Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Issue 41


THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER


COVID-19, PUBLIC POLICY AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS




The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged political leaders all over the world to come up with policies and measures they would have found impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago. The public policy choice is whether to take radical measures to stem propagation, thus avoiding the top-of-the-curve overburdening of the health system and reducing the number of deaths or whether to limit action to precautionary measures and let the pandemic spread to the point where some form of “herd immunity” is achieved. Except in Belarus and to some extent in Brazil, there is now a broad consensus that states should deal with the pandemic by performing maximum possible testing, by restricting travel and by instituting social distancing measures. At the outset, the UK seems to have flirted with the idea of letting the development of “herd immunity” take care of the problem. The quick propagation of the virus has put an end to that discussion.



The other country that adopted a different approach is Sweden where the response was initially not to adopt strict confinement measures. The assumption seems to have been that a healthier population living in a cleaner environment and more assiduously following hygiene recommendations might fare better without normal economic activity being curtailed. The matter was not to chose between public health and the economy, but to seek a balance between the two in a context where there a strong expectation exists that the overall population will be very disciplined in following public health recommendations to a point where confinement would be counterproductive. This may work in Sweden, but that remains to be seen.

The question of the damage to the economy only surfaced after some of the right-wing partisans and influencers of the US President raised the idea that the stringent anti-pandemic measures were unjustified. Trump even said “the cure is worse than the disease”. In any event, that idea has also become a victim of the virus as the number of US cases now seems set to grow exponentially for two weeks, maybe more. The uncertainty over the time that it will take to “flatten the curve” will be difficult to withstand, but there is no other choice. This is not to say that would not of using intelligent flexibility in lifting movement restrictions down the road.

Virtually all states have taken financial measures to protect their economies and societies from the impact of the pandemic. The US response was essentially delayed because its of initial greater emphasis on protecting the large economic entities rather than society. If the pandemic subsides by the time of the November elections, the effectiveness of the financial response will clearly be a decisive factor, perhaps even equal to the health care response to the pandemic.  

The immediate risk is the over-burdening of the health care system in some countries or parts thereof. The situation in Third World countries is unpredictable: the achievement of the above-mentioned herd immunity may become the default solution in some cases.

The following risk lies in the magnitude and unknown duration of the upcoming economic slowdown and of its impact on economic structures and social cohesion.

In dealing with the first, states have mostly turned to themselves.

In dealing with the second, there have been a few attempts to re-emphasise international solidarity. The EU is, for one, struggling with this challenge.

Beyond the risks, there might also have been opportunity. The call by the UN Secretary General for a truce in military conflicts and a later collective call for the suspension of economic sanctions, especially against Iran, drew little response so far. It seems though that the situation still must get worse for such ideas to find some traction. It seems that the US leadership is even using the time when no one is looking to double down on Iran and Venezuela. Secretary of State Pompeo has reportedly taken the view that it was a good time to go after regimes that may be weakened by the pandemic. Hoping for the pandemic to lead to a greater disposition towards conflict resolution is, to say the least, premature.

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COVID-19 COMPARISONS, US VS RUSSIA, AND CANADA



In understanding the current crisis, it might be useful to look at the comparative capacity of states to address the challenge, more specifically the US and Russia. The question that has been raised by many is why a country that shares a land border with China and Europe has comparatively fewer cases than a country that stands an ocean away from the first and the second epicentre of the pandemic.

US Navy Hospital Ship Comfort


There has of course been some debate about whether the Russian authorities were at the outset hiding the real numbers, with some arguing that early low numbers were unrealistic, others arguing that Putin’s subsequent decision to postpone the referendum on constitutional amendments was a signal that the situation is far worse than official numbers suggest. Some of the perceived early discrepancies may have been the result of a controlled release of the information. Certain objective factors may also have played a part. Russia, although it is closer than the US to China and Europe does not necessarily see the same number of international visitors. (International visitors are indeed what seems to explain the especially difficult situation in New York city.) Another part of the explanation may have been given in the admission made by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin who essentially stated on March 24th that “there is no real picture of the COVID-2019 situation in Russian regions”.  Another part of the explanation may be found in testing level and methodology discrepancies. Asymptomatic cases will not be revealed so readily in low testing circumstances. The fact is that the authorities’ perceived slow response would suggest they believed their own figures. The question has become somewhat academic. The growth of the number of cases in Russia now follows the same pattern as elsewhere. It also seems to corelate closely with case growth in Ukraine, a more similar comparator.

The White House signing of the financial stimulus bill, March 27th


In comparing the US and Russian response, it might be useful to focus on some of the factors that are currently considered as having an influence on the quality of the state response:

-An early, effective and decisive response by public authorities in implementing travel restrictions and social distancing measures.

In the US, Donald Trump claims that his decision to close the US to Chinese visitors at the end of January was a sign he acted early and decisively. Afterwards he decided to close the door to EU visitors. His early public comments about the innocuity did not help mobilize the public.  His stubborn reliance on the private sector and his reluctance to use government powers to deal with shortages may also have delayed necessary action.

In Russia, the decision was also made in late January to close the border with China. A relative early slowness in implementing strict confinement measures was observed. Undeniable growth of the number of people affected by the virus radically changed the situation and forced President Putin to speak to the nation on March 25th. There was no discrepancy between his message and that of public health specialists. All available government resources have been enlisted support the fight against the pandemic, including the Armed Forces and their biological defence units. Russia can also more readily completely close its borders, as it just did.

With an ineffectual national leader, the saving grace for the US is that it is a federal state where governors have the authority to take real action, even though not all governors are as effective.

With an authoritarian leader who eventually follows scientific advice, Russia’s converse problem is that regional leaders may not all be equally up to the task.



President Putin's visit to Komunarka Hospital, March 24th
©President of Russia Website


-The pre-existing availability of sufficient technical and human resources, including testing material.

Some observers, such as Robert Reich, former Labour Secretary under Bill Clinton, have highlighted the fact that the US does not have a public health system but rather a private for-profit system. The implication is that health care providers focus on activity that brings revenue not on prevention or preparedness. Testing capacity issues have not been resolved. The well-funded US system has all the most modern equipment. It may not have enough to meet all the needs in a crisis situation.  

In Russia, health care expenditures are much less than in the US. There are however more hospital beds and physicians per capita in Russia than the US.  While specific information about ventilators has not surfaced yet, one would have to assume that the availability of modern medical equipment could be a problem when it comes to the treatment of seriously affected patients.  The WHO representative in Russia nevertheless gave good marks to Russian testing, but, in a country the size of Russia, the number of facilities doing the testing could have been a problem.

Russia’s health care system is public and there is also a strong civil defence tradition and capacity. For instance, it has a “Ministry of Emergency Situations”. That Ministry has been widely seen as the best-run department in the Russian government. Russia’s relative capacity to handle emergencies was confirmed by the fact that it was the only country other than China to deliver medical assistance to Italy in late March.

-The pre-disposition of the population to heed the instructions and warnings of the health authorities.

As for the US population willingness to listen, there is more than anecdotal evidence of a rather less rigorous observation than is desirable. The misleading presidential statements obviously do not help. The distrust among conservatives and Trump supporters toward mainstream medias is also a serious concern.

In Russia, the matter would seem slightly different. There may not be a lot of trust towards government authorities. The fact though is that there seems to exist a greater inclination on the part of general population to trust official scientific opinion, especially the Academy of Sciences, and to follow the doctor’s advice. In other words, the Russian equivalent of a Dr. Fauci would enjoy a credibility neither affected by political factors nor undermined by his political leader. The political authorities would also have few qualms about imposing science-driven quarantine measures.  

In the long-term, Russia may have the advantage of a public (rather than private) health system as well as of a greater alignment to science-based advice. Only time will tell whether that will materialize in a more effective response. Russian leadership may not have reacted as quickly as leadership in South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore, but has eventually become more decisive. The greatest observable difference so far is that the US seems at a disadvantage on account of its erratic leader and his misleading pronouncements.

If we bring Canada into the comparison, we might even see in the above some reason to explain the relative effectiveness of the Canadian response. A quick reaction (especially in Qu├ębec), unusually good federal-provincial cooperation and coordination, a strong public health system as well as an inclination to trust government and to listen to scientists would seem to help better meet the challenge.

--o--

IDLIB, THE OTHER HUMANITARIAN DISASTER


Over the past few years, Turkey and Russia repeatedly sat at negotiating table to strike a deal on opposition-held areas in northwestern Syria. Yet, despite these agreements, the situation in the area, particularly the northwestern province of Idlib, has only gotten worse, with no clear solution in sight.
The latest Turkish-Russian deal, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, concluded on March 5th in Moscow will not be an exception. While the agreement has managed to stop the fighting and give a respite to the three million Syrians living in the province, the majority of them displaced multiple times, it has not provided a stable solution that would prevent another military offensive by the Syrian regime and its allies on the last stronghold of the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition.



The deal, for the time being froze the conflict, stopped the military momentum of the regime and its allies and prevented at least temporarily any further advances. As in many other war zones massive air raids virtually stopped. The Russian air force is taking a break. So does the Turkish artillery and their other assets.

The deal (at least in bilateral terms) has solidified the Turkish military presence in Idlib. It also stopped attacks on Turkish military personnel which were threatening to unravel Russian-Turkish relations. Several Turkish soldiers were killed by the Russian air force, though Turkey and Russia both preferred not to admit this. The payback for this by the superior Turkish firepower was, however, directed solely against Assad's army, killing untold number of soldiers.

It must be noted here that while Syria wants to take over the strategic infrastructure of Idlib province, it does not want its population, a mix of local residents and displaced people from other provinces, which it perceives as opposition minded. It would rather see the three million civilians become someone else's problem, be it Turkey, Europe or anyone else.

The people of Idlib also do not want to move to territories under regime control, having witnessed continuous revenge killings, arrests and torture in areas which have reconciled with the regime, such as Deraa province in the south.

The deal also omitted some of the major contentious issues such as the M5 highway, linking Damascus to Aleppo, and the future of Turkey's military observation posts, as most of them are effectively under Assad-controlled areas.

The deal also did not resolve the status of the Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an armed group formerly affiliated with al-Qaeda and considered a terrorist organization by the UNSC. Russia has repeatedly demanded that Turkey deal with it, which so far has not happened. As a result, its continuous presence in Idlib province remains one of the major sticking points between Moscow and Ankara.
Clearly, both Ankara and Moscow see this as a temporary measure, despite assurances that they aim for this ceasefire to continue for a while. Both sides are militarily reinforcing their positions in Idlib.
Moreover, Turkey has used the lull in fighting to seek support from Western allies. At this stage, it appears that the US is offering only rhetorical support and intelligence sharing to Turkey. The US will not and can not forget Turkish purchase of S-400 from Russia. No real support from the EU seems to be forthcoming either. Everyone is busy with the virus.

So, what happens next?

On the positive side Turkish and Russian troops recently conducted joint patrols on the M4 highway, linking Latakia to Aleppo, part of which still falls within opposition-held areas. If such patrols continue it will indicate the overall commitment to this deal.

It is clear that as soon as Covid-19 will be brought under control, the deal between Turkey and Russia could collapse.   

--o--

FORGOTTEN UKRAINE, FORGOTTEN CONFLICT


The country.

March in Ukraine began with the appointment of a new Prime Minister and government. After only 6 months on the job, lawyer Oleksiy Honcharuk was replaced as Prime Minister by Denys Shmyhal, an experienced manager.

“The previous government did its best, but today Ukrainians need a government that will do the impossible. I hope that the next Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine will do so,” Volodymyr Zelenskyy stressed, as he announced the appointment of Shmyhal.

Although changing government quickly does not create an impression of stability, Zelenskyy had little choice. He was not so much firing Honcharuk (despite Honcharuk’s critical comments about Zelenskyy’s understanding of the economy), as he was attempting to put together a more professional government. The elevation of former Ambassador to Canada Vadim Pristayko from Minister of Foreign Affairs to Deputy Prime Minister confirms the idea of rewarding proficiency in government management.

Personnel changes kept occurring with the appointment of a new Prosecutor General, a key job in Zelenskyy’s anti-corruption campaign.



COVID-19 coordination meeting, March 31st
©President of Ukraine Website


Further personnel changes had to be made with the resignation of the Health Minister and the Finance Minister as the COVID-19 pandemic reached Ukraine at the end of March.

Some political analysts in Ukraine have already begun discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic could inflict extremely serious damage on the country should it propagate there as it has in virtually every other country. Ukraine already has a severe demographic challenge with working-age individuals leaving the country in large numbers. The authorities may have reacted quickly, but the public health system would not seem to dispose of the human or physical resources to handle a major crisis. At last count, Ukraine had lost a significant proportion of its physicians in the post-Soviet period. Furthermore, despite the respect the population may have for Zelenskyy as an individual, it is not clear that the authorities would have the credibility to enforce unpopular measures. Finally, the government, already trying to avoid default, will have to turn to outside assistance for any financial rescue package, if any is readily available in the current circumstances.

The conflict

The Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, OSCE) is the entity through which discussions on bringing peace to the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine are conducted. At the March 11th meeting of the TCG, it was agreed to create an Advisory Group whose composition remains uncertain at this time, but that might include representatives of the rebel regions. The Chief of Staff of the President immediately had to make a statement clarifying that this does not imply the beginning of a dialogue with the representatives of rebel regions, but rather the inclusion in the negotiation process of Ukrainians who were displaced from the rebel regions as a result of the conflict. Oleksii Reznikov, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine had to reinforce the point that the creation of the Advisory Group did not constitute a “treason”. This may not have been enough for the opponents to any political dialogue with the rebel regions. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the process of creating the Advisory Group is suspended.

--o--

PERSON OF THE MONTH





During the extraordinary times when the whole world struggles to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, BGN wishes to acknowledge those who are at the front lines of this fight: doctors, nurses, paramedics and lab technicians who work around the clock to save lives and develop a vaccine. Let us also acknowledge the WHO as the main organizing force world-wide in combating the worse pandemic on the planet in 100 years.

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RUSSIA’S PRESIDENT 

The issue was quickly swept off the stage by the COVID-19 pandemic, but when the national referendum on constitutional amendments can be held, it will most likely confirm the possibility for President Putin to remain in power till 2036. The idea of nullifying Putin’s previous and current presidential mandates for the purposes of his eligibility as president under the revised constitution came from Valentina Tereshkova, member of the Duma and first woman to have accomplished outer space travel. The attempt to present this as a surprise to Putin himself did not convince many. In his most recent interview on the subject, Putin refused to confirm his plans for the future, beyond the expiration of his current mandate. Observers now know that it is imprudent to speculate on Putin’s intentions. The only thing that is certain is that if the constitution is revised as expected, Putin will never have to face the lame duck problem


RUSSIA’S MONEY


Prior to the onset of the pandemic, Russians had been applying for consumer credit and mortgages in greater numbers due to fears that prices and rates would soon increase. Russians have historically rushed to purchase foreign consumer goods, such as electronics and cars, as well as apartments during periods of economic volatility and ruble depreciation.
The Russian ruble has fallen nearly 20 percent after oil prices collapsed on March 9th following a disagreement between Moscow and Riyadh on production cuts. A weaker ruble will make popular imported products like iPhones more expensive.
Russians scooped up household appliances and cars at the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 when oil prices last nosedived, causing a sharp currency devaluation, and citizens probably “feared missing the moment” this time.
Fear over the impact the coronavirus could have on the economy and supply chain has also played a role in credit demand as Russians, just like their European and American counterparts, stock up on food and other goods.

BELARUS


Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has criticized Russia's "unnecessary" decision to close the border between the two countries to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"There must be no unnecessary moves that might complicate already uneasy relations between the two nations," he said on March 16th during a meeting with officials in Minsk.

The Russian government said the restrictive measures against Belarus, announced earlier in the day, were "prompted by special circumstances and are absolutely temporary."

Belarus, heavily reliant on Russia for cheap oil, has been at odds with Moscow over oil prices for months. The dispute is part of wider political discord between the two countries over forming a union state.

Instead of closing the Russian-Belarusian border, Lukashenko said, "our dearly beloved" Russia should help Belarus beef up security against coronavirus at its border with Poland, which he called "our common union-state border."

RUSSIA’S NON-MONEY


Russia is testing facial-payment technology at supermarkets and could roll it out on a large scale by the middle of the year. VTB, Russia's second-largest lender, is testing the technology in the Lenta supermarket chain. Promsvyazbank, another Russian lender, is holding talks to launch the technology in other supermarket chains next year.

The technology will enable shoppers who have linked an image of their face to a bank account to pay for goods by posing in front of point-of-sale machines equipped with cameras. China, which has one of the most advanced mobile-payment systems, has already rolled out facial-recognition technology in many stores.

SnapPay, a Canadian company, announced in October it would offer the payment method in North America.

The popularity of the technology could receive a boost from the novel coronavirus, amid concerns that the virus can be transmitted through cash and cards. Advocates say it is more convenient and speeds up the checkout process. The use of facial-recognition technology has, however, raised concerns over privacy, especially in countries with authoritarian governments.


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THE AUTHORS

Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His 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.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Issue 40

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER


WHO WILL WIN THE DEMOCRATIC NOMINATION?



The simple answer to this question is that it is still too early to tell. However, as most reputable pollsters say, only Bernie Sanders has the most viable path to grab most pledged delegates before the Convention. His support is the most stable across the widest array of states and he has impressive support across age, ethnic and racial groups. Sanders also does very well in a lot of head-to-head polls vs Donald Trump. This is now, but will this be the case later is unclear and even more unclear if Sanders is electable. Although the impact of coronavirus remains unknown, the economy is doing well and the country might get seriously weary of Bernie's call to “revolution” and various radical changes. Michael Bloomberg with all his 60 billion dollars most likely will be able to mount a challenge and climb in the polls, but it is unlikely the party with so many progressives in it will have the stamina to nominate a Republican oligarch.



Let us not forget that Hillary Clinton out-raised Donald Trump 3-1 in 2016. It is true that Joe Biden is fading and Mayor Pete Buttigieg scores low with minorities, but things can change after Super Tuesday. Even Elizabeth Warren and Senator Klobuchar, the two women in the race, can make a comeback.  Here we can take more examples from history. It was 1992 the last time Democratic candidate defeated a Republican incumbent. That candidate did not win a single state before the Super Tuesday and had to go on CBS ' 60-minutes to fight accusations of marital infidelity during the primary. His name was Bill Clinton and he won 370 electoral votes. Not so long ago a black man who admitted to using cocaine when he was young and who held rather radical views on race relations, clinched the nomination and went on to win the popular vote and 365 electoral votes. It was in 2008 and his name is Barack Obama.

One thing is for certain, both Clinton and Obama were dynamic performers and great speakers. Only one Democratic candidate can claim to be in this class, it is Bernie Sanders.  The Democratic Party establishment may be concerned that he is too far to the left. They probably should be equally concerned that, should Sanders not be nominated, his enthusiastic supporters will most likely not actively line up behind a lackluster moderate candidate such as Joe Biden, thus replicating the Clinton-Trump 2016 scenario.

Yet, what makes American politics such a spectacle is uncertainty and a lot of surprises. One thing is for sure, we are up for both this time around.

--o--

TURKISH-RUSSIAN ROMANCE IN JEOPARDY?



Presidents Erdogan and Putin had agreed in September 2018 in Sochi on the principles of what should happen in Syria's Idlib region. Yet, tensions have been mounting over the past few weeks over what Syria and Russia see as shortcomings and even open violation of the Sochi agreement by Turkey. As for Turkey it rejects the aggressive stance taken by Russia and Syria in response to these alleged violations of the Sochi agreement.



The 2018 Sochi agreement, it has to be recalled, was intended to avert the humanitarian crisis that was going to engulf Idlib should Syria (with Russian support) launch a military offensive to retake the city. In simple terms Turkey sought to secure a buffer zone on Syrian territory as well as to protect moderate opposition forces while bringing extreme terrorist group under some form of control so as to lead eventually to a return of Syrian government presence in the civilian areas of Idlib.

The Sochi agreement bought time for Idlib, but never led to the expected normalisation of the situation. Those that Syria and Russia sees as terrorists continued their activity against Syrian and Russian forces, with possible direct support, it seems, from Ankara. The Syrian and Russian response has been to re-launch their military offensive towards Idlib, with a focus on recovering the areas surrounding the main highways that link Aleppo, the large commercial centre, to Damascus, the capital. This is an important element in the potential economic recovery of Syria.

From the humanitarian point of view the situation is back to where it was prior to the Sochi agreement. The intensification of fighting, real and expected, is putting a large civilian population in a most difficult position.  

After the most serious clash to date between Turkish and Syrian military forces at the very end of February, Erdogan and Putin still managed to have a “substantial” phone conversation during which they agreed to further activate consultation mechanisms between their military establishments with a view to “normalise” the situation. Further meetings between leaders may even be held with a week or so. If Syria is allowed to consolidate what it sees as vital territorial gains, it may be possible to negotiate a new pause in military activity. 

Erdogan obviously does not see the fate of the last remaining rebel stronghold in the same manner as Russia and Syria. He has stated decisively that Turkey is determined to make Idlib a secure zone "no matter the cost". "We will not leave Idlib to the Syrian regime, which does not understand our country's determination, and to those encouraging it," said Erdogan.

Erdogan essentially knows that he cannot afford the risk of an open confrontation with Russia (which Russia also dreads) for obvious military reasons, but as well for fear of damaging Turkey’s vital economic relationship with Russia. Nevertheless, Erdogan still is hoping to achieve an arrangement in Idlib that will safeguard Turkey’s security interests and avoid a renewed flow of refugees into Turkey.  The next question would be whether Turkey would fully keep its commitment of curbing the flow of migrants into the EU.

A similar problem arises with respect to Libya where Russia is seen as supporting the insurgency of Marshal Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” and Turkey is supporting the “Government of National Accord”. Here the alleged violation by Turkey of the recently-agreed international arms embargo has met with Turkish criticism that Russia has allowed a large contingent of Russian mercenaries to operate in support of Marshal Haftar. Paradoxically, the Libya conflict does not so much compound the disagreement between Ankara and Moscow as it creates another context where the two sides are condemned to cooperate in order to advance their own interests.   

--o--


CURSED BE THE PEACEMAKERS


Around the time of the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group, an independent and informal initiative, released a statement in which it outlines “Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Region”. The roughly 40 signatories of the statement represent a broad selection of experienced international relations specialist from the Euro-Atlantic region, including some from Ukraine and Russia. One of them is Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference. Along with a few others, he was blacklisted as an enemy of Ukraine by an admittedly controversial Ukrainian website.


©Munich Security Conference Facebook 


The Twelve Steps are a mix of predictable security, humanitarian, economic and political measures. What seems to have irked Ukrainians the most are steps 8 and 12. Step 8 suggests a road map for changes to sanctions in response to specific actions. This is not a big surprise either way. The committee that drafted the steps found it expedient to include an incentive for Russia to move along as well as for Europeans to get rid of sanctions they either dislike or find useless. Ukrainians see this as a give away to Russia. Step 12 is about the launching of an inclusive national dialogue across Ukraine about national identity in which Hungary, Poland and Russia might also be involved. Expectedly, the response in Ukraine and even in some US circles was very negative. The experts who signed off on the Twelve Steps would most likely have known that most Ukrainians would reject outright the implication that something is wrong with Ukraine’s national identity. What is telling is that the experts still found it useful to include that step.

By suggesting that the problems that Ukraine has with Russia and to a lesser extent with Hungary and Poland have to be the subject of a national dialogue, experts may have implicitly passed a diagnostic that is not entirely groundless. They, however, did not come up with the right remedy.

An illustration of the difficulties with Ukrainian identity was again just provided by President Putin himself who, in the context of a major policy interview, reiterated the view that the Russian and Ukrainian people are one nation. This is not exactly the best way of launching a dialogue.

Furthermore, the national dialogue that might more immediately facilitate the end of military confrontation would be one between the authorities in Kyiv and the leaders of the rebel regions in Eastern Ukraine. There is generally no appetite for that in Kyiv.  President Zelensky is the only one to have observed that to regain its lost territories Ukraine would also have to regain the trust of the people living in those territories. Improving freedom of movement with and within the rebel regions (step 3 of the twelve steps) would seem a better and more necessary point of departure.


--o--


 LUKASHENKO'S FIRM "NO"!

Presidents Lukashenko and Putin
Sochi area, February 7th
©President of Belarus Website


After his seemingly friendly meeting with Putin in mid February in Sochi, Lukashenko came back home and during his speech to a gathering of Belarus industrialists, was very candid.
"I don't know how long I will be your president but as long as I am, Belarus will never accept re-unification with Russia despite what Russian media says", said Lukashenko. He also suggested that the process of re-integration of both economies could continue only if it does not become a takeover. He admitted that Putin had shot down his request to buy Russian oil without additional tariffs despite the fact that back in the Soviet days Belarus actively participated in the building of the Russian oil industry. Lukashenko has confirmed his decision to diversify his oil supply by buying it from Norway or other sources. Belarus is the only Russian ally in Europe. It is logical to assume that Putin will order his new PM Mikhail Mishustin to reach a compromise.   

--o--

UKRAINE’S RESPONSE TO CORONAVIRUS


In mid-February Ukrainian authorities agreed to repatriate 45 of their own citizens and 27 foreign nationals (at the request of their country of origin) from the coronavirus-affected areas of China. The group leaving China was sent to a sanatorium in the small village of Novi Sanzhary in the Poltava region.

What ensued has been equally referred to by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President Zelensky as reminiscent of the Middle Ages. A group of protesters attacked the buses taking the evacuees to the Novi Sanzhary sanatorium, trying to prevent them from reaching their destination and asking they be taken elsewhere. Allegations have surfaced that some of the protesters were not acting spontaneously, but had been paid to participate in the protest. Similar protests erupted in other cities where it was rumoured evacuees might be taken.

Whether the protests were genuine or orchestrated by opposition politicians, Ukraine is for now the country where there has been the strongest negative reaction to the return home of evacuees because of the coronavirus situation in China. President Zelensky himself considered the matter serious enough to make a national televised address to set the record straight and reassure his people.

It would be inappropriate to see medieval obscurantism or even political opportunism as the main reason for the protests. What the series of coronavirus-related protests reveals though is that there is still in Ukraine a considerable challenge for the authorities, of any political colour, to achieve credibility when trying to communicate with the population on potentially sensitive issues. Public opinion polls have been suggesting this for a while. The coronavirus-related incidents confirm it. Lack of trust in government is not a problem limited to Ukraine, but the current state of affairs makes crisis management there a relatively more difficult task.

The origin of distrust of government has many root causes. It is difficult not to recall that 
 in Ukraine the Chernobyl disaster was initially met by deafening silence on the part of the local authorities.

--o--


PERSON OF THE MONTH: SERGEI LAVROV



Stephen Kotkin, a respected historian from Stanford University, a brilliant expert on Russia and the Soviet Union recently stated that the Russian Foreign Ministry headed by Sergei Lavrov is one if the most professional institutions of its kind in the world. Unlike the US State Department, especially nowadays, he said, it is run by consummate professionals and experts in every field of international diplomacy.

The 69-year old Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign Minister since 2004, and former Russian Ambassador to the UN, in many ways can be credited with this success. Modern Russia has some visible weaknesses in comparison to the economic might of the US and China, but what it lacks in economic soundness it compensates with hard military power and high-class diplomacy.  

Russia's foreign policy stands in contrast to the chronic instability and apparent indecisiveness of many international actors. Even Moscow's critics cannot deny that Russia has pursued a consistent foreign policy over the past several years. Sergei Lavrov is undoubtedly a co-author (with Putin of course) of modern Russian foreign policy.

On the international stage many do not see Russia as a convenient partner. It, however, certainly cannot be accused of being unreliable or inconsistent in this capacity. This is an indisputable advantage that Russia enjoys over some major powers.

In order to appreciate the scope of the Russian foreign policy one can just listen to Sergei Lavrov's speech at recently completed Munich Security Conference. He is respected not only by the country's friends and allies, but also by its enemies and opponents. Emmanuel Macron, speaking at the same conference, gave high praise to some initiatives presented by the Russian Foreign Minister.

Russia's foreign policy, under the captaincy of Sergei Lavrov, plays a key role globally as it has not played in decades. Almost no major conflict can be seriously fixed without some Russian involvement in either Libya, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, some African states and of course Ukraine. Russia is a diplomatic heavyweight that in this fractured world no one can ignore. Taking into account serious economic woes Russia has been experiencing for several years, it is quite an achievement.

Without having to agree with any of the Russian positions, Canadian diplomats who have had the occasion to observe from a close distance the work of the Russian Foreign Ministry would probably wholeheartedly agree with Professor Kotkin’s above-mentioned opinion.   


--o--

RUSSIA


Russia's foreign minister, speaking at the Munich Security Conference has accused NATO, and Europe more broadly, of stoking tensions on the continent, as he called on leaders to "abandon the phantom of the Russian threat."

Lavrov suggested NATO was to blame for tensions with Russia, including the increased deployment in recent years of more Western military hardware and forces in the Baltic states and Poland.

"The crisis of confidence is felt particularly acutely in European affairs," said Lavrov. "The stoking of tension, the advance of NATO's military infrastructure to the East, military exercises of unprecedented scale near Russia's borders, increase of defense budgets beyond every measure; this all generates uncertainty."

"Before it's too late, you should abandon the phantom of the Russian threat…remember what unites us," he added.

Lavrov’s call may not have convinced European leaders still reeling from Russian actions in Ukraine. They may however comfort the approach of some of the leaders such as President Macron who seek greater cooperation with Russia.

--o--

KYRGYZSTAN


Kyrgyzstan says Russia plans to install new air- and missile-defense equipment and drones at its air base near the former Soviet republic's northern city of Kant. Nurlan Kirisheev, the deputy chief of the Kyrgyz armed forces General Staff, said in a statement on February 13 that Russia will renovate runways at the air base, in moves that will "improve security in the region."According to Kirisheev, the deployment of drones and air- and missile-defense systems will be conducted in accordance with agreements signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Kyrgyzstan last summer.

It is noteworthy that Kyrgyzstan hosted a US military base just outside Bishkek from 2001 to 2014 when it was shut down due to intense pressure from Moscow.

Kirisheev's statement came the same day that Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov told lawmakers in Moscow about plans to deploy air-defense equipment at the air base.
Russia's air base at Kant was opened in 2003 under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.

--o--

KAZAKHSTAN


The death toll in violent ethnic clashes last week between Kazakhs and ethnic Dungans in Kazakhstan's south, which shocked the Central Asian nation, has risen to 11.
Mr. Qulshymanov, an adviser to the governor of the Zhambyl region where the clashes took place, said on February 14 that the badly burned body of an unidentified person had been found two days earlier amid the debris of a commercial building destroyed during clashes in the village of Masanchi.
The violence erupted at several local villages on February 7 between local Kazakhs and ethnic Dungans, a Muslim group of Chinese origin.



Dozens were wounded, including 19 police officers, while more than 30 houses, 17 commercial buildings, and 47 vehicles were destroyed or damaged in the clashes.

Kazakh officials have said that the violence was sparked by a conflict on a highway, during which the occupants of two vehicles started a brawl following a road-rage incident. The deadly clashes followed the posting on the Internet of video footage taken from the brawl.

Thousands of people fled villages where the violence erupted, ending up in the neighboring Kyrgyz Chui region, where the majority of ethnic Dungans in Central Asia traditionally reside.
Brief historical information on the ethnic complexities of the region can be of interest: Dungans, also known as Hui, are Sunni Muslims who speak a dialect of Mandarin with many words and phrases borrowed from Arabic, Persian, and Turkic. Their ancestors came to Central Asia, which then was part of the Russian Empire, in the late-19th century after the Chinese government’s violent crackdown of the Dungan Revolt of 1862-1877.

The recent incidents are a reminder of the complex ethnic make-up of Central Asian countries and the continuing relevance of official policies that promote ethnic and religious tolerance.

--o--

SYRIA


The Syrian parliament has recognized the mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire a century ago as genocide.

This recognition took place during heightened tensions with neighboring Turkey following deadly clashes in northwestern Syria.

Members of the People's Assembly have unanimously adopted a resolution condemning and recognizing "the genocide committed against the Armenians by the Ottoman state at the start of the 20th century.

Before Syria's civil war had began in 2011 about 100,000 ethnic Armenians lived in the country. Many of them have fled, including thousands to Armenia. Syria has historic ties with Armenia where this minority felt relatively safe.

In a predictable response Turkey decried Damascus's "hypocrisy" over the vote.
During and immediately after World War I, Ottoman Turks killed or deported as many as 1.5 million Armenians, a Christian minority in the predominately Muslim empire. Many of the Armenians who fled to Syria eventually ended up in France, the US and Canada.

Ankara claims the deaths were a result of civil strife rather than a planned Ottoman government effort to annihilate Armenians. Turkey also claims fewer Armenians died than has been reported.
At least 23 countries have officially recognized the mass slaughter and deportation as genocide, triggering the ire of Ankara.

--o--

AZERBAIJAN


Azerbaijan's ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) party says it has won at least 72 seats in parliament in the February 9 elections to the 125 seats in the single-chamber legislature, while nearly all of the remaining mandates went to small parties and independents loyal to President Ilham Aliyev. Reviews are still going on in respect to a few seats.

International monitors have identified widespread procedural violations in the vote count, raising doubts about the fairness of the elections. Aliyev called the vote nine months early to consolidate his authority.

The opposition have alleged widespread violations, including ballot box stuffing, in the elections.

--o--



SOBCHAK MEMORIAL


President Putin at Sobchak Memorial Concert
St. Petersburg, February 19th
©President of Russia Website

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the passing of Anatoly Sobchak, Vladimir Putin arranged for a major commemoration of the life of his teacher, boss and political mentor to be organised in St.Petersburg. Sobchak was a leading legal scholar and a major political figure in the 80s and the 90s and served as mayor of St. Petersburg from 1991 to 1996. Putin was then one of his deputies. Beyond Putin’s strong personal friendship with Sobchak, what the commemoration reveals is Putin’s unmistakable attachment to Sobchak's ideas. More specifically, this confirms the sources of Putin’s thinking on political principles and the importance of legality and it explains the legalistic outlook of Putin.

This is relevant to the current exercise of reforming the Russian constitution, where legality is the foremost concern. Sobchak is considered as having had a major influence in the drafting of the current constitution. Although he had an authoritarian bent, Sobchak was also generally regarded as a democrat, probably more than his student.

Accessorily, for nostalgic kremlinologists, the attendance at Sobchak commemoration also confirms who truly belongs to Putin’s St. Petersburg inner team: Sberbank Chairman Gref, former Finance Minister Kudrin and Deputy Head of Presidential Administration Kozak.

CRIMEA: A FOOTNOTE


There were rumours that during Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit to Ukraine in late January, he would have told his Ukrainian interlocutors that “Crimea is lost. World players understand that. Russia is not the kind of country from which you can take something away.” Pompeo’s remarks would have been made in the context of a discussion about convening an international conference on Crimea, which the US representative, by all accounts, did not find it useful to support. In other words, official US statements will continue to reflect that Crimea belongs to Ukraine, but nothing will be done about it.

As for President Zelenskyy, he nevertheless convened and participated in a Forum on the Age of Crimea in Kyiv on February 26th. The focus was on commemoration of the 2014 events that led to Ukraine losing control over Crimea as well as measures to maintain the contacts with Ukrainian citizens: continuation of Ukrainian broadcasts in the direction of Crimea and the facilitation of administrative formalities and of travel for Ukrainian citizens residing in Crimea.  

--o--


THE AUTHORS

Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His 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.


  




Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Issue 39


THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER


AFTER SOLEIMANI



The killing of Qasem Soleimani may no longer be in the news, but its consequences will continue to be felt for a while in a way that does not advance US security or US interests in the Middle East.

By going for the extreme option of eliminating Soleimani, Trump must have thought even briefly that he was following on the precedent set by his predecessor in ordering the elimination of Usama bin Laden and his own previous order to eliminate Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, the head of the Islamic State.  Speculation about the domestic calculations behind the decision were relatively guarded. Trump would know that a "courageous" decision made in the comfort of the White House only produces a short spike in popularity. The real election is only in November. It might be more appropriate to find a motivation in Trump’s deep desire to appear decisive and the fact that there a few “adults” left around him.


Qasem Soleimani

Soleimani was a US enemy on account of his support for US-designated terrorist entities in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. The fact that he was a de facto ally in the fight against the Islamic State was not enough to counterbalance his other activity. It was not taken into account and afterwards largely ignored by commentators.

The initial justification for the extra-judicial killing of Soleimani was an imminent attack on US interests. From the outset, this was not terribly convincing. After the initial questioning wore off, that justification was gradually replaced by the argument that Soleimani was a bad guy anyway.

The results of the killing of Soleimani are the most serious problem.

First, the entity that Soleimani led is not internally weakened by his death. Some seasoned local observers have even noted that Quds, the external action group of Iran’s Revolution Guard Corps, may even be reinvigorated by the emergence of a new leadership.

The execution of Soleimani will make it more difficult for the US to resolve the issue of local opposition to US military presence in Iraq. Whereas Trump’s instincts would lead him to favour getting the boys out, proceeding with that course of action would be appearing to yield to Iranian pressure, something utterly unacceptable for him.

Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani's successor


For the Iranian regime, Soleimani's death was an occasion to recover popular support and promote national unity. The downing of the Ukrainian aircraft led to some popular protests, but nothing that would endanger the regime. Ultimately, a scapegoat will most likely be found. More damaging though is the fact that hard-liners have had their position strengthened by the direct vocal support they received from the Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali Khameini.

An error in judgment by the Iranian air defence clearly led to the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and the tragic death of innocent people. It is collateral damage, but the responsibility is primarily that of Iran.

This being said, one has to conclude that the killing of Soleimani has achieved none of the objectives that were invoked by the US administration (other than a now doubtful alleged attack on US interests). In fact, it has complicated the situation, especially in Iraq. With respect to Iran, it has virtually destroyed the already faint hope of any US involvement in a conflict resolution dialogue in the foreseeable future and made Europe’s dialogue with Iran all the more difficult.

--o--


REVOLUTIONARY CHANGES OR PUTIN LOOKING FOR THE BEST WAY OUT?


President Putin's January 15th relatively brief address to the Russian legislators from both chambers of parliament was unusually full of radical proposals and changes to the constitution. This address was immediately followed by the resignation of PM Medvedev and that of all his cabinet.

The set of controversial proposals included one that was positively received by the Russian public, including those in the opposition. Putin suggested an amendment to the constitution allowing the Duma (lower chamber of Russian parliament), not the president, to appoint the future PM and his government. In fact, according to Putin's suggestion, the president would not be able to veto the Duma's choice of PM and subsequent ministers.  

President Putin dressing the Federal Assembly
Moscow, January 15th
©President of Russia website


This does not make Russia a parliamentary republic. It still remains a presidential one.  In theory, the president and parliament may, however, start working as a more equal tandem.

Another major change to the constitution was in Putin's announcement to redefine the role of the State Council, which was initially created in 2000. According to Putin’s proposal, the Council will have the power to “set the main directions of the domestic and foreign policy of the Russian Federation and the priority areas of socio-economic development”. The body would be formed by the president, although the proposed amendments give no indication how that process would take place.

Many experts familiar with the Byzantine flavour of many Russian policies see this elevation of the State Council as a potential place from where, as Chairman, Vladimir Putin could still keep a grip on power even after he vacates the presidential post in 2024 or before. A somewhat similar approach was taken in China by Deng Xiaoping and, more recently by Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan. Closer examination would suggest that Putin is more directly influenced by the model of Lee Kuan Yew who served as PM of Singapore for more than 30 years and then successively as Senior Minister and Minister Mentor.

Amidst the speculation that was generated by Putin’s proposals, a few things are clear: there will a new president in Russia by 2024 and that individual will still have a lot of power. As for Putin, what we know from him would suggest he will not put himself in a lame-duck position and that, once he leaves the presidency, he will want to retain at least some real influence and enjoy personal immunity.

Putin's address to the parliament for the first time avoided long references to foreign policy and confrontational language. He concentrated on the fight against poverty, more financial help to families with more than one child, improvements in medical care and further development of high technology.

The appointment of Mikhail Mishustin as a PM in many ways supports the basic tone of Putin's message: Mishustin is an effective technocrat, highly educated in computer science with a record of revolutionizing Russian taxation system and making it one of the best in Europe. 

--o--

THIS YEAR IN JERUSALEM


Heads of State from Europe, North America, Africa and Australia came to Israel on January 23rd for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum. The event, entitled “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism,” was organized by the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, headed by Dr. Moshe Kantor, in cooperation with Yad Vashem, under the auspices of the President of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin.

It, however, was not only about the Holocaust, but also about World War II in general and various conflicting narratives of that epic war.

75 years ago front-line Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz, the most notorious Nazi concentration camp where 1,1 million people, mainly Jews, were murdered.

Heads of Estonia, Lithuania and most notably Poland chose not to attend the Forum due to ongoing historical arguments over the Holocaust narrative. Auschwitz (Oswiecim) is in Poland and many non-Jewish Poles collaborated in one way or another with the Nazis. Many Poles also died in the hands of the Nazi regime or fighting it. The current leadership of Poland does not see the history of that period the same way as Russia and Israel do.

Mrs. Netanyahu, PM Netanyahu, President Putin
Jerusalem, January 23rd
©President of Russia Website


The most important guest in Jerusalem was probably Vladimir Putin. Israel remains one of the few “Western” countries that preserve and cherish the role the Soviet Union played in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Soviets fought Nazi Germany on the ground from June 1941 and had already an upper hand in the war by the time Americans landed in Normandy in August of 1944. Nine out of ten Nazi soldiers were killed by the Red Army. The Soviet peoples paid a high price: 26 million dead. Half a million Jews fought in the Soviet Army. Putin appreciates the Israeli stance on that issue and Israel never forgets the symbolism of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz and capture of Berlin in May 1945.

Aside from remembering arguably one of the darkest pages of recent human history, some very important political issues had to be discussed as well. Netanyahu obviously discussed Iran’s nuclear program with Putin, as well as ways to reinforce the deconfliction system between Israel and Russia in Syria. Putin nevertheless also paid a visit to Mahmoud Abbas, the President of Palestine, to underscore the importance of the long-term relationship between Russia and Palestine.

President Putin, Palestinian leader Abbas
Bethleem, January 23rd

©President of Russia Website


The United States was represented by VP Pence who mainly kept a low profile, but finally shook hands with Vladimir Putin once he realised everybody else was doing so.

No doubt many other political issues were discussed by various leaders present in Jerusalem. Israeli public already had expressed their dismay at the fact that the mass murder of Jews 75 years ago had moved into the background, replaced by pressing issues of the day. In fact it was pointed out that no one even thought of inviting aging survivors at one dinner in Jerusalem until Ukrainian President Zelenskyy noticed their absence and decided to meet with them.

Overall it was an emotional occasion especially in light of growing anti-semitism around the world. Russian cosmonauts remembered the occasion by appearing with signs "we remember" at the space station and Israel had unveiled a memorial to victims of Leningrad blockade (Putin's hometown) where about 700.000 Russians starved to death between 1941 and 1944.

As much as participants tried to tell the world how much they valued lessons of the Holocaust, a lot of important diplomacy was conducted on the sidelines of this memorial. The past is important, but the present always wins the argument.

--o--

WHO CARES ABOUT UKRAINE?


We alluded before to the fact that US politicians do not seem to care much about Ukraine, but we did not expect Secretary of State Pompeo to state so openly the view that American people do not care about Ukraine. In a recent incident that began as an interview with Mary Louise Kelly, a well-respected National Public Radio journalist, Pompeo seems to have blown off his top when he was reportedly asked whether an apology was owed to former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Jovanovich. Pompeo, claiming that the interview was expected to be only about Iran, would have asked the NPR journalist “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” Pompeo would even have asked the journalist to locate Ukraine on an unmarked world map. Which, apparently, she did. Besides confirming the fact that Pompeo is not a diplomat either by profession or any other way, the incident probably reveals a widely-held view in the US administration that Ukraine is only of interest as a way to get to Russia, to get dirt on your political opponent or to get rich quickly if the occasion arises.

President Zelenskyy at Ukraine House
Davos, January 24th
©President of Ukraine Website


Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenskyy did not need this on the eve of an expected visit to Ukraine by Secretary Pompeo and in the aftermath of an apparently rather lackluster performance at the Davos Economic Forum. The President’s efforts to attract foreign investment seem to have met with indifference with the President’s speech reportedly attended mostly by his own delegation. Ukrainian PM Honcharuk seems to have had more success with his proposal to provide large investors with a so-called nanny service: large investors would be offered the services of a government manager as a guardian who would be available to handle all the issues that the investor might face. This is obviously intended to counter the fears related to the widespread perception of deep corruption in Ukraine. 

Ukrainian PM Honcharuk at the Ukrainian breakfast
January 23rd, Davos
©PM of Ukraine Website


The relationship between the President and the PM had been somewhat strained by the release on January 15th of an audio recording in which PM Honcharuk is heard saying that President Zelenskyy does not understand much about how the economy works. Zelenskyy rejected Honcharuk’s offer to resign and decided to give him a second chance. Honcharuk’s indiscretion was not fatal at this time most likely for the fact that he seems to have performed well and that the President would be fully aware that his very young team has limited government experience.

Changing the minds of foreign investors may, as noted above, may not be the most difficult problem though. It was recently announced that the real population of Ukraine is now at 37. 3 million, down 23% from 2001.  Although part of the population loss is directly related to the loss of territory (Crimea, Eastern Ukraine), it is estimated that more than 6 million Ukrainians have left the country in the past 15 years. The pattern is for a steady flow of working-age individuals to leave in search of more lucrative employment.  Ukraine has gone through demographic problems before, be they caused by revolutions, wars or government-engineered famine. Absolute numbers probably matter less than the fact that there will likely be growing pressure on the working-age segment of the population to support social programs for the non-working segment. Some of our North American societies are already facing that issue as well, of course.

--o--

PERSON OF THE MONTH: MIKHAIL MISHUSTIN





The man who replaced Dmitry Medvedev flew mainly under the radar before his surprise appointment in mid-January. However Russia's business community was definitely well aware of Mikhail Mishustin.

The 53-year old, who has been credited with transforming Russia’s tax service over the last decade, had a reputation among business leaders as one of the country’s most effective, popular and smart bureaucrats, long before President Vladimir Putin picked him to head the Russian government. “I have the deepest respect for Mr. Mishustin,” German Gref, head of Sberbank and one of Russia’s business heavyweights told the BBC. “He is probably one of the most effective managers in the country, a person with the highest qualifications and managerial skills. He is rare, a talented person who is very versatile.”

Business people often praised Mishustin’s achievements during his 10 years at the Federal Tax Service. They say he cut tax avoidance and improved the rate of collection by transforming the organization into one of the most technically advanced tax services in the world.

He pushed for and had introduced massive new IT systems such as digital cash registers to track transactions in real time, and a new automatic tax registration system for small businesses and self-employed people to bring them in from the grey economy. At the same time, he overhauled the organization’s reputation as a meddling and corrupt bureaucracy to be feared and avoided.
However, some critics in the West believe that with the heavy introduction of digital technologies within the tax apparatus, the state can improve its surveillance techniques of corporations, business and individuals.

Mishustin has few political accolades among his compatriots. Gennady Gudkov, a former opposition lawmaker, called the new prime minister “a new faceless functionary without ambition,” while Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Putin advisor, told the Russian news agency Interfax that Mishustin is “a splendid bureaucrat, in the best sense of the word.” Foreigners who have had the opportunity of meeting Mishustin tend to have a more positive view of his leadership potential. It also has been noted that through his father who was a KGB analyst he has a connection to the security establishment that, from the point of view of leadership potential in Russia, usefully complements his economic and technical background.

On a personal note, he has also been playing hockey with Vladimir Putin on at least a few occasions, certainly a way of getting into the inner circle.

--o--


BRIEFLY NOTED


RUSSIA/ISRAEL


On January 23rd in Virginia, a Russian citizen who was the subject of a three-year diplomatic row between Russia, Israel, and the US pleaded guilty to charges related to the massive cybertheft of credit cards. Burkov was initially arrested by Israel in 2015, on a US arrest warrant. Indictments unsealed later charged him in connection with allegedly operating two Russian-language chat forums where, according to U.S. officials, members traded stolen credit card numbers and other information worth millions of dollars.

The fight for custody of Burkov grew into a public diplomatic scandal last year, when Naama Issachar, an Israeli citizen was arrested at a Moscow airport in April with a small amount of marijuana as she was flying home from India. Issacher’s relatives, meanwhile, publicly accused Russian authorities of holding her as a bargaining chip to persuade Netanyahu to turn Burkov over to Russia. That did not work. Issachar was sentenced to 7 years in prison.

President Putin meeting with Mrs. Yaffa Issachar
Jerusalem, January 23rd
©President of Russia Website


Netanyahu, who has cultivated good relations with Putin, arranged for Issachar's mother to meet with Putin during the Russian leader’s stay in Jerusalem on January 23rd. It is rather unusual for Putin to meet someone who is connected to a person found guilty by a Russian court. That he would let Netanyahu stage that kind of meeting shows that is at least as good a friend with Netanyahu as Donald Trump claims to be. Putin even offered to have a senior Russian official look into the matter and actually pardoned Issachar on January 29th. Netanyahu was back in Moscow on March 30th, to brief Putin on his discussions in Washington and on Trump's proposed "deal of the century" for resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict. Putin seemed more interested in discussing a free trade arrangement between the Eurasian Economic Union and Israel. 

Beyond the diplomatic intrigue, the case also confirms the persistent story about the fact that Russian hackers are among the most dangerous and effective, as well that there is a connection between hackers and the Russian government, with the hackers possibly having the upper hand.



--o--


KAZAKHSTAN/CHINA


A court in Kazakhstan has ruled that two ethnic-Kazakh men from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang who are on trial for illegally crossing the border in October will not be deported to China. The court in the far eastern town of Zaisan announced its decision in the high-profile case on January 21st.

The presiding judge handed one-year prison sentences to the two individuals for illegally entering the country, but allowed them to stay in Kazakhstan, saying that they may face persecution back in Xinjiang. The judge added that each day the two men spent in pretrial detention since October counts as two prison days, making them eligible for release in less than six months.

One of the detainees testified that he had been detained in Xinjiang for questioning and faced incarceration at a Chinese "reeducation camp."



TAJIKISTAN


Tajik opposition groups outside the country claim that many dozens of people have either been detained or investigated by security officials during the series of raids in the country against suspected Muslim Brotherhood members.

Predominantly Muslim Tajikistan banned the Muslim Brotherhood as an extremist group in 2006 and it faces a similar ban in Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It is considered a terrorist organization in Tajikistan, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, but not in the United States or other Western countries.

In the last 2-3 years about 20 imams were arrested for allegedly being members of the movement. They were accused of receiving funds from abroad and of spreading Muslim Brotherhood ideology in Tajikistan, ultimately seeking to overthrow the secular government in Dushanbe.

Critics accuse the Tajik authorities of exploiting the state's campaign against extremism and terrorism to clamp down on religious groups and individuals critical of government policies in the authoritarian state.

USA/ARMENIA


The U.S. State Department has issued a statement early this year that recent congressional action to recognize the Armenian genocide does not reflect the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration. In a short statement, the department said the Trump administration's position on the matter is unchanged.

The Senate voted unanimously last week to recognize the mass killings of more than 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks a century ago as a genocide. The House had previously adopted a similar bill in the face of stark protests from NATO ally Turkey. "The position of the Administration has not changed," department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a terse two-sentence statement. "Our views are reflected in the president’s definitive statement on this issue from last April."

On April 24th, President Donald Trump commemorated Armenian Remembrance Day in a statement that honored "the memory of those who suffered in one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century." In keeping with longstanding U.S. policy, the statement did not use the term “genocide."

AZERBAIJAN


As is allowed under the Azerbaijan constitution, President Ilham Aliyev has signed an order setting parliamentary elections for February 9th. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP), approved a proposal to dissolve parliament and allow for the calling of snap general elections.

Officials have said an early vote would help modernize Azerbaijan's legislative branch and speed the course of economic reforms.

Despite its vast energy resources, the country has seen difficult economic conditions in recent years. Citizens have been hard-hit by rising inflation, unemployment, and the cost of many basic goods.

--o--
.

THE AUTHORS

Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His 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.