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Archive for danielhamilton

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.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova: 2014 was a year of progress; 2015 must be the year of delivery

imageWith the Donbas in flames, Russian tanks still stubbornly parked on Georgian soil and Moldova’s enforced partition showing scant few signs of ending, it’s easy to forget what a momentous and positive year it has been for the political realignment of Eastern Europe.

There can be few more poignant images than those that have come from Ukraine; the peaceful EuroMaiden protests of a bright January making way for Viktor Yanukovych’s snipers and the horror of corpse-strewn fields following the shooting down of MH17.

The darkest hour, though, always comes before the dawn. The February departure of Yanukovych, a coward who bankrupted his country and prostituted its political alignment for personal gain, has led to a quiet revolution for Ukraine.

The country’s new President Petro Poroshenko, who scored an absolute majority of the vote in June and topped the poll in the country’s Ukrainian-speaking West and Russophone East, has demonstrated both pragmatism and professionalism in his new role.

The October parliamentary elections also brought cause for cheer, with a clear mandate for EuroMaidan-aligned parties and the democratic banishing of parties of the extreme right and left from the Rada. The new government, led by reformist Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has demonstrated and impressive willingness to think outside the box when it comes to ministerial appointments; appointing accomplished Lithuanian, Georgian and American experts to key roles.

While tensions continue to flare in the Donbas and Russian-backed rebels, directly reinforced with weaponry and troops provided by Moscow, continue to occupy the South Eastern border region, the government has had some success in pushing back their advances and security key strategic positions.

The conclusion of negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU and the reaching of a agreement in principle on the scope of future political integration capped off a significant year of meaningful progress for Ukraine.

In the case of Georgia, the country has had an uncharacteristically quiet year; lacking the spectacle of transfers of power between one party and another or one President or another that marked the past two years. While Russia continued to occupy both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both conflicts remained essentially frozen during 2014.

Georgia’s progress was, instead, marked by progress on political and military integration with the West. The June signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union was a welcome step forward that resulted in the liberalisation of trade and political links. While the September NATO Summit was somewhat of a disappointment in that it failed to deliver a clear Membership Action Plan for accession to the organisation, it did result in agreements to deepen cooperation on training and interoperability issues.

On balance, Moldova is slightly different to that of Georgia and Ukraine in that it is the only of the three “flashpoint” nations where public opinion is not decisively and overwhelmingly supportive of closer ties with western powers.

As such, the country’s present state of economic stagnation gave rise to real risk that pro-Moscow political parties may have been able to challenge the incumbent government at the November general election. In the end, pro-western forces secured 57 seats to 44 for Moscow-friendly parties – a stable governing majority.

The election victory of pro-western forces was not achieved solely on the basis of emotional arguments but was clearly influenced by transactional promises made to the Moldovan public. Just prior to the campaign, the streets of Moldovan cities were lined with posters declaring “no visa” would be required for future travel to EU countries; a message hammered home by Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn in a visit to Chisinau just three weeks before polling day. Promises, too, were made to ensure an increase in EU uptake of Moldovan agricultural and wine exports which have suffered due to Russian-imposed embargoes. To date, none of these promises have been effectively delivered upon.

In a country that remains partially occupied by Russia in its eastern province of Transnistria and faces considerable ethnic unrest in the ethnic Turkic Gaugazia region, allowing any impression of western insincerity to fester amongst the general public only seeks to reinforce the diet of pro-Moscow propaganda piped into the country via Moscow-based television stations.

The need to deliver on promises made – and the broader promise offered by Association Agreements – to Georgia and Ukraine is similarly acute.

The Georgian political space is home to many – some inside Parliament and many in the non-parliamentary opposition – who are actively waiting to seize upon any evidence of western intransigence when it comes to honouring pledges. Arguably the best known of these figures is former Presidential challenger Nino Burjanadze who in November offered a withering critique of “illusory NATO and EU membership”, arguing that the pursuit of these goals alienated Russia and risked a lasting settlement in respect of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

It would not be difficult to envisage Burjanadze’s comments striking a chord with many Georgians – both urban and rural – who have not shared in the country’s service sector-led growth in recent years. To head off a growth in this type of sentiment, it is therefore important that the trade-related aspects of the EU Association Agreement are immediately activated in order to ensure clear benefits can be felt domestically; particularly in the agricultural sector.

The case is similar in Ukraine, where the economy has been all but destroyed by the political and military conflicts of the past twelve months. While Ukrainian ratification of the Association Agreement with the EU has been postponed to December 31st 2015 in order to allow the country breathing space to negotiate with Russia, there are several steps western governments can take to build confidence with the Ukrainian public.

The first is for European Union governments to ensure that the commitment made to abolish all customs duties for Ukrainian exports is adhered to and not subjected to last-minute, protectionist “cherry picking” exercises designed to protect domestic agricultural and manufacturing industries from external competition. If Ukraine is to compete its political realignment towards the west, this must be complimented by an economic realignment away from dependence on Moscow for external trade.

The second issue is to ensure that appropriate financial support is provided for energy security issues. The new government’s coalition agreement includes the laudable objective of instituting a 30% cap on energy provision from a single source in order to avoid handing foreign powers an effective veto over domestic policy. While this objective is likely to remain just that – an objective – low-cost loans should be made available for the construction of new energy infrastructure such as LNG terminals in the Black Sea that will allow for increased imports of non-Russian gas.

Thirdly, European governments and the United States should ensure the completion of a visa-free regime for Ukrainian citizens. While this provision would bring relatively few benefits to most Ukrainians, the totemic benefit of easing business and tourist access would be a strong vote of confidence in the country’s reform process.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have all made unquestionable progress over the past twelve months. The hope one feels on the streets of Kyiv, Tbilisi and Chisinau is palpable – but fragile. If Europe and the United States fail to honour the pledges they have made, Moscow and its allies will surely be waiting in the wings with catty rhetoric and counter-offers.

If 2014 was a year if progress, 2015 must be a year of delivery.

The best and worst of my travels in 2014 – a review

With the year drawing to close, I thought I would sit down and take stock of some of the highlights (and lowlights) I have experienced during my travels this year.

In truth, there are so many inspiring, amazing and interesting things I have seen, so it has been had to hard to pick “winners”. I also have a fairly high threshold for problems when travelling, so you can also be assured that the “worst” section are truly execrable.

I’ve only mentioned places below that were new to me this year; so some old favourites have been overlooked. Fundamentally, though, have just written this for fun – so don’t take it too seriously.

WINNERS

Best landscape – Svaneti, Georgia

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Those who know me well won’t be remotely surprised to see Georgia – or rather, a region of the country – occupy this position. When I first visited the country about five years ago, I never could have predicted what a love affair it would turn into. From the narrow lanes of Tbilisi Old Town to the coastline of Abkhazeti to the modern piazzas of Batumi, Georgia has never once disappointed me – and I’m just getting started when it comes to getting to know the country.

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The Svaneti region of Georgia has an almost mythical, biblical quality to it. Located more than ten hours by road from Tbilisi (or a far more civilised ninety minutes by prop plane), the region is comprised of soaring peaks, unconquerable glaciers and enough history of chivalrous, warrior-like behaviour to scare off even the most fearsome of invaders. Georgia’s Soviet occupiers were just the latest in a string of wannabe conquerors that has included the Mongols and Tsarist Russians that were unable to fully bring the region under their control.

In many ways, the region is frozen in time – with the same gritty-minded independence and traditional practices held dear by the locals hundreds of years ago remaining the same today. As a case in point, compare the photo of the region’s capital of Mestia in the 1800s to how it looks today. Little has changed.

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Enough about the culture, though.

To spend a few days in Svaneti is to expose yourself to some of the world’s most stunning scenery.

Mestia itself is well worth seeing, with its collection of amazing “Svan towers” standing proudly above the town to provide a vantage point to identify and warn off invaders.

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A couple of hours walk from Mestia, one reaches Hatsvali where you can take a cable car to the summit of Mount Zuruuld. When you reach the top; stop, relax, order a cold beer and take in the surroundings.

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Visiting the Svaneti region, you should also not even consider missing out on a trip to Ushguli – the highest inhabited settlement in Europe. From the village, it is possible to walk for hire guides to take you to the impressive Shkhara Glacier.

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I’d like to think I’ve demonstrated why, in 2014, Svaneti was the best landscape I encountered.

Honourable mentions:

Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan - Once a prominent Soviet tourist destination, Lake Issyk Kul is now well and truly off the beaten track. Indeed, when I visited at the beginning of July the only other visitors appeared to be late middle-aged Russians and tourists from other parts of Kyrgyzstan. In terms of tourist facilities, the Issyuk Kul region and its main town Cholpon Ata have relatively little to write home about. The restaurants are fairly poor and local hotels haven’t been upgraded since the Brezhnev era. It’s the scenery that makes the place, though, with the ice-blue water of the lake sitting beautifully between the Tian Shan and Ala Too mountain ranges. There’s few places I’ve ever felt more isolated yet relaxed in than Cholpon Ata – and I’d love to go back.

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Budva, Montenegro - As a regular Balkans buff, Montenegro has long been a bit of a blind-spot of mine. At the start of the year, I vowed to change that and jumped on a cheap flight there. I’ve written about my experiences in Podgorica, the country’s small, charming and undeniably Yugoslav capital city, yet haven’t had a chance to put any thoughts down on the coastal resort of Budva and its surrounding region. Budva itself is an attractive little town, with a beautifully reconstructed Old Town and picturesque harbour but its real charm lies in the 10km coastline that leads to the island of Sveti Stefan. Even though my entire four day trip to Budva was marked by near-perpetual rain and cloud, the walk was no less stunning. I will be back.

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Kindest gesture – Vice-President’s security detail, Somaliland

Most people thought I was mad to visit Somaliland. I always knew it would be fine (and it was) but nevertheless, as a hat-tip to the concerns of my friends and family, thought I’d better arrange a car to pick me up at Hargeisa International Airport to take me to my hotel. Rather predictably, the car didn’t turn up – and I was left sitting in the arrivals hall wondering how I would manage to make my way the 15km or so to my hotel. As my fears began to mount, I was approached by a gentleman from the Vice-President’s security detail who offered me a lift to town. I was pretty sure he was kosher, so accepted. Minutes later, I found myself in an armoured jeep, accompanied by a rather humourless armed guard, zipping through the dusty, Mosque-lined streets of Hargeisa towards my hotel. I never did get a chance to specifically thank Vice-President Abdirahman Saylici for his team’s help…

Most memorable building – Norovank Monastery, Armenia

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There isn’t even a contest for this one. The 13th century Norovank Monastery is the most memorable building – or rather collection of buildings – I have seen this year. Comprised of the Surb Astvatsatsin and Surb Karapet Churches and located not far from the city of Yeghegnadzor in Central Armenia, it’s an incredible sight.

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Armenians do religious buildings well – and Norovank really does have it all: atmosphere, architecture and poignance. The complex itself is perched on a rocky hillside overlooking a narrow river gorge with spectacular views over red-brick cliffs and lush valleys stretching out into the distance.

If you visit, you’ll have to be virtually pulled away by your guide.

Most moving experience – EuroMaidan, Kiev, Ukraine

This one really needs no further explanation other than to note that, just days after this photo was taken, Viktor Yanukovych’s henchmen launched a wave of indiscriminate sniper attacks against civilians on the square that led to more than 100 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

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Yanukovych is, of course, now a figure of the past and much has changed in Ukraine recently with the election of the brave new President Petro Poroshenko and a new, pro-western coalition government. Ukraine will, however, remain a fragile stage for years to come.

Best meal – St George Restaurant, Bucharest

IMG_00000260Back in early January, I headed to the Romanian capital city of Bucharest for work in order to have a couple of meetings. While I my overall impressions of the city were very good, I was a bit disappointed to see that many of the city’s restaurants – particularly in the main business district and tourist areas – appeared to be fairly generic western-style places knocking out pizzas and gourmet burgers rather than traditional Romanian food. Some of these places were downright bizarre; the biggest culprit being a pizzeria with fake palm trees called “Coco Loco” (or something like that). On a beer level, I actually gave up attempting to find a local Romanian brew after inquires at many bars simply resulted in the owners proudly informing me they “only serve premium beers like Stella”. Gah!

IMG_00000262After wandering the streets of Bucharest for an hour or so, looking for somewhere pleasant-looking to eat, I spotted a cosy-looking restaurant on the edge of the Old Town – the St George Restaurant. It was absolutely the right choice – warm, welcoming, intimate and entertaining.

Operated by ethnic Hungarians from the Transylvania region of Romania, the food was simply superb. I started with a serving of chicken-filled “Hortobagy” meat pancakes, which were the perfect fuel to warm me after a protracted period of walking in cold, mid-winter Bucharest. My main course, “Szegedi” mutton stew with strapacska was tender, flavoursome and tasty. Accompanied by a bottle of Romanian red from the Urlati region, it made for the perfect dinner.

I am tempted to go back to Bucharest for the sole purpose of eating in this restaurant. If you’re in town, don’t miss it.

Honourable mentions:

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Hajdučki Konak, Zvečan, Kosovo/Serbia – Located about a ten minute drive north of the bridge that divides the ethnic Albanian-populated south of the town of Mitrovica from the Serb-run areas to the north, Hajdučki Konak provides Serbian hospitality at its very best. The food is pretty simple – grilled meats, fresh fish, home-made bread and salads. The building is a half stone-half wood cabin with a riverside garden in which to sit in summer and a cosy dining room with a roaring fire in the winter. Chomping on delicious ćevapčići and sipping on home-brewed Rakija, it’s easy to forget Kosovo’s problems as soon as you walk through its doors.

imageMozaik, Pristina, Kosovo – If I had to pick a “winner” solely on customer service alone, there would be no contest: Mozaik would be the victor. Set on a quiet side street (so quiet taxi drivers usually have no idea where it is), Mozaik is the brainchild of local chef Lorik who honed his English skills in the years following the Kosovo war. Stepping into Mozaik, you are transported from the gray monotony of the streets of Pristina to a cosy, mahogany-panelled dining foom where delicious meat dishes and tasty stews are the order of the day. I have been to the restaurant several times now and have never seen a menu – Lorik recommends, I accept, I eat and I’m happy. I even called ahead one evening when I was arriving in Pristina at 11pm and he specially kept the place open for me and my friends. Not to be missed.

Saba, Hargeisa, Somaliland - Located on the outskirts of Somaliland’s capital city, Hargeisa, Saba is a real gem. Owned and operated by a family of Yemeni immigrants who moved to Somaliland many years ago, it is an incredibly simple affair based around a shady courtyard filled with white plastic tables. The menu is purposefully small, containing a limited range of traditional Somali and Yemeni dishes – all of which are delicious (my favourite being the incredibly tender lamb stew with the home-made roti-style bread). The flavours are delicious, the mildly chaotic surroundings endearing and staff endlessly pleasant – albeit unable to speak a word of English. The only downside is that Saba, like everywhere else in Somaliland, is dry. At roughly $5 a head, though, it’s hard to complain.

Surprise standout – Dushanbe, Tajikistan

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Tajikistan was, if I’m being honest, a bit of a last-minute add on to my trip to Central Asia. It was a country I knew – and still know – relatively little about that I ended up being quite taken with.

There’s no point rehashing what I already wrote about the country’s charming capital city Dushanbe in this blogpost. More broadly, though, my experience of Dushanbe has led me to explore more options for exploring Tajikistan next year – most notably, the mountainous Gorno Badakhshan region on the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Watch this space…

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LOSERS

Worst hotel – Nondescript “motel” above a petrol station, Mitrovica, Kosovo

imageWhen I’m in North Mitrovica, I usually stay at the excellent Hotel North City. It’s clean, convenient and secure. Regrettably, it’s also quite popular with the foreign government and NGO community – especially when there’s an election on.

Having exhausted all possible options for accommodation in North Mitrovica, I looked across the other side of the ethnically divided city to the South. As a result of a block booking by the OSCE for their election observers, all the rooms there were gone too. Instead, a local cabbie took me to what appeared to be a petrol station somewhere on the main highway between Mitrovica and Pristina.”

After much fumbling on the part of the petrol station attendant, I was taken down what looked like a bin alley shown to an unmarked door at the top of a set of stairs bearing the word “MOTEL”. “Oh well,” I said to myself, “beggars can’t be choosers”. Well, in a way, they can: they can actively choose to either accept accommodation offered to them or sleep on the streets. On reflection, part of me wishes I’d chosen the latter.

The room I was taken to in the “motel” was lacking in any form of central heating, had threadbare (albeit clean sheets) and a bathroom (cleanliness status: undermined) where the means of both having a shower and flushing the toilet appeared to come in the form of a garden hosepipe hanging out of the wall.

I didn’t change out of my clothes that night. Nor did I shower. I still have no idea what the place is called; nor do I wish to remember. Learn my lesson: book hotels in Kosovo prior to travelling.

Most unpleasant government official – Customs Team, Addis Ababa Bole International Airport

imageWhen I first landed in Addis Ababa from Istanbul, I was incredibly impressed with the speed and efficiency with which I was issued a visa. The whole process; from landing to completing my paperwork to getting in a taxi to my hotel took less than ten minutes. Surely, I thought, it would be just as easy when I returned from Somaliland. No. No, no, no, no, no.

The first sign there may be complications with my visa to re-enter Ethiopia came when my flight from Hargeisa landed at the terminal designed to deal with Ethiopian domestic flights. Clearly, a domestic terminal does not have the ability to issue visas so, upon approaching the counter and enquiring as to how I could obtain one, I expected some solution to be found. Instead, I was told by the surly border guard that I had to head to the international terminal. Given that the two are not connected, this required waiting two hours for the official in question to deign to arrange a minibus to transfer me and the passengers that had arrived from the newly-born Republic of South Sudan (who were in the same boat) to the international arrivals hall.

Easy? Done? No. While the South Sudanese delegation were waved through, I was then subjected to a further five hour wait by customs officials who would only opaquely tell me they needed to “investigate” why I wished to enter Ethiopia. After my fourth hour waiting in the airport, I asked to speak to the British Embassy, only to be told I would be arrested if I asked again. Charming!

Eventually, I was admitted to Ethiopia after an interview (without coffee) with the chief border guard – a woman possessed with the charm of Vladimir Putin and build of Cyril Smith. She never did tell me what concerns they had about me entering the country…

I made my way into Addis Ababa and plonked myself down in the first restaurant I could find. To my dismay, it was a dry restaurant. Defeated; I was too tired to go anywhere else.

Most crooked taxi driver – Astana, Kazakhstan

imageAstana is a strange city. I’m not sure it’s possible to fully appreciate the place unless you have been to Dubai and seen the gaudy, soaring structures that dominate it’s impressive skyline. I have a theory that President Nazarbayev was quite taken with Dubai and decided, in the style of a true, vainglorious dictator, to spend a chunk of his recently-acquired oil money on trying to create a rival version of the place in Central Asia. He hasn’t been successful; I found it to be a city almost entirely devoid of charm.

My first introduction to the place was my taxi driver. Being a man of a certain confidence and a certain build, I don’t generally have too many problems with rip-off merchants overseas – but the incident on my arrival in Astana really takes the biscuit.

To start with, the taxi driver attempted to persuade me that the airport was 120km from Astana. It is in fact – as I knew – roughly 30km. Upon realising I wasn’t entirely clueless, he quickly performed a volte face and declared he knew a “shortcut” that would, ta da, indeed mean the journey would be 30km. (This “shortcut” rather closely resembled a main arterial road).

Having thought I had avoided the worst of the Kazakh cabbie’s gombeenism, I had a treat to look forward to. Pulling up outside my hotel, he attempted to jack up the fare to five times the amount on the meter. As I remonstrated with him, an English-speaking security guard from the hotel came out to find out what the fuss was about. Rather than accept he was not going to get away with ripping me off, he launched an audacious defence. The fare, he claimed while flashing a kindly-looking smile, was so high because he had taken me on a “photo tour” of Astana. In reality, I had wound down the window and taken a couple of blurry photos from the car as we drove along the motorway.

I handed him the fare on the metre and, aided by the hotel security staff who blocked his path towards me, took the lift up to my hotel room. He apparently remained in the lobby waiting for me for a further hour until they forcibly threw him out. Crook.

After South Stream: a equitable approach to funding Eastern Europe’s energy infrastructure

imageOver the past ten days, there have been two particular positive announcements in respect of the future of energy provision in Eastern Europe.

The first was the commitment issued in the new Ukrainian Government’s Coalition Agreement to work towards instituting a statutory cap of 30% of national energy mix per provider and the second was Russian Government’s confirmation that the South Stream project would be terminated.

In the first case, this will force Ukraine to move away from its dependence on Russian gas to keep the lights on – a factor which has significantly impeded successive governments from pursuing internal reforms without first obtaining “permission” from Moscow. Russian gas will remain an important component of the country’s energy mix – but not the only component. In the latter, the cancellation of South Stream will ensure that the Kremlin is unable to mask an aggressive attempt to expand political influence in Eastern in the form of pipelines. The short term, negative impacts upon Bulgaria and Serbia – the two states who had counted upon receiving economic benefits from the scheme – would easily have been negated by the consummate loss of sovereignty and economic latitude incurred by the presence of hundreds of kilometres of expensive, a Russian-owned infrastructure on their territory.

With the Ukrainian and South Stream developments in mind, my mind was drawn to the positive case of the new Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal that stated operating in Lithuania in October. As news reports explain, the terminal gives the country the ability to import “up to four billion cubic metres of gas per year from sources like Norway’s Statoil – well above the 2.7 billion cubic metres it bought from Russia last year… [leaving] extra capacity for its Baltic neighbours Latvia or Estonia”.

In effect, this development has broken Russia’s stranglehold on energy provision to the entire Baltic region and ensured stability of supply going forward.

While the Baltic states have now been EU members for a decade and possess the financial resources to make such a policy a reality, this is not the case elsewhere. In Ukraine, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has already expressly outlined his desire to see the construction of a similar facility in the Black Sea port of Odessa that could provide for 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually (roughly a third of Ukraine’s current imports from Russia). BP, Total and Kogas have already expressed their willingness to send supplies to such a terminal but, despite talks between Ukraine’s Government and Spain’s Enagas, the funding for the project has yet to be signed off.

The time has now come to consider how crucial infrastructure projects such as the Lithuanian LNG terminal, as well as the physical pipeline infrastructure required to bring gas to business and domestic customers, can be financed. It is clear that the national exchequers – whether in Sofia and Kyiv – will not have the means to provide this.

The United States and Western Europe need to be both serious and realistic about energy supply issues. That requires a financial commitment.

As such, it is crucial that the United States and Western European countries concerned with securing the geopolitical reorientation of fragile states such as Ukraine pool financial resources in order to provide low-cost loans or securitisation guarantees for strategically-important energy projects – the Odessa LNG terminal being one such example.

Rather than allow funds to be lost in an inefficient black hole of poorly-defined and weakly-administered European Union funds, it would be my proposal that a specially ring-fenced fund be independently and expertly administered by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The EBRD could have a role in both providing loans for the actual construction of infrastructure or, in cases where the private sector was able to offer loans at a more preferable rate, securitisation guarantees to give lenders peace of mind. Loans could additionally be matched with contributions from national treasuries or the private sector.

Part of the appeal for many states of Gazprom’s proposed South Stream projects was the infrastructure benefits they would bring. A new form of EBRD loan that offers the prospect of infrastructure gains without Moscow’s political preconditions would be a tangible and attractive solution that guaranteed the continuation of the region’s democratic pro-western reorientation.

Moldova’s parliamentary elections: what the results mean

imageThe results of yesterday’s Moldovan parliamentary elections are now in. Here are some initial observations about the results and what they mean for internal governance and the country’s future political orientation.

Pro-Moscow Socialists set to be largest party in Parliament – On the basis of initial numbers, it appears that the pro-Kremlin Socialist Party of Igor Dodon will be the largest group in Parliament. Dodon, whose campaign posters featured images of Vladimir Putin and made explicit pledges to rip up the Association Agreement with the European Union, will be heartened by his showing – but his politically toxic nature makes him irrelevant to the governing process.He has no scope to form a coalition and will, instead, sit in splendid isolation.One thing to watch, though, is the Socialist Party’s strong performance in the capital city Chisinau where they captured up to a third of the vote in some districts. Civil unrest at the hands of Socialist supporters cannot be ruled out.

…but continuation of pro-west coalition likely – Put simply: they’ve got the numbers to make it work. Overall, a coalition of the PLDM (Liberal Democrats), Liberals (PL) and Democrats (PDM) will have a three or four seat majority in the 101-seat Parliament on the basis of a 56% turnout. The government won’t enjoy an overwhelming majority in Parliament but, given the politically polarised, east/west nature of politics in the country, it ought to be stable.While nothing can be ruled out, an MP elected on a PLDM ticket is unlikely to suddenly discover an affinity for Dodon’s policy orientation, even if they dramatically fall out with Filat and Leanca.Furthermore, when it comes to hugely contentious votes, the coalition may even be able to extract some concessions fromVoronin’s Communists – a move that would guarantee the easy passage of legislation.

No role for Vladimir Voronin or the Communist Party – In the early stages of the vote count, it appeared as former President Vladimir Voronin’s Communist Party would come in second behind Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party. Despite the rather arcane name of his political party, Voronin and his political movement represent a more nuanced strain of pro-Russian thought than Dodon’s Socialists – favouring reform of the European Association Agreement to allow Chisinau greater energy links and agricultural export ties with Russia than presently envisaged.On a policy level, Voronin is very much a man of the left but has long since left Marxism behind; retaining the “Communist” label in order to appeal to elderly voters for whom the name still holds some attractions. Given the cordon sanitaire that exists between Dodon and pro-western parties, a second-placed finish for Voronin and his party may have seen the creation of a bizarre coalition of Communists and pro-western parties, forging a government under his leadership.In the end, results put Leanca and Filat’s Liberal Democrats in second place – and pole position to form a government.Having been a fixture of Moldovan politics since the late 80s, will the ageing Voronin now retire?

Gagauzia looks east – and to an uncertain future – Having suffered months of provocation at the hands of a Moscow-funded public relations campaign designed to sow ethnic tensions between the ethnic Turkic Gagauz community and the country’s majority ethnic Romanian community, it was no surprise to see the area strongly align itself with pro-Russian parties. Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party got their best result in the country here, capturing roughly 60% of the vote.In contrast, the ruling Liberal Democrats – who are on course to lead coalition negotiations – scored less than 2%.

The depth of the polarisation between Gagauzia and the rest of Moldova puts the region precisely where Moscow wants it. Following a bogus referendum earlier this year in which the Gagauz were asked to express a preference for either EU or Eurasian Union membership, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov delivered a rather predictable meme about the wish for Moscow to defend the right of “self-determination” in the region.While it is unlikely that Russia would send troops onto Moldovan territory in order to push its point, Gagauzia will continue to be placed under the most intense pressure in the coming months as both Moscow and Chisinau seek to curry favour with its residents.

Quite apart from any external meddling in the province by Russia, the Moldovan Constitution is clear that the status of Gagauzia would be reviewed in the case of the country opting to alter its “neutral” state and adopt EU or NATO membership. This issue is only just beginning to heat up – but may become one of the major foreign policy questions in Eastern Europe in 2015.

…while the diaspora looks west – Unsurprisingly, Moldova’s largest diaspora communities overwhelmingly favoured pro-western political parties. These voters, after all, have the most to gain from visa liberalisation measures and the prospect of ultimate European Union membership.Nationally, the combined vote for the incumbent pro-west coalition stood at roughly 60% while it was close to 90% amongst diaspora voters.Pro-Russian parties captured around 10% of the vote, which much of this likely to have come from Moldovans working in Russia that fear the implications of the country’s pro-western shift for their future job prospects.

Moldova’s general election – “do or die” time for pro-western forces

imageVoters in Moldova are today heading to the polls to vote in the most important general election for the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite the country’s small size, the poll is arguably also the most important one to take place in any European country since the outbreak of Euromaidan movement in Kyiv in November last year.

While the identity of particular leaders and portfolios they secured may have been decided in Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Ukraine earlier this year, a pro-western political orientation was assured by all the major candidates. This is not the case in Moldova, where political debate is split down the middle between pro-western parties favouring closer ties with the European Union and powerful, Moscow-aligned factions that favour signing up to the Eurasian Customs Union.

Opinion polls in the country show a lack of faith in the west or Moscow. The final pre-election poll conducted for the International Republican Institute showed, if given the choice between EU membership and Eurasion Union membership, 46% would side with Brussels and 42% with Moscow. 31% support membership of NATO and 31% are opposed.

Going into Election Day, polls showed a painfully close race with the pro-west coalition of the Democratic Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Liberal Party fairly finely balanced with the pro-Moscow Communists and Socialists.

For those who favour Moldova’s pro-western path and wish to see the current governing coalition returned to office, this is a “do or die” moment.

imageThe issue motivating Moldovan voters are predictable. 34% mentioned tackling unemployment as a key factor, 32% cited corruption and more than half combined (52%) mentioned low incomes, high prices, inflation and poverty. It is for voters to decide whether Moscow or the west has the solutions to these challenges

Fuelled by the groundbreaking political orientation taking place in Ukraine, there is both the appetite and willingness to see Moldova complete the same journey. Western decision makers are wisely not making the same mistake as they did following the abortive Orange “Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, where initial, grandiose promises from the EU and Washington DC were not matched by practical political support measures such as development loans (40% describe the poor quality of roads as “the” key issue facing their town or village) and visa free facilitation.

Despite the ongoing Russian occupation of the Transnistria province in the east of the country, western decision makers have abandoned their usual timidity towards Russia and instead worked with Prime Minister Iurie Leanca and his predecessor Vlad Filat to sign the initial chapters of an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). They now await implementation.

The risk to the continuation of Moldova’s political reorientation comes in the form of former President Vladimir Voronin’s Communist Party or Igor Dodon’s Socialists. Both men favour a radical departure from the government’s current path, with Voronin wishing to renegotiate some provisions of the Association Agreement and DCFTA related to energy supply and anti-discrimination measures while Dodon would readily abandon it in its entirety.

imageThe Moldovan Government rightly moved last month to shut down transmitters carrying broadcasts from Russian-based television networks which were aimed at spreading conspiracy theories and suspicion about developments in Ukraine and the west’s motivations in Eastern Europe. Domestic Russian language networks funded from Moscow do, however, continue to operate from within Moldova and have pursued a strongly pro-Dodon editorial line.

Russia has also been pursing an aggressive programme of misinformation amongst the country’s ethnic Turkic Gauguz minority, alleging that closer EU links would lead to Moldova federation with Romania and the loss of their minority language and education rights. These charges are entirely baseless, yet have been exacerbated by an unofficial referendum held in Gauguz areas rejecting western ties funded by Yuri Yakubov, a close associate of the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Shoigu’s tactic of seeking to unsettle ethnic minorities in former Soviet states and politically pit them against the “ultra-nationalist” majority population while positioning Moscow as the guarantor of their rights is nothing new. Indeed, he has successfully implemented similar manoeuvres in the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Ukraine’s Donbas. Regrettably, it appears have been a success in Moldova and an overwhelming proportion of ethnic Russians and Gauguz will back the Socialist Party.

Despite the campaign of lies and misinformation being waged from Moscow, pro-western sentiment remains strong.

47% believe that Moscow is to blame for the blockade of Moldovan agricultural exports to Russia, while 18% believe the problems originated in Chisinau. In response to the trade embargoes, 44% believe Chisinau should seek alternative markets for the country’s goods while 37% believe the government should reason with Moscow to reopen markets. Only 12% favour aligning Moldovan foreign policy with that of Russia in order to reopen trade routes.

imageOn the issue of occupied Transnistria, Moldovans remain bullish. 60% see the territory’s future as integrated with Moldova with no special autonomy, while 15% would grant the region autonomy in order to bring it back into the fold. Only 8% wish for it to join the Russian Federation.

The choice Moldovans need to make today isn’t, in either case, an easy one.

The pro-western path offers few immediate, tangible benefits to the country other that opaque promises such as visa-liberalisation and the prospect of free trade in a country that has few exports of any value. The vision advocated by Voronin and Dodon would, for sure, see the immediate delivery of higher pensions and lower energy costs funded by Russia – but with no long-term certainty and at the cost of the country’s political and economic independence in the future.

If, as I hope, pro-western forces prevail, the closeness of the result should be seen as a wake-up call to all those in Brussels and Washington DC who have for too long been intransigent when it comes to the future of Moldova. We need to match Moscow’s incentives with promises of actual progress rather than just theoretical treaties.

When it comes to building trade and political links with Chisinau, it’s time to hit the accelerator.