Casus Ucrainae

This is a moment of truth for Eastern Europe.

Society in general and elites are divided over Crimea and over Russia’s new, expansive course.

It is a little conflict within a conflict: colleagues quarrel in the office; friends and family members sulk; some Russian intellectuals sign letters of support for Putin, others strongly disapprove; Belarusians clash with Ukrainian family members, or with relatives in Russia.

What was the whole reason again? That “Russians” must be saved.

And how come it’s legitimate? Because 97 percent of Crimeans asked for it.

The 3 percent of Crimeans who said No in the “referendum” have been oppressing the 97 percent said to have said Yes? As well as the “Martians” – the nickname of the balaclava-wearing, gun-toting, friends of Russia who fell from the sky in February.

And, of course, what about Kosovo?

Putin says the genocidal, years-long, ethnic conflict in former Yugoslavia is the same as Crimea. It’s not. But even if it was, he never recognised Kosovo, so how can he recognise the Kosovisation of Crimea? Propaganda should also make sense.

Same as the argumentation for the EU’s fault in provoking Russia. The West has excluded Russia from European integration, threatened its sovereign democracy, forced it to launch the Eurasian Union, blah, blah…

Obama has called Russia a “regional superpower.” Putin speaks of a “Russian Crimea.” Both are oxymorons. Both are half-true.

Whatever you want to call Russia, it doesn’t have the money for a war or for a normal life for its people.

Maybe that’s one reason for the blitzkrieg: if the West imposes real sanctions, Putin can blame Obama for the dire state of his economy.

Meanwhile, Crimea is a disaster, legally, economically, socially, geopolitically, to say nothing in terms of security.

Crimean people are waiting to see which planet they live on when the dust settles.

A planet where people are getting Russian passports registered in Russia’s Far East. Where there are no salaries. No pensions (Kiev stopped paying, Moscow has not begun). No visitors (tourists used to come from Ukraine). No news (Russia is also protecting Crimeans from independent media). And, tomorrow (?), no electricity or running water (Ukraine controls all the infrastructure).

Mainland Ukrainians are shocked.

But they have another problem: There is no one to trust.

Their political high-flyers are more popular in the West than at home. They have done – quite literally – nothing about Crimea. What are the chances the post-May president-parliament-government-circus will be truly reformed and free from corruption?

Over in Minsk, as Putin’s geopolitical earthquake shakes the cutlery on the table, Lukashenko sits morbidly silent.

Just you dare say “EU” and Martians will also come to save Bela/Russians from Van Rompuy, who wants to make everyone gay, including Lenin.

Crimea is an expensive mess. But an important one.

Ordinary Russians who already felt the US sanctions (some people suddenly couldn’t use their credit and debit cards in ATMs), or who encountered hostile questions while on vacation in Europe, are surprised: What do I have to do with it?! I didn’t annex anything. Get me a drink.

Sorry. But it’s time to realise that you are responsible for your President.

Whatever the psychology of autocracy – fear, pride, sado, maso – Belarusian people are also responsible for their fate and what is done in their name.

If the Ukrainian revolution has taught anything it has taught us this.

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Naked Putin

Belarusians are envious of Ukrainians, who have already had four bad presidents. We’ve had just one and it’s the same one for almost 20 years now.

What’s happening now in Ukraine should not be underestimated.

Some 20 years ago, Ukraine and Belarus automatically became independent countries, without any kind of struggle, as the Soviet Union ceased to exist in legal terms.

But the Ukrainian nation is only just now coming of age, having its say, and dying for it.

It is not an easy process, not at the very start, and certainly not in what comes next.

We will definitely see a fight between the various camps on the winning side, radicals versus moderates, and some form of revenge against the losers. While the oligarchs circle, like crows, before deciding where to land in the new order.

There will be tensions between Western Ukraine (source of national identity, pride, history) and Eastern Ukraine (the industrial engine of the economy, joined at the hip to Russia). Russia will try to abuse it.

The success of the 2014 revolution is just as uncertain as that of the 2004 edition.

Can the former Soviet system – corrupt MPs, corrupt judges, economic dependence on Russia – finally be changed? Will a feasible and effective government emerge?

Ukraine is being carefully watched. In Minsk. In Moscow. Their rulers are watching for ways to avert a Ukrainian scenario at home. Their people are looking at a new horizon of possibility.

The EuroMaidan in Ukraine was never anti-Russian. The windows of Russian banks in Kyiv city centre have not been smashed. The billboards advertising Russian brands have not been defaced.

The main source of suspense is what will the Kremlin do? But until today, 26 February 2014, its reaction has been… strangely moderate.

Analysts talk about Russian intervention to split Ukraine in half, or other fractions, for example by snatching Crimea.

But breakup is not in Moscow’s interests: Logic says it needs good relations with the new leaders in Kiev. It certainly does not need the huge financial burden that would be caused by the division of its most important neighbour, because, financially speaking, Moscow ain’t doing that well.

But who says Putin is a man of logic?

Whatever else he may be, he is first and foremost a man of power and the show of power.

What the Ukrainians have just shown is that the king is stark naked.

They have shown, on the horizon, a house: Putin’s residence. It is just the same as the house of Yanukovych: a Fortress of Power, turned into Museum of Corruption.

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Action!

When a compromise is impossible, people take up arms.

Ukraine has descended into civil war. A street warfare that began and escalated because of the inability of the elites to find common ground.

And a lot of other reasons that came together. A poor economic record, desperate oligarchs opting for the Russian offer of cheap loans and bad peace instead of a good war. Not to forget the East-West division.

War is never fair, it is just mayhem: Who is shooting, who is being killed? Who are the bad guys, who are the good guys, can you trust any news source? Are there any clear aims either side is pursuing?

Why people have to die? To protect the corrupt government? Realise ambitions of the opposition leaders? Or just fight back in the existential clash of opposing views?

The centre of Kyiv is ablaze, the city can be closed for cars, trains arrive with delays. People in the regions arm and ally themselves with protesters or government. Some hope, some are afraid that Russia will commit troops to the Eastern, pro-Yanukovich part – to divide and rule.

Above all, the incumbent Ukrainian president is responsible for the violence. But also the opposition that couldn’t retain control.

Several dozen shot in a European capital within 24 hours. What has Europe, the Nobel Prize winner, done so far? Is there anyone to broker immediate ceasefire, to sit all sides down at the negotiating table and help mediate a deal? Are there any international observation missions deployed? Or sanctions introduced against those who shoulder arms?

The unsustainable political system of Yanukovich and his hardliners aim at a zero-sum, time-winning game. But at what cost?

What is now happening and will follow in Kyiv is of immense significance for the region. It demonstrates the resources of all parties: what the EU is able to offer in a joint effort, what Kyiv/Minsk/dissident Moscow is able to defend, and what Kremlin is ready to do to keep post-Soviet countries in its orbit.

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Ukraine against Ukraine

There have been weeks of informational chaos around Ukraine. Who? When? Why?

What started in November 2013 as a peaceful pro-European demonstration escalated in January 2013 into real street warfare, clashes between protesters armed with fireworks, cobblestones and Molotov cocktails, and riot police units, using water cannons (at 10 degrees below zero), tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.

Reports show police guys on fire, wounded journalists, dead civilians. Blood on the snow.

The protests are no longer localised, government buildings have been stormed in the regions: It is Ukrainians against Ukrainians.

Revolutions occur when democratic instruments fail to be effective, but they are not necessarily effective themselves. Thus the Orange revolution in winter 2004/05 brought in a new political leader, but failed to reform the corrupt system of power.

Yanukovych is now playing for time and trying to keep a balance within his kleptocratic clique. He has the resources: His party has the majority in the parliament. He controls the executive branch. Law enforcement agencies and courts under his rule are ready to protect the authorities from the people.

Irrespective of the opposition demands to steps down, he won’t.

Firstly, he is an elected leader and secondly, he doesn’t have much of a choice between being a President and a jailed former president, the kind of political revenge he has practiced himself.

As he won’t resign, he can try to form a new government and employ opposition figures to appease the streets and the regions. But his offer to the opposition is also an attempt to put at odds the leaders, who are not too united anyway.

The opponents of Yanukovych have rejected his offer already. They have to play for time too: Polls show 5 to 10 per cent of their supporters among those in the streets, which is not really a landslide number. Their main demand is the release of detained protesters, and Yanukovych has promised to take it to the parliament. It has already repealed a series of restrictive lawshe signed on 17 January.

And what about people at large?

Ukrainians blame opposition groups for loss of control over the protests, for the inability to act coherently and consistently. Authorities are held responsible for the enormity of corruption, low living standards, the current economic problems in the country and for the escalation in violence, including deadly violence, during the protests.

Ukrainians took to the streets in despair, they feel helpless.

Unlike in 2004/05 there are no unified messages, no leaders, just the enormous frustration with the political elite.

It remains to be seen how far the government and opposition groups can go to resolve the conflict and deliver on their promises: Their talks have yielded no results yet.

As intervention from Moscow (which out-bargained an EU-Ukraine integration agreement with a $15 billion bailout package) might only further fuel the protests, the EU doesn’t really have anything to offer to Kyiv in the short-term perspective. The carriers of hope are formal and informal political leaders (..if they are leaders!) who should act wisely and in the best interest of the Ukrainian people.

So that the deaths of the protesters have not been vain.

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EaSTERN Europe

Eastern Europe has been a big news-maker recently. As a Belarusian I say: been there, seen that.

Is the political leadership trying to sell their loyalty to Moscow amid massive protests in Kyiv? Yes, crowds are a perfect scarecrow, a bargaining chip to press for solid support from Russia. It’s not about the long-term future of Ukraine, but about the short-term well-being of the political elite. Yanukovich is even clever enough not to try to disperse the demonstrations any more. Why? One day they will get tired, cold and leave by themselves. They don’t hurt anyone.

Khodorkovsky gets released? Sure, why not. Together with all those whining girls and activists. Putin feels like the king of the world, he can act generously, forgiving. But he is not. He just knows that none of them has ever posed any kind of threat to his regime. It was symbolically important to lock them up back then, now it is important to set them free. It’s Christmas after all, no? And Putin is a leader with a big heart.

Belarus has an exceptional experience with protests and political prisoners; Lukashenka has been perfecting the craft of making advances towards the EU and Russia one after the other, playing them against each other for his own benefit.

With political power being a lot more consolidated and for some 20 years already, Belarus is an bad example, a political deadlock, a case of “What happens in your neighbouring country if you don’t care enough.”

Lukashenka would also be happy to put all dissidents on planes and let them disappear. Belarusians know already that it’s impossible to judge a political prisoner, who sought pardon. They are doing it in Russia now? They will come to understand it too.

So the news is: there’s no news from Eastern Europe. No new tendencies, no positive signs. Yes, civil society is invigorated In Ukraine, yes, a bunch of people are being released in Russia. But apart from that, the EU hides behind declarations and still has no idea how to deal with this part of Europe.

Dear Europe, don’t be hoodwinked. Partners who can’t be trusted should be treated accordingly. With respect, caution and a lot of strategic thinking. Please.

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Moscow Never Sleeps

100 Ray-Ban points goes to Moscow for the illustration that realpolitik is more effective where it comes to corrupt governments and political clans.

On the eve of EaP summit in Vilnius it is obvious that Eastern Partnership programme has failed in its today’s format. The “EU soft power” currently goes without the last word.

Backsliding of Kiev is basically a logical and pragmatic move for the post-soviet space where states are competing for the same shrinking resources of Moscow and Brussels.

Their political elites (or rather: clans) are used to balance between the EU and Russia to maximise their short-term gains. Approaching either side is a means to pressure the other one.

The EU also has a tool box with good old double standards and knows to justify them. And its failures in Eastern Europe illustrate how little is the actual interest in the region.

Enough said about the importance of cooperation and values. Especially in the light of its internal crisis, it is logical and pragmatic for the EU to have effective strategies and real success stories. Otherwise: why bother at all?

It is not a zero sum game. And if the Russians are able to penalise their special partners with carrots, the EU should be ready to reward its with sticks.

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Nobel Prize for Audio-Literature

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich has been shortlisted this year for the Nobel prize for literature.

She has long deserved it. Having started as a journalist, she fleshed out and elaborated her own documentary style to give a voice to those who are rarely in the spotlight in the post-Soviet world. Be it victims or soldiers, their families, their mothers – people who never make it onto the front pages of newspapers.

Her books are audio guides to personal stories through the dark tunnels of Soviet history.

Incredibly moving, very subjective, full of pain, love, anger, helplessness, courage, human dignity, despair and hope. Full of contradictions, but at the same time explicit and definite. So very human.

Alexievich talked to people affected by the Chernobyl disaster, whose lives have been metamorphosed by something invisible. She talked to those who were able to return from Afghanistan, families of those who didn’t. She looked for women, who, during the time of the Soviet Union, fought in the Second World War, but never mentioned it as the story of the war is a male domain.

Her latest book “Second-Hand Time” is an exploration of the vast heritage of the USSR – these four letters and 70 years, what did they do to so many nations? Why has globalisation brought back nostalgia for homo sovieticus?

Alexievich gives an insight, a glimpse, into subjects which are impossible to grasp in their entirety.

There has been a discussion in Belarus if she is a Belarusian writer, as all her books are in Russian. She was born in Ukraine and seems not to think too highly of literary merits of the Belarusian language.

But the stories she retells with such breathtaking brilliance belong to the whole world. With or without the Nobel prize.

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Hostage of Love

News from Belarus: activist detained, activist arrested, journalist detained…

And now for something completely different: head of Russian potash giant Uralkali, Vladislav Baumgertner, arrested in Belarus.

Baumgertner is also chairman of the supervisory board of Belarusian Potash Company, a joint trader of Uralkali, and of Belarusian potash producer Belaruskali.

At the end of July 2013 Uralkali stopped exports through the joint cartel (BPC), citing Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s December 2012 decision to allow Belaruskali to export potash through other traders.

Minsk was outraged. Belarusian investigators have counted the losses of Belaruskali so far: $100 million.

The dissolution of the BPC cartel could cause the global potash price to fall. Which could bring Belarus’ losses up to $1 billion a year.

And probably even more, as Russians were responsible for sales, Belarusian side doesn’t have traders.

Baumgertner would not have travelled to Minsk unless the bait was sweet. They say the Prime Minister of Belarus arranged a meeting with him through his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.

After a brief discussion (or, as Russian press reports, after an angry monologue of the Belarusian head of government), Baumgertner tried to return to Moscow. And failed.

TV footage, aired on Belarusian state channels the same evening, showed him handcuffed. He is being kept in a KGB detention centre, accused of abuse of office. If found guilty, the head of Uralkali could spend up to 10 years in prison.

The Russian elite is quite shocked but not so active just yet.

Uralkali has refuted all the allegations. The Russian foreign ministry has demanded the release of Baumgertner and Russia’s eccentric ambassador in Minsk has made some angry comments and insists on visiting him.

The press in Russia has ridiculed this humble reaction to what it calls Belarus’ “outrageous provocation.”

Minsk’s action is understandable: In a time of external deficit growth, any loss is unbearable.

Potash fertilisers are the only considerable source of foreign currency in Belarus that is almost free from Russian control. Oil, which is processed in Belarus and sold in the West, originates from Russia. Belarus has so far resisted selling Belaruskali to Russia.

Meanwhile, this apparently risky venture is a game that Minsk can hardly lose.

It is a form of Russian-type machismo enacted on the eve of the next round of negotiations on Russian oil deliveries and another Russian loan.

The potash business in Russia does not belong to people from President Vladimir Putin’s team; it is rather Medvedev’s business.

Baumgertner’s arrest has so far not influenced the next tranche of loan money, approved by Russia.

At the same time, in case there are no concessions on the Russian side, or even a new “economic” war, Moscow can be blamed for economic failures in Belarus.

This could help Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka escape the Eurasian Union, the Russian-led club to be launched in 2015.

A standoff with Russia is also an opportunity to mend relations with the West: one political prisoner was released by Belarus shortly after Baumgertner’s arrest.

The fact is. Moscow cannot let Belarus go, not from the Eurasian project, not to lose it to the West. So Minsk has taken the apparently risky move, knowing that its strategic partnership with Russia death could not end.

And Baumgertner is a hostage of love. Be it love of Belarusian revenue or Russia’s love of its old status as a regional power.

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Beware Twilight Diplomacy

They say that long journeys begin with small steps.

Thousands of small business owners recently staged strikes across Belarus against new rules imposed under the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Minsk was reluctant to join it back in January 2010. But it is difficult to say “Niet” to its strategic partner: Russia approves loans and sets gas prices.

Meanwhile, street vendors need to do business.

There are some 80,000 small firms in Belarus that sell clothing and footwear. The new rules come into force on 1 July 2013 and require them (but not manufacturers) to submit samples of their goods to laboratories to test compliance with Customs Union safety standards and to pay (high) certification costs.

After the protests, the new rules were put on ice till November, hopefully the procedure of certification will be tested.

Small business owners believe the Customs Union is a threat to private enterprises in Belarus. They want the country to withdraw from the club. The businessmen were never consulted, but now they are having their say.

President Alexander Lukashenko says that Belarus’ social and economic model is based on the Christian ideals of the Russian civilisation.

Maybe that’s how come the Russian civilisation can force through any project it wants without it being labelled political.

The Russian are even opening a (Christian?) military airbase in the Belarusian town of Lida. The location is close to the Lithuanian border, which makes it vulnerable – and political.

It’s good to have allies. But the “Russian civilisation” has a habit of cooking up new gas price formulas, unions or initiatives behind closed doors. And the Russian bear’s embrace suffocates much needed reforms in Belarus.

Belarusian people are not consulted, but the government says, of course, that they endorse the projects by their own free will. So, its their responsibility, not Russia’s, not the EU’s.

Funnily enough, the EU also practices twilight diplomacy in Belarus. It recently suspended, for one year, its visa ban on Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey.

It is not a bad move per se – there should be someone to oil diplomatic contacts.

It is clearly aimed at the Eastern Partnership summit in November in Vilnius, where the EU hopes to pull closer some of the former Soviet countries by signing agreements and visa pacts. But nobody knows the conditions of Makey’s attendance.

Regardless of its political calendar, the EU needs to engage more with Belarusian society, to have (genuine, not bogus) NGOs as a condition partner for its common projects with Minsk.

The EU should be watering the roots of civil society. It is these people who must, ultimately, come to an arrangement with their state.

At the same time, as a normative power, the EU should create clear, fair and open rules for its relations with difficult neighbours.

If it wants to play diplomacy in the twilight zone, it should beware: the Russians and the Belarusian elite are masters of the game.

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(im)Prove

Improvement becomes a philosophical matter, when it is about less repression in a country that barely has any political activity left to repress.

Belarus has seen no sign of change.

Wait. Signs, yes. Signs that Minsk wants to improve its relations with the West. Foreign minister Makey met foreign diplomats and some of his counterparts to announce that Minsk is seeking to rebuild its ties with united Europe.

There are signs that there can be change. But no changes so far. No ground-breaking economic or social reforms, political prisoners are still in prison, dissidents still in the underground.

Months ahead of the Eastern Partnership summit in November, Lithuania is trying to make sure it is going to be a success: several important agreements (with Ukraine and Moldova) are to be signed and European political heavyweights will come together in Vilnius to celebrate EU politics on Eastern Europe.

Belarus is, of course, not the top of potential success stories on the agenda, Ukraine is far more important.

But to have political prisoners released and lay the ground to start a dialogue of any kind at all would be good. At any time. Even if it is tied to the EU political calendar. Or the decision of Minsk to balance its dependence on Russian support (as Moscow is pressing to privatise key assets to its investors).

But it is not that much about the exigency of improvements. Which are being sought and found.

As the EU offers Minsk a formula of “more for more and less for less.” The strategy of Minsk, as Belarusian experts put it, is “less for nothing.”

Both Minsk and Brussels have always had conditions to resume dialogue. And have resumed it several times. And broke it up again. I am afraid the point of the whole rapprochement is lost.

So… What is the goal? Does the EU want to have a dialogue with Belarusian authorities? Does it aim at profiting from intensifying co-operation?

If the objective is improvement of the political situation and legal framework in Belarus, there is definitely a need of a clear roadmap for both sides to follow, with a list of steps, concessions and such. Otherwise this stumbling block will be endlessly moved around.

You want to improve it? Prove it.

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