Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Issue 5



The Oval Office (Official White House Photo)
Trump's grand promises of fundamental changes to US foreign policy came to nothing but a poor imitation and rehashing of policies of his predecessors.

His pre-election criticism of NATO validity and role ended up in traditional praise of the alliance and promise of firm support and participation. Trump came to accept some token increase of expenditures by certain alliance members. In his statement in respect to the next NATO summit Trump said: "I am very enthusiastic about the alliance future".

His election campaign promises to radically improve American relations with Russia are turning out surprisingly empty. The relations between Washington and Moscow are even frostier than before. The reason of course is the enormous pressure from Congress and the US Intelligence community with regard to the ongoing investigation on possible Russian meddling in the American election process. Even the case of North Korea and its nuclear threat to the Southern part of peninsula and to Japan has been approached by the new administration along the lines worked out by Obama strategists, that includes computer sabotage of long-range launches - as it probably happened again on the 21st of March when a North Korean rocket exploded on takeoff.

Over critical statements towards China also had been replaced by more subdued "realpolitik". Secretary Rex Tillerson just completed a rather routine visit to Beijing while President Trump joyfully extended an invitation for the Chinese leader to visit Washington.

The biggest surprise to most political pundits is that Trump's foreign policy so far continues to be business as usual.



A very simple fact can become the subject of considerable obfuscation. A person phone is legally under surveillance will likely create a lot of incidental collection if he happens to communicate by phone with a large number of individuals who are not under surveillance. How long does it take a US President or US Congressman to understand that concept? Or are they pretending not to understand in order to create confusion and justify accusations of “tapping the lines”?

Unmasking the identity of an individual whose conversation was the subject of incidental collection is an exceptional process that can only be approved by very senior officials in the intercepting organisation. Anyone who eventually reads the report of that conversation can, however, come to an easy conclusion as to the likely identity of the masked interlocutor. In other words, many officials, not only at senior levels, will know who was saying what. The temptation to leak that information becomes even greater if you believe that it would serve the national interest and harm only one or two imprudent or ignorant individuals, whatever their elevated positions may be.



President Poroshenko with Ukrainian volunteers, March 14

Bad news can be useful, at times.  

The killing in broad daylight on March 23 in Kyiv of Denis Voronenkov, a former member of the Russian Duma and, on the same day, the fire that engulfed near Kharkov a significant part of the largest munitions depot in Europe were not such bad news for President Poroshenko. The first event he called an act of state terrorism on the part of Russia, the second an act of sabotage. Whatever the motive for the killing or the cause for the fire and until they become known (which is not likely soon), the two events can indeed be used by the President to support his policy of opposition to Russia. In a context where nationalist groups have recently denounced the régime in Kyiv, Poroshenko can use the occasion to present himself as the unifying rampart against Russia, the common enemy.

Good news are, however, not always good for you.

The blockade, since January, of coal shipments from Donbass to the rest of Ukraine has now turned into a complete cessation of commercial shipments between the two regions. This is good news for the nationalists who want nothing to do with the rebel regions. It is not good for the Ukrainian economy as a whole (the government has acknowledged this) or for the prospects of eventually bringing the country back together.

In response to pressure from nationalists who asked for the closure of Russian banks, the Security Council of Ukraine and the National Bank have introduced sanctions against the subsidiaries of five Russian banks operating in Ukraine. The sanctions essentially curtail the normal activities of the banks, for a year. Protesters have also physically blocked the access to several offices of the said banks. This leaves virtually no choice for the Russian banks but to dispose of their Ukrainian assets, if they can. The financial impact on the Russian banks does not seem to cause much alarm. The impact on the Ukrainian economy, that can little afford bad news, is unlikely to be positive. For President Poroshenko, the unpleasant twist in the affair is that it was suggested that some sort of trade-off could be worked out whereby he would exchange his chocolate factory assets in Russia for some Russian bank assets in Ukraine. Poroshenko had promised before his election to dispose of his Russian assets. The Russian bank (Sberbank) implicated in this story has denied the existence of a deal.

Poroshenko is trying to resist the opposition’s call for early parliamentary elections, but does not have highly visible accomplishments to show, that could strengthen his position. His efforts to improve the economy are beginning to show some results, but are threatened by the need to deal with some political elements whose views he has publicly described as “the worse, the better”. At this time, events that force the country to close ranks behind him can be more useful. As for the parliamentary opposition, rumours abound as to who wants to push Poroshenko aside, but no one has truly emerged as a strong contender. More “good news” with bad consequences may be needed for one to make a decisive move. Even then, it is not clear whether replacing the President or the Prime Minister would significantly change the situation.



March 24th LePen-Putin meeting
Marine Le Pen, the ultra nationalist candidate in the pending presidential elections in France visited Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin.

Officially it was "a territorial coincidence"; Le Pen was touring an exhibition from the Louvre in the Kremlin and there she "accidentally" bumped into President Putin, who by luck had with him a very capable French translator. 

A 15-minute sit down was arranged. The issues discussed however were very serious. Marine Le Pen suggested that if she is to become president the anti-Russian sanctions will be lifted (at least the French part of it). Crimea will be recognized as Russian territory according to the results of the 2014 referendum and Frexit (French version of Brexit) will be seriously considered.

Many French commentators concluded that such brazen pronouncements may work against Le Pen not for her. Her advisers however retorted by pointing to the success of Donald Trump who disregarded traditionally carefully worded approach and stereotypes and won as a result.

Majority of political analysts think that Le Pen will be a first round winner of the elections. In the second round however her chance are slimmer unless she will gain support from the supporters of conservative candidates like Francois Fillon. 



Juche Tower in Pyongyang
Addressing his ambassadors in foreign countries, Kim Jong-un, the hereditary leader of North Korea stated that becoming a full scale nuclear power requires not only the industrial and scientific might, but also an uncompromising ideological determination. This goes to the heart of the explanation why North Korea is so pathologically stubborn, even under the Western pressure to stop its nuclear and ballistic missile tests. 

Considering that Donald Trump's administration has not yet proven its desire and ability to stick to its pre-election variety of promises and threats, the North Korean leadership doesn't take too seriously the possibility of a US military intervention. At the same time the threat of such intervention serves as proven stimulus to bring the impoverished nation together. After all, the memory of the 1952-1953 Korean War is not only lingering in the national memory, but is being constantly reinforced in the form of heroic legends and myths.

There is one more serious yet underestimated aspect of the current North Korean puzzle: where does China, the only country with real influence over North Korea stands in this predicament? On the surface Beijing supports international efforts to curtail Kim's nuclear ambitions. It went as far as suspending for a year import of North Korean coal and issuing several statements of condemnation along with the US and Japan.



Prsident Lukasheko, visiting a collective farm, March 24
Tensions between the Belarus regime and Moscow reached its peak after 7-hour long press conference of Aleksandr Lukashenko where he accused Moscow of excessive meddling in the republic's affairs and using gas supply as method of pressure. This time Russia refused to budge. It continues to demand that Minsk pay the international price for gas and put an end to a massive re-export of sanctioned agricultural products to Russia. Arkady Dvorkovitch, deputy prime minister of Russia stated in an unusual harsh way that the problem will go to the international court. Tensions between two allies had reached such boiling point that it started to threaten the future of the Eurasian Economic Union. Meanwhile Lukashenko made several statements critical of Russian policies vis-a-vis Ukraine. However, in almost a magical way, previous tensions started to evaporate due to massive anti-government demonstrations across Belorussian cities. Lukashenko's decision to fine $200 everyone who is unemployed for more than 6-months triggered a wave of unrest which evidently reminded Lukashenko of the Maidan and tumultuous events of the Ukrainian revolution. It was enough to return Lukashenko's loyalty to Moscow and consequently to secure Russian support, if needed. 



The flag of independent Kurdistan 
Turkey suddenly decided to sharply cut Russian imports of wheat and corn. It was a painful blow to the Russian agricultural sector because of the record harvests and consequent legitimate expectations to at least partly compensate the decrease in oil and gas revenues.
Political insiders in Russia and the West believe the real reason behind Turkey's decision to cut the imports is an attempt to put pressure on Russia to prevent Moscow from its increasing support of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. The recent opening of Russian consulate in Erbil, Iraq was a bit too much for Turkey swallow.

It has to be noted that Iraqi Kurdistan has become an island of relative democracy and tranquility in the midst of Middle Eastern turmoil. It has a functional multi-party parliament, freedom of the press, gender equality (women serve in the armed forces alongside men) and religious tolerance. Kurdistan has friendly relations with Israel, Russia and recently with the United States. Moreover the idea of independent Kurdistan that in future could include Iraqi, Syrian and even Turkish Kurds has started to get more support in Washington, European capitals and other among more traditional allies of Kurdish independence. President Erdogan has every reason to worry: he considers Kurds to be No.1 danger to the future of Islamic Turkey which he so actively constructs.  




View of Astana, Kazakhstan's capital

This is the second part of the interview with His Excellency Konstantin V. Zhigalov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to Canada. In the following excerpt, Ambassador Zhigalov answers BGN's question about Kazakhstan's foreign policy priorities for 2017.

Ambassador Zhigalov: On the international arena, Kazakhstan continued to be recognized a leader in promoting regional and global security, and strongly advocated for regional integration in Eurasia. In this period, Kazakhstan was elected to chair such important regional organizations, as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and played a key role in establishing the Conference of Interaction and Confidence-Building Measure in Asia, which is the Asian alternative to the OSCE. Kazakhstan has also initiated the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, that is convening in Astana every three years since 2003. We have been very active in the United Nations.

The main achievement of Kazakh diplomacy in recent years was the election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2017–2018. As the first ever member of the Security Council from Central Asia, Kazakhstan is set to play an active role as an international mediator in preventing and resolving conflicts. Among other priorities are: - moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons; - promoting peace in Afghanistan; - creating a regional peace zone in Central Asia; - shaping a global antiterrorist coalition (network) under the auspices of the UN; - promoting the peaceful development of Africa.

Kazakhstan is gaining more influence in international efforts to bring peace to Middle East. On 23-24 January 2017, Astana hosted the talks between Syrian government, opposition groups, and three guarantor states, Russia, Turkey and Iran. The three countries “reaffirmed their commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, non-sectarian and democratic state, as confirmed by the UN Security Council”. Another round of talks was held on February 16th. So-called “Astana Process” is already acknowledged as a successful diplomatic platform which efficiently supplements the Geneva talks.

On another note, this year, an important event will take place in Astana, the International Specialized Exhibition EXPO-2017 with the main topic “Future Energy”. As of today, 115 countries and 18 international organizations have officially confirmed their participation in the exhibition, which is one of the largest numbers of participants in the entire history of EXPO. In 2018, the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC) will be created on the platform of the EXPO. Based on the experience of the Dubai International Financial Centre, the AIFC will be under separate jurisdiction based on the principles of English common law, with a preferential tax regime and independent financial court. We believe that Astana Financial Center will become the financial hub for entire Central Asia and will provide new opportunities for expanding and deepening partnership between Kazakhstan and Canada.

Regarding Kazakhstan – Canada bilateral relations, the January 2017 very productive visit of the Canadian parliamentarians to Astana reaffirmed commitment from both sides to strengthening political dialogue and partnership in various areas.

The bilateral process is largely facilitated by the activities of a Kazakhstan – Canada Business Council (KCBC). Last May, the KCBC first inaugural meeting was successfully held in Astana. Currently, together with “Kazatomprom”, “Cameco Corporation”, Kazakhstan’s Chamber of International Commerce and the Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association, we are preparing for the 2nd meeting of the Kazakhstan – Canada Business Council, that will be organized in June in Astana, on the margins of EXPO-2017.

In conclusion, I am pleased to note that we are going to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Kazakhstan-Canada diplomatic relations on April 10th, 2017.




The far reaching consequences of protest demonstrations across Russia are not about the number of people who took part, but the composition of crowds. For the first time in recent history the bulk of demonstrators was not middle class, or members of the intelligentsia, but university and high school students. Evidently, a new generation has entered political life. This generation was not affected by classic, Putin-style patriotic nationalism. They are indifferent to the euphoria about annexation of Crimea and the plight of separatists in Donbass.

The only important issue that resonates with them, as the generation that gets all of its news from the Internet not TV, is the prevailing, institutionalized corruption in Russia.

Putin's reaction was swift: he announced a series of general measures that would bring the younger generations of Russians to the Government side, for example creating Soviet-style cultural centers for the youth and involve young people in organized political activities. It could include extending voting rights to people age 16 and up.


President Dodon of Moldova recently initiated resumption of the long frozen negotiations with the separatist enclave of Prednestrovie (Transnistria) .

It will however remain unresolved until the parliamentary elections scheduled for late spring. Moldova's parliament is known for inaction due to constant split around the 50-50 bench mark. This has prevented Moldova to move in either direction it happened to choose: pro-European or pro-Russian. This time however Moldova socialist party and its Communist allies have a strong chance to form a government that will agree to the main Moscow's demand: to opt for a federal model of state structure in order to accommodate the predominately Russian-speaking enclave of Prednestrovie and pro-Moscow, autonomous Gagauz region. This would also effectively marginalize supporters of Moldova becoming part of Romania.


Diplomatic sources in Astana confirmed that Kazakhstan will host an important conference on peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict. The most interesting aspect of that conference is that it will be preceded by talks between Afghan government and Taliban. Considering that Taliban is gaining ground in the country such talks could be instrumental in defining Kabul's position. Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan's National Security adviser suggested that the conference should include US, Russia, China, Pakistan, and five central Asian republics.


One of the most secluded and closed countries in the world just finished construction of a 2.3 billion dollar airport which makes it one of the most expensive airports in the world. The opening ceremony was lush and exuberant. The airport, as was announced, could handle 17 million passengers a year. There is only one problem: Turkmenistan gets only 100.000 tourists per year. 



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

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