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30 aprilie 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments - WEEK 17 of 2019

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Sursă foto: Mediafax


I.UKRAINE. Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected president.

II.RUSSIA grants citizenship to inhabitants of separatist regions in Donbass.

III. FRANCE. Emmanuel Macron continues liberal reforms.

IV. CHINA. The Road and Belt Summit.

V. Developments to track this Week 18 of 2019.


I.UKRAINE. Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected president.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected President of Ukraine, but the pressure upon him has started even before his inauguration. While the oligarchic elite is prepared to defend their power by all means, Russia already escalated the tension by simplifying the procedures for citizens in the Donbass separatist regions applying for Russian citizenship. Thus, V. Zelenskiy loses his main leverage, his openness and moderate stance, albeit unclear: he is now forced to respond by actions which will diminish the unifying role he wanted to play domestically, and that of a moderate pacifier in solving the conflict with Russia.

The results of Ukraine’s April 21st elections were 73.2% for Zelenskiy against Petro Poroshenko’s 24.4%. The elections were considered, in general, free and fair. Zelenskiy’s victory was perceived as the electorate’s rejection of the current political elite, held responsible for the endemic corruption, economic problems and the failure to solve the conflict with Russia. The participation was significant – 62%, which secures the necessary legitimacy to Zelenskiy’s tenure.  

Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko conceded defeat, thus allowing a smooth transfer of power in Kyiv, the only democratic achievement in Ukraine so far. Or it used to look like, because the first problem already popped up. On April 25th, V. Zelenskiy declared that, due to the delayed annnouncement of election results by the Electoral Commission, he cannot dissolve the Parliament and announce early general elections.     

Zelenskiy strongly needs snap elections for implementing his agenda. Right now, he has no political force in the parliament and he needs general elections to establish a supporting majority in the parliament as foundation for forming a government. It is the only way he can implement necessary reforms, without support in the parliament he has only limited powers. Right now, Zelenskiy’s chances to win in would-be parliamentary elections are big, on the backdrop of the enthuziasm the change brought. However, in time, his chances dwindle to a minimum if he waits until the general elections scheduled for October. The Ukrainian law forbids dissolving the parliament and organizing early elections less than six months before the scheduled elections. Therefore, Zelenskiy needs to be inaugurated president no later than May 27th to benefit the chance to announce snap elections.

This is the first big question: will the current establishment preclude Zelenskiy’s chance for change through a technicality, i.e. the Electoral Commission unforgivably delaying the official announcement regarding the presidential election results? The “patriotism” claimed by the poltical forces in power should make them abide by the law and allow Zelenskiy the chance to perform. However, when did the kleptocracy put Ukraine’s interests before its own interests, especially for a president who promises to be "a simple man who has come to destroy this system"? Perhaps the western pressure will force the current power to refrain from such abuse.

The current establishment did something else as well, it left a heavy legacy to Zelenskiy by passing the “language law”. On April 25th, the Ukrainian Parliament passed the law regarding the sole official language status for the Ukrainian language, which becomes mandatory in all public institutions. This law forces all citizens to speak Urainian in public offices, all public employees, from simple front desk clarks to doctors and teachers. Very likely, Petro Poroshenko, still president in office, will sign this law, because he promoted it during his efforts to consolidate Ukraine’s national identity. Russia reacted immediately by describing this law as dividing the society and discriminatory to the Russian language speakers.  

On one hand, adopting the Ukrainian as a state language and depriving Russian language of its role in the Ukrainian society seems the natural thing to do when consolidating the national identity, considering that Russia has used this during its open or disguised aggression against Ukraine. On the other hand, however, this law puts unnecessary presure and increases the tensions within the Ukrainian society. So, it offers an argument to Moscow and feeds its narrative regarding Kyiv’s persecutions against the Russian speaking minority. It is obvious that a large portion of Ukraine’s population, especially in the East and South, will be very unhappy about these measures. Nevertheless, the current power is not interested in controling the discontent, but is interested in imposing its point of view. That is more true since the establishment does it with no cost, because it will be the next president to pick up the bill for the complications resulting from implementing such law. A colateral victim is the Romanian minority in Ukraine, which does not thrive at all right now, at least from a national point of view.

The immediate major effect of this law is sabotaging president-elect Zelenskiy by undermining his moderate yet unclear position, that provides him the unifying role. Zelenskiy reacted frustrated to this maneuver by the current power, but he cannot do much to diminish the effects of this law upon society. This will make more difficult his burdensome task of finding a path to consolidate the national identity without splitting the Ukrainians from the Russian speaking population. Instead, Zelenskiy speaks about promoting the Ukrainian language, not imposing it by force. With the language law as legacy, Zelenskiy’s mission will be increasingly difficult.

The populist component, promoted by both Zelenskiy and Poroshenko, adds to these measures, and P. Poroshenko announced his intention to further play an important political role in Ukraine. Both camps announced they would postpone the increase in gas price, that was requested by the IMF in exchange for extending the financial agreement keeping Ukraine afloat. The IMF agreement is vital for Ukraine, especially after 2020, when its economic situation will worsen because Russia will by-pass Ukraine as a transit country for Russian gas towards the West.

The Ukrainian oligarchic forces retrieved the power in Kyiv after president Yanukovich’s pro-Russian oligarchs fell. It seems that their strategy is to complicate the situation to the level where Zelenskiy will be unable to do anything from his initial moderate yet blurry stance. Zelenskiy was handicapped anyway for lacking a political platform and a political party to support him and secure for him the control of  Ukrainian legislative and executive powers in absence of a clear strategy. Zelenskiy must identify an acceptable solution in generating a functional political system able to oust the current oligarchic establishment, and solve the economic problems as well. This mission becomes more and more difficult, if not impossible, considering that Russia’s pressure adds to these tasks.

Except congratulations and encouragement messages from western leaders to Zelenskiy, the western support will not be too large, especially in economy, because nobody can sponsor a “black hole” forever, and Ukraine acts like a black hole in absence of a functional democracy and economic reforms. However, no matter how consistent the western support may get, this double pressure, domestic and Russian, is applied upon a new president who does not know yet how to get what he wants – peace, justice and food for everybody. Such objective is generous, but it belongs to the realm of idealism, not reality. Meanwhile, Moscow is consitently pursuing its strategy in a game of no concession, and the name of that game is Ukraine. Moscow is forced to this strategy if it wants success in its foreign policy, of recovering Russia’s sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space and also securing its domestic stability.  

II. RUSSIA grants citizenship to inhabitants of separatist regions in Donbass.

Russia’s initial reaction to the result of Ukrainian presidential elections was low-profile, considering it was too soon to decide whether it could work effectively with Zelenskiy. But that did not last long, and Moscow reacted in force by publishing the decree to facilitate the procedures for granting Russian citizenship to the inhabitants of Donbass separatist regions.

The decree adopted by the Kremlin on April 24th simplifies those procedures for 3.7 million inhabitants of the self-proclaimed Popular Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Only three days after Zelenskiy’s victory, Russia put him to the first test, although President Vladimir Putin had declared that “we have no desire to create problems for the new Ukrainian leadership”.

Kyiv requested the inhabitants of separatist regions to refrain from applying for Russian citizenship, and called upon the international community, UN included, to protest such development. The western reaction was as expected, the US, EU, other European nations protesting this measure, which breaches the international laws, because Russia grants citizenship to the inhabitants of a territory it occupies.

Russia responded by comparing this measure with other situations it considers similar, and President Putin asked why so much indignation for this case, while no reaction was recorded when Polish, Hungarian and Romanian citizenship was granted to inhabitants of other countries.

This Russian position can be easily dismantled: 1) The separatist regions are Ukrainian territory, and Ukraine does not accept double citizenship; 2) The region is separatist, de facto occupied by Russia, as result of a Russian armed aggression, which is a breach of international law. What a mistake the West made when accepting the Russian narrative that “tractor operators” were fighting in Donbass, not Russian troops and paramilitary forces created by Moscow! By Russia recent decision, the occupant indeed annexes this territory, without openly acknowledging it; 3) The cases V. Putin presented were peaceful measures, in agreement with the laws of the host nation, measures which did not change the judicial situation between those countries: no territory annexation took place, no armed aggression either, and no perspective of such development ever appeared; 4) In Romania’s case, the Romanian citizenship was not granted on ethnic basis, but historical – all former citizens of Romania are entitled to be granted Romanian citizenship, and it comes with the advantage of a “European passport” for non-EU individuals. Therefore, the first Russians to become European citizens are those from… the Republic of Moldova, who applied and were granted Romanian citizenship. There are enough arguments regarding the huge difference in granting citizenship for support and granting citizenship to occupy a territory.

By this measure, taken before Kyiv made a good sense of Zelenskiy’s victory, Russia prepares the ground for future negotiations by consolidating the separatist regions and its links to those territories. Very likely, the inhabitants in Donbass will rush to get Russian citizenship, rightfully expecting that such achievement would bring them big advantages, from material rights to escape from isolation.

In fact, Russia simply “legalizes” the annexation of this Ukrainian territory. So, Moscow will see Donbass as Russian territory, when it considers it needs such approach. Moscow will also see Donbass as Ukrainian territory inhabited by Russian citizens, in its negotiations with Kyiv. There is a precedent in Transnistria, although there is a different conflict situation there, a “frozen” case[1].

For the President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, this decree is a first signal that his strategy of appeasement towards Russia and negotiating peace will hit a wall: The Kremlin wants to capture Kyiv, not the peace or solving the conflict. An indication surfaced in this respect: V. Putin announced he was studying the possibility to grant Russian citizenship to ALL inhabitants of Ukraine.

In the new situation in Kyiv, Moscow moved decisively, and its move is an important element in deciding the future of Donbass separatist regions: Ukraine will not be able to recover those territories short of the price of limiting its own sovereignty, that is accepting a limited control over two regions with Russian citizens, but yielding to the separatists an important role in Kyiv. Practically, it spells accepting to implement the Minsk Agreement in Russia’s terms as the only way Moscow considers acceptable for ending the conflict.

As expected, Ukraine enters a difficult period, because Russia does not leave to the new president any chance to reasonably end the conflict. Maybe the worst is yet to come: first, Moscow expects Ukraine to drawn in its own blood, with a rookie president sabotaged by the local oligarch power and by today’s officials in public institutions, allied with the oligarchs.  

III. FRANCE. Emmanuel Macron continues liberal reforms.
On April 25th, during a never-ending press conference, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, announced new measures meant to liberalize the economy, that is tax reductions and compensatory social measures. He announced the continuation of liberalization measures despite the opposition of various social layers[2], and he told the French they need to work longer[3]: “We must work more, I’ve said it before... France works much less than its neighbors. We need to have a real debate on this”. Macron reaffirmed his intention to continue on the path of reforms, the only way to continue the “transformation of France”, despite the challenges raised by the Yellow Vests, and afflicting the society and the economy. However, he ruled out any extension of either working week length or retirement age. President Macron also announced tax cuts adding to 5 billion Euros. That should encourage the middle class of entrepreneurs to relaunch the economy; the financing of this tax reduction is to be done through a more adequate taxation of certain companies.

President E. Macron also proposed an increased participation of French electorate in decisions by relaxing the legislation regarding referenda. That came perhaps in response to the accusations of having split from the French voters by ruling in favor of the rich elite. Macron attempts to regain the French’ trust, but he expressed his views in a blunt way and he tried to impose a maybe too liberal reform package in a tough way, more suitable to the Anglo-Saxon world. This behavior brought him a significant decrease in the polls, down to 30% (however, on the rise now from much lower figures, before the “great national debate”). Precisely for diminishing the gap between the rich elite and the rest of the population, Macron proposed no more no less than closing the famous National School of Administration (ENA - Ecole Nationale d’Administration), the elite school that trains France’s corporate and political leaders. Macron himself an ENA graduate, said that new ways needed to be found of recruiting top-class civil servants. This looks like a simply populist statement, which will likely be watered down later.

President Macron continues a strategy of combining liberal measures with sugarcoating social measures. He initiated this strategy in December, during the climax of Yellow Vest street protests. The social measures taken in December were addressed to the low-income population and cost 10 billion Euros. In this context, Macron announced that the pension reform would commence in the summer, but he offered guarantees that small pensions would be increased by inflation rate anyway.
On a short-term, Macron tries to revigorate his political movement, En Marche, which might perform badly at the May 26th European elections, being in danger to be defeated by Marine Le Pen’s far right party.
Interestingly, Macron’s success in the upcoming European Parliament elections is more important now to Europe than to France. The victory of his En Marche party is very necessary for the mainstream pro-Europeans (ranging from Social-democrats to the Conservatives) in the future European Parliament against the anti-European populists and extremists. The victory of the liberal economic model is also important not only for France, because the alternative is the chaos the extreme right would bring along, but is important for the whole Europe, where the populists, cynical or blinded by peculiar short-term interests, steer their countries towards economic crisis, from Italy to Eastern Europe nations. And all this is happening when challenges to the EU get stronger and stronger, both the challenges against security, and those against European economy.
IV. CHINA. The Road and Belt Summit.

The “Belt and Road” forum organized on April 26th in Beijing provided the opportunity for a new evaluation of this giant economic project (1000 billion USD), but also a debate on the political impact this project brings.

The Chinese leader Xi Jinping used this opportunity to offer guarantees that all negative aspects regarding the way China behaved would be removed. Chairman Xi promised that subsidies granted to Chinese firms would be eliminated: "We will overhaul and abolish unjustified regulations, subsidies, and practices that impede fair competition and distort the market", Xi said. "We will treat all companies, enterprises, and business entities equally and foster an enabling business environment based on market operation and governed by law". 

Leaders of 37 nations attended the forum in Beijing, including from Russia, Italy (the only G7 member nation present at that level), and Serbia. Germany and France sent representatives at minister level, and the US did not send anybody from Washington.

The United States and the European Union criticized the Chinese project for tossing the participating nations in debts[4]. In this respect, Chairman Xi provided guarantees that "we also need to ensure the commercial and fiscal sustainability of all projects so that they will achieve the intended goals as planned". In the same time, in order to repel the accusations regarding China’s alleged habit of corrupting the local elites to gain favorable contracts, he assured the participants that "everything should be done in a transparent way and we should have zero tolerance for corruption".

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, had only appreciative words for the Chinese projects, indication that, in the current political situation, Russia cannot oppose those projects, although it is worried of the speed China’s economy advances in Central Asia.

China and its “Belt and Road” infrastructure mega-project represents the biggest economic challenge for the near future, implying both dangers and opportunities. The western criticism is solid, but the West does not offer an alternative to the Chinese huge project. Beijing acted like a colonial power by adapting to the “local cultural specific = corrupt elite”, but the effects are visible already and China must provide guarantees that such practices will stop. It is little likely that China will keep these promises, because it has more pressing concerns than conforting the scruples of “Belt and Road” participating nations, and those concerns reflect Beijing’s need of economic stability when at trade war with the US. As against any challenge, the European nations should adapt and identify a unitary answer. Will they?


V. Developments to track this Week 18 of 2019.

  • SPAIN. The parliamentary elections this past week-end are probably the most important in Spain’s recent history for two reasons: the main theme was not the economy but the Catalan problem and the extreme right Vox party upsurge as an important political force. Previous polls brought little relevance because a quarter of the Spaniards were still undecided just before voting. The Socialist were leading and now we know they won the elections (164 seats), but short of a majority (174 seats needed). They will need to make an agreement with the anti-austerity extreme left Podemos Party, but they might also need regional parties like the Catalan and Basque nationalists. That cooperation would only make the previous situation repeat and feed the criticism from the extreme right that such alliance would ruin the country. Before the elections, the Socialists also ruled out a center government with the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens, now winning 57 seats) and the far-right Vox. The Vox option would be hard to swallow in a country where the Franco regime memory is still looming. Spain raises a warning about what tolerating separatism means, and about the danger of letting the far-right rise, when the far-right poses as a champion against the danger of separatism. It looks like a Socialist – Ciudadanos governing arrangement would keep Spain in the mainstream, clear from extremism of any sort. Will they achieve that?
  • REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. As expected, the Socialists only simulated discussions with the ACUM, an alliance between the two forces being solely hypothetical. The perspective of early elections is increasing in R. Moldova, and the mixt voting system has been reconfirmed by a Constitutional Court decision. Notably, although unabatedly obeying orders from Moscow, socialist leader Zinaida Greceanîi declared, after meeting the EU representative / ambassador Peter Michalko, that „Republic of Moldova strongly needs to reestablish financial and economic cooperation with foreign parteners”. This means that, although Moscow dictates to the Socialists what needs to be done in, the Socialists themselves know very well who pays the bills – the EU and the US. Thus, the Moldovan boat now steers towards early elections, and the supreme leader Vlad Plahotniuc probably hopes to win a more clear victory next time. That would be the only way Plahotniuc’s Democrat party can continue to govern, as the ACUM does not want to sacrifice itself useless, and the Socialists do not have the Kremlin’s approval for an alliance with the Democrats.
  • UNITED STATES - IRAN. Trump Administration’s decision to stop the exceptions for Iranian oil export embargo for certain countries (including India and Turkey) will have a large impact on the Iranian economy and will put Iran in a quite difficult position. Tehran must find a solution involving Russia and China, and the option to close the Hormuz Strait is only propaganda. We enter a decisive era of Iranian – American tensions, and President Donald Trump seems determined to solve this problem, although no peaceful solution rises at the horizon. He already has a list of unsolved problems: North-Korean dossier grew more complicated after “friend” Putin got involved, and the same Venezuela. Only the Afghanistan case looks improving after the US, China and Russia reached an agreement regarding the withdrawal of foreign forces and leaving the Afghans to find a solution.

[1] Notably, after the Socialists’ failure to reach a majority in Chişinău, the new plan Kozak, promoted by Igor Dodon, faded away: the authorities in Tiraspol rejected it, and Moscow considers that discussing it is of no longer urgency… until the next attempt.

[2] The Yellow Vest movement conducted its 23rd week of protests, although with reduced intensity, yet more radicalized.

[3] France has one of the harshest tax systems (54% of the GDP), but also the shortest working week (35 hours).

[4] Sri Lanka is a good example for having to lend a harbor to China for 99 years in exchange for its debts.