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28 iulie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 30 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. EUROPEAN UNION. The European Summit found a compromise solution. II. RUSSIA. Large scale armed force alert exercise. III. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. The non-confidence motion failed. IV. NORTHERN MACEDONIA. The Socialists won the parliamentary elections by a small margin. V. Developments to track this Week 31 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. EUROPEAN UNION. The European Summit found a compromise solution.

In an unprecedented solidarity performance, the agreement allows the European Commission (EC) to borrow 750 billion Euros (at EU rate!) and deliver this money to the 27 Member Nations as grants or small interest loans. Thus, the EU offers its southern low performance economies and the poorer easterners the chance to survive the post-Coronavirus crisis and to narrow the gap between them and the wealthy northern members. Although it looks like a gift, the EU Recovery Fund is, first of all, a test: while a lucrative utilization of this money homogenizes the EU economy and so it prepares the next economic and political steps, the opposite outcome, a failure of this chance will seal the European Union fate. The “debtors” in the South, Italy and Greece, are the main target of this test, while, in the East, Romania seems to be too big to remain in its current economic and social backwardness (in comparison with western Europe standards).

On July 2nd, Tuesday morning, at 05.15 hours, Charles Michel tweeted ‘deal’ and declared that “Europe is a force for action… Europe is united, Europe is present”. After a marathon summit, and a staunch resistance by the ‘frugal quartet’, the European nation leaders reached a compromise with a huge significance, both financial and political. For the first time, the Europeans share their debts (a kind of Communism at European level: ‘from each member by its capability, to each member by its needs’). Therefore, the path to financial unity is open (without ever beginning!) as does the path to political unity, at the horizon. The 750 billion Euro worth European Recovery Fund (ERF) is integrated with the 1.1 trillion Euro - worth EU budget for 2021 – 2027. The agreement was reached after Charles Michel presented a compromise regarding the way to split the 750 billion Euros between grants and loans: more specific, the initial 500 billion Euros meant for grants was diminished to 390 billion Euros. The Netherlands requested a veto procedure established to cancel any financial support to countries which delay economic reforms, but no such economic conditioning was approved. No political conditioning was decided either, regarding the rule of law, because Hungary and Poland threatened to use their veto right against such decision. However, a still blurry solution was found for this issue too. The ‘frugal’ nations  now believe they can limit the power of Franco-German tandem and, led by Dutch Prime  Minister Mark Rutte, it seems they won the promise that European Commission (EC) would resort to a temporary delay of money transfer to the member nation failing to comply with the ‘reform before loan / grant’ condition. The ‘frugal’ also obtained a larger refund from the future EU budget (a mechanism used by the UK in the 80s, which France wants terminated after the Brexit).

Most European leaders, from Macron to Merkel, and from Conte to Sánchez praised the agreement as historic, and it is historic indeed, but specific details should bring us back with the feet on the ground. Differences were belittled, Mark Rutte declared that “confrontations unfolded, but this is part of the game”, after Viktor Orbán accused Rutte of disliking both him and the Hungarian people, and Mateusz Morawiecki described the ‘frugal’ as “selfish countries”. There are not big words, we truly witness a Hamiltonian moment of Europe, although a fiscal union is not in sight yet, there is only a common indebting, limited in value and time. However, this provides hopes, although not certainties, because… the elites in each country come to play now, and they must rise to the height of this moment, which would be more difficult than getting money from the EC (whence, 79.9 billion Euros overall, for Romania).

The agreement must pass the vote in the European Parliament (EP), which is a difficult step because the European legislators might introduce conditions, especially those linked to the rule of law, but also stipulations meant to restore the budgetary funds at certain chapters. Then, the agreement must be ratified by all European nations, installments being expected only next year. EP representatives raised the issue of tying ERF money to rule of law conditions, and they announced they would request clarifications in this respect, as the issue was left in limbo by the end of the summit. David Sassoli stated: “We need to see exactly what intervention measures are to be used to support this” and he firmly argued: “We can’t support a reduction in our expectations for shared values... We think this is an open issue, we want to participate. Here we will not be satisfied with just mentions of principle.” Asked whether EP would block access to ERF, Sassoli answered that EP is determined to make itself respected.

There is the danger that such fuzzy conditioning encourage Hungary’s nationalist leader and Polish Conservatives to persist on their path of systematically or partially breaching the rule of law in their countries. European leaders were forced to water down such conditions after the Hungarian and Polish prime ministers[1] resisted pressure by other Europeans to establish stronger conditions by threatening with the use of their veto right. Viktor Orbán wrote “we fought it out!” on Facebook, and presented the outcome as a success (that is true, when noticing the increase of funds allotted to Hungary, but false, when talking about ruling out the conditions, as large portions of the money will not reach the Hungarian people, but Orbán’s cronies, through the Hungarian… System of National Cooperation). The Summit resolution stipulates only that it  “underlines the importance of the respect of the rule of law”, instead of language on giving broad rights to member states to act against “generalised deficiencies” of the rule of law, which was replaced by a more specific and narrower “conditionality to protect the budget”.

Nevertheless, Hungary and Poland did not gain a full-fledged victory because Orbán’s claim that all and any conditionality was removed does not hold water, although explicit conditions were not established. In theory, access to ERF money can be blocked, and Angela Merkel’s veiled warning stands to prove it. Now Germany holds the European Union presidency, and it depends on Berlin to draft such mechanism for watching over the rule of law. This future mechanism will be governed by a qualified majority, not by unanimity, which makes it difficult for Hungary and Poland to block it. Everything depends on how quickly the EU institutions will move, and especially Germany (beyond holding EU Presidency) to agree on establishing the mechanism useful for forcing member nations to respect the democratic values as a condition to receive funds.

This is an outstanding moment and a chance for a united Europe, and for each country as well. There will be economic conditions, although they are not clear yet (reform, especially for the underachievers in the South, and some in the East too), and political conditions regarding the respect for the rule of law (for Hungary and Poland, but also for Bulgaria, Czech Republic, and Romania). It is important that Europe is united… in debts, level which was achieved after Berlin’s historical decision to accept Paris’s proposition. Until the great European projects (fiscal union, the United States of Europe), which are still far away, let us notice that what seemed impossible yesterday came true today: free or cheap money comes. The task for the Romanians, as for all receiving countries, is now to be good Europeans in the process of absorbing this money to become prosperous and thus resuming our place in Europe. From a political point of view, the pro-European forces will likely grow stronger across Europe, and the Union will grow stronger, not only in economy and finance, but as a political and social structure too. Things might turn bright for Romania, but it depends on us rather than on the money we will get for free, much of it. Let us make no mistake: Romanian elite ought to respect the people, and this will lead the country where we believe that its place in Europe is.


II. RUSSIA. Large scale armed force alert exercise.

The Kremlin ordered a large-scale alert exercise for its armed forces, mainly those in southern and western Russia. The exercise started unexpectedly, with surprise alarming for several units, then it was presented to foreign defense attachés, highlighting that it was not directed against any foreign country. The declared purpose of these latest drills is to verify Russia’s defense capacity in south-west, and to prepare for the upcoming Kavkaz 2020 yearly exercise. However, other two objectives are also visible: a warning to Ukraine, where Sea Breeze 2020 Exercise was going on, and another warning in the Caucasus, considering the recent incidents at the Azeri – Armenian border, and a surprisingly assertive message from Ankara. As expected, The Black Sea was the center of gravity, where Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bombers approached Romanian waters and were intercepted by MiG 21 fighters. The presence of Russian political and military leaders indicates the importance of this exercise for the Kremlin. Both by its size and the timing, the exercise represents a warning signal, but one should notice that there were no provocations to lead to a tense situation.

On July 17th, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that, following President Vladimir Putin’s orders, an alert exercise was conducted with troops under Russia’s Strategic Joint Command (SJC) South and SJC West, as well as paratroopers and marine infantry belonging to Russia’s North Fleet and Pacific Fleet (having the largest operational capacity and rapid deployment in another Theater of operations / TO). 150,000 soldiers, 400 aircraft, and 100 warships participated in this most recent exercise. Most drills unfolded in the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea area. The Fourth Air and Air Defense Army of SJC South was alarmed on July 19th, and its aircraft participated in military exercises in Crimea, Caucasus, and the Black Sea. In the framework of July 17 to 21 exercises, large units and high subordination units were alerted, mainly airborne troops (Russia’s main rapid reaction force, with highest fighting capacity and with capabilities for rapid strategic deployment / force projection). Exercises in Russia’s Military Region South, the drills’ center of gravity, will continue for the whole summer. Over 10,000 soldiers participated in over twenty various tactical exercises (battalion level) in the SJC South area, i.e. ten regions in southern Russia and the Caucasus (Crimea, Astrakhan, Volgograd, Rostov, Stavropol, Dagestan, Northern Ossetia, Adygea, Chechnya, as well as Russian bases in Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, the break-away regions of Georgia. Infantry, artillery, tank, and support units (engineers, NBC, Electronic Warfare, air defense, reconnaissance) participated. Air support was provided with aircraft and helicopters of the Fourth Air and Air Defense Army. Live fire exercises with armament of all kinds were conducted (MLRS Tornado and Grad, self-propelled howitzers Msta-S, Gvozdika, and Akatsiya, heavy mortars Tyulpan and Malka, T-72B3 and T-90 tanks, as well as the BMP-3 infantry fighting machines). Also, a landing exercise took place in Crimea, which demonstrates the offensive feature of exercises conducted in the Crimean Peninsula. However, the most important actions unfolded in the Black Sea air and naval space.

Two Tu-22M3 strategic bombers escorted by two Su-27 / Su-30 fighters conducted a flight IVO Romanian air space, and they were intercepted by two MiG-21 fighters. Russian authorities mentioned the Tu-22M3 bomber flights, and their interception by Romanian fighters. Considering the differences in technological generation between these aircraft, Russian aircraft interception and visual identification by Romanian older fighters is a remarkable event. Such actions were announced since July 18, when the Russian A-50U surveillance and air control aircraft (the Russian AWACS / ‘flying radar’) code name RF-50610 flew from Ivanovo to Belbek, in Crimea. Then, on July 20th, Russian tactical and naval aviation deployed to Crimea conducted air missions in western Black Sea air space under this A-50U coordination, during the on-going Sea Breeze 2020 Ukrainian exercise with participation of several NATO nations. Moscow had announced that the Black Sea Fleet was conducting monitoring activities on NATO naval and air actions in the framework of Sea Breeze 2020 Exercise. This A-50U also coordinated the Tu-22M3 flight with Su-30 escort fighters which took off from Crimea.

Notably, the exercises of Russian Military Region South unfolded while Vladimir Putin was visiting Crimea (to assist the ceremony of beginning the construction of two warships similar to the French ‘Mistral’, which Russia intended to buy from France). At the same time, Russian CHOD General Valeri Gerasimov traveled to SJC South Headquarters in Rostov to watch the above-mentioned military exercises.

From a political point of view, these exercises were a warning message to NATO, and a demonstration of Russia’s complete military superiority in the whole region, from Crimea to the Caucasus, including air and naval superiority in the Black Sea space. From a military point of view, although a terrorism danger was claimed, these exercises were likely a review of Moscow’s operational plans against Ukraine, in circumstances of a NATO air and naval presence in the Black Sea TO, as well a review of Moscow’s contingency plans in the event of an Azeri – Armenian armed conflict with Turkey’s implication. In response, Ukraine already announced a military exercise with NATO nation troop participation, in the same period Kavkaz 2020 Exercise is due to unfold.

During the entire period of Russian exercises, American reconnaissance aircraft were present above the Black Sea, and the NATO air exercise was the most visible response, besides the NATO, respectively U.S. warships participating in Sea Breeze 2020 Exercise. This proves the Allies are beside Romania in these circumstances. However, Bucharest must fulfil its duty, and it is remarkable that Romanian Air Forces scrambled four F-16 aircraft for a NATO exercise, and that Romanian MiG-21 fighters fulfilled their duty of intercepting the Russian bombers IVO Romanian air space.


III. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. The non-confidence motion failed.

The predictable failure of the non-confidence motion in Republic of Moldova (RM) Parliament describes the current force ratio between the political forces in RM: the Democrats supported the Socialists the whole nine yards (while the Socialists hold the power), and the Chicu government must preserve the power for the Socialists until the presidential elections. Their goal is to make sure Igor Dodon gets reelected. Meanwhile, the opposition has no chance to be united, as between Plahotniuc’s sovereigntists rallied within Pro Moldova, and the Shor Party, on one side, and the democratic opposition, on the other side, there is no principled basis whatsoever, to secure an alternative to Igor Dodon’s power.

The July 20th non-confidence motion against the RM government led by Ion Chicu failed with only 46 ayes, less than the necessary 51 ballots. The Democrats (PDM) stuck to Dodon’s Socialists (PSRM), who circled the wagons, with no further defection (after one of its deputies, who had defected to Pro Moldova, was beaten and ditched, violent act which sent the necessary warning to all Socialists contemplating greener pastures). Two Shor party deputies were absent in the parliament for Covid 19 illness, but even if they were present, the outcome wouldn’t have changed, the opposition had no chance to win three deputies from PSRM or PDM. The non-confidence motion was drafted by the DA Platform, and co-signed by PAS political group, while Pro Moldova had promised to vote it. The failure proves PAS leader and former prime minister Maia Sandu right: she has always said that early elections are the true solution. However, she yielded to DA Platform leader Andrei Năstase, who has insisted that the opposition all-together, the democratic PAS and DA, and the ‘sovereigntist’ Pro Moldova and Shor would have secured the necessary votes to pass the non-confidence motion. The motion failure allowed Prime Minister Ion Chicu to pose as the responsible figure who handles the country during the crisis (in fact, unable to manage the crisis, but keeping an eye on the money still out for grabs by the Socialists and meant to prepare Dodon’s reelection). The power accused the opposition of plotting to destabilize the state, and the opposition accused the government of lack of any capability to lead, especially regarding the fight against Covid-19 pandemic. Notably, the Socialists are more and more aggressive, they physically aggress their political opponents now. This is an indication that PSRM, this ‘Soviet’ party devised by Moscow by recruiting opportunists (Moldovan soviets or Russian chauvinists from the ranks of Vladimir Voronin’s communists) is ready to exert physical violence to remain in power.

The health, economic, and social situation in RM gets more and more complicated, and Ion Chicu is just a jester placed by Dodon to lead the government in order to secure his reelection, nothing else. But the pandemic burst out, and the jester is overwhelmed by the situation. However, this is little visible when the government bribes its Socialist contingency with the little money it can get. The power’s hope is to use EU money in its interest, but the Europeans provided financial support tied to specific conditions, and each step the government makes is now carefully monitored from Brussels. Apparently, Dodon scored well, but, without money, his power is just surviving, not making any development, as demanded by the interest group which created it; the government is unable to maneuver as Moscow directed, towards a federal RM. Nevertheless, the danger is present, and an opposition deputy warned about federalization maneuvers. This is indeed the correct interpretation of Dodon’s recent attempt to reopen the dialogue with Transnistrian separatists: at home in Bessarabia (the west bank of River Nistru), Dodon cannot reach the necessary majority, because he is compromised (not only as agent of Russia, but also as a common corrupt, accomplice to… Plahotniuc); in these circumstances, it cannot be ruled out that Moscow launches a new reunification plan for RM: such plan would start with the participation of Transnistrian electorate in presidential election in RM (they did not participate hitherto). Of course, there are many obstacles, but the Kremlin proved to be creative and persistent with the RM puppets and puppeteers.  

In the current situation, there is a stalemate. The anti-democratization groups include the corrupt Socialists / PSRM, and the Democrats / PDM, and they are united in fear of the rule of law, but they are divided regarding the foreign orientation: the PSRM is Russia’s party, while PDM is still trying to fool the West they are pro-European. In opposition, there is the ‘sovereigntist’ group, Pro Moldova and Shor Party, both legacy of mafioso Plahotniuc; they also reject any rule of law, but, opposite to PDM whence they stem from, is not accepted by Moscow and do not accept to be controlled by Moscow (as the Democrats do, by supporting a recognized agent of the Kremlin). Also, in opposition, there is the democratic pro-European tandem PAS and DA, which has its own internal divergences. RM will continue this unclear situation, as Dodon’s power is ‘too young to die’, but too old to promise any long-term perspective. Such times are optimally used by the Kremlin (let us remember Vladimir Voronin power’s last phase, when Moscow obtained from RM concessions after concessions, and Igor Dodon lacks both the personality and decision independence that Voronin demonstrated).

Igor Dodon will complicate the situation for as long as he can, aiming to secure a lasting presence in the top of RM power. However, the feeling is that his time passed because he is compromised (and the slow pace he is preparing the presidential elections suggests that Plahotniuc might have additional leverage against him). In this dangerous situation, let us notice that only the endemic corruption in RM still helps Moscow impose its puppets, and this is an indication that a solution to have this country turn towards democracy is not far (Romania would appreciate such solution, of course, with a pro-Western and pro-Romanian orientation). Such perspective is favored by the fact that the western architects of unrealistic solutions ought to have learned something from Maia Sandu’s ousting by Dodon when she started the fight against corruption and for reform of the judiciary. Anyway, there are dangers everywhere, and they are not only political (what guarantees do we have that the money laundering machine for Russian capital was not reactivated?).


IV.  NORTHERN MACEDONIA. The Socialists won the parliamentary elections by a small margin.

The July 15th parliamentary elections in Northern Macedonia were won by the Social-Democrats by a small margin: the pro-European Social-Democrat Union in Macedonia / SDSM won 36.13%, against the 34.65% won by VMRO-DPMNE nationalists (the Macedonian Domestic Revolutionary Organization – Democrat Party for Macedonian National Unity).

Thus, SDSM, led by the former prime minister Zoran Zaev (who opened the way for his nation towards NATO and the EU, by accepting Athens’ request to rename the country) has 46 of the 120 seat parliament in Skopje, while the VMRO-DPMNE has only 44 seats. SDSM has the first choice, both considering the number of seats, but also thanks to the relation is has with the Albanian minority parties (which represent a quarter of the population). However, VMRO-DPMNE announced it does not quit the race for forming the government. VMRO-DPMNE was formerly led by Nikola Gruevski, who was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption and fled to Hungary. Its current leader Hristijan Mickoski capitalized on Zaev’s compromise quasi-failure: after he accepted the country name-change, Northern Macedonia was quickly admitted into NATO, but the beginning of EU accession negotiations was delayed (until the EU integration was turned from an event into a process).

Although the Albanians will play their cards wisely, it is hard to believe they would make an alliance with the VMRO-DPME, their first choice will still be SDSM. The largest Albanian party is the Democratic Union for Integration / DUI, which won 11.48% of the ballots, respectively 15 mandates. DUI is now the kingmaker to decide the governing alliance but building such alliance will be difficult because DUI requested that, this time, the prime minister should be ethnic Albanian, which both SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE rejected. Another Albanian party, which won enough seats to matter, is the Albanian Alliance, with 12 seats. Other two small parties entered the parliament: the far-left Levica, which won two seats, and the Albanian Democratic Party, with one seat. 

Most likely, SDSM will form the governing alliance, the question being now how much DUI will request for supporting SDSM and participate to form a government. However, the Euro-Atlantic path of Northern Macedonia is now unquestionable, regardless what alliance will govern in Skopje. Considering the geopolitical importance of this country (which closes the Western circle surrounding the unstable Balkan core), this does not mean that Russia will quit attempting to interfere with the process of forming the government, although NATO and EU will be prepared to react (Miroslav Lajčak already arrived in Skopje, on July 24th, where he met President Stevo Pendarovski).


V. Developments to track this Week 31 of 2020.

► UKRAINE / RUSSIA. A new cease-fire agreement was signed. On July 22nd, representatives of Ukraine and the separatists reached a cease-fire agreement mediated by OSCE officials. According to this document, starting this Monday, July 27th, a complete cease-fire was to be implemented along the contact line in Donbass. Both Kyiv and the separatists confirmed the event. However, while the latter declare that the agreement also includes an interdiction for the use of drones (including by the OSCE monitors), and for the deployment of heavy weapons in densely populated areas, there is no confirmation from Kyiv in that respect. Considering that such agreement was a prerequisite imposed by the French and German leaders for making a future Normandy meeting possible, this agreement is just temporary, there are little chances it will last, the same as previous many other agreements signed in the past. On the other hand, should this cease-fire last, negotiations in Normandy format may continue, and the perspective of war is kept afar, although a peace solution perspective does not come any closer either. 

► RUSSIA / UNITED STATES. The phone conversation between presidents Trump and Putin focused on arms control, with Donald Trump insisting against a new arms race. The two leaders will likely reach an agreement at political level to allow negotiations in Vienna continue towards extending the New START. As Moscow continues to seek a leverage in niche domains (It tested an anti-satellite / ASAT weapon, and Putin announced that Russian warships would be armed with hypersonic weapons), it is little likely that Russia gets more than an extension of New START. Nevertheless, Putin wants this deal pulled from a President Trump who has showed openness to Russia (and his reelection chances are not clear).

► GREECE / TURKEY. Through NAVTEX, Ankara announced the deployment of a prospection vessel in view of beginning to drill in Greek waters South and East of Kastellorizo Island (Greek territory). In response, Athens alerted its armed forces. France requested European sanctions against Turkey (although, during the recent Foreign Affairs Council, most European countries did not support such measures). This represents an additional escalation Recep Erdoğan chooses to perform, but the limits of his actions are visible: The United States sent a warning to Turkey, and the EU is working a response which might include sanctions. Additionally, Germany makes diplomatic efforts to find a solution. Ankara might face problems, as Greece is working to build a strong diplomatic fence with the EU and the U.S., and an effective military wall with the U.S., France, Egypt, and Israel, and this endeavor might pan out.    

► UNITED STATES / CHINA. Tensions reached the peak of a cold war conducted on multiple directions. Chinese Consulate in Houston was closed on the backdrop of espionage accusations against China, and Beijing responded by closing the American Consulate in Chengdu (Sichuan Province in Central China). These developments make an additional step in escalating bilateral tensions and follow Washington’s rejection of Chinese maritime claims in South China Sea, on the background of military exercises conducted by both sides. There is President Trump, who is determined to make China a top campaign issue in the upcoming American presidential elections, and there is Chinese Communist authorities’ determination to give up nothing of what they got a hold on (especially the systematic theft of western technology). Therefore, the path to more and more serious tensions is wide open.

[1] Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán threatened to block the agreement if the funds are hinged on the rule of law, and he supported his threat using an interesting explanation: “if we fail to abide by the rule of law, we should be kicked out. It is not possible for a member nation in breach of the rule of law to remain an EU member!” A couple of days later, people were shouting “Freedom!” on the streets of Budapest, and Friday evening thousands of protesters marched in Budapest against restrictions on Hungarian press, following an appeal issued by the ‘Momentum’ Liberal opposition party. However, Hungary’s situation under Orbán regime makes life easier for Hungary’s neighbours, as his lack of credibility damaged Budapest influence at EU level.