THE BRETON GEROL NEWSLETTER
IMPEACHMENT, OPPORTUNITIES AND CASUALTIES
The outcome of the impeachment proceedings against President Trump remains highly predictable. Call it hypocrisy, disregard for constitutional duty or blind partisanship, most of the Republicans in the US Senate are unwilling to look at the case against the President. In that context there is some justification in House Speaker Pelosi’s decision to delay the transmission of the articles of impeachment to the Senate until there is some clarity about how the Senate will handle its proceedings. Beyond having Majority Leader McConnell and President Trump squirm, keeping impeachment alive has a minimal cost and may have political advantages in the 2020 election year. Impeachment in itself may not work, but dangling it before an irascible president has more than entertainment value. Through the disruption that it causes, it may lead to even more unhinged or impetuous behaviour on the part of the President. Besides, as we just saw in late December, more evidence may become available that could further justify impeachment, at least in public opinion. Some electors may not want Trump impeached, but may eventually reckon that he is a cheat, in real life, as well as when he plays golf, as has been observed by many of his sport partners.
There is no deep political reason for a Ukraine-related incident now to be at the center of the political debate in the US. Easy money may, however, explain a lot. The permissive financial environment in Ukraine, that US politicians so like to criticize, has resulted in hefty advantages for some US citizens. Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex-campaign manager did very well in Ukraine. Hunter Biden, the son of the leading Democratic candidate Joe Biden, did also receive a lot of money for little real work. One should not be surprised that Trump having lost his friend Manafort to a Ukrainian denunciation wanted to use a Ukrainian denunciation to go after his main opponent. Not a quid pro quo, more like tit-for-tat, in line with the Trump character. Besides, for Trump, cheating is not a crime especially if you feel that someone else has already cheated against you.
The Russian intervention during the 2016 presidential campaign, even though it may have had much less impact than generally alleged, the ensuing Mueller inquiry and, now, the impeachment debate have meant that anything related to Russia and Ukraine is viewed in Washington through ultra-partisan lenses. In light of his own questionable statements and overall lack of credibility, Trump is not in a position to develop a coherent policy vis-à-vis Russia. The result is an erratic approach that can upset long-time allies and in connection with the Russia-Ukraine conflict a marginalisation of the US role in the resolution of that conflict. Trump getting his briefing on the December 11h Paris Normandy Format Summit from the Russian Foreign Minister rather than from the German or the French should have raised eyebrows not the fact that he appeared to do Foreign Minister Lavrov a special favour, which he was not, and that they had their picture taken together. In the meantime, another casualty of the situation is that important contentious issues such as, among others, disarmament do not seem to get any sustained attention. Although it is NATO that President Macron called brain-dead, his real target was arguably US policy leadership, or the lack thereof.
PARIS SUMMIT, EXPECTATIONS AND RESULTS
|Presidents Zelenskyy, Macron and Putin, Chancellor Merkel|
Paris, December 11th
©President of Ukraine Website
As many observers have noted, the results of the December 11 Paris Normandy format summit were relatively modest. A few steps were agreed, including the long-awaited exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and its rebel regions, as well as the incremental continuation of the disengagement process along the front line in Eastern Ukraine. More important was the general agreement to continue the conversation and to have another such meeting within four months.
Although President Zelenskyy voiced his frustration at the lack of more progress, the result of the Summit probably met most of his expectations. He was able to protect his position in relation to nationalists who had warned him not to cross any of their red lines. The level of military activity is slowly decreasing. The forthcoming exchange of prisoners has allowed for some good news coverage over the Holiday Season. The criticism in Ukraine about the inclusion of some special service policemen accused of shooting at protesters during the February 2014 uprising did not seem to affect the popular success of the operation.
|President Zelenskyy greeting a freed prisoner|
Kyiv, December 29th
©President of Ukraine Website
Decreasing the number of casualties and freeing prisoners does not resolve the conflict, but it affords President Zelenskyy the time that he needs to pursue a gradual restoration of normality in the relations between Ukraine and its rebel regions as between Ukraine and Russia. President Zelenskyy seems to have surprised his French and German counterparts by suggesting that the existing peace arrangements (the Minsk accords) need to be amended. This may not go anywhere, but it challenges those who oppose his dispute settlement efforts to come up with something better. At the same time, he is also moving along with the decentralisation of power throughout Ukraine even in the regions not affected by the conflict, thus fulfilling one of the conditions of the Minsk agreements, but making it look like it is not a concession on his part, but a commitment made by his predecessor and now a broader policy decision.
William Taylor, the outgoing chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy and now famous Trump impeachment witness, has suggested that the conflict might be resolved by the creation of a suitable peacekeeping arrangement. He may well be right, especially if through Zelenskky’s efforts, a situation that is closer to peace than war finally emerges. This could also lead to a long-term freezing of the conflict. In the absence of foreseeable major political changes in Ukrainian public opinion, this may well be if not the best the only solution.
Although this is not directly the mandate of the Normandy Format meetings, more important than all is probably the fact that the new atmosphere created by Zelenskyy has allowed for the conclusion of a new agreement between Ukraine and Russia over the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine to European markets. For Zelenskyy, the new deal is beyond reproach as it was essentially negotiated with the direct participation of the EU and is based on European standards. The deal includes the resolution of all legal disputes between the Ukrainian and Russian gas companies. The transit deal will bring badly needed revenues to the Ukrainian economy. The Ukrainian Prime Minister has already noted that this will allow to keep gas prices in Ukraine at a lower level, a highly popular measure. Resolving the legal disputes also means that the Ukrainian side has received the amounts owed by Russian Gazprom, over 2.3 billion dollars. Ukraine was going to receive that money at some point, but the legal dispute could have delayed this significantly. The victory is in getting an immediate payment at a time when Ukraine will be facing large financial obligations.
For Russia, there is also a victory element in this. Russian gas will continue to flow freely to European markets and bring expected revenues. The long legal battle is over. The two gas companies will be working from a clean slate. This might lead to even closer cooperation in the future. The agreement also foresees that it is the Ukrainian company that will have to meet Ukrainian regulatory requirements for gas transit through Ukraine, not Gazprom itself.
The conclusion of a major gas transit deal and the settlement of legal disputes is not consistent with the existing war rhetoric. That is interesting to observe, but not the major issue. What matters more is that the gas transit deal was achieved through the active intermediation of the European Union. The new deal also challenges the idea that Russia cannot be a suitable long-term economic partner for Ukraine. Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, President Zelenskyy’s alleged political mentor, has recently made a statement along the same lines, suggesting that Ukraine would gain from reviving its economic relationship with Russia. It will take more than one deal, no matter how substantial, to change public perceptions. With the EU, Ukraine and Russia working together, the idea that gains credibility is that Ukraine does not have to give up on its European aspirations to advance its business interests with Russia. That would also improve the atmosphere.
2 SANCTIONS: TOO BAD, TOO LATE
In late December, President Trump approved sanctions on companies that might continue their involvement in the construction of the 90 percent completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline. That pipeline is designed by Moscow and its European partners to bypass Ukraine and increase gas supplies via the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, Russia's biggest energy customer. The restrictive measures target pipe-laying vessels and include asset freezes and the revocation of U.S. visas for the contractors.
Swiss-Dutch company Allseas, which was laying the pipeline, immediately suspended its activity to avoid US sanctions.
The pipeline will most likely be completed regardless of sanctions, but at a slower pace. The Russian side was expecting this type of development. In 2016 the Russian energy giant Gazprom bought a special pipe-laying vessel to be used as a last resort if European companies stopped working on Nord Stream 2. Some experts think the project could be delayed by several months since the Russian ship is slower and is currently based in the Russian Pacific port of Nakhodka.
The delay can probably be managed through the use of existing pipelines, including the one crossing Ukraine, now that an EU-brokered gas transit deal has been concluded between Ukraine and Russia, as noted above. Ever since the Obama administration, Washington has opposed the Nord Stream 2 project on the grounds it would strengthen Russia’s economic and political grip over Europe. That argument has never much impressed European clients of Gasprom. In fact, the US decision seems to have irked their German allies as much as their Russian adversaries. The US sanctions and their extra-territorial reach have been perceived as an attempt to dictate its energy policy to Europe, certainly not creating any renewed interest in more expensive US gas. The US, itself a top producer of liquid gas, would like to become a supplier and, eventually maybe not replace Russia completely, but become a serious competitor in the gas business.
The US sanctions have arrived late in the game. They are not likely to achieve their stated purpose, other than inflicting a real, but manageable, financial loss on the promoters of Nord Stream 2. They probably, however, will make Russia adopt countersanctions that will add another complication to the Russia-US commercial relationship.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was elected in June 2019 as the second President of Kazakhstan since the country gained independence in 1991. On December 20th, during the second meeting of the National Council of Public Trust, he announced a wide-ranging set of economic, social and political reforms.
The key element of the proposed economic reforms is the further reduction of the share of state enterprises in the economy. It is also planned to enhance the fight against the shadow economy (the polite words for corruption), to discipline the foreign debt process and to stabilise the national currency, essentially through better transparency tools. To foreign investors and to international trade partners, these measures can only be welcome. The proposed reduction of the foreign labour quota may sound a discordant note but should be seen a direct response to preoccupations recently expressed by Kazakh workers over discrimination patterns and the exploitation of foreign workers (and its ensuing broader impact on labour conditions).
The social measures are aimed at simplifying and making more effective state assistance directed to children. There are also specific measures to assist handicapped individuals. Their impact should be to modernise the overall system of social support.
A specific measure is also being proposed to deal with the proper use of agricultural land. In order to ensure an optimal use of arable lands, targeted remote space-based observation will be initiated and will lead to greater taxation rates for the owners of land who are not actually cultivating their land. To foreigners, this may sound rather harsh. In a context where post-USSR land distribution has not been optimal and where some farmers actually see their activity constrained by the lack of available land, the measure would appear justified.
The political reforms are essentially aimed at furthering the democratisation of Kazakh society. They are intended in particular to deal with issues such as the organization of peaceful marches, the reduction of registration barriers for the formation of a political party, quotas for the involvement of women and youth, the possibility of enhancing the role of opposition parties in Parliament, the decriminalization of slanderous articles. It is also foreseen to abolish the death penalty by having Kazakhstan ratify the relevant international convention.
|Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan's capital|
In Western eyes, Kazakhstan is still generally regarded as an authoritarian state although one in which the political emphasis is on modernisation. The proposed reforms are admittedly a top-down initiative, but one over which there has been public consultation. The fundamental purpose of the political reforms is in fact to do away with some of the authoritarian aspects of the current governance and to achieve greater popular empowerment. If one thinks for a moment about what is currently happening in the world, from Algiers to Hong Kong, it is difficult not to see the merit of the presidential proposals whose purpose is to achieve greater democracy without disruption. The reforms are undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Some may argue that more is needed. The President himself has acknowledged the incremental nature of his approach. Considering the depth of changes that are ultimately planned, an incremental approach would seem to have better chances of success.
The reforms are tackling one of the most difficult problems of democracy in some parts of the post-USSR world. In advancing democracy in a context where for many years a single party has been the rule, the greatest challenge is to facilitate the emergence of genuine opposition political parties. No matter how good your constitution and your national legislation may be, creating the entities that will make democracy work properly cannot be legislated. Having a legislation that facilitates the emergence of new political parties is, however, a pre-requisite. This is what currently proposals are doing.
The next challenge is then to create the other conditions where political parties can thrive. This is where economic reforms aimed a democratisation of the economy through, for instance, privatisation could become a significant factor in supporting the political democratisation if they lead to less oligarchic economy that could eventually lead to less oligarchic governance.
The question that remains to be addressed is that of the funding of political parties. This is where the challenges of younger democracies converge with the challenges of older ones. Political parties and political campaigns are funded differently the world over. Once the political field becomes more open and if no public funding exists or popular funding is not facilitated through fiscal measures, can parties align along political orientations or will not they become instruments of financial or special interest groups?
The President has done the first part of the job by offering an initial set of tangible, significant political improvements. Although it is only at an early stage, the course proposed by President Tokayev offers an opportunity that can become a defining moment for the future of a democratic Kazakhstan.
TURKEY'S REGIONAL AMBITIONS
Turkey is increasingly relying on military capabilities in its foreign policy, triggering regional and international tensions the latest being with Egypt, France and Russia over potential troop deployment in Libya.
Largely isolated in Europe and the Middle East, with Qatar as its only staunch ally, Ankara is flexing its muscles in Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and now in Libya. Ankara seems to be on a direct collision course with Moscow over Turkey’s plans to deploy troops in support of the Islamist-backed Tripoli government. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan assailed the presence of the Russian private military company Wagner in Libya on the side of Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
“Through the group named Wagner, they are literally working as Haftar’s mercenaries in Libya. You know who is paying them,” Erdogan was quoted December 20 by broadcaster NTV. He added: “It would not be right for us to remain silent against all of this.”
Russia earlier said it was “very concerned” by the possible Turkish troop deployment in Libya, the Interfax news agency reported.
Erdogan recently stated Turkey was ready to send troops to Libya to back the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, which is already a recipient of Turkish military support.
“We will be protecting the rights of Libya and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean,” Erdogan told A Haber television channel on December 15th. “We are more than ready to give whatever support necessary to Libya.”
The Turkish government said it is trying to make its voice heard in a region where conflicts pose threats on Turkey’s doorstep and where other players ignore Turkish interests but the approach is not winning Turkey any friends and is a far cry from the idea of having “zero problems with neighbors” that is the official position promoted on the website of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
To some extent, military power has always played a role in Turkey. Its fighter jets and ground troops have been confronting militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in northern Iraq since the 1990s but, in recent years, unilateral military action has become a much more regular feature of Turkey’s foreign policy, putting the country on a collision course with neighbors, regional powers and other NATO members.
Turkey's incursion into Syria in 2019 pitted Turkey against the US and basically forced American administration to betray their Kurdish allies. Since then however the situation had stabilized as Turkey slowed the pace of their advance and partially reined in their Muslim Arab allies who already began committing customary atrocities against the Kurdish population.
PERSON OF THE MONTH: POPE FRANCIS
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 17, 1936, to Italian immigrants. As a young man, Bergoglio underwent surgery to remove part of one of his lungs due to serious infection.
On March 13, 2013, at the age of 76, Jorge Bergoglio was named the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church—becoming the first citizen from the Americas, the first non-European and first Jesuit priest to be named pope, adopting the name Pope Francis after St. Francis of Assisi of Italy.
As a Pope Francis instituted some important reforms in the financial sector of the Vatican, liberalizing functions of the Curia and setting draconian laws on the issue of sexual abuse by the clergy and stripping suspected priests of any kind of immunity.
Reform, Francis said, is not simply seeking change for its own sake or to follow the latest fashion, “but to have conviction that development and growth are characteristic of earthly and human life, while, in the perspective of the believer, at the heart of it all is the stability of God.”
Referring to the changes he has made to the Roman Curia since taking office, the pope insisted that “reform never had the presumption of acting as if nothing existed before; on the contrary, it’s designed to give value to the good accomplished in the complex history of the Curia.”
On December 20th Pope Francis received in audience António Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations. The following quote from the ensuing press release illustrates the Vatican’s traditional role in international affairs as well as the new orientations that have been advanced by Pope Francis: “The Holy See expressed its consideration for the United Nations’ commitment to peace in the world. The parties then focused on the process of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, and on the crisis of multilateralism, made particularly evident by the difficulties of managing certain current problems such as migration and human trafficking, climate change and disarmament.”
PUTIN’S ANNUAL PRESS CONFERENCE
During his annual marathon press conference on December 19th, President Putin for the first time in 20 years approved the general idea of the need for constitutional reform and made a rather puzzling statement concerning presidential mandates suggesting that the existing limitation to “two consecutive mandates” may be changed by dropping the word “consecutive”. This has left observers to speculate widely, but may only be a decoy. Whatever he wants to do at the end of his current presidential mandate, Putin, as legalistic former KGB officer, will want the arrangement to be cast in the appropriate legislation, probably even enshrined in the constitution. This will require some preparation. If changes are also made to the status of Parliament, they have to be done before the 2021 parliamentary elections. One way or the other, it is not too early to start an informal discussion about the process.
Putin has often said he did not want to become "president-for-life". His inclination would likely be announce his intentions for the future at the last possible date. In this case, the Parliamentary election calendar may force him to reveal some of his plans earlier than he would like.
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.