MAS Special ReportWeekly review

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

31 martie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 13 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. ROMANIA / EUROPE / GLOBAL. Coronavirus pandemic. II. WESTERN BALKANS / EUROPEAN UNION. Northern Macedonia and Albania may begin negotiations for EU accession. III. KOSOVO. The parliament falls Kurti government. IV. RUSSIA. Domestic and foreign “maneuvers”. V. Developments to track this Week 14 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

We are crossing a full swing pandemic which we face relatively well, considering the systemic vulnerabilities  surfacing every day, mainly from the health services. Even with a low contamination rate in Romania, we will get in trouble if the medical staff gets ill at the current rate, especially since we are still far from the turning point of seeing the number of daily contaminations plateau and then decrease. At European level, Italy and Spain are waging a tough battle, and Britain follows, then France and Germany. In economy, the countries struggle to overcome the first Coronavirus shock separately or together, and the danger is to have their economies “frozen”. At European Union level, a certain solidarity begins to emerge, with due limitations, which are blamed by those in waiting for support, especially Italy, who accuses Germany of selfishness (the old dilemma: what do we pick first, solidarity or financial responsibility?). The United States also faces the Coronavirus shock, and the world’s largest economy launches a giant financial program to cope with this crisis. However, Washington delays concrete measures of stopping the virus from spreading and now the Unites States became the main pandemic focal point. Besides presenting the pandemic developments and political-economic impact, we will investigate several political events unfolding in vicinity of Romania’s borders, in the Covid 19 context. This pandemic interfered with political developments in Kosovo, Russia, Ukraine and Israel, and current circumstances were used for political decisions with deep non-“viral” causes. 

I. ROMANIA / EUROPE / GLOBAL. Coronavirus pandemic.

In Romania, as well as in the rest of Europe, the pandemic is still far from being contained: the number of daily contaminations is rising, and is far from a plateau, after which they will start dwindling. Everywhere, economic effects start to show: after having the stabilization of stock exchange indeces, the economy continues to shrink and unemployment rises, while measures announced by the government begin to be implemented. Political effects also appear, such as the economy pressure on politics, power abuse and missuse of this crisis for political goals.

When talking about the increase in contamination, we will consider the number of infected individuals and morbidity (the number of contaminations over population ratio). One should consider that the number of contaminations is only as valid as the degree the authorities can test a relevant number of individuals (what we do not know that we do not know is dangerous). The number of victims is traumatizing and impacts upon both the individual and colective morale. It is also an indicator of the virus deadly effect, but it shows the overall medical system effectiveness as well, being relevant when reported to the number of contaminations (under 2% worldwide but almost 8% in Italy!).

·Romania. The situation is far from stabilized. Friday, on March 28th, an unexpected surge in number of contaminations occurred (probably as result of an increase in number of tests, which also speaks about the effectiveness of previous testing process). So, after the initial growth, from 12 cases on March 10th to 186 cases on March 24th, in two subsequent days the number of new cases was only 144 on March 25th and 123 cases on March 26th, then, on March 27, this number grew to 263, then down to 160 cases, to reach 308 new contaminations on March 29th! The trend in rising, with gaps in growth only as false signals. There were 1760 cases on cut-off date March 29th and authorities warn us to brace for the worst (the mathematic model of a ponderated exponential growth): after the next two weeks, Romania could reach 10,000 contaminations. There were 40 deaths until this past Sunday, (to 46 on Monday 30th) a 2.27% ratio, close to the worldwide mean figures. The most worrisome information though is about the medical corps: 17 hospitals in Romania were touched by SARS Cov 2 and over 150 personnel were contaminated. The paramount priority of supplying sanitary materiel to medical staff is obvious. We must secure a survival chance to the “frontline soldiers” we rely on in this war against the new Coronavirus. We are confident that the Romanian health system will prevail, the doctors and nurses are doing their best to rise at the level of current crisis expectations.

·In Europe, only a few countries near the beginning of pandemic containment, after having crossed a traumatizing nightmare. Across the continent though, the contamination still soars. We only have the explanation of a shock wave: the western nations were hit first, as they had more contacts with China at individual level. Then the eastern Europe countries having more contacts with the West followed, and Romania is a good example, with many workers in Italy and Spain. The rest of eastern Europe follows next. The contamination rate was determined by the speed the authorities implemented measures to diminish the mobility of individuals and by the health system effectiveness (testing suspicioned citizens and isolating he contaminated patients). Practically, Europe is cut-off and compartmented within each country. Italy and Spain, the most impacted European nations, are getting closer to the plateau of contamination rate. They are followed by France and Germany, which took early measures improving the containment curve.  The UK, which initially played the collective immunization card, is now speeding up to catch up, as well as the United States, which now ranks first in number of contaminations. It seems that collective immunization did not work, at least in UK (opposite to Sweden so far). Considering the contamination to population ratio, Romania ranks after Spain, Italy / UK, France, Germany / Austria, Czech R. / northern nations, Baltic included, but ranks ahead of neighboring countries. Considering that many countrymen will still return from red zones, we will likely remain there. However, preventive measures begin to kick in. Russia, which seemed to be not afflicted, starts to have serious problems, especially in the capital. Besides our ailment though, we should keep an eye to the situation in Republic of Moldova, where a concerning rise occurs, and their medical resources are similar to ours. Worldwide, the growth continues, with the U.S. as focal point now, and China declares it has stopped the growth, now recording only imported cases of Covid 19 contamination (a quite comfortable explanation from an ideological point of view).

·Economic measures against Covid 19 effects. Governments injected huge funds in economy. The United States and Europe, spearheaded by Germany, flooded their economies with necessary cash for keeping the ball rolling. For Romania, as long as the economy of the main economic power in the Free World – the U.S. and Europe’s most important economy – Germany, are still functional, there is room for our own economic measures to be relevant and successful. Of course, each nation has a program to measure its financial capacity and credit score.

The European Commission is seeking viable solutions with general positive outcome, but not at the expense of… national interests. Its decisions and European Parliament propositions converge in this direction. The keenest debate is within the Eurozone, on issuing European “Corona bonds” and it speaks to the burden sharing solidarity without any guarantee for a matching responsibility. Eventually, the problem was passed to finance minister level, and we wait to see the solution.

·Coronavirus political effects start to show. First, certain agreements between power and opposition are visible in almost all European countries, which is natural in functional democracies when everybody focuses on solving the most stringent problem, the pandemic, and its collateral impact. Hungary is an exception, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán prepares a package of bills allowing him a quasi-dictatorship by eliminating parliament control and by limiting freedom of speech. We will see how far he can go on March 31st, when these bills are discussed, as Brussels is watching, even during the Covid 19 full swing crisis. In Ukraine, President Zelenskiy bumped into the situation where Ukraine might become even more dependent on IMF loans, due to general coronavirus effects on financial markets. This weakens Kyiv’s position in negotiations with the IMF, as Ukraine’s parliament must pass economic laws requested by the IMF. Among these laws, there is one directly afflicting oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky (who will no longer be able to retrieve PrivatBank). The vote, originally scheduled for March 26th, was postponed, but the power in Kyiv cannot delay too long.

·Military and security effects. Almost in the whole Free World, on the background of established state of emergency, soldiers were put in the streets and engaged in virus repelling efforts. We cannot ignore that equipment bought from Korea were flown in with a NATO airplane. Everywhere, the military assembled field hospitals. The United States sent hospital warships to two large port cities affected by the Covid 19.  Although obscured by criticism noise, the wheels of NATO and EU, whence we belong, are turning and this means that we are not alone to face the crisis. Again, mind the Republic of Moldova, seemingly alone to face the pandemic; only Romanian and EU support can rescue it, if it hits rock bottom. Although the UN Secretary General call for a global truce was not totally applied, and some countries continue military activities, it is visible that the mankind is focusing, at least now, on this global threat from Coronavirus.

II. WESTERN BALKANS / EUROPEAN UNION. Northern Macedonia and Albania may begin negotiations for EU accession.

On March 27th, European nation leaders finally agreed to start negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania for accession to the European Union. Their decision to formally relaunch the EU extension process followed the March 24th decision of EU foreign ministers to green-light this process. This decision also ends the wave of disappointment caused in the western Balkans by previous European decisions (imposed by a group of nations spearheaded by France and the Netherlands) to postpone the start of negotiations with these two candidates. The trade-off solution was to change the integration process from a “jump into the EU” to a controllable and reversible process.

No date was set for beginning negotiations with the two nations, but, very likely, this will happen within a year, after the Northern Macedonia elections and after the situation in Albania has settled. In Northern Macedonia, the government just fell on the backdrop of this suspension of EU integration process, and in Albania the tension surged because the judiciary reform conducted by the government led to an “undeclared civil war” between the power and the opposition rallied around the president (who was not shy in calling for rebellion against the government, which he accused of a pseudo-coup de-état).  In both countries, the EU decision will influence the domestic political situation, respectively the fate of Northern Macedonian elections and the solution of power-opposition cohabitation in Albania. As a German official put it, “this is good news in these dire straits”. It is true, European strategy of stabilizing by integration continues in the Western Balkans. At the end of the day, we are all Europeans, regardless the wounds we bear from the political–social experiment Eastern Europe nations were submitted to.

France, the Netherlands and Denmark had requested the candidates to implement several reforms regarding the rule of law, the judicial system, good governance and economy, before beginning the negotiation process (“standards before status”). The other European nations, Germany first, preferred a quick and unconditioned start of negotiations, facing the danger of increasing Russian and Chinese influence in the region. The compromise meant transforming the integration itself into a monitored process, conditionally financed (hinging on reform implementation) and reversible. The benefits are obvious, the cards were put on the table. However, the disadvantage is that the process risks being delayed, especially since history proves that societies in the East are able to adapt after integration.

Bottom line, after the sad experience with former communist countries integrated in the EU, from Poland to Bulgaria, no more “cartes blanches” are granted to elites in candidate countries. Thus, Brussels is trying to avoid the situation where new member nations endanger the EU stability by having some of their high-ranking citizens, “with non-western mentalities but arriving to decide in the West”, continue their old bad habits: domestically, by subordinating the judiciary, by corruption and abuse of power, and abroad, by threatening to create an anti-European powerhouse at European level, in alliance with anti-EU populists active in the West. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is in top for all such anti-European actions (and eventually anti-Hungarian, as they, politically speaking, hold back this nation, a country previously champion in democratization). Of course, this behavior is not imposed by a solid ideological basis, Viktor Orbán’s “Christian illiberalism” is just a fantasy which even Angela Merkel’s tolerance cannot comprehend. It is just a survival reflex, but even so, it cannot justify blocking the Hungarian society’s European development in the name of those invoked as argument. Consequently, the new procedure brings clarity: instead of controlling the EU, such new members will be controlled by the EU.

The European Commissioner for enlargement, Hungarian Olivér Várhelyi best described the geopolitical significance of this decision: “This also sends a loud and clear message to Western Balkans: your future is in the EU”. This decision is also good for the European Union: we are now sure that Europe will retrieve all Europeans, from Macedonians and Albanians to Serbs and Bosnians. For Romania, this is a victory too, and it will become greater when we see neighboring Serbs integrated into the EU.

III. KOSOVO. The parliament falls Kurti government.

Kosovo’s government fell after the March 25th non-confidence vote in the parliament, in full Covid 19 crisis. The non-confidence motion was voted by 82 deputies against 32 nays. The motion was raised by the Kosovo Patriotic League (LDK), the very partners of prime minister Albin Kurti’s Vetëvendosje party in the Cabinet. LDK reacted when interior minister Agim Veliu (LDK) was dismissed by Albin Kurti, who opposed Veliu’s proposition to declare state of emergency in order to cope with the Coronavirus, on the grounds that such measure would… cause a “useless panic”. The general development already proves Veliu right, as 60 contaminations were reported in Kosovo until cut-off date March 29th.

However, Veliu’s dismissal is just the tip of the iceberg, as differences between the two parties are deep, and the LDK centrist balanced policy only forcibly came in bed with Vetevendosje nationalist radicalism. LDK opposed the way Kurti partially raised the tariffs imposed to goods imported through Serbia or Bosnia and voiced for an integral lifting of these tariffs, considering that only such measure would unlock the impasse with Serbia and negotiations might be resumed. This is also the position of EU and U.S., who resorted to reprisals (USAID activity in Kosovo was suspended) and threatened with American troop withdrawal from KFOR. Nevertheless, Albin Kurti persisted with his “sovereignistic” radical approach.

The crisis might prove to be profound, and the probability of restoring LDK - Vetëvendosje coalition is low. The possibility of organizing early elections is also low, due to the pandemic. For the moment, impulsive Albin Kurti will remain interim prime minister, and his party, Vetëvendosje, will submit a proposal for prime minister in the next 15 days. But what name should it forward, since no party wants a coalition with Vetëvendosje. LDK needed more time, several months, to negotiate a coalition, than it needed to quit the coalition – only one month! 

Reactions by main Kosovo sponsors to the non-confidence motion were various: U.S. ambassador Philip S. Kosnett wrote he was happy that a parliament session would be held to discuss the non-confidence motion, while the German ambassador Christian Heldt wrote that LDK should reconsider its position and forget the non-confidence motion. These reactions show different positions regarding the Vetëvendosje and Albin Kurti: The United States does not tolerate their unrealistic radicalism, while Germany seems to accept such attitude. A harmonized position between the two powers would look nice, as they will play an important role in stabilizing the political situation in Kosovo, just ahead of difficult choices for hard-to-achieve objectives: 1) restoring the LDK – Vetëvendosje coalition, with Kurti’s promise he would accept LDK and U.S./EU requests for integral and unconditional lifting of tariffs at Serbia’s border; 2) working on a new coalition, between LDK and part of the UCK legacy; This is difficult to build though, because LDK cannot tolerate the UCK remains, as UCK was the force which blocked Kosovo’s development through a clan nepotism which raised corruption to unbearable levels; 3) a larger coalition, but what on Earth would glue their members together, more than the current Coronavirus danger which, regardless its high life-threatening risk, is not a political element?

At the end of the day, Kosovar politicians must learn that, since they own a country, they should govern it responsibly, because politics is the art of possible, plus administration, not guerilla warfare (albeit blatant corruption or outraging radicalism). Until then, Kosovo is in a political crisis and solving the conflict with Serbia, although of paramount necessity, is indefinitely postponed.

IV. RUSSIA. Domestic and foreign “maneuvers”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not waste time and, profiting the Coronavirus pandemic crisis, when Russia was barely touched, announced the implementation of economic and financial measures which were, in fact, prepared long ago for balancing the budget stressed mainly by U.S. sanctions and plummeting crude price. The most important measure is taxing the dividends leaving Russia towards fiscal paradises. In foreign policy, Moscow tries to profit from Covid 19 crisis, which is now pressing especially the West. Thus, at the G20 table, Russia proposed to have the sanctions lifted. In exchange, in Donbass, Russia increased contact line attacks, since, in Minsk, Ukraine refused to sign a document proposed by the separatists, who aimed at being recognized as partners with Ukraine on equal footing in negotiations, respectively having their legitimacy recognized by the government in Kyiv. Russia committed again an aggression against Ukraine by sending two maritime drilling rigs for exploring in Ukraine’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Although it conducted sympathy gestures, Russia continued naval activities in proximity of NATO nations. Meanwhile, the Coronavirus crisis started to gain momentum in Russia too.

  • Economic and financial measures announced by the president. In a March 25th broadcast, President Vladimir Putin announced financial slacks for some social classes (small businessmen, young families, blue collar workers) in the predictable context of economic problems to be caused by Covid 19. For these measures, the president announced “original” financial sources, which seem to have been thought long time ago, even before the fall of oil price and which meant to balance the budget. Opportunistically, these measures were tossed on the table camouflaged in current pandemic context. Putin announced changes in the fiscal code for taxing the Russian haves (who were transferring their money abroad in tax havens), but also changes in bank deposit taxation to 13% of interest rates for deposits exceeding $12,500 (hitting especially Russian middle class). Last year’s VAT increase and the retirement age increase had hit the middle class and Russia’s fat cats. Thus, Putin breaches an unwritten pact with Russian rich class, whom Putin constantly tolerated, despite a claimed “focus on the people” (non-taxed dividend transfer to fiscal paradises was the standard way Russia’s haves were protecting their money). President Putin also announced the postponement of his national referendum meant to approve the constitutional changes. This is a natural move in current circumstances, although there are other causes as well: a recent poll shows that Russians are divided regarding the constitutional changes allowing the putinist political system to become permanent.     
  • The separatists forced events in Minsk. Rushing to profit as much as possible and as quickly as possible from the gap opened by Kyiv by accepting to talk to them, the separatists presented in Minsk a document regarding measures to reduce military activity along the contact line; that is disengagement. The document itself is relatively unimportant, a cease-fire and disengagement measures (breached by the separatists) being already established in Normandy format, but the formal aspect was important, as the separatists were about to appear on equal footing with Kyiv, in a formal document. Ukraine’s representatives did not sign the document, and the effect was immediate: increased violence on the contact line.
  • Russia sent two drilling rigs in Ukraine’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Never mind the coronavirus pandemic, aggression must go on, now in the EEZ of Ukraine. After having occupied Crimea, the Kremlin considers it has the right to claim and use as much as it can from Crimea’s territory. Russia sent two drilling rigs / platforms (former Ukrainian property, captured when Russia occupied Crimea) with naval escort of Russia’s Coast Guard and Black Sea Fleet to perform economic activities in the Odessa maritime perimeter, far from Crimea.

On March 28th, Kyiv announced that Russia transferred two drilling rigs, the “Crimea-1” (formerly “Ukraine”) and the “Tavrida” into the Ukrainian EEZ. Imagery presented by Ukrainian border authorities show Russian guided missile warships escorting the two platforms. Ukraine already filed a complaint to the Hague tribunal regarding such constant illegal activities, and recent actions only add to this dossier. Caution, Russia pushes the EEZ claimed after Crimea occupation as far to the west as possible, thus getting closer to Romania’s EEZ. Even if a peace solution is found in Donbass, (although there are no signs of any such outcome), the delimitation of exclusive economic zones in north-western Back Sea is a bone of contention itself, since Russia uses force for imposing arbitrarily decided limits. So, the perspective of new tensions in the maritime space IVO Romania starts growing.

·Russian military actions continued in Crimea and in other regions and maritime zones. Although it seemed that Russia was going to reduce its military activities, in the context of coronavirus pandemic and in compliance with the call issued by the UN Secretary General, as other countries did, including the United States, the Kremlin seems to have acted in the opposite direction, except for the mission in Italy (more diplomatic than effective, according to Italian press).

We only list the main Russian military actions: 1) Russia concluded a series of exercises in Crimea by parachuting 1500 soldiers. Let’s notice that landing an airborne brigade is rarely conducted in a defensive scenario, especially in a theater such as Crimea; the likely scenario practiced in this exercise was very likely, offensive; 2) Russian Black Sea Fleet warships deployed in the Mediterranean Sea conducted an exercise; 3) in Kaliningrad exclave, exercises with Iskander M ballistic missile systems were conducted; 4) in the North Sea, British Royal navy was forced to deploy seven warships to monitor the Russian naval activity conducted with nine warships and auxiliary vessels; 5) in the Far East, Russia sent a fleet of 18 warships and auxiliary vessels in a mission in the Pacific Ocean; 6) intelligence (ISR) warship Yantar and two auxiliary vessels were detected close to the French coast. After a mission conducted by Russian strategic bombers over Pacific waters, Russian air activity was reduced, probably as result of the tragedy in Crimea (a Su 27 aircraft fell into the sea, and the pilot is MIA). Regardless claims that these activities were planned long before, they indicate actions of checking adversary reactions in the situation of a natural disaster (such as the current Covid 19 crisis), as well as intimidation / deterrence actions (the exercises in Kaliningrad). Certainly, adversaries remain adversaries even when Russians are busy to  display solidarity during a crisis as the Coronavirus pandemic. 

V. Developments to track this Week 14 of 2020.

► ISRAEL. “Blue and White” leader Benny Gantz was elected speaker of the parliament (Knesset) with votes from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. This spectacular turn of events is the first step for implementing the agreement reached by the two leaders on forming a national unity government with participation from Likud and the “White and Blue” (whatever is left of it, after many Gantz supporters left this political formation, being outraged by his decision). Gantz motivated his agreement with Netanyahu with the situation caused by the Covid 19 pandemic which also hit Israel. However, this is a fair explanation provided by a general; in fact, politician Gantz yielded to Netanyahu. The latter achieved his crucial objective: he will remain prime minister in the new government, at least in the first part of the mandate. Details matter: will Gantz’s coalition get the Justice and Communication ministries? If so, the society will end the pressure of a right – religious right alliance which seeks to deeply change Israel. This seems to be the case, otherwise why would Gantz have conceded? (especially since he knows that Netanyahu might forget his promise and deny handover after his half of the agreed prime minister mandate ends). We will see this week not only the way the government is formed, but also the way Israeli center-left regroups after this blow.

► AFGHANISTAN. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to Kabul, seeking to make peace between the two camps competing for supremacy in Afghanistan (President Ashraf Ghani’s and political rival Abdullah Abdullah’s). After the failure of this endeavor, the United States cut the financial support to Kabul government. This did not produce visible effects yet, although the two Afghan leaders cannot postpone too long an adequate reaction to this measure. Ghani proposed to the Taliban a dialogue commission, which the Taliban rejected. Mike Pompeo met Taliban representatives, indication that the U.S. and the Taliban continue their dialogue as agreed in the signed document. The power in Kabul is to adopt a unique position, although chances are slim, as “the Panjshir Lion” Mossud’s son warned. 

► LIBYA. Although the two worrying parties seemed to steer towards signing an agreement (at least this is what they claimed), this did not happen. The EU did not wait for that to happen though and initiated the naval mission to enforce the arms embargo established by the UN to Libya. Let’s see Turkey’s reaction, especially since western sources presented satellite images indicating embargo breaching.