Monday, November 30, 2020

Issue 48

 




TRUMP RECEIVED THE MOST VOTES EVER FOR A LOSER

As most Canadians were hoping, Joe Biden won the presidential election. Donald Trump’s undemocratic refusal to concede his loss as well as his baseless accusations of fraud will not change the result, but will have a long-term impact by eroding the trust of his hard-core supporters in what should still be a democratic transition. The inappropriate or damaging decisions that he has already made in his first lame-duck month are of serious concern in themselves as well as they foretell even more similar un-hinged actions in the next seven weeks or so. There is also another less broadly discussed feature of this election that should be of concern to Democrats: the losing candidate received more votes than any winning candidate in the past.   

At almost 70% of the eligible electorate and 15% more than 2016, the turnout was high by US standards. Campaigns to encourage citizens to vote were effective and seem to have increased the numbers on both sides. This leaves political observers to speculate as to why Trump received so many votes. (The lack of accuracy of polls is a separate matter. Persistent methodology flaws and inaccurate samplings seem to be part of the problem.)

President Trump pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey, November 24th
© Facebook


The regional split was as expected with the Northeast and the West Coast going to Biden and the Midwest and most of the Deep South going for Trump, along historical lines virtually going back to the Civil War in some cases. As expected, younger, women, urban, minority and educated segments of the vote favoured Biden. Older (above 50), men, rural, less educated, and white segments favoured Trump. Wealthier Americans voted for Trump, less affluent voters for Biden, also as expected. Exit polls suggest that Trump supporters were more influenced by the issues than the personality of the candidates, or at least claimed this to be the case.  Despite his personal flaws, Trump managed to galvanize the conservative segment of the electorate well beyond his base. Exit polls also suggest that Trump recruited supporters in the upper middle-class that has benefited from the pre-pandemic economic growth. It is worth observing that Trump seems to have been able to convince many wealthier middle-class Americans that he was responsible for their better economic situation. Some tax measures may have played a role, but Trump constantly inflating his real influence over economic growth seems to have been taken at face value. Trump himself seems to have believed his message and could not resist coming out to claim that the Dow-Jones’ major rise after the confirmation of the Biden victory belonged to his administration.

Trump may still think of running again in 2024. For now, his concern seems to focus on building up a slush fund that he can freely draw from to support his future public involvement. The fact is that he may have a lot of things to worry about other than the presidency in the next for years, including possible criminal prosecution.

As for Trumpism, it is probably better understood as conservatism on steroids. As a foul-mouthed, populist snake-oil salesman Trump did not create a political movement but took advantage of existing political dispositions. His influence worked on older voters and may be limited in time. Besides, the emerging stars of the Republican Party do not seem to have that kind of “leadership” potential.

 

BUT JOE BIDEN RECEIVED MORE VOTES THAN ANY PREVIOUS WINNER

As for the Democrats they managed to muster a record number of votes for a lackluster candidate on account of his mainstream positions and of the despicable features of his adversary.



The Democrats failed though to gain control of the Senate where they will have to win the two open seats in Georgia to break even with the Republicans and be able to use the deciding vote of the Vice-President to win majority decisions. They also managed to keep control of the House, but with some losses for which their aging leadership should take responsibility.

The conflict between Joe Biden moderates and Bernie Sanders progressives was brushed over to get rid of Donald Trump but is still essentially unresolved. Trump’s attempts to brand the Democrats as socialists did not stick to Joe Biden, but it reveals the continuing reluctance of middle-of-the-road Americans to espouse more radical state intervention policies, for instance, to address economic inequalities or climate change. It leaves President-elect Biden to devise compromise policies that risk pleasing no one completely.


DEMOCRATIC TRANSITIONS AND BACK TO THE FUTURE

As is customary, foreign policy was not a major issue during the election, but the consequences of a political transition are having serious foreign policy implications. Trump’s revengeful disposition is causing him to implement his own isolationist policies that even his Republican allies would not support, for instance, disengagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of consequences. President-elect Biden will likely manage to reverse the steps taken by Trump but will face a more complicated task.

The appointments President-elect Biden has announced for his foreign policy team have been greeted by the mainstream media as the return of experienced professionals. To Trump’s supporters, that will mean the victory of the “deep state” that was so inimical to Trump’s America First approach. While it was refreshing to see Antony Blinken, the nominee for Secretary of State, refer to past mistakes in the specific context of Syria, it is not evident that new team will want to move away from the policies of the Obama era. It will, however, be more adept at crisis management.

The one area where Donald Trump’s departure may have a more immediate effect is the reassessment of the Russian disinformation campaign in the context of the 2016 election and even the Brexit campaign. With partisanship no longer a factor, a more balanced view may come to prevail in assessing the Steele dossier that cast Trump as a Russian agent as well as the allegations that Russia funded the Brexit camp. That has already begun in some media. The fact that the 2020 election was found by the competent officials to be the safest in US history, that is free of foreign interference, may also move the debate along. This is not to jump to the conclusion that the Biden administration will be easy on Russia, au contraire, but that it will most likely take a predictable objective-based approach to Russia rather than alternating between hot and cold and upsetting traditional allies in the process. It will also imply a fresh look at the traditional disarmament infrastructure which had no interest for the Trump administration.

This still leaves wide open the question of how the Biden administration will deal with China, other than to wish for a modern George Kennan to emerge that could provide the intellectual framework to deal with the People’s Republic as the original Kennan did for the Soviet Union in 1947.     

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UKRAINE WINS AN OLD FRIEND

To the Ukrainian government the election of Joe Biden is relatively good news. Biden knows Ukraine better than any other president.  He has been closely involved with US policy in Ukraine. Besides, the Ukrainian president did not acquiesce to Donald Trump’s request to investigate Joe Biden’s son’s activity in Ukraine. Biden should be a true friend of Ukraine. Yet, the impact may not be that great. Earlier on during the Poroshenko presidency, Ukraine’s priority was to acquire US weaponry it could use against the rebel regions of Eastern Ukraine. At present, President Zelensky’s immediate priority is to keep the cease-fire going. US military support is significant, but not the priority it used to be. US economic support in the form of technical assistance programs is important, but more a long-term endeavour. Financial assistance is coming mostly from the IMF, but Ukraine has recently received a negative response from the IMF for emergency assistance.

Ukraine’s persistent difficulty in getting money from the IMF is essentially linked to the fight against corruption, the very same reason for which Joe Biden insisted that the then corrupt Procurator General be fired in 2015. Biden could not be counted to influence other public lenders to be more lenient or to lessen their standards when it comes to fighting corruption. He could be counted to support President Zelenskyy’s efforts in this respect, but that battle is an internal one over which outsiders have limited influence other than in withholding financial assistance.

President Zelenskyy at the National Council on Anticorruption Policy, November 27th
© President of Ukraine Website


At a more global level, US support is more relevant for eventual NATO for Ukraine, another long-term objective. For economic reasons, more crucial at this point is Ukraine’s relationship with the EU. As noted above, the Biden administration will not be softer on Russia, but could well engage in a more consistent dialogue. On the Ukrainian side, US support is certainly valued, but it does not mean that Ukraine would want to inject now more than before a US-Russia dimension to the essentially European negotiations with Russia. The other negotiating partners, Germany and France would likely share the same view.

COVID-19 IMPACT

President Zelenskyy at the Military Medical Center of the Eastern Region, November 26th
© President of Ukraine Website


Other than to explain why Ukraine matters in geopolitical terms, the other challenge of covering Ukraine is to strike the right balance in qualifying the political and economic situation without falling into overly far-reaching general statements about, for instance, widespread corruption, the lack of economic growth, the demographic decline or the dire state of public finances. It is necessary to add that not everybody in Ukraine is corrupt, the country still has lot of staying power and life can still go on as normal. The situation of COVID-19 in Ukraine further enhances the challenge. The official figures suggest that the situation is very difficult, but as in many other countries the official figures only reflect a part of the reality. The conclusion is that the worse is yet to come, but that ultimately the country will manage to make it till free vaccines become available through the WHO/Covax initiative sometime in 2021. The extent of the damage could, however, be more serious than in the rest of the region.

--o--   

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: WHY AZERBAIJAN WON

Joseph Stalin (who by the way had a hand in creating various ethno-geographical conflicts within the USSR, including this one) famously stated in 1941 after Germany invaded his country: "There are no undefeated armies". He was right.

It took Azerbaijan just 43 days to crush the Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh army and regain its territory around the breakaway region, seven districts of mountains and foothills that had been occupied by Armenian separatists since Baku’s humiliating defeat of the early 1990s.

There are several key factors why Azerbaijan was so successful in the battlefield this time: technology, tactics, and Turkey. We can also add to this Russia's guarded support for Armenia during the crisis and total political miscalculation of Armenian leadership of the geopolitical realities in the region.

It was evident to anyone who followed the conflict that it was Turkish support for Azerbaijan that made the war qualitatively different from all previous confrontations.

The presence of Turkish F-16 fighter jets at a military airfield in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, was the direct proof that the geopolitical balance in the South Caucasus had shifted in Azerbaijan’s favor. The second largest army within NATO was openly directing the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

While Azerbaijan has not released casualty figures for its troops (we can assume it is 2-3 thousand soldiers), it has made no secret about its use of the latest high-tech drones it purchased from Turkey and Israel to carry out air strikes and battlefield reconnaissance.

Armenians who fought in 1993-94 and followed the more recent events had to admit that this time around the war was very different. Armenian forces lacked adequate sensors, electronic warfare cover, or counter-drone weaponry to defend against Azerbaijan’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Armenian forces were quickly forced into undisciplined withdrawal from the frontline positions they had been fortifying along the “line of contact” since a 1994 cease-fire.

Baku had used its oil and gas revenues to purchase a variety of diverse and modern weapons from Turkey, Israel, and Spain. The Armenians were armed mostly by aging Russian equipment and since Armenia is much poorer than Azerbaijan they found out in a hard way what it meant to be up against the 21st century weaponry, targeting systems, electronic jamming of communications and rapid development of special forces.



Here is just one curious example. Azerbaijan managed to draw out and expose the Armenian air defenses by sacrificing an air fleet of Soviet-designed Antonov AN-2 biplanes that it purchased from Ukraine.

Designed in the late 1940s, those Soviet-era biplanes are now mostly used as crop dusters or to fight forest fires. They are widely considered as “unusable” in modern combat. Baku fitted its Antonov AN-2s out so they could be piloted by remote control at low altitudes over the Armenian air defenses. They prepared camouflage to make them look like drones. The Armenians posted videos of what they thought were drones being shot down by their air defenses. In reality  what was happening was that whenever the Armenians hit an AN-2 with its air defenses, the real Azerbaijani surveillance drones at higher altitudes were able to identify their positions precisely and easily destroy all of these air defenses.

From the point of view of diplomacy Russia played the conflict masterfully. Putin did not like the way Pashinyan came to power, as the result of 'street protests', but in the end could not withhold his support for Armenia. In the early days following his appointment, Pashinyan may have been inclined to pursue a negotiated settlement with Azerbaijan. He, however, could not resist the weight of a public opinion that strongly rejected any concession and even supported the idea of making Nagorno-Karabakh an independent state, along the Kosovo model. The latter could not have been greeted well in Moscow. Russia always maintained that it would come to the aid of Armenia only if the conflict would spill into Armenia itself, reminding the world (and Armenia) that it considers Nagorno-Karabakh an Azerbaijani territory. However, as soon as Azeri military victory was in no doubt, Russia stepped in and secured a ceasefire which is being maintained by 2,000 Russian peacekeepers all along the 'line of contact'. Putin could not restrain from criticizing Armenia from conceding too slowly, thus losing the key city of Shusha to Azeri forces. Russia also managed to keep Turkish army out of the core area of Karabakh and proved to the international community that the Kremlin still wields serious power in the Caucasus.

The initial frustration of Armenians with Russia’s unwillingness to defend Nagorno-Karabakh now seems to have been replaced with a sense that ultimately Russia was the saviour. It should not be overlooked that Armenia’s other friends, France and the US, were not in a position to assist by, at a minimum, exercising some influence over Turkey, their NATO ally with which they currently have a tortuous relationship.

--o--

ARMENIA/AZERBAIJAN SITUATION UPDATE

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met in Yerevan with Armenian Prime Minister Nicol Pashinyan on November 21st to discuss the implementation of the Russian-brokered truce in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Shoigu told Pashinyan that Russian peacekeepers deployed to monitor the truce have “covered almost the entire territory” of Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh since the truce was signed on November 10.

Shoigu also said Russian troops were “ensuring the return of refugees,” adding that “peaceful life has already been established.”

After meeting with Armenian officials in Yerevan, the high-ranking Russian government delegation traveled to Baku for meetings with Azerbaijani officials.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev says his troops have taken control of the first of three districts bordering Nagorno-Karabakh as part of the Russian-brokered peace agreement that ended a six-week war with Armenian forces over the breakaway region.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said on November 20th that its units entered the Agdam district, one of three ringing Nagorno-Karabakh that are to be handed over to Azerbaijan after nearly three decades under Armenian control.

Crowds of people carrying national flags gathered in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to celebrate the handover of Agdam as Aliyev announced "major" plans for the district. The chief of staff of the Russian peacekeeping task force in Nagorno-Karabakh said the handover operation was carried out without incident.

--o--

BELARUS: SEARCH FOR CONVENIENT OPPOSITION

Seven European countries that are not members of the EU have aligned themselves with the sanctions imposed by the 27-member bloc on Belarus in response to a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests triggered by a disputed presidential election in August. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement on November 20th that the seven countries included EU candidates North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Ukraine.

Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, has faced almost daily protests calling for his resignation since the August 9th presidential election, which the opposition says was rigged and the West has refused to recognize. Several protesters have been killed and thousands of people arrested since authorities declared the Belarusian strongman the landslide winner of the vote. There have also been credible reports of torture during a widening security crackdown. Most of the country's opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to flee the country, while dozens of reporters have been jailed.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister recently visited Minsk and had some unusual meetings. Apart from traditional niceties with the “ostracized by the world” President Lukashenko, Lavrov met several leaders of industrial and financial sectors. Some of them are known for a tacit opposition to the never-ending rule of Lukashenko while continuing to be loyal to Moscow and the so-called "Union State" between Russian and Belarus. Most observers have interpreted Lavrov's visit as a final attempt to find an opposition leader who would be suitable for the Kremlin. It looks like Lavrov prefers Vladimir Makei, the current Foreign Affairs Minister of Belarus. He is known for having good relations with the political establishments of France and Germany while continuing to be trusted by Moscow.

Foreign Minister Lavrov, Foreign Minister Makei, President Lukashenko,November 26th
©President of Belarus Website


Lavrov himself has yet to issue an official backing of this potential candidate.

One thing, however, is clear: Moscow is ready to part with Alexander Lukashenko.

--o--

IRAN

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says Tehran would return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal if U.S. President-elect Joe Biden lifts crippling sanctions against the country. Zarif said in a November 17th interview with the government daily that Tehran remains committed to the nuclear accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and that Biden could make the changes quickly through “three executive orders.”

In recent months, Iran has gradually reduced its commitments under the deal in response to U.S. sanctions reimposed after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018. Iran has complained that it is not benefiting economically from the nuclear deal under which the country significantly limited its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Biden has said he would work with the other powers involved, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the EU, to amend aspects of the agreement once Iran is back in compliance.

On November 27th an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who many called the “father of the Iranian nuclear program”, sort of an Iranian version of Oppenheimer was assassinated in a daylight attack on his car.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh
© Wikipedia


Fakhrizadeh is the fifth Iranian nuclear expert to be assassinated in the past decade. A series of bombing and shooting attacks that Iran also blamed on Israel killed two experts in 2010, a third in 2011 and a fourth in 2012. Israel similarly neither confirmed nor denied a role in those killings.

It is rather evident that only two countries in the world have both capacity and motive to carry out this type of an attack: US and Israel. The question is was it a joint operation or Israel went ahead and did it all by itself?

Condemnation of the attack came not only from the usual allies of Iran like Syria and Venezuela but from the EU because the scientist was not a combatant (like for example the late head of the Revolutionary Guard Soleimani).

In an April 2018 televised presentation about the nuclear archive Mossad stole from a warehouse in Tehran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Fakhrizadeh as a leading figure in what he described as secret nuclear weapons work conducted under the guise of a civilian program.

Israel obviously is a prime suspect as the Jewish state is in the de facto state of war with the Islamic Republic and has the most to fear from the Iranian nuclear bomb, especially in light of Iranian threats against Israel.

Iran almost immediately pointed its finger at Israel and the United States and vowed “painful revenge”.

It is becoming clear even to an average Iranian citizen that Israel's secret service runs circles around Iranian security with one successful operation after another. Many Iranians expressed similar sentiments in their tweets after the attack. This situation points to a dysfunctional Iranian system, corruption, and a likely demoralized scientific community.

The timing of the attack was telling as well. It took place during the problematic transition between the Trump and Biden administrations and amid suggestions from the President-elect that he was basically open to re-enter the nuclear agreement with Iran (providing further concessions from Tehran). This is an unacceptable scenario for the outgoing Trump administration, Israel, Saudi Arabia and most Sunni states in the region.

If Iran rushes and launches some form of retaliation right away, it may ruin any chances of reaching a deal with an undoubtedly more friendly administration in Washington and if it sits back it will demonstrate weakness. Therefore, Iranian president chose the old and trusted “we will retaliate at the time and place of our choosing” tactic. The Iranian regime must be in a state of paralysis with the mounting pressure of the street demanding action and not mere words. Let us not forget that this assassination took place after a series of powerful and deadly Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria.

The pressure from inside is rising and this time around Iran, against all logic, may choose a direct attack on some Israel targets just to save face with its own population and this may be exactly what Israel and the outgoing president Trump want.

--o--

PERSON OF THE MONTH:

JOSEPH ROBINETTE BIDEN JR




After trying for half a lifetime, 78-year old Joe Biden will become US President in January 2021. A professional politician with a moderately liberal record, he shared Irish heritage and Roman Catholic faith with the Kennedys, but never managed to build a comparable political machine or to achieve a similar political stature despite his 36 years in the US Senate. This may have to do with hailing from a small state, but certainly also with his less inspiring or less charismatic personality.

As Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden met and even exceeded the normal expectations set for that job. He was not only supportive, but took on some difficult tasks in the post-recession environment where he could use the conciliation and negotiating skills he has honed in the US Senate.  His success as second-in command probably even reinforced the image of team player rather than that of a leader.

Joe Biden has no qualms about displaying his strong religious beliefs or referring to the personal tragedies that he has encountered. Especially, through the latter he genuinely conveys the image of a compassionate leader, in striking contrast with his predecessor. Despite his middle name that evokes a French Huguenot heritage, he likes to describe himself only as Irish American, a safer political bet.

Because of his years in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his extensive foreign travel, Joe Biden will be the modern-day president with the broadest foreign policy experience. While he may not use that experience to innovate, he will be a re-assuring presence in the leadership position.  

--o--

BRIEFLY NOTED

RUSSIA/COVID-19

Russia recently registered record numbers for daily infections and deaths from the coronavirus, a few days after having passed 2 million cases. Health officials reported more than 25,000 cases for several days, bringing the national total to over 2 million cases and more than 35,000 fatalities since the beginning of the year.

While those figures suggest a lower death rate than elsewhere in the world, they need to be treated with caution. The official Russian death toll only includes those in which COVID has been established as the primary cause of death after an autopsy.

Data published by Russia's federal statistics service earlier this month indicated excess deaths of more than 117,000 year-on-year between March and September, suggesting that virus fatalities could be much higher.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described the surge in infections and deaths as "alarming." He acknowledged that several regions were experiencing medicine shortages and long waiting times for ambulances, but said authorities were in control of the situation. There is also reason to hope that Russia’s already available vaccines could be as effective as the ones developed in Western Europe and the US.

UNITED STATES/ISRAEL

A Jewish American man jailed in 1985 for spying for Israel was released from strict parole conditions Friday in accordance with applicable federal guidelines. Removal of conditions will allow him to move to Israel, the US Justice Department said.

Jonathan Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst, served 30 years for giving classified US documents and had been confined by parole terms to the United States since his release in 2015, despite Israeli pressure to allow him to leave.

Israel's October 1985 raid on the Palestinian Liberation Organization's Tunis headquarters that killed around 60 people was planned with information from Pollard, according to CIA documents declassified in 2012. Pollard was arrested in 1985 after trying unsuccessfully to gain asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. His arrest had angered president Reagan and caused great deal of tension between Washington and Tel-Aviv and forced several top Israeli officials, including the head of spy agency Mossad, to resign.

RUSSIA 2

Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has approved the first reading of a draft bill that would grant sweeping lifetime immunity to former presidents. The legislation is part of a package of constitutional amendments approved in a referendum this summer that could potentially see President Vladimir Putin stay in power until 2036.

The draft stipulates that any former head of state and their families obtain lifetime immunity from criminal or administrative charges. They also cannot be detained, arrested, searched, or interrogated. The only exception is for treason, which must first be approved by the State Duma and the Supreme and Constitutional courts.

Under the current law, former presidents are only immune from prosecution for crimes committed while in office.

The State Duma also passed a first reading of another bill that will grant ex-presidents a lifetime seat in the upper house of parliament, or the Federation Council, a position that also provides immunity from prosecution.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump was said to admire Putin. Now he will envy him.

RUSSIA (CHECHNYA)

Chechnya's authoritarian leader Ramzan Kadyrov has ordered images of American comic superheroes at children’s centers and playgrounds to be replaced with “real heroes” of the North Caucasus republic.

The November 20 announcement came after Kadyrov earlier this week visited a new high-rise residential complex in the city of Kurchaloy, where he criticized American comic and film figures painted on the walls of a children’s center.

"We need to remove the images of these fictional characters, these are fantasies,” Kadyrov said of the images of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Superman during the November 16 tour of the new facility. “In the history of religion and people, there are many real heroes from whom you can and should take an example, otherwise children think that only these heroes exist.”

Kadyrov recently said that he had given orders to remove pictures of all such comic superheroes in children’s centers and playgrounds.

Ramzan Kadyrov has been accused by Russian and international rights activists of numerous human rights violations, including torture, kidnapping, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and the assassination of personal and political enemies both in Russia and abroad.

TURKMENISTAN

The Central Asian nation's authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who heads one of the world's most oppressive governments, has unveiled a 6-meter-high golden statue of his favorite dog breed, the Alabay, an ancient livestock shepherd that is also used for protection.

State media reported that the statue is located in a complex of residential and cultural facilities in the capital where civil servants live.

The statue was dedicated to a dog that has "demonstrated respect and honor, exemplary courage and a cordial heart" to highlight "their role in the historical destiny of the nation," one news source said.

The president, who is often shown on state television as a musician, singer, horse rider, and military commando, has long promoted the Alabay breed, calling the dogs a national treasure.

--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, has 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.

 

 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Issue 47

 

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER

THE GREATEST LAME-DUCK PRESIDENT EVER?

Although Democratic party supporters remain very nervous, it looks as though Joe Biden will become the next President if the polls are right, if he can avoid mistakes raising questions about his mental health and if he can hold on to Pennsylvania and a few other nearby swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. For some political observers who have looked at the historical voting patterns in these latter states, the tendencies that we observe today take their origin in the ethno-cultural make-up of the states and to features going back as far as the American Revolution. Simply put, this is the long-standing confrontation between the Appalachia and Yankee traditions.



Looking at it this way, Donald Trump, for all his failings is not the first US president to have been elected by a contribution from the Appalachia nation. The rebellious gun-wielding anti-government tendency is far from a novelty.

Looking at long-term voting patterns should also give some pause to those who raise the issue of foreign intervention in US elections. The fact is that the US electorate cannot be moved so easily by anything, neither the billions of dollars that are spent by each camp or by the real but limited intrusions of foreign actors such as Iran or Russia. You would know that Iran does prefer Biden. As for Russia, it is now far from clear which candidate they would rather have win the day.

As for what really moves the electorate, the jury is still out. Some have seen Biden’s far-reaching statement on fossil fuels as a blunder that would cost him votes in oil-rich Texas and Pennsylvania. On the Republican side, some were furious with White House Chief of Staff Mark McKinnon’s “surrender” statement on COVID-19. The Republican rush to bring Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court so she can decide on election cases may even have a negative impact on the electorate in some states.




Donald Trump has demonstrated his incapacity to formulate public policy beyond a few mostly negative statements. If he loses the election, it may well be for his penchant for holding rallies that feed his oversize narcissistic ego, but amount to preaching to the converted while insulting every non-believer in sight. His statements about the end of the pandemic do not help either. COVID-19 fears, antipathy to Trump as well as his own insistence on voting problems may have been factors in the unprecedented surge of advance voting. As the candidate with a strong base but one that is significantly short of a majority, Trump stands to lose from a large turnout.  

If he loses the election, Trump may well engage in legal contestations in the states with narrow margin victories for his opponent. Opponents genuinely fear he may have more than occasional luck with the courts that he has packed with his supporters. Yet, he could not easily overturn a clear public disavowal. Would he graciously accept the negative verdict of public opinion? Most unlikely. The period between the announcement of the definitive results and the inauguration of the next president in January could be unusually painful, with Trump using every trick in the book to seek retribution as well as protect his personal interests and those of his close family.

--o--

NOT A CLASSICAL LOCAL CONFLICT

History does not always play the major role in local conflicts.

Yet, in the case of the permanent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabakh since 1988, history could say "mea culpa" about that conflict.

In 1922 when the Soviet Union was formed, Joseph Stalin who at that time was responsible for the nationalities policy of the newly formed Communist Federation, surrounded the Nagorno-Karabakh region, historically populated by Armenians for a thousand years, by Azerbaijan territory. Stalin, hailing from neighbouring Georgia would have known all the nuances of the long-standing ethnic rivalries in the Caucasus. “Divide and Conquer” was a classic approach Bolsheviks took when it came to the ethnic question within the USSR. As a result, only 16% of Nagorno-Karabakh was populated by Azeris. The rest was a large Armenian majority. And let us not forget that only 7 years prior over a million Armenians were massacred by the Turks and their allies (including Azeris).

Fast forwarding the events to 1988, shortly before the USSR fell apart, Azeri population was expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh by the Armenians. On top of that, Armenia managed to occupy five additional agricultural areas as bargaining chips for future negotiations with Azerbaijan. The Armenian goal was also to have a corridor (called Lachin corridor) between Karabakh and Armenian proper. Altogether Azerbaijan lost 20% of its territory by the time the ceasefire was achieved in 1994. Since then public opinion in both countries has prevented any meaningful negotiation.


Today Armenia is facing a well-prepared and well-armed Azerbaijan supported by Turkey while Russia is not particularly enthusiastic in supporting its Armenian ally. As a result, Armenia is currently on the losing end of the conflict. The failure of the Moscow-negotiated ceasefire and then of the Washington-negotiated one would seem to confirm that neither side is genuinely ready to stop fighting. The Azerbaijan objective is to erode the Armenian position to a point where Armenia will be ready to negotiate and may be ready for a new compromise arrangement. Armenia can only try to resist and hope to delay Azerbaijan advance.

--o--

BELARUS REMAINS A GEOPOLITICAL RIDDLE FOR RUSSIA

For Russia, for its tsar-president Vladimir Putin, the crisis in Belarus is of a geopolitical nature. Moscow might not be openly stating its geopolitical calculus, but in its eyes, the Belarus problem resembles the uprisings in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and represents a similar problem in the long run. So far though the Belarus turmoil is not of anti-Russia or anti-Putin nature.

Whatever the arguments we hear around the world by analysts that protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics and more about popular grievances against President Alexander Lukashenko, the issue will ultimately transform into a serious geopolitical game.

On October 22nd, at the Valdai conference (this time virtually over zoom), Putin spoke directly about Belarus. He insisted that no one from the outside should interfere in Belarus affairs and suggested that some constitutional changes are inevitable. He also compared people's anger in Belarus to popular street protests in “developed Western democracies” (obviously hinting at Portland and Seattle) and said that at least in Belarus no one gets shot in the back. Putin also said that those among law enforcement involved in extreme violence must be held accountable.

Russia, at the same time, is not taking any chances. In fact, two months ago, Putin announced the creation of a special “law enforcement reserve” for use in Belarus should the situation get “out of control.”

The Russians understand that an “Armenia-style” revolution in Belarus could theoretically take place, but it would open the country more to Europe and thereby create geopolitical dilemmas like those created in Ukraine before 2014. Both Armenian PM Pashinyan (the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is not going too well for Armenia) and President Lukashenko suddenly depend on Putin more than ever.


President Lukashenko at ceremony introducing the new Minister of the Interior, Ninsk October 30th
©President of Belarus Website


For the Russian leadership, events in Belarus are a continuation of the “revolutionary tradition"  that has been spreading across the former Soviet space since the early 2000s. Russia would probably replace Lukashenko with a wiser man, but after 25 years of one-man rule such candidates are hard to come by. In Belarus, unlike military games in the Caucasus where Russian military might may eventually be decisive, a more subtle approach is required. One the one hand Russia is not ready to send 'little green men' and on the other it can hardly afford the loss of such a strategic, geopolitical piece as Belarus.


President Lukashenko in Slutsky region, October 23rd
©President of Belarus Website


Unlike with other leaders who lost or were about to lose their jobs, the offer of a comfortable dacha in a Moscow suburb would not be enough to draw Lukashenko away. He is opinionated, messianistic and still has too much energy. Rather than retire him the other approach inspired by Vatican traditions would be to give him a promotion to get rid of him. There is, however, only one position above that of President of Belarus, President of a Belarus-Russia union. Lukashenko would only agree to a position of real power and responsibility. Russia, having had to contend with Lukashenko’s difficult behaviour for years could only give him an honorific position. That leaves only one “peaceful” option, a constitutional reform in Belarus that would take some power away from the president. That will take time and may not be enough for the opposition forces. With the opposition fully intent on continuing protests and strike actions, the end of the year promises to be remarkably interesting.

--o--

UKRAINE UPDATE

Local elections fiasco

For the first time in the history of modern Ukraine, the local elections that were held on October 25th meant something. As a result of administrative reforms intended to achieve decentralization, local authorities will have greater power in running local affairs. Local management issues are a common problem in virtually all post-Soviet countries. For a country the size of Ukraine, decentralization was both needed and overdue.

President Zelenskyy, October 25th, Kyiv
©President of Ukraine Website


President Zelenskyy and his political party, Servant of the People, decided to run their candidates for these local elections to occupy fully the whole political space. The result was a clear disaster with their candidates receiving around 25% of the total vote. This is a major rebuttal for the President and his party in terms of political credibility.  The vote was also an occasion for some opposition parties to consolidate their position. Former President Poroshenko’s party emerged as the stronger nationalist entity in Western regions and the pro-Russia party recovered some of the support it has lost to Zelenskyy in the Southeastern regions. This could also set the stage for a confrontation pattern between the central government in Kyiv and the local authorities. It could complicate even further the implementation of the political and economic reforms that are promoted by Zelenskyy in order to weed out corruption, not that local managers are more corrupt, but that they will reject control from the center.

To complicate matters even further for Zelenskyy, in late October the Constitutional Court invalidated a law that criminalised false income declarations by public officials. The law was considered as an essential instrument to fight corruption. The integrity of the Constitutional Court was called into question, some observing that some of its members were not entitled to take part on the decision and that some were in conflict of interest situations.

At the same time, the Prime Minister expressed the view that Ukraine and the IMF were moving closer in their discussions over the fulfillment by Ukraine of the commitment that would open the door to further IMF financial assistance. This would include anti-corruption measures.

The emergence of opposition locally elected officials as well as the backtracking of judicial institutions illustrate the difficulties confronting Zelenskyy in carrying out reforms even though he is proceeding with the best intentions and started with a strong popular mandate.

Differences of opinion between central and local authorities also seem to play a part in Ukraine’s less than perfect management of COVID-19. Here, there is no second wave but still a first wave that keeps getting bigger. There would also seem to exist some difficulties in having a clear picture of the real situation.

Referendum or glorified opinion poll

President Zelenskyy in Chernivtsi, October 2nd
©Presdient of Ukraine Website


As an aside and almost as a distraction, President Zelenskyy had also added a five-question referendum/opinion poll to the local ballots. For four of the five questions, he received a positive answer. Questions follow with the percentage of Yes answers.

1.            The possibility of introducing life imprisonment for corruption of a particularly large scale, 81%

2.            The need to introduce a free economic zone in Donbas, 45%

3.            The need to downsize the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine from 450 to 300 deputies, 95%

4.            The possibility of legalizing medical cannabis in Ukraine to alleviate pain of critically ill patients, 70%

5.            The need to raise the issue of using the security guarantees set out in the Budapest Memorandum at the international level to restore its state sovereignty and territorial integrity, 78%

The idea of asking these questions was met with less than unanimous support. It may have been intended to bring in more young voters to participate. It probably turned out as a sign of indecisiveness and a feeble and unnecessary attempt to involve people.

Who is to blame?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says those who allowed Russia to illegally annex Crimea in early 2014 must be held responsible. In an annual address to parliament on October 20, Zelenskyy did not name anyone in particular, but appeared to be taking clear aim at officials who assumed power after mass anti-government protests toppled Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in late February 2014.

Presdeient Zelenskyy addressing the Rada, October 20th
©President of Ukraine Website


Zelenskyy also said that his government supports the idea of an amnesty for "the millions of our compatriots, who have no blood on their hands and remain hostage" in Crimea and the districts of Donbas that remain under Russia-backed separatists' control.

--o--

 FROM THREE NO'S TO THREE YESES

Fifty-three years ago, in September of 1967 in Khartoum (Sudan), shortly after Israel needed only 6 days to defeat armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and troops from Saudi Arabia and Yemen in one of the most memorable wars of the 20th century, the Arab League had pronounced the so-called  "Three No's": "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it..."

The first Arab country to break the declaration was Egypt in 1979 as it established diplomatic relations with Israel for the return of Sinai peninsula, Jordan followed in 1994 and in 2020 three more Arab states had changed no’s to yes: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and finally Sudan.

As the world battles Covid-19 and the massive economic recession, the significance of the peace deals has hardly been noticed. Beyond the reluctance to give credit to Donald Trump and his administration, there may be an understanding that some of the deals confirmed a de facto situation and do not resolve the central conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

--o--

RUSSIA: WHERE SHOULD THE MONEY GO?

Russia's Defense Ministry says it has rejected austerity measures proposed by the Finance Ministry, such as reducing the number of military personnel.

In a proposal submitted to Russia's Security Council earlier this month, the Finance Ministry suggested cutting the country's military personnel by 10 percent, which would amount to some 100,000 members of the armed forces, the Izvestia newspaper reported on October 20th.

The ministry proposed that some of those officers would be given civilian posts instead. It also suggested raising the number of years of service required to receive a military pension.

However, the Defense Ministry argued that similar moves in the past showed their "inefficiency" and led to "numerous problematic issues affecting the combat capacity of the Armed Forces."

In a statement carried by Krasnaya Zvezda, its official newspaper, the ministry said it had sent its position to the Security Council "on the unacceptability of these proposals and the absence of support for them from the leadership of the military department."

The Defense Ministry insisted that the Finance Ministry's proposal to slash the number of military posts would have "'zero' economic effect."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said no decision had been made on the matter.

The Russian Finance Ministry’s proposals come amid a worldwide recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the International Monetary Fund's latest economic outlook released last week, the Russian economy is expected to plunge 4.6 percent this year before rebounding 3.9 percent in 2021.

Russia last year increased its annual military expenditures by 4.5 percent to $65.1 billion, making it the world's fourth-largest military spender, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

--o--

RUSSIA’S FAR-OUT THINKERS

Russian Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, known for his controversial public statements that led to public outcry and criticism, has died at the age of 69. Vasily Rulinsky, the press secretary of the Russian Orthodox Church, announced the death on October 21st. He did not mention the cause but most likely it was Covid-19. The priest contracted the virus several months ago.



Smirnov was known for his controversial positions, including his call to bless nuclear weapons, which he described as the "salvation of the Russian people and its culture."

He also called on believers to give all their earnings to the Russian Orthodox church and advised single Russian women to "look for husbands in Africa."

He called women living together with their partners «unpaid prostitutes."

Just before Smirnov was hospitalized with COVID-19 he called the pandemic "an extremely useful phenomenon," because, he said, people started "caring more about their loved ones and better understand Christian values."

In August, following public criticism of his statements, Smirnov was removed from the position of Chairman of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch’s Commission on the Family, becoming its Honorary Chairman instead.

--o--

KAZAKHSTAN

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has set the date of elections for the lower house of parliament, or Majlis, for January 10th, 2021. The decree, signed on October 21, paves the way for the energy-rich Central Asian country’s first parliamentary elections since Tokayev in 2019 succeeded Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned that year after nearly three decades in power.

Nazarbayev still maintains key positions of power, including head of the country’s Security Council and ruling Nur Otan party.

International election observers say that past elections in Kazakhstan have failed to meet agreed standards, citing electoral fraud, repression of opposition candidates, and restrictions on the freedom of the press.

The 107-seat Majlis is currently dominated by Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party, which has 84 deputies. The pro-government Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan and the liberal Ak Zhol party each have seven seats. The remaining nine seats are appointed by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, an advisory body controlled by Nazarbayev.

The last parliamentary elections were held in March 2016.

--o--

KYRGYZSTAN

Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission has set December 20th as the date for new parliamentary elections after an October 4th vote was annulled following public protests that ousted the government and the parliament speaker and led to the resignation of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

After Jeenbekov's resignation in early October, lawmakers elected Sadyr Japarov, a former nationalist lawmaker and convicted kidnapper, who was released from prison by the protesters on October 6th, as the new prime minister and handed presidential powers to him on October 16th.

According to the law, early elections must be held no later than three months after the president’s resignation. Japarov cannot take part in the election as the current legislation does not allow acting presidents to seek office.

--o--

BELARUS, ON THE GROUND

Hundreds of people have been detained by police in Belarus since post-election protests swept the country. The new target of the authorities: lawyers. Attorneys who have been hired or have volunteered to defend detainees and opposition leaders struggle not only to handle huge caseloads, but also the formidable hurdles they say authorities are placing in their way.

Protesters are facing increasingly phantasmagorical and utterly fabricated charges, lawyers say, as Aleksandr Lukashenka clings to power amid growing public opposition, international isolation, and sanctions imposed following the disputed August 9th presidential election that official results say he won in a landslide.

The lawyers find themselves circumventing obstacles, such as scrambling to get to court after being given only a moment's notice that their client's case is being heard, and working under the threat that they, too, may run into trouble with the authorities.

Many lawyers say they face disbarment, detention, or even arrest for their work with the opposition.

--o--

PERSON OF THE MONTH: ABRAHAM KAREM

In the absence of a personality that would stand up for his or her positive contribution, the person of the month title goes to a person who has through his inventions transformed modern warfare. It is also an occasion to observe on the growing impersonal nature of military killing as well as to the relative indifference to extra-judicial executions.

From the barefooted Houthis rebels in Yemen, rugged militants in Gaza, various militias in Syria to the most advanced militaries in the world-all of them rely on the use drones or (UAV's unmanned aerial vehicles). The drones have transformed the battlefield (and like a lot of military-based technologies found their use in many civilian projects) and have made spying and killing even more effective.

The latest examples of the effectiveness of drone technology can be seen in the American assassination of the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard chief Soleimani by means of the 'Reaper' drone and series of precision hits by the Azeri military against Armenian targets with the help of Israeli and Turkish made drones.

The man who pioneered this technology is Abraham Karem. He was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1937. As a teenager, being from a Jewish family, he moved to Israel where he began to develop his interest in drone technology. Along the way he graduated from the renowned Technion University in Haifa and constructed his first drone during the 1973 October war for the Israeli army. 


Later on he moved to the United States where he founded a company called Leading Systems which operated from his garage. He manufactured two early drones, 'Albatross' and 'Amber'. A more sophisticated 'Amber' drone, as the US Government contractor 'General Atomics' acquired Karem's company, became a platform for arguably one of the best drones in the world - American made 'Predator'.

 

--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, has 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, September 30, 2020

Issue 46

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER

LOOKING FOR THE UNDECIDED

As one CNN analyst put it recently, it is difficult to imagine that most American voters would not have made their mind by now as to whom they will support on November 3rd.  Donald Trump has been such a polarising figure that voters would likely have made their mind about him. Joe Biden is not an ideal candidate, but represents a reasonable enough option. In that respect, public opinion polls, that predicted a popular vote victory for Hillary Clinton in 2016, are probably right again in foreseeing a Biden popular vote victory by a slightly larger margin than Clinton.



What polls cannot measure so easily is the level of commitment of decided voters and whether they will actually vote. Those voters who have not abandoned Donald Trump by now are unlikely to do so in the coming weeks. The revelations about Trump not paying much income tax, being a money-losing and personally indebted businessman will not change that. The level of commitment of Trump’s so-called base is very strong. The insistence on appointing quickly a new Supreme Court Justice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg is intended on cementing the support of that base, especially its pro-life and evangelical segments. It would not likely increase the number of Trump supporters as a majority of Americans would seem to have opposed this Republican rush job. In addition, ‘Trump’s repeated statements that he “would have to see” before he recognizes his possible defeat are not likely to attract any new supporters.

Biden’s perceived frailty as well as the fact that he must recruit voters from a much broader ideological spectrum than Trump would suggest the level of commitment of his supporters is less firm.  What can help him though is that there are so-called “never-Trumpers” who will vote for anybody but Donald Trump.

In a polarised environment and considering that debates more often than not do not change public opinion trends the face-to-face debates with Donald Trump were nevertheless a concern for Biden supporters as they could allow Trump to cast some doubts about Biden’s suitability and stamina. The first debate on September 29th turned out into a total mess. Biden may not have shined too brightly, but he certainly survived. As for Trump, his refusal to condemn white supremacists or to commit to a peaceful transition, as well as his bullying approach, constant interruptions and personal attacks may have confirmed hitherto lukewarm Biden supporters in their choice.

Some of the main issues that should concern American voters are the management of the pandemic, economic recovery plans, social equality, health care and climate change. These would seem to play in favour of the Democratic candidate. Trump’s attempts to score points on the law-and-order agenda seem to have had limited success.



All things considered, taking into account the monolithic nature of the support for Donald Trump, the distorting influence of the Electoral College and the possible judicial contestations over mail-in votes, it is still too early for the Biden campaign take anything for granted.

--o--

 

NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT

Yerevan and Baku are still technically at war over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh despite a 1994 cease-fire in a conflict that killed around 30,000 people. Since then, skirmishes have frequently broken out near the so-called Line of Contact that separates Armenian and Azerbaijani forces on the front line of Europe's longest-running conflict.



The situation has evolved in the wrong direction after Azerbaijan was allegedly very disappointed with the absence of any change after the accession to power in Armenia of reformist Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.  Pashinyan was not known to have the close association of his predecessors to the Karabakh faction but turned out to maintain the same approach as before.  There even emerged rumours that Armenia may want to recognize the independence of Karabakh. Azerbaijan leadership had most of the time managed to contain the pressure of its war party but had to conclude that the existing negotiating framework would produce no result. The fact that Turkey might be willing to provide a helping hand also created a new context. The usual tensions on the Line of Contact did the rest.

Armenia on September 29th said a Turkish F-16 shot down one of its warplanes (Sukhoi-25), a claim immediately denied by Ankara as "absolutely untrue." Armenian defence ministry said that the Turkish jet was deep in Armenian airspace. The pilot died. The Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry also denied that a Turkish fighter jet had shot down an Armenian plane.

Yerevan's claim came as fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh is continuing in a major flare-up of the decades-old conflict over the disputed territory. Armenian military losses stood at 89 dead with over a hundred wounded. Azerbaijan refuses to release its list of casualties, reporting only its civilian deaths which so far stand at around two dozen killed.

Both sides use heavy artillery, helicopters, drones, and air power.

Several key countries, including the US, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom called on both sides to cease hostilities.

In a situation when Turkey, a powerful regional player, openly supports Azerbaijan and now very likely provides Baku with some direct military help, Russia which has friendly relations with Armenia and does a lot of business with Azerbaijan has a lot at stake here.

On September 29th, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called on “all sides, especially partner countries such as Turkey, to do all they can for a cease-fire and get back to a peaceful settlement of this conflict using political and diplomatic means.” One sentence of this statement was an obvious message to Turkey:  "Any statements about some kind of support and military activity undoubtedly add fuel to the flames," Peskov told reporters. As before in Syria and Libya, Russia finds itself having to find a way to restrain Turkish President Erdogan.

Moscow sells weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia but has a military base in Armenia and favors that strategic partnership.

Another country which sells a lot of high-end military equipment to Azerbaijan is Israel. In fact, most drones that Azerbaijan possesses are made in Israel and the Azeri army prefers Israeli technology (especially drones) over Turkish arms. Armenia often decried Israeli sales of arms to Azerbaijan (a Muslim majority country) and reminded Israel about historic parallels between the two countries. Israel, however, pursues its own interests in the region.

The outcome of this conflict largely depends on Russia's (and the international community's) ability to rein in Turkey, a real military powerhouse in the region. One on one Armenia can hold its own against larger and economically stronger Azerbaijan. 

A resolution of the conflict at this time may imply a more direct Turkish involvement in so-called peace arrangements.

Armenia now faces the same enemy as it did beginning in 1915 when Turkey and its allies massacred more that a million Armenians, a genocide Turkey still refuses even to acknowledge. This fact casts a dark shadow over the conflict. In imperial times, Russia protected its Eastern Armenia territory. Today’s Russia, even more closely tied to Armenia and with its own large Armenian diaspora, would not allow Armenia to lose a war that would lead to massive Armenian civilian casualties. 

--o--

 

THE NEW POLITIC GAMBIT IN BELARUS

President Alexander Lukashenko who officially had to be inaugurated on October 9th after he won the elections with a "fantastic" 80% majority of votes, suddenly decided to have his inauguration on September 23rd. He invited only highly loyal people including army officers and security personnel. Diplomats were represented only by the Chinese ambassador who declined to have translators present.

Lukashenko's inauguration ceremony
©President of Belarus website


The idea was charmingly simple: to become a legal president at the time when he is not being recognized by most European leaders. In fact, such a speedy and secret inauguration only underlined the lack of legitimacy that from now on will be the part and parcel of the European approach to the regime in Minsk. The massive demonstrations that took place immediately upon the inauguration highlighted the total rejection of Lukashenko with all his 26 years in power.

The official news agency BelTA reported "several hundred" senior officials had been invited to the inauguration ceremony, though it did not say who or how many actually attended

Following the ceremony, spontaneous demonstrations broke out in Minsk, the heart of more than six weeks of nationwide opposition to the results of the August 9th election that Lukashenka claims to have won.

The Belarusian rights organization Vyasna, which has documented the detention of thousands of protesters since the vote, said at least two demonstrators were detained near the Independence Palace, where the inauguration took place.

Interestingly enough, even Vladimir Putin did not send a congratulatory message to his Belorussian colleague on this occasion.

In the West, a growing list of countries said they would not recognize Lukashenko's presidency. Canada and a few others are also imposing personal sanctions on Lukashenko and his entourage.

According to Professor Valery Solovey, one of the most informed Kremlin observers, Putin is currently looking for a decent replacement to the Belarus leader with a tragic and comic behaviour. It looks like Russia and Belarus may down the road go ahead with some long-discussed kind of union that will be based on coordination in key economic, financial and security areas. The process might give Lukashenko a new job and title. This will take time though and the protests are continuing.

--o--

 

KREMLIN TAKES NAVALNY BACK

Kremlin critic and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny posted on social media a picture of himself sitting on a park bench in the German capital after being discharged from the Berlin hospital where he was being treated for what Germany has said is a case of poisoning with a Soviet-style nerve agent.



At the time, the German government said that laboratories in France and Sweden had reconfirmed German tests showing that the poison used on Navalny was a Novichok agent.

The Kremlin has said there is no proof of that and has asked for evidence to be shared, to no avail.

It is clear thar Navalny was poisoned by a substance of the Novichok family, but not at the same level as the previous similar poisoning cases in the UK. It is also clear that he is on his way to a full recovery and wants to return home.

His wish was welcomed by Putin's press-secretary Dmitry Peskov who confirmed that nobody in the government would object to Navalny's return to Russia and that he was "free" to return to Moscow "at any moment".

The question however remains: the conditional house arrest and several unsubstantiated charges against the leading Russian opposition figure have not been dropped and consequently his stay in Moscow will not be trouble-free. There is another problem, the key problem, will the Russian government carry out a criminal investigation into Navalny's poisoning as it is demanded by the international community? Even if it does, will the investigation answer all the questions that have been raised around the circumstances of the incident. Will it also answer the nagging unresolved question: cui bono? Who is profiting from this story? Whatever the damage some allege has been done to Russia-Europe relations, there little evidence of a desire in the Kremlin to get to the bottom of the story, or even to appear to do so. 

--o--

UKRAINE: PROGRESS AND GOOD INTENTIONS

One step forward

During a late September working trip to the Donetsk region, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy held a meeting on the work of the Ukrainian side of the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE).

The quotes from the minutes of the meeting are eloquent: […] It was noted that the regime of comprehensive and permanent ceasefire is an undeniable success on the way to peace in Donbass. […] Indeed, we observe minimization of losses. Today, the silence mode (i.e. ceasefire) has been maintained for the 62nd day.  

President Zelenskyy visiting troops in the Donetsk region, September 26th
©President of Ukraine Website


There is no question that achieving a cease-fire and making it last is a significant accomplishment and a fulfillment of a key promise. In addition to negotiating a cease-fire with the opposing side, Zelenskyy had to bring his own side together. The gratitude he extended to the military establishment was not pro forma. After years of fighting, building an internal consensus with stakeholders holding entrenched positions was most unlikely not an easy task.

On the overall issue of implementing the Minsk I and II peace Agreements, the situation is showing very little sign of improvement.  Old-time politicians on Zelenskyy’s new negotiating team got into trouble over some of their controversial statements. Former President Kravchuk, now lead Ukrainian negotiator, nevertheless passed a clear and accurate diagnostic on the Minsk process, calling it impossible to fulfill: "We are now in a rather difficult situation: there are Minsk Agreements, but they cannot be implemented given the obvious reasons. Also, it is because when they were being signed, it was already clear that they would not be fulfilled.”  To be clear Kravchuk refers to the Ukrainian side’s problems with the Minsk Agreements: "Those led by [the then-President Petro] Poroshenko laid down one thing, and now they demand something else. And those who laid this down and signed it remind us that international agreements must be fulfilled.’’

Ultimately, Kravchuk sees a summit of the Normandy leaders as the only way out of the current deadlock, the underlying implication being that a modified arrangement must be negotiated

No way to run a railway

In putting an end to his membership of the Board of the State Railway Corporation well-known international consultant Anders Aslund delivered a damning indictment on the senior management of that corporation as well on members of President Zelenskyy’s ruling party (Servant of the People). Aslund’s complaints bear on the treatment of the members of the Board as well as the rejection of their improvement proposals. What Aslund’s complaints reveal is that the new political leadership is unwilling to proceed with market-driven reforms and that it takes a narrow populist view of the remuneration of senior officials. For a party intent of fighting corruption, the latter reveals a lack of understanding of the principle that adequate remuneration is one good way of preventing the need to engage in corrupt practices.

In addition, there is still an ongoing deadlock with the IMF and to some the extent the EU over Ukraine maintaining the independence of all anti-corruption bodies, this being a condition for further financial assistance. This, among other things, prompted the EU European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell to state during his recent visit to Ukraine that the EU is not a charity or a cash machine.  Opinion polls suggest that Ukrainians are fully behind the anti-corruption fight, but that they are less keen having the IMF “manage” Ukraine.

President Zelenskyy is now strongly pushing for the adoption by the Rada (Parliament) of an Anticorruption Strategy for 2020-2024. It may seem like it took a lot of time to get the government to get its act together in the form a strategy. It was, however, a necessary process of reckoning that good intentions are not enough.

 COVID-19 problems

The COVID-19 situation in Ukraine is not improving, but even more concerning is the fact that the official reports may not reflect the real situation. During a conference call in early September it was brought to the attention of the President that the chief physicians of a number of medical institutions in Ukraine sometimes force staff to conceal COVID-19 infection at work as they are afraid of administrative penalties for hospitals. The President immediately called on the Ministry of Health to protect doctors.

It has been surmised since the beginning of the pandemic that the reporting of cases was not uniform between various countries and not uniform within certain countries. This was given as a possible explanation of reporting delays in China and inaccuracies elsewhere. Local authorities do not want to report what they fear might bring retribution. Ukraine would not be different than many other countries in this respect, but the problem was at least made public and it was addressed by the political authority.

--o--

 

PUTIN AT RISK, UNLIKELY

Some Western observers had voiced the hope that events in Belarus might have an impact on the round of regional and local elections that were held in Russia in early September. The idea was that the elections might be a test, even a challenge, for the Putin-supported party. There was no perceivable Belarus influence on the outcome. This is not because there was no coverage in Russia of the events in Belarus. The Russian public receives or has access to all the information that it needs to appreciate what is going on in Belarus.

Kremlin-supported candidates generally did very well at the level of gubernatorial elections, less well at the level of local legislatures and councils. A few associates of opposition leader Navalny even managed to get elected at the local level in Siberia. From the Kremlin’s point of view the outcome was almost optimal. From the point of view of genuine oppositionists, any victory is still a breakthrough as it feeds the hope that change is possible.

President Putin on-line conference with newly-elected regional leaders, September 24th
©President of Russia Website
Add caption


It was probably wishful thinking for some to expect that the Belarus crisis could contaminate Russian politics. At this stage, the Russian electorate would not seem to recognize the Belarus situation as offering a precedent for Russia. There would be a multitude of reasons for that, including the personality of the leaders and the way they manage their democracies. In Belarus Lukashenko’s claim that he won 80% of the popular vote was too implausible to be accepted at face value.

Beyond broader policy issues, sub-national elections in Russia are a different exercise: regional and local elections can be influenced by national issues and can present a risk for the ruling party if there is a major source of dissatisfaction. They, however, seem to be largely influenced by local factors as is evidenced by the large differences between the percentage of votes received by winning governors, some barely squeezing over 50%, others securing a landslide. The sub-national elections also afford the electorate the opportunity to express its views with the expectation that these views will be reasonably reflected in the outcome, despite the allegations of irregularities.

In Russia, at this time, the level of dissatisfaction with national leadership does not seem high enough to have caused serious difficulties for most ruling party candidates at the regional level.

This would also show that regional leaders who were running this time and that have been supported by the national leadership are performing relatively well. Recruiting competent managers has been a long-standing concern of the Presidential Administration.

In opening even a small door to a genuine opposition party, the local elections are also serving as a pressure valve in the managed democracy system by allowing the official recognition of a few divergent voices. 

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ABRAHAM ACCORDS

This month president Donald Trump presided over a signing ceremony at the White House September 15th, that included Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and the UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The officials signed two separate documents: the Israel-UAE peace treaty and a declaration of intent by Israel and Bahrain to make peace. There was not enough time to negotiate a final agreement on the second accord since the announcement of the second diplomatic breakthrough on September 11th.



The agreements between Israel and the two Gulf States are truly historic in a long and often treacherous road to broader Arab-Israeli peace. These are the first two Arab states to sign peace agreements with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

U.S. officials lauded the Abraham Accord between Israel and the UAE, named after the biblical forefather shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as a pivotal and historic hinge event.

The two peace accords are unquestionably dual achievements of the Trump administration negotiating strategy, as well as a testimony to Netanyahu’s long-standing strategy of engaging moderate Arab states that increasingly share many of the same interests and concerns as Israel.

Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all face threats from Shiite Iran as well as from Sunni Islamist extremist groups. All three also are concerned about Turkey’s increasingly destabilizing role in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in conflicts in Syria, Gaza, and Libya. There is also very little doubt that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands right behind their smaller allies in the Gulf. Right after the ceremony the Saudis opened its vast airspace (Saudi Arabia is the world's 12th largest country by territory) to the Israeli commercial air traffic.

Not only does Iran need to beware of close military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the two Arab kingdoms, but the accord also is expected to clear the way for the export of more sophisticated U.S. weapons to the two countries, possibly including F-35 stealth jets and armed drones that were denied in the past.

The peace accords also break the long-standing-and failed-Palestinian veto on any peace deals with Israel by Arab states. The thinking in Washington and most Arab capitals has shifted towards a more realistic reappraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It became apparent to most serious observers of the Middle East that the central issue in the area is not the absence of the Palestinian state but Shia-Sunni hostilities, terrorism, Iranian activism, civil wars in Syria and Libya and various manifestations of radical Islam. In fact, as was correctly pointed out by the rulers of the UAE, the Arab states can exert more meaningful pressure on Israel in respect to the Palestinian problem as a peace partner and not as an enemy. This was empirically proven by the Israeli u-turn on planned annexation of parts of the West Bank prior to the peace pact.

Morocco, Oman, and Sudan also are likely prospects to enter peace negotiations with Israel in the near future.

Eventually, the Bahrain and UAE diplomatic pacts could lead Palestinians to adopt a more realistic negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel. But regardless of how the Palestinians react, those two agreements represent a powerful diplomatic breakthrough that will cement a closer strategic cooperation against Iran.

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PERSON OF THE MONTH: SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA



Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is a Belorusian human rights activist. She is 38 years old. Before her political career she was an English teacher. She is married to activist Sergei Tsikhanousky, who was a candidate for the same election until his arrest on May 29th of this year. She subsequently announced her intention to run in his place and became the main opposition candidate.

Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced into exile in Lithuania under pressure from autocratic Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, said in Vilnius after talks with President Macron, the most prominent world leader she has met, that he had promised to help negotiate the release of those jailed in Belarus.

Election authorities gave Lukashenko 80% of the vote, but Tsikhanouskaya claims she received 60-70% if results were properly counted.

Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenko claimed victory over Tsikhanouskaya in a deeply flawed election last month, and then unleashed a brutal crackdown on his opponents.

If Lukashenko is a European, gentler version of Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, then Tsikhanouskaya is akin to Juan Guaido who accused Maduro of rigging the elections and proclaimed himself president. The similarities though have its limits. Guido remains in Venezuela being supported by a substantial number of the population. Tsikhanouskaya is in exile and her influence in Belarus opposition is rather symbolic. Most of the opposition in Belarus is not so much for Tsikhanouskaya as for forcing Lukashenko out.

Yet, for the time being, Tsikhanouskaya is the face of the Belarus opposition in the diaspora.

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US-RUSSIA

Russian officials say they have not given the US any new deadlines in talks over the New START treaty, the last remaining bilateral nuclear arms pact, but that there cannot be any pause in discussions as time is running out.

The US has said it wants any new nuclear arms control treaty to cover all types of warheads, contain stronger verification and transparency measures, and bring China on board, a move Beijing has rejected.

"The issue of primary importance that should and must be promptly dealt with is, of course, the extension of the Russia-U.S. Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which will expire shortly, in February 2021," Russian President Vladimir Putin told the 75th UN General Assembly on September 22nd.

Russia has said it is ready to extend the New START without preconditions and warned there is not enough time to renegotiate a complicated new treaty.

New START, which caps the number of deployed long-range nuclear warheads each country can have, expires in February unless the two sides agree to extend it for five years.

In his UN speech, Putin also announced a plan to propose a "binding agreement" to ban space-based weapons.

 

CYBER SECURITY FOOTNOTE

President Putin recently reiterated to the US the “suggestion to agree on a comprehensive program of practical measures to reboot our relations in the field of (cyber) security”.

To the many in the US and elsewhere who have accused Russia of using cyber attacks to meddle in the affairs of other states, this will sound rather cynical and pointless. Putin may be cynical, but pointless not necessarily. He would know that his suggestion would be at best ignored, but obviously wanted it to be on the record prior to the US election so that it can be picked up, perhaps, after the election.

The fundamental question for the US is whether it thinks it can outsmart Russia in matters of cybersecurity or whether it would ever trust Russia enough to seek agreed limitations in this field as was the case with classic security and disarmament issues. The additional question in the case of cyber security is how to deal with powerful third parties and with sophisticated non-state actors. Unlike in traditional disarmament discussions, there are many more competitors active in the field.

 

CSTO, BUSINESS AS USUAL

Kazakhstan’s Defense Ministry says military maneuvers scheduled to be held in Belarus in October by the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have nothing to do with ongoing protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The ministry's spokesman Ghani Nusipov said on September 16th that the exercises, called Unbreakable Brotherhood, by the military forces of CSTO member states Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Tajikistan had been scheduled long before the disputed August 9th presidential poll in Belarus.

A day earlier, Russia's Defense Ministry said the Unbreakable Brotherhood exercises will be held from  October 12 to 16 in Belarus.

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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, has 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.