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04 septembrie 2019 - Special reports - Wider Black Sea Region

DSM Special Report-Wider Black Sea Region (August 2019)

Cristian Eremia

I. Ukraine after its first 100 days with the new president. II. Belarus Republic enters the electoral season, under Moscow’s watch. III. Armenian prime-minister’s statement “Karabakh is Armenia. Period!” produces a major step back in regulating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. IV. Strengthening the Russia-Turkey military cooperation at the MAKS 2019 Air Show from Moscow. V. Georgia, between the Russian challenges and the Western options, 11 years since the war with Russia.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

 I. Ukraine after its first 100 days with the new president.

At the end of August, it was marked the 100 days since the new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, became Ukraine’s president, a period wherein at least some of the citizens were hoping to see also concrete accomplishments of the promises he made when taking power.

Results are quite modest, according to Ukrainians’ opinions in the recent poll[1], made by the International Institute of Sociology from Kiev, although more than 50% of Ukrainians think that country’s current development direction is actually good. Therefore, more than 40% of Ukrainians were expecting Zelensky to reduce the local utilities’ bills, within this period, but it did not happen. More than 30% of Ukrainians were expecting for the anti-corruption actions to be made quickly, as well as some investigations on the corruption cases and large organized crime system. He did none of the above things.

However, the most important problem, for a third of the Ukrainians, is that Zelensky would have to regulate the war in East of the country, hence, start direct negotiations with Donetsk, Lugansk and Moscow, to reestablish peace in Donbass. Zelensky promised to “to everything possible” to make it happen. Indeed, he tried to see what Moscow’s position in this file is and talked (with not conclusion) with president Putin, he got important Western leaders’ endorsement to restart the discussion in Normandy’s format.

President Zelensky starts to be aware that for Kremlin Kiev’s leaders were not and are not important, but their approaches and developments. Hence, Kremlin’s dangerous policy is, once again, in the spotlight, as Putin is asking always, from every new president of the Ukrainian government, more than what the Ukrainian side can take.  Concretely, Moscow wants Ukraine “to surrender” and reenter the Russian space. Most likely, in his 100 days as president, Zelensky understood that he can no longer hope for an agreement with Putin, as long as Kiev only wants a dialogue starting from equal positions and an adequate treatment for a sovereign state.  Although, at least as stated during the campaign, he suggested that Kremlin wants peace, now Zelensky starts to see Kremlin’s firmness and inflexibility for concessions and compromises. In fact, this is the lesson that, from a Muscovite perspective, any new great Ukrainian leader who refuses to embrace pro-Russian positions must directly “feel”.

Given these circumstances, everyone can understand that it is not easy to get to an agreement with the Russian side. And it is also understandable the distance President Zelensky keeps from a concrete political action on Russia. As such, it is very likely that Zelensky will understand, eventually, that he will not be able to have a normal dialogue with Moscow as long as he claims that Ukraine is an absolutely independent and sovereign state. This is because Kremlin considers that the full sovereignty of the Ukrainian state deeply disturbs the well-known Russian policy, dedicated to using any "historical opportunity" to get back its influence over Ukraine. However, it would be a strategic illusion for Zelensky to believe that Moscow will leave Kiev another option.

Ukraine wants to stay away from Russia and resist to its aggressions. Hereof, the main challenges that any Ukrainian president faces. The Ukrainian state's resistance essence when confronting Russia comes from Ukraine's right to "exist as Ukraine". Therefore, Ukrainian state’s sovereignty agenda has become imperative for most of the active Ukrainian population, and those supporting the sovereignty pay close attention to Zelensky's manner of action, being ready to sanction any of young president’s deviation.

In these circumstances, Ukraine remains, for the moment, a serious rebellion against the Kremlin-led ploy in getting back the control and influence in the former Soviet republics. It is unclear whether President Zelensky is already pessimistic on this file and whether he will be determined to abandon a foreign policy related the Russian dimension and focus exclusively on strengthening Ukraine's statehood. Moreover, Zelensky is also disappointed with the West. Europe allowed Russia to get back in Europe’s Council, and G7 leaders have agreed to invite Russia to resume its participation in this world club.

And this happened without Moscow making any political gesture, a compromise or a positive position in relation to the West regarding Crimea and Donbas.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Rada (the parliament) resumed its activity in the new formula emerged after the recent parliamentary elections. President’s victorious party, the Servant of the People, needs no one to do what it wants, having a comfortable majority. Rada confirmed Ukraine’s new Prime Minister, Alexey Goncharuk, President Zelensky's team former deputy chief. But we will address the developments of the parliament and the establishment of the new government in another DSM material. For the moment, the mutual detainees exchange with Russia is still in the completion phase.

 II. Belarus Republic enters the electoral season, under Moscow’s watch.

The next electoral season in Belarus enters a straight line. The general parliamentary elections are planned for November, and the presidential elections will be held in mid-2020. Authoritarian leader Lukashenko (fairly called dictator by West’s political circles and by the opposition in Belarus) already has five presidential mandates, being the longest-serving head of state in the former Soviet republics. However, unlike previous elections that he has handled profoundly undemocratically, he is now hot on Moscow’s heels, which calls for Belarus’s integration in Russia (endorsed voices recommend reading it "reincorporation"). Given these circumstances, it emerges the debate over the political power transfer or transition, processes wherefore Lukashenko promises Constitution’s revision. Although the opposition signals that Lukashenko's machine would be ready for the next election frauds. Concurrently, Lukashenko is ok with having better relations with the West, particularly with EU and US, that he has resumed official communication with.

Now is the time when John Bolton – US president security adviser, known for his tough attitude against dictatorial regimes, arrives in Kiev, at the end of August, before the election cycle start. At the same time, it is also the time the next political conflict between Russia and Belarus shows up. Hereof the Belarusian proposal for the relations with US to start from "a white page", which is a "clean page". The US official first signaled that US wants to convince itself (independently) of the real situation in Belarus, of Lukashenko's vision on dealing with the integration in the Russian space that Moscow is so eager to get. The proposal was sent for Minsk to explore the possibility of US oil products imports, wherefore the US side shows availability.

Region’s security issues are now clearer to Americans and they must understand how the political situation in Belarus could be solved. The US also seriously warned Minsk, recently sending an ambassador to Minsk. This denotes that US will make sure whether the fair and democratic elections promise will be kept and will verify it. Indeed, given the context, insisting on respecting human rights and freedoms was on the agenda and so was the warning about "China's investments dangers in this Belarus”. Minsk is also warned that Belarus is becoming an increasingly important country for the US, in terms of the regional and European security.

But the most important matter remains, both for Minsk and the Westerns leaders, what will happen with the Moscow-Minsk relation. Interesting to that end are “European Belarus” civic organization leader’s opinion[2], an important Byelorussian opposition politician, A. Sannikov (conclusions which are matching other anti-Lukashenko organizations’ opinion), which shoes that Russia uses Belarus[3] as beachhead wherefrom it can threat the Euro-Atlantic space.

According to him, some Western political leaders are naive when assessing region’s security problems. While Lukashenko sees his state as a kind of "security donor" in the former Soviet space, actively participating with troops in all of Moscow's military arrangements and maneuvers in the Western strategic direction, including military exercises with Russia that are frequently organized near Ukraine’s borders and which are developed according to scenarios wherein the enemies are NATO, or Ukraine. An exception would be NATO strategies that, after the last reactions of this politician, would perceive Belarus to its real dimension, as part of the "Russian war machine".

Shortly, the military cooperation between Moscow and Minsk has become so close that Moscow is already using Belarus as a large military platform. The Belarusian politician, however, accepts the idea that Lukashenko has lately tempered this behavior, realizing that he is likely to put the Belarusian state in a dangerous situation. In addition, he can oppose the West and its neighbors, including Ukraine, which he already has an unpleasant relation with.

Now Lukashenko fears that Moscow could act with Belarus the same it did with Crimea. The most eloquent signals are considered by the Belarussian political opposition as the visible efforts of Moscow to "pump weapons" for the simultaneous militarization on the West direction of Crimea, Kalinigrade and R. Belarus. Proof of this would be the propagation in Belarus of the concept of the "Russian World", which was strongly promoted in the republic by even pro-Kremlin forces supported by Putin. . The only thing that keeps Moscow from applying such an absorption scenario (some say annexation) to Belarus would be the foreign policy costs that the Kremlin would have to pay in such a development. In addition, the critical mass of popularity in the Russian society of the idea of ​​(re) joining Russia is not yet formed, although the Kremlin controls Belarus in a substantial proportion, tending to deprive it of sovereignty.

Although, of course, official statistics are not focusing on this, for the moment the Belarussian society that President feels that Putin is more popular in Belarus than its own president, who, lately, avoids serious political statements and actions, to indicate that he is controlling the political developments in Belarus. However, the political option is, again, in the hands of Lukashenko, who will decide if he will organize free elections to allow nationalist opposition forces defend Belarus. Time will show how this Belarussian leader will use this great opportunity in the upcoming election season.

III. Armenian prime-minister’s statement “Karabakh is Armenia. Period!” produces a major step back in regulating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Yerevan's rhetoric on Azerbaijan has, again, previous years’ tone, despite recent months’ deepening of bilateral dialogue’s roughness with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Thus, Armenian Foreign Minister Z. Mnatsakanyan has reinforced (August 14) Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashiniyan’s recent public statement regarding Azeri's disputed territories for decades: "Karabakh is Armenia. Period!".

This statement was obsessively repeated with other messages addressed to Armenians by Prime Minister Pashiniyan during a speech (August 5) at the opening of the traditional Pan-Armenian Sports Games, organized in Khankendi-Karabah, for the first time in 20 years. That is exactly on a territory which is under Armenian occupation and obviously claimed by Azerbaijan. Given this context, it is noteworthy that the Pan-Armenian Games are traditionally organized to give unity to the Armenian diaspora, but, this year, the Armenian prime minister chose the location to give an additional nationalism cast, in a gesture that he wanted to mean "Armenians’ trinity - Karabakh, Diaspora and Mother-Armenia". Breaking any diplomatic conveniences, the Armenian leader stated that "Karabakh - is part of Armenia", whereat he added details about his great country project[4], "Armenia-2050".   

The Armenian prime minister did not stop himself here, but reiterated that any peace agreement with Azerbaijan can be agreed "only with the massive support of citizens in Armenia and Karabakh". Furthermore, Pashiniyan stressed that "The revolution must continue in Karabakh" (referring to the 2018 revolution in Armenia) and that Yerevan will guarantee transparent and free elections for Karabakh’s "president", scheduled for 2020 (everyone knows that Pashiniyan is trying to replace the leader of the current separatist regime in Karabakh).

Obviously, Prime Minister's messages[5] were addressed mainly to the external auditor and that they simply blasted the progress made in the dialogue with Baku, wiping all OSCE Minsk Group’s recent efforts. As such, Pashiniyan could change negotiations’ previous format, and he could call on the US and France diaspora to make them support his policy. Looking for alternative partners in Russia, however, may have the opposite effect, all the more so as this gesture would antagonize Moscow and Ankara.

It is no surprise that Pashiniyan's new rhetoric has upset Baku. Azeri Foreign Affairs Ministry emphasized that “Our patience has a limit. Armenia should decide: Do you want peace or escalation?  It seems that the current Armenian leadership is acting consciously to escalate the situation and not to regulate it.  From the Azeri perspective, the new Armenian approach leads back to confrontation, as Baku is not satisfied with the status quo, which is based on territory’s occupation and military confrontations outside the contact line.

However, Pashiniyan has managed to worsen the front line confrontations with Azerbaijan. Only a few days after the event described above, both sides started to accuse each other of military actions resumption, using weapons of different calibers. Yerevan is accused even of occupying tens of hectares on south-east direction, in Azeri territory depths. Or that he would deployed military actions to take control of the highway connecting Azerbaijan to Georgia. And, of course, the new confrontations ended with new victims among both sides military personnel. So, we will see how the war atmosphere and the military confrontations will turn out, as well as how the guarantor powers will react to counter the new challenge launched against Baku by the Armenian prime minister.  

IV. Strengthening the Russia-Turkey military cooperation at the MAKS 2019 Air Show from Moscow.

Turkish-Russian high-level political dialogue has made a new progress, with President Erdogan's recent visit (27 August) to Moscow. His schedule included enough time- even a diplomatic record at this level, for the Turkish delegation to attend the MAKS-2019 International Air Show near Moscow, whose opening coincided with Turkish President’s presence. Given the circumstance, they, indeed, talked about developing the technical-military cooperation between Russia and Turkey, after the "famous" S-400 system delivery contract to Ankara.

They have concluded some important aspects, worth to be considered by the Euro-Atlantic community. Details that, moreover, have been made publicly by the host itself. Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had discussed with his Turkish counterpart, Erdogan, about the possibility of moving to a new military-technical cooperation phase, namely a joint production of Russian aircraft. He was referring at the cooperation for Su-35 aircraft manufacture, Putin arguing that the possible cooperation for the development[6] of the new multi-role Su-57 aircraft generation can also be explored. Putin also said that "we have many cooperation opportunities" with the Turkish partner.  

President Erdogan saw, with this occasion, not only military aeronautics models, but also other new weapon systems, including radio-electronics technical combat complexes. According to the Russian president, most of the military equipment presented to Erdogan got Turkish partners’ interest. The Turkish were not only interested in acquiring them, but also producing them in cooperation with the Russian side. Regarding this detail, Putin said that "... we are prepared for this and we will now discuss intensely on specific areas".

President Putin also stressed that the Russian defense industry is extremely promising both in the field of military and civil aviation. He noted that Turkish President's delegation carefully evaluated the new Russian airliner, the MS-21 (which also made its first demonstration flight during this air show), while the Turkish president was greatly attracted by the military and civilians helicopter production technology, particularly Mi-38 helicopter and light helicopters that are manufactured for medical interventions. Erdogan would have revealed his intention to develop an industrial program, in cooperation with the Russian side, for the development of air ambulances on the platform of such helicopters, something accepted by the Russian industrialists.

Russian analytical circles believe that Ankara's plans to expand the military-technical sphere cooperation with Moscow can become an additional pressure on Washington, especially in terms of US's establishment of a security zone in northern Syria. Even so, everything depends on the Turkish side, as Ankara has to decide what it wants in bilateral technical-military cooperation, because the Russian side seems to have no great political objections.

V. Georgia, between the Russian challenges and the Western options, 11 years since the war with Russia.

Georgia's President, Salome Zurabishvili, said, at the 11th anniversary of the war with Russia that led to the loss of two important territories, that her country will never accept Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s loss. She wants these territories back during her presidency, and she thinks that soon Abkhazia and South Ossetia will peacefully return to Georgia: “My greatest wish and goal is for the return to happen during my presidency, and I use all opportunities and methods to do so”.

The UN Security Council held a closed-door meeting on the security situation in Georgia, also occasioned by the August commemoration of the Russian-Georgian war and Georgia’s separation of the self-declared separatist republics officially recognized by Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Subsequently, the United States, Great Britain, Poland, Belgium, Estonia, Germany and France made public statements on this matter, reiterating their support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within the internationally recognized borders.

Concurrently, the Russian Permanent Representative to the UN, D. Polyansky, said that the only way to reduce tension between Georgia - on the one hand, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia - on the other, would be a dialogue between Tbilisi, Tskhinvali and Sukhumi. And restoring relations with Russia, that Moscow seems to be opened to, could pave the way. All the more so because, lately, several Russian and Georgian officials are noticing that Moscow is giving many positive signals to re-establish bilateral relations with Georgia. This is proved by contacts between states’ citizens and across trade relations (despite the bilateral political turbulence, many Russian tourists visit Georgia, while more and more Georgian products entering, without restrictions, the Russian markets).

Also then, South Ossetia’s president, Anatoly Bibilov, stated that the recognition of the Georgian attack on his republic[7] in August 2008 as "genocide on the Ossetia people" would be one of reconciliation’s conditions with the Georgians. He would also want the EU and UN to recognize this so-called genocide, as well as the few countries that South Ossetia has diplomatic relations with. He also said he is ready to negotiate with Georgia's newly elected president, Salome Zurabishvili, if Tbilisi signs a document on not using force against South Ossetia.

On the other hand, Moscow remarked (August 23) that the Georgian authorities are planning to build a US military base in the country, indicating that a new US-Georgian military cooperation agreement in defence is imminent and Kremlin is ready to reproach this to Georgia. The agreement would set conditions for US troops’ deployment in Georgia, amid the new Russian-Georgian crisis relations. Moscow reminds Tbilisi that a US military base on Georgian territory will provoke a negative, harsh, response from Russia.

Georgia’s President has somehow warned Moscow, promoting the American process[8] in his country: "Partnering with NATO in Romania and Bulgaria in the western Black Sea, Georgia is a vital strategic partner on the east coast and we are ready to make the Black Sea be closer to US." The most important Georgian political argument is that, as long as Russia has military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it has the right to allow the West, NATO and the US to displace military bases on Georgian territory. Especially when, according to Georgian Prime Minister, M. Bakhtadze (recently retired from office, which triggered an internal political crisis in Georgia these days), since Georgia's relations with NATO, EU and the strategic partner US "were never as great as they are now”, the Georgian authorities have to make decisions based solely on its interest.

Given this context, it should be noted that Georgian officials have not, yet, revealed the details of a new military agreement with US. In Russia, some voices are claiming some US dislocations in "common security points" on Georgian territory. There are reports in the Georgian media that these dislocations would be located near South Ossetia and Abkhazia, unanimously acknowledging that such a military arrangement would be perceived by Moscow as an open threat. Hereof the doubts that the US military would agree to this option in the end. From the few statements of the Georgian Minister of Defense, L. Izoria, it turned out that the US base in Georgia would be called "Lily Petals," and would include those "common security points". He also the US military will to participate with the Georgians in any military security operation, the main task of the base being to provide the Georgian side with military logistical support.

Translated by Andreea Soare


[2] Andrei Sannikov is opposition’s leader, exiled in Poland, wherefrom he coordinates Minsk’s political opposition’s actions.

[3] )  http://europeanbelarus.org/be/news/2019/6/12/4420/, https://ru.krymr.com/a/rossiya-mozhet-poglotit-belarus-po-krymskomu-scenariu/30131760.html,  https://www.golos-ameriki.ru/a/sannikov-interview/, https://ru.krymr.com/a/rossiya-mozhet-poglotit-belarus-po-krymskomu-scenariu/30131760.html

[4] Pashiniyan promised a sharp population growth of up to 5 million people (now the official number is 2.9 million), the creation of 1.5 million jobs, and construction of high-tech commercial companies with turnover and the explosive growth of tourism. In addition, Pashiniyan dreams that the Armenian Army should be in the top twenty most powerful in the world, and its intelligence services should be among the ten most powerful in the world in terms of effectiveness.

[5] https://www.rferl.org/a/baku-yerevan-trade-accusations-after-pashinian-visits-nagorno-karabakh/30098067.html

[6] It is worth mentioning that the Su-57 is a fifth generation multi-role fighter aircraft, which has already entered the series production. The Russian Aero-Cosmic Forces have already signed a contract for the delivery of 76 such aircraft this year.

[7] It should be mentioned that, in August 2008, Georgian troops were deployed in Tskhinvali - South Ossetia capital and also tried to restore control over this region. Russia sent troops to South Ossetia and eliminated the Georgian army. At the same time, on August 26, 2008, Moscow recognized the sovereignty and independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia obviously refusing to acknowledge the independence of its former regions.

[8] It should be noted, however, that previously, Georgian state’s president considered that "We should not take measures to be considered challenges. I do not think the US is ready to develop a military base here. It is possible that such actions will provoke a negative reaction, not only from Russia, but also from the various terrorist movements that are still very active in the Caucasus. "