No end to the Ukraine-Russia war in sight

No end to the Ukraine-Russia war in sight

The Ukraine-Russia war has already led to more than 5,000 deaths and caused the suffering of millions of innocent people including leaving more than 1 million people internally displaced. The continued torture, parading and brutal killing of Ukrainian soldiers by the Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country is a violation of international humanitarian law and should be considered a war crime.

The Minsk cease-fire agreement which was signed in September 2014 remains on paper alone. Russia has never adhered to it or the majority of conclusions coming from EU heads of state summits and meetings of foreign ministers. Out of the some 24 requests, Russia has only implemented around four and those only partially. Demands to de-escalate have been ignored; the border remains open with numerous recorded citing’s of military equipment and soldiers crossing back and forth with so called humanitarian aid. If Russia is serious about peace and the commitments it signed up for, why is the border still open? Why is heavy military machinery moving across the border and around the Donbas? Why is Russia not condemning the inhumane actions of the separatists?

Since the Minsk agreement was signed Ukraine’s territory has been further nibbled away. The response from the West has been two-fold: demanding de-escalation and trying to appease Russia with talk about sanction relief if Moscow adheres to the cease-fire agreement. The recent, much discussed paper, of High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, is one such example. In their efforts to find a solution that would help Vladimir Putin “save face,” they seem to have missed the point that he is not interested in saving face. President Putin fully believes in his own convictions, aims and the Russian population supporting him.

Over the last few weeks there has been a significant upsurge in atrocities, with the separatists shelling a bus in Volnovakha, a bus stop in Donetsk, and the launch this past weekend of an offensive against the strategic port city of Mariupol, which left some 30 people dead and more than 100 wounded. Such efforts are almost certainly aimed at getting Kyiv to agree to negotiations with the so-called leaders of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk.

Putin remains defiant. Speaking to students in St. Petersburg he claimed that Ukraine’s leadership was to blame for the upsurge in violence, accusing it of using civilians as “cannon fodder” and claiming that Ukraine’s army is a foreign NATO legion serving the goal of the geopolitical containment of Russia. Moscow, according to Putin, is a peace-maker. However, looking closely at his recent peace proposal, at the core seems to be Russia maintaining control over the Donbas “à la South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” Today, both of these Georgian provinces are de facto controlled by Russia.

Russia never had any intention of allowing Ukraine to win in the Donbas. The Ukrainian military’s celebration of taking Donetsk airport was short-lived. Military equipment sitting across the Russian border was quickly deployed. First, the ruins of Donetsk airport were taken before moving to Mariupol. Furthermore, given that the separatists currently control less than 50% of the Donbas, no doubt the goal is to knit it all together and push right to the borders of the region to consolidate their position. Moreover, the Mariupol offensive reflects Putin’s readiness to stand up to the West regardless of the current economic sanctions on Russian, continued dropping price of oil and rising economic costs for Moscow, with Standard & Poor’s rating agency downgraded Russia’s credit rating to junk.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power hit the nail on the head in her remarks at the UN Security Council Emergency Briefing on Ukraine on January 26th when she said, “This offensive is made in Moscow. It is waged by Russian-funded and Russian-supported separatists who use Russian missiles and Russian tanks, and whose operations receive direct Russian assistance”

Unfortunately under the current conditions, including the country embedded in an economic crisis, Ukraine probably needs to accept the unhappy fact that it cannot retake the part of the Donbas that is currently under occupation. It needs to concentrate on securing and holding on to the rest of Ukraine because the separatists will push for more. It seems that they have no intention of freezing anything.  While clearly there will be no foreign deployment of troops, something that US President Barak Obama underlined a few days ago, members of the EU and NATO should provide certain military assistance and arms to Ukraine to help it better defend itself. Moreover, with the death count escalating all necessary steps needs to be taken to minimize harm to civilians as recently stressed by Human Rights Watch. A campaign to win hearts and minds in the occupied territory is also urgently needed but it will be far from easy to implement because of the strong Russian propaganda machinery that is working 24/7.

EU foreign ministers will meet on Jan. 29. While over the last few days the intensity of fighting has slowed, this should not be used as a reason to avoid considering tougher sanctions. Deadly shootouts are ongoing. Despite the EU showing unprecedented unity on the issue, unfortunately cracks have appeared between member states. One example is the Polish agriculture minister accusing France of harming EU solidarity on Russia. Making such statements publically is wholly unconstructive and damages the united front the EU is so desperately trying to maintain. The second, and more worrying example, is the statement of the new Greek Government of Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. On Tuesday evening a statement was released declaring that Greece did not agree with the statement published on Tuesday morning by EU Foreign Ministers on Russia. The statement claimed all 28 leaders had agreed Russia bears “responsibility” for a rocket attack on Mariupol. It also calls on foreign ministers to “consider any appropriate action” – further sanctions on Russia. Hence, we may expect a very tense and difficult meeting of EU Foreign Ministers tomorrow.

Germany is key and Chancellor Angela Merkel pay need to play tough with Greece. During a phone call with Putin over the weekend Chancellor Angela Merkel urged him to avoid further escalation of the conflict, to work towards the implementation of the Minsk Agreement and to put pressure on the separatists. In response the Russian Duma is now mulling over drafting a statement condemning ‘the annexation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) by the Federative Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1989.

While peace talks should continue at the same time, the EU needs to tighten sanctions, which is exactly what they threatened if Russia failed to comply with the Minsk Agreement. However, according to a leaked draft statement prepared for the Foreign Minister’s meeting and seen by Reuters, it is possible that the EU will only extend asset freezes and travel bans imposed on dozens of Russians and Ukrainians after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea to the end of 2015. Such an outcome would represent a lowest common denominator approach. The final decision is likely to be taken at the 12 February Head of State Council meeting. However, it is also possible that Foreign Ministers could ask the European Commission to draw up a new list of areas where sanctions could be tightened or placed.

It is of the utmost importance that the EU has a more proactive approach, avoids pussy-footing around and delivers a robust, resolute and united response – in unity with the US – showing no fear over how Russia will respond. This may not be easy but it is imperative that it is done because if the end result is toothless it will be taken by Russia as a green light; that the EU is weak and that Putin can do what he wants.


(This article was first published in a shorter version in TZ)


Russia-Ukraine and the need for Unity of Purpose

2014 will be remembered as the year that the established European security system — including the inviolability of borders — was violated by the Russian Federation. This situation did not come about by chance. It was done purposely and with clear aims. Furthermore, in no way can we judge the ongoing confrontation between the West and Russia to be a temporary eruption because it is much more than that. It represents a fundamental change of climate that seems set to last for quite some time. The credibility of the West depends on its response which should be strong, resolute and most of all united because Russian President, Vladimir Putin will not waver in his convictions.

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and actions in Eastern Ukraine, have turned the security we have taken for granted for decades on its head. While what we are witnessing today between Russia and the West may not be another Cold War, it is nevertheless not only a breakdown of common interests but the collapse of a common perception of political reality. The response to events in Ukraine may well determine the future political and security order of Europe.

Putin began this journey with a clear objective. He views the post-Soviet space as a fragmented Russian world that Russia has no intention of forgetting. Putin has made it clear that Russia has red lines that it will not allow to be crossed and that Russia is ready to intensify its response if what it considers to be its national interests are challenged. He is seemingly ready to do whatever it takes to prevent the Euro-Atlantic structures from moving closer to Russia’s border. Not only does Russia link its security and stability inextricably to its ability to dominate its neighbours, including limiting their sovereignty, as Russia expert James Sherr recently stated, “it seems we have a situation now where Moscow has made a conscious elevation of ethnicity and language over the traditional prerogatives of statehood, the obligations of citizenship and the sanctity of borders.” This has serious implications for the majority of the countries in Russia’s neighborhood.

Putin’s annual Valdai speech at Sochi in October can be viewed as a new doctrine for Russian foreign policy. Today Russia is not acting on anyone’s permission in its conduct of world affairs. Russia views the old security system as having been exhausted and no longer binding. In the absence of a new one the Kremlin believes it can determine what is right and what is not. The goal is not only an accepted sphere of influence but also a revision of the European security system, the end to NATO expansionism and the reassertion of Russia as a great global power. Putin plans to do this by dominating Russia’s neighbourhood; by forging alliances with China, India and other BRIC countries along with other important developing countries such as Turkey; and by reaching out to areas where the Soviet Union had some influence back in the day but which was thereafter eroded – Africa, the Middle East, Latin America.

Of course with Russia’s current state of health the reestablishment of Russia as a great global player seems to be more of a pipe-dream than an obtainable objective. A crumbling economy, the Ruble in trouble, capital flight, brain drain, a deteriorating demographic situation, crumbling infrastructure and, tension/insurgency in the North Caucasus are hardly a recipe for a global power that is on the rise. The deals that Russia is signing with the likes of China and possibly with Turkey and other countries are economically more favorable to the partners than to Russia.

Nevertheless it would be foolish to underestimate Putin and while Russia may be in economic dire straits it is far from economic collapse. Today’s Russia remains an ambitious, resentful and proud power, and this is a dangerous combination. Hence the West should be vigilant, and have unity of purpose in facing this Russia together, not allowing any gaps or spaces to open up between them.

Unfortunately, the West weakened its own hand by laying its cards on the table at the beginning of the crisis. While there was never an appetite for any sort of military intervention there was no need to be so open about it.

Sanctions have become the key policy tool in the EU’s response to Russian actions in Ukraine. However agreeing sanctions has proved to be far from a quick and easy process. Furthermore, it seems that some EU member states are already weary and are questioning their effectiveness. First, because since sanctions were first imposed Russia has escalated its military engagement in the Donbass. And second, because of the impact on their own countries, particular following Russia’s counter measures.

Sanctions are never a one-way street and those imposing the sanctions need to be committed and courageous and remember what is at stake. The weak power is not the power with the most to lose but the party which is most afraid. Putin has an excellent poker face; the EU does not. Sanctions were never going to have an immediate impact on Putin’s policy. However, the sanctions, combined with the low oil price and steep decline of the Rouble, are hurting Russia and Moscow is having to take risky measures to try to prop up the economy. The latest being the announcement of the Russian central bank to raise its key interest rate to 17% from 10.5% in an effort to shore up the Rouble. The move represents the largest single increase since 1998, when Russian rates soared past 100% and the government defaulted on debt. Russia’s finance minister recently stated that the sanctions and the recent fall in oil prices would cost Russia some $140 billion this year. While Putin ratings remain high in a recent poll carried out by VTsIOM 51% of those questioned said they are confident in the future, down from 61% in the spring of this year. Nearly half said “life is difficult, but bearable.”

Yet Russia seems to believe that while being tough may be painful in the short term, in the long run it will pay because it sees Europe’s pain threshold as low. Signals coming from some EU member states that they do not like these sanctions strengthens Russia’s approach. For Russia, this has never been about how severe the sanctions are but rather how long they will last. Moscow will be hoping that in mid- 2015 (all sanctions were applied for one year only) they will be eased substantially even if Russia fails to meet the criteria laid down in the Minsk Agreement and numerous other documents. This is because of the need for unanimity among the 28 member states, which will be harder to reach after another year of weak or negative growth for many.

Looking at the numerous calls and statements by the EU for Russia to deescalate in Ukraine; the many Council Conclusions that demand Russia take certain steps otherwise face increased sanctions, it is clear that none of these demands have been met. The socio-economic situation in Crimea continues to deteriorate, while according to a recent report by Amnesty International, the Peninsula’s Tatar community face increasing violence and discrimination. The ceasefire agreement in eastern Ukraine did not stop the fighting with the death toll continuing to rise. Russia’s disinformation campaign continues unabated with brazen statements; the Russian-Ukraine border remains open with regular movement across it as reported on a daily basis by the OSCE Monitoring Mission – last Friday alone a convoy – labelled as a Humanitarian Mission – of some 140 vehicles crossed into Ukraine. Unfortunately the mission is allowed to supervise just two checkpoints, the Gukovo and Donetsk border crossings, despite the fact that the separatist-held frontier stretches hundreds of miles. Furthermore there is an ongoing military build-up in the Donbas region along with a consolidated military presence in Crimea. On 26 November, US General Philip Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said that Russia’s militarization of Crimea region could be used by Moscow to exert control across the whole Black Sea region.

As time passes, Russia is consolidating its position. The former Soviet space is already home to a number of so-called “frozen conflicts” where Russia is both part of the problem and part of the solution. They have one thing in common – namely they are used for the past two decades by Moscow to project power and create instability when necessary. It looks as if Russia may see a “frozen conflict” in the Donbass as its best-case scenario, meaning that efforts to establish a comprehensive and lasting settlement are likely to be limited to window dressing, smoke screens and lip- service.

The EU must not allow itself to get sucked into Russian smoke screens. Rather it should clearly recognise that Russia has not met the criteria it laid down; and that Moscow has displayed no serious intention of doing so, and should deliver on its pledge of new sanctions. Threatening but not delivering for months on end is counter productive, undermining the EU’s credibility. It needs to upgrade its aims and ambitions.

Much will depend on the approach of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has become the most important EU figure in dealing with Moscow, formulating the EU’s approach and having other members agree to it. The current situation also represents significant challenges for the new EU leadership and particularly the new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini who visits Ukraine this week. Her words and actions vis-à-vis Ukraine will be a harbinger for her approach not only towards Ukraine but for the EU’s EaP policy more broadly.

In 2014 the EU woke up to how far Russia is prepared to go to achieve its objectives. For some it was a very cold shower. 2015 is unlikely to be any easier. While the door for dialogue with Moscow must remain open at the same time the EU must maintain a resolute, robust and unified stance against Russia. It needs to demonstrate that it does not have low pain threshold; that it is in this for the long-haul; that it is as former Council President Herman van Rompuy said earlier this year, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine; that sanctions are here to stay and will be prolonged if necessary. This may not be easy but it is necessary because the consequences of not doing so may prove to over-turn what the EU’s founding fathers worked so hard to achieve – namely, peace, security and stability in Europe.


* This article first appeared (shorter version) in Today’s Zaman


Crimean Tatars — Persecuted and Harassed

Since Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March, the situation of the Crimean Tatars has significantly deteriorated. They are in an increasingly perilous position with Russia and the illegal Crimean authorities engaged in a campaign of repression, persecution and harassment. The latest example took place earlier this week when the building of the Crimea Tatars’ self-governing body, the Mejlis, was impounded by Russia’s Federal Bailiffs Service.

When Crimea was annexed by Russia from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century, the oppressed Tatars fled in a mass emigration. During 1944, Stalin deported the entire Tatar population, of which some 45 percent died of disease, hunger and thirst. Most of the Tatars presently living in Crimea repatriated after Ukraine became independent and have remained staunchly pro-Ukrainian during the last two decades. The majority of the Tatar community, which numbers some 300,000 (12 percent of the peninsula’s population), was horrified by Russia’s invasion, fearing a return to repressive days of the past.

While Moscow launched a charm offensive promising Tatars expanded rights, this was no more than lip service. Most Tatars boycotted the March 16 illegal referendum on the “status of Crimea,” fully supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. They also boycotted Russian local elections held on Sept. 14.

Over the last six months their freedoms and rights have been repeatedly attacked. According to a report by Amnesty International earlier this year, “Tatar activists have been detained and ill-treated by groups of armed men and, in one case, killed; the informal leader of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian MP, Mustafa Jemilev, was banned and prevented from entering his homeland for five years; scores of Tatars have been prosecuted for taking part in peaceful protests; the Mejlis, has been threatened with dissolution; Tatars are under pressure to give up their Ukrainian citizenship and take Russian passports or face becoming foreigners in their own land or be exported.”

They have also broadly prohibited the Tatars from celebrating their holidays and remembering the victims of political repressions; they are harassed by secret services and “self-defense forces” that search homes, offices and mosques.

Tatar university students are being forced to apply for Russian citizenship and passports with the threat of not receiving their diplomas if they don’t. Certain Islamic books, including school educational books, previously considered legal under the Ukrainian law, have been banned. Other senior leaders in the community, such as Refat Chubarov, have been expelled. Today, up to 8,000 Crimean Tatars have already fled to Ukraine.

Jemiliev, who Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed as his representative on Crimean Tatar affairs in August, has reportedly been told by the Russian Federal Migration Service that he is “persona non grata.” The self-appointed “Prime Minister of the Crimean Republic,” Sergei Aksyonov claims that Jemilev intentionally provokes trouble, stating, “There is no doubt that this man — Jemilev — was given the task by his masters, Western intelligence agencies, to destabilize the situation in Crimea.”

Such accusations are ludicrous. Crimean Tatars are a peaceful people who have never taken up arms or engaged in extremist activity. To underline this fact, on May 6, Poland awarded its first “Solidarity Prize” to Jemilev for his ongoing contributions to peace, democracy and human rights.

In a report published in July, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR) notes that none of its recommendations had been implemented in Crimea at present under Russian occupation. All issues remain current, in particular “harassment and discrimination against ethnic Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, representatives of religious minorities, minority groups in general and activists who opposed the March 16 ‘referendum’ in Crimea.”

While this article may have focused on Crimea’s Tartars, let us not forget that many proud ethnic Ukrainians have also chosen to remain in their homeland, despite the fact that they are constantly intimidated, enduring crude violations of basic human rights.

The attacks and prosecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate is a powerful example. Some priests have been forced to sign papers on cooperation with the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). This is like a return to the communist era, when the KGB exerted influence on clergymen. The arrest of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and three other activists, who were transferred to Russia on terrorism charges, is another example. This situation seems set to deteriorate and more must be done by the international community.

(This article was first published by Today’s Zaman)


Applying the rule of law in Georgia

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was recently indicted by the Prosecutor of Georgia for abuse of power, embezzlement of state funds and human rights violations. Saakashvili’s supporters in the West have been quick to defend the former president and his co-defendants and to claim that the charges are politically-motivated. The EPP called them “unjustified”(1); US Republican Senators called them “unnecessary”(2). Back home officials from the opposition UNM, such as David Bakradze, have argued the move “will bring more confrontation and polarization to Georgian society”.

As advised by the EEAS, Georgia certainly needs to “move beyond past conflicts and to focus on the country’s future,”(3) but in order to move forward and to consolidate democracy and rule of law in Georgia, these prosecutions may well need to run their course. I cannot comment on the strength of the Prosecutor’s case against Saakashvili; indeed, that prerogative belongs to the courts. It should be noted however that the cases being investigated are far from trivial. The most serious charges relate to a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in November 2007 and a parallel raid and closure of a private television station. Both these acts drew widespread international condemnation. Human Rights Watch said the government had “crossed the line when police chased and beat peaceful demonstrators, and threatened and intimidated journalists”(4). The UN Human Rights Committee only last month reiterated its call for Georgian authorities to ensure that those responsible for these abuses are held duly accountable before the law(5).

The Georgian Dream coalition was elected in 2012 on a pledge to do precisely that. The prosecutor’s office was deluged with complaints alleging corruption, illegal expropriation of property and even cases of torture by officials in the previous government. A National Democratic Institute survey carried out in May 2014 demonstrated that dealing with these cases continues to be a high priority for Georgian voters (59% said they approve of the prosecutions of former officials (6)). Given that the EU and US have insisted for years on the importance of the rule of law, telling the Georgians now that it is in their best interest to just let it go and “move on” naturally does not go down so well. Georgian officials point to recent examples of high-level prosecutions in Europe (e.g. Berlusconi and Sarkozy) and ask why what is considered a hallmark of democracy in Western Europe should be rebranded as “political persecution” once past the Eastern borders of Schengen.

They have a point. Georgian democracy is young, and far from flawless. But, as noted by the Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Georgian Parliament in letters to the EPP and US Senators, suggestions that the charges are politically motivated represent very serious allegations and must be substantiated by concrete evidence. However, to the best of my knowledge, Mr. Japaridze, has yet to receive a response.

In July 2013, Commissioner Füle said: “The EU fully respects the pledge of the new government to the Georgian people to address any legacies of the past, and we trust that this will be done in full conformity with Georgia’s international obligations and European values. Ensuring that justice is fair and free of any political interference is of paramount importance, but of course without allowing impunity either(7).” This is a fair statement. Only two months ago Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the EU and committed to a comprehensive realignment of its regulations and standards with those of the EU. If the Georgian authorities can deliver a process which is “transparent, proportionate, free of political motivation, and adhering strictly to due process,”(8) they will have passed a key democratic test. If they do not, then the consequences of this will duly follow. However, there can be no question of double standards. The rule of law applies to all – even former Presidents.



Turkey Enters Politically Uncharted Territory

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became Turkey’s first popularly elected head of state, taking 51.8 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election on Aug. 10. This win came as no surprise.

His popularity among Turkey’s conservative and devoutly Muslim population, in addition to the fact that he was able to use his position as prime minister to full advantage against his two opponents, guaranteed this outcome. Erdoğan’s presidency will be unlike any that Turkey has seen since the days of the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Erdoğan has always been hands-on, calling the shots, and he will want to keep calling the shots as president.

During his victory speech, he declared the “start of a new era” and has made no secret of his plans to use executive powers, as the “elected leader of the nation,” despite the fact that this is not in line with Turkey’s current Constitution, which defines the presidency as a non-partisan seat. For this to happen Erdoğan will require a compliant figure as Prime Minister who will not oppose him.

Ultimately, Erdoğan would still like to change Turkey’s current system of parliamentary governance to a de jure presidential one. However, this remains far from easy. It requires a two-thirds majority in the 550-seat Parliament and, presently, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) does not have enough seats. It would need to 330 seats to allow it to take the idea to a referendum. Hence, in order make good on his plan the AKP needs to increase its seats in the next parliamentary election, presently slated for 2015. While one should never underestimate Erdoğan, I think this will be difficult, as the AKP’s numbers have been gradually dropping with each election and even at its highest point of popularity the party never had this number of seats. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that many AKP members are opposed to changing the system.

So who will be prime minister? Abdullah Gül, having previously dismissed taking on a political role, has created sparks by announcing that a “return to the AKP is only natural.” Only the prime ministry would be suitable for an ex-president. That said, it does not mean that Erdoğan is in favor of this despite their longtime friendship and the fact that Gül has pretty much toed the Erdoğan line for all these years. Of the other names that are being bandied about, current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, a proven Erdoğan loyalist, is the favorite. The AKP will hold an extraordinary congress to choose a new chairman on Aug. 27, with Erdoğan stating that that person should also be prime minister — a day before Gül steps down. Yet if Gül is excluded in this way it is very likely to deepen cracks that are already in the party with a number of senior members very close to Gül.

Yet, even with an obedient prime minister — and control of Parliament and other branches of power — there is still the issue of the Constitutional Court, which can place obstacles and overturn decisions, as it did earlier this year, including that of the Twitter ban. Hence, we may expect to see sparks flying between the new president and the court

There is also the issue of what is going to happen to some 70 senior deputies — including Ali Babacan — who are not able to run in the next parliamentary elections due to an AKP rule which prevents deputies from running for four consecutive terms of office. It is unlikely they are simply going to disappear from the political scene. There is a possibility of the creation of a new party, possibly more so if Erdogan excludes Gül. Therefore we are likely to see a lot of twists and turns in the coming weeks and months.

While delivering a broadly conciliatory message during his victory speech, there was one exception: the so-called “parallel state,” aka Fethullah Gülen and associated organizations. The large scale purges of the police, judiciary and intelligence service which began in the aftermath of the Dec. 17, 2013 corruption scandal and have seriously undermined the rule of law, democracy and civil liberties, seem set to continue and broaden to include civilians, which will create further tensions. The irony of all this is that it was Gülen who helped Erdoğan come to power in 2002, supporting him until 2011, when they fell out over Erdoğan’s style of governance.

Erdoğan also declared “I will be the president of all 77 million people, not only those who voted for me.” However, he will have to change his narrative if he is to do this. Throughout his campaign he used polarizing and sometimes sectarian language. His failure to follow an inclusive approach towards governance and simply refer to the election box as justification for the policies he chooses has created dangerous divisions in the society. There is the need for an urgent “zero problems at home” policy. Everybody should fasten their seatbelts because Turkish politics is headed into some turbulence.


Azerbaijan and the Two EUs

Of the six countries in the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP), Azerbaijan is the only one that has not chosen to definitively align itself with either the EU or Russia. With the signing of Association Agreements with the EU on June 27, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia declared their strategic choice to further integrate with the EU and, despite Russian opposition and aggression, stated full membership as their goal. Meanwhile, Belarus and Armenia have taken another path, choosing Russia’s Eurasian Union (EaU).

Azerbaijan, as Georgia and Armenia, is located at a very sensitive and volatile geopolitical crossroads, sandwiched between Russia, and Iran. However, unlike its neighbours, Baku has chosen a policy of “choosing not to choose”, having a cautious approach, not wanting to openly confront and create waves with Russia. Nevertheless, when analyzing Azerbaijan’s relationships with the West and Russia, it seems that Baku’s feet are increasingly under the West’s table. In fact, this engagement is nothing new. It began 20 years ago when former President Heydar Aliyev signed the “Contract of the Century” with a consortium of Western energy companies. Over the last two decades ties with Euro-Atlantic institutions have gradually deepened, although Azerbaijan has no aspirations to join either the EU or NATO. However, Baku wants Western “know-how” to work on modernizing the country including vocational training, best practices in sectors such as energy, science and technology and education.

For the EU Azerbaijan is an important and reliable partner. While energy is the backbone of relations, with Azerbaijan the enabler of the Southern Gas Corridor, there is a desire from both sides to broaden areas of cooperation. This was underlined during a recent speech, on 12 June, at Azerbaijan’s Diplomatic Academy, by President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso. Today the two partners are moving ahead with a “Strategic Partnership for Modernization (SPM)” along with ongoing Association Agreement talks. THE SPM, which will act as a framework for cooperation, is almost ready for signature, with EU officials hoping this can be done before the end of the present European Commission in the autumn. However, with the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine and the ramifications this has had on the broader region it is not impossible that signature may take place at a later date, possibly at the 2015 EU EaP Riga Summit.

This relationship is also clearly not without difficulties. While on the one hand the EU would like to see Azerbaijan take more steps towards improving democracy and human rights, Baku on the other hand would like the EU to have a more credible and consistent approach towards recognizing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, as it does with other EaP countries that have territorial disputes — Georgia, Moldova and most recently Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Unfortunately, the EU’s ambiguous approach towards Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is a thorn in relations. In fact in light of Russia’s revanchist ideas, the EU should give explicit support to the territorial integrity of all EaP countries, not only those with territorial disputes.

Despite the fact that Azerbaijan has not expressed a desire to join the EU, and because Azerbaijan is not a member of the WTO  it is unable to have a deep trade agreement with the EU, with Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently fixated on “rebuilding” the Soviet Union, Baku has still come under increasing pressure from Moscow, to join the EaU. In recent weeks Moscow has significantly increased its diplomatic activity with a number of visits to Baku, including from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who arrived the day after Barroso left.

Azerbaijan wants good relations with Moscow, but it also wants to maintain full control over its foreign and economic policies. Joining the EaU would affect this independence. Not only would it have no added value for Azerbaijan economically – Azerbaijan’s economy, which is currently dominated by energy sector, is increasingly linked to the West – it would also impinge on Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.

There is also little appetite for closer ties with Russia from Azerbaijani society. There is a broad dislike and distrust of Russia’s leadership, something that has been exacerbated since the Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while deep resentment also continues to exist over the role that Russia has played in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia. Furthermore, and fortunately, because the majority of Azerbaijanis prefer to watch Turkish television rather than Russian, they have not been exposed to Russia’s extensive media propaganda campaign over Ukraine.

However, while Russia presently continues to be focused on Ukraine, as with the other EaP countries in the region, Moscow may also try to impact Baku’s foreign policy choices although its leverage on Azerbaijan is less than some of the other countries in the region. All the same, some 500,000 Azerbaijanis work in Russia; Azerbaijan is home to a Russian-speaking Lezgin ethnic minority that Moscow has tried in the past to create internal tension; the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, where Russia is key to any settlement and uses for its own self-interest and Georgia. Georgia is important to Azerbaijan because it is the transit state for Azerbaijan hydrocarbons to European markets. Instability in Georgia could be disastrous for Baku.

Ultimately, while many people believe that Moscow may try to make Baku a very tempting offer, it is highly unlikely if not totally impossible that Azerbaijan will accept it. Nevertheless with such a resurgent Russia with a President that seems to have “no limits”, the ongoing climate of uncertainty and trepidation over what may be around the corner, over what Russia may or may not do next, is of significant concern and will probably keep Baku on a very cautious track. Moreover, the fact that there has been a significant failure from the EU (and the West more generally), to adequately respond to Russia’s actions towards Ukraine, is hardly reassuring to other countries in the region either.

(This article was originally published – in a shorter form – in Today’s Zaman)

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Ukraine left to fend for itself

Having already had Crimea occupied and annexed by Russia, Ukraine’s government is struggling to hold the rest of the country together as Russia uses covert actions and propaganda to drive unrest, violence and fear.  Meanwhile the international community seems incapable of doing little more than making toothless statements of concern and placing weak sanctions which have so far been totally ineffective in deterring Russian President, Vladimir Putin from further aggression.

Earlier this week the Ukrainian authorities deployed an anti-terrorist operation following several days of unrest as pro-Russian armed groups carried out coordinated attacks taking-over police stations and government buildings in towns and cities across eastern Ukraine.  The operation is expected to last several days but success is far from guaranteed.  The threat of Moscow ordering its forces massed at the border into Ukraine in response for Kyiv’s using force against the separatists’ is a real risk as there is a real possibility it could be used by Moscow as a green light to invade to “protect” Russian speaking citizens.  However, Moscow’s approach is not proving to increase Russia’s popularity in the East. The vast majority of Ukraine’s southeastern citizens have remained indifferent or opposed to unification with Russia.   In a poll taken on 9 April in Donetsk 65.7% stated they wanted to live in a unified Ukraine while only 18.2% said they would like to join Russia.

While Russia’s leadership continues to claim it has nothing to do with the unrest and is “deeply concerned”, Moscow is not pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes.  The world is fully aware that Russia is pulling the strings; that Special Forces are on the ground (little green men as the Ukrainian’s call them), deliberately provoking tensions.   If this escalation continues there is a high risk that it will spread  further; that the forthcoming  25 May Ukrainian Presidential elections will be derailed or the instability may prevent polling in the East/South East and Russia will declare the election result as illegitimate and Ukraine will sink further into crisis.  It is crucially important that the presidential elections go ahead.  The new President would have democratic legitimacy, thereby burying Russian claims that Ukraine has no legitimate or constitutional leadership.

Unfortunately, there is a serious security vacuum between Kyiv and these regions.  Many of the police are corrupt and attached to the former Yanukovych regime.  The Ukrainian authorities cannot control or secure the country and Russia knows this.   Local populations have created self-defense units with citizens fighting to take back their occupied buildings and drive the separatists and “Russian tourists” out.  During the recent visit of interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, demands were made for greater power and resources to address the needs of local residents.  While decentralization does need to happen, this is a far cry from what Russia is talking about: Ukraine’s neutralization through its federalization – A group of mini states that are autonomous from Ukraine and closely linked to Moscow, giving Russia a significant stake in the country.

Meanwhile the international community continues to shy away from taking strong action.  Kyiv now understands that despite strong messages of condemnation, the West does not seem to want to get really tough with Russia and the level of disappointment is high.  Many Ukrainians believed they could count on the EU-US to support and help them.  While nobody expected military support, they did hope that tough economic sanctions would be placed.  So far this has not happened

The US has been quicker and stronger in its response than the EU.  Washington has indicated a readiness to move up to the next level but want to do this in harmony with the EU.  The EU is still resisting.  One month ago the EU placed travel sanctions and assets freezes on 21 Russians, promising to move to stage three economic sanctions if Russia did not deescalate.  Russia has not deescalated but rather escalated yet the EU has dithered over its next move.  An EU Foreign Ministers meeting on 14 April extended these travel bans further but delayed taking a decision on further sanctions until after a meeting in Geneva later this week between Russia, the US and Ukraine, which is aimed at reducing tensions, and raising a number of key issues including the Ukrainian economy and energy security.  After recent developments it is not clear what can come out of this meeting.    The EU has stated that if the four-party talks fail to “persuade” or force Russia to back off in Ukraine, EU leaders may meet next week for a snap summit to discuss the sanction issue further.  However, as Ukrainian Presidential candidate, Petro Poroshenko, states in a recent Wall Street Journal article – “talks for the sake of talks send a very wrong signal about the West’s commitment to sanctions”.  Hence something concrete needs to come from Geneva.

The level and pace of response from the EU is not only frustrating and disappointing for Ukrainian’s, it is also frustrating for those member states that feel the time has come to move to level three sanctions that could include trade restrictions, an arms and other measures targeted at Russia’s elite,.  Yet because EU decision-making is based on unanimity, that often equates to the lowest common denominator.

Some EU member states continue to resist placing tough economic sanctions fearing repercussions on their own economies at a time of economic hardship or fear that Moscow – as has been rumored – may try to nationalize EU business in Russia. In Ukraine, reality has hit home and there is now broad realization that they are on their own.

Beyond what the EU has talked about (there are other steps that could also be taken that would impact Russia.  For example pressure through the banking sector.  Today no country can separate its banking system from what the US now controls.  Alternately, Saudi Arabia could increase it oil production so price would drop.  Gas prices are inextricably linked to oil prices.  Given the seriousness of the situation there is no reason why Russia should not have to face the sort of sanctions that were placed on Iran.   Furthermore, in light of increased tensions on the ground and the forthcoming presidential elections, there is a need for larger number of international  monitors/peacekeepers on the ground  – UN, EU –in addition to those recently deployed by the OSCE, and as requested by Ukraine’s interim President, Olexandr Turchynov.

I am tired of hearing it is not the fault of the West.  Yes it is not the fault of the West that Putin is at the helm in Russia.  Nor is it the West’s fault he seems to have a gruesome grand strategy for Ukraine and Russia’s near abroad more generally.  However, it is the fault of the West that their response to the most serious challenge to the world order and security of Europe since the end of the Cold War has been so wishy-washy and inadequate.

(This article in a shorter form was originally published in Today’s Zaman)

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Turkey: The blue bird cannot be silenced

It is a well-established fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has a deep-seated phobia of social media. He detests all of it: Facebook, YouTube and most particularly Twitter. Still his bird-brained decision to ban those little blue birds really exposed how desperate he is these days. You would have hoped that one of his “super smart” advisers could have told him, “Dear Mr. Prime Minister, such a decision is a waste of time because people will easily get around it and you will only end up further humiliating yourself.” Clearly, they did not.

What happened next is now well known. News of the ban spread like wildfire with an explosion of tweets. The hashtags #TwitterisblockedinTurkey and #Turkey blockedTwitter became the top trending topics globally last Friday. A further explosion of Tweets explained that the ban could technically be bypassed. The mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, became the first member of Erdoğan’s own Justice and Development Party (AKP) to violate the ban. “I am able to tweet because my DNS settings allow it,” he wrote. Enraged that society was not as bird-brained as him or his advisers, a further step was taken to shut down the blue birds with Turkey’s Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) introducing IP-based bans, making it almost impossible to have access to Twitter simply by adjusting the DNS values. But Turks have gotten around that, too. In fact, there have been more tweets from Turkey since the government blocked Twitter than ever before. Turks will not succumb to authoritarian rule.

Clearly, his desperate attempt to try to stop more of his dirty laundry from being aired on Twitter has gone badly wrong. Erdoğan’s international reputation was already in tatters and is now well and truly at rock bottom. With this move, Erdoğan has shot himself not only in the foot, but his entire leg. As the vice president of the European Commission tweeted, the ban is “groundless, pointless and cowardly.” Does Erdoğan care? Apparently not. Does he not realize the damage that he has inflicted not only on himself, but also on his party? Does he not understand that he is isolating Turkey, that Ankara is being bypassed on key regional issues?

Worse were the excuses that followed. From Erdoğan one can now expect pointless hubris that only his most loyal or most brainwashed supporters believe, if they even know what Twitter is in the first place. What pains me is seeing people who know much better — including some government ministers — trying to defend the move when in reality this decision is not defendable. For example, when Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, who is a smart man, acknowledged during a BBC interview that banning Twitter “does not reflect well” on his government, he went on to defend Erdoğan, laying the blame on Twitter and its failure to follow through on a number of requests from the Turkish telecommunications watchdog demanding it remove the content of some tweets. With such a statement, he has not only damaged his image within Turkey but also internationally, which is a big shame because he has always been viewed extremely positively. Why he felt the need to comment, I do not know. I can only presume — and hope — there is some reason we are not aware of.

Now on to President Abdullah Gül, who has condemned the Twitter ban. While he should be praised for his strong statement rather than toeing Erdoğan’s line, at the same time Gül, too, had his role in the decision because he signed the new Internet law that paved the way for such a decision. Still, it is good that Gül has finally set himself so publicly at odds with Erdoğan. I would like to see much more of this.

I really wonder when the prime minister is going to wake up to the fact that Turks will not succumb to his increasingly authoritarian style of rule. He does represent the will of the nation, and he needs to stop thinking that just because the AKP had a big win in 2012, he can do what he wants. Majoritarianism has no connection with the term democracy. Erdoğan has failed to get his head around this. I hope that by this time next week – post the 30 April local elections – he will have understood what his policy has cost him.

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Responding to the Russians

Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating the Crimea crisis every day because he believes in three things. First that Ukraine is too weak to defend her own territory. Secondly, that the West is too feeble, divided and fearful to go beyond harsh rhetoric and half-hearted sanctions. And thirdly that he has impunity because of these reasons. Unless the West is able to shatter this belief, and show it is ready to respond to Russia in a robust an steadfast manner, clearly demonstrating that there is a price to pay for abusing the rules of international order we are going to find ourselves in increasingly hot water.

Putin acted towards Crimea just as Nazi Germany did towards Czechoslovakia in 1938 and, as with Hitler, there is a real possibility Putin may not stop with Crimea. The killing of the first Ukrainian soldier on Tuesday, and the storming of a Ukrainian military base on Wednesday shows that Russia has no qualms about using violence and further escalating the crisis. Over the last two days Russia has embarked on a Russification of Crimea. The Ukrainian Armed Forces, one of the last symbols of Ukraine, is now are now preparing to leave the peninsula following a day of Russian belligerence and antagonism. With their departure Russia’s takeover will be complete. Unfortunately, the West is still struggling to come to terms what has happened and adequately respond. The tough language we have heard in the UN Security Council needs to be followed with decisive and effective actions.

Unfortunately, prospects for bringing about a diplomatic solution seem to have evaporated. As UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, headed off to Moscow yesterday, there was little hope of a success. Rather Russia has upped the stakes, threatening serious consequences – including related to talks with Iran and Syria – if the West moves to place tough economic sanctions on Russia. While such threats should not be tolerated it is undeniable that Russia has the ability to complicate negotiations with both states due to its seat on the UN Security Council. While Russia has lost the moral, political, and legal right to remain as a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), it would seem there is no appetite to try and launch a process to have Russia removed or its membership suspended, despite the fact that there are legal mechanisms (albeit quite complicated) available to do this.

EU leaders meeting today and Friday need to follow through on their threats and move to ‘stage three’ economic and trade sanctions, including sanctioning Russians who really matter, and not spend any more time thinking about the possible negative blow back from these actions. The lack of consensus between some states (including the UK and Germany, which both have significant economic ties to Russia) on the eve of the Summit, over how far economic sanctions should go, demonstrates the EU has a real “values” -v- “Interests” dilemma.

The West should implement a broad economic and political isolation of the Kremlin. These sanctions should be just as severe as the ones that were imposed on Iran. At the same time NATO needs to up its game, as Estonian President Toomas Ilves recently wrote, “send NATO military forces (ground forces, not just AWACS planes) to NATO allied territory bordering Ukraine to conduct military exercises a well as strengthening the air defense assets deployed to the Baltic States’. Russia’s actions represent the biggest threat to European Security since the Cold War, and need to be seriously countered.

Meanwhile, with the EU due to sign the political part of Ukraine’s Association Agreement this Friday, its needs to go much further. The EU should offer Ukraine a clear membership perspective and rapidly introduce visa-free travel. Technically, there is not a big difference in the level of preparedness between Moldova (which just received visa liberalization) and Ukraine.   International monitors and peacekeepers are urgently needed. This could either be done by the UN, while the EU should also discuss sending a monitoring mission to Ukraine.

The EU, together with the US and the UK, Ukraine’s security guarantors under the Budapest Memorandum, as well as NATO should also invite Ukrainian troops to take part in an immediate military exercise. The Russian invasion shows one thing clearly: Ukraine, even if it adopts a neutral status, will never be safe until it enters under the aegis of NATO, one way or another. Hence the issue of a MAP for Ukraine needs to be put back on the table for discussion. Russia has never invaded a NATO member state.

Ukraine must also put its own house in order. First, it may hope for peace, but at the same time, be prepared for a long and difficult war. There should be full national mobilization and deployment in east and south Ukraine. If Russia is killing Ukrainian soldiers, they should defend themselves. Ukrainian Special Forces should sweep in and dismantle the separatist groups mushrooming, with Russian support, on the mainland.

At the same time, it is crucially important to create, as demanded by the EU, an inclusive political process and a national unity government. The new government could reconfirm the key elements of the 21 February deal, deflecting Russian criticism on its non-application. While former president Viktor Yanukovych cannot return as President, he should have the right to a fair trial for murder and corruption and could return from Russia under national or international security guarantees. While this could take place in Ukraine, it would have greater international legitimacy if it were to be held at the International Court in The Hague. In this respect Ukraine needs to urgently sign the Rome Statue.

Furthermore, reforms must not be postponed for the post-crisis/war period. They must be implemented now. Without administrative, budget, and healthcare reforms, as well as urgent anti-corruption measures, the government risks losing support inside the country.  Constitutional reform remains the key issue for Ukraine and must be quick and credible. Unfortunately, the Constitutional Reform Commission created in the Rada some days ago has questionable credentials. Given that none of key experts on constitutional law or civil society representative were invited there is a growing suspicion that the review process will be marred by old-style horse-trading. Public and Western pressure must be placed on Ukraine’s leadership to make the review of the constitution not only quick but legitimate, credible, and transparent. A new constitution could be adopted quite quickly and then new parliamentary and possibly presidential elections which might fully restart the political system in Ukraine.

With the strengthening of Ukraine militarily, ties with NATO boosted a show of real muscle from the West and new political legitimacy in Kyiv, Russia may find itself in an increasingly tight corner which could push it to the negotiating table.

This article was jointly authored by Amanda Paul and Vasyl Filipchuk, Executive Director of the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kyiv (where it was first published)

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Turkey’s Crimea Quandary

Ever since Russia occupied Crimea, Turkey’s leadership has been walking a fine line. Ankara is concerned about developments in Crimea, which lies 173 miles from the Turkish coast. It is home to an estimated 260,000 Tartars (some 15 percent of Crimea’s population), who are the ethnic and linguistic kin of Anatolian Turks. Crimean Tatars strongly oppose the actions of Russia in Crimea — not surprisingly, given that they were subjected to ethnic cleansing during Soviet times. The prospect of coming under Moscow’s rule again appalls them. Two have died, with several more being injured in anti-Russian rallies. While the Russians have sent “envoys” to try and win hearts and minds, the Tatars are not buying this. Tatar men have created neighborhood patrols, keeping an eye on overnight Russian military infiltration of their villages. Community leaders have also called for a boycott of the illegal (as recently stated by the OSCE) March 16 referendum on rejoining Russia. Others have fled Crimea to Western Ukraine.

However, despite Turkey wanting to protect and support its Tatar kin, Turkey does not want to damage its relationship with Moscow. Hence Ankara is trying to sit on the fence. Turkey is conscious of the seriousness of the situation in Ukraine. It is not just about the future of Crimea’s Tatar community, but the impact the end game of the crisis may have on Turkey’s broader regional policies. The recent images of Russian naval vessels sailing up the Bosporus towards the Black Sea were highly symbolic of the tricky situation that Turkey — a long-time NATO member — finds itself in. The more dirty and embedded this fight becomes, the more difficult it will be for Turkey to maintain this position.

Turkey is also home to a large Crimean Tatar diaspora of several million. Yet despite this and the fact that demonstrations are taking place in Turkey, protesting the Russian occupation of and aggression in Crimea, the Turkish government has not and will not condemn Moscow. Historically Turkey has always feared Russia and backs away from any sort of confrontation. Indeed, over the centuries, Turkey and Russia have fought almost 20 wars and on almost every occasion the victor was Russia. Turkey’s membership of NATO came in the aftermath of the former Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, demanding that Turkey give the USSR a base on the Bosporus along with some Turkish territory. After joining NATO, Turkey believed it was safe from Russian aggression.

Today, Ankara enjoys good relations with Russia. It is said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have particularly cozy ties, despite some differences — for example, on Syria. With Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies, his style of governance increasingly resembles that of Putin. And of course they share a complex about the West, which both men frequently accuse of conspiring against them and of failing to recognize their respective nations as the global powers they consider themselves to be.

However, beyond the strange Putin-Erdoğan relationship, it is ultimately Turkey’s economic ties with Russia that Ankara is protecting. The two enjoy excellent trade relations with annual bilateral trade estimated to be some $40 billion. Turkey is dependent on Russia for around half of its natural gas — almost 60 percent of its natural gas and some 12 percent of its oil. Turkish industry relies heavily on this gas. Russia is also involved in a number of other energy projects in Turkey, while construction work by Turkish companies in Russia continues to rapidly rise. During a meeting at the Sochi Olympics, Putin stated that Turkey is the “primary partner” of Russia. Erdoğan does not want to pick a fight with Putin that may jeopardize this. Turkey took the same policy during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Ankara sat on the fence and was careful not to criticize Russia. Turkey also followed to the last comma the 1963 Monteux Convention which limits the access of non-littoral powers into the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits, including the Bosporus. Turkey has prevented the US, its NATO ally, from sending large naval ships into the Black Sea.

The situation may also fuel Turkey’s tempestuous domestic situation, with the government already fighting serious corruption charges, accused of stealing billions and of overturning democracy and the rule of law. Hence Turkey’s muted reaction to the Crimean crisis may further cost Erdoğan at the March 30 local elections.

(This Article first appeared in Today’ Zaman on 12 March)

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