Saturday, March 30, 2019

Issue 29



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

Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III

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

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

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

Attorney General William Barr

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



Preparing ballot papers
©Central Electoral Commission of Ukraine

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

Candidate Zelensky
Candidate Tymoshenko
Candidate Poroshenko

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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



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

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

President James Monroe, 1758-1831

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



©President Nazarbayev Personal Website

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

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

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

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




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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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



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

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

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