Monday, September 30, 2019

Issue 35



A whistle blower's revelations about Donald Trump's July 25th telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have convinced the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives to launch impeachment proceedings. According to the notes eventually provided by the White House, Trump sought the resumption of the investigation into leading Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son business dealings in that country. There is circumstantial evidence that the US president used military aid commitments as leverage in his attempt to put pressure on Zelenskyy, in order to get to the Bidens.

Whatever Trump has said to Zelenskyy will likely convince the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to approve articles of impeachment that will have to be taken to the Senate. A lot of reasonable and fair-minded people around the world may also reach that conclusion. In the US the judgment will, however, most likely follow partisan lines. Leading Trump supporters did not even bother with denial, they are already in full attack mode against the Bidens and the President’s accusers. It is expected that the Republican majority in the Senate will find the evidence inconclusive: there is no quid pro quo, they will argue, since Trump did not make an explicit link between investigating the Bidens and US military assistance. Short of more damaging evidence, without the approval of two thirds of the Senators, the impeachment will fail.

The first official casualty of the Trump-Zelenskyy charade is Ambassador Kurt Volker who resigned from his position as Special US representative for Ukraine. Volker’s actual role in the follow up to the Trump-Zelenskyy conversation and his support for Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, are not entirely clear. More revelations can be expected that could corroborate Trump’s inappropriate actions.

In light of the Trump-Zelenskyy July conversation, the Democratic leadership in the House could no longer credibly refrain from pursuing impeachment. It looks as though attempts will be made to expedite the process so that, if Trump cannot be impeached, it will at least be possible to make the Republican senators accountable for a highly partisan verdict.

Presidents Zelenskyy and Trump, September 25th, New York
©President of Ukraine Website

In his mafia-style “shakedown” of Zelenskyy, Trump made some inaccurate or unjustified statements about the facts and about the people involved around Joe Biden and his son. Even though Joe Biden did not do anything wrong or different from other leaders, the doubts that were raised about his behaviour may linger in the minds of voters. Democratic party voters may move their support to another candidate rather than having Donald Trump hammer Joe Biden over these issues during the presidential campaign, however unjustifiable the allegations might be. After all, despite the factual evidence, there are still people who believe the Trump-propagated rumour that Barack Obama was not born in the US.

President Zelenskyy commented that he did not feel any pressure during the July call with Trump. Granted, his commitment in response to Trump was vague enough to amount to almost nothing. With all the focus on the US side of the discussion, no one cared to wonder whether it would have been legal or ethically appropriate for Zelenskyy to try to influence the Ukrainian prosecutor to re-open the Biden case. Zelenskyy may not have looked too strong during his conversation with Trump, but most important for him, that should not disqualify him from being in a position to negotiate with Vladimir Putin. The dynamics would be entirely different.



There are signs that both Russia and Ukraine are softening, if not their policies, at least their rhetoric towards one another. In the aftermath of a successful prisoner swap in September of this year, Kiev and Moscow are actively discussing the resurrection of the Minsk-2 agreement including the most disputed earlier the "Steinmeier formula".  The latter presumed the Ukraine must recognize the special status for Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the framework of the Ukraine, withdrawal of troops away from front lines and conducting supervised local elections. 

President Zelenskyy meeting freed Ukrainian sailors
September 12th, Kyiv
©President of Ukraine Website

This is all far from actual implementation, but at least both sides are willing to talk about it. As a popular Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon stated recently: "Paris, Berlin and Rome do not hide their 'Ukrainian fatigue'. It is clear that everyone wants a new and more rational approach from both sides in the endless conflict".

President Zelenskyy's recent initiatives reflect that point of view. He ordered some military de-escalation at front lines and allowed more civilian traffic between Ukraine and rebellious regions. Zelenskyy is also actively working to resume the Normandy format negotiations between leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

All those unilateral steps were made to encourage Moscow to reciprocate.

The above noted resignation of US Ambassador Volker may also affect the dynamics of the international negotiation. Volker, along with Ukrainian leaders, had been arguing recently for a more active role for the US in the Ukraine-Russia discussions in the Normandy format. The appetite among US politicians for more involvement with Ukraine has, however, just taken a hit.  As well, in light of the recent display, there is the fact that Ukrainians may no longer be so keen on US involvement in their affairs. With the US in the room, the discussions could be more difficult, but it would be easier to sell a successful outcome of the negotiations to the Ukrainians who fear that Zelenskyy and European leaders will yield too much to Vladimir Putin.



The large end-of-summer protests that marked the beginning of the campaign for the municipal council elections in Moscow, and even more the strong reaction of the authorities through the muscular police handling of the protesters drew considerable attention in Western media and direct criticism from European leaders, including especially President Macron. Many would have liked to see in the protests the beginning of a crack in the managed democracy system of President Putin. That may have been too much wishful thinking, but there are signs that the continuation of the system will face new challenges.

Many non-traditional opposition representatives were denied registration of their candidacy for the Moscow municipal elections. This is what led to the protests. Given the current legislative framework that does not make it easy to register independent candidates, nothing could be done to satisfy the demands of the protesters. Eventually, the non-traditional opposition called on citizens to vote “intelligently” by focusing their support on traditional opposition candidates such as communists, so as to deny victory to Kremlin-backed United Russia candidates. That worked in some cases. Yet, ultimately the ruling party managed to retain its majority in the municipal council, aided by a very low turnout. The election of a relatively large number of opposition candidates was a symbolic victory.

In the rest of the country, United Russia did well every where except in Khabarovsk region for reasons that seem very specific to the region including the presence of a popular governor coming from an opposition party.

The surge of opposition parties in Moscow does not substantially alter the standing and authority of President Putin at the national level. Even though it is limited this time to Moscow and Khabarovsk and parts of St. Petersburg, it does however illustrate the inherent difficulty of continuing to turn the leader’s popular standing into majority support for the political party with which he is identified. The yearning for political stability has helped in the past, essentially since Putin came to power. Popular discontent has been relatively well managed, even including the controversial pension reform. What happens though when the fear of change tapers off and is certainly not so prevalent in the new generations that have only known Putin-style stability?

Perhaps even more important is the problem created by the severity of the measures taken against the protesters as well as the de facto immunity granted to police forces for their behaviour against protesters. Whereas in previous years protesters received fines of short detention sentences, this time they are treated as criminals. Some have even received imprisonment sentences of up to four years. This, even when there was evidence of no improper behaviour. Cases of documented unnecessary use of brutal force against protesters also seem to have gone unpunished. 

A group of distinguished Russian scientists has called on the country's leadership to stop political repression after a wave of arrests and harsh sentences against participants in recent pro-democracy protests. A statement signed by more than 50 scholars from the Russian Academy of Sciences says that while state agencies and law enforcement were obliged to ensure the rights of citizens, persecution of those attending peaceful political protests has instead become harsher.
"The profession of a scientist requires objectivity, a rigorous system of evidence with the inadmissibility of falsifications and fraud; we know what it is, and we believe that the law enforcement system should be based on the same basic principles," said the statement.
"Unfortunately, before our eyes, both the investigation and the courts demonstrate a complete disregard for these principles, turning the defense of law into a mockery of it," it added.

Somewhat similar points were made in a public letter signed by over 100 Russian orthodox priests. While it is not unexpected from respected scientists to express political views, it is virtually unheard for members of the clergy to express themselves without the approval of the Patriarchate. The clerics make similar points to the scientists, but in seeking clemency in the traditional religious way for the protesters they take the matter one step further by stressing the point that people cannot live in fear, quoting  St. Paul’s letter to the Romans 8,15:" The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again”.

This is not to say that change will happen overnight, but rather that with the scientists’ and the clerics’ intervention there has been the beginning of a change in the political debate. The consequences could be far-reaching down the road.  Comparisons are not fair, but there is an analogy between what clerics argued and Pope John Paul II’s repeated “Have no fear” message to his Polish followers.



The former head of Mossad, the late Meir Dagan, once remarked that Iran, unlike Arab states who fought Israel for decades, is playing chess, not checkers. This compliment was and is not far from the mark. As is evident from Iran's involvement in Syria, Iraq, and now in its confrontation with several Sunni states in the Gulf, and with the West in general, Iran has been playing one cool game of chess. So far. It has been frustrating the Saudis in Yemen for a long time and, when needed, managed to lash out and deliver tactical shots like boarding a British oil tanker by landing Revolutionary Guard commandos by helicopter on deck of the ship in a tit-for-tat response to the British arrest of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar. (A few weeks ago, Iran released the British tanker exactly two weeks after the Iranian vessel was freed.) Iran showed strength and Britain backed off. An even bigger gamble was a direct attack by drones and missiles on the Aramco oil refinery in Saudi Arabia's Khurais oil field at Abqaiq. With this Iran was taking its asymmetrical struggle to another level. The attack highlighted how ineffective Saudi air defenses are and provided everybody a food for thought; what will occur in the even of wider conflict? Through its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah Iran delivered a more direct message (uttered by Hassan Nasrallah): "In case of direct war Iran will annihilate Saudi Arabia".

In the aftermath of the drone attack on refining facilities in Saudi Arabia, it is remarkable how quickly the fear of an open conflict seems to have subsided. Early on, Donald Trump used the expression “locked and loaded” to describe the possible US response to an attack attributed to Iran. It turned out that the response was in the form of more economic sanctions against Iran and the deployment of additional forces in Saudi Arabia (an inherently controversial decision in Saudi Arabia where ultra-conservatives disapprove of the presence of non-Muslim troops in the Kingdom). For their part, Washington’s key allies (UK, France and Germany) took their time to join the chorus blaming Iran for the attack.  A more sober assessment of the situation seems to have revealed that a military escalation of the situation would afford no better protection for the soft industrial targets located in Saudi Arabia, in close proximity to Iran and Yemen.

Iran made a correct calculation that the only real power in the Gulf that can harm them, the United States, will not get involved militarily. Donald Trump, Iran quickly gathered, is really not as unpredictable as he often portrayed. He wants to make it to November 2020 without getting involved in a war. In other words, threats may be issued, but will no be carried out as they could lead to undesirable military and political consequences.  That is exactly why Iran said a few days after the attack on Saudi oil field (which it denied of carrying out): Iran is ready for all out war and will lash out not only at the source of attack on its interests (meaning US ships and bases) but other hostile actors in the region (read Abu-Dhabi, Saudis, Israel).

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was an advocate of military action against Iran may have been fired just in time.

Iran is being seriously crippled by sanctions and would not be able to go on like this for a long time. The mullahs know this very well. They are also very much aware of the cold fact that in case of any serious confrontation with the US military they will be utterly destroyed and most likely lose power in a violent takeover. As any dictatorial regime, they are weak at the core and could overplay their hand and get punished. However, so far one has to give Iran credit: they are playing a nuanced a game of chess.



Israeli President Rivlin tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 25th with putting together a new government after power-sharing talks with Blue and White Party Chairman Benny Gantz failed. But Netanyahu, facing a looming indictment on corruption charges, still has no clear path to a fifth term after the September 17th general elections, second since April and he is short of a parliamentary majority for his Likud party and its allies. Accepting the mandate from President Reuven Rivlin at a televised ceremony, Netanyahu said his chances of success were only marginally higher than those of Gantz, a former general who heads the Blue and White party.

PM Netanyahu

In his remarks, Netanyahu seemed to hope for a scenario in which he and Gantz would be able to take another go at power-sharing once it became clear there was no way out of the current deadlock, save for a third election that few in Israel wanted.  "If I do not succeed, I will return the mandate to you and with the help of God and Israel's citizens and yourself, Mr. President, we will establish a broad national unity government down the line," he said.

Netanyahu, 69 and Israel's longest-serving leader, will have 28 days to form a coalition and can ask Rivlin for a two-week extension if necessary. Rivlin, in his remarks, pointedly noted that he was under no obligation to grant his prime minister-designate that two-week extension to establish a governing coalition. Nor did he commit to turning to Gantz if Netanyahu failed to break the current deadlock.

Under Israeli law, Rivlin can assign the coalition-building task to any member of parliament he deems likely to succeed.

The Knesset, Israel's Parliament

With final results announced on Wednesday, Likud has the pledged support of 55 legislators in the 120-member parliament, against 54 for Blue and White. The two parties failed to reach a coalition deal in talks launched on Tuesday.

Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a possible kingmaker, has been keeping his mainly Russian speaking Yisrael Beiteinu party on the fence since the September 17 elections declaring multiple times his aversion to Likud's ultra-Orthodox religious partners and Blue and White's left-wing allies.

"It became clear that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz have the 61 seats necessary to form a government," Rivlin said at the ceremony. "Netanyahu's ability to assemble an administration is higher at the moment," the president said. 

A deal in which Netanyahu and Gantz would take turns as prime minister was widely discussed however in his campaign, Gantz pledged not serve in a government with Netanyahu, citing the Israeli leader's legal troubles.



"My generation failed in its fight against ecological crisis", said António Guterres at the Climate Action Summit held in New-York this September. "Your generation, young and ambitious has to pick up the fight and succeed".  Antonio Gutteres did not get as much attention as Greta Thunberg, but he hosted the Summit at which Thunberg made her impassioned plea for action on climate change. He has also been a strong advocate of international coordinated action on climate change, despite the fact that this may cost him a second term as UN Secretary-General if Donald Trump is re-elected. Guterres has made clear he is not concerned about a second term, but will keep doing what he believes is right.

The former leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party, Prime Minister for seven years (1995-2002) Antonio Guterres has become one of the most popular European politicians. He managed to appeal to various sectors of Portuguese society and the European Union. In the 70s, he was instrumental in bringing Portugal into the EU. He has excellent credentials as a middle-of-the road political leader who succeeded in reconciling his Catholicism, socialist convictions and his love for physics. 

For 10 years he was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This experience has propelled Guterres into the very top of the United Nations when in 2017 he became the 9th Secretary General. 



Thousands of people have gathered in the center of Georgia’s capital to protest against the government and the ruling Georgian Dream party, three months after the violent dispersal of a rally against Russian influence. The protesters blocked traffic on September 20th in Rustaveli Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, holding placards with slogans against Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman and former prime minister whom critics accuse of ruling the country from behind the scenes.

“The unilateral, oligarchic, informal rule of Bidzina Ivanishvili is unacceptable to us,” Shota Digmelashvili, one of the organizers of the Shame civic rights movement, told the crowd as he presented an action plan for the 2020 parliamentary elections.

The Shame movement that has been holding daily protests outside parliament in Tbilisi for the past few months. The wave of protests was sparked by the visit of an official Russian delegation to parliament in June, including a Russian lawmaker who sat in the Georgian parliament speaker's seat while addressing a group of officials from predominantly Orthodox Christian countries.

Three months ago, on June 20, more than 240 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets and water cannons to turn back crowds trying to enter the parliament building. The opposition, anti-government activists, and their supporters were angered further this month when controversial Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia was picked as the new prime minister. The anti-government protesters had been calling for Gakharia's ouster from the Interior Ministry for his role in the police crackdown.



The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan have held talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The Foreign Ministries of the two countries said in separate statements on September 24 that Zohrab Mnatsakanian and Elmar Mamadyarov were joined during the talks on September 23 by the co-chairmen of the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group (US, France and Russia).

During the talks, Mnatsakanyan stressed the need to ensure the safe return home of Armenian citizens detained by the Azerbaijani side near the breakaway region, Armenia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Mamadyarov in turn pointed out that one Azerbaijani soldier was shot dead after he lost his way and entered territory controlled by Nagorno-Karabakh separatist forces.

Negotiations involving the Minsk Group helped forge a cease-fire in the region, which is not always honored, but have failed to produce a lasting settlement of the conflict.



The Russian and Belarusian militaries have launched weeklong joint exercises in the Nizhny Novgorod region, west of Moscow. The Union Shield 2019 drills are set to involve a total of 12,000 troops and 950 pieces of military equipment, including combat vehicles, aircraft, and helicopters, Russia’s Western Military District said on September 13. The Belarusian Defense Ministry said it had sent 4,000 soldiers, more than 30 tanks, 80 armored vehicles, 50 multiple rocket launchers, and about 15 aircraft and helicopters. During the second phase of the exercises, troops will search and eliminate hypothetical saboteurs and illegal armed groups, a statement said.

In August, the chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian armed forces, First Deputy Defense Minister Major-General Aleh Belokonev, said the exercise would be held "deep inside the territory of the Russian Federation and not at practice ranges near [EU] borders" in order to "avoid the escalation of the situation in Europe."

Belarus and Russia are joined in a union state that exists mainly on paper, and the two countries hold joint military exercises that regularly engage the West's attention. The Union Shield drills are carried out every two years alternately on the territory of Russia and Belarus. Union Shield 2017 was held in Belarus and involved some 12,700 troops.



Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has pardoned 868 prisoners as part of the country's Independence Day celebrations. Berdymukhamedov, an authoritarian ruler who controls all aspects of Turkmen society, has issued such decrees several times a year, usually on the eve of state holidays such as the upcoming Independence Day observance on September 27. In a previous act of clemency, Berdymukhamedov announced in May the pardoning of 764 inmates to mark the Night of Revelation, an important stage during the holy month of Ramadan observed by Muslims around the world.

Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, issued similar amnesty decrees once a year during Ramadan. Human rights activists have generally presented these acts of clemency as a means of rotating the population in Turkmenistan’s penitentiaries.



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

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

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