MAS Special ReportWeekly review

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

17 martie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 11 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. ROMANIA / GLOBAL. Coronavirus hit Romania, and its global impact soars. II. TURKEY / EUROPEAN UNION and NATO. Recep Erdoğan visits Brussels. III. RUSSIA. The Parliament passed constitutional changes securing Vladimir Putin forever in power. IV. HUNGARY / REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Viktor Orbán visits Chişinău. V. UKRAINE. Kyiv accepted direct dialogue with the separatists.VI. Developments to track this Week 12 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

Two unusual threats strike Europe: the coronavirus and the migration wave used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to threaten European nations. There are also the “constitutional changes which change nothing” in Russia, and the strategic partnership between Hungary and the Republic of Moldova. The bold yet risky step made by Kyiv in negotiating with the Donbass separatists is an event with important consequences. However, the main threat comes from this invisible enemy called coronavirus, which reached Romania and threatens the life of each of us.

I. ROMANIA / GLOBAL. Coronavirus hit Romania, and its global impact soars.

Without a very quick growth, coronavirus reached Romania and we will have to face it together. Starting this very Monday, established state of emergency will allow the authorities to perform more effectively in limiting the spread of coronavirus, perhaps at the expense of shrinking some of our civil rights. This is not the problem though, but our civic mentality, the key of effectively implementing the official strategy for containing the virus spreading.

At global level, the WHO labeled coronavirus as pandemic, with Europe as focal point now, after seeing China stepping down in number of infected individuals. Europe barely manages to cope with this challenge, and Italy is in a critical situation, while each European nation, more of less affected, takes mitigation measures: 1) diminishing foreign transfers of persons, firstly by reducing air transports, then by closing borders; 2) establishing state of emergency and limiting community activities (less reunions, closed shops); 3) adequate medical measures. In the EU, everybody did the best they could, with coordination and some synchronization, matching current circumstances. The question is how long this first wave will last and when it will end, since experts talk about the need to achieve a natural immunization of the whole population. The British government first gambled this natural path, but Monday 16th changed course to isolation measures. However, almost all governments were informed by experts on expected developments: this explains Angela Merkel’s declaration regarding having eventually 60-70% of Germany’s population infected. Many of the decisions are interpreted from a political perspective, although, in many cases, it is not appropriate. Finally, the communities can only wait and work to limit the virus spreading, by complying with the individual and general protection measures established by the authorities. One of the important factors determining the way countries and societies will overcome this crisis is the degree of civic education, respectively the degree of social cohesion in countries and societies (the measure we truly deem that we belong to a community and perceive this above our own fate).

In Romania, as expected, the number of infected people keeps rising. Although disturbing, the coronavirus spread only follows a mathematical law, where the “natural” exponential growth is limited only when everyone obeys the rules established by the authorities, at collective level. Despite the measures taken, Italy is overwhelmed by the virus spread, which is a warning regarding the need to control virus spread as early as possible. The situation in Italy and Spain already afflicts Romania because we are closely linked to these countries, and Romanians began to come home from there. Spread limitation speaks both to the authority effectiveness (willing or not, their actions now have “right of life or death” on the citizens), and to each of us responsibility, especially if we have the bad luck to get ill. Therefore, we must think about the others. This is a war each of us will wage by himself and we will win only together[1].

Pandemic impact on economy. At global level, a general economy crisis looms large, initially by breaking supply chains, then by slowing the growth rate of important countries, China in the first place, with due effects: stock exchange panic, fall of crude price and other macro and microeconomic effects. Most governments announced measures to stimulate the economy in order to overcome this moment, the Federal Reserve bank in the United States announced interest rates close to 0%. For Romania, the situation is that not that bad: we are in the European boat (not as well seated as we could have been) and will sail together with the other nations, spearheaded by the heavyweights, Germany being the key actor. Hopefully, maintaining the virus spread under control and reducing its impact on the economic activity will diminish the investor reluctance and make the stock exchanges recover (capitalism remains about trust!).

The decrease in oil price seriously affected the oil producers and exporters, on the backdrop of Russo-Saudi negotiation failure and China’s economic slow-down, as well as that of other countries. Moscow refused to diminish production, and Riyadh reacted by flooding the market with cheap oil, for diverting Russia’s customers. This led to an even deeper decrease in oil price, to a level seriously afflicting both countries, yet especially Russia (despite trustful statements by Moscow’s finance minister). The third important crude producer, the United States, with most afflicted producers (because their production costs are the highest), reacted adequately: as America is also a large oil consumer, Washington bought massive amounts of cheap crude for its strategic reserves. This not only allows the U.S. to benefit from the low price, but also contributes to recover the oil price towards the usual value, and thus help its own producers. Russia will likely yield, as it is not as prepared as Saudi Arabia to cope with this race, on the long run. Moscow always needs high crude prices. The secondary effect is immediate: there is Russia with less money from oil export (the basis of Russia’s income) and with Kremlin who will turn less aggressive, at least for the near future.   

Political impact. Current political systems are seriously tested under a lower tolerance of the population regarding the authority incompetence, either in dictatorships or democracies. The virus appeared in Wuhan by a mutating stem, on the backdrop of low hygiene in food markets and authority obtuse measures to hide the outbreak. Chinese officials already started the narrative that coronavirus was brought by… American soldiers. The United States reacted promptly, by a State Department statement and by summoning the Chinese ambassador. We will see more such actions, as the “opportunity” is too generous not to be used in the ideological struggle, respectively the political battle.

II. TURKEY / EUROPEAN UNION and NATO. Recep Erdoğan visits Brussels.

Turkish Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s March 9th visit to Brussels marked the moment of truth: he did not get anything, although he continued to blackmail with the migrant wave. He failed at the European Commission, where truths were presented bluntly, and he failed at NATO, although he was treated with diplomacy. The EU asked Erdoğan to stop his blackmail and live by his commitments assumed in the 2016 agreement. So, the EU can negotiate with calm, free of the migrant wave blackmail, which was firmly rejected thanks to the determination proved by Greece, who did not falter in defending its borders.

At NATO Headquarters, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg diplomatically declined Erdoğan’s request for support to his military action / adventure in Syria. Stoltenberg firmly told Erdoğan that NATO accomplished its duty to Turkey; the one not behaving according to the rules was Ankara, who acted by its own will and following its sole interest, against the Alliance policy; Turkey interfered in Syria when and how it wanted, and now requests unconditional support from NATO, which was not consulted before initiating aggressive actions in Syria.

President Erdoğan requested NATO political and military support. He requested the Alliance more support in the escalating conflict unfolding in Syria, expecting an unequivocal solidarity from the allied nations, because “Turkey’s border with Syria is NATO’s border with a conflict zone” (the border which Ankara crossed even when the Allies did not agree) and because “Europe cannot afford the luxury of ignoring the situation in Syria” (that is true). Turkey requested more air defense systems (to deter its… “Russian partner!”) and ELINT aircraft. Jens Stoltenberg responded to these requests that NATO already strongly supports Turkey. He reminded the large investments made by NATO in Turkey.

Turkey’s NATO allies will likely act balanced and adequately to various domains. Politically, a declared support will come, especially from the United States. Militarily, we will likely see the Anglo-Saxons acting geopolitically and providing a limited involvement in support of Turkey, but only when Ankara acts within the margins of common interests. Then, there will be European nations which might send air defense systems to defend Turkish air space. Finally, the European heavyweights will speak with one voice, both in NATO and in the EU, rejecting the notion that a country requesting support threatens them with a migrant wave. Even at NATO HQ, Erdoğan found out he has isolated himself by the policy he pursues, and he might get only limited, not wholehearted support out of trust in an Ally faithful to NATO principles. It is still well enough, as Turkey must remain inside NATO even with an autocratic regime and a leader hostile to the West. Recep Erdoğan throwed it in Jens Stoltenberg’s face: "NATO is in a critical process in which it needs to clearly show its alliance solidarity... Our allies should display their solidarity with our country without discrimination and without laying down political conditions... It is very important that the support we demand is met without any further delay". Nevertheless, the reality shows that Turkey’s position in NATO is critical, and Ankara must prove it is faithful to the Alliance and its NATO allies, especially the European heavyweights.

At the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen showed determination to prove the EU geopolitical weight and, even before the meeting, said that the EU would not yield to Turkish blackmail with a migrant wave sent to Europe’s frontiers.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared that discussions showed clearly that “there was a clear focus on, 'Let’s discuss what is fact. Let’s sort out how both sides see the past and how we evaluate the EU-Turkey statement'.” Formally, EU and Turkey agreed to review the 2016 accord on migration. After the discussions, Charles Michel declared that teams led by foreign ministers of Turkey and EU would negotiate, "in the next days to clarify the implementation of the deal between Turkey and the EU to be certain that we are on the same page". President Erdoğan made no statement, he left immediately after the meeting. Later, Ankara announced it would continue to leave the borders open, in view of next week meeting in Turkey, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. However, Turkey stopped allowing the migrants to cross the sea, on the grounds that the sea is rough and dangerous now.

The discussion positions were established before the meeting: the EU accused Turkey of blackmailing with the migrant wave, and Recep Erdoğan accused the EU for failing to welcome more migrants and failing to comply with the 2016 agreement, i.e. not paying Turkey the promised amount of money. Erdoğan requested EU to fulfill its 2016 commitments regarding: 1) granting visa waver to Turkish citizens; 2) a new customs agreement (probably more advantageous to Ankara); 3) progress in Turkey’s accession to the EU (negotiations on this issue were suspended after the failed coup d’état in Turkey and the autocratic policy chosen by Erdoğan regime).   

We will see how Recep Erdoğan reacts to this foot down put by European leaders. He will likely persist in blackmailing the EU and will stay the course in his demands from the EU. Erdoğan cannot withdraw from this tough approach, especially since his domestic policy began worrisome after a new party split from the AKP[2]. Considering that Erdoğan persisted in threatening the Europeans, his upcoming meeting with Macron and Merkel turns decisive. The EU will likely yield in the financial chapter, but not to the other requests issued by Ankara.

III. RUSSIA. The Parliament passed constitutional changes securing Vladimir Putin forever in power.

The State Duma (Russia’s Parliament lower chamber) passed the constitutional changes which adapt Russia’s Constitution to current regime requirements, in order to secure President Vladimir Putin in power, albeit with the illusion of a “constitutional reform”. These changes were also passed by the Federation Council (the upper chamber), and will be submitted to Constitutional Court review, then subjected to popular vote in a national referendum. The magic occurred during the last reading of the bill in the State Duma, when, having a “surprise attendance” by Vladimir Putin, a deputy proposed resetting the number of mandates a president is supposed to serve. Putin accepted, under the provision that the Constitutional Court accepted such change (heart-warming legality, praise to the Lord! Of course, the Constitutional Court will do what President Putin demands). In fact, there was a well-staged bad play, which Vladimir Putin used in order to remain president without breaching the Constitution. Very likely, the president and surrounding Chekist-oligarch circles considered this was the safest way for the regime.

On March 14th, Vladimir Putin signed into law the bill on constitutional reform allowing him, among others, to candidate for ad additional two presidential terms. On March 10th, during the last reading of the bill, the constitutional changes were supplemented with the proposition made by deputy Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in outer space) that Vladimir Putin be allowed to run again for president, although, according to the previous constitutional stipulations, he was not entitled to. As all other changes, this proposition was passed unanimously by the State Duma. Then, the Federal Council (representing the regions) also unanimously passed these changes. Besides this final adjustment, essential for keeping Putin in power, new wording offer new powers to the parliament and to the president, as well as increased power to the State Council. After validation by the Constitutional Court, the electorate will approve the new Constitution on April 22nd. Very likely, Russian voters will rubberstamp the changes, considering Putin’s popularity, the lack of any political opposition or any transparent democratic process (in fact, since Vladimir Putin took power, voting in Russia is no longer either free or fair). These changes create a new framework for balancing the power among institutions, but it is, indeed, a formal balance, as the power rests with the president, who will continue to dominate all state institutions, as a dictator. Dmitry Peskov declared that Vladimir Putin would have changed his initial ideas, when he was talking about a more reduced role of the president (and declared that he would not remain in power till Kingdom come), due to “global instability”.  

Now, we see that everything is as before, and the changes were made just for changing nothing, that is only for securing to Vladimir Putin the possibility to remain president after the end of current mandate. Therefore, the question is whether we witnessed just a political circus, and the objective is to keep Putin as president, or other options were on the table too, and they disappeared in the process. The answer is in the middle. Very likely, from square one, the objective was to keep Putin president for another two terms (Vladislav Surkov gave the first signal, when he spoke about resetting the count). On the other hand, the changes truly seek a new power structure able to work post Putin, but the power circle cannot risk transferring the power to a father-figure dictator only based on a hasty experiment. Therefore, the system changes but remains the same, with Putin as Deus ex machina, and the future will prove whether the system can work without the political force of Putin’s personal dictatorship[3].

Finally, we witness a continuation in the Kremlin power, with everything pertaining to that. It is interesting to watch not the way Vladimir Putin wins the future elections, but the way he will work to make the new system functional. Considering the Soviet tradition, and the right-wing dictatorships as well, one might say that real power would follow this line: president, with political decisions taken in the National Security Council, administrative decisions in the government, part of the domestic decisions (especially regarding the regions) to the State Council, and the parliament decisions made according to the legislative architecture. Putin’s main problem is that he failed, so far, to build a strong “state party”. Although God is mentioned in the new Constitution, one can see that somebody else stuck its tail in and made everything happen so smoothly: Russia’s old democratic Constitution was replaced by a text which better fits Russia’s de facto dictatorship.

IV. HUNGARY / REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Viktor Orbán visits Chişinău.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán paid a visit to Chişinău, where he signed the “Declaration on Strategic Partnership between Hungary and the Republic of Moldova” (RM)[4]. This partnership extends the bilateral cooperation and Hungarian support for RM’s European integration. On this foundation, bilateral relations will increase in fields such as: security, economy, commerce, transport, agriculture, tourism, health and science. The two nations will engage in common actions in support of RM’s European integration process and will extend the activity of the Mixed Intergovernmental Commission for RM – Hungary Economic Development. Viktor Orbán declared that this “strategic cooperation means cooperation in democracy… and extending economic cooperation” (as RM trade partner, Hungary ranks 13). Hungary’s intention to offer RM a 100-million-USD credit was announced. Viktor Orbán warned Chişinău that “it is not easy inside the EU, but it is better to be inside than outside”.

In principle, this strategic partnership engaging in developing democracy, supporting RM European integration and economic cooperation is a very good thing which Hungary, in a full-scale European expression, does for “the second Romanian state”. Hungarian support is commendable in the economic field, sincerely hoping that the promised support will reach the simple Moldovans. But talking about democracy and support for European integration to RM seems odd, because the Chişinău government does not seek any progress in democracy or European integration: reforms are frozen, by assessments of European representatives themselves. In addition, the Viktor Orbán regime failed the tests both in democracy and European spirit, Budapest itself being a problem that Brussels must cope with. There are many questions about the real objectives, but we better wait to see this strategic partnership implemented, especially in the first domain mentioned above, security. Why does Budapest support a regime with anti-democratic trends, lacking a European agenda, pro-Russian, when it could have better supported a true pro-European government, such as Maia Sandu government was? At that time, Hungary was doing something else: was offering to support Romania’s government… against the European Union! The answers are known; therefore, we can only hope that Budapest really offers $100 million to RM, and that money really reaches to Moldovan citizens.

V. UKRAINE. Kyiv accepted direct dialogue with the separatists.

After Ukrainian press circulated information on this topic, on March 13th, the head of Presidential Administration Andriy Yermak announced that Ukraine would officially engage in direct negotiations with the pro-Russian separatists in Donbass. This is an unprecedent event in the six-year-old conflict ravaging this east-Ukraine region. This steps contradicts Kyiv’s known policy to negotiate only with the aggressing power and separatist sponsor Russia, fearing that accepting direct negotiations with the separatists will only bestow legitimacy upon them. According to Yermak, during the following weeks, a Consultative Council (CC) will be established, and Ukrainian and separatist representatives will participate in that council on equal footing. In the CC framework, implementation of Minsk peace agreement will be discussed: “We must agree our position with representatives of the non-controlled territories”.   

Andriy Yermak offered these declarations after the March 11th official document was presented in the Ukrainian press. This document was signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE and it stipulates: 1) a future exchange of prisoners; 2) two new contact-line crossing points will be opened between Ukraine and separatist territories; 3) direct discussions between Ukraine and the separatists will begin, in view of future disengagement at the contact line in Donbass; 4) the Consultative Council will be established. This will include ten representatives of Ukraine, ten of the separatists, as well as one representative each from OSCE, Russia, France and Germany. All decisions will be adopted with three quarters of these members. These decisions will be considered recommendations, not legally binding commitments.  

Yermak has stated that this step does not mean recognizing the separatists and does not represent direct negotiations with the separatists (which would mean treason, by Ukrainian laws), although decentralization will be discussed in the framework of these talks, as well as elections to be organized in the territories controlled by the separatists (according to Steinmeier formula). Decentralization is the legislation by which Russia wants to get control on Kyiv’s domestic and foreign policy, through the separatists. 

Let’s see, first, how President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will cope with the strong reaction by Ukrainian opposition, but that of Ukrainian society too. Then, let’s see what the precise role of CC proves to be. Anyway, Zelenskiy made his move and he showed is willing to take risks. A new Transnistria might emerge in Donbass, as Russia desires. However, the good thing is that the danger of a new war diminishes.

VI. Developments to track this Week 12 of 2020.

► RUSSIA. In the Netherlands, the trial regarding MH 17 airplane downing began. The trial has four separatist indictees charged with bringing the BUK air defense system of Russia’s armed forces to Ukraine, and this equipment was used to down the airliner. The four in the box include a former separatist leader and a “former” GRU officer. However, they are only middlemen, and the two main culprits are not accused yet, for lack of evidence: the one who pushed the button (most likely a Russian soldier) and the one who took that decision at the highest level (leads send to the sorcerer apprentice of hybrid war, Vladislav Surkov). The Court noted Russia’s attitude to refuse cooperation in this investigation, which Moscow obstructed both by presenting (about four) false scenarios, and by barring access to witnesses. In fact, Dutch Prosecution mentioned it would not reveal the names of witnesses, fearing they would be executed by “death squadrons”. The unfold of this trial is worth monitoring, because it proves Russia’s direct intervention in the Donbass war, which now wants to mediate.   

► RUSSIA / NATO. Russian strategic bombers, escorted by MIG 31 fighters conducted flights in the Arctic region, IVO Norway. It seems that the center of gravity of tensions between Russia and its neighbors shift north, where Russia wants to grab an as large as possible part of the Arctic maritime areas.

► IRAN / UNITED STATES. Iraqi pro-Iranian Kataib Hezbollah militias attacked with missiles the U.S. Camp Taji base north of Baghdad, killing two American and one British soldiers. The United States and the United Kingdom responded by a large air attack on Syrian bases of these militias (who are sponsored by Tehran and fight for Bashar al-Assad). The incident is extremely dangerous, as Tehran strikes by proxies and causes victims they wanted, in order to revenge the death of General Qassem Soleimani. The U.S. reacted promptly, and we will see next whether Washington will settle just to strike pro-Iranian militias. The Pentagon kept two air-naval battlegroups in the Gulf, which is an indication that the United States is preparing for the worst. 

► GERMANY. The domestic security agency BfV announced that part of the far-right party AfD, the Höcke “wing”, is an extremist association and will be subject to its surveillance. Discussions linked to AfD extremism surged after the attacks committed by neo-Nazi radicals against German citizens of non-German ethnicity. Germany starts to defend itself against political extremism, a process which will be followed by other European nations too.

[1] So, all of us together in complying with the rules or… we disappear one by one, with no exception: this invisible murderer is the first authority which cannot be lied to by any scoundrel (the national successful product of our recent history). An advice for everybody, especially for the wise guys we are not short of: obey the competent, do not yield to various questionable theories, the situation is very serious. We will overcome this too, but as a people, not as a collection of individuals. We will suffer individually, but we will be delivered together! Already worrisome, rules were breached by persons having worked in uniformed institutions (law enforcement), behaving as hovering above the law (they either lied or behaved irresponsibly or both). Make no mistake, the virus is random, it does not care about fickle jester play which worked so well in our society.

[2] Turkish electorate tolerated Erdoğan’s policy of grabbing state institutions (including justice), when Turkish economy went well, due to the industrious dynamics of a middle class favored by the AKP party, which destroyed the “deep state” monopoly on economy. The problem is that, now, AKP itself created its own “deep state”, which has less common ground with democracy than the “bayonet-supported democracy” implemented by the Kemalist state. Kemalist Turkey was compatible with western democracies and found a natural place in NATO.

[3] The big problem of dictatorship: it is easy to turn people into obeying but abusive servants, the problem is how to turn these servants into personalities answerable to the nation, although they obey a dictator. In the post-Soviet system, the real power of a public servant starts in the moment when he abuses official power for his personal interest, in a network of feudal connections, with loyalties, servilism and gratitude. The public servant cannot reach there if he does not belong to the feudal system, and he stays there only to serve the feudal system, not the state or the people.

[4] Interesting, both parties talked about “Moldova”, which, by this name, is a region of Romania, they did not talk about the Republic of Moldova, which continues the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (of the USSR), which stems from a province of Moldova previously called Bessarabia, split from Moldova by the Czarist Empire, in 1812.