MAS Special ReportWider Black Sea Region

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

MAS Special Report – The Extended Black Sea Region / June 2019

Cristian Eremia

I. Ukraine faced with another set of crucial elections and the dilemma of what to do with Moscow II. Erdogan, the S-400 missile system, Putin and Trump III. Russia is re-admitted into PACE, Ukraine protests by withdrawing IV. Large-scale protests and revolts in Georgia V. Armenia-Azerbaijan: what could be possible remains uncertain

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Ukraine faced with another set of crucial elections and the dilemma of what to do with Moscow

The first major political decision taken by new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was to dissolve the parliament and call snap elections. His objective was very clear and simple: bring his party, “Servant of the People”, in power based on the sympathy he generated nation-wide, and also to form a president – lawmakers political team to comfortably rule Ukraine.

The preparations of Ukrainian parties and politicals movement for the July 21, 2019 snap elections are now in the home run. Polls made in the past two weeks by numerous Ukrainian pollsters show the fact that five of the first seven ranked parties would be able to pass the 5% electoral threshold necessary for representation in the Ukrainian Supreme Rada (the parliament). According to last minute polls (1), five parties have the biggest chances to pass the 5% barrier:

- Servant of the People (Zelensky’s party), supported by approximately by 44% of those who announced their intention to vote;

- Opposition Platform – For Life (Viktor Rabinovich), about 12%;

- Fatherland (Yulia Tymoshenko), over 9%;

- The European Solidarity Party (formerly known as the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, led by the former president), with over 8%;

- Voice (Sviatoslav Vakarchuk), over 8%.

The other two parties apparently revolving around the electoral threshold are:

- Strength and Honor (Igor Smeshko), around 4%;

- Civic Postion (Anatoly Hrytsenko), approximately 4%.

Of course, this classification is mostly relative for the moment. With the exception of Zelensky’s party, which is clearly ahead in polls to seems to be able to win the elections with the bonus of not having problems in establishing a comfortable coalition afterwards. In the internal political context in which the general anti-Russian tone has been paused for a short time or tempered, we must note two events which talk about small concessions and openness showed by Kremlin towards Kiev.

Firstly, Russia announced (June 24) a first measure that slightly relaxes trade sanctions against Ukraine. President Putin lifted by decree the interdiction for Ukrainian goods to transit Russia en route to other countries. According to the document, goods from Ukraine can be transported on the railway and roads towards Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Transit will be allowed, while also ensuring traceability based on GLONASS seals. The amendments were enacted on July 1. We should remember that, starting with January 2016, Russia banned the railway and road transit of Ukrainian goods, an interdiction considered discriminatory, for which Ukraine also challenged Moscow at the World Trade Organization (although this organization initially ruled in favour of Moscow, as it had reasons to block Ukrainian transit). Officials and experts in Kiev were also sceptical towards the practical procedures to implement Putin’s decree in a manner favourable for Kiev.

Secondly, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, when asked by the media about Putin’s availability to meet with the new Ukrainian head of state, said that “in international relations, nothing is impossible”. This showed that Putin is described by an absolute pragmatism in his approach to foreign affairs, “especially in a matter as important as the relations with Ukraine. But a meeting just for the sake of a meeting is not necessary for anyone”.

The Russian official hinted that a meeting which would bring solid results is necessary. He also hinted that there are many unknowns in Kremlin on Kiev’s approaches regarding: (i) the necessity to resolve the most pressing problems in the bilateral relations; (ii) the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and (iii) the Ukrainian sides’ willingness to make direct contacts with the representatives of the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbass region. In other words, the Kremlin is waiting for practical steps from Zelensky to welcome the unblocking of the dialogue with Moscow.

On the other hand, the new secretary of Ukraine’s National Council for Security and Defence, Alexander Danilyuk, said that the possibility of a meeting between Zelensky and Putin is real. However, there is a dilemma in Kiev on resuming the dialogue with Moscow. Those who are sceptical and considers such a meeting inadequate start from comparing Putin’s exceptional experience in exerting power and international relations with that of young President Zelensky, who is “just becoming familiar with the system of power and who is a democrat”. So Zelensky would have minimal chances to win anything. The Ukrainian official said that “no one thinks that the two will meet and solve all problems… But hostages and war prisoners must be liberated”. And Ukrainian MP Mikhail Poplavsky said (June 21) that Zelensky’s team is working on scheduling a meeting with President Putin.

Besides, Putin recently said that Russia and Ukraine will resume bilateral relations regardless of what stance the elite in Kiev will have on the matter – “this evolution is inevitable, despite the Ukrainian political elite”. The Russian leader is optimistic, and waits for Zelensky to become accustomed to his role as head of state “as quickly as possible” and does not exclude the possibility to meet him personally.

At the end of July, President Zelensky made an appeal towards Moscow (2) to liberate the sailors who were detained in the well-known stand-off in the Kerch Strait last year, to which Russia sent a diplomatic note indicating the possibilities the Ukrainian side can use to have the sailors freed and their ships return. Paradoxically, the Ukrainian foreign minister said that Kiev refuses to consider the conditions proposed for liberating the sailors, or even discussing them with Moscow. Therefore, the stalemate in this important issue for Kiev continues, but probably the next Ukrainian government will manifest the necessary openness towards the Russian side’s new approach.

The analytical circles in Kiev are somewhat confused by the fact that they still do not have a clear view of what they can expect from Zelensky and will not venture into predicting chances of normalizing the situation with Russia, although they say that Putin left the door open for dialogue. For the moment, the new president’s influence on the situation in Ukraine is rising, as it is predictable that he is waiting for the results of parliamentary elections in order change ministers and impose his stances, including with regards to relations with Moscow. All major internal economic programs, the major investments, the great privatization announced by Zelensky, and even the new collaboration program with the IMF have been either blocked or are waiting to be initiated.

 

II. Erdogan, the S-400 missile system, Putin and Trump

Within the G-20 summit in Osaka (June 28-29), Turkish President R. Erdogan held bilateral talks both with Russian President V. Putin and US President D.Trump. One of the most important problems on the Turkish President’s two bilateral agendas was the state of the Russian-Turkish deal concerning Russia S-400 long-range anti-air missiles.

President Erdogan noted the very serious dynamic character in which Russian-Turkish relations are developing and clarified several aspects on the S-400 shipments to Turkey. Firstly, he said that there will be no delays or impediments to affect the delivery timetable of the missiles. Turkey is purchasing four S-400 “Triumph” missile systems from Russia for USD2.5 billion, systems which will be used to equip the same amount of AA missile divisions. There will be a regiment equipped with these missiles, with the Russian side to also deliver the technical equipment needed for the regiment’s command point. Deliveries towards Turkey will take place starting with July until October 2019. At the same time, during this year, approximately 100 Turkish soldiers will be part of a five-month training cycle on the maintenance and exploitation of S-400 systems, at Russian Defence Ministry training centre near Sankt Petersburg.

Secondly, the priority for the Turkish side in this business is the simultaneous development of technical-military cooperation with Russia through realizing a transfer of Russian technology, which would later allow for the common development of the S-400 missile systems, with the direct involvement of Turkey’s Defence Ministry. Bilateral negotiations established that the Turkish side will receive, for various reasons easy to understand (3), only a part of the technology to fabricate the S-400 systems – the export version, so that, at least in the beginning, Turkey will not be able to fully produce S-400 systems without technological support from Russia.

The two presidents highlighted the positive tendencies of extended economic cooperation, mentioning there the spectaculars re-emergence of Russian tourists in Turkey, the cooperation to build the Akkuyu nuclear-electric plant by 2023, the exchange of non-nuclear technologies, energy etc. President Putin highlighted the fact that, in 2018, the total volume of Russian-Turkish commercial exchanges grew with 15%, while the total volume of bilateral investments reached USD10 billion, with another target being the establishment of common investment platforms worth about EUR900 billion.

President Erdogan also said that he personally discussed the S-400 business with President Donald Trump during the G20 summit in Osaka. According to him, the US side will not impose any sanction for Turkey following its purchase of S400 Russian rockets (4). We can believe Erdogan with regards to the sanctions, but not on the fact that political tensions between Ankara and Washington will be reduced.

The US president has previously repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction and concern regarding this missile affair between Ankara and Moscow, especially because of its potential to threaten US security.

 

III. Russia is re-admitted into PACE, Ukraine protests by withdrawing

An important event happened at the Council of Europe session held at the end of last month, which was marked by the decision to re-admit Russia into the body, from which it had been excluded in 2014, after Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and started the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The decision was taken by the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe – PACE (Strasbourg, June 24), which adopted, with 118 MPs for and 62 against, a resolution which restored the full rights of Russia’s delegation to the Council. It is a daring political gesture, which shows that Europe, and the West in general, is close to yield to Russia again. PACE fully confirmed the Russian delegation’s authority on June 26.

Talks were heated because Russia’s re-acceptance was made without Moscow doing anything specific to make up for the reasons it was previously excluded from the body. The most important fact, probably, is that the vote severely diluted the gravity of the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s interference in Donbass. The situation is due to some Western states, which acted for the sake of a questionable and risky political pragmatism, in the sense that Moscow will continue to act “very calmly” as it wants, on the assumption that it cannot be blamed forever for anything and that no one in the world can sanction it for its own independent policy. And, even less, no one can “punish it” for unilateral acts which violate the limits of human rights and international law.

The vote also showed that there are still a lot of states in Europe, even large states such as Great Britain, which consider that Moscow is not and will not be capable to correct its foreign policy behaviour and get back within the limits governing the pan-European security system. Therefore, a division line was instated in the Council within Western states on the issue of Russia. Immediately after the resolution was adopted, the delegations of seven states, including Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states decided to leave the PACE session, as a gesture of disagreement with Russia’s re-admission.

Ukraine reactive ostentatiously and very fast, with Kiev recalling its ambassador to the Council. The Ukrainian Supreme Rada’s Foreign Affairs Committee recommended lawmakers to suspend the participation of the country’s delegation to PACE until the Venice Commission’s conclusions regarding Russia’s re-admission are published. Ukraine is threatening to suspend its activity until all the core provisions PACE adopted in Russia’s case in the past five years will be applied. This would mean, among other things, for Russia to free Ukrainian political prisoners and captive sailors unconditionally. The committee addressed. The committee made a request towards Rada Chairman Andriy Parubiy to withdraw the invitation for PACE observes to attend the July 21 Parliamentary elections. Therefore, there are serious premises for Russia’s re-admission to hurt PACE’s relation with Ukraine in the future. Although many specialist voices consider that Ukraine made a hasty decision in abruptly leaving the Council, as its withdrawal is obviously not in favour of its strategic interests.

IV. Large-scale protests and revolts in Georgia

Protests in Tbilisi began when Georgia held the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (June 19-22). The second day of the session, which was held at the Georgian Parliament’s headquarters, was opened by Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov (a member of Russia’s Communist Party), who was nominated in this regard by the General Assembly. Ostentatiously, premeditated or not, the Russian MP sat at the central platform, in the seat usually reserved for the chairman of the Georgian Parliament, which instantaneously caused a strong critical reaction from Georgian opposition MPs. In short time, thousands of Georgian citizens were mobilized in the streets, protesting inclusively against the Parliament, outraged by the arrogance and offence made by the Russian MP.

The protests later grew in scale, with citizens led by the Georgian political opposition expressing a reminder that Russia is an occupying state, which attacked Georgia in 2008 and took part of its national territory. The active phase of the protests lasted for approximately four days, during which tens and hundreds of citizens were wounded and detained by law enforcement. Protesters and opposition very rapidly obtained the resignation of the chairman of the Georgian Parliament, I. Kokabidze.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili cancelled her foreign policy agenda and personally became involved in the matter, in order to avoid dangerous developments for public order and internal political stability. She accused Moscow of politically using the Orthodox religion to create turmoil and instability in her country. She deemed the Russian MP’s speech unacceptable, stating that “Russia is the enemy and an occupation force of the Georgian territory. Russia is the only state which benefits from the advantages conferred by our country’s and society’s division following the 2008 war”.

Moscow’s reaction was immediately adjusted. Russian officials accused Georgian leaders of a lack of responsibility in organizing international activity in optimal security conditions, Putin suspended Russian airline flights towards Georgia, and the Russian Foreign Ministry labelled Georgian protesters as “radical forces”. Georgia had no diplomatic relations with Russia since 2008, because of the war and the support provided by Moscow to the separatism of the two self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russia also has troops deployed. Relations among some business and private individual circles have improved visibly during the last couple of years (for example, last year approximately one million tourists visited Georgia), but this will not be able to diminish the increased Russophobia and serious political disputes between the two states.

Although the protests started out as purely anti-Russian, new targets were developed the way, with the political power accusing opposition parties of hijacking the original purpose of the protests, which also generated violent confrontations with law enforcement. Serious political tensions also appeared between the leaders of main opposition parties and those in power. Essentially, the protesters ultimately targeted the ruling Georgian Dream Party, and the way it managed internal social-economic problems, as well as Georgian oligarchs. The decaying economic situation the lack of a real democratization of the Georgian state were also decried.

It is obvious that the Interior Ministry became a target for protesters, who requested the minister’s resignation following the forceful intervention of law enforcement. Furthermore, the fact that Russia was only a pretext to launch protests is shaping as a conclusion. The escalation of these protests is due to the fact that Georgian Dream has been for some time a despised party in several segments of the country’s society. Its leader, Ivanishvili, is also on the same negative trend. The polarization of the Georgian state’s political scene has become a real weakness which deepens divide in its society, with there even being forces which would wish to topple those in power with the support of street protests, after the Armenian model. According to the Georgian prime minister, former President Mikhail Saakashvili is involved in the matter and has the blame for stimulating street protests in Tbilisi.

The situation created in Georgia, but especially the possibilities for further developments are not yet clear. At the time this op-ed was being wrapped up, it was announced that, following initial investigations, Georgia’s General Prosecutor’s Office stated that the protests were part of the plan of some forces and individuals well determined to “seize the power in the state” through insurrections and violent incidents. The good news for Georgians is that, for the moment, these forces did not reach a necessary critical support to throw the state into major internal turmoil, with unpredictable conclusions.

 

V. Armenia-Azerbaijan: what could be possible remains uncertain

The OSCE’s current chairman, Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, recently had a work meeting with the co-presidents of the organization’s Minsk Group on the subject of Nagorno-Karabakh (representatives of the US, France and Russia), during which they commended the results of a meeting between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan (Washington, June 20). The co-chairmen presented the progresses achieved on the ground to ease the humanitarian situation, including the success of a recent prisoner exchange action between Armenia and Azerbaijan. OSCE reiterated its full support for the mediation process, as well as the sides’ efforts to reduce political and military tensions on the ground and to create a favourable atmosphere for substantial progress in negotiations. The OSCE official said that the prisoner exchange is a political gesture which demonstrates the importance of dialogue in generating positive results. A relatively calm situation was also registered in the conflict zone on the contact area separating Armenian and Azerbaijani troops. This, in short, is the current-day situation of the Nagorno-Karabagh file.

Let us check, however, the evolutions in the past months and what the short-term tendencies could be. Immediately after the political situation in Baku became clear, that Azerbaijan is dealing with a “new Armenia”, President Aliyev gave a clear signal that 2019 can become the year in which a practical peace solution in the frozen Nagorno-Karabagh contest is discovered. The Azerbaijani president’s signal was directed towards internal consumption for the two warring states, as Baku seemed to be optimistic enough on revitalizing the peace process, even without any solid baking from the OSCE’s Minsk Group (a body created in 1992 to facilitate an end to the conflict, but which proved its inefficacy during the long period time that has passed since).

Baku is hoping in a sustainable peace process without pressures from third parties, which could reduce the risks of blockage which would be hard to manage. It is true, after Pashinyan won the elections in December last year, the optimism of the sides in the conflict and mediators suddenly grew, especially after the moment at the beginning of the year when Armenia and Azerbaijan announced that they had convened to start preparing their populations for peace.

The Azerbaijani peace plan essentially has a gradual approach known as the “Six D-formula”, meaning de-occupation, demilitarization, de-mining, deployment, dialogue and development (5).

Overall, it can be said that the Azerbaijani leader is not exaggerating when says that the two states could find a solution through negotiations and bilateral cooperation actions on their own. Both sides have a large array of opportunities which can be brought to fruition, starting from those of regional economic collaboration in the area of energy security, or to dismiss reciprocal traditional and historical threats – real, perceived or imaginary, which would pave the way to a successful solution for the conflict.

Although optimistic and pessimistic thoughts continue to be mixed together, offering different levels of expectancy, the political elite which counts in Baku does not see in PM Pashinyan’s new political team in Erevan an opponent of bad faith, and offers him sufficiently generous trust, in order allow practical actions. Baku made a series of personnel changes to facilitate the reversal of its previously aggressive rhetoric (we are talking about high-level appointments within state agencies which manage the problem of the Karabakh enclave, a new president of its State Committee for Refugees and Individuals Displaced from the War Zone, a new president of the Azerbaijani community in the Nagorno-Karabagh region). Baku is relying on the Pashinyan cabinet’s political and economic pragmatism, which would determine Armenia to take Azerbaijani solutions into account when drafting a thorough peace treaty, of course within the margin of associated political risks.

Despite all this, recent evolutions have dwindled part of the optimism, as the sides seem to be concentrating not on negotiating a solution, but rather on winning the diplomatic competition launched on the subject. There are many examples. Pashinyan wants to bring Nagorno-Karabakh representatives to the negotiations’ table, while Aliyev’s counter-condition to also include Azerbaijani residents there is not accepted. The Madrid principles on solving the conflict are interpreted in contradictory manners by each side, proving to be increasingly more inapplicable.

It is also important to note that neither side in the conflict can exclude the fact that no sustainable political peace agreement was reached during the past 25 years. Furthermore, the status quo was in the benefit of some regional actors, first of all Russia, who according to several specialized voices was never interested in solving the conflict, simply because it would have lost its control or influence on the two Southern Caucasian states. Beyond this, we can imagine that a stable, prosperous region without security problems would be very easy to integrate in the EU or NATO, which would be impossible to digest for Moscow.

Translated by Ionut Preda

(1) https://www.rbc.ua/rus/news/svezhiy-reyting-daet-pobedu-vyborah-pyati-1561993908.html

(2) https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/644989-zelenskii-putin-ukraina-moryaki

(3) This is a procedure currently applied for reasons of classifying some key-states of national military equipment (for example the “Friend-Enemy” recon equipment), for any importing state which purchases military equipment from Russia and insists to take part in producing it with its own defence industry. For example, this procedure has been used for a long time with India.

(4) https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/5721203 and https://www.bfm.ru/news/418104

(5) https://reliefweb.int/report/armenia/old-conflict-new-armenia-view-baku