Friday, May 31, 2019

Issue 31



Viktor Orban

Elections in the European parliament in May brought expected yet impressive results. Almost 170 of the elected members (25% of the highest European political body) will belong to the so-called "Euro-skeptics", predominately right wingers, populists and various nationalists. The more stunning success belongs to Nigel Farage and his party which summarizes all of his agenda in one word: Brexit. He got 30 seats in the Euro parliament, more than the traditional pillars of the British politicum, Labour and the Conservatives.
Matteo Salvini

It is widely agreed that two political leaders have become the founding fathers of the growing movement of Euro skeptics: Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary and Matteo Salvini, Vice Premier of Italy. They were the most active in resisting the so-called progressive ideology of the EU with its unlimited immigration, mandatory immigrant and refugee quotas imposed by Brussels on each member state. Coincidentally or not, both Salvini, Orban, Austrian Chancellor Kurtz and some others who belong to this 25% of the new make up in the EU Parliament also would like to put an end to anti-Russian sanctions imposed on Moscow since 2014. Rather the reflection of any special affinity, this seems more a case of rejecting failing traditional policies.

From Australia to Europe and on to the US and maybe even to Canada (the October 2019 election will tell if this is so) this trend is taking over. Not exclusively but in many ways we are witnessing popular rejection and fatigue with Justin Trudeau-like yoga mat policies and overly politicized dogmas.



President Zelensky at the front line positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Luhansk region, May 27th
©President of Ukraine Website

Volodimir Zelensky’s inaugural speech as President of Ukraine contained a rather punchy line about his willingness to sacrifice his popular rating in order to do the right thing. The short clip that was shown on some television channels did not always establish clearly that it was in connection with the conflict with the rebels in Eastern Ukraine that he was making the statement. Zelensky has made it one of his priorities to put an end to the armed conflict in that region, thus shifting the emphasis from the conduct of what Poroshenko called at some point an Anti-Terrorist Operation to a conflict resolution process. Zelensky also went further by arguing that it is not so much the rebel-occupied territory that Kyiv must regain but also the minds of the people living in that territory. How Zelensky proposes to go about this peace-making and reconciliation is not yet clear. Politically, there can no real or perceived concession in favour of Moscow and Vladimir Putin. Some form of accommodation with the rebel regions had also been considered as a non-starter under the Poroshenko presidency and perhaps even more with the Parliament that was just dissolved by Zelensky. Although the main motives invoked to call early elections were the parliamentarians’ focus on self-enrichment and the population’s loss of confidence towards them, having a parliament that is more in line with the new president on the key issue of how to deal with the Donbass problem is of vital importance. At this stage, Zelensky does not necessarily need a parliament that fully shares his views on this issue, but at least one that is not on the record as rejecting virtually any kind of arrangement with the rebel regions.

President Zelensky with the Foreign Minister of Germany Heiko Maas
and the Foreign Minister of France Jean-Yves Le Drian, May 30th, Kyiv
©President of Ukraine Website

Although Zelensky has been described as a political novice, this should not be taken to mean that he cannot play a good political game. His quick decision to reinstate Mikheil Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship is not only the fulfillment of an electoral promise. It is also a rather clever way of broadening the support he would enjoy in the new parliament. Saakshvili is already back in Ukraine. He will most likely take an active part in the upcoming parliamentary election campaign and use the opportunity to exact some form of revenge against former President Poroshenko who ran him out of the country. The prospects for Poroshenko’s party were not too bright already. With Saakashvili going after him, they are not getting any better. Saakashvili is also useful to Zelensky in that as the perceived arch-enemy of Vladimir Putin, his return to Ukraine strengthens Zelensky’s credentials as standing in opposition to Putin.

In the first weeks of his presidency, Zelensky is moving quickly to deliver on his electoral platform including the anti-corruption measures, as well as to establish himself as a credible interlocutor. To use the theater analogy, he is creating the décor and doing a well thought-out initial mise en scène. He has already made some significant personnel changes, but does not have the legal authority to remove key players such as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defence or the Head of the Security Service. He has to ask Parliament to do that. Until he has a Parliament that supports his policies and allows him to select his cast, his effectiveness remains limited.



The fifth anniversary of the Eurasian Economic Union was marked by a summit of its members in the Kazakhstan capital of Nur-sultan (recently renamed to honour Nursultan Nazarbayev, long time president and also only one of three surviving members of the last Soviet politburo. The other two are Mikhail Gorbachev and Yegor Ligatchev).

The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan and the First President of Kazakhstan
May 29th, Nur-sultan, Kazakhstan
©President of Russia Website

The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan gathered to discuss the next phase of their countries' integration and further economic development. The Union will probably joined by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and some associated members as Mongolia and Vietnam. In general the economic growth of the Eurasian Economic Union was at 2.8% annually which is almost in sync with the global growth.  

The Eurasian Economic Union is studiously avoiding getting engaged in a political integration process. Its economic integration initiatives, although not as spectacular, are nevertheless also used as vehicle for modernisation of economic and trade practices, such as for instance customs clearance practices. In this respect, their impact is real and long-lasting.

Former president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev who was bestowed upon the title of "Yelbasy" (father of the nation) by grateful subjects was made also an honorary chairman of the Eurasian Economic Union.



PM Theresa May announcing her retirement, May 24th
©UK PM Website

Theresa May will be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom until June 7th when she will step down. May has been in office since July 2016. The country’s second female Prime Minister after fellow Conservative Leader Margaret Thatcher, May is a highly experienced politician who took over as Prime Minister from David Cameron during a period of political uncertainty following Britain’s referendum approving withdrawal from the European Union. The daughter of a Church of England clergyman, May was ambitious from the very beginning. She went to a local grammar school before going to Oxford University to study geography at St Hugh's College. She embarked on a banking career and a few years hence she joined the Association for Payment Clearing Services. She entered the political arena in the 1980s and served as a councillor for the London Borough of Merton for around eight years. With her political aspirations on the rise, she made attempts to be elected to the House of Commons in 1992 and 1994, albeit unsuccessfully. After her successful election as the MP for Maidenhead in the 1997 general election, her career has been on the upswing. As a politician she favours strict migration laws and is a supporter of same sex marriages.

May's political career was eventually destroyed by all the mess around Brexit as she struggled to find a compromise in the current political climate which is evidently is not very conducive to compromise. This seems to be the sign of our times on both sides of the Atlantic. With our own reputation for stubbornness and secrecy , she struggled not only against stubborn attitudes of parliamentarians towards everything related to it, but also against the multitude of personal political agendas of competing politicians from the opposition and even her own party. It is doubtful that anyone in her place would have fared better. A much clearer analysis of her effort will be possible some time later when those who criticized May would be given a chance to prove that they have better solutions and remedies and that they possess more elastic set of political skills. One can safely bet that they do not, but until they fail as well, it looks like Theresa May will be the obvious scapegoat.



Serbia's president Aleksandar Vučić declared a state of emergency in the border areas with Kosovo, the independent state carved out of Serbia proper in 2008. The formal pretext for the state of emergency was Kosovo's security forces raid not only into part of Kosovo populated by Serbs but, according to Belgrade, also into Serbia territory as well. Kosovo denied entering Serbia, but said its raid was necessitated by the search for criminals on the run. 

There are deeper underlying reasons for the escalation of tensions. President Vučić faces a dilemma: he wants to bring Serbia into the EU in order to speed up its economic development and at the same time for the sake of internal politics he has to exhibit some show of strength towards Albanians in Kosovo. That is why during his militant speech to the nation he hinted that Serbia will be ready to recognize Kosovo independence in exchange for a safe and peaceful border.



Russia has launched a new nuclear-powered icebreaker as it looks to strengthen its position in the Arctic Ocean to capitalize on the region's growing commercial potential. At a launch ceremony in St. Petersburg on May 25, officials toasted the Ural, the third vessel in a plan to reinforce its fleet with some of the largest and most powerful icebreakers ever built.

“They are the ships from new generation icebreakers of that class that we pin our hopes on in exploration of the Northern Sea Route. It is a principally new ship," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said at the ceremony.

Ural nuclear ice-breaker

Thawing ice in the Arctic is beginning to give increased access to much of the planet's remaining undiscovered reserves of oil and natural gas and large deposits of zinc, iron, and rare-earth metals, prompting nearby states as well as world powers such as China to rush and claim territory or boost their presence in the region.

Moscow's is locked in a race with rivals Canada, the United States, Norway and China to dominate the Arctic through a corridor running from Murmansk to the Bering Strait near Alaska, a faster route for sea cargo traveling from Asia to Europe.

The two other icebreakers in Russia's Project 22220 series are the Arktika (Arctic) and Sibir (Siberia). Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia's Arctic icebreaker fleet could total 13 or more by 2035.



On May 26th Lithuanians elected a new president in a runoff vote between two center-right candidates.

The election, which was held alongside the vote for the European Parliament, was won by banker-turned-politician Gitanas Nauseda who defeated Ingrida Simonyte, a lawmaker and former finance minister.

Gitanas Nauseda

Nauseda will succeed Dalia Grybauskaite, who has served the maximum two 5-year terms as Lithuania's head of state since 2009, a Baltic country bordering Russia that is a member of the European Union and NATO.

The election campaign has been dominated by voters' anger over economic inequality and corruption. Nauseda has pledged  to maintain a strict tone toward Russia, saying he would not travel to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin until Russia ends its aggression against Ukraine. He may, however, not be such a vocal critic of Russia as Grybauskaite.

Vilnius faces tense relations with Moscow. The Baltic country has arrested and charged several people in recent months accused of spying for Russia.



Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat producer, says it is planning expansion into Kazakhstan as it seeks growth overseas.

"We've visited Kazakhstan and have interest in the nation's future food-production efforts. However, we have not formalized plans for a project there," company spokeswoman Liz Croston said in a statement on May 23.

The Arkansas-based company produces beef, pork, chicken, and processed foods, including goods for export. Its poultry subsidiary, Cobb-Vantress, has a presence in Russia."One of our growth strategies is to expand our global business, so it's not unusual for us to consider various international opportunities," she said in a statement e-mailed to RFE/RL.

The Financial Times reported on May 23 that Tyson was negotiating a multibillion-dollar investment in beef production in Kazakhstan for potential export to China. The two countries share a nearly 1,800-kilometer border.

Kazakhstan is one of the world's largest wheat producers, and has millions of hectares of arable lands suitable for livestock grazing. However for years the country's agriculture sector lacked  major investments.

In July 2018, Beijing imposed an additional 25 percent tariff on U.S. beef imports in retaliation for U.S. levies on Chinese goods. As a result, U.S. beef exports to China "have dropped off precipitously," the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in an August 2018 report.



Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom says it has resumed imports of natural gas from Turkmenistan that it stopped three years ago. Turkmengaz confirmed the move. No details were given about the amount of gas that Russia would buy or at what price.

Russia was once the leading importer of Turkmen gas until it was displaced by China in 2010.
Relatively cheap imports of gas from Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries enabled Russia to boost its exports to Europe.

In 2015, Gazprom announced its intention to cut imports of Turkmen gas to 4 billion cubic meters per year, down from the 10 billion level that it had been importing since 2010.

The move was followed by a complete halt in 2016, putting significant pressure on Turkmenistan's economy, which is highly dependent on hydrocarbons as a source of hard currency. Russia's purchase halt came after the collapse of hydrocarbon prices in 2014.

The move also came as relations between Moscow and the former Soviet republic became increasingly strained by a competition to supply the large Chinese gas market.
Turkmenistan owns the world's fourth-largest known reserves of natural gas, but has limited infrastructure to export its energy resources.



Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has called for a radical reform of the country's judiciary, contending that many courts have lost their legitimacy and too many judges are beholden to the country's former authorities.

Pashinian said in a speech at a conference attended by Armenia's military, judicial, and political leaders on May 20th that while the country had formed legitimate executive and legislative branches of power in the last year, the judicial system remained under the influence of the former "corrupt government." He described his plan for judicial reform as the "second phase" of the bloodless revolution that swept him to power a year ago. Pashinian said that all judges whose rulings were found unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights must be dismissed and that he was willing to consider constitutional amendments to bring about the necessary reforms.

Pashinian, who came to power after leading a wave of nationwide protests last spring against longtime leader Serzh Sarkisian, said that all judges must now be subjected to a “vetting process” that will reveal whether they can serve as impartial arbiters.



Egils Levits

Egils Levits descendant of Holocaust victims was elected as president of Latvian Republic. It has to be noted that Latvia has a sad distinction of having second largest per capita number of Jews murdered during the WW II (out of  116.00 Jews in Latvia in 1939 only 18.000 survived). Latvian society lived for a long time in the shadow of this horrific history and often failed to come to terms with it. Election of Levits in many ways is an important symbolic step towards forgiveness and reconciliation.



Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His particular area of expertise includes Russia, Eurasian Economic Union, Eastern and Central Europe.  Ilya Gerol has written several books, one of them, The Manipulators, had become a textbook on relations of media and society.

During his career in the Canadian Foreign Service, Gilles Breton had three assignments at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. His first posting there began during the Soviet period, in 1983. His last was from 2008 to 2012 as Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission. He also served as Deputy Director responsible for Canada’s relations with Russia from 2000 to 2008. As an international civil servant, he was Deputy Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw from 1994 to 1997.

Gilles Breton also currently serves as Chairman of the National Board of the Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association. The views expressed in this newsletter exclusively reflect the opinion of the authors.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Issue 30



Volodimir Zelensky won an overwhelming victory in the April 21st second round of the Presidential election in Ukraine, receiving 73% of the vote. Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko only received 24%. It is far easier to assert a meaning to Poroshenko’s defeat than to Zelensky’s victory. Poroshenko had lost credibility especially on the central issue of the fight against corruption. He only managed to do well in Western Ukraine where his nationalist policies and pronouncements found greater resonance. To a certain extent, Poroshenko’s defeat is also a loss for the Ukrainian political class that has been in control of Ukrainian political life since the ousting of former President Yanukovich. As for Zelensky, there is a perception that, although he has offered general support for the European integration ideas that have been promoted by his predecessor for the past five years, he does not espouse them with the same fervour and that as a Russian-speaker he may take a different view of the future relationship with Russia. It is then not surprising that he avoided clearly defining his future policies during the electoral campaign in order not to expose himself to the direct criticism of the ruling political class, something that could have eroded his popular support.

Zelensky was mainly elected as the non-traditional politician who will address the problem of corruption, but also, to a certain extent, as a leader who would take a different approach than his predecessor when it comes to relations with Russia. He has used the vague enough formula that Ukraine will neither be “the corrupt partner of the West nor the little sister of Russia”. On the key issue of relations with Russia, his margin of manoeuvre will indeed be limited.

More specifically, on the issue of relations with Vladimir Putin, Zelensky’s election night message to the people of the other countries of the former Soviet Union that “everything is possible” was an interesting attempt at positioning himself as one who would be opposed to Putin should he happen to live in Russia and as conveying the message that he is no friend of the Russian President.

As for how he proposes to address the problem of the rebel regions of Eastern Ukraine, there is also a perception that he may be less dogmatic than his predecessor and slightly more accommodating. While there is not much appetite in Ukraine altogether for any concession to the rebel regions, there is also a sense that Zelensky has the mandate put an end to the fighting.

Zelensky has also made clear that he wants to move quickly on his anti-corruption agenda. On this issue as well as for the rest of his agenda, the issue of dissolving the Rada and having early parliamentary elections becomes crucial. Without his own parliamentary faction, his capacity to initiate significant change on any issue will be rather limited.



Zelensky was born in 1978 to Jewish parents in Krivyi Rih, a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial city in southern Ukraine. He left to pursue a career in show business. His first successes were in the Ukrainian version of KVN. KVN, literally the "Club of the Funny and Inventive People", is a very popular humour show that started during Soviet times and remains popular throughout the region. Their participation in KVN  led Zelensky and two friends from his hometown to create the film studio Kvartal 95 in the Ukrainian capital. 
Kvartal 95 created the television series Servant of the People, in which Zelensky played the role of President of Ukraine. The series aired from 2015 to 2019. A political party of the same name was created in March 2018 by employees of Kvartal 95. The studio became enormously successful throughout the post-Soviet world, and several of Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 colleagues also played key roles in his campaign team.
The comedian become Ukraine’s first Jewish president, making his country the only one outside of Israel to have both a Jewish president and prime minister. Volodymyr Groysman took the latter post in April 2016.

Inviting comparisons with Italy's Five-Star movement, his campaign has relied heavily on social media and comedy gigs of jokes, sketches and song-and-dance routines that poked fun at his political rivals. 


Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree simplifying the procedure for people living in parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists to obtain Russian citizenship.
The decree, which was expectedly criticized by Ukraine and most of its western supporters, was published on the Kremlin website on April 24th.
It comes three days after Ukraine elected a new president, opening the door to potential changes in a relationship severely damaged for the past five years by Russia's seizure of Crimea and support for the forces who hold parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions. 
Russian officials presented the action as a humanitarian gesture in favour of the residents of the regions in question. There may be some of that, but the timing is also a way for the Russian side, along with other trade limitation measures, to begin the possible upcoming discussions with President Zelensky from a position of force.
On the other hand, giving Zelensky the occasion to react negatively to a Russian action is a way for him to assert his own credentials back home.


After the Mueller report, as presented by Attorney General Barr, cleared Trump of “collusion with Russia” charges he regained self-confidence and confirmed his intentions to run in 2020. He will be a formidable candidate for any democratic nominee. His electorate base though smaller than it was in 2016 will most likely overlook any of his extravagant behavior, his endless war against media, non-stop staff reshuffles and other countless examples of typical Trump-like shenanigans with which we have become all so familiar. There is a popular view that Trump managed to spoil relations with allies in Europe as well as brought relations with Russia to a dangerous low. On the economic side, however, the Obama legacy along with his own policy have so far created substantial economic growth. The red states that voted for Trump in 2016 are enjoying the best economic growth, increase in wages and slightly lower unemployment in years. His firm stand on Chinese efforts to increase its presence in the US economy through artificially low import tariffs, theft of intellectual properties and other illegitimate and semi-legitimate ways is firmly supported by the political establishment and by the business community.

It is too early to tell, but Trump's leading opponent, who just now entered the race and right away became a Democratic front-runner, is Joe Biden, former senator and former vice-president. Biden counts on the assumption that Democratic voters will pick him as the middle of the road candidate and will not gamble on the uncertainties represented by more radical progressive candidates. So far the polls prove him right as Biden is ahead even of Bernie Sanders by several percentage points. 

As one British observer noticed, at this point only Joe Biden will be able to prevent the transformation of the Democratic party into something akin to the British Labour party. 



The same armored train that took his grandfather Kim il sung on the longest train ride in 1974 across the Soviet Union and most eastern European countries now brought Kim Jong un to a summit with Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok.

It was Kim’s first trip to Russia.

Squeezed between the US and China as far as the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is concerned, Kim looks for some degree of support from the former patron and Big Brother in Moscow. While trade between North Korea and Russia remains minuscule (30 million USD), thousands of North Korean workers labour as tree loggers in Siberia and send millions of dollars back home to support their families and the state itself. The UNSC resolution requires Russia to terminate the contract with Korean workers by 2021 as part of international sanctions' package. Both Kim and Putin discussed that issue and according to Russian media will try to find a solution. Putin also confirmed that he had received a message from Kim for Donald Trump.

Among some interesting projects discussed in Vladivostok was the idea to build a railroad from Russia to South Korea via the North. It could substantially cut the time of transporting goods from Europe to South Korea.  



Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with several senior Russian officials for talks in Damascus on April 20. to finalize lease of Syria’s Tartus port to Russia.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Assad met over two days with Moscow's special envoy to Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentiev; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin; Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov; and several Defense Ministry officials.
Russian state-run TASS news agency quoted Borisov as saying that a contract on renting the Tartus port by Russia was expected to be signed soon. The lease is for 49 years.

In December 2017, Russia’s Federation Council ratified an agreement between Moscow and Assad’s government on Russian forces' access to the naval base in Tartus.

It allows for the Russian Navy to expand its technical support and logistics base. It also enables visits of Russian ships in Syria’s territorial waters, internal waters, and ports.




Kazakhstan's ruling Nur Otan party has nominated interim President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev for the presidency, virtually assuring his victory in a snap election scheduled for June 9.

The announcement was made at party congress on April 23, weeks after Nursultan Nazarbaev abruptly resigned as president after 30 years in power in the tightly controlled Central Asian country.
"I propose Toqaev's candidacy for consideration," said Nazarbaev, who remains chairman of Nur Otan as well as the country's Security Council, and holds formal "leader of the nation" status. "I ask everyone to support his candidacy."

The party voted unanimously in favor of his proposal. Nur Otan had said in a statement on its website that a special congress would choose the candidate after the agenda for the meeting of the highest governing body of the party was approved on April 22 by its Political Council.

The 78-year-old Nazarbaev is chairman for life of Kazakhstan's Security Council and has been granted the title of "elbasy," or leader of the nation, which gives him and his family lifelong immunity from any civic or criminal prosecution.



Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been invited to a dinner hosted by European Council President Donald Tusk to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership in Brussels on May 13.

Several EU sources speaking under the condition of anonymity have confirmed that Lukashenka last week was invited alongside the leaders of the EU's other five eastern partners -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

That summit was the first high-level event organized by the European Union in which Lukashenka was allowed to attend after having been excluded from the previous four summits.
Belarus, which has been under Lukashenka's rule for 25 years and has been called the "last dictatorship of Europe," was sanctioned by Brussels in the wake of the crackdown that followed the presidential election in December 2010.

But in February 2016, in response to the release of all political prisoners in August 2015, the EU lifted most sanctions against the country. 



A new incident near a disputed segment of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border has increased tension in the volatile area.

Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service said on April 23 that a day earlier, a Tajik man in the village of Tojikon forcibly took an eight-year-old Kyrgyz boy from the adjacent Kyrgyz village of Ak-Sai into Tajik territory.

According to Kyrgyz officials, the boy was returned to Kyrgyz authorities in 30 minutes and at least 50 local Kyrgyz men and women demonstrated in Ak-Sai to voice anger over the incident.

Many border areas in Central Asian former Soviet republics have been disputed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The situation is particularly complicated near the numerous exclaves in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan meet.

The chief of Tojikon, Gafurjon Juraev, told the media that the incident was the result of a new standoff between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Tajiks living close to the disputed part of the border.
According to Juraev, residents of the Kyrgyz village blocked a road crossing the area and vandalized several Tajik vehicles, while Tajik men broke a window of a car with a Kyrgyz license plate.



Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga Wednesday ahead of the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation to be held from April 25 to 27 in Beijing.

China is enhancing its strategic partnership and taking the relations between the two countries to a new level, Li said.

Mongolia, as many other smaller countries in need of the Chinese investments, reasserted its support for one-China principle and made assurances to China that Taiwan and Tibet are inseparable parts of China.

Mongolia, as was declared during the meeting, is willing to strengthen the alignment of the Development Road program with the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), expand cooperation in trade, energy and infrastructure, and advance the development of the Mongolia-China-Russia economic corridor.



Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His particular area of expertise includes Russia, Eurasian Economic Union, Eastern and Central Europe.  Ilya Gerol has written several books, one of them, The Manipulators, had become a textbook on relations of media and society.

During his career in the Canadian Foreign Service, Gilles Breton had three assignments at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. His first posting there began during the Soviet period, in 1983. His last was from 2008 to 2012 as Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission. He also served as Deputy Director responsible for Canada’s relations with Russia from 2000 to 2008. As an international civil servant, he was Deputy Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw from 1994 to 1997.

Gilles Breton also currently serves as Chairman of the National Board of the Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association. The views expressed in this newsletter exclusively reflect the opinion of the authors.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Issue 29



The two-year long investigation and the conclusions of the Mueller inquiry are reminiscent of two and a half lines of a four-line Latin poem by Phaedrus. “A mountain had gone into labour and was groaning terribly. Such rumors excited great expectations all over the country. In the end, however, the mountain gave birth to a mouse.”

Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III

Democrats spent two and a half years pinning all their hopes and tying virtually all internal and external policies of the United States on the assumption that Donald Trump had colluded with (or even was an asset or agent of) the Russian Federation. The press sympathetic to this simplistic and ultimately wrong (as we know now empirically) conclusion was spearheading this quest. This reverberated way beyond the borders of the United States and negatively influenced not only East-West relations, but also relations with allies. Democrats, through Mueller, failed not only to prove that Trump colluded with Russia, but by doing so have further undermined efforts of legitimate criticism of all the weak points of Trump and his administration and have increased Donald Trump's chances in 2020.

The Democratic Majority in Congress will nevertheless want to pursue the issue of obstruction of justice, over which Mueller did not reach a formal conclusion.

On the positive side of being cleared on the Russia front Trump can resurrect attempts to improve relations with Russia especially in light of the fact that relations between the two nuclear giants are at historic lows. Moreover some key issues of the world politics like Ukraine, Syria and nuclear disarmament simply cannot be solved without equal participation and engagement of Russia and the United States. 

Attorney General William Barr

As for Russia itself, Attorney General Barr’s summary letter of the Mueller report does not offer any new information on the two main allegations. There has been some of debate about the extent, effectiveness and impact of the trolling activity that was conducted by the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency. Mueller has indicted a number of Russian citizens in this connection, but their cases will most likely never make it to a US Court. As for the hacking of the computers of the Democratic National Committee and the results of that hacking being made public, it should be noted that Trump associate Roger Stone still has to undergo trial for his role in that process. This, however important it may be, may not have a lot of impact on Trump himself. 



Preparing ballot papers
©Central Electoral Commission of Ukraine

44 candidates initially registered for the March 31st Ukrainian Presidential Election. 5 have officially withdrawn. This will still leave Ukrainian voters with a rather unwieldy ballot paper. Experience shows that this can complicate voting and tallying, but it is not the biggest problem.

Candidate Zelensky
Candidate Tymoshenko
Candidate Poroshenko

One reliable recent public opinion poll indicates that, despite his lack of government experience, comedian-turned-presidential candidate Vladimir Zelensky currently enjoys the support of up to 32.7% of the voters that have made up their minds and that are planning to participate in the March 31st first round of the presidential election. This is almost twice as much as current President Poroshenko who receives 16.8% and former PM Tymoshenko who only gets 12.3%. Previous opinion polls had suggested a similar, but less pronounced tendency in favour of Zelensky. Further analysis of opinion polls seems to suggest that Zelensky would soundly defeat either Poroshenko or Tymoshenko in the second round. Interestingly, Poroshenko is the candidate with the strongest negative rating: in a poll that was asking voters who have decided to participate in the election for which candidate they would not vote “under any circumstances” Poroshenko ranked first at 49.3% .By comparison, only 28.5% expressed such an opinion with respect to Tymoshenko.

In a country that has such a low opinion of its traditional political class, Zelensky is an attractive candidate as the non-corrupt outsider and as one who is not a professional politician. Although his political program may not be completely fleshed out, he has been given him credit for the fact that he has managed to position himself above division lines, thus making himself acceptable to some nationalists as well as to some who may want better relations with Russia. It is worth noting that the recent visit to Moscow by pro-Russia presidential candidate Boyko and his meeting with PM Medvedev and Gazprom Chairman Miller were seen as attempt to take pro-Russia votes away from Zelensky. Boyko’s controversial Moscow journey was intended to demonstrate that a true friend of Russia would be able to strike a deal on the supply and transit of Russian gas that would result in a lower price of gas for Ukrainian households, a matter which is not insignificant in light of recent and upcoming price increases.

As for Poroshenko, observers generally agree that his return to second position in public opinion polls is a result of his capture of the more nationalist vote through, among other things, his efforts to promote the creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognized as such by the Patriarch of Constantinople. The lackluster performance of other nationalist candidates Tymoshenko and Former Defence Minister Grytsenko probably helped as well. In light of the negative perception of his overall record on the matter, as well as of recent scandals involving some of his associates, Poroshenko’s weakest point would probably be the fight against corruption. To counter that perception or, more simply, to muddy the waters, Yuri Lutsenko , Procurator General of Ukraine suggested in a recent interview that he had received a few years ago a list of “untouchables” from the US Ambassador Marie Jovanovich. According to Lutsenko, these untouchables were to be exempted from any prosecution. The Lutsenko allegations were quickly rebuffed by US officials and seemed to have only been intended to create confusion around the fight against corruption, even at the cost of alienating a strong supporter.

Although the level of participation among Zelensky supporters might be a problem his lead in the polls a few days before the election would seem sufficient to take him as the first candidate to the second round. Indications are that he would then face Poroshenko. There would then be likely protests from the Tymoshenko camp that Poroshenko stole his participation by the use of “administrative resources”, the code word for the influence that incumbents and their supporters across all levels of government can use to affect the outcome of elections. Alarmingly, a recent opinion poll suggests that 83% of Ukrainians indeed expect there will be “falsification” of the results, regardless of the large number of international observers. The Central Election Commission having acquiesced to the presence of over 300 members of Ukraine’s far-right National Militia as election monitors, international observers will also have the additional task of observing these unusual observers.


With more than 80% of the votes counted, results show that Zelensky received 30% of the vote and Poroshenko slightly above 16%. They will now face off in the second round on April 21st. Prior to the first round, many Ukrainian political experts were still forecasting a Poroshenko win in the second round, despite both Zelensky’s greater popularity and Poroshenko’s above-mentioned negative rating. Poroshenko’s full use of the advantages of incumbency and Zelensky’s inexperience were given as reasons for that prediction. Zelensky’s  strong showing may change the situation. Poroshenko drawing his strongest support from Western Ukraine, it also looks like this second tour may turn out to be a repeat of previous Eastern Ukraine/Western Ukraine confrontations. In any event, one well-known Ukrainian journalist inclined to sensational statements offered the comment that, should Poroshenko receive a second mandate, half of the country would leave.



The bromance between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump had everything for it: two summits, one in Singapore and one in Vietnam, warm handshakes, exchange of love letters and assurances (by Trump) that he had no better buddy in the world than little Kim and that North Korea, by giving up its nukes, had a fast track into the family of nations and a bright future for its economy...However nothing came out of this as not a single set of sanctions was removed and North Korea moved swiftly to prepare itself and its multiple nuclear site for fresh launches.

As a consequence the relations between North and South Korea also went sour and the faint hope that a peace treaty would finally be signed after 66 years of state of war is no more.

The American approach is clear: no sanction relief without credible steps towards full denuclearization. On the other hand it is equally clear that North Korea is not going to give up its most valued asset. Its nuclear program is too vast, too complex and too much has been invested since its inception in the early 1950's. The ghost of Qaddafi, who only several years before having his country invaded and himself killed, gave his nuclear program up, is also something that Kim must often think about.

Though still in minority, more and more voices begin to express the view that maybe the time has come to accept North Korea into the nuclear club and deal with them as a legitimate nuclear power with all manner of control and supervision that this will bring. So maybe only then can the economic help and relief of sanctions be arranged, something that may change the country for the better.



Other than the major power shortages, there had been few new developments in the situation in Venezuela in the past month, until a few days ago when a Russian cargo aircraft brought in 100 Russian specialists and delivered tons of technical equipment into the country. There had been US-Russia consultation in Rome earlier in the month and one might have expected a lessening of tension, at least temporarily. The arrival of the Russian experts and their gear brought a quick end to that diplomatic pause. The arrival of the Russian aircraft drew a blunt reaction from Donald Trump: “Russia must get out of Venezuela”. Trump’s statement drew a strident response from the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, essentially challenging the US to explain on what legal basis it was issuing such an injunction.

All things considered, beyond this exchange of diplomatic fire, there is little progress or hope of progress in resolving the current crisis.

President James Monroe, 1758-1831

To justify their position vis a vis Venezuela and Russia, National Security Adviser John Bolton, among others, invoked the Monroe Doctrine. The Doctrine has obviously evolved since it was first outlined by President Monroe in 1823 in the colonial context of the time, but it is still largely perceived as the justification for US intervention in the affairs of Latin American States. Recourse to the Doctrine does not reinforce the US argument. It would only create discomfort among US allies in Latin America, but creating discomfort among allies anywhere does not seem to bother the Trump administration.

As for the Russian personnel and cargo, no one has publicly offered an explanation of their purpose. Given that the operation was not conducted very discretely, one would have to surmise that it does not have to do with some highly secret offensive military activity. This is not a repeat of the Cuban crisis of the 1960s.  One must as well conclude that the delivery in itself was intended to counter current or future US actions and to send a message in this respect. What technical capacity of the Venezuelan government and of its armed forces it was intended to support would most likely be known without much effort by US Intelligence. A very strong US reaction to Russia countering its plans was predictable. 



Secretay of State Pompeo, Lebanese Foreign Minister Bassil
Beirut , March 22
©State Department

At the end of March, just a few days after receiving Secretary of State Pompeo, Lebanese President Michel Aoun travelled to Moscow for a state visit. Without much success, Pompeo had lectured the Lebanese government over the need to distance itself from Hezbollah (there are three Hezbollah representatives in the current Lebanese council of ministers). In Moscow President Aoun agreed with President Putin over the need to support efforts aimed at implementing the Russian initiative towards the return of refugees and agreed that the resolution of this problem depends directly on the creation of appropriate economic and social conditions in Syria through the reconstruction of the country. The two presidents called on the international community to support this process. For their own reasons Moscow and Beyrouth would like to see the return of refugees to Syria. By agreeing to the linkage of return of refugees to the reconstruction of the country, which is in turn dependent on a political solution in Syria, President Aoun brought the Lebanese position somewhat closer to the Russian one.

Presidents Aoun and Putin
March 26, Moscow
©President of Russia Website

Lebanon certainly does not have as much capacity as other countries in and outside of the region in terms of financing the reconstruction of Syria. Having it on board is, however, a useful first step in that direction.

The visit of President Aoun was also an opportunity to promote economic cooperation between Lebanon and Russia. Beyond the usual objectives of trade diversification on both sides Lebanon has an interest in the broader diversification of its economy and in the presence of large Russian corporations, especially in the energy sector.

Secretary of State Pompeo's demands would jettison the fragile equilibrium on which governement arrangements in Lebanon are dependent. In a way, although it may not have been planned that way initially, President Aoun’s discussions about the refugee issue nurturing of the Lebanon-Russia relationship is the indirect diplomatic response to Secretary of State Pompeo’s imprecations about Hezbollah: nothing can be done about Hezbollah and Lebanon has other more pressing priorities it can discuss with other partners. The Lebanon-Russia engagement does not in itself add another irritant to the list of US grievances about Russia, but it reminds the US that Russia can be a counterweight to US influence even in a country that receives military assistance from the US.



©President Nazarbayev Personal Website

President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan resigned in the most unusual manner for the leader of a former Soviet republic. Yet, it was not totally unexpected. Nazarbayev started with changing the Constitution by creating a Security Council aimed at supervising every branch of power. This allowed him to transfer some of his authority to the Security Council while becoming its Chairman for life. In many ways he followed in the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping, great Chinese reformer and leader of China in the 1980's who gradually relinquished his power while grooming new generation of leaders.

In a traditional Central Asian style that requires some additional symbolism in securing and prolonging power, Nazarbayev also was pronounced "El Basy" meaning Father of the Nation. As if not enough respect was paid to the great man, the capital city of Astana was renamed into Nursultan (Nazarbayev's first name).

The serious implications of Nazarbayev’s partial retirement are a change of priorities in Kazakhstan's long-term geopolitical strategy. Kazakhstan, though a staunch ally of Moscow, simultaneously began looking towards the Chinese economic model and its political implications. For example the new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks fluent Chinese and a majority of Kazakhstan's students now prefer to study in Chinese universities instead of schools in Russia. At the same time the leadership of Kazakhstan understands that in the age of rapidly developing Internet and massive influence of English across the globe and therefore Latin script was introduced in the country instead of cyrillic.

Nevertheless Nursultan Nazarbayev continues to be very popular leader in most capitals of post-Soviet countries, including Moscow




Azerbaijan has launched large-scale military maneuvers ahead of an expected first meeting between President Ilham Aliyev and new Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. According to Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry close to 10,000 troops, 500 tanks, 300 missile systems, aircraft, and other military equipment will take part in the five-day exercises.

Armenia's Foreign Ministry said the drills "do not contribute to the creation of an environment conducive to peace."

No date has been decided yet for the meeting between Pashinian and Aliyev over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but both sides have voiced a willingness for them to take place.
James Appathurai, the NATO secretary-general's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, welcomed Armenia's new approach toward easing tensions with Azerbaijan over the disputed region.


Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has issued a public apology for helping to bring his successor to power. He also called his onetime ally an "autocrat" and promised to "rectify the mistake". Atambaev's recent statement  threatened to take his bitter feud with President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the former prime minister he steered into office in 2016, to a new level.

Speaking at a public gathering marking the 17th anniversary of deadly violence against protesters in the southern town of Aksy, Atambaev accused Jeenbekov of creating an autocratic governing style based on family ties. There was no immediate direct response from Jeenbekov, who visited the Aksy district to commemorate the victims of the violence there and said he will "never allow the creation of autocratic clans in Kyrgyzstan."

On March 17, 2002, violence erupted at a demonstration in support of a jailed politician and police killed at least five protesters. The incident sparked widespread protests. It was the first deadly dispersal of demonstrators since Kyrgyzstan won independence in the Soviet collapse of 1991 and contributed to the anger that led to the ouster of President Askar Akaev in 2005.

Tambaev, who was limited to a single six-year presidential term by the constitution, vocally backed Jeenbekov in the October 2017 presidential election, but the two have exchanged public accusations of incompetence and lack of professionalism in recent months. In October, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court ruled that the immunity enjoyed by the country's former presidents is unconstitutional. In December, parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill that would eliminate immunity for ex-presidents, potentially opening the path for Atambaev's prosecution. 


Turkmenistan says it will privatize much of the state-owned transport system and gradually end funding for the country's Academy of Sciences as it looks to bolster its struggling economy and save money amid a continuing slump in its energy sector.

A decree published on January 30 by authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said the privatization process was "designed to help strengthen the competitiveness of the national economy," increase investment, and strengthen small and medium-sized businesses.
The president gave the Justice Ministry three months to propose legislation to transform the transport industry, but he did not indicate whether foreign companies would be able to invest in the privatized sector.
Meanwhile, the government also said state funding for the Academy of Sciences will be phased out over three years and that the organization will be streamlined.

Berdymukhammedov, 61, has ruled the gas-rich former Soviet republic since his autocratic predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in December 2006. Government critics and human rights groups say he has suppressed dissent and made few changes in the restrictive country since he came to power.

Turkmenistan's manat currency has lost a fifth of its value after the collapse of hydrocarbon prices in 2014, while Russian energy giant Gazprom's decision to cease purchasing Turkmen gas at the start of 2016 further hurt the economy.

The move left Turkmenistan even more reliant on demand from China, which last year imported 35 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas via the Central Asia-China pipeline.


Russia will begin delivering natural gas to Hungary via the TurkStream pipeline in the second half of 2021, Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on March 21.
The TurkStream natural gas pipeline has a total capacity of 31.5 billion cubic meters, out of which the first line will carry a capacity of 15.75 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to Turkish consumers. The second line will carry another 15.75 billion cubic meters of gas to Bulgaria, then Serbia, Hungary and Slovakia via Turkey. 


Following the example set by Donald Trump, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă this month that her country's embassy in Israel will be moved to Jerusalem. The idea of moving Romania's Israel embassy to Jerusalem was first suggested by Dragnea in 2017 after Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and promised to move the US embassy there.

The decision comes at a time when Romania is at odds with the European Union over the rule of law. The EU accused Romania, which currently holds the EU presidency, of backtracking on key reforms against corruption. Though the two issues are not linked, the overall tone of the EU-Romania relationship is affected. 


Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it was baffled by Poland’s refusal to invite a Russian delegation to a commemoration ceremony marking 80 years since the start of World War II.Poland declared this week that Russia has not been invited to the September ceremony because of its annexation of Crimea and activities in eastern Ukraine. It slammed Poland for “ignoring historical logic” and being guided by “short-term political ‘priorities,’” and accused it of falsifying “the record of World War II and the postwar period.”



Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His particular area of expertise includes Russia, Eurasian Economic Union, Eastern and Central Europe.  Ilya Gerol has written several books, one of them, The Manipulators, had become a textbook on relations of media and society.

During his career in the Canadian Foreign Service, Gilles Breton had three assignments at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. His first posting there began during the Soviet period, in 1983. His last was from 2008 to 2012 as Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission. He also served as Deputy Director responsible for Canada’s relations with Russia from 2000 to 2008. As an international civil servant, he was Deputy Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw from 1994 to 1997.

Gilles Breton also currently serves as Chairman of the National Board of the Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association. The views expressed in this newsletter exclusively reflect the opinion of the authors.