MAS Special ReportWeekly review

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

28 aprilie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 17 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. ROMANIA / EUROPE / GLOBAL. Coronavirus pandemic. II. EUROPEAN UNION. European Council Reunion. III. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. A loan as dangerous as a sovereignty loss. IV. ISRAEL. Netanyahu and Gantz agree to form a new government. V. Developments to track this Week 18 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I.ROMANIA / EUROPE / GLOBAL. Coronavirus pandemic. The most dangerous phase of Coronavirus pandemic, the quick spread phase, appears to be overcome by most western countries, and their leadership starts now to focus on finding solutions for the economic crisis. Russia is in the middle of fighting the pandemic, having now an increased contamination rate. In Romania, we can say that we see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we should better not rush to reach it! Experts warn we should better keep calm: after the initial battle, when we isolated ourselves to avoid dying from Covid 19, we will start another battle, that of ‘learning to live with the virus’. This new battle requires a bigger responsibility from each of us towards the individual next to us.   

·ROMANIA. It seems that we reached the top area of the Covid 19 pandemic, and the problem is no longer a national security issue, but it remains a major health crisis.  The risks should now be managed towards a gradual exit from lockdown, and towards coping with the entailing economic crisis. The main indicator shows a positive trend: the doubling rate of contamination stretched from 15 days to 22 days (starting with 25 days, some European countries have initiated relaxation measures). The total number of contaminations almost settled: a steep decrease, with an additional 190 cases on April 19 and again 190 on April 20, an average level of 321 on 24, a leap to 468 on 22, followed by a slow stabilization: 386 / 23; 321 / 24; 218 / 25, and a new leap to 401 on April 26. The contamination case number vs population ratio dwells at a low level of 55 cases for 100,000 inhabitants, meaning 11,036 cases, whence 3,054 healed. The number of deaths remains relatively low, with 3.1 in 100,000 inhabitants, which means a total of 601 deaths until April 25th. The number of tests reached 136,518. We should say that the test speed is still relatively low comparing to other European countries and, hoping that no new contamination hotbeds will appear (which explains the count leaps), we believe that the first hurdle is passed. We are now to start living normally again, in the community, but knowing that the Coronavirus is still lingering among us. 

·EUROPE. Most European countries are off the heat and the race back to normality began, in order to avoid the second crisis, the economic aftermath of Covid 19. Western Europe crossed the pandemic peak and gradually eases the interdictions. Central Europe countries are near the peak and also initiated relaxation measures. However, the relaxation pace and strategy remain various, although the EU initiated recommendations, which might provide certain synchronization. Two countries in the East remain in the critical phase of pandemic: 1)  Belarus and Russia are still in a dangerous situation, with a 7.5-day doubling rate, respectively 8.5 days; 2) the medium growth rate group of countries: Ukraine (11 days) and Bulgaria (13 days; something went wrong in Sofia, as the doubling rate went bad); 3) the group with low growth: Republic of Moldova (15 days), Armenia (17 days), Hungary (18.5 days), Sweden (18.5 days), UK (20.5 days), Romania (21 days), Turkey (21.5 days), Poland (23.5 days), and Slovakia (24.5 days); 4) countries facing the Covid 19 downhill: Germany, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, and Serbia. Slowly but surely, the pandemic is no longer a major threat for the European countries, and Romania and our neighbors fit the general relaxation trend. 

·RUSSIA. The pandemic covered the whole country, wreaking havoc in Moscow. Despite measures limiting mobility, the SARS CoV 2 spread rate is high, and it stresses an already overwhelmed health system: in Moscow, ambulances waited for hours (even 9 hours!) to hand over patients (a hospital was quickly built up, but the problem is not solved). Stunningly, opposite to the solutions in the West, the military were not decisively employed in solving the crisis[1].

Political issues are visible even during the pandemic struggle. The Kremlin reacted slowly and cautiously to protect the image of President Putin; the system pillar should not be tainted whatever the end state will look like! As the Covid 19 crisis will have no winner, the whole responsibility to fight the pandemic falls upon region governors (although they were appointed to obey Moscow, not to take decisions themselves; additionally, they lack financial means, as the money comes from Moscow). Although he shows up more and more often, President Vladimir Putin presents himself as the leader overseeing the local and central administration from above. This plan is futile because, should things go south, the Kremlin’s strategy will not work: the Russians know very well who is running the show! If the situation worsens, perhaps the EU and the United States will provide medical support to Russia, especially since, in full-swing Coronavirus crisis, the bill is picked up by the average Russian, for whom the Kremlin’s aspirations to reconquer the post-Soviet space don’t mean zilch.

Economic and social problems resurged quickly, especially in neglected regions (such as Ingushetya), because the economic measures taken by the Kremlin are limited by low financial means (mainly the reserve fund) in an increasingly complicated situation. The Kremlin already faces a difficult social and economic situation, which kept worsening due to several cummulative structural factors:  Russian economy remained dependent on raw material exports, and the fall in oil price led to budget crush. In the same time, sanctions effects keep pressing. Highly likely, current crisis will seriously stress the stability of Putin’s Checkist political regime and his ideological scaffolding. 

·UNITED STATES. With 19 days doubling rate, the United States has crossed the pandemic peak, but the number of victims is that high that guilt is sought for. President Donald Trump came at odds with several governors (mostly Democrats) regarding the pace of lifting mobility restrictions: central power is busy relaunching the economy, while local officials are worried about the number of contaminations. Meanwhile, protesters demand restrictions to be lifted. The American nation is more divided than ever, and President Trump is not alien of generating this situation. Chinese political leadership has been identified as the culprit for the outbreak (by non-disclosing the true situation before it was too late). This will become the main foreign policy issue during the presidential election campaign, but this does not exonerate President Trump (who had two months and several indications, but reacted slowly, perhaps for not harming the economy). In conditions where mammoth economic programs keep flowing, the United States problem does not seem to be getting out of the crisis, but the political split of American nation, especially considering the upcoming presidential election campaign. Abroad, let us notice that President Trump chose Romania as a close nation to offer support to, and this feels well, because America remains America, that is the most powerful nation in the world.


II. EUROPEAN UNION. European Council Reunion.

During its April 23rd reunion, the European Council approved the 540 billion Euro emergency fund plan. This document had been previously negotiated by Euro Zone countries’ finance ministers. Important steps were made regarding the most pressing issue, the long-term economic recovery plan, that “new Marshall Plan” which the European Commission (EC) is taking about. In this regard, the schedule and value were established: three years starting with January 1st, 2021, and at least a trillion Euros, maybe two trillion Euros tops). Thus, an agreement has been reached on the value and, more important, on principles necessary to secure a balance between grants and credits, that is between free money and cheap money (although discussions are still necessary and will continue).

The lack of details made investors worrisome and cautious, but it seems that an accord has been reached on the main issues: the way this fund will be established, and the way it will be accessed. For better or for worse, the issue of this recovery fund was linked to the EU multi-annual budget. The positive trend was provided by Germany, who signaled it was ready to increase its financial contribution. At the same time, the Italian ‘Corona bonds’ proposition was dismissed for lack of legal basis (the European Union treaty does not mention anything of the kind). Most of the political problem, a rift between North and South, was somewhat overcome, and the issue became financial and economic.

However, a new South vs East problem appears, with Spain and Italy pointing that Hungary and Poland are to receive more money from the EC, only for supporting social classes sympathetic to authoritarian regimes, especially in Hungary. The plan says that, in the multi-annual budget, some cohesion funds would be reduced and repurposed for economic recovery. This economic recovery includes a possible ‘return of assets back home from China’ by western investors. In these circumstances, Romania will have to cleverly work its way and find a solution allowing it to join the competitional and productive West in benefiting from this ‘return from China’ and preserve its cohesion funds as well. At the same time, Bucharest should make sure it will not be associated with autocratic and anti-European regimes, such as the Hungarian regime. We might feel alone in such endeavor, but not really: we are in a situation offering the opportunity for a new start, now, when we know how Europe likes its coffee, and we know that other paths lead to dead ends.

Finally, the EU not only found an economic solution securing its exit from the crisis, but also found a minimal political unity, necessary for its future. Details must be decided soon, and this might prove to be as difficult as the capital decisions already made. The EU is far from turning into ‘The United States of Europe’, but, forcibly, Europe makes an additional step towards integration (a strong stimulus is the very fear that this wonderful construction called European Union might collapse).


III. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. A loan as dangerous as a sovereignty loss.

In the middle of current Covid 19 crisis, two consecutive events occurred in Chişinău, and both gamble with Republic of Moldova (RM) sovereignty. First event is Russia’s attack on RM sovereignty, with President Igor Dodon paying his debts to Moscow: his government accepted unacceptable conditions for a loan from Moscow. And this happens when RM has alternatives. In the second event, ‘with last resources’, RM defended its sovereignty: The Constitutional Court (CC) admitted discussing the non-constitutionality claim (raised by a member of Pro Moldova, the Plahotniuc wing split from the Democrat Party / PDM). This claim challenges the loan law (passed in the Parliament by the Socialists, with complicity of the Democrats[2]). Previously, CC judges had removed Igor Dodon’s henchman, Vladimir Ţurcan, from the Court board. 

First, Prime Minister Ion Chicu announced that an agreement had been reached with Russia for a 200 million Euro credit. Chişinău executive assumed governmental responsibility and the agreement was approved by the Parliament on April 23rd. The Parliament passed the bill after two readings, both with 56 ballots from the Socialists / PSRM and the Democrats / PDM. The economic stipulations are disadvantageous themselves[3], but this is not the main problem. The danger comes from the unclear stipulations that RM company debts to Russian Banks can be transferred as debts of the RM government, provided an agreement by the RM authorities is given (terms are unclear in Romanian language, everything hinges on the wording in Russian language, not on the Romanian language version: either ‘according to’ or ‘in coordination with’). Regarding the ‘RM agreement’ wording, it is not specified who is supposed to provide this agreement: Ion Chicu says is will be the Parliament, but the danger is that this agreement can be given by any official, from the government to another RM high representative. The only decision-maker will be the Russian side, which will discuss according to its version of the document, in Russian language, signed by Chicu (in fact, negotiated by President Igor Dodon, in non-transparent conditions).

Where is the cache, because this is the problem, is there a cache? This Russian scheme has been used before, in the nineties, and it is simple and effective: only one RM official is needed to play Moscow’s tune. Perhaps the big prize is viewed, and this is Moldovagaz, which pays the gas imported by RM from Russia, including for separatist Transnistria.

Moldovagaz is owned by Russian Gazprom and by RM, in co-participation. Currently, Moldovagaz owes Russia the huge amount of $6 billions because, while Chişinău constantly pays for the gas it uses, the authorities in Tiraspol never paid anything. Of course, every citizen in Transnistria pays for the gas he uses, but separatist leaders use the money for other purposes. Thus, the separatist region uses Russian gas, but it does not pay for it (a separatist leader, Yevgeny Shevchuk said that “only cowards pay their debts”). What might happen in the near future (and will certainly happen, this is the whole point of this machination) is that, after clearing Ion Chicu’s agreement, at the opportune moment, a RM official will agree that, based on this document, RM will be forced to take all Moldovagaz debts, that is all Transnistria’s debts to Russia. Therefore, Russia will get $6 billion for its occupation of Transnistria, and RM will pay Russia for illegally occupying its territory. It seems that the predator met the prey, but, in fact, the KGB handler met his agent.

Then, on April 24th, RM Constitutional Court suspended the law, including the implementation procedures for the 57 Act of April 23rd regarding the ratification of Russia – RM agreement on contracting the 200 million Euro loan. CC responded to a non-constitutionality claim: in the context where the opposition had criticized the agreement bill, deputy Sergiu Sârbu, with Pro Moldova parliamentary group, had filed such claim to the CC. Therefore, Igor Dodon’s plans were blocked by RM’s Constitutional Court.

Previously, CC judges had removed its president, Vladimir Ţurcan and replaced him with Domnica Manole. CC judges reacted to Igor Dodon’s abuse, when he called (on the phone) the CC president V. Ţurcan, to press him on this matter. On April 23rd, CC judges decided to chastise Vladimir Ţurcan[4] by a non-confidence vote (voiced by judges Nicolae Roşca and Liuba Şova) and fired him from the position of CC president. The new CC president, Domnica Manole, presented the reason of CC revolt: “the discussion between the two high state dignitaries, which cast doubts on the independence of the Constitutional Court and its judges, and touched the public opinion nerves, could not be ignored by the Constitutional Court judges”. Several analysts believe that this reaction is a small revenge by Plahotniuc against Igor Dodon. If so, we can only deplore the country where underground Mafiosi defend the sovereignty of their nation from blatant high treason. Perhaps, considering Vlad Plahotniuc’s ‘long reign’, he might still hold certain influence on the judges. However, in this case, CC judges acted according to the law and RM fundamental interests, and they defend RM against Russia’s attack on RM sovereignty committed through actions by two RM high officials.   

As expected, Igor Dodon plays Moscow’s tune and seeks methods to make RM yield whatever it still holds, its sovereignty and independence. The danger will increase more and more, as the Kremlin loses patience with Igor Dodon, and he must deliver (he did not get one million dollars a month for nothing). Anyway, in Chişinău we only witness a temporary victory by the Constitutional Court in favor of RM true interests!


IV. ISRAEL. Netanyahu and Gantz agree to form a new government.

The miracle occurred as a last ditch, on April 20th, when the two political adversaries signed an agreement to form a ‘national emergency government’, in the Coronavirus context. However, this accord might calm the situation in Israel for the next three years. Although signed by leaders of the two parties, White and Blue (Kahol Lavan) and Likud, the agreement is, in fact, between the two leaders. This agreement ‘saves Israel’, and Benny Gantz gets enough leverage to control the future political development of Israel; at the same time, Benjamin Netanyahu ‘saved his skin” by gaining enough guarantees he would further play his prime minister role. Israeli analysts judge the agreement is, in fact, a contract where each party took solid measures it would not be cheated by the other party. Notably, again, this solution proves Israeli genius in politics as well.

Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister for the next 18 months, then this position will be taken over by Benny Gantz. During the first 18 months, Gantz will be vice prime minister (‘substitute’ / ‘alternate’), a position raised to higher importance especially for securing a future, because Netanyahu contemplates his political career after his prime minister tenure, and Gantz wants to control Netanyahu’s every move during the first 18 months. The government will have 32 ministers, and later 36, after the end of Coronavirus crisis. In addition, 16 new positions of deputy minister were created. This inflation of ministers is necessary to Netanyahu for appeasing the religious right / extreme right parties. He will sign agreements with these parties, to whom he offered these pseudo-positions (of low importance or just made up to fit the demand). Nevertheless, these parties understood the situation, one of their leaders declared: "Netanyahu is showing us the door". But, for Israel, this development is positive: rebalancing the power, respectively the political stage, towards the center.     

Benny Gantz will be also defense minister, where he will be able to directly control annexations in the West Bank, as the Ministry of Defense oversees this issue. Gabi Ashkenazi, who remained with Kahol Lavan, will be foreign minister, and Avi Nissenkorn (also Kahol Lavan) will be minister of justice. However, Avi Nissenkorn will be shadowed by Netanyahu’s people. Also, the Left (Labor), who remained allied with Gantz, will have the Ministry of Economy. Likud will have the finance minister seat and that of internal affairs, as well as the position of Speaker of the Parliament. 

Netanyahu has another hurdle to leap over, on May 24th, when the trial begins, where he is indicted in three corruption cases. However, both the future prime minister and the vice prime minister will be able to preserve their governmental positions while under trial. For the rest, there is a ‘zugzwang’: should the Netanyahu government fall during the first 18 months, Gantz takes over as prime minister of the interim government; should the High Court disqualify Netanyahu for the prime minister position, new elections will follow; Netanyahu has veto right in appointing the two main prosecutors[5]; Gantz will have veto right in electing the President of the Parliament.

The main winner is the State of Israel, which will have a government ‘close’ to national unity, which is crucial for the next steps: annexing territories in the West Bank, ‘containing Iran’ and its proxies, as well as other regional developments (especially turning the détente with the Sunni kingdoms into political and diplomatic realities). Even more, the Israeli democracy is no longer threatened by Netanyahu’s power excesses, or those by the religious far right. In the most thorny problem, that of West Bank annexations, perhaps the two will play the good cop – bad cop role: Gantz ‘the general’ knows very well the strategic requirements (control of River Jordan Valley and the West Bank heights), but he would pay attention to Palestinian sensitivities as well; meanwhile, Netanyahu ‘the politician’ feels the huge historical and political stake of annexing West Bank territories to Israel. The big losers are the Palestinians (again), as the two-state solution is downplayed to a minimum (15%, as Trump’s plan shows). But this is where the big danger rests, with the balance tilting too much towards Israel to speak about a durable solution. It does not matter that the Palestinians shot their own foot[6], as Palestinian leaders lost credibility before Netanyahu obtained such an unbalanced plan from President Donald Trump.   


V. Developments to track this Week 18 of 2020.

► HUNGARY / ROMANIA. Apparently out of the blue, we got ourselves a diplomatic reaction at scandal level. In a public message on Facebook[7], Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó insulted Romania’s ambassador to Budapest, Marius Lazurca by writing that Lazurca was a liar: “Romanian ambassador lying hysteria is shocking”. Szijjártó accused Lazurca because, like the political opposition in Hungary, he would show a hostile attitude towards the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania. The title of his post on Facebook was equally insulting: “There is probably nothing lower: Romania’s ambassador defended Tímea Szabó

This is what happened before this post: speaking to the Parliament in Budapest, Tímea Szabó, representative of Hungarian opposition, has asked why the government gives priority to ethnic Hungarians in Romania when distributing medical supplies, while hospitals in Hungary experience large deficits. Representatives of the power covered her speech by applause and verbal dithyrambs. Later, Hungarian pro-governmental press attacked Tímea Szabó, who received insults and threatening messages. 

To his (public!) Facebook message, Péter Szijjártó attached Romanian ambassador’s WhatsApp messages, although these were private communications of a foreign diplomat to his peers. From these WhatsApp messages one can understand that ambassador Lazurca reacted through an encouraging letter he sent to Tímea Szabó. In that letter, there is no reference to the problems she had raised in the Hungarian Parliament, the Romanian diplomat took due precautions: he does not involve into Hungarian political life, he only encourages Tímea Szabó to resist when receives threats and curses. Then, the Romanian ambassador shared his gesture with ambassadors in his WhatsApp group, and even presented them the letter he wrote to Tímea Szabó. This is what made the Hungarian Foreign Minister voice insults and accusations against Romania’s ambassador to Budapest.

Several issues can be identified:

1. Hungarian Foreign Minister unacceptably insulted (for an official of his level) and publicly gravely accused the Romanian ambassador.

2. These insults and accusations are based on a private message sent by the Romanian ambassador to his colleagues, where he presents not only a civil position, but also an honest attitude, detached from Hungarian political stage issues.

3. The accusation of “hysteric lie” (in a civil language it would be an ‘exaggeration’) is obtained by inference, since the Romanian ambassador’s message does not include any exaggeration of current situation.

4. The accusation that Romanian ambassador sympathizes with a hostile attitude against the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania is a double inference: a purely political inference regarding the questions raised by Tímea Szabó in the Parliament, and a pure supposition, that the Romanian ambassador would have a similar attitude, since he sent that letter.

The whole message of Hungarian Foreign Minister reveals a stray behavior, incompatible with international norms and courtesy, even with the general rules of civil behavior. Although the personal insults are aggressive and low, the worst from a political point of view is that, following inferences, Péter Szijjártó attaches to Romanian ambassador a hostile attitude towards the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania.

Without accepting such shame (for both nations!), Bucharest should probably seek the way to preclude a deeper brawl, which seems to be what Péter Szijjártó is after. At the end of the day, ethnic Hungarians in Romania are at home, and we need to have good relations. The political life in Budapest is of no interest to Romania’s government, and if Budapest shift towards a nationalist authoritarian regime continues, we should take care, as a country, not to be drawn into such developments, as the losers would be all Romanian citizens, either ethnic Romanian or ethnic Hungarian. In a nutshell, this is not at all what we need right now!

► UNITED STATES / IRAN. Tensions escalate again in the Persian Gulf, after threats poured from each side. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tries to get more power in Iran and conducts aggressive naval actions close to sailing American warships who have green light from President Trump for decisive response whenever they deem that Iranian harassment impacts on their security. Tehran launched a satellite, which the United States considers to be in breach of UN Resolution stipulations. Although Iran and the United States struggle with the Covid 19 crisis, Tehran perceives itself close to bankruptcy and the IRCG must do something. The problem is that this something might make the United States do something in response. 

► TURKEY / LIBYA. Strongly supported by Turkey, the Islamist government in Tripoli, which is internationally recognized, launched a successful offensive against General Haftar’s forces. Turkey interfered decisively, not only with indirect support (providing armament and Syrian rebels), but also directly, with its drones, and Turkish F 16 aircraft overflew Tripoli. Both Turkey and Russia have transported Syrian paramilitary units to Libya (where Russia also controls its Wagner group mercenaries). Russia and Turkey will likely discuss Libya during the next meeting on Syria. Meanwhile, the Europeans, spearheaded by Germany, sent messages regarding the need to reach a peace solution between the two Libyan warrying parties. However, these have no relevance now (although Paris is in touch with General Haftar, and Roma talks to Tripoli), since Ankara ignored the UN embargo implemented by the EU naval mission, by resorting to an air bridge. Turkey also conducted complex air exercises in Eastern Mediterranean, on the backdrop of its maritime dispute with Greece. The problem of sharing the Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean Sea and the Libyan predicament link together since Turkey signed an agreement in this respect with Tripoli authorities. Finally, while relaxation signs appear between Turkey and the United States, such good news are still absent in Ankara’s relations with the Europeans. 

[1] Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that military hospitals are prepared to admit Covid 19 patients, but, so far, no civilian was admitted there. The military has its own problems, with a rather high number of contaminations. This was caused, among others, by Moscow’s stubbornness to continue preparations for the traditional May 9th parade. However, finally, that event was cancelled – a great loss for the regime policy of forging the desired image of the history, in order to justify Russia’s aggressive foreign policy.

[2] In order to save the face, Dumitru Diacov submitted an amendment requesting that RM government give RM businesses the right to get Russian bank credits only pending the approval of RM Parliament. Of course, this amendment does not apply to the loans already sealed by Moldovagaz and other RM companies.

[3] Disadvantageous economic conditions benefit Russia and Igor Dodon: 2% interest; money comes in two installments, the first right now, and the second will come before the presidential elections; the money will be allotted with priority to Russian companies contracted to work on RM infrastructure.

[4] Vladimir Ţurcan is a questionable political character, completely obedient to Moscow. Perhaps the Kremlin holds stronger leverage on him than the million dollars it used to pay monthly to lease Igor Dodon.

[5] The two high prosecutors with separate responsibilities: Attorney General and State Prosecutor.

[6] Unable to prove they are capable of building a peaceful and prosperous society; the negative vote was cast by the Palestinians in an Israeli town, who protested the possible transfer of their town to the… Palestinian Territories: absence of bad is probably worse, respectively it is better under a fair administration of the enemy, than under the corrupt and ineffective administration of your own kin.