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Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's governor Ramzan Kadyrov face "votes" on Sunday. (AFP)
Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov won their respective “elections” on Sunday. (AFP)

Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.chechnyaRussia Flag Icon

Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the  state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time. 

Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.



The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump). 

Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.

As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia's long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)
As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)

Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).

For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.

Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).

The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).

Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)
Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)

For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.

Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion.  Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Saakashvili makes a political return — to Odessa

poroshenko saakashvili

The last we’d heard of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, he was enjoying a hipster lifestyle in Williamsburg. Georgia Flag IconUkraine Flag Icon

Increasingly, though, Saakashvili has become a persona non grata in Georgia, where he held power between 2004 and 2013, ushering in liberal reforms to a country sorely in need of liberalization. When an umbrella coalition of opponents, led and financed by Bidzina Ivanishvili defeated his ruling party in late 2013, Saakashvili recognized the loss and facilitated the ensuing political transition, which coincided with the constitutional change from a strong presidential system to a parliamentary system.

So it was quite a surprise to see Saakashvili emerge last weekend in Saturday as the newly minted governor of the Odessa region.

We live in an era where Stanley Fischer can obtain Israeli citizenship, lead its central bank and then return to the United States to become vice chair of the Federal Reserve — or where Mark Carney can switch roles from heading the Bank of Canada to the Bank of England. So why shouldn’t a well-regarded former president be permitted, especially at the young age of 47, to take on a politically difficult role in a nearby country — especially when the struggles facing Georgia and Ukraine are so similar?

In order to assume the role as Odessa’s new governor, Saakashvili was obligated to give up his Georgian citizenship and accept from Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko an offer of Ukrainian citizenship. Saakashvili previously refused to do so when Poroshenko earlier offered him a position as deputy prime minister.

A post-presidential exile from Georgia

As Saakashvili himself has noted, however, Georgian citizenship entitles him to little more than six square meters in prison. That’s because the current government has charged Saakashvili with multiple offenses, all of which seem precariously motivated by politics, not the rule of law. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev called the announcement a ‘circus,’ but the reaction from Georgia’s current leadership was even more incendiary. Tina Khidasheli, the country’s defense minister, attached Saakashvili for treason, and the country’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, called the move an ‘insult’ to Georgia and its government.

The step could complicate Saakashvili’s plans to lead the opposition in the 2016 parliamentary elections in Georgia or compete for the presidency in 2018.

As president, there’s no doubt that Saakashvili reduced corruption and improved the underlying Georgian economy and, in stepping down with grace, established a strong precedent for democratic transition and the rule of law. His largest miscalculation came in 2007 and 2008, when he escalated military and diplomatic tensions with Russia. With high hopes for NATO and European Union membership, and believing Western forces would ultimately come to his aid, Saakashvili’s clash with the Russian military led to the quasi-annexation of two breakaway republics — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many of the current government’s criminal charges against Saakashvili today spring from the debacle. Continue reading Saakashvili makes a political return — to Odessa

One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

moldovaPhoto credit to adrianhancu / 123RF.

By just about any measure, Moldova’s first quarter-century as an independent state has been inauspicious long before last weekend’s parliamentary elections.moldova

Emerging from the Soviet Union as a new state engaged in a war with separatists in Transnistria, Moldova is today the poorest country on continental Europe, and successive governments have left the country with antiquated and corrupt institutions that culminated in widespread protests (pictured above) and a political crisis in 2009. In 2014, no country in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, is perhaps more at risk from Russian aggression.

Though a coalition of three relatively pro-European parties appear to be moving forward to form a governing coalition, the winner in last Sunday’s vote was the Partidul Socialiştilor din Republica Moldova (PSRM, Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova), formed in 1997 and a fringe party until it received an endorsement from Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Socialists will enter Moldova’s 101-member Parlamentul (parliament), with 25 seats, the largest of five parties in the chamber.


The Socialists benefitted chiefly from a decision on November 29 by Moldova’s supreme court of justice to uphold a lower court’s decision two days earlier to disqualify the pro-Russia ‘Homeland’ Party after it was found to have accepted foreign resources. Continue reading One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

Ukraine election results: Unsurprising win for pro-Western parties


Since most of the pro-Russian parts of Ukraine are still engaged in a low-grade revolt against Kiev’s pro-Western government, it’s not a surprise that the results of October 26’s snap parliamentary elections were good news for pro-Western parties.Ukraine Flag Icon

The message of the parliamentary election isn’t quite as awful as ‘Ukraine is doomed,’ but it’s hard to take away a lot of comfort that the troubled country is on the right path to political unity and economic progress.

With turnout across eastern Ukraine depressed, most acutely in Donetsk and Luhansk, it makes sense that Ukraine’s new president emerged with the largest number of projected seats in Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, after Sunday’s elections.

Verkhovna Rada

The Petro Poroshenko Bloc (Блок Петра Порошенка) formalizes the electoral alliance that Poroshenko made prior to the May 25 presidential election with heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who was elected Kiev’s mayor earlier this year.

But the new government of Ukraine will invariably look much like the old one — a coalition between Poroshenko and former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whose resignation triggered the snap elections earlier this summer.  Then, as now, it’s something of a mystery why new elections were so pressing when Kiev is still struggling to regain control of the eastern regions from pro-Russian separatists.

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RELATED: Is Yatsenyuk’s resignation good or bad news for Poroshenko?

RELATED: Can Poroshenko deliver his fairy-tale promises to Ukraine?

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Yatsenyuk’s bloc, the People’s Front (Народний фронт), won more absolute votes, according to preliminary results, and another new bloc, Self Reliance (Самопоміч, ‘Samopomich‘), the vehicle of Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi emerged as the surprisingly strong third-place winner.

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Though some sort of Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk coalition seems the likeliest outcome, the two rivals are already sniping over which bloc should lead the coalition talks.  Continue reading Ukraine election results: Unsurprising win for pro-Western parties

The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy


As if timed to coincide with this week’s NATO summit in Wales, which could mark the most important gathering of Western allies since the end of the Cold War, US-based commentary this week took a huge leap forward in its assessment of the Russian threat — though not necessarily in a way that’s incredible rational.Russia Flag Icon

Call it the ‘underpants gnome’ theory of understanding Russia today:

Russian aggression in Ukraine + ????? = World War III!

But even as a ceasefire takes effect today between the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed separatists based in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, based on a plan put forward earlier this week by none other than Russian president Vladimir Putin and brokered by talks hosted by increasingly nervous officials in Belarus, US writers are nevertheless openly contemplating the audacious notion of a potential Russian nuclear strike. Continue reading The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

Can Poroshenko deliver his fairy-tale promises to Ukraine?

Петро Порошенко

Earlier this year, the two undisputed leaders of the pro-Western camp were Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who had been jailed by the government of then-president Viktor Yanukovych, and Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight boxing champion who emerged in the 2012 parliamentary elections as the leader of a new reform-minded political party.Ukraine Flag Icon

Moreover, other capable leaders in anti-Yanukovych movement, including other officials within Tymoshenko’s center-right ‘All Ukrainian Union — Fatherland’ party (Всеукраїнське об’єднання “Батьківщина, Batkivshchyna), such as Oleksandr Turchynov, who ultimately became Ukraine’s acting president, and former foreign minister and economy minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who ultimately became Ukraine’s interim prime minister.

So how did a chocolate tycoon with no obvious prior presidential ambitions find his way not only to the top of the polls in Ukraine’s troubled presidential election on May 25, but gather such an overwhelming lead that he could win the race in the first round with over 50% of the vote?

Petro Poroshenko is campaigning on a platform of greater economic ties to the European Union and a pledge to create more jobs. He’s promised to enact the EU association agreement that Yanukovych  refused to sign, a decision that led to the anti-Yanukovych protests in Kiev’s Maidan square late last year. He’s also promised to bring an end to the separatist protests in eastern Ukraine, by force if necessary.

Despite this threat, the Kremlin is signaling that Poroshenko is a Ukrainian leader with which Russia can work:

With the country still roiled by separatist violence in the east, the growing air of inevitability around Mr. Poroshenko, who has deep business interests in Russia, has redrawn the Ukraine conflict. It has presented the Kremlin with the prospect of a clear negotiating partner, apparently contributing, officials and analysts say, to a softening in the stance of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

After weeks of threatening an invasion, Mr. Putin now seems to have closed off the possibility of a Crimea-style land grab in the east, and even issued guarded support for the election to go forward.

Still, Putin has argued that Ukraine should draft a new constitution that provides for greater federalism before holding new elections. In recent days, he’s urged calm in eastern Ukraine and he even tried to convince separatists to delay the referenda held earlier this month on independence in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. But there’s no guarantee that Putin, who in mid-April referred to Ukraine as ‘Novorossiya,’ or ‘New Russia,’ will recognize the election’s outcome.

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RELATED: How the eastern Ukraine referenda
relate to the May 25 election

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With no serious contenders, and no real national debate during the election campaign, Poroshenko, who has dodged between both pro-Western and pro-Russian governments for the past two decades, and who has ties to some of the country’s most notoriously corrupt oligarchs, seems to be promising everything to everyone — and polls show he’s going to succeed. He pledges to restore ties with Russia, even while enhancing Ukraine’s economic links with Europe. He will somehow reverse what’s been a near-comical bungling effort by the Ukrainian military to subdue a separatist movement that shows no signs of receding. While doing all this, he will create jobs amid an economic crisis that will require more than $15 billion to $20 billion or more in financial assistance from groups like the International Monetary Fund, which will almost certainly demand in exchange tough budget cuts, tax restructuring, the privatization of many  state-owned assets and the liberalization of Ukraine’s economy otherwise, steps that will almost certainly inhibit immediate economic growth that could bring about new jobs in the short-term.  All of this in a country that, among the former Soviet nations, has the absolute worst post-Soviet GDP growth rate.

In short, Poroshenko is arguing that he can do what none of Ukraine’s leaders have been able to do for the past two decades at a time when the country is more divided than ever.

Continue reading Can Poroshenko deliver his fairy-tale promises to Ukraine?

The Symonenko debacle undermines Ukraine’s electoral legitimacy


If you were one of the few voters left in Donetsk prepared to cast a vote in Sunday’s Ukrainian presidential election, the chances are fair that you were considering a vote for Petro Symonenko.

Ukraine Flag Icon

But Symonenko, a Donetsk native and the candidate of Ukraine’s Communist Party (Комуністична партія України) announced his withdrawal from the election on Friday, after an escalating war of words with Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov who, last week, directed an inquiry into the Communist Party’s activities with an eye toward its possible disqualification:

Turchynov said on May 18 that he had sent the request to the Justice Ministry and that he believed “a Ukrainian court will put an end to this matter.” According to the presidential website, the country’s security service has documented the party’s role in the separatist movements in the east and determined that several party members have acted “to the detriment” of Ukraine’s interests.

Ukraine’s Communist Party is an unreconstructed Soviet-style party, which draws support from the south and the east of the country, where ethnic Russians are predominant and where rebels are now giving the Ukrainian central government so much trouble.

The Communists win votes by appealing to nostalgia, especially among older voters, for the more predictable days of the Soviet Union. As you might imagine, it’s a party that has generally won a decreasing share of the vote in Ukrainian elections as fewer and fewer Ukrainians from the Soviet era are still around to vote for it, not unlike Gennady Zyuganov’s  Communist Party in Russia.

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RELATED: How eastern Ukraine referenda relate to the May 25 election

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Though Symonenko (pictured above) made it to the runoff in 1999 against former president Leonid Kuchma and won 38.8% of the vote, he won just 4.97% in the 2004 election and otherwise overshadowed by the Orange Revolution, and he won just 3.54% in the 2010 election. In the most recent 2012 parliamentary elections, the Communists won 32 seats the 450-member Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, and they allied with former president Viktor Yanukovych, then the leader of the eastern-based Party of Regions (Партія регіонів).

So while it’s clear that though Symonenko may have picked up some votes in the May 25 presidential election from those areas that are currently under complete or partial control of pro-Russian separatists, there’s little chance that he would have won the election, especially with polls pointing to a first-round victory by Petro Poroshenko, a wealthy businessman who made his fortune selling chocolate, over former pro-Western prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Continue reading The Symonenko debacle undermines Ukraine’s electoral legitimacy

With Ukraine crisis, Lukashenko between a rock and a hard place


An aggressive, autocratic Russia to your east, and a democratic, liberal Europe to your west. What’s your poor everyday post-Soviet European Stalinist dictatorship to do?belarus flag

As Russian forces took control of Crimea from Ukraine last month, and as Russian troops menacingly massed along the eastern Ukrainian border, no country has a greater interest than Belarus, which lies immediately to the north of Ukraine and immediately west of Russia.


And no world leader has a greater worry than Belarus’s president since 1994, Aleksandr Lukashenko (pictured above). It’s hard to know just which must be more harrowing for Lukashenko — watching pro-European protestors depose Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in February, or watching Russia blithely annex Crimea in March.

At first glance, Belarus appears like the strongest of Russian allies. It’s already long been a member of the customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan that Putin hopes to expand into the Eurasian Union. The country sends 35% of its exports and receives 59% of its imports from Russia (oddly, perhaps, the second-most important market for Belarusian exports is The Netherlands, which receives 16.5% of all exports).

Growing divisions between Moscow and Minsk

But as Andrew Wilson wrote last month for Foreign Affairs, Lukashenko may be edging away from the Kremlin:

It should not be surprising that Lukashenko has been demonstrably edging away from Putin in recent weeksBelarus has started hinting that it wants better relations with the EU, agreeing in February to participate in visa negotiations with Brussels. But any shifts toward the EU are going to be a gradual process; Lukashenko is still a dictator, after all, who has little interest in meeting Europe’s democratic standards. For now, Lukashenko is inside the Russian tent looking out. And he is not about to head for the door just yet. But ever since Putin’s aggressive takeover of Crimea, Lukashenko has been more anxiously looking toward the exits.

That’s one reason, perhaps, why Lukashenko didn’t send observers to Crimea for the March 16 referendum on annexation, and why Belarus hasn’t formally acknowledged Russia’s annexation.

It’s also why, despite hosting Russian air force and other military assets, Lukashenko has gone out of his way to rule out sending any Belarusian military forces into Ukraine. Lukashenko met with Ukraine’s interim president Alexander Turchninov over the weekend for talks, and he went out of his way to emphasize strong relations:

“You shouldn’t view us not only as foes or competitors, you shouldn’t even think in those categories,” Lukashenko went on. “You should be sure to know that we’ve been treating you as our closest relatives even in the years when there existed misunderstandings.” He hailed the fact that “we are not looking at each other askance”. “We really spent a lot of years building up a belt of good-neighborliness and we’re not ready to destroy it today and there’s no need in eliminating it.”

Lukashenko stressed the importance for each Ukrainian to know in this connection that “our border is a border of friendship and not a border of division.”

“You shouldn’t apprehend any unfriendly cravings on the part of Belarusians here because neither we nor you need it,” he said.

Though we shouldn’t rule out the notion that Lukashenko represents a quiet, back-door channel for negotiations between Kiev and Moscow, there’s also no reason to doubt that Lukashenko’s remarks are legitimate.

If Russian president Vladimir Putin really thinks that Ukraine isn’t truly a sovereign country,** he almost certainly holds the same view of Belarus. Just as Ukraine is called ‘little Russia,’ Belarus literally means ‘White Russia.’ Long before it became an independent country in 1991 (and before the Soviet Union, briefly, as the Belarusian People’s Republic), the area that comprises what is today Belarus have been known for centuries as ‘White Russia.’ Continue reading With Ukraine crisis, Lukashenko between a rock and a hard place

Trade blocs form the new borders of the 21st century global order


The most underreported aspect of the current crisis over the Crimea annexation is the extent to which Russia was willing to go to the brink of international crisis for the goal of a future trade bloc. USflagEuropean_Union

Why does Russian president Vladimir Putin care so much about the vaunted Eurasian Union, even though it’s a rewarmed version of the existing economic customs union among  Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan?

To turn Michael Corleone’s words on their head, ‘it’s personal, not business.’

Putin hoped that the revamped union could attract a few more stragglers in central Asia, Azerbaijan or Armenia and perhaps Ukraine — until February 22.

There are certainly potential gains from greater free trade, and negotiating multilateral trade blocs seems both more efficient than one-off bilateral agreements and more productive than pushing for greater global integration through the World Trade Organization (WTO) process.

Also unlike bilateral treaties or WTO-based agreements, regional trading blocs are also emerging as strategic geopolitical vehicles for advances regional agendas that have just as much to do with politics as with trade.

Ultimately, it’s same reason that the two South American customs unions, the Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR, Suthern Common Market) and the Comunidad Andina (CAN, Andean Community) joined to form the even larger Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR, Union of South American Nations), which came into existence in 2008 and covers the entire South American region.

It’s the same reason that Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has put so much pressure on Tanzania to choose between the East African Community (EAC) or the Southern African Development Community (SADC) over the past year by accelerating plans for greater political cooperation within the EAC — with or without Tanzania. Or why admitting South Sudan into the EAC back in 2011 could have helped prevent its slide into civil war.

It’s the same reason that defining ‘Europe’ has been such a  strategic and existential issue for the European Union and its predecessor, the European Economic Community, since its inception. Does the United Kingdom belong? (In the 1960s, according to French president Charles de Gaulle, it didn’t). How to handle Turkey? (Enter into a customs union with it, then slow-roll accession talks since 1999, apparently). Should Ukraine join? Moldova? Georgia? If Azerbaijan can win the Eurovision contest, why not bring it into the single market? What about, one day, Morocco and Tunisia, which both have association agreements with the European Union?

That’s why it’s worth paying close attention to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but also the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). TTIP would create a super-free-trade-zone between the United States and the European Union, which together generate between 45% and 60% of global trade.

Continue reading Trade blocs form the new borders of the 21st century global order

Gerhard Schröder: a wasted opportunity in the Ukraine crisis


If there’s anyone the European Union could have sent to Moscow on a quiet trip to de-escalate tensions with Russia in February, it was former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder.Germany Flag IconRussia Flag Icon

Schröder served as Germany’s chancellor between 1998 and 2005, when he led two consecutive governments led by his center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).  As chancellor, Schröder cultivated strong economic ties with Russia, and in 2003, he led Europe’s opposition to he US invasion of Iraq, a cause that also found Schröder in alliance with Russia and its president Vladimir Putin, who Schröder once called a ‘flawless democrat.’

But Schröder’s comments about the growing crisis have been far from discreet, greatly angering his successor, Angela Merkel. He has criticized the European Union’s approach to Ukraine, defended Russia’s right to annex Crimea, and validated Putin’s view that the NATO military action during the 1999 Kosovo War (an action Schröder supported in his first term as chancellor):

Mr. Schroeder told a discussion forum hosted by Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper that as someone who was aware of history, Mr Putin had certain justifiable “ fears about being encircled” and that since the end of the Cold War there had been “ unhappy developments” on the fringes of what was once the Soviet Union. He also claimed that the European Union appeared not to have “the remotest idea” that the Ukraine was “culturally divided” and had made mistakes from the outset in its attempts to reach an association agreement with the country.

Mr. Schroeder accepted that Russia’s intervention was in breach of international law but compared the Kremlin’s action to his own government’s military support for the NATO bombardment of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. “We sent our plans to Serbia and together with the rest of NATO they bombed a sovereign state without any UN security council backing,” Mr Schroeder insisted, adding that he had since become cautious in apportioning blame.

That puts his position almost entirely in line with Putin’s — and almost entirely at odds with the German government’s. Needless to say, that has also ruined whatever value Schröder may have had in soothing German and European relations with Russia.  Continue reading Gerhard Schröder: a wasted opportunity in the Ukraine crisis

Kosovo, Crimea and Putin’s ‘всех нагнули’ theory of foreign affairs


In his wide-ranging speech announcing the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, president Vladimir Putin had some choice words for the West: If you don’t like what Russia did in Crimea, you only have yourselves to blame — on the basis of the precedent in Kosovo in 1999.kosovoRussia Flag Icon

Though the officially translated remarks smooth over Putin’s salty language, it appears he used the slang term ‘всех нагнули,’ which, as Masha Gessen describes in Slate, is fairly graphic:

“It was our Western partners who created the precedent; they did it themselves, with their own hands, as it were, in a situation that was totally analogous to the Crimean situation, by recognizing Kosovo’s secession from Serbia as legitimate,” said Putin. And then, as he cited American statements on Kosovo, he got more and more worked up until he said, “They wrote it themselves. They spread this all over the world. They screwed everybody—and now they are outraged!” (The Kremlin’s official translators, who are forever civilizing the Russian president’s speech, translated this sentence as “They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree, and now they are outraged!” The expression Putin used, however, was “vsekh nagnuli,” street slang for having had nonconsensual anal sex with everybody, rather than for having everybody agree.)

Gessen, in an otherwise fabulous essay that starts with her own days as a war reporter in the late 1990s in Serbia and Kosovo, retells the story of the Primakov loop — a moment that Gessen argues represents a key pivot point in US-Russian relations, when the NATO governments essentially left Russia out of the loop with regarding its campaign against what was then still Yugoslavia and the regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević.

Ironically, even as the 1999 Kosovo precedent has increasingly become a flash point in the current war of words between Moscow and Washington, Serbians went to the polls on the same day as the Crimea referendum. They elected a majority government under  center-right Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vučić, a government that will be firmly focused on accession to the European Union, which has dangled the economic incentives of EU membership to advance a political settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.

Nonetheless, to understand the Putin doctrine of the 2010s, it’s worth revisiting the origins of the Primakov doctrine of the 1990s, which defined US-Russian relations and European-Russian relations in the same ‘zero-sum game’ terms.

Yevgeny Primakov is one of the more fascinating figures to emerge out of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.  

Continue reading Kosovo, Crimea and Putin’s ‘всех нагнули’ theory of foreign affairs

Should Europe be concerned about the threat of Kaliningrad?


If Russia can get away with annexing Crimea from Ukraine to correct a ‘historical mistake,’ perhaps Germany should be able to retake Kaliningrad? Russia Flag Iconkaliningrad_oblast_russia_flag_round_stickers-rb808e4c40c704821b8d03556a312c426_v9waf_8byvr_152

The Soviet Union took the tiny strip of land, nudged today along the Baltic coast between Poland and Lithuania, in 1944 at the end of World War II from Nazi Germany — just a decade before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea  (perhaps in a drunken stupor) from the Russian Soviet republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Previously known as Königsberg, it’s the homeland of one of the world’s most renowned German philosophers, Immanuel Kant.

Today, it’s an exclave separated from the rest of the Russian Federation — but it’s a strategically crucial piece of real estate for Russia.  Kaliningrad gives Russia an ice-free port on the Baltic Sea and territory within the heart of the European Union surrounded by  North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.


The city of Königsberg was arguably even more important to Germanic culture and history before Kant was ever born. It was the capital of the State of the Teutonic Order, the crusader state, between 1457 and 1525, when the Teutonic State became the Duchy of Prussia, and Königsberg continued to serve as the Prussian capital until 1701, when Berlin became the capital. Russia occupied the ciy for the first time between 1758 and 1764, during the Seven Years’ War. Like many European cities, it was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War.

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RELATED: Forget 1938. Here’s another historical analogy — 1914.

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An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a Crimea for a Kaliningrad.

Right?  (In the meanwhile, Karelia, here’s your chance — with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s focus diverted to Ukraine, you’ll never have a better opportunity to make a bolt to Finland). Continue reading Should Europe be concerned about the threat of Kaliningrad?

To ы or not to ы, Zhirinivosky asks — as Kazakhstan, central Asia worry


Lest you think that Russia’s favorite crazy uncle doesn’t have anything to say about the latest standoff between Russia and the West, failed presidential candidate and ultranationalist loudmouth Vladimir Zhirinovsky has some choice theories about what’s holding Russia back these days — and he’s been on quite a roll in the last month or so.kazakhstanRussia Flag Icon

It’s been nearly two years since his donkey-flogging stunt during the almost-risible Russian presidential election. Though Zhirinovsky (pictured above won just 6.2% of the vote in that race, it amounts to nearly 4.5 million Russians that have stood by the colorful demagogue since he rose to Russian politics in the mid-1990s.

Not surprisingly, Zhirinovsky believes that Viktor Yanukovich remains the rightful president of Ukraine, and he urged Russia to send troops into Ukraine to support Yanukovich’s claim to the Ukrainian presidency.  For the record, Zhirinovsky supports the right of Crimea to join Russia, too. (Maybe that’s because in January 2013, Zhirinovsky was pelted with pickled cabbage salad on a visit to Kiev by a woman who attacked the flamboyant politician as a ‘Ukrainophobe.’)

But the most curious attacks recently have come with respect to another area of Russia’s ‘near-abroad.’  Last month, Zhirinovsky called for Russia, in essence, to annex five entire countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan — as Russia’s ‘Central Asian Federal Region,’ with a capital that should be known as ‘Verny,’ a Russian word for Almaty, Kazakstan’s largest city (and the city where Zhirinovsky himself was born and grew up).  Even more mystifying is Zhirinovsky’s attack on the Russian letter ‘ы.’  It’s an odd sound — it’s a vowel not unlike the English ‘y,’ though the sound is apparently very difficult for non-native Russian (and other Eurasian language) speakers:

Zhirinovsky says he wants the letter removed from the Russian alphabet, calling it a “nasty Asiatic” import.  The vowel came to the Russian language from the Mongols, Zhirinovsky was quoted as telling the State Duma on March 12.

“Only animals make this sound, ‘ы- ы,'” he said, adding that the regular “и” (“i”) is enough for the Russian alphabet.  “Ы” doesn’t exist in any other European language, argued Zhirinovsky. “This primitive, Asiatic sound is the reason people don’t like us in Europe,” he told lawmakers.

The five central Asian nations each used to be republics in the former Soviet Union, and all of them have relatively strong ties with Russia. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are candidates to join Russian president Vladimir Putin’s much-feted Eurasian Union, which is meant to be a regional counterweight to the European Union (and also to the economic power of India and China). Continue reading To ы or not to ы, Zhirinivosky asks — as Kazakhstan, central Asia worry

Crimea prepares to ‘vote’ in status referendum


The billboard above announces Sunday’s hastily coordinated referendum, presenting the choice for Crimea as between joining the Russian federation or a future of, apparently, Nazism run amok.Russia Flag IconUkraine Flag Iconcrimea

The March 16 vote comes barely three weeks after Russian troops essentially took control of the peninsula.

The Crimean crisis, and the wider Ukrainian crisis, have been widely discussed throughout the international media, so there aren’t too many original points I can make about Sunday’s vote.

The most obvious, perhaps, is that no one expects Crimea’s election to be either free or fair, in any normal sense of those words.  Though self-determination is one element from which nation-states today derive legitimacy, consider the context of the Crimean referendum with the context of September’s referendum on Scottish independence — the referendum date was settled more than a year in advance, the terms agreed by both UK prime minister David Cameron and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, the debate focusing on the economic and other policy implications of independence.

It’s also important to remember that Crimea, ultimately, remains a sideshow.  The more compelling story about Ukraine today is that its acting government is working, largely with success, to bring calm to the rest of the country.  US and European financial support is likely to shore up Kiev’s shaky finances, preventing Ukraine’s pending sovereign default, and a May 25 presidential election could restore some semblance of political stability after the fall of corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych on February 22 (though that won’t end the cultural and economic imbalances that have caused such a strong east-west divide in Ukraine).

A phony choice?


Crimea’s referendum will be a slapdash affair meant to rubber-stamp the newly constituted Crimean parliament’s decision to seek Russian annexation.  That’s clear from the tilted nature of the referendum’s wording.  Crimeans will choose between two options, worded in Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar:

1.  Do you support Crimea joining the Russian Federation as a federal subject?

2.  Do you support restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine?

The second option, as many scholars have written, is needlessly complicated, because there’s some doubt over which version of the 1992 Crimean constitution that the referendum option references.  The original version states that Crimea is an independent state; only later was the constitution revised for Crimea’s current status, an autonomous republic within Ukraine.  So there’s some suspicion that if Crimeans support the second option, it’s a vote for Crimean ‘independence’ from Ukraine that would, in essence, still bring Crimea under Russian control. Continue reading Crimea prepares to ‘vote’ in status referendum