THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER
OFF TO THE RACES
On August 20th, 33 years after he started his first campaign for the presidency, 77-year old former Vice- President Joe Biden accepted the Democratic presidential nomination and the challenge to take on United States President Donald Trump in the November 3rd election.
The Democratic Convention that chose Biden was as no other in history. It was formally held in Wisconsin, but essentially all virtual. Biden had his first opportunity to address the nation as a presidential candidate in a formal speech. The speech was a test for Biden, who is well known for his straight-talk gaffes. However, some have noted that Biden's speaking abilities have faltered in recent years, with some critics raising questions about his mental acuity. Trump has already started calling the former vice-president "Sleepy Joe".
Biden's big night came as the US economy continues to struggle, with unemployment rising amid the coronavirus pandemic. Observers have noted that the convention was lofty in its criticisms of Trump and its hopeful rhetoric, but relatively light on policy proposals.
Biden delivered concrete proposals with personal stories. The speech was a pleasant surprise for those who expected Biden to deliver a low-energy, gaffes-filled rambling as he often did prior to the convention. The speech he gave received positive reviews from such conservative networks as FOX and even Ben Shapiro's the Daily Wire had good things to say about it.
David Frum (former speechwriter for George W. Bush who came up with the famous catch phrase "axis of evil") said that the speech was primarily directed at those Republican voters who have supported Trump in 2016 but now grew tired and irritated with never-ending scandals and the divisiveness of Trump's presidency.
Joe Biden came through as a humane, measured, old-school retail politician, kind of a middle of the road alternative to the whacky and unpredictable Trump. Joe Biden also catered strongly to black voters by praising his former boss Barack Obama and his recent VP pick Kamala Harris.
Several other Democratic party figures spoke on the final night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), with former presidential candidates Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and billionaire media mogul Mike Bloomberg featuring prominently.
Biden was riding high in the polls prior to the convention. He still enjoys a considerable lead over Trump nationally, but the gap is narrowing. In 15 battleground states which will decide the election Biden is either leading within the margin of error or tied with the incumbent.
The Republican convention was technically held in North Carolina, but also essentially a virtual affair except for the last evening event held on the grounds of the White House. There, in front of a 2,000-strong (and un-masked) crowd 74-year old Donald Trump, a masterful and cunning campaigner, unleashed an all-out assault on Joe Biden and his party. Donald Trump had ridiculed all recent polls (not without justification if we remember 2016 predictions of virtually all news outlets of the impending Hillary Clinton's landslide victory). The biggest attacks by Republicans were against the Democratic Party's radical turn to the left. Trump and other speakers went on to claim that the aging Joe Biden will not be able to stem the left wing move on the environment, medical care, law-enforcement, taxation and foreign policy. Trump also defended his handling of COVID-19 and presented himself as the only candidate capable of taking on China. He also took credit for crushing ISIS, killing its leader and keeping America out of military adventures.
Recent analyses (including that of Nixon White Counsel John Dean) have tried to explain the un-wavering support of Trump’s base for an individual without moral fiber or any of the qualities expected of a US President. The emerging conclusion is that it revolves around the appetite for certain groups (less-educated white men and evangelicals) to bind with an authoritarian leader. The corollary is that these supporters will not withdraw their support no matter what their candidate does wrong or no matter convincing arguments the other candidate may produce. This could lead to an outcome similar to 2016: we may have a candidate losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College. There have been US authoritarian leaders before, Nixon regarded as the most recent, but this makes for strange times. The November 3rd election could well be the most electrifying and nerve-wracking in modern history, even more so when the incumbent still refuses to say that he will definitely accept the results.
BELARUS: TERRITORY OF UNCERTAINTY
It is an odd revolution by any standard: there are no recognized leaders within the country, political parties and even defined political goals. People of this quiet and somewhat pastoral copy of the defunct Soviet Union are united only by a distaste for Aleksandr Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager who has ruled Belarus for 26 years. As one activist in Minsk observed "our revolution is so peaceful that what we need is our version of Mahatma Gandhi ''.
|President Lukashenko visiting Army base near Grodno, August 22nd|
© President of Belarus Website
Lukashenko managed to run a European country for a quarter of the century without even having a political party of his own, not to mention an opposition. As a result the revolution divided the country into two unequal parts: the population itself and Lukashenko's personal apparatus that includes police, KGB and the Army. At the same time he antagonized not only his own country, but the European Union and all neighbouring states including Russia.
At the time of crisis nobody expressed a particular desire to stand by his side.
The EU limited its reaction to a rather symbolic set of sanctions targeting Lukashenko's inner circle. Taking into account the delicate geopolitical position of Belarus, Russia has expressed its lukewarm support for Belarus as a country and dispatched some advisors to Minsk.
In an August 27th interview, Putin allowed that Russia had put together a police group that could intervene in Belarus should the situation require. He, however, also added that he did not expect the need for this police group to intervene and that he saw the situation in Belarus being resolved through political means. There was a message for the protesters: do not go too far. There was also a message for Lukashenko: use of force will not resolve the problem.
Although Lukashenko and Putin frequently met and conversed by phone over the years, there is a general sense that the Putin administration has found Lukashenko a difficult partner. They would not be sorry to see him leave. There is also no indication that the proponents of change in Belarus would not want continuing strong relations with Russia.
For now, it looks like certain compromises on the part of the regime will take place in order to defuse a stand off, put an end to the strikes and work out a new constitution. How can Lukashenko move to agree to any compromise is the key question. This is in any event a short term solution. In the long run Lukashenko will have to leave the political scene.
ANOTHER CUP OF TEA?
Alexei Navalny, the best known opposition leader in Russia was most likely poisoned by tea he drank from a plastic cup at the airport in the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he had been meeting his supporters. On the way to Moscow the plane he was on made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk after Navalny got violently sick.
|From Alexei Navalny's Facebook Page|
After two days in the Russian hospital, where the local doctors ruled out poisoning, he was flown to a hospital in Berlin where the doctors confirmed poisoning as the most plausible reason for Navalny's collapse. Several independent lab results have confirmed the diagnosis.
The most interesting part of this story is not particulars of the toxicology report or what poison was used but who poisoned him and on whose orders. The Kremlin view had been that Navalny was annoying but not politically significant. Tolerating him rather than scaring, hurting or killing him seemed a better policy, both domestically and from a foreign policy point of view. He could also be occasionally sent to jail whenever necessary. What would have triggered a change of opinion at the top is not clear. There is also the possibility that some the of officials whose alleged corruption was denounced by Navalny took the initiative. There is, however, at this time no clear indication as to who that could be.
Here it is important to take into consideration that it is not the first fatal cup of tea consumed by Kremlin's critics. In 2006 the former GRU defector to England Aleksandr Litvinenko was poisoned and later died of polonium poisoning in the tea which was served to him by Russian agents in a London restaurant. Before that Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known Russian investigative journalist was also poisoned by drinking tea but managed to survive. Shortly after she was shot dead by some Chechen men who were later caught, tried and convicted. However, the investigation failed to dermine who ordered the murder.
So far the reaction from the Kremlin was that no investigation is required until the Navalny poisoning is proven conclusively.
On August 24th, Ukrainians celebrated the 29th anniversary of the independence of post-Soviet Ukraine. The celebrations attended by President Zelenskyy in Kyiv had their solemn moments but were not without a celebratory and light-hearted dimension. Despite all the difficulties facing the country, life goes on.
|Independence Day Celebrations|
© President of Ukraine Website
There were no major political developments this month, but the growing COVID-19 problem is a serious concern. Unlike in some neighbouring countries, the pandemic situation is slowly deteriorating rather than improving. If there was a time when the number of new cases would have seen to slow down, the long-term observable tendency is for constant growth in the number of cases. In a country where the level of testing is relatively low, the number of deaths is seen as a more reliable indicator of the real situation. A record number of deaths was registered on August 26th. There was also a significant increase in the number of new cases registered daily. Opposition leader Tymoshenko has contracted the disease and been moved to intensive care. The central government’s capacity to impose the necessary measures to regain control of the situation is doubtful.
The authorities’ decision to close the country’s borders to foreign travelers even had repercussions in relations with Israel. There is a long-standing tradition that was revived after the end of the communist regime for Breslov Hasidic Jews to make a pilgrimage to the grave of Nachman of Breslov, a famous religious leader, in the Central Ukrainian town of Uman around the time of Rosh Hashanah. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was reportedly against the idea of the pilgrimage this year for fear that it would compound Israel’s own problems with COVID-19. Since he could not block it against the wishes of his own ultra-religious political allies, he relied on President Zelensky to intervene against the massive presence of Israeli pilgrims in the relatively small town of Uman. The incident may not be so significant in itself, but it illustrates an aspect of Ukrainian life whose diversity and complexity is not always evident to outsiders.
|President Zelenskyy meeting leaders of Jewish religious organizations, August 25th|
© President of Ukraine Webiste
Whereas the Ukrainian authorities want less foreigners to come in, they would have liked to take in the members of the Wagner group of mercenaries that were arrested in Belarus earlier in the month. The Wagner mercenaries are reported to have conducted military activity in various countries including in Eastern Ukraine. As such they would be considered as war criminals in Ukraine. How they found their way to Belarus is somewhat mysterious. The President of Belarus alleged they were sent to disrupt the presidential elections in his country. (There was no need for anyone else to do that.) There were even rumours that US elements had been involved in luring the mercenaries to Belarus. Ultimately, they were quietly sent back to Russia after the Belarus presidential election.
The good news was probably that the ceasefire along the demarcation line in the Eastern Ukraine conflict is holding. As was noted at the end of August, there has been a period of at least 33 days during which there were no casualties.
This quieting of military activity would seek to pave the way for another summit meeting the Normandy Four (Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany) in the near future with a view to moving the peace process along. Replacing former President Kuchma by former President Kravchuk as the senior Ukrainian representative in the Tripartite Contact group that manages the ongoing diplomatic discussions with Russia and the OSCE seems to have helped, if nothing else, the atmosphere of the discussion.
There are also continuing noises that former Georgian President Saakashvili will become Prime Minister shortly. The political rumour mill still consumes a lot of energy.
HISTORIC PEACE DEAL BETWEEN ISRAEL AND UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The Israel-United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreement is the third peace agreement between Israel and an Arab country. The other two were signed with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994).
|Location of Israel and the UAE|
It could increase the prospects for peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East.
For several years Israel and several Gulf states have been closely collaborating mainly on security issues and under the table. Now, these relations are being opened and upgraded. People across much of the Sunni Muslim Arab world do not perceive Israel anymore as an enemy, but rather as an ally. It will increase the legitimacy of Israel's existence as a Jewish state in the Middle East. A combination of both threats and opportunities have pushed for the agreement. The threat both countries are facing is Iran's quest for hegemony and domination in the Middle East from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to Yemen. The Arab Gulf states are especially prone to the Iranians threats.
Striking a peace deal with Israel, the UAE chose path to peace and prosperity. It has also chose to press Israel on the Palestinian issue as a friend and as history proved many times Israel is way more susceptible to friendly initiatives than hostility.
Ruling elites of most Arab nations know this but only the very few admit this by signing peace deals with the Jewish state preferring to deal with Israel under the table.
The UAE has resources while Israel has the human power to promote innovation, sustainability and entrepreneurship. The Israel-UAE agreement prevented Israel's plan to unilaterally annex areas in the West Bank that the Trump peace plan allocated to Israel. But it also sends the Palestinians two messages:
• The Palestinians can no longer exercise veto power on relations between Israel and Arab states which strongly share with Israel significant security and economic interests.
• Blocking the Iran threats is more important than the Palestinian cause.
The announcement of the peace treaty was made in Washington. The Trump administration may have wanted to get credit for having somehow facilitated the deal, but did not seem to convince many of its real contribution to a process that follow its own dynamics.
PERSON OF THE MONTH : KAMALA HARRIS
55-year old Kamala Harris finished first for the second spot on the 2020 Democratic ticket. She thus became the first Black American woman and the first person of Southeast Asian origin to make it to the presidential ticket of a major US party. Her selection drew acclaim from the ranks of those who were most likely to vote for Joe Biden this November. Harris’ nomination is indeed a major political milestone. Her accomplishment consists of presenting herself as the most suitable candidate for the circumstances of 2020. As a Senator from one of the largest states in the Union, she was initially well positioned. The idea that she may have been an overly zealous Attorney General of California and the harsh criticism she directed at candidate Biden early in the campaign may have delayed her appointment, but were not sufficient obstacles to her selection.
Harris’ education and early professional career are virtually textbook perfect. The fact that she had some of the high school education in Montréal and that she frequently visited her mother’sfamily in India would suggest she had the opportunity to develop an early awareness of world diversity.
Experience would tend to show that the Vice Presidential candidate does not bring a large number of new voters to the ticket, but that it can firm up the support of existing supporters. A less than ideal candidate may not lead to the loss of supporters, but can become a distraction and even a liability: Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin come to mind. Kamala Harris’ record would suggest that she will definitely strengthen the Democratic ticket and will be a formidable campaigner. Biden supporters may not look forward to the Biden-Trump debate, but most cannot wait to see what Harris will do when she faces off with 61-year old stiff Mike Pence.
Even more important, whatever happens in November 2016, Harris is already in a good position for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination.
The U.S. Justice Department will seek to reinstate the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the ethnic Chechen convicted of killing three people and injuring hundreds of others during the 2013 Boston Marathon.
An appeals court in Boston on July 31 overturned the death sentence that had been handed to Tsarnaev in 2015. The court ordered a new trial to determine what penalty Tsarnaev, 27, should receive, finding that the judge who oversaw the case did not sufficiently vet jurors for biases.
Attorney General William Barr said on August 20 in an interview with the Associated Press that the Justice Department would appeal the court’s ruling. “We will do whatever’s necessary,” Barr said. “We will take it up to the Supreme Court and we will continue to pursue the death penalty.”
American federal prosecutors have charged a former U.S. Army Green Beret living in northern Virginia with spying for Russia from 1996 to 2011. Prosecutors said on August 21 that Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, periodically visited Russia and met Russian intelligence agents.
In 1997, Debbins was even allegedly assigned a code name by Russian intelligence operatives and signed a statement saying that he wanted to serve Russia, according to prosecutors.
"When service members collude to provide classified information to our foreign adversaries, they betray the oaths they swore to their country and their fellow service members," said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia., whose office is prosecuting the case. "As this indictment reflects, we will be steadfast and dogged in holding such individuals accountable."
The killing of a notorious crime boss from the Caucasus region is echoing across the criminal underworld of the former Soviet Union, with reverberations reaching an alleged Uzbek crime boss in Turkey who is the nephew of the former international amateur boxing chief.
Nadir "Lotu Guli" Salifov, a reputed member of the "thieves-in-law" criminal syndicate, had been known as a top crime boss in Russia and Azerbaijan.
He was shot dead at a restaurant in Turkey's southern coastal city of Antalya on the evening of August 19. According to police sources the killer was one of Salifov's bodyguards and that the bodyguard stood behind Salifov and shot him four times, including at least one shot to the back of his head, while he was seated at a card game.
The joint commission on the Iran nuclear agreement will meet in Vienna on September 1st, the European Union has said, after the U.S. and its European allies sparred over Washington's bid to reimpose UN sanctions on Tehran. The meeting will be chaired by the EU and attended by representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 20th formally launched the process of activating a mechanism aimed at reimposing UN sanctions on Iran, citing Iranian violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, which Washington exited in 2018.
France, Germany, and Britain said they cannot support the U.S. move, as it is incompatible with efforts to support the Iran nuclear deal.
"In order to preserve the agreement, we urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with its nuclear commitments and return to full compliance without delay," the three said in a joint statement on August 20.
The United States maintains it has the right to trigger the re-imposition of sanctions through the agreement's "snapback" mechanism.
The Bishkek city court has upheld a lower court's sentencing of former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sapar Isakov to 18 years in prison for corruption.
The ruling was announced on August 20th during a session held via video link due to restrictions prompted by the coronavirus.
On June 9th, the Birinchi Mai district court found Isakov guilty of misusing state funds allocated for the renovation of Bishkek's National History Museum and a hippodrome in the northern town of Cholpon-Ata while in office.
That ruling came as Isakov had already been serving a 15-year prison term after being sentenced in December 2019 on corruption charges stemming from his involvement in a 2013 project to modernize the Bishkek Thermal Power Station.
The Birinchi Mai court sentenced Isakov to 12 years in prison, but the judge said that "in aggregate, taking into account his earlier conviction and prison sentence of 15 years, Isakov shall be sentenced to 18 years in a high-security penitentiary."
He also ordered Isakov to pay about $3.3 million in fines.
Isakov, 43, served as prime minister for nearly eight months, from August 26, 2017 to April 19, 2018. He denies the charges.
The probes against Isakov and several other high-profile figures were launched amid tensions between former President Almazbek Atambaev and current President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.
Atambaev himself is currently in prison, serving a sentence of 11 years and two months for the illegal release of notorious crime boss Aziz Batukaev in 2013. He denies the charge.