web analytics

The situation in Kosovo – five key observations

1. Kosovo is in crisis – but its institutions are actually proving to be quite robust

2000px-KosovoFlagMap.svgWhen writing about Kosovo, there is often a tendency for international commentators to focus on the negatives: the high unemployment, the political instability and the ongoing ethnic strife.  What is not said often enough is that the country’s institutions, which will only celebrate their eighth birthday on 17th February, are proving themselves to be relatively robust.

A key facet of being a successful state is that, when politicians throw visceral verbal barbs at one another and extremist elements threaten the violent overthrow of constitutional order, the country’s institutions hold steady – above politics and beyond interference.

Against a backdrop of violent protests on the streets of Pristina at the implementation of the government’s agreement with Serbia over the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM), which included the firebombing of government buildings on Pristina’s Mother Theresa Boulevard and opposition MP’s deployment of teargas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate, the Constitutional Court has acted responsibly and proportionately.

While the issue of the ASM remains a matter for intense debate – and the court continues to raise some concerns about its compatibility with certain facets of Kosovo’s constitution – these have been raised in a mature manner that continues to give confidence to both a perennially sceptical Serbia and international community.  This should be noted and celebrated.

2. Vetëvendosje are not going away

protest, kosovo, tear gasIt is hard to imagine a European state with a more cynical and calculating political party system than Kosovo.  The “establishment” political parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), are controlled by competing business, family and regional interests and give the distinct impression of having little or no ideological basis whatsoever.

Kosovo’s proportional representation voting system means that, while not impossible, it is very difficult for a government to be formed without the two parties cutting some kind of a deal.  This is precisely what happened in December 2014 when, after six months of haggling, a deal was reached that saw the “winner” of the election, the PDK’s Hashim Thaçi surrender the Prime Minister’s office to the LDK’s Isa Mustafa in exchange for their support for his 2016 bid – a post that is awarded by Parliament.  After cutting a deal with a small breakaway party from the PDK and the numerous ethnic minority parties that are guaranteed twenty seats in the National Assembly (ten for Serbs, four for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, three for Bosniaks, two for Turks and one for Gorani), the PDK and LDK shared the spoils of ministerial office.

It’s not the fault of the LDK and PDK that the electoral system is structured in such a way; but perceptions of cronyism and corruption are.

Many international observers have sought to paint the recent rise of the nationalist Vetëvendosje (“self-determination”) as a response to anger at the Kosovo government “capitulating” to Serbia on the issue of the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, which has been painted as a back-door power-grab by Belgrade, the “surrender” of Kosovar land to Montenegro during negotiations over the demarcation of the state border and the formation of a special court to prosecute ethnic Albanians guilty of war crimes in the 1999 conflict.  While it is clear that these issues have provided the kindling and the spark for recent protests inside and outside Parliament; they are not the fuel that has turned them into an inferno.

Instead, the responsibility lies with the failure of the government to make real progress in tackling the country’s endemic economic problems.

“The young Europeans,” is a marketing line that is often used by the country – a hint at Kosovo’s status as the newest independent European state and the fact more than 50% of the population is under the age of 18 – but this is very much a double-edged sword.  A young population can only be expected to thrive where they find employment – and there is little to be found.  In the case of Spain and Portugal, many young people moved broad to find work during the recent economic crises to face their countries – yet Kosovars often find themselves hemmed-in by inflexible visa regimes.   Instead, the hopefulness and energy of the 2008 independence movement has partly given way to despondence and distrust of both the Kosovo government and the promises of international organisations.

Riding on a wave of anti-government and anti-corruption rhetoric, Vetëvendosje’s Shpend Ahmeti was elected Mayor of Pristina at the end of 2014, unseating the now-Prime Minister Isa Mustafa.   For the LDK to lose the mayoralty of the country’s largest, best educated and most cosmopolitan city was a tremendous shock.  It has not been a bad experiment, though.  While many – myself included – were suspicious of how Ahmeti may behave in office, he has largely gotten to grips with the city’s corrupt planning system and invested heavily in public spaces.  The city feels cleaner and more prosperous.

The success of Ahmeti’s spell in City Hall has allowed Vetëvendosje, whose previous public image was largely that of its leader Albin Kurti leading street protests and throwing rhetorical flame-throwers at the political class, to take on an air of mild respectability.   This is, of course, not helped by the spectacle of Vetëvendosje MPs deploying tear-gas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate – but, as Kurti and Ahmeti argue, there is space in their party for a Yin and a Yang.

As long as the economy remains stable and the political system remains a den of cronyism, Vetëvendosje’s progress towards the political mainstream will only continue.

3. Hashim Thaçi is still likely become President

photo_verybig_140448There have been some rumblings recently that Hashim Thaçi, the country’s former Prime Minister, and current Foreign Minister, may be at risk of losing on his long-held ambition of becoming President when the vote takes place later this year.  I do not yet share this view.

While he should be concerned by the public declaration by a number of LDK MPs that they intend to renege upon their party’s deal with the PDK to install Mustafa as Prime Minister in exchange for supporting Thaçi for the presidency, the numbers continue to stack up in his favour.

To secure the Presidency, he requires the support of either two thirds of MPs or, after three rounds of voting, a simple majority – 61 votes.   Assuming he can carry his own 34 MPs, two thirds of PDK members (18 MPs) and three quarters of the minority representatives (15 MPs), he will take the post with an absolute majority of 66 votes.

Fundamentally, the LDK have little incentive to stop Thaçi becoming President.  The job itself is very much ceremonial in nature, unlike Isa Mustafa’s current, influential post as Prime Minister.  If the party was to renege upon their deal with Thaçi and the PDK, the most likely outcome would be fresh elections – a high-risk political manoeuvre that could risk leaving the LDK empty-handed afterwards.

Finally, what is rarely said and never acknowledged by either Thaçi himself or the ethnic minority parties is the ease with which they have been able to cooperate with one another.   As Prime Minister, Thaçi worked relatively harmoniously with his Serb and Turkish Cabinet minister; apparently leaving them alone to run their own portfolios without much interference.  The ten Serbian MPs, in particular, may not be particular Thaçi fans but it is hard to see them backing a rival, Vetëvendosje-backed nominee.

4. The gulf between Serbs north and south of the Ibar is growing

800px-Zajednica_srpskih_opstinaOn 21st January, the former “leader” of the Serbian community in North Kosovo – an area physically divided from the rest of the country and home to vast ethnic Serb population – was jailed for nine years for his involvement in war crimes during the 1999 war.

The ruling has been widely greeted with derision in the north of the country, with street protests in the ethnically divided city of North Mitrovica and angry denunciations from leading politicians in Belgrade – some of whom have advocated the suspension of dialogue with Pristina.

What has been notable, however, is the relative silence of the Serbian community living south of the Ibar River.  While the sympathies of the Serbian community outside of the north will undoubtedly still lie with Ivanović, there is more than simply anecdotal evidence to suggest that these communities are beginning to develop some kind of acceptance of and accommodation within the Republic of Kosovo system.

The 2013 local elections saw the election of mayors in a number of newly-drawn, majority Serb-populated local government areas south of the Ibar; namely, Štrpce, Klokot-Vrbovac, Gračanica, Novo Brdo, Ranilug and Parteš.   With the drawing of these municipalities done in such a way as to ensure the election of ethnic Serbs to the mayoralty, this has provided a formal mechanism by which Serbs have had some latitude over local spending decisions within the Kosovo government framework.   When completed, the intention is that the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) will reinforce the ability of ethnic Serb areas to pursue their own health, education and cultural policies.

There is a degree of realpolitik here.

Many ethnic Serbs south of the Ibar still remain aggrieved about being separated from Kosovo, yet have a basic choice – participate in elections in areas specially drawn to elect Serbs or see another community win the mayoralty with 200 votes; accept a degree of self-governance within the Kosovo state or risk seeing their concerns swamped in a 95% ethnic Albanian state.

The same concerns simply do not exist north of the Ibar.  In the city of North Mitrovica and surrounding towns of Zubin Potok, Leposavić and Zvečan, Serbs make up more than 90% of the population.  There is simply no inducement to engage with the Republic of Kosovo state, regardless of the efforts made by both the European Union and Pristina in this respect.  In the minds of local Serbs, the ASM will make little practical difference; largely because their present governance arrangements afford more flexibility than the proposed changes.

For all the talk of Serbian unity in some nationalist corners, ethnic Serbs are probably the single most divided community in Kosovo at present.

5. MEPs are guilty of looking at Kosovo with “rose-tinted glasses”

590a174bc965ea956cc162141dcd316de61ea3d2This week, the European Parliament rubber-stamped the latest in a round of reports examining the progress that Kosovo is making towards European Union accession.

It has long been my view that many Members of the European Parliament – well-intentioned though they are – have allowed their innate passion for EU expansion and sympathy towards the significant political, social and economic challenges the country faces to cloud their perceptions of the true situation in the country.  If ever the phrase “rose tinted glasses” was meant to be used; it was for Wednesday’s debate.

While MEPs, led by the Austrian Green Ulrike Lunacek, were right to praise the progress that has been made on reaching theoretical agreements on the establishment Association of Serb Municipalities, telecoms, vehicular insurance, mutual recognition of diplomas and the “normalisation” of the situation in the ethnically-divided city of Mitrovica, little attention was actually paid to the implementation of these accords.   Yes, Serbia has lifted its preposterous objection to Kosovo receiving its own international dialling code and yes, Kosovo has agreed that it will finally end its discriminatory policy of rejecting diplomas from the Serb university in North Mitrovica – but other than that, progress has been relatively meagre.

The report also makes a rather opaque reference to the “progress has been made regarding the judiciary” and problems that exist in relation to the “slow administration of justice and the significant backlog of cases”.  To describe the administration of justice in Kosovo as “slow” is as euphemistic as describing Waiting for Godot as a play about an irksome traffic delay.  The EU needs to recognise that Kosovo’s judicial and courts system are in crisis.  The last figures I have suggest that, in the first half of 2014, 693,975 cases were in process in courts (in a country with a population of less than 2 million!), with 455,699 having been inherited from the previous year.

It would be unfair to blame the Republic of Kosovo for this.  After all, the legal system Kosovo was handed when it declared independence in 2008 forces judges to simultaneously adjudicate verdicts on the basis of the legal systems of present-day Kosovo and, in the case of historic offences, the now-defunct legal codes of Serbia and Montenegro (2003-2006), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992-2003) and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (before 1992).   Increased financial and technical support is clearly required to help unlock this logjam.

Finally, the near-comical status Kosovo’s National Assembly has taken on in recent times was largely glossed over.   While, as I have already mentioned, Vetëvendosje MPs bear the sole responsibility for the violent and unacceptable scenes that have been witnessed on the floor of the Parliament, it is not enough for a European Parliament report examining the state of Kosovo’s institutions to “call on all political actors to resume political dialogue in order to break the deadlock and find a viable solution that restores the normal functioning” of the body.   The EU is often relatively effective at adopting a “carrot and stick” approach to states aspiring to membership.  In this case, the stick – such as an explicit rejection of the proposed visa-free regime unless the political climate improves – seems strangely absent.

Kosovo has made considerable progress in recent years but the rose-tinted approach adopted by so many MEPs is neither honest nor helpful in achieving real reforms on the ground.   This needs to change.

Kosovo and UNESCO: good for Kosovo and Serbians

gracLast week, I had the pleasure of watching a Serbian wedding in full flow. The bells, the flags, the smells, the songs, the smiles, the Chanel – it was a scene as Serbian a scene as one can imagine. Standing in the courtyard of the 14th century Gračanica monastery ten kilometres east of Pristina, it was rather difficult to imagine I was in a state where ethnic Albanians constitute more than 90% and where Islam – albeit a permissive a form as is possible – dominates.

It was a rare, joyful moment for the small Serbian community struggling for survival in a country whose leaders are seem as increasingly intransigent or indeed antagonistic towards their community and its culture.

I have long been of the view that the impact of Slobodan Milošević and his murderous campaign against ethnic Albanians has resulted in an overlooking or, in some cases, excusing of the crimes committed against both Serbs as people and their religious sites.

The expulsion in 1999 of 165,000 ethnic minority residents of Kosovo (most of them Serb) from their homes and destruction of more than 150 religious sites, some of which saw their 700-year history “semtexed” to little more than piles of rubble, is one of the great, overlooked crimes of post-Second World War European history. Furthermore, it ought to be a stain on the consciousness of the international troops stationed in Kosovo that they stood by in March 2004 as thirty-four churches were burned to the ground and 935 private homes damaged.

churchThe latest flashpoint - albeit only a diplomatic one - between Belgrade and Pristina is the prospect of Kosovo’s membership of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) whose preamble commits to the “protection of the world’s inheritance of books, works of art and monuments of history and science” and “co-operation among the nations in all branches of intellectual activity”. Predictably, this has led to a clash about the status and protection of Serbian cultural and religious history in the region.

The government of Serbia is, in my opinion, guilty of overdramatising the significance of the issue while the largely ethnic Albanian administration in Pristina has failed to communicate how and why membership could be of benefit to the defence of Kosovo’s Serbian heritage.

For Belgrade, the granting of UNESCO membership would represent yet another inextricable step towards full international recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. I would argue, though, that the reality of United States, British, German and French recognition of the country makes it a reality rather than merely a prospect – regardless of how painful that realisation may be.

Concerns also appear to exist in respect of the Kosovo Government’s commitment to “taking care” of Orthodox sites and historical interpretations as to the “true” religious identity of those who built the religious sites. I would argue that both of these fears are misplaced.

Ferizaj, Mosque and ChurchThe welfare of the four sites already identified by UNESCO as being “at risk” – the Monastery of Dečani, Patriarchate of Peć, Gračanica and Bogorodica Ljeviška Church – would arguably receive far greater attention and scrutiny by the international community when placed under the UNESCO banner than they do presently. Interpretations of history are, of course, often hotly contested in ethnic flashpoints such as Kosovo. While denial of Kosovo’s Christian heritage may exist in some quarters, there is a disconnect between feelings of febrile Vetevendosje (an extremist, pan-Albanian movement that has gained some ground in recent Kosovo elections) activists and the country’s political and academic leaders who accept the country’s Orthodox heritage.

Friends of mine should not have had to exhume relatives from graveyards in non-Serbian areas in order to be content their bodies are safe. The St Uroš Orthodox Cathedral in Uroševac/Ferizaj that stands in the same courtyards as the Mulla Veseli Mosque ought to serve as an example of Albanian and Serbian coexistence rather than being shuttered. The half-built Serbian church built in the shadow of the library of the University of Pristina and the Catholic Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa should be completed, rather than crumbling.

I would, with the greatest of respect, suggest to Serbia and Serbians that past examples of cruel and senseless desecration and destruction of Orthodox Serbian sites ought not to be a reason to reject a mechanism that would help protect what remains and reconstruct what’s a risk.

It is impossible for either Serbs or Albanians to turn back the clock and bring back either loved-ones lost in war or cultural heritage desecrated and destroyed over the past two decades.

UNESCO membership would, however, be a solid step towards boosting the accountability of Kosovo’s leaders. Sites judged to be “at risk” would be subject to inspection, with demands for improvements in the protection of Christian heritage elevated to the international stage. UNESCO membership takes nothing away from Serbs or Serbian culture – but instead grants protections that were not previously there.

For those reasons, Serbia and Serbians should support Kosovo’s UNESCO bid.

It’s time for businesses to fight for TTIP, the biggest trade deal in history

TTIPFirst published on ConservativeHome

Over recent months, the debate about the passage of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has rapidly intensified. Originally conceived as a free trade deal designed to remove artificial barriers between the economies of the European Union and the United States, the debate has been plagued by misinformation and indecision – to the detriment of businesses and consumers.

A good deal for business and consumers

For British, European and American businesses, the benefits of TTIP can be distilled into four key points:

1. TTIP would eliminate custom duties on goods and services between the EU and US – a £2 billion daily trading corridor. While existing trade agreements have already ended most trade barriers, TTIP’s completion would be worth an extra £400 per year for an average British family of four.

2. TTIP would harmonise standards and regulations on goods and services between the EU and US. This would reduce secondary costs by eliminating many non-tariff barriers, and by giving firms complete access to each other’s respective jurisdictions. This would go a considerable distance towards eliminating the problem of firms being prevented from bidding for lucrative contracts in each other’s markets due to a lack of technical and regulatory convergence. European Commission estimates suggest that bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome in order for an EU-based business to trade in the US are equivalent to a 20 per cent customs duty. Under TTIP, these hurdles would vanish.

3. TTIP would allow fair and transparent public procurement. At present, the EU’s own public procurement framework ensures a level playing field for firms inside the EU. This system disadvantages US firms, just as American procurement processes freeze out EU companies. TTIP would remove this bias towards home market firms and allow for free bidding across EU and US markets.

4. TTIP would protect investors by providing a legal mechanism (the Investor State Dispute Settlement – ISDS) for businesses to appeal and challenge government decisions which unfairly threaten their business practices and investments.

The opportunities for Britain of trading more with the United States of America,” David Cameron argued, “are clear: two million extra jobs, more choice and lower prices in our shops”.

With such compelling benefits on offer, it has come as a matter of considerable surprise to many that the debate over the agreement has been so caustic and emotive.

The chief concerns of those who oppose TTIP tend to revolve around three key areas: the extension of private sector involvement in health service provision, the weakening of environmental standards and the weakening of regulations on the banking sector. While little can be done to change the minds of those approaching matters from an avowedly socialist or anti-globalisation position, the British government has been clear in its commitment to seek an exemption for healthcare services from the final agreement, while environmental standards and banking regulations in the US are already broadly comparable with those in the EU.

Other opposition has also been felt across the EU – from the French creative industries, who feel that the deal may threaten their music and film culture, to campaigners in Italy who fear it will undermine domestic agriculture and “prestige” national food products. In each case, efforts are being made by EU negotiators to ameliorate these concerns ahead of the formal publication of a deal.

Unclear party-political positions

Over the past two decades, British political attitudes towards the EU, its policies, processes and treaty bases have been polarised between an increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative Party and a broadly pro-European Labour Party.

The issue of TTIP has proved a little more complex, however, with Conservatives seizing upon the policy as a means by which to tie the EU economy and its institutions closer to the United Kingdom, while many in the Labour Party are uncomfortable at what they perceive as the extension of American influence over public service provision and industrial relations law.

Against the backdrop of the referendum, the spectacle of the Conservative Party banging the drum for an EU policy while the Labour Party makes cautious noises from the side-lines is a peculiar one. Indeed, even many Conservatives who support Britain’s exit from the European Union have been keen to state their intention to pursue the completion of a revised form of TTIP in the eventuality that the UK does leave the EU.

The contentious debate has spilled over into UKIP. While the automatic impulse of the party’s activists is to oppose all legislative measures led by the EU, Roger Helmer MEP – the party’s leader in the European Parliament – has adopted a more nuanced line. In comments emailed to constituents last month, Helmer directly confronted the “hysterical fears” that had been raised over the prospect of the ISDS allowing for undue corporate influence over government decisions, referencing the existence of 1,400 existing European bilateral treaties and the “commonplace” nature of such dispute resolution mechanisms.

Taking a leadership role

Given the lack of a firm political consensus – even inside individual parties – clear opportunities exist for the business community to take the lead in the championing of the completion of TTIP. Time is of the essence.

The European Parliament has already demonstrated a degree of dissent towards completing the deal. Last month, a scheduled vote on the package was postponed after genuine fears that a loose coalition of centre, far-left and anti-globalisation MEPs might muster enough support to derail its passage.

The American picture is similarly complicated. While Obama has been an outspoken supporter of the deal in recent months, he does so from the position of being term-limited. Never again will he be forced to pay lip-service to protectionist US agriculture policies in order to secure the votes of Iowa farmers or advocate measures to boost America’s domestic automotive industry in order to pick up support in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. With an eye on re-election in 2020, an incoming President in January 2017 may not view the deal so positively.

Ongoing delays, brought about by the concerns of MEPs and powerful voices in national governments, risk forcing TTIP into the long grass and adding billions in unnecessary charges to British and European businesses.

Rather than sit on the sidelines, the business community – investment-makers, job-creators and employment-sustainers – must make a compelling case for urgent action on both a national and European level.

As David Cameron said: “we’re talking about what could be the biggest bilateral trade deal in history, a deal which will have a greater impact than all the other trade deals on the table put together”. That’s worth fighting for.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting LLP, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals, members of employees.

Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic choice deserves Western respect

Montenegro_Kotor_BayOriginally published on TheCommentator.com

In the crowded field of discussions about key actors in global geopolitics, Montenegro is rarely mentioned. True, with a population of little more than 600,000, the country will never be a significant player in the classic military, industrial or economic sense.

It is a country, though, that is on the verge of making a significant contribution towards European security and Euro-Atlantic policy priorities.

Last month, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met Montenegro’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Igor Lukšić and Justice Minister Zoran Pažin in order to iron out any remaining logistical hurdles in the country’s path towards NATO membership.

With only minor issues left to resolve, the country appears likely to receive a formal membership invitation during the course of 2016.

While little has been written on the issue, Montenegro’s decision to press ahead with NATO membership is a notable one for three reasons.

Firstly, the decision essentially formalises Montenegro’s decision to pursue a full-throttled Euro-Atlantic agenda.

While neighbouring Serbia has deployed a triangulation agenda of seeking EU membership while disavowing NATO membership and ludicrously claiming to have “balanced” relations with Moscow and Brussels, Montenegro is expressly aligning itself with a pro-western policy stance that includes Washington D.C. as well as Brussels.

Secondly, its accession “seals” a maritime border around Europe, providing a collective security guarantee that stretches all the way around from Estonia’s eastern seaboard to Turkey’s northeastern borders with Georgia and Armenia, and southern frontiers with Syria and Iraq.  The only exceptions will be a fifteen-mile stretch of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is entirely encircled by NATO states.

This leaves mainland Europe and the United Kingdom with arguably the strongest domestic military protections in history — guarding against Russian aggression from the east, entryism from the Middle East and any future threats of hostile invasions, of whatever description, from North Africa.
Montenegrin membership will be a landmark achievement and should be viewed as a major step forward in guaranteeing the security of mainland Europe and completing the post-WWII circle.
In addition to the security benefits Montenegro’s NATO membership will provide, it is also significant from the perspective that it will essentially deny Russia the chance to construct the naval base it so passionately wants inside the Mediterranean and Adriatic region to replace their jeopardised facility in Syria.

Given the overtures made to Cyprus at the height of its financial crisis and Moscow’s offer to pay down Greece’s debts in exchange for control of the port of Thessaloniki, Montenegro’s decision is important.
Secondly, the decision to press ahead with NATO membership comes at the risk of a tremendous economic cost to the country and a personal, political risk to both Prime Minister Milo Đukanović and President Filip Vujanović.

Public opinion in Montenegro is far from “sold” on the idea of membership. Indeed, a March 2014 poll found that 46 percent supported membership as opposed to 42 percent who were opposed — a fairly even split.

To press ahead with such a landmark redefinition of a country’s foreign policy stance, from one of cautious engagement with Russia to a relationship status defined by distrust, carries both risks and opportunities.

Over the past two decades, Montenegro’s economy has largely been kept afloat by a buoyant domestic property market fuelled by buyers from the Russian Federation — a considerable number of whom have used pilfered state funds in order to make their acquisitions in the small, Adriatic state.
The relative robustness of the Montenegrin economy versus that of the rest of Yugoslavia played a contributing role in the country’s 2006 independence referendum that passed by just 0.5 percentage points, or 2,000 votes.

While many Russians buying property in the state have taken advantage of the country’s previous, “citizenship-by-investment” regime and will view NATO membership and ultimate EU accession as a positive thing, Montenegro’s general direction of travel does not favour further Russian investment.  Indeed, looking at the example of Porto Montenegro, presently the country’s largest infrastructure project which will see the construction of a luxury marina to rival that of Monte Carlo, the bulk of funding has come from Canadian investors, with no effective Russian involvement.

In connection with the general point on the economy, both Đukanović and Vujanović (who have effectively ruled the country in tandem since the late 80s) have based much of their political longevity upon their ability to steer a steady ship through difficult times — dodging the worst of the 90s sanctions on Yugoslavia, amicably divorcing the country from Serbia and attracting vast amounts of investment capital to the country to fund genuinely impressive infrastructure projects.

While it is likely that the two men have drawn the conclusion that the Russian cash cow has run out of milk in respect of the Balkans and may view an EU path as way of keeping the milk flowing, antagonising Russia is a risky move nonetheless.

In the face of opposition from both the Russian Federation and influential internal political actors, the choice Montenegro has made to pursue the path of Euro-Atlantic integration is a significant one.
The country and its government deserve the support and respect of the Western alliance as they continue to implement the reforms necessary to secure the country’s future as a stable, vibrant democracy.

Honour commitments to Georgia – or we lose the country forever

Originally published on TheCommentator.com

Ossetia-BordersLast week, Russia completed its latest land-grab in Georgia. Having interfered in, and, ultimately, illegally occupied, the province of South Ossetia since the early 1990s, Russia has gradually consolidated its position, erecting barbed-wire fencing and expensive CCTV equipment to supervise its area of control.

The most recent operation has pushed the so-called “Republic of South Ossetia” a further 300 metres (980 feet) into Georgia, splitting farms in half and bringing a kilometre-long portion of BP’s Baku-Supsa pipeline, which carries oil from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea, under Russia’s control.

Georgia’s main east-west highway is now only 950 metres from an area now securitised by the Russian army.

The strategic value to Russia of the country having such a strong hold on energy flows from the Caspian to the Black Sea, as well as holding a key vantage point over Georgia’s east to west traffic flows and troop movements, is clear for all to see.

What’s less clear, however, is why the European Union and the United States have been so muted in recent months.

Russia has not been shy in signposting its intentions. Indeed, their latest territorial incursion follows an agreement signed in March between Vladimir Putin and the breakaway region’s President Leonid Tibilov aimed at further assimilating South Ossetia into the Russian Federation and harmonising defence and economic policy between the two.

With Russia on the verge of orchestrating a Crimea-style annexation of South Ossetia, the expansion of territory makes a lot of sense to Moscow.

Rather than do all this when South Ossetia is a “formal” part of Russia, it is able to carry out its operations under the banner of the region’s separatist administration.

At the moment annexation comes about, the region will be subsumed in its entirety — formally placing occupied Georgian lands in the hands of the Russian Federation as opposed to constituting a separatist junta. This will make any attempts on the part of the Georgian government to reclaim the territory nigh on impossible.

The situation is much the same in Georgia’s other breakaway province, Abkhazia. While, for reasons of sheer population size, the Abkhazian junta have been less enthusiastic about explicit integration into the Russian Federation, their breakaway government continues to be, chiefly, bankrolled by Moscow.

A November 2014 document signed by Putin and Abkhaz President Khadzhimba established a joint Russian and Abkhaz army unit under the control of the Russian Federation — essentially securitising their hold on both the territory the junta has controlled since the early 90s, and regions seized during the 2008 war.

With the predictability of this situation in mind, it is shameful that the United States and European Union member governments have been so slow to act in order to support Georgia in securing its territory.

To date, the international presence in the areas close to the lines of occupation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been confined to ineffective, civilian monitoring missions.

What was — and still is — needed was a small peace-keeping mission comprised of NATO forces in order to prevent further territorial expansionism on the part of the Russian Federation.

Many in the west have been critical of those who advocate for western military involvement in Georgia — their logic being that the presence of NATO troops would somehow serve as a “provocation” to Putin that would risk worsening relations with Moscow and possibly even spark armed conflict in the South Caucasus.

Both arguments are baseless. Indeed, a NATO presence would bring a new sense of calm and security to the region, muting Russia’s confidence in its ability to press further into Georgia and allowing both parties to pursue negotiations over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetian on an equal footing.

The presence of NATO troops in the region is clearly a step that no supporter of Georgian territorial integrity would, in an ideal world, have wished to have seen.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be necessary if the West had shown seriousness about bringing Georgia into NATO several years ago, something that would have helped in establishing clear red lines, and probably forestalling Russian aggression in the first place.

Instead, despite the fact the country has itself honoured the overwhelming majority of protocols required for prospective members, membership seems further away than ever — hamstrung by the presence of aggressive and expansionist Russian forces on its soil.

The west’s repeated failures to honour pledges made to the country on defence issues are mirrored by a lack of progress on political ties.

The signing of the June 2014 Association Agreement between Georgia and the European Union was a proud moment for many supporters of the country, yet has ultimately proved to be a great disappointment with no real achievements to speak of in relation to visa liberalisation and only a small uptick in trade flows.

Much-needed infrastructure funding to boost the country’s ailing railway and ports systems has yet to materialise.

Regrettably, the west’s habit of over promising and under delivering in the region has only given succour to sharply pro-Russian politicians in Georgia, such as Nino Burjanadze, who has a habit of ridiculing the governing Georgian Dream Coalition and the leading opposition party, the United National Movement, for the faith they place in promises from Brussels and Washington DC.

Against a backdrop of the current poor economic climate in Georgia, her repeated denunciations of the “illusion” that the country will one day join NATO or the EU have seen support for her party steadily increase.

It is not just support for pro-Russian politicians like Burjanadze that is on the increase, but also support for Russia’s chief geopolitical and economic weapon: the Eurasian Customs Union which promises almost limitless cash grants in exchange for the subjugation of national sovereignty to Moscow’s will.

In a poll taken in May, 31 percent of Georgians expressed support for joining the bloc — twice the number expressing such support in 2014 and three times as much as in 2013.

Negative trend lines aside, it is worth stressing that 68 percent of Georgians continue to express a preference for their country continuing along a path of Euro-Atlantic integration, towards membership of both NATO and the EU.

While support remains strong, the West can no longer afford to ignore indications that Georgia may be slowly backing away from the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.

Enthusiasm and willingness on the part of both the people and government of the country to look westwards has simply not been backed up by a real commitment on the part of Western governments.

Something needs to be done.

As a starting point, the country should be handed a NATO MAP that provides for the stationing of a protective force along the lines of occupation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A special mechanism can and should be found to exclude the two areas from the Article 5 collective security guarantee provided to all members; only applying the provision to land presently under the control of Tbilisi.

This would stem Russia’s advances in the north of the country, secure its maritime border, and restore Georgian public confidence in western security guarantees.

Secondly, the visa liberalisation process between Georgia and the European Union should be completed. This would be a particularly important confidence-building measure between the EU and the country’s young, educated population whose freedom of movement has been largely curtailed by cumbersome regulations.

This ought to be matched by an increase in funding for ties and exchanges between US, European and Georgian higher education institutions.

Thirdly, the EU should look beyond the Association Agreement and begin the process of granting Georgia formal “candidate country” status.

The granting of such a status would not mean setting out a formal timetable for accession but it would be a clear statement to both the Russian Federation and Georgian people of the West’s long-term commitment to the country.

Inside this framework, cooperation on individual policy areas — from maritime transport links to energy security — could be gradually increased.

The ball is in the west’s court. The Georgian political establishment and people remain committed to a Euro-Atlantic path — but they cannot be expected to wait forever.

It’s time to either honour commitments made, or accept the country’s irrevocable slide back into Russia’s tawdry orbit.

Thoughts from my visit to Jaffna – the capital of Tamil Sri Lanka

3I’ve been to cities like Jaffna plenty of times before.

Bustling in the centre yet eerily depopulated a few streets away, marked by grandiose building projects yet riddled with the carcasses of burned-out buildings, in possession of beautifully-groomed parks sitting close to fields pot-marked with craters where munitions once fell and blessed with kind-hearted people who are more often than not a little too excited to see a foreign visitor.

In short, it’s a fairly normal post-conflict city – a place of contradictions, a place where black humour is competing with starry-eyed optimism to become the defining characteristic of local people and a place with a mildly conspiratorial air.

Much has been written over the last few years about the conflict between the majority-Sinhalese Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers – a terrorist group advancing a separatist agenda for the country’s largely-Tamil northern provinces.  I have no wish to explore the arguments or grievances of any side in the conflict.

2Getting to Jaffa was surprisingly easy.  I had expected it to be a logistical nightmare with numerous roadblocks and impediments in my way but it was instead an easy, two and a half hour train journey from the city of Anuradhapura where I had previously been staying.  The train journey was an experience in itself, with no functioning air conditioning system to provide relief from the sweltering Sri Lankan sun.  Instead, every concievable window and door was thrown open for the entire journey, with locals taking turns to perillously hang out of the carriage doors in order to catch the breeze.

Upon my arrival in the city, it was easy enough to pick up a tuk-tuk from the stand outside the station.  Given the relatively small size of the city, I was at my hotel (the excellent Tilko City Hotel) in the central district in less than ten minutes.

5Everyone I met in Jaffna and the surrounding areas – from my tuk-tuk driver to my hotel owner – referred to the civil war in the past tense. While there may be valid grievances that exist amongst Tamils about the way in which the war was brought to an end, there is no appetite to resume a conflict which impoverished the region and saw thousands lose their lived. Discussions about relations between ethnic Singhalese and Tamils should move beyond fears of imminent conflict and forwards long-term confidence building between both parties.

Indeed, I had expected the city to be quite militaristic in nature, with a strong police presence and a noticeable number of armoured vehicles. In reality, any “edge” Jaffna may have had was wholly in my mind and former on the basis of my past knowledge of the city as a flashpoint for violence. The only police I noticed were stationed outside the city’s largest Hindu temple and their task appeared to be more to focus upon controlling traffic flows than law enforcement. It may still be the case that the Sri Lankan police and army have a strong presence in the north of the country but I did not see it myself.

6Talking to people in Jaffna and the surrounding areas, the pronounced popularity of the new President, Maithripala Sirisena was clear. Elected earlier this year over the sitting President Mahinda Rajakapse, Sirisena is widely seen as an cerebral and conciliatory man who will help Tamils move beyond the military machismo of his predecessor. Indeed, given the closeness of for margin between Rajapakse and Sirisena – it is likely he owes his victory margin to Tamil voters. From what I saw, he has made a strong start when it comes to earning their trust.

Aside from the post-conflict mindset of local people and the faith they appear to be placing in President Sirisena, it is clear that dramatic social inequalities exist between Jaffna and its surrounding areas and the rest of Sri Lanka. The overall infrastructure is weak, levels of obvious poverty on the streets are higher and prices are laughably low.

This disparity is a natural consequence of the long years of conflict but does need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. This message does appear to have gotten through on a central government level, with the widespread construction of apartment blocks and new public buildings across Jaffna and the surrounding areas. The programme of build of rebuilding and renovating war-hit railway stations across the north means the area now leads the south in this area.

1The government’s efforts cannot, however, be confined to city areas. While Jaffna is now largely free of bombed-out buildings, suburban areas of the city and their adjacent rural areas still bear the scars of war. Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe could further bolster their appeal amongst Tamils by launching a strategy to address rural poverty and the scars of war in the north.

When one considers the aftermath of war, there can be no crueller legacy than the presence of landmines.

All that is needed, even many years after the end of a conflict, is for heavy rainfall (not uncommon for this part of the world) to unsettle land enough for mines to find their way into the paths of people in areas even considered “safe” at present. The longer mines remain in the ground, the harder it will be to track and destroy them.

While I did personally see any minefield warnings, several people I spoke to mentioned that they remain a problem across the north of Sri Lanka as a legacy of both government and Tamil Tiger operations. Nothing should be allowed to get in the way of their swift removal.

On a broader level, it is a failing of Sri Lankan government that the country has yet to sign the international treaty outlawing their use. With the civil war now at an end, I hope that steps will be taken to ensure these evil weapons are never again allowed to scar the island.

Sadly, where there is poverty, opportunities all too often often exist for people to exploit people with pledges of easy salvation and quick comfort.

7With this in mind, I was saddened to see a large number of posters hanging from private homes and businesses for “Sri Sri Ravi Shankar”, an archetypal “religious” shyster (read: businessman) who I have long been aware of. Through a combination of a carefully-honed “serene” image and an aggressive global marketing campaign spearheaded by a team of Western European investment bankers (who now, of course, dub themselves we “disciples” of the great man) he has managed to build a multi-million pound fundraising operation on the back of tithes from some of the world’s poorest people.

From my experience of Shankar and his vaingloriously-titled ‘Art of Living Foundation’, his message contains nothing of God, a little about yoga and kooky breathing techniques and a considerable amount about the need to fundraise to “continue his work”. Far from being a hair-shirted bunch willing to bed down in drafty dorms at the end of a day’s work, Shankar and his henchmen favour decadent 5* hotel suites in European capitals that would make even the Sultan of Brunei blush.

He and his “advisors” are utterly lacking in any moral fibre – and I sincerely hope that not more people in Jaffna and Sri Lanka fall victim to his venal and immoral activities.

Thankfully, religion in Jaffna does not appear to be solely dominated by Shankar’s immorality. The town is home to a series of genuinely stunning Hindu temples and mosques, each of them buzzing with life and seemingly coexisting harmoniously.

8Walking through Jaffna’s bustling main streets late at night, vegetarian and Halal restaurants sit cheek-by-jowl – united in their insistence in blaring out local “hits” on over-sized speakers. As an outrider, it would seem to me that the apparently-calm relations between Hindus and Muslims – ordinarily each other’s bêtes noires in theatres of conflict – offers much hope for strengthened relations with the island’s Buddhist and Christian Singhalese.

In conclusion, the thing that made the biggest impression on me in Jaffna was the kindness and spirit of the people living in the city – both Sinhalese and Tamil, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Rarely a smile absent from a person’s face or an offer of help far from their lips. That can only be a good thing as, in the years ahead, Sri Lanka tries to put its recent troubles behind it.

The Eastern Partnership: Raheem Kassam and UKIP are wrong

imageOver on Breitbart, Raheem Kassam has opened up a rather trad series of UKIPesque attacks on the Prime Minister and his European policy – or, more precisely, the decision to divert £20 million towards the Eastern Partnership’s Good Governance Fund.

Unlike (seemingly) most people, I actually like Raheem, have long enjoyed his mischievous observations on the state of British politics and don’t doubt the sincerity of his views, yet feel it’s important to respond to the specific attacks on the Eastern Partnership policy and explain why it isn’t merely another EU slush fund but an important part of wider western efforts to bring lasting democracy and stability to parts of the world at risk from Russian aggression.

While the policy may be being carried out under the auspices of the European Union, its aims are explicitly supported by NATO, the United States and Canada. Indeed, the suggestion that a Britain outside of the European Union would not still continue to contribute to programmes designed to boost allies in fledgling democracies and/or areas facing external security threats is fanciful.

As a global power (and I understand UKIP wishes for the UK to remain as such), it will always be in the interests of the United Kingdom to divert a portion of our tax revenues to overseas projects – political, military and humanitarian.

I’m happy to address the three specific examples of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine – and why I think the £20 million the Prime Minister has pledged for these projects is well worth it.

In the Georgia, the country has been a long-term strategic ally and an active contributor to the ISAF coalition in Afghanistan, where the country has provided more troops per capita than any other nation to the struggle against the Taliban. On a domestic level, the internal policing and judicial reforms that begun under the Saakashvili administration and have continued apace under the present Garibashvili government have made the country a safer and more prosperous place, where British firms have found significant commercial opportunities. The country’s physical location – next to Russia, within spitting distance of Iran and on the Black Sea – make it invaluable from military and intelligence perspective.

The west has, however, made a huge number of promises to Georgia that have hitherto not been honoured – particularly in the field of NATO membership and visa-free travel to the EU. The failure to honour explicit pledges has opened up a small, yet sadly growing support base for Moscow-aligned figures such as Nino Burjanadze – who can be expected to enter Parliament at the next election. Continued British and western funding is crucial for the continuation of Georgia’s political realignment – a win for them, a win for us.

In Moldova, three successive governments have demonstrated their commitment to eschewing their past Soviet legacy and pursuing a pro-western path. The country is under the most severe pressure from Russia imaginable; with Russian agents purposefully fermenting ethnic unrest in the autonomous, ethnic Turkic region of Gagauzia and troops continuing to be stationed in the breakaway region of Transnistria which had, until recently, been enjoying a period of detente with Chisinau. Is it seriously in the United Kingdom’s interests to see the undermining of Moldova’s democratically-elected government and its replacement with a puppet administration run from Moscow that will allow the expansion of Russian military installations in the Carpathians? I would argue not – and would suggest Britain taxpayer money is wisely spent in helping to create the appropriate conditions to avoid such a situation.

The reference to Ukraine as a “buffer state” ought, to anyone who has even the slightest smidgen of belief in the power of self-determination for countries, to be met with both insult and derision.

Ukraine has an absolute right to determine its own foreign policy path, independently from both the European Union and broader western alliance and the Russian Federation. The fall of the Yanukovych government – which was removed in an entirely constitutional fashion following a free vote in the Rada – was directly caused by the President’s decision to abandon an established and accepted domestic consensus on closer EU links and pursue, at the last minute, a tawdry trade deal with Vladimir Putin.

The constitutional dismissal of the Yanukovych administration has been followed by two democratic events that have reaffirmed the country’s decision to choose west over east – the election of President Petro Poroshenko and a separate poll which installed a coalition headed by the reformist Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. In the latter of the two polls, both the country’s far-left and far-right were shut out of Parliament and remnants of the Yanukovych clique scored only 9.4%.

Beyond the grim headlines that seem to characterise Ukraine’s global reputation at present, the country’s long-term prospects are strong. The Eastern Partnership has already had a tremendous influence in opening up trading opportunities for Ukrainian and British firms in the mining and textiles sector. Early judicial reforms have led to the arrest and jailing of scores of corrupt bureaucrats and politicians; making this country of 44 million people a more stable and attractive investment destination. Energy market reforms, forged in conjunction with Norway and the EU, will soon see the realisation of “reverse flow” technology for gas supply that will diversify the country away from its dependence on Russia for energy provision – another win-win situation for Ukraine and the west.

In reality, the work has just begun and continues to be complicated by the illegal occupation of Crimea and parts of the east. Measures such as the Good Governance Fund are a crucial part of keeping the reform process on track.

Ukraine has made its choice – and it is for a pro-western path. Talk of “buffer zones” and respecting Russian “spheres of influence” ought to be met with scorn and derision. Whatever happened to UKIP’s much-lauded commitment to self-determination?

Further to this, it appears to have become de rigueur amongst members of the UK Independence Party to allow a perfectly legitimate view that the UK ought to leave the EU to morph into a frankly bizarre sense of paranoia about the organisation’s motives in the Ukraine. The EU is, many of them claim, pursuing a “neo-colonial” agenda and “expanding its military power base” – yet they seem strangely lacking in fist-pumping indigence over Russia’s actual military incursion onto Ukrainian soil; in gross violation of just about every international law, norm and treaty going.

I would ask UKIP members – many of them decent and sincere people – to look at how preposterous they sound when they side with a former KGB official and his violent dictatorship over the EU. As ineffective, bloated, bureaucratic and out-of-touch as the EU is; Juncker isn’t Putin, Mogherini isn’t Lavrov and Tusk isn’t Rogozin.

The UK has always been an outward-looking and overwhelmingly constructive nation on the global stage. Those who believe it must remain so simply cannot allow the conspiracy theories and isolationist tendencies within UKIP to undercut programmes such as the Eastern Partnership and Good Governance Fund. This has nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with democracy.

The £20 million is a good use of British taxpayers’ money. Quote me on that. So be it.

Georgia, Armenia and Iran – some thoughts on the impact of the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy

imageIn June last year, the Governments of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova signed Eastern Partnership Association Agreements with the European Union. The signing of the agreements was rightly enthusiastically welcomed as a critical step towards feeling political and economic links between EU states and a trio of countries who are still recovering from the ravages of Soviet rule and dealing with the realities of a series of revanchist territorial adventures launched by Russia against their sovereign territories.

I am warmly enthusiastic about the trade-related aspects of the deal which will essentially extend the EU customs union to three growing economies as well as the prospects that exist for deeper cooperation in the fields of educational exchanges and the liberalisation of the current visa regime. As with most international agreements, however, there are downsides and benefits for new signatories.

From my perspective, the immigration and customs-related of the deal have had negative implications for “domestic” South Caucasus relations rather than strengthening them.

My first experience of the new regime was in September last year when crossing the border between Georgia and Armenia at Sadaxlo and Bagratashen.

The border crossing had always been a fairly painless affair, with personal vehicles and taxis being fast-tracked through customs while major goods vehicles whose goods had originated in Iran, Turkey and Russia reviewing the bulk of the attention from customs guards on both sides of the border.

This was noticeably different last year, with Georgian and Armenian officials conducting significantly reinforced checks on the boots of vehicles that included checking tobacco, alcohol and even agricultural export quotas had not been exceeded, as reflected by Georgia’s status as a member of the Eastern Partnership with the EU and Armenia’s then-imminent signing of the Eurasian Union accords – an mechanism administered by Russia.

While I fully understand the politics behind the new border arrangements, I must confess to having found them a little uncomfortable. During the Soviet era, I am told that the border crossing was effectively an administrative boundary with perfunctory ID checks while, in the post-Soviet space, traffic had always been allowed to flow relatively freely. As such, the dawn of the Eastern Partnership Association Agreement and Eurasian Union has effectively brought about an artificial division between the two states that had hitherto not existed.

There can be no doubt here that the loser will be Armenia. While the border between Georgia and Russia only operates intermittently, the country enjoys relatively easy trade with Azerbaijan and Turkey – two boom markets. On the contrary, Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have been closed since the early 1990s – leaving them reliant upon trade routes from Iran to the south (which is itself subject to international export ban on many manufactured goods) and the Georgian crossing to the north, whose operation is itself subject to whatever Tbilisi and Moscow are quibbling about that day. Increased delays on this border and the effectively demarkation of Armenia as part of one trade block and Georgia the other has already led to the significant curtailment of trade flows between the two – at least without bumping up against a complex tariff regime.

I suspect the effect on Armenia of this new economic reality will, in the short to medium term, be a grim one; regardless of how much money Russia throws at the country to upgrade its road and rail infrastructure under the auspices of the Eurasian Union.

Georgia has not been entirely spared any problems when it comes to the implications of the Eastern Partnership accords – which remain an overwhelmingly positive thing for the country.

Since the election of Mikheil Saakashvili in 2003 until late last year, Georgia had operated arguably the most liberal immigration and visa regime in the world. As a British citizen, I enjoyed the right to enter Georgia for work and tourism purposes for a total of 365 days at a time, with the period easily being reset back down to zero after a quick trip across the Armenian or Azeri borders and back into Georgia. This system was especially effective at attracting foreign investment to the country, as well as allowing it to develop a status as a regional cultural leader.

From the perspective of Iran, I find the new visa regime particularly concerning. While the bulk of western and western-aligned countries have operated a particularly tough visa regime in respect of Iran, the free movement and employment opportunities offered to Iranian citizens by Georgia offered a vital bridge from theocracy to the type of market and social liberalism that is ever-present in downtown Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi. Without these opportunities, the many young Iranians who delighted in the sanctuary and enlightenment provided by Georgia will continue to be isolated behind a wall of theocracy.

There is also a degree of economic realism that needs to be applied to this discussion. That requires looking beyond the packed bars and restaurants of Tbilisi, the dazzling new buildings and freshly-asphalted inter-city roads.

While Georgia’s economy has come on leaps and bounds in recent years with the development of a burgeoning financial services sector, its number one export remains scrap metal. The only real “cash cow” the country has that it can successfully milk in the short to medium term is the tourism sector – which I can personally vouch for as being outstanding

As such, the comments from Justice Minister Thea Tsouloukiani celebrating the fact that the “immigration reforms that entered into legal force on 1st September have resulted in the reduction of tourists by 42,000″ and that the “influx of Chinese, Iraqis and Egyptians was suppressed” should be greeted with concern. The developments she said, would help Georgia achieve “success in Riga”, where a summit will take place shortly under the auspices of the Latvian Presidency of the EU to assess the adherence to date of Eastern Partnership states with their transposition of EU standards.

It’s one thing to please the European Union’s assessors but a whole other thing to cause harm to your country’s economy via the imposition of a misguided visa regime that will harm not only the tourism sector but also future prospects for investment in domestic projects – from the financial services sector to the development of hydro power.

In my view, it is time that the Georgian Government sat down with European Union negotiators and conducted a comprehensive review of the positive and negative elements of the Eastern Partnership.

It was clearly not the intention of the agreement to further isolate Armenia, to harm valuable “soft power” cultural exchange with Iranian civil society or to undermine the growth of Georgian tourism.

Solutions to these problems can be easily found – and would be of benefit to the entire region.

It is understood – albeit with a degree of regret – that Armenia has made a decision to align itself with the Eurasian Union on the basis of the security guarantees provided by Russia in respect of Nagorno Karabakh. Given the existential importance Armenians place on this issue and the widespread degree of regret expressed by its political and diplomatic corps at having to withdraw from the Eastern Partnership, the country continues to command widespread sympathy in western capitals. As such, Brussels will be open to a deal to guard against Armenian isolation post-Eastern Partnership.

As a starting point, a particular tripartite committees involving representatives of the Georgian and Armenian governments, as well as those from the European Union and Eurasian Union should be established in order to resolve technical difficulties that exist in respect of the free movement of goods around the region.

I hope there is enough political will in both Brussels and Tbilisi in order to do so.

For ConservativeHome: The West must commit to Ukraine

imageOriginally published on ConservativeHome

In the early hours of yesterday morning, a ceasefire agreement was concluded between the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine to bring about an end to bitter fighting in South East Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The deal, which was forged under the supervision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, has met with a cautiously optimistic response in western capitals.

It should, of course, be welcomed in respect of the impact it may have on ending the current bloodshed in Eastern Ukraine, which has claimed the lives of 5,000 people and seen more than 500,000 flee their homes in fear of their lives.

In the short to medium term, however, its provisions risk reinforcing the division of the country and emboldening Russia to engage in further revanchist adventures beyond its borders.

As a starting point, any discussion of the agreement cannot gloss over the fact that inaction on the part of western powers played a considerable role in leading Ukraine to the position it finds itself in today.

While progress has been made in imposing economic sanctions upon the Russian Government and Kremlin-aligned business leaders, the failure to provide Ukraine with defensive weaponry following the annexation of Crimea has only served to embolden Putin’s push deeper into the Donbas region.

As such, we have moved from a situation where the subject of any deal between Ukraine and Russia ought to have been about the future territorial status of Crimea to a position where its annexation has been de facto recognised in order to reach a deal over Donbas.

Allowing a perception to take hold that the west is flexible when it comes to the territorial integrity of sovereign states will only serve to embolden revanchist Russian movements in the Baltics, the Moldovan province of Transnistria and northern Kazakhstan.

It is with these festering powder kegs in mind that the Minsk Agreement’s provision calling for a “new [Ukrainian] constitution with… a permanent law on the special status of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” is particularly concerning.

While nobody would doubt that the introduction of a degree of decentralisation is necessary to resolve local tensions, several provisions contained within the Minsk Agreement risk allowing separatists to build local power bases that undermine the integrity of the Ukrainian central government.

Of particular concern is the ability of rebels to create “people’s militia units to maintain public order“. This, coupled with a pledge to involve separatists in the appointment of prosecutors and judges, risks making the enforcement of criminal justice in the Donbas impossible.

When it comes to having faith in the Russian Federation’s sincerity in implementing the agreement, one must be mindful of the fact President Putin has spent the best part of a year bitterly disputing the presence of his country’s military on Ukrainian territory.

The pledge, therefore, to “withdraw foreign armed forces, military equipment and mercenaries” from Ukraine only serves to expose the President as a brazen liar.

As the talks themselves were underway in Minsk on Wednesday evening, Ukrainian forces detected the transfer of fifty tanks, 40 Grad, Uragan and Smerch rocket launchers and 40 armoured personnel carriers from Russian to Ukrainian territory.

With the formal ceasefire only due to start at midnight on Sunday 15, it is likely that this weaponry will be used to further entrench the positions of separatist forces verses Ukrainian troops over the coming hours. Even (perhaps naively) assuming Russia is sincere in its intentions to honour agreements to withdraw heavy weaponry within two weeks commencing Tuesday 17, plenty of time remains for separatists to secure their gains.

Given that the provisions of the agreement apply to both parties, the ban on all foreign military assistance will disproportionately harm Ukraine. The terms of the Minsk Agreement only require the removal of “artillery systems of 100mm calibre of more” and “multiple rocket-launcher systems“, not a wholly demilitarised zone.

As such, separatists will be free to hold on to the bulk of the expensive, high-calibre kit provided to them by Russia in recent months while Ukraine’s army will be forced to continue its reliance upon decrepit, Soviet-era weaponry. This simply isn’t a level playing field and risks leaving Ukraine very badly exposed.

This is not the first time that a deal of this kind has been struck in the former Soviet space. The provisions agreed in Minsk are eerily familiar to the conclusions of the Sochi agreements reached in 1992 and 1993 between the Georgia and Russian-backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with commitments to withdraw troops from the frontline, swap prisoners and pursue a “political settlement” to the conflicts.

Indeed, the same oversight body – the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) – was charged with policing adherence with the respective agreements.

Rather than ensuring peace and guaranteeing the integrity of the Georgian state, Sochi only served to create the conditions for separatist-run frozen conflict zones that – with Russian military support – still remain in place more than two decades later. It is quite possible that the Minsk Agreement’s provisions will lead to the same reality emerging in the Donbas.

Backed into a corner, Ukraine’s government has been brow-beaten into making intolerable compromises. Far from being a document to be welcomed, the Minsk Agreement is a text that ought inspire fear and regret on the part of western-policy makers.

If the Minsk Agreement is to result in any positive gains for the people of Ukraine and its occupied territories, the United States and European Union governments must commit to scrupulous scrutiny of Russia’s adherence to the terms of the deal. Regrettably, the expectation can be that it will be breached post-haste.

Vladimir Putin is said compare political moves to manoeuvers on a chess board. Western leaders have allowed themselves to be continually checkmated by Putin and his increasingly thuggish impulses throughout the Ukraine crisis. They must now be ready with their next move.

The United States Congress has already authorised Senator John McCain’s Ukraine Freedom Support Act authorising the provision of lethal weapons to the country’s military to aid its defence. It’s high time that the United Kingdom and our NATO allies made similar such preparations.

Vladimir Putin and his administration don’t understand words; only actions. It is a surfeit of noble words and lack of any meaningful military assistance to Ukraine that has led us to today’s impasse. We cannot let it happen again.

Putin’s little helpers: the 2015 Yalta conference

20140308_FBM922This weekend, a collection of the great and the good of Europe’s various nefarious political movements descended on the occupied Crimean peninsula of Ukraine to attend a rather grandly-named conference “Yalta 1945 – past, present and future”.

The conference was hosted by one Anatoly Karpov, a man who has been described to be as so backward-looking, he isn’t so much of a Putinista but more of a relic from the Brezhnev era.  Karpov appears to enjoy styling himself as a “Russian chess grandmaster” and a “former World Champion” but is rather less keen to draw attention to his past former position as President of the Soviet Peace Fund, an infamous KGB front organisation designed to pump funds into pro-Russian front-groups overseas.  The Soviet leadership were said to be absolutely incandescent when, in 1985, Karpov was defeated by the young upstart Garry Kasparov, who continues to be a thorn in the side of the Russian dictatorship to this very day.

Enough of Karpov, however.

The name of the conference, if you hadn’t already noticed, should have set alarm bells ringing.  While the conclusions of the 1945 Yalta Conference which saw Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin thrash out a blueprint for post-war Europe are clear to all, it’s the present Russian occupation of Yalta and the broader Crimea peninsula and their future plans for the region that are more concerning.

Are we to believe that a conference chaired by a former confidant of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev will have the best interests of regional security at heart?  I am sceptical.

According to a news report on the Russian state-owned news service Pravda (yes, it really is still called that):

“Russian President Putin did not take a direct part in the work of the conference. However, Putin prepared a special address to conference participants, in which he stressed out the inadmissibility of the dissemination of ideas of Nazism.”

It came as news to me that the “ideas of Nazism” could be considered anything other than “inadmissible”.  Indeed, the only quarter from which I have heard suggestions Nazism is on the rise are Kremlin spokesman attempting to undermine the work of the government of Ukraine and/or spread fear and distrust regarding the Euro-Atlantic integration process (to considerable effect in Moldova, localised regional effect in Ukraine and limited effect in Georgia).

Other contributors to the conference included Dr John Laughland, the author of “Travesty: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic” who has seemingly made a career out of acting as an apologist for Yugoslavia’s former dictator, the Russian State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin who is banned from travelling to the European Union and the “historian” and former MP Natalia Narochnitskaya, a member of the highly dubious Rodina (“Motherland”) party whose election posters included images of dark-skinned immigrants eating watermelons alongside the slogan “let’s clear our city of trash”.

putinistas2The conference also heard from Tatjana Zdanoka, a Latvian Member of the European Parliament who is banned from holding domestic office due to her support for the violent overthrow of the country’s post-Soviet government in 1991, the preposterous Alain Guyot who heads up a pro-Kremlin front-group called “Le Roue-Europe” which provides him with a platform to pontificate about the benefits of Russian global influence and Daniel Estulin, the author of “The True Story of the Bilderberg Group” and “Shadow Masters: How Governments And Their Intelligence Agencies Are Working With Drug Dealers And Terrorists For Mutual Benefit And Profit.”

None of this surprises me.  Indeed, the line-up sounds pretty similar to the plethora of other ultra-nationalist conferences taking place in Russia at the moment.

What alarms me, however, is the kosher stamp several representatives of established European political parties appear to have given the event.

putinistasThe largest single western European delegation at the conference appears to have come from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.  Delegates at the event include the unedifying figures of former Member of the European Parliament Fabrizo Bertot and Alessandro Musolino, both of whom “observed” the so-called “elections” in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) back in October last year.

To this list, we can also add the young activist Alessandro Bertoldi who appears to have a Facebook page entirely dedicated to his love of all things Putinista and Pedro Mouriño from Spain’s ruling Partido Popular who appears to have significant business interests in Russia and observed the phoney “referendum” in Crimea last year.

Clearly, political parties are entirely powerless to stop their members from traveling overseas to attend gatherings of this sort; nor does the attendance of any of the aforementioned individuals signify a “corporate” endorsement of Vladimir Putin or his aims.  It would be nice, however, to see the actions of these individuals in backing Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine condemned by their party leaders in the strongest possible terms.  I won’t hold my breath…

If you have the names of any other Western European attendees at the conference, please do let me know by submitting a comment below.

UPDATE: Davide Denti has been in touch to draw my attention to the full list of attendees from Italy.  The list is follows: Dario Tamburrano MEP (Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement), Alessandro Bertoldi, Giulio de Robertis, Jean Sebastien Lucidi, Pio Belmonte, Andrea Mascetti, Fabrizio Bertot, Alessandro Musolino, Alessandro Cassieri, Ivan Marino, Attilio Fontana.