined by Russia’s foreign policy concepts, the latest of which was adopted on November 30, 2016. Among the EU states, Germany has traditionally been assigned the place of the leading partner and a revitalization of mutually advantageous bilateral relations with that partner is viewed as an important resource for “promoting Russia’s national interests in European and global affairs.”

The first two and a half years of the current German coalition government’s legislative period were marked by a series of events that had a major effect on the political backdrop for the bilateral cooperation. The Salisbury incident of March 4, 2018 (“the Skripal affair”) resulted in the “collective West” states, including Germany, expelling Russian diplomats, adopting new sanctions, with Berlin, particularly the Aussenamt, and developing negative sentiments toward Moscow. This all coincided with the new governmental coalition starting its work on March 14 and Russia’s “new old” president being elected on March 18. Under such difficult circumstances, Russian and German leaders continued their constructive communication largely based in a mostly closed-door meeting held in Sochi in early May 2017. Details of another meeting between Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel held in the same city in May 2018, as well as the working discussion of topical questions in Meseberg, were also not revealed to the public, yet they shaped generally positive sentiments that contributed significantly to smoothing out the influence the March events had had on shaping the anti-Russian sentiments in Germany’s political community and media. Regular meetings held in 2018 between heads of various agencies (primarily foreign ministries) were also conducive to positivity.

On August 23, 2019, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin, was killed in Berlin. This also engendered negativity as it resulted in further exacerbation of diplomatic relations and in the expulsion of two Russian diplomats in December 2019. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reciprocated.

On January 11, 2020, Angela Merkel made an unexpected visit to Moscow and discussed topical problems in international relations with Vladimir Putin. At the same time, the two states’ foreign ministers also held a meeting. The German politicians’ visit confirmed that Berlin was ready to continue the constructive dialogue. The coronavirus pandemic that broke out in March pushed most bilateral issues into the background somewhat.

In mid-May, Angela Merkel expressed her highly negative personal opinion concerning the cyberattack on the Bundestag in the spring of 2015, which German special services believed to have been organized by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defence. Even though the experts at the Federal Criminal Police Office confined themselves to stating that “this fact is highly likely,” without providing incontrovertible proof, Berlin adopted this version as “final and incontrovertible.”

On July 1, 2020, Germany assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Its Presidency Programme has only one paragraph on Russia, stating that relations with Russia need to be actively formed on the basis of the EU’s five principles (the 2016 Mogherini principles) and that their implementation needs to be analyzed. On May 27, 2020, the Federal Chancellor delivered a speech at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin focusing a lot on Russia. While emphasizing the objective importance their bilateral relations have for both states, the Chancellor reminded her audience that she had, from the outset, had a critical constructive attitude to the bilateral dialogue and to the importance of respecting the values and recognized international rules that, in her opinion, Russia “has repeatedly violated.” Consequently, Berlin will “speak out” against subsequent breaches of these by Moscow. Simultaneously, within the framework of its value-based approach, Germany sees opportunities for new impetus in the development of bilateral relations, including such areas as climate protection and global healthcare.

The August 20 incident with Alexei Navalny was a litmus test for the true level of anti-Russian sentiments in some parts of Germany’s political community. This time, the paper turned dark purple. “The Salisbury spirit” made a comeback to the public discourse with active support from some EU capitals. There were insistent voices calling for “punishing the Kremlin” by imposing sanctions on, among other things, Nord Stream II, up to and including shutting the project down. Moscow has no success in its attempts to transform those unfounded and harshly formulated demands and accusations into a constructive discussion: Berlin saw a clear violation of its values and legal rules that, in her May speech, the Chancellor referred to as being possible. At the same time, in his message of greetings to Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the 30th anniversary of Germany’s reunification, Vladimir Putin confirmed “Russia’s invariable commitment to dialogue and interaction with German partners on the pressing issues on the bilateral and international agenda.”

Against the backdrop of clearly dubious proof of “the Russian authorities once again using chemical weapons” to eliminate undesirable persons, the ”collective West” continued to apply unprecedented pressure; in October 2013, it prompted Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to make several harsh statements to the effect that Russia could stop communicating with the European Union. Let us note that, officially, the EU put a freeze on the top-level dialogue from the spring of 2014. The same applies to Russia–EU summits and intergovernmental consultations with EU states. Yet, Russia’s working consultations with individual states, primarily Germany and France, continue. The inter-parliamentary dialogue has never stopped. Moreover, the Russian-German High-level Working Group on strategic economic and financial cooperation resumed its meetings in June 2016, while the inter-agency High-Level Working Group on Security Policy resumed its meetings in November 2018. Clearly, neither party is interested in having their communications come to a halt.

Both Brussels and Berlin heard Sergey Lavrov, but it did not prevent them, on October 15, 2020, from imposing EU sanctions on six high-ranking Russian officials and on a research institution. These sanctions had been proposed by the France–Germany tandem. On October 15 2018, the Council of the EU adopted a mechanism for imposing restrictions as part of combating use and proliferation of chemical weapons. This mechanism served as the legal grounds for the sanctions: the EU celebrated the second anniversary of this mechanism in style. On October 22, Brussels imposed sanctions on two Russian citizens for having allegedly participated in organizing a cyberattack on the Bundestag.

On October 17, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas noted that the EU had adopted appropriate sanctions, that Brussels was ready to respond henceforth to “Russia’s unacceptable actions,” while also admitting that no one was interested in cutting off the dialogue with Moscow as this dialogue is required for resolving conflicts, including those in Libya, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere. Nonetheless, on October 26, Andrea Sasse, a German Foreign Ministry spokesperson, responded negatively to Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that a moratorium be imposed on deploying land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in Europe. Agreeing with NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, she believed this initiative did not inspire confidence. On October 27, in an interview with the Croatian newspaper Vecernji List, Sergey Lavrov confirmed his previous statements, saying, “I hope our European colleagues will have the wisdom, vision and pure common sense, so that our dialogue with the European Union and its member states is fully restored on the basis of the principles of neighbourly relations, good faith, predictability and openness.” On October 28, Russia’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs commented on Andrea Sasse’s remarks, pointing out, in particular, that this was “a typical example of a biased and, in fact, knee-jerk reaction, no effort being made to understand what the Russian proposal is about.”

In the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War and the Second World War, the European Union and its member states have begun distorting history, including the role of the Soviet Union in the victory over Nazism. For instance, the resolution the Bundestag adopted on October 9 on bolstering the memory of war victims stipulates creating a new historical and memorial centre about Nazi crimes. The text of the resolution suggests the likelihood of distorting the historical memory and using the centre to instrumentalize insinuations “equating the Soviet Union with the Third Reich when it comes to unleashing the war,” which, from Russia’s point of view, is absolutely impermissible.

As of early November 2020, relations between Russia, Germany and the EU are still based on the “selective engagement” principle, with the European participants having no clearly defined strategic approach to the development of these relations. Germany apparently has no conceptual framework for working in this area and, in its presidency of the Council of the EU, Germany has essentially abandoned its opportunity to spearhead a discussion of the contents of future interaction to which there are no alternatives.

Clearly, Moscow and Berlin will continue their working contacts on political matters, although these contacts will have as their backdrop a profound crisis of confidence crisis and a minimal level of understanding on a series of controversial issues (cyberattacks, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, Alexei Navalny). Yet, that circumstance will not significantly affect the Normandy format or the cooperation on the Syrian, Libyan, Iranian and other tracks.

The paradox of today’s crisis of relations is that it is taking place against the background of decent (despite the effect of the coronavirus pandemic) relations in other areas, such as the economy, culture, science and education. In recent years, these have received an additional impetus to development.

Back in 2014, Russia and Germany’s foreign ministries launched a new format, a Russian-German Cross Year, which was intended to boost bilateral cooperation in specific areas. The first years were dedicated to language and literature, youth exchanges, and regional and municipal cooperation.

The Russian-German Year of Scientific and Educational Partnerships was held in 2018–2020. The events that year bolstered cooperation in inter-university interactions, cutting-edge research and support for young scientists and innovations. Currently, about 1,000 joint university partnerships are functioning, involving 203 German and 233 Russian universities, as well as 33 organizations with other status, and their numbers are constantly rising. Russia is Germany’s ninth-largest partner in this area.

Since July 2017, the German Government has been protecting the principles of European energy security and sovereignty and attempting, for that purpose, to counter the consistent steps taken by the US Administration (and their EU supporters) against Nord Stream II. Yet, that opposition has thus far not been particularly effective. In early 2020, Washington first succeeded in having the construction of the gas pipelines suspended; subsequently, threatening extra-territorial sanctions against the current and future project partners, the US put a question mark over the project being completed/ the pipeline being put into operation. In early August 2020, EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer said that the EU was designing a mechanism that would “also ensure that the EU becomes more resilient to exterritorial sanctions by third countries,” including Washington’s possible economic restrictions against Nord Stream II. The “Communication on Strengthening the EU’s Financial and Economic Sovereignty” is to be ready by the end of 2020.

In June 2019, the economic ministers of both states signed a Memorandum on Partnership for Efficiency based on provisions from the position paper of the Eastern Committee of the German Economy (January 2019) intended for developing cooperation in principal economic areas such as energy, climate protection, nuclear security, outer space, healthcare, support for small- and medium-sized enterprises, further professional training, digitization, agriculture, visa liberalization, etc. In February 2020, in Berlin, Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier and Russia’s Minister for Industry and Trade Denis Manturov agreed to form a joint energy group.

In December 2019, the EU adopted the European Green Deal mandating a transition to a climate-neutral economy for EU member states by 2050; this deal became a challenge for Russia–Germany cooperation. Interaction with Germany on hydrogen energy could be a promising area for cooperation. Even though Germany and the EU’s hydrogen strategies do not mention Russia, there is every objective reason for Russia to find a niche in that sphere. The Eastern Committee of the German Economy and the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce (GRCC) deserve credit for bringing this matter up in their reports in early July 2020. On September 17, the GRCC formed a Hydrogen Initiative Group with a view to determining and promoting Russian and German companies’ pilot projects. On October 12, the Russian Government approved a “roadmap” for developing Russian hydrogen energy, which envisages active involvement by Russia in international cooperation.

The obvious challenges entailed by the Green Deal include introducing carbon tariffs intended to bar imported goods manufacture of which produces considerable СО2 emissions. Many Russian businesses had prepared in advance for this contingency by investing heavily in reducing their emissions, in waste treatment facilities and in circular technologies. Even so, they face an uphill battle as they attempt to convince EU officials that their products meet the European requirements. Today, Brussels mostly believes that all Russia-made goods leave a large carbon footprint.

Actually, Russia is arriving at comprehending, at all levels, that there are no alternatives to environmental thinking and conduct. For several years running, there have been successful Russian-German projects for introducing the most accessible technologies, primarily in the sectors that produce the biggest amounts of СО2. Despite certain difficulties, cooperation has been launched in environmentally friendly waste disposal and processing. Individual regions are becoming increasingly interested in environmental protection measures, building sustainable energy sources, in particular wind farms. Energy-saving technologies are being used in constructing new buildings and facilities. German companies have good opportunities for participating in Russia’s “green” modernization, though this has only just been launched.

Falling global energy prices and the rigid restrictions Germany and Russia have imposed on the movement of capital, services, and manpower have resulted in a decline in mutual trade estimated at up to 25% at the end of 2020. Drops in Russian exports to Germany are several times greater than drops in German exports to Russia since the two states’ economic cooperation is still largely tied to the energy sector, whose economic agents determine a significant part of foreign trade flows and mutual investment flows. Foreign trade is being restructured at a very slow rate owing, among other things, to the inadequate pace of Russian economic reforms and creation of a critical mass of competitive small- and medium-sized businesses. The state is taking steps to support the economic agents’ exports performance and incentive mechanisms are becoming more effective, but this is clearly not enough to achieve a qualitative breakthrough.

Even though the number of German businesses in Russia has fallen by about a third, the German business community remains the biggest and best organized among all foreign communities as it is continuing to invest and lobby its members’ interests. They name bureaucracy and protectionism on the part of the Russian authorities among the most prominent negative factors. In recent months, visa restrictions imposed in connection with the pandemic have become a significant obstacle. The GRCC obtains exceptions and charters special flights, but this does not solve the mobility problem for German top managers and for skilled professionals that assemble and service German-made equipment. The situation will clearly not improve during the second wave of the pandemic.

Russian companies in Germany have recently also faced frequent non-market problems but, unlike their German partners, they do not have such powerful support as that provided by the Eastern Committee and the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce, which can set up a direct dialogue between the country’s leaders and major entrepreneurs.

In conclusion, it is important to remind our readers that the year of Germany in Russia was officially inaugurated in late September. It will feature various events intended to introduce Russians to the culture and cutting-edge economic, educational and scientific achievements of Russia’s principal European partner. This year, Germany itself will experience difficult societal, economic and political developments that will shape electoral sentiment at the 2021 elections to the Bundestag, Landtags and local councils. The elections to the Bundestag will bring a new governmental coalition and a new chancellor and officially introduce a new period in Russia-Germany relations. On the one hand, Germany’s new leadership will assume a harder stance towards the Kremlin. On the other hand, following the initial interaction between the states’ leaders, there will be an opportunity for a joint search for a common denominator in both states’ interests and for ways of gradually emerging from the current crisis of confidence and achieving an understanding on the critical points on strategic issues and areas. Both sides already need to be preparing for this.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D in Economics, Deputy Director of the RAS Institute for Europe, Head of the Country and Regional Researches Department, Head of the German Research Center

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NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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Belarus divorces from the Eastern Partnership: A new challenge for the EU Neighborhood Policy

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the Eastern dimension of the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted back in 2009 aimed at deepening relations between Brussels and six Eastern European partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EaP has been regarded as a strategic initiative based on mutual interests and common values with a goal of strengthening political and economic relations with those countries, helping them enhance their institutional capacity through sustainable reforms. While increasing stability and paving the way for the sustainable development of those societies, the EU’s overall goal has been to secure its Eastern borders.

Since the very beginning the EaP has been suspiciously viewed by Russia as an attempt of expansion of the sphere of influence and as a first step of EU membership of these countries. Russians point to the EU and NATO ambitious expansion eastward as the main reason for complicated relations and in this context the EaP has been regarded with traditional fears and paranoic perceptions. The Russian hard power approach causes serious problems for the EaP which fails to mitigate security concerns of partner countries and to come up with serious initiatives for conflict settlement. Being a laggard in terms of soft power, the Russian ruling elite has continuously used all hard power foreign policy instruments at its disposal trying to undermine the coherence of the initiative. And the very recent démarche of Belarus to withdraw from the EaP should be seen in this context of confrontation.

On 28th of June, the ministry of foreign affairs of Belarus announced a decision to halt its membership in the EaP as a response to the EU sanctions imposed on Minsk accompanied by the recalling ambassadors from both sides. Actually, this isn’t the first case of the EaP walkout blackmailed by Lukashenko. The first escape was attempted in September-October 2011, but the difficulties were soon resolved and Lukashenko revised his decision. This time situation seems very complicated and these far-reaching tensions may have tough consequences for Lukashenko’s regime. This new group of sectoral sanctions which target banking, oil, telecommunication spheres and also ban the export of potash, is a harsh response from the EU against Lukashneko’s scandalous hijacking activity in May to detain a Belarusian opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich.

Lukashenko’s administration not only challenges the EU Neighborhood Policy and shows no retreat, but also goes forward escalating the situation. Minsk takes high risks freezing the Readmission Agreement signed by the EU. This document is a legal basis for bilateral cooperation aimed at struggling against irregular migration flows. It’s not a secret that the territory of Belarus has been used for illegal migration for the groups from the Middle East to penetrate into neighboring EU member states such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, Belarus territory has served as a transit route for smuggling circles going from East to West and vice versa.  And now closing eyes on all these channels, Minsk hopes to increase the bargaining power vis-à-vis Brussels. However, given the Western reactions, it seems that this time the EU is resolute.

Despite the fact that Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, described this withdrawal as “another step backwards” and even threatened that “this will escalate tensions having clear negative impacts”, the EU wants to continue working with the Belarusian society  as Josep Borrel stated. The EU’s determination to keep the bridges alive with the Belarusian people, in spite of Lukashneko’s radical stance, is aimed at preventing further isolationism of Minsk which would benefit only Russia.

In contrast to the increasing level of tensions with the EU, the Russian authorities continue to support Lukasheno’s administration, thus trying to deepen the gap and to bring Belarus under their total influence. Russia uses Belarus in its chessboard with the EU and the USA in Eastern Europe. Last year’s fraud elections and brutal crackdown by Lukashenko left him alone with the only source of power stemming from the Kremlin. Thus the withdrawal from the EaP should be understood not only as a convulsion of the Belarusian authorities in response to the sanctions, but also Russia’s employment of the Belarus card to respond to the recent joint statement of the EU-US summit in Brussels, when both parties declared their intention to stand with the people of Belarus, supporting their demands for human rights and democracy simultaneously criticising Lukashenko’s regime and his reckless political behavior and also criticising Russian’s unacceptable behavior.

So, Lukashenko’s step to quit the EaP can be seen as a well-calculated adulatory sign towards Moscow sacrificing the last remnants of sovereignty in order to receive financial and political lifebuoy amid the increasing crisis in the result of sanctions.  And the recent visit of N. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, to Minsk right after the withdrawal decision shows Russian inclination to strike while the iron is hot and to abuse the vulnerable situation of Belarus. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of foreign powers is to change the power in Belarus and he suggested instead of focusing on internal issues, to bring their forces together against external threats as their influence affects internal developments. For this reason, deeper integration of security and military services of both countries are on the table.

The reaction of opposition leader S. Tikhanovskaya was very rough, stating that this suspension will cut the opportunities of ordinary citizens who benefit from the political and economic outcomes of the EaP. Moreover, she claims that Lukashenko doesn’t have a right to represent Belarus since August 2020 and his decisions don’t have legal consequences for Belarus. This kind of approach is shared by the leadership of Lithuania too, whose president and minister of foreign affairs not only refuse to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president, but also highlight the role of the Kremlin in supporting the dictatorial power of Lukashenko in exchange for decreasing sovereignty.

The blackmail of Lukashenko to challenge the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy  in order to have the sanctions lifted may bring about such kind of precedents with other partnering countries as well. First of all, this concerns Azerbaijan which continues to face serious problems related with human rights, freedom of expression, the problem of Prisoners of War and other traits of authoritarian power. It’s well-known that  human rights issues have been the underwater stones in the EU and Azerbaijan relations and they continue to pose new challenges for Aliyev’s non-democratice regime. Another weak ring of the EaP chain is Armenia. Even though reelected N. Pashinyan is eager to pursue a balanced foreign policy, post-war Armenia still faces serious limitations given its vulnerable dependence on Russia. Besides, Pashinyan’s main rival and the former President R. Kocharyan, whose alliance will be the second largest faction in the newly elected Parliament has recently stated that this new parliament can last up to one and half years and nobody can exclude the possibility of new snap elections. His pro-Russian attitude and anti-Western stance are well-known and in case he becomes a prime-minister, there is no guarantee that he will follow the path of Lukashenko. 

Therefore  the statement of the Austrian MFA, that ”we cannot leave South Caucasus to others” during the  recent official visit of the Austrian, Romanian and Latvian MFA under the mandate of the EU High Representative to the South Caucasus, reminds  about the EU presence in the region and also the fact that the ‘normative power’ can be a source of balance and a status quo changer.

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Anti-Macron protests underline classism, as corona protesters and gilets jaune join forces

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photo: Alaattin Doğru - Anadolu Agency

I get it. People in France are fed up with the Covid lockdowns and that’s why they are protesting against the new tightening of the Covid rules. But there is much more to the story.

The new anti-Covid rules by French President Macron came in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival where the rich and famous come out to play for 10 days at the French Reviera. I was there, too, in fact when the new set of rules angered so many ordinary French people. But guess what — the rules didn’t apply to us, those gathered for the Cannes red carpets and parties. Celebrities did not have to wear masks on the red carpet. I did not have to put on a mask at the red carpets. I was not checked even once on the mandatory Covid tests which we took every 2 days anyways. No one at the Cannes red carpets, parties or fashion shows was looking at Covid tests at the entrance, and I attended not one or two things. That’s at the time when the rest of France was boiling. Yes, we were treated differently as the Cannes crowd. That was obvious.

Don’t get me wrong — spending tens of thousands of euros to drink champaigne, walk red carpets and hang out with actors, models, designers and influencers is great. But I couldn’t help but notice that the Cannes elite was being held to a very different standard in comparisson to the ordinary French public. Macron exempted the Cannes crowd from the new rules and that smells of classism and elitism. I can see why the gillets gaune, which I wrote about in my book Trump, European security and Turkey (2020), are angry and want to resume their protests which were put an end to with the Covid lockdowns.

In fact, as soon as you move one or two streets away from the craze and snobbery of the Cannes Festival, you see a very different French picture. Actually, the most pleasant conversations I had in Cannes were with the guy that made my pizza at 2am, a couple of gillets jaune on the street, and the taxi driver who lives in Cannes. These were the pleasant, hard-working French people that represent France so much better than the snotty Cannes Film Festival organizers, the French police or the so-overrated snobbery at the Chopard events. 

From the pizza guy in Mozarella Street I learned that he works two jobs and sleeps 3 hours per night. That’s the reality for many normal French people. Yet, he was the nicest and coolest person I met in Cannes. Somehow I wished that he could trade places with some of the rest I met in Cannes who probably don’t deserve to have an easy life and should be taught a lesson. So I get it. I get the struggle of the gillets gaune and all those that are opposed to Macron’s policies. He is increasingly playing with the far right and that might as well mean that he is looking at his sunset. 

I also get the classism that persists in French society — it’s important to be aware of it even if you’re on the receiving end of a lot of glamor, bemefits and good things. All I can tell you is that next time I am in France, I am joining the gillet jaune protests. Now I really get it. 

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