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07 iulie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 27 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. RUSSIA. Constitutional referendum passed with no problem. II. FRANCE / GERMANY. Macron and Merkel meet. III. FRANCE / TURKEY. Tensions soar. IV. RUSSIA / TURKEY / IRAN. Conference of interventionists in Syria. V. Developments to track this Week 28 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. RUSSIA. Constitutional referendum passed with no problem.

No surprise at all, Putin’s constitutional referendum passed, and it secures all legitimacy the Kremlin needs. The power was not sure about the exact outcome, and last-minute measures to bribe the electorate stand to prove it, as does Putin’s patriotic call, quite different from the usual autocrat’s patronizing tone. After the referendum, the power celebrated, the Chekist-oligarch elite is now content with the landslide result of the polls. There were some snags, irrelevant though, as they did not significantly alter the outcome: President Vladimir Putin dominates Russia, there is no alternative to his power.    

On July 3rd, only hours after Russia’s Central Election Commission announced the positive result of the referendum regarding constitutional changes, President Vladimir Putin signed the decree turning these changes into law starting July 4th. The referendum stretched along one week (June 25th to July 1st), and most Russian voters, 78.56% said “Yes” to the constitutional changes submitted by the power. The turnout was high – 67.88%. Proposed changes were rejected only in one autonomous republic, where the local situation was peculiar, but this exception only strengthens the rule (the Nenets voters in northern (European) Russia were discontent with seeing their region absorbed by neighboring Arkhangelsk region, and the turnout was low). The referendum result is undoubtful and the explanation is that Russians have no alternative to Putin; also, current stability, security and living standard are now preferable to the uncertainty of a nay-saying to this referendum (which would have simply meant “refusing Putin”).   

This referendum fundamentally changes Russia’s Constitution by adapting it to current authoritarian regime, featuring Vladimir Putin in the position of unchallenged leader: 1) the president has now extended powers, while the powers given to the parliament are non-essential and subject to president veto; 2) Putin’s mandates are reset, he may run again for office; practically, he may stay in power until 2036; 3) Russian legislation prevails over international laws; 4) there are several measures to distribute power within the state, but the way they are implemented remains to be seen. Interestingly, the power announced that some changes will be introduced into a new Constitution, while other voted changes will be introduced in entailing laws, which provides opportunity for adapting those changes to unfolding dynamic circumstances. Other changes are of less importance, although their social-cultural impact will prove important: banning same sex marriages; presenting Christian faith as a fundamental national value; defining Russian language as defining ethnicity; the impossibility of alienating any part of Russian Federation territory). The Kremlin accurately presented the referendum outcome as "a triumphant referendum on trust in President Vladimir Putin” on the backdrop of a fall of population trust in Putin, as recent polls showed. The West raised objections to the referendum unfolding. These objections were rejected by the Kremlin through the voice of Dmitri Peskov, who denied the right of the West to raise such objections and stressed that Russia’s sovereignty is untouchable. 

One can explain the outcome by the fact that the power completely holds the country tight, with no significant opposition whatsoever; during the referendum campaign, the Kremlin reminded that approving the constitutional changes is of essence for maintaining the country’s stability and security. By this referendum, the power secured its undisturbed domination over Russia for the next decades; there is no danger from a submitted electorate, albeit discontent in some instances (economic and social problems, especially altering the retirement age); instead, certain problems might stem from the incapacity of this political system to maintain economic stability. Vladimir Putin unsuccessfully attempted to build a viable ideological scaffold, but his authoritarian regime is accepted by the Russians; nevertheless, Russian economy seems to refuse this kind of regime, because authoritarian ruling fails to provide either sound competition (as the Free World does), or the economic strength of a dictatorship stabilized by ideology (as the Chinese regime does). The price of oil and gas will remain low, as the Saudis threatened with a new war if OPEC+ countries did not live by their commitments of reducing production. But now, putting the worries of regime stability behind, Vladimir Putin has the chance to initiate reforms providing an impulse to economy; but he will likely not do that, because such initiative would jeopardize the power’s economy foundation. Along with Russia’s economic and political isolation, this course leads to stagnation on the medium run. However, for the moment, the Kremlin is rejoicing the victory and will continue to behave as it did before.


II. FRANCE / GERMANY. Macron and Merkel meet.

The June 29th summit in Meseberg was the first meeting between the two leaders since the beginning of Coronavirus crisis. The main topic of discussion was the European Recovery Fund (ERF), where the two leaders expressed their support for a favorable decision during the next high-level European reunion, July 17th to 18th. The two requested European nations, the “frugal quartet” first, to reach an agreement regarding the ERF. Merkel shared her hope that negotiations would lead to this “strong instrument” which will match the unprecedented economic situation caused by the pandemic. She also pointed that the two nations would cooperate to see Europe overcome the crisis. Macron warned that European nations cannot afford to waste this chance of salvation.

The second topic was Turkey, where President Marcon requested a German reaction to Ankara’s actions in Libya, in the context where France wants a more robust European foreign policy. Macron presented Turkey’s actions as "a historic and criminal responsibility for a member of NATO", He requested Berlin to take a more active role in solving regional conflicts. The French president condemned Turkish military presence in Libya as “unacceptable”, since it “doesn’t respect any of its commitments” made during the recent German-led peace conference in Berlin. Macron accused Turkey of shipping extremist fighters into Libya's capital, Tripoli, as part of Ankara’s intervention to tilt the balance on the battlefield. "Turkey claims it – it is its official boats, its military, its policy", Emmanuel Macron said.

At the end of the day, President Macron is right: the European foreign policy proved ineffective, if not absent, in Libya and Syria. The European Union proved unable to solve the situation, and ended up being just the “beneficiary” of Russia’s and Turkey’s intervention negative effects, in circumstances where the United States shows no further will to play its traditional stabilization role in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA). On the other hand, while the EU had no foreign policy in MENA, Paris conducted, nevertheless, a French foreign policy, but France requested support from Berlin only when facing un unrelentless Erdoğan. This is precisely why Berlin finds reasons to show restraint, because Macron seeks consultations only when he faces problems: a) he either persists claiming “NATO’s brain-death”, which looks untruth, and it is perceived as blasphemy by the eastern Europeans, who feel they are protected from Russian threat by NATO, i.e. by the United States; b) or when he proposes a “strategic dialogue” with Russia, which is dangerously confusing, since Moscow never yielded anything either in its aggression against Ukraine, or in Syria or Libya (in Syria, the Kremlin might offer some concessions, because it needs reconstruction money from the… Europeans, and in Libya, Russia’s mercenaries, which Moscow denies controlling, were defeated by Turkey and jihadists brought by Ankara from Idlib). Regardless these objections, the need for a clearer European policy is obvious; therefore, Paris’s call for Berlin’s involvement is well founded. Germany seems ready to respond to this request, but it does it in its own style, low profile, more with diplomatic and economic instruments, less manu militari, considering its historical experience. Currently, there are even more reasons to do so, because recent neo-Nazi acts within German special forces are not only shocking, but even a disgrace: in the country which made remarkable and successful efforts to shun any trace of its Nazi experience, how is it possible to see its elite soldiers be subjected of such historical anomaly influence?!  

The two European heavyweights, France and Germany, were forced by Covid-19 crisis effects to find a solution and proved their capability to device this fund for Europe’s salvation. The same, regardless sporadic outbursts, Paris is right: Europe needs a common foreign policy, and Germany will hopefully find a way to build such European policy[1] designed to be accepted by all Europeans.


III. FRANCE / TURKEY. Tensions soar.

Ankara and Paris reached the peak of bilateral tensions having the epicenter in Libya. However, divergencies cover a wider area of issues, and their causes are deep. Accusations poured from both sides, and facts make the difference: Turkey is directly involved in Libya, thus breaching her own commitments taken in Berlin, while France has no such implication, although Paris diplomatically supports General Haftar.

First, there is the direct confrontation during the naval incident in the Mediterranean Sea. Paris accused Ankara that a Turkish warship illuminated a French warship with its radar (this is considered an explicit threat, because casting a radar beam is what precedes a direct fire adjusted by radar measurements). The incident was investigated within NATO, but the result was not made public. However, Turkish officials claim that investigation results are favorable to Ankara, which is hard to believe. Perhaps NATO experts only performed a technical investigation, with data presented by both sides, and left the final document at the level of only preliminary findings, short of a clear-cut conclusion having a too big political impact. France was not happy with the dust swept under the rug, and Paris withdrew its warships from the NATO mission in Eastern Mediterranean. Paris criticized the Alliance (the “brain-dead” notion becomes a blatantly recurring mistake), but NATO is the only framework calming down Recep Erdoğan’s anti-West drift. So, Turkey quit the intention to block NATO defense plans for the Alliance Eastern border central section (the Baltic States and Poland). This shows that the United States and other NATO member nations sent Turkey that it crossed a red line, and Ankara folded back (rather reluctantly, but it did).

A second issue was Turkey’s intervention in Libya. Ankara directly supports the Islamist government in Tripoli by deploying troops, warships, and various military equipment, especially drones. These assets allowed the Libyan government to defeat General Haftar’s mercenaries, whence a large portion are Russian mercenaries. Worst, Turkey deployed to Libya Islamist warriors from Syria, and it is hard to discriminate whether these fighters are just seasonal mercenaries or jihadists who will add to the growing regional Islamist danger. Although it denies it, Ankara displays a colonial behavior, a reborn Ottoman-like stance, under the AKP Islamist regime led by Recep Erdoğan. The Turkish president has an autocratic behavior promoting a destabilizing policy in Eastern Mediterranean. However, all political changes allowing him to build an authoritarian regime in Turkey, as well as a new “Deep State”, were voted by only half of the Turkish citizens. Practically, Turkey has no friend, only conjuncture accomplices (yesterday Russia, today Iran, and so on), being a declared adversary of most Arabs, and an undeclared adversary of the Europeans. Ankara obtained from the Islamist government in Tripoli: an agreement for sharing the exclusive economic zones (EEZ), breaching the rights of other countries in the area and with little support in international laws; economic agreements; military agreements, with an option for opening a military base in Libya. France accused all these acts and provided solid grounds for its accusations. Similarly, neighboring Egypt, which is the power most eligible to react to the instability in Libya, requested the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Libya, especially the Turkish troops. In the mirror, Ankara accused Paris, although no proof was offered in support. If France can be accused of something, it is for somewhat supporting General Haftar, especially diplomatically, and Paris did not react when General Haftar triggered the offensive on Tripoli using mercenaries (in the first place, those controlled by Russia, the other interventionist power in Libya). The problem is much deeper, as France is concerned of the growing Islamist danger in the MENA arch of instability, while Turkey seems to contribute to destabilizing the situation by its actions in Libya.

The third issue is Turkey’s maritime policy in the Mediterranean Sea. Ankara is not a signatory of UNCLOS convention and did not accept to establish its EEZ according to this international agreement. But there is a long way from here to forcing its own logic by preforming drills south of Cyprus and agreeing a maritime delimitation with Libya, through a line adjacent to Rhodes Island and Crete Island, but completely ignoring the Kastellorizo Island, Greece’s most eastern territory, located south of Turkey’s coast! No negotiations, but imposing Ankara’s own decision is not easy to ignore. The EU constantly supported Greece and Cyprus, and the United States pointed to Turkey that unilaterally imposing an EEZ is not acceptable. France was the most active European nation in that respect, and, by its naval presence, showed that Turkey breaches the UN embargo and the Berlin commitments. On this background, the naval incident between a Turkish warship and a French warship took place.

The fourth bone of contention is Erdoğan regime’s political basis. If initially the AKP Islamist regime was perceived as a Turkish domestic policy issue, the support that Ankara provides to Islamists, especially to the “Muslim Brotherhood”, worried many countries - Egypt and France first. France, which is a beacon of liberal democracy in Europe and beyond, was the first who firmly approached the issue; therefore, bilateral tensions increased more and more. This explains France’s direct request that Turkey’s problem be discussed “without taboos” within EU. On the other hand, Germany’s tact and soft approach to Ankara may pan out, while the French approach seems to be the recipe for disaster / conflict. On a different plane, NATO is not the “brain dead”, it is the only framework where communication with Ankara is kept alive, under U.S. authority; therefore, Turkey’s complete alienation is being avoided. Turkey’s juggling with Alliance defense plans for the Baltics and Poland was the proof that Ankara is aware it had abused. But what is better: either a diplomatic approach, despite Recep Erdoğan’s almost hostile behavior, or a heads-on approach, although justified, which might lead to conflict and Turkey’s alienation from the West? Let us not forget that, regardless the number of abuses she made, Ankara never met the level reached by the other interventionist, Russia, self-declared adversary of the West; and France wants a “strategic dialogue” with Russia!  Why wouldn’t Paris leave Berlin to conduct a discrete “strategic dialogue” with Ankara?


IV. RUSSIA / TURKEY / IRAN. Conference of interventionists in Syria.

The July 1st video conference of the three leaders of powers involved in the Syrian war, Russian, Turkish, and Iranian, was the first such event since last September. They discussed ways to harmonize the efforts meant to establish peace in Syria. The three leaders expressed their belief that the war in Syria cannot have any military solution, and can be solved only through a political process (remarkably, they are the very countries which militarily intervened in Syria: Russia and Iran of the side of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus, while Turkey supports the Sunni rebels in Idlib).

President Vladimir Putin declared that the meeting goal was to analyze current situation and reach an understanding regarding the next steps for securing a long-term normalization of the situation in Syria: "We need to actively help advance an inclusive inter-Syrian dialogue". He noticed that, "above all, it is a question of continuing the fight against international terrorism", and that "the most-tense situation is still being observed in territories outside the control of the Syrian army [Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by Iranian and Russian troops], particularly in the de-escalation zone of Idlib and in northeastern Syria". Putin denounced the new American sanctions, and stated they “suffocate” Syria, and are “illegitimate”, as they by-pass the UN Security Council (where Russia has the right of veto). The sanctions imposed by the United States, based on Caesar Act, have an important impact on Damascus, as they punish, based on American legislation, individuals and entities who do business with al-Assad regime. Putin presented himself as observing the United Nations decisions: "Despite the call from the UN Secretary-General [Antonio Guterres] for easing the pressure of sanctions under pandemic conditions, Washington like Brussels decided to prolong measures against Syria". In his turn, Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani stated that "the Islamic Republic believes the only solution to the Syrian crisis is political and not a military solution". "We continue to support the inter-Syrian dialogue and underline our determination to fight the terrorism of Daesh [ISIL, ISIS], al-Qaeda and other related groups". Rouhani added: "I emphasise that the fight against terrorism will continue until it is completely eradicated in Syria and the region in general". He requested the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and securing to Damascus government the full control of Syrian territory. Recep Erdoğan declared that, for Turkey, the basic priority is to find a durable political solution for this conflict. The three parties saluted the meeting of Syrian Constitutional Committee, which is due this upcoming August.

Each of the these three interventionist powers has its own specific interests: Russia supports Bashar al-Assad in view of getting military bases and more political and economic influence in the Middle East; Iran supports the Shia anywhere and needs to project its influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; Turkey wants to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish entity and to save the Sunnis in Idlib. They all notice they can reach only part of their objectives. For Russia, Damascus’s economy became difficult to support, the U.S. did not completely leave Syria (American and Kurdish troops eliminated ISIS), and Idlib did not fall, as result of Ankara’s intervention. Iran is in a difficult situation (American embargo kicks in, Tehran has no money to further subsidize Bashar al-Assad, or proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen), and notices it cannot establish a solid bridge-head in Syria, which is only partly recovered by Damascus government (Israel constantly bombs Iranian assets in Syria). Recep Erdoğan notices that Turkey was not able to strike Syrian Kurds decisevely enough, because the U.S. forces did not withdraw completely, and Western allies did not designate the Syrian Kurds as “terrorists”. For all three interventionists, the need for a peace solution appears very strong, a solution able to harmonize their interests, but which should also look as based on principles, because they expect the West to bring money for Syria’s reconstruction. We are far from such solution, and the suffering of Syrian population, either winners or losers, will continue. Russia will likely work on an agreement with Iran regarding Bashar al-Assad’s fate, as a solution acceptable for Western sponsors does not include his name. The only good news is that all three interventionists promote a negotiated peace solution.


VI. Developments to track this Week 28 of 2020.

► POLAND. Presidential elections will have a second round. Conservative president Andrzej Duda won only 41% of the ballots, and thus he failed to win the elections in the first round. He will have a difficult task in the second round, when he will further stress the Conservative themes, while his challenger presents himself as a pro-European unifier. Anyway, incumbent president Duda preserves the first chance, and his unlikely defeat would spell an earthquake for Polish Conservative party.

► REUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Igor Dodon drags down politics to the mafia level.  After Socialist deputy Ştefan Gȃţcan left to Pro Moldova party, probably being bought, he disappeared. A Socialist leader declared, in Gȃţcan’s name, that he would have resigned (which would allow the Socialists to recover that parliamentary seat). The Pro Moldova accused the Socialists and President Igor Dodon of taking Gȃţcan hostage and forcing his would-be decision to resign, as it was claimed. That might be well founded. We knew that Igor Dodon took money from the Kremlin for political favors, we knew he also took money from Vlad Plahotniuc, but he is now accused by Pro Moldova of taking hostage an elected official (rumors say Gȃţcan was shipped out of the country). Thus, Republic of Moldova is not only a captured state and a bankrupt country, it seems to be also a mafia state at the highest level.

► ISRAEL. Cautiously, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed the West Bank annexations. The focus transferred to Iran instead, as Tehran sends warnings to Israel and the United States after a series of explosions: one at the nuclear installations in Natanz was followed by another explosion at a power plant, and a toxic gas leak at a petrochemical complex, then another explosion in a power plant in southwestern Iran.

[1] Berlin also meets situations when it pushes its point of view as being all-European. In case of solving the Kosovo problem, for instance, Germany obtained French support for its position, and thus made it a European position, although there were enough Europeans who pointed that, “if they (Serbian and Kosovar presidents) found a common ground in exchanging territories, why not letting them shake hands, and have this conundrum ended?”