Friday, February 26, 2010

Ukraine: Can Yanukovych Force Tymoshenko Out?

By Tammy Lynch

On 25 February, Viktor Yanukovych stood in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, took an oath, and assumed the office of the presidency.

It was a quiet affair.

This was in marked contrast to the festival-like atmosphere of Viktor Yushchenko’s extended, day-long inauguration in January of 2005.

But then…the presidential election of 2010 was a much quieter affair overall, forged more by disillusionment and disappointment than by hope.

Regardless, the real fireworks may be coming over the next several months, as President Yanukovych attempts to consolidate control. Since Yanukovych won only 48% of the vote and beat Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by just 3.5%, that task will not be easy.

As noted in Tuesday’s blog, the President and Prime Minister share almost equal constitutional powers, although the president’s decree power and control of the security services may give him an edge. In order to implement his policy objectives, Yanukovych will need to either strike a deal with Tymoshenko or force her removal and replacement by parliament.

Yanukovych’s Party has already introduced a motion for a vote of no-confidence in the government, which would force a resignation.

However, in reality, it’s much more complicated. Not only would parliament need to remove Tymoshenko and her cabinet, but they would need to nominate and confirm a new PM. The simple majority required for a no-confidence vote may exist, but the configuration for a new parliamentary majority, which approves the PM, may not.

This is because, according to Article 83 of Ukraine’s constitution, a parliamentary majority is formed only by “a coalition of parliamentary factions.”

In the past, formation of the “coalition of parliamentary factions” has meant parties or blocs joining together with the approval of the majority of each of their members. The full memberships of all of these blocs are then added together to form the parliamentary majority.

The current majority consists of The Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, the Bloc of Our Ukraine and the Bloc of Volodymyr Lytvyn, for a total of 245 members.

Should the current majority cease to exist, Yanukovych would need to form a new majority. As noted above in the constitution, affiliated individual members cannot be included in majority coalitions – only blocs or parties. Yanukovych’s 172 seats, in addition to likely coalition partner the Communist Party (27 seats) and Lytvyn (20 seats) are not enough to provide the required 226 seats. The other blocs in parliament are BYuT and Our Ukraine. It appears currently that these blocs will not enter any coalition with Yanukovych, meaning the new President only would control a minority 199 seats and be unable to nominate a PM (the sole purview of the majority).

Should no new majority be formed within 30 days, Article 90 of the constitution allows the president to terminate parliament’s authority, which would trigger new parliamentary elections.

But there is every reason to believe that most members of parliament do not want new elections. The new configuration may result in a drop of support or total elimination of both Lytvyn’s Bloc and Our Ukraine. These forces would likely be replaced by new Serhiy Tihipko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk blocs.

This could mean there is little choice for Yanukovych but to put up with Tymoshenko for now – unless he’s able to provide enough incentives for Our Ukraine to switch allegiances. At the moment that seems unlikely, but in Ukraine, nothing is impossible.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Alasania Joins the Noghaideli Coalition: Implications for Georgia and the West

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

February 24 was a decisive moment in ex-prime minister of Georgia Zurab Noghaideli’s indefatigable effort to consolidate the pro-Moscow forces in Georgia’s fragmented opposition. Irakli Alasania, who had been seen as a pro-Western alternative to President Saakashvili’s liberal government, has abandoned his allies in the Alliance for Georgia, a moderate opposition amalgamation, and sided with Zurab Noghaideli. The U-turn made by Alasania, Georgia’s former envoy to the United Nations, is more significant than a mere shift of allegiances from one opposition camp to another. It demonstrates the radical opposition’s determination that Tbilisi’s quest to remain free and integrate with the West is not only futile but inexpedient as well.

Before February 24, Alasania was the Alliance for Georgia’s candidate for Tbilisi mayor in the local elections scheduled for May 30. He was going to run against the incumbent mayor, Gigi Ugulava, backed by President Saakashvili’s United National Movement, and against a candidate that the Noghaideli-led coalition would choose in a primary election or in some other fashion. Now that Alasania has joined the pro-Russian camp, even if this were an arcane political maneuver, not only is his candidature under serious doubt, but, as some analysts predict, Noghaideli’s coalition will purposely select a more hawkish, street-type figure such as Levan Gachechiladze to run against Ugulava, who has approval rates much higher than any oppositionist does. Notably, Gachechiladze and his partners shredded up their MP identifications and refused to enter parliament after the 2008 elections. Since then they have eyed street protests as the only way to a “regime change” in Georgia, and Noghaideli too has repeatedly threatened an uprising if “public mood is not reflected” in the results of the upcoming local elections.

A gathering, organized by Noghaideli in Tbilisi’s Chess Palace on February 24 to showcase opposition unity attracted almost the whole gamut of anti-Saakahvili and anti-liberal worriers ranging from the “patriotic” and nationalistic intelligentsia to radical political leaders. Having become the number one media event of the day, covered by all Georgian national TV channels, the meeting was reminiscent of the developments preceding the November 2007 and April 2009 opposition functions invariably aimed at President Saakashvili’s ouster.

Unlike past events when one could only ruminate about Moscow’s involvement and just draw a logical chain between the Kremlin’s strategy and Georgian radicals’ own aspirations – which would have been downplayed as “irrelevant” in Western capitals, especially in Brussels – now Russia’s direct involvement is not only doubtless but is so brazen that one can easily conclude that Russia and its junior partners in Georgia’s radical opposition are playing an open game.

Noghaideli has traveled five times to Moscow in less than three months, met with Putin once or twice, and concluded a pact of friendship with Russia’s ruling United Russia party. Shortly before organizing a pro-Kremlin gathering in Tbilisi he visited Brussels, apparently to tell the Europeans that he enjoys Putin’s backing and is therefore the man who can work out relations with the Russians. Is Brussels not fed up with Saakashvili’s “quixotic” attempts to bring his nation into Europe and the Euro-Atlantic fold? Are not Georgia’s outstanding issues of freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity too much of a burden for Europe to be displeased with a new man in charge of Georgia who would sacrifice those issues to the noble cause of peace with Russia? Is not “calm” more important than freedom, liberty and democracy, especially when it comes to a country in the remote Caucasus, whose strategic significance is still doubted in Western capitals? These are the issues one needs to consider when contemplating the Kremlin’s growing audacity and Europe’s debilitating fatigue.

Indeed, one rationale for Alasania, an erstwhile Western darling whose zigzagging path to his political self-esteem over the course of one and half years oscillated under the influences and incentives from the West and Russia, could be a solid realization that bandwagoning with the pro-Russian camp is politically more rewarding than being the leader of the only pro-Western force in Georgia’s non-parliamentary opposition. While Noghaideli boasts of his meeting with Putin and runs his party ad on Georgian TV featuring his handshake with the Russian master, Alasania’s shier past experience could only brandish his encounter with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in early February. But now that he has come out in the pro-Kremlin camp, Alasania has plenty of room to expand his list of Russian encounters. Incidentally, following the gathering of Georgia’s pro-Russian forces, he received an invitation to visit Moscow from a Georgian with direct access to the Kremlin.

The Noghaideli gathering in Tbilisi occurred a day before Georgia marked the 89-year anniversary of the Russian invasion on February 25, 1921 when independent and democratic Georgia was toppled by Bolshevist hordes in a fresh wave of Russian expansion. Now that the Kremlin has already succeeded in dismembering Georgia, it badly needs a government in Tbilisi that would legitimize Russia’s new order. Since pro-Russian forces in Georgia lack public support to achieve this through constitutional means, the day may be nearing, many Georgians fear, when Russian tanks will show up in the Kremlin’s already open quest for Georgia. The only way for this day to never arrive is if the Georgian people’s pro-Western course and the United States’ and Europe’s support for Georgia become more substantial on the ground.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In Ukraine, Tymoshenko heads to the opposition

Whether Yulia Tymoshenko retains her position as prime minister or not, it appears she will be Ukraine’s main opposition voice.

On Saturday, she withdrew her challenge of Ukraine’s election results, claiming the court would not consider her evidence. It remains unclear whether the court actually refused to consider evidence or whether the evidence did not fit within its legal competence. But regardless, the withdrawal of the case before the completion of the hearing provided Tymoshenko with the ability to appear wronged. She has now retreated to regroup for the next battle, which will occur following Viktor Yanukovych’s inauguration on February 25.

See this Reuters video for background on the withdrawal of the court case. Embedding is disabled, so for best viewing, right click to watch on YouTube. (Also, ignore the reporter’s mispronunciation of Yan-U-ko-vych instead of Yan-u-KO-vych.)

Should Tymoshenko remain head of government for any significant length of time, this would create a potentially mammoth battle between the offices of president and prime minister. The battle has the potential to either help Ukraine maintain the most developed political pluralism in the region or be as damaging as the 2005 war between Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko. Or perhaps both.

The scenario is created by Ukraine’s complicated (and convoluted) mixed parliamentary-presidential system. In essence, Ukraine’s prime minister holds significant and important powers, but they often overlap with the president.

According to hastily approved constitutional amendments in 2004, the prime minister is chosen and approved by the parliament.

The head of government then chooses the majority of the cabinet based on parliamentary majority coalition negotiations and approval. Economic policy, social policy and most other domestic matters technically are within the portfolio of the prime minister. The president retains control of the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry.

The president also controls the State Security Services and the Prosecutor-General’s Office. And he retains decree powers that appear to have few limits.

In recent years, the prime minister has negotiated and signed most international agreements dealing with economic matters. Tymoshenko signed these agreements primarily under the authority of Article 116, Point 8 of the Constitution, which states that the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine “organizes and ensures the implementation of the foreign economic activity of Ukraine.”

However, it is unclear whether the new president can insist on signing these agreements instead of Tymoshenko. It is likely that he will do so based on Article 106, Point 3 of the Constitution which says that the President of Ukraine “represents the state in international relations, administers the foreign political activity of the State, conducts negotiations and concludes international treaties of Ukraine.” A Constitutional Court battle could be ahead, and it could influence the direction of Ukraine’s foreign policy.

Should the two offices compete for control of both domestic and international policy, the country may enter a prolonged period of stalemate – assuming both offices are effective.

Yanukovych, of course, will attempt to remove Tymoshenko before that happens. In fact, his Party of Regions has already introduced a parliamentary motion of no confidence in the government. In a possibly ominous sign for the President-Elect, Tymoshenko’s government quickly announced its support for the idea.

Most important, while Yanukovych likely could muster a simple majority to vote no confidence in Tymoshenko, he may not actually be able to replace her with a new government. This could lead to another round of snap parliamentary elections – which still would provide no guarantee of a solution to the stalemate.

More on that tomorrow……

Russia’s Ursine Embrace of Georgia’s Abkhazia Province: Ongoing Annexation with Larger Geostrategic Consequences

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

On February 16, the Russians summoned to Moscow Sergei Baghapsh, the leader from the occupied Georgian region, shortly after his inauguration as “president of Abkhazia.” The occasion, dubbed “a state visit”, was used by the Kremlin to impose on the impoverished and depopulated Georgian province ten new “agreements” meant to tighten Russia’s military grip in the strategically important Black Sea region.

The military aspect is just part of Moscow’s larger scheme, which, as the agreements explicitly show, also has significant political, economic, social and demographic dimensions. It is worth remembering that Georgia’s Abkhazia province is adjacent to Sochi, home to the 2014 Winter Olympics, which is seen by Russian Prime Minister Putin as an affair of utmost state importance. Putin has less than four years left to complete Abkhazia’s de facto annexation if he wants to avert Tbilisi’s protestations and international complications immediately before the Olympics.

Still, the agreements that the Russian leaders have signed with their client in the occupied Georgian territory could also be viewed as a blueprint for agreements they would aspire to conclude with Tbilisi should they succeed in overthrowing President Saakashvili’s liberal government, and in bringing pro-Russian forces to power in Georgia. The implications of this would first and foremost would mean a heavy Russian military presence all across Georgian territory and well beyond.

Out of ten agreements Moscow has now imposed on the regime it created in Abkhazia, one deals with the establishment of the “united Russian military base” at Gudauta, which, incidentally, must have been long closed in light of the provisions of the OSCE Istanbul Summit of 1999. The economic package of agreements allows Russia to “legitimize” the de facto takeover of the Abkhaz section of the Georgian railway system, establish direct air connection with Abkhazia without first seeking Georgian consent and monopolize the banking system in Abkhazia, which already has the Russian ruble as its currency and receives some subsidies from the Kremlin. The maritime cooperation agreement is to impose Russian rule over the Abkhaz segment of the Georgian Black Sea coastline and cooperation on migration, emergency situations and environment, and as part of the “social package,” Russia is to further incorporate Abkhazia into its social fabric.

Tellingly, during Baghapsh’s trip to Moscow, the State Duma—Russia’s legislative organ—released a statement marking the 200-year anniversary of the ukase issued by Russian Tsar Alexander I in 1810, the results of which turned Georgia’s Abkhazia principality into a Russian protectorate in the course of the Russian Empire’s gradual expansion to the Caucasus, and annexation of Georgian kingdoms and principalities in addition to the North Caucasus. This statement was made in an effort to reconnect the present-day development with the imperial experience of Tsarist Russia and to more precisely show the world what type of relationship the Kremlin aims to develop with the now “sovereign” Georgian province. The Duma declaration was understandably silent on the brutal massacres and deportations Muslim Abkhaz and Circassians were subjected to by Russian tsars throughout the 19th century in their bloody attempt to tame the Caucasus by changing its demographics.

Abkhazia, now almost depopulated as a result of yet another brutal ethnic cleansing, this time of hundreds of thousands of Georgians and other “alien elements” that Russia helped to coordinate in the early 1990s, could become re-populated again in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics. Under intense Russian pressure, Baghapsh is forced to give the Russians a right to acquire property in Abkhazia, while pledging to never allow Georgians to return to their homes except for the southernmost Gali district where Georgians living in ghettos are not even allowed to travel to other parts of Abkhazia. In light of the Russian policy legitimizing the result of the ethnic cleansing, Baghapsh recently stated: “[Efforts should be made] to help displaced [Georgians] to adapt to life in Georgia. That would be the right thing to do." What a contrast given Russian leaders’ PR declarations that they love the Georgian people in comparison to the Saakashvili government.

There is no doubt that Moscow views Abkhazia as another Russian “republic” and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, intentionally revealed this attitude at a press conference on February 17 when he said: “We are developing our interregional ties. The city of Moscow has been active in this respect, as have [been] some other Russian entities, especially those neighboring Abkhazia, Krasnodar Territory, for example. Other regions are also showing interest in developing relations [with Abkhazia].” Baghapsh’s words at the press conference, though, attested to yet another aspect of Russia’s expansionism. He said, “We began working on the agreements signed today a long time ago, before [the] recognition of our independence.” This statement unambiguously showed that even though Russia formally respected Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity before the August 2008 invasion, annexation efforts had been in full swing for “a long time” before the “recognition.”

As expected, Tbilisi’s reaction to the Kremlin’s Abkhazia annexation efforts was swift. The concluding part of the Georgian foreign ministry’s condemning statement of February 17 read, “the Kremlin regime should remember that they will answer for all committed crimes, including, and first of all, for criminal actions committed against Georgia, as its predecessor, the Soviet Union, answered for the crimes in Katin, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Afghanistan before the international community.”

Many in Georgia fear, however, that the international community is doing too little to stop Russia’s annexation of Abkhazia and allege that Moscow’s Abkhazia policy is just one small part of a larger scheme aimed at the restoration of Moscow’s domination over the whole of Georgia and the Caucasus. If Moscow’s attempts are not vigorously countered today, they contend, Russia will only intensify its efforts to bring about a regime change in Tbilisi, which would have serious geostrategic consequences not only for Georgia but the United States and the West as well.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Gone with the Wind

By Jiri Kominek

France has attracted a lot of criticism over the past few months over its intentions to sell its state-of-the-art Mistral class amphibious assault ship to Russia.

Many questions arise as to why the French would want to break ranks with the E.U. and their NATO allies, and enable Russia to potentially threaten its neighbors including Georgia and the Baltic Republics with the new class of French ships whose name Mistral literally translates into “wind”.

Historically France has always been a liberal arms dealer, willing to sell to just about everyone from failed African states to Saddam Hussein. So why should French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his administration give pause in this case, before throwing caution to the wind, so to speak? Perhaps there are a few reasons.

Apart from Western critics, voices within the Russian Navy question the value of such an acquisition, with some military experts going so far as to call the Mistral a “white elephant”.[tt_news]=35718

Russian and other military experts doubt the ability of the Russian Navy to use the new vessel to its fullest potential. Apart from serving as a helicopter carrier and landing dock, the Mistral class also can serve as a command ship equipped with modern net-centric Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR), and other electronic warfare capabilities.

In order to function properly in a naval battle group, however, the ship must act in concert with other vessels equipped with similar capabilities which, sadly the Russian Navy lacks. Furthermore, in what form the French will sell the Mistral to Russia remains unknown; however it is doubtful they will provide a fully packaged deal including all the toys.

One Western military expert said of the sale: “it is similar to buying a top of the line sound system for your home, when your home has no electricity”.

What could both sides hope to gain through the deal, which marks the first occasion that a NATO member will sell a sophisticated weapons platform to a former Cold War adversary?

For starters, the Kremlin can score brownie points with its domestic ship-building industry by providing the Severodvinsk or other shipyards with much needed work. After all, the Kremlin has hinted that the initial USD430-580mn purchase of a single vessel made in France could have follow-on orders for an additional 3-4 ships to be made under license in Russia.

In addition to providing work for local shipyards, the deal could spell a much-needed boost in terms of modern technology transfers for Russia’s ship-building industry.

Sarkozy can also tout the deal as a boost to its domestic naval industry, with DCNS always on the lookout for another customer, especially when the global economy is in the midst of a recession.

Furthermore, Sarkozy has defended the Mistral deal earlier in February saying that “one cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we do not treat it as one”.

But is the Mistral really about French and Russian jobs? Prague-based Russian analyst Ondrej Soukup holds a different view.

“The sale of French ships to Russia appear[s] more to have something to do with Russia attempting to attract French support for the Nord Stream and South Stream gas pipeline projects than with boosting arms sales and guaranteeing steady work in domestic shipyards”, said Soukup.

It is no secret that Gazprom continues to hold talks with GDF Suez as part of an effort to bring the latter aboard the Nord Stream project.

In late November, 2009, France’s competing energy supplier EDF signed on with Gazprom for a 10 percent stake in the South Stream gas pipeline project .

The question is who needs who in this equation? France meets most of its electricity demands domestically through nuclear energy and renewable resources. Gazprom on the other hand needs additional cash as well as the added political clout of another large E.U. player such as France to lend support to both projects in order to stave off criticism that it is solely a Russo-German gambit.

Furthermore, by getting a large player such as France onboard, Gazprom will find it easier to undermine the rival Nabucco project which has been regarded as the E.U.’s alternative supply route intended to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and the Kremlin’s mood swings.

Should this prove to be the true rationale behind the Mistral deal, then the whole matter is more than hot air; in the long-term, by going with the Russian flow, France would be drifting in an altogether different direction, potentially leaving the concept of a united and independent E.U. forever gone with the wind.

The Sino-Russian Race to sell Arms

By Sergei Zaitsev

In 1989, following the Tiananmen Square incident, China was chastised by all of her suitors. The U.S., France, and Britain, all of whom eagerly sold weapons to China throughout the 1980’s, slapped Beijing with an arms embargo that still remains in effect (although this might change later this year). The West assumed that such an embargo on China would cripple the PRC’s nascent military-industrial complex because China’s relationship with the only other major arms supplier, the Soviet Union, was still highly tentative at best. Following the collapse of the USSR, however, Russia eagerly stepped in to fill the void. In fact, according to a U.S. Congressional Report, from 2000 to 2008, 95% of China’s arms purchases came from Russia (for a total of approximately $16 billion). Furthermore, between 2002 and 2006, China accounted for 45% of Russia’s overall weapons sales (the next largest buyer, India, accounted for 25%). But over the last four years this once-budding relationship has imploded. According to Anatoly Isaikin, Director General of Rosoboronexport, only 18% of Russian arms exports in 2009 went to China. Moreover, Russia has completely stopped selling China the advanced Su-27MK and S-30MK2 fighters and the Varshavyanka-class diesel submarines. Instead, most of Russia’s sales to China now constitute military transport aircraft, fuel tankers, and aircraft engines. Some analysts blame the growth of China’s military capability for this precipitous decline in sales. According to Alexander Nekrassov, for instance, a “desperate Russia” now begs the disinterested Chinese to buy her guns. This romance, however, is far more complex and ending the relationship with China was as much Moscow’s choice as it was Beijing’s.

The drop in China’s imports from Russia parallels the rise of Beijing’s arms exports to the rest of the world. However, the majority of the weapons that China sells are not designed by the Chinese, but rather reverse engineered from models supplied by Russia. For example, China’s best-selling air defense system, the FT-2000, is a hybrid of American Patriot and Russian S-300PMU technology. It’s not as good as the Russian model, but is a cheaper and generally effective alternative. The Russians knew perfectly well that the Chinese were reverse engineering their weapons, but generally didn’t care because Russia’s top brass didn’t consider China to be a major military competitor. In 2006, the year that Russia decided to curtail weapons sales to China, Yury Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian general staff, said that it would take China until 2050 to become a “mighty, world-class military power”. It was not a fear of strategic competition that caused Russia to stop selling weapons to China, but rather the increasing capability of China to reverse engineer Russia’s best technology and then sell it on the open market.

The decline in Russo-Chinese weapons sales began in 2007 when Russia’s economy was still booming. Today, with Russia mired in a deep recession, the military-industrial sector is regaining the importance that it held in the 1990’s when weapons sales were the only way for the cash-strapped Kremlin to make money. The Russians have been working hard to diversify their customer base—signing a long-term contract with Algeria, working closely with Syria, increasing their weapons sales to Africa. However, in all those areas Russia has encountered stiff competition from Chinese weapons manufacturers. In this week’s China Brief, Cynthia Watson details the growth of China’s exports to Latin America, an area that has seen a 50% increase in arms purchases over the last five years. However, the Chinese are not the only ones making inroads in the Western Hemisphere – in the last year Russia has also substantially increased sales to Venezuela, Brazil, and Cuba.

Both Russia’s and China’s military budgets have been growing at an annual rate of 10% over the last ten years. If this trend continues we are likely to see increasingly vicious competition between Russian and Chinese weapons manufacturers throughout the world. This, in turn, could lead to a closer relationship between Russia and China’s strategic competitors (to whom China is hesitant to sell weapons). Stephen Blank wrote an excellent article in Eurasia Daily Monitor about Russia’s weapons sales to Vietnam. Russian’s dogged attempts to impress India at the Def Expo 2010 have also made headlines throughout the world. The accelerating speed of China’s rise is causing tectonic shifts throughout Eurasian geopolitics. It remains to be seen what effects this will have on the Sino-Russian strategic partnership.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An Unintended Effect of Russia’s Open Game: Major Schism in the Georgian Opposition

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

There were times when Russian leaders and their junior partners in the radical Georgian opposition often acted in dissonance and the Kremlin’s rhetoric and action did not necessarily coincide with the ups and downs in the Georgian radicals’ statements and street functions, unwaveringly aimed at President Saakashvili’s ouster. Now, it seems, those days are over and boring cacophony of the past has been replaced with harmony and concord. But, to Moscow’s chagrin, this newly-acquired feature of the Russian-pro-Russian coalition has also caused a major schism in the Georgian opposition “monolith.”

When Russian President Dmitri Medvedev demanded on February 11 that “Mr. Saakashvili must be held accountable by his own people,” the leader of the pro-Russian forces in Georgia ex-premier Zurab Noghaideli did not wait long before responding with a threat of “uprising” in the spring if “public mood is not reflected” in the results of the upcoming local elections. Then, on February 17, Medvedev said that he would “not have any relationship with the acting president of Georgia” and called him a “persona non grata.” Medvedev also added, “The Georgian people must decide for themselves through the established constitutional procedures who they want to manage their country.” Radicals in Georgia swiftly followed with a statement, as if conversing with the Russian leader: “It is impossible to change the Saakashvili regime through constitutional means,” the pro-Russian Labor Party’s Giorgi Gugava said.

Incidentally, the Labor Party is going to boycott the local elections scheduled for May 30, 2010 and Nino Burjanadze, ex-speaker of Georgian Parliament and leader of the radical opposition party Democratic Movement-United Georgia, widely believed to be a pro-Russian force, intends the same. Her spokesperson bluntly asserted on February 17 that their party does not wish to participate “in the farce.” Burjanadze, with her financial support, was behind the three-month-long street protests in spring 2009 when radical oppositionists perpetrated a failed attempt at “regime change” in Georgia.

Noghaideli himself, who champions the pro-Kremlin cause in Georgia and recently signed a cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, has mounted a double-track tactic. On the one hand, Georgia’s ex-premier says his political party will engage in the election campaign “through primaries” organized among the opposition candidates, but on the other hand, does not exclude other options if “constitutional means” ultimately fail to force President Saakashvili’s party, United National Movement, from power “at the local level.” Six political parties have already expressed readiness to participate in the primaries to select a single opposition candidate for Tbilisi mayor, but notably, Noghaideli has repeatedly claimed that he is not going to run. He and his satellite parties said on February 1 that they intend to start “a new wave of protest rallies” from April 9 and “hold a large-scale rally” on May 26 “to warn” the authorities against election fraud.”

Noghaideli’s rendezvous with Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in late December 2009 and, even more significantly, the agreement he inked with United Russia – the party without any democratic credential – caused a major rupture in Georgia’s opposition camp. Two of the three leaders in the Alliance for Georgia tri-party coalition, Davit Usupashvili and Davit Gamkrelidze—who usually advocate for Georgia’s pro-Western orientation—came out with harsh criticism against Noghaideli on February 17 and proposed the “all minus one formula” to exclude the openly pro-Moscow Noghaideli from the opposition unity in the run-up to the local election. At a press conference dedicated to their proposal, the two opposition figures warned against the ex-premier’s “dubious role” in Georgian politics. The third leader of the Alliance, Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former envoy to the UN and now a candidate for Tbilisi mayor, did not take part in the press conference where his partners slammed Noghaideli, but he felt obligated to somewhat clarify his position on the “Noghaideli formula” by saying that “our position [within the Alliance for Georgia] is absolutely identical.”

One year ago, the major identification for political orientation in Georgia was embodied in your attitude toward President Saakashvili and his political party. You were either pro- or anti-Saakashvili. As the Kremlin leaders have started to openly show their preferences by nominating Noghaideli as their favorite, the politician’s ID in Georgia now seems to be shifting to pro- or anti-Noghaideli, which also reflects his or her stance on the future of Georgian democracy. This makes a lot of sense, at least to many observers, given the existential threat Russia’s policy poses to both Georgia’s nationhood and democratic future.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Russia’s Georgia Policy in Essence

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

The leader from the Russian-occupied Georgian region of Abkhazia Sergei Baghapsh will spend two days in Moscow to meet with Russia’s leaders—President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin, and Patriarch Kirill. As reported by the media, several documents will be signed during his visit, including agreements on Russian military bases in Abkhazia and on air communication between Russia and a surrogate state in Georgian territory. To add to the significance of the “Russian-Abkhaz ties,” the Russian legislative organ, the State Duma, will adopt a declaration on “historical unity” between Russia and Abkhazia, marking in fact the 200-year anniversary of the Georgian province’s gradual annexation by the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century.

Baghapsh’s trip to Moscow follows his “inauguration as president of Abkhazia” on February 12, a ceremony including the appearance of some second-tier Russian officials from Moscow and the North Caucasus. The leader of the Russian-occupied Georgian province of Tskhinvali, Eduard Kokoity, was also in attendance as well as Transdniester’s Igor Smirnov and Nagorno-Karabakh’s Bako Saakyan. Saakyan viewed the occasion as an opportunity to meet with representatives of the sizeable Armenian community in Abkhazia and spoke about “enhancing cooperation between the motherland and the Armenian diaspora.” Yerevan has always denied it has any influence on Armenians living in Abkhazia, and incidentally, Georgian officials have yet to comment on Saakyan’s participation in the inauguration ceremony, which may not be seen as a very Georgia-friendly move on the part of Armenia’s political leadership.

Russian news sources reported that the Belarusian ambassador to Moscow, Vasiliy Dolgolyov, also traveled to Abkhazia to mark the occasion, which is yet another alarming signal that Tbilisi is trying to halt the “recognition parade” orchestrated by Moscow. Georgia is now focusing on the countries in Latin America and the Pacific after Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru recognized Russia’s right to a sphere of influence and Georgia’s dismemberment. While recognition by a country in Latin America or the Pacific is by no means a pleasant diplomatic surprise for Tbilisi, a recognition extended by a Commonwealth of Independence States (CIS) country or by any Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) state, for that matter, would be truly disastrous for Georgia’s nationhood and integrity.

Russia’s Georgia policy has at least three dimensions: Georgia’s international isolation, internal destabilization and, simultaneously, gradual de-facto annexation of the occupied Georgian provinces. Discrediting Georgia’s pro-Western government of President Saakashvili and distancing the foreign capitals from Tbilisi is part of the Kremlin’s isolation efforts. Supporting the pro-Russian forces in Georgia and turning them into the fifth column is aimed at Georgia’s internal destabilization, whose zenith will be in the spring during the local election campaign. Strengthening the Russian military presence in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, while serving as “hardware” for their eventual annexation to Russia, may also be used in support of Georgia’s ex-premier Noghaideli who constantly threatens an “uprising and revolution” if Georgia’s local elections do not meet his expectations.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Czeching Out

By Jiri Kominek

Since Vladimir Putin and his brotherhood of siloviki came to power at the start of the decade, Russia quickly gained a reputation as an exporter of oil, gas and other raw materials; in short, a Saudi-Arabian-like petro state with more trees and less sand.

Economic experts around the world have ranted about the dangers facing Russia’s economy and its overreliance on natural resources.

Well Russia does have another export commodity which in the long run could prove to be more of a setback for the country than an underdeveloped oil-based economy: its own people, and to be more specific its middle class.

A growing trend amongst Russia’s burgeoning middle class is to make your money and then make tracks.

What is the root of this trend? Could it increasingly be that New Russians who have done well for themselves no longer consider their motherland good enough? Could it be a sudden switch of allegiance brought on by newfound, nouveau riche-driven sensibilities?

Actually no. Russians love being Russian, and make every effort to take their culture with them when they hit the road. As thick-skinned and cynical as they may be, however, even the toughest and most patriotic of the lot find it hard to focus on their business activities when constantly harassed by uniformed members of the law enforcement community or civil service banging on the door demanding bribes for this infraction or that.

It’s even more difficult to focus on your work when you are interrupted by, in many cases, the same people notifying you by telephone (or increasingly in person) that if you ever wish to see your children again you had better pay up pronto.

Mother Russia has always been cruel to her children, especially following the break-up of the Soviet Union. The 1990s were a tough decade. Following the rise to power of Vladimir Vladimirovich, however, things have gotten worse. Much worse.

This time it’s not armed thugs from the Solntsevo neighborhood banging at the door. This time it’s armed thugs from the interior ministry or the health department.

So where does the middle class go? Remember, these are people who comprise the backbone of any normal, healthy economy. They are not oligarchs who can instruct their security detail to whisk them to Sheremetyevo international airport and, while en route order the pilot to fire up the engines on their private Airbus executive jet and file a flight plan for Geneva.

Some head for Israel, others to the United States or the United Kingdom, however transferring their assets to London can be rather expensive given local taxation policies.

Increasingly, many pack their bags and check out of the Hotel Rus and head to the Czech Republic as they consider the culture and language of the small Central European similar to their own, the streets much safer, and the bear much better. Today Russians comprise the third largest ethnic group in Prague after the Ukrainians and Vietnamese.

Many of them are entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists or artists. In short dynamic, educated individuals who set up shop in Prague or Brno, often bringing their families, preferring to raise their children in a safe environment and to send them to Western-accredited schools.

They can easily get a taste of home at one of Prague’s growing Russian delicatessens that sell Russian foods imported from Germany, another home to a large Russian community.

Meanwhile the Kremlin has slowly awakened to the reality that Russia is experiencing a brain drain and has decided to do something about it.

Recently, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev ordered the government to pass a bill that would ease immigration restrictions and is considering ordering the cancellation of immigration quotas for highly qualified foreign specialists.

It is difficult to imagine Western engineers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals forming queues, seeking work permits at Russian embassies in Prague, Berlin or Paris. On the other hand, others in Beijing and Shanghai may be willing to give it a go.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Gryzlov-Noghaideli Pact: The Kremlin’s Georgia Project Takes Shape and Substance

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

Zurab Noghaideli, Georgia’s ex-prime minister who now leads the pro-Russian Movement for a Just Georgia, in a little more than two months travelled several times to Moscow. During one of his December visits, he was even lucky enough to secure an audience with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Noghaideli is the first and so far the only Georgian oppositionist to openly accept the Kremlin’s backing in a risky bid to oust President Saakashvili’s pro-Western government. Previously, Moscow shied away from granting overt support to any of the Georgian opposition personalities, preferring instead to do business with them behind the scene.

The question now is why the Kremlin has decided, all of the sudden, that the time has arrived to make no secret of its Georgia gambit. Or did it?

But first a few words about Noghaideli’s most recent activity. He made his fifth visit to Russia a few days ago and although he was not received by Putin this time, he brought a document to Georgia which he immediately called “historic.” The cooperation agreement between Zurab Noghaideli’s movement and Russia’s ruling party United Russia was signed on February 9 and the Russian news agency Regnum immediately entitled its article “Zurab Noghaideli and Boris Gryzlov signed the first post-war Russo-Georgian agreement,” as if this were an interstate agreement. Gryzlov is the speaker of the Russian Duma and the chairman of United Russia, while Noghaideli is just the leader of an opposition party in Georgia, and without a government job. The substance of the agreement and the form in which it was presented to the Russian public is reminiscent of the dozens of agreements signed by Soviet state and party leaders with foreign communist oppositionists during the Cold War.

Here are some of the most interesting clauses from the Gryzlov-Noghaideli manifesto: The relationship between the two sides is based “on the principles of independence, mutual respect, noninterference in one another’s affairs, equality, and partnership…Interparty ties should be an important part of the Russo-Georgian relations, and should aim at their normalization.” This overture is followed by more concrete pledges that the sides are eager to make, which include “exchange of information” on the situation in Russia and Georgia and “on bilateral and international relations,” and “familiariz[ing] each other with the experience in party-building… education and preparation of the cadres…participation in the legislative and executive branches…and in other spheres of mutual interest.” The agreement also covers cooperation through civil society and youth organizations.

Talking at the press conference upon his return to Tbilisi, Noghaideli boasted on February 11 that the pact with Russia’s ruling party will be “at the foundation” of future interstate relations with the Russian Federation and will be shortly “followed through with many concrete steps” aimed at “the restoration of direct flights between the two countries and the resumption of Georgian exports to Russia.”

Gaining the support of the Georgian public in establishing ties with Russia without regard for Georgia’s territorial integrity is at the core of Moscow’s Noghaideli project; what the ex-prime minister is trying to do is reconcile the Georgians with their loss of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. The essence of the project is “restoration without preconditions.”

At least several opposition parties have started using the same language and Noghaileli claims “many Georgian politicians will follow suit.” Irakli Alasania, usually thought of in Europe as a more pro-Western than pro-Russian oppositionist, recently held talks in Munich with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Although he was quick to state that he did not share the ex-prime minister’s agenda and spoke with the Russian foreign minister on Georgia’s de-occupation, Noghaideli hailed Alasania’s meeting with Lavrov and somewhat puzzlingly added, “one more ‘traitor’ joined our ranks.”

Very much in line with the spirit of the ‘Noghaideli project,’ Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reiterated on February 11 that “Mr. Saakashvili must be held accountable by his own people.” Given the fact that Noghaideli and, in general, pro-Russian forces in Georgia lack the public support needed as well as the constitutional means to force President Saakashvili from power, many Georgian analysts think that the ex-premier is just a ‘softer,’ PR part in the Kremlin’s scheme, which apparently includes “other means” to achieve policy goals.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Property Rights in Russian-Occupied Abkhazia: Now a Cause for Tension between the Kremlin and Its Tiny Protégé

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

On February 3, the Russian newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets, which is close to Russia’s ruling circles, published an article with a rather loud title, “Abkhazia Gains Independence from…the Russian Federation”. The newspaper asserted that “in the new state [Abkhazia], the Russian-speaking population is deprived of basic rights” and “a scandal is brewing between Moscow and Sokhumi related to violations of the rights of the Russian citizens in Abkhazia” ( According to the information that became available to the newspaper, the violations are so serious and systematic that the foreign ministry of the Russian Federation “was forced to send a note to the Abkhaz leadership, in which it expressed grave concern over numerous instances of expropriation from Russian citizens of their property in Abkhazia.”

In the newspaper’s own conclusion, the issue at question mostly revolves around apartments and houses “being seized from Russians living in Abkhazia,” citing “dozens, if not hundreds, of instances” when property rights of Russians have been grossly violated. One lawyer interviewed by Moskovskij Komsomolets claimed that “the Russian embassy in Abkhazia had told him that in fact they have ‘four thousand statements alleging illegal seizure of realty.’”

Although “Abkhazia has seen its real estate sales [boom] after Russia recognized its independence” in August 2008, the Russian paper argues “only the citizens of Abkhazia are entitled to buy real estate, whereas Russians have to participate in questionable schemes should they want to buy a little house by the sea.” The author of the article Marina Perevozkina also mentioned the fact that “most of the apartments and houses formerly belonged to Georgians,” referring to those who had been expelled from Abkhazia in the early 1990s and who now reside in the rest of Georgia as internally displaced persons (IDPs). But she avoided discussing this “delicate and political issue” in her publication, focusing instead on property rights of the ethnic Russians living in Abkhazia and “the Abkhaz laws” enabling these rights to be infringed upon.

These “laws” provided for the confiscation of property of hundreds of thousands of Georgians who had been subjected to Kremlin-supported ethnic cleansing some 17 years ago, but since the same “laws” remain effective to date, “even one-week-long abandonment” of the house, say, “to be treated in the hospital,” Moskovskij Komsomolets, argues, can become grounds for expropriation through well-exploited schemes and manipulations. This has happened to many Russians who unlike the ethnic Abkhaz “are not protected by their clan ties” ( The main point the Russian newspaper wants to make boils down to one statement at the very end of the article: “Russia has recognized Abkhazia. Russia gives money to Abkhazia. Russian soldiers die for Abkhazia. And at the same time, Abkhaz officials seize property” from Russians.

Moskovskij Komsomolets’ story was soon picked up by almost the entire Russian media ( and ended up closely discussed on Russian blogs condemning “the facts of discrimination of ethnic Russians” ( Andrei Nesterenko, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official representative, was asked a question regarding the note of protest, allegedly issued by Russia, and the Russian news agency Regnum quoted an official in the foreign ministry as saying that complaints sent by Russians living in Abkhazia “are being seriously considered” by Russian diplomats and “queries have been dispatched to the Abkhaz leadership” to clarify the situation and take appropriate measures to redress the Russian grievances ( Regnum has also pointed out that the issue of property rights will be soon addressed by Russian President Medvedev in his upcoming meeting with his Abkhaz “counterpart” Sergei Baghapsh.

During his briefing on February 4, Andrei Nesterenko, on the one hand, admitted that “individual cases involving problems with property of citizens of Russia do arise” and “[we] try to solve them in a calm and mutually respectful manner.” On the other hand though, he firmly stated that “no notes on this subject were sent” (

APN, the Russian Political News Agency, regularly publishing material of excessively nationalistic nature, recently posted an article addressing “the Russian life” in Abkhazia ( Interestingly enough, the discussion section that follows the article contains a link leading to the Russian foreign ministry’s letter unofficially published on the Internet ( It is of even greater interest to learn that the letter contains a clause referring to “an official note to the Abkhaz leadership” “expressing ‘grave concern over numerous instances of alienation from Russian citizens of their property in Abkhazia’” ( The authenticity of the letter, dated December 4, 2008, is difficult to prove, but since Russians’ property rights in Abkhazia have been under scrutiny by the Russian government and public, the note of protest could have indeed been sent “to the Abkhaz leadership” sometime in the past.

Georgia’s one of the most picturesque regions with its subtopic climate and beautiful beaches on the Black Sea. The Georgian government has constantly raised the issues related to their safe return to their homes and the security and inviolability of their property in Abkhazia. As Abkhazia remains largely depopulated because of the ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population, Moscow exerts pressure on “the Abkhaz leadership” to further alter the demographics of the region by granting the Russian citizens a right to freely purchase real estate and other property in Abkhazia, which would become yet another step toward annexation of the Georgian territory. The issue is all the more pressing for the Kremlin in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the preparation for which relies so much on construction materials illegally transported to Russia from Georgia’s Abkhazia region.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ukraine Preliminary Election Results - What Will Tymoshenko Do?

by Tammy Lynch

UPDATE (6:30 AM): See below a video clip of Yanukovych speaking during his victory speech, with English translation by AFP. Blog after the video.

With almost 92% of the vote counted, it appears that Viktor Yanukovych will hold off Yulia Tymoshenko to win Ukraine's presidential election. Currently, according to the Ukrayinska Pravda website, which has the most updated results, Yanukovych leads Tymoshenko 48.47% to 45.89% - a difference of 2.58%. While Yanukovych declared victory, Tymoshenko refused to concede on Sunday night.

As expected, historical voting patterns held, with most of Western and Central Ukraine voting for Tymoshenko, while the South and Eastern regions supported Yanukovych. There was one difference from 2004; while the numbers are still being assessed, it seems that certain Western Ukraine regions show a voter turnout as much as 10% below five years ago. This will be looked at as a factor that might have changed the final results.

Should this small difference hold, it will be the closest election in modern Ukrainian history. It is also the closest presidential election in any of the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The surprisingly close race could provide Tymoshenko with the impetus to challenge certain precinct or regional results in court - hoping to erase the difference using legal channels.

She was circumspect about this possibility in the early hours of Monday morning, saying that "a decision will be made how to move forward" only after the final vote count is determined. She also reportedly stressed that she maintained "a fighting spirit."

For his part, Yanukovych has attempted to strike a conciliatory tone. He has congratulated Tymoshenko for her strong showing and said he wanted to be a president for all Ukraine, not just the South and East.

However, he also suggested that Tymoshenko should resign as Prime Minister, and said that he would put together a new parliamentary coalition under a PM of his choosing.

That may be easier said than done. The Prime Minister and cabinet have strong powers in Ukraine. He may be able to force a vote of no confidence in the cabinet, but he would need to convince one of Tymoshenko's coalition partners to withdraw its support and join his new coalition in order to elect a new PM. Coalition member The Bloc of Our Ukraine is divided. But, so far, the majority has opposed Yanukovych.

So, what might Tymoshenko do?

1. She could battle in court for an unlikely victory, or use the potential of protracted legal proceedings to bargain for her position or other concessions.

2. She could concede and fight to save her job by enticing, forcing or otherwise persuading the majority of Our Ukraine to stay loyal.

3. She could concede and attempt to force snap parliamentary elections using one of a number of odd parliamentary procedures. This may delay the loss of her position. It also likely would eliminate Our Ukraine from the parliament. Her bloc would probably receive a significant portion of Our Ukraine's votes.

This move, however, also would probably introduce a new bloc under Serhiy Tyhypko, the third place finisher in the first-round of the presidential election. It is unclear if she could maintain enough seats to control parliament and the cabinet - but given the strength of Yanukovych's Party of Regions and the Communist Party, it is unlikely.

New elections also would depend on the loyalty of the oligarchs within her own Bloc. While she's been able to keep them in line in the past, facing a loss of power, this will be come a far more complicated proposition.

This could, however, create at least one additional center of power in the parliament - under Serhiy Tyhypko - thus helping Tymoshenko undermine Yanukovych's attempts to consolidate power.

4. She could concede, resign and lead an opposition bloc.

As the results become final, it appears that Tymoshenko has a lot of thinking to do.

For some video of election day, see this report by Russia Today:

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Exit Poll Results

by Tammy Lynch

It would appear, from the unanimous findings of a multitude of exit polls, that Viktor Yanukovych has done just enough to be name president in Ukraine.

Graphs of the exit polls can be found here. In Ukrainian, but Yanukovch is in blue, Tymoshenko in red.

The range of victory is said to be anywhere from around 3% to around 7%.

Reports of Potential Election Irregularities in Ukraine?

by Tammy Lynch

(UPDATE 8 AM EST: The Central Election Commission confirmed the death by apparent heart attack of the Ivano-Frankivsk polling precinct secretary, but said precinct ballots were undisturbed. This contradicts claims by candidate Yulia Tymoshenko's campaign manager that the ballots were missing. See below.)

In an environment when both sides likely are attempting to create a pretext for legal challenges to the final outcome of Ukraine's presidential election run-off, it's not easy to know what is real, what is important and what is truly election related.

Ukraine's domestic election monitoring groups, however, are often best placed to understand what is happening on the ground.

In its noontime report on election day activities so far, Ukraine's the Committee of Voters of Ukraine expressed concern over tensions at polling stations among election commission members, buses arriving with soldiers to vote and - most important - allowing a significant number of voters to cast ballots who were not on the voting list prior to election days.

This "mass inclusion" of voters on voting lists on the day of the election is prohibited unless approved by a court or higher commission order.

The European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations expressed concern over the addition of 400,000 voters to voting lists during the first-round of the election "without a decision of a higher commission or a court, as is required by law." ENEMO has 450 observers in Ukraine from throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

This large number of voters added to lists on election day during round one - and the possibility that it could be higher this round - means that it potentially could be significant to the election outcome.

Just moments ago, the Tymoshenko campaign said that a polling precinct secretary in Ivano Frankivsk Oblast had been found dead. The campaign says the safe at the precinct was open and ballots were missing. Ivano-Frankivsk has historically supported Tymoshenko or other perceived West-leaning candidates.

Seven exit polls will be released around 8 PM Ukraine time.

What's your prediction? Let us know below.

For discussion of the poll, see the Facebook group Ukraine Presidential Election 2010 or Ukrainian Presidential Elections.

Or, as usual, @TammyLynch

Farewell, Mr. President

Photo Credit: Tammy Lynch. Yushchenko on the screen speaking during "Orange Revolution" in 2004.

by Tammy Lynch

As Ukrainians go to the polls today, they will be saying good bye to the man they once supported in what was termed the “Orange Revolution.” President Viktor Yushchenko was supposed to change Ukraine. He was supposed to be different – a representation of “the people.” It now appears that, in the end, he simply was not.

On November 27, six days after the start of the revolution, Tom Warner of the Financial Times attempted to describe the atmosphere created by the thousands of people flooding into downtown Kyiv. “The growing crowds have taken on a dynamic of their own,” he wrote. “Whatever one names it, the movement Mr. Yushchenko began has become an awesome demonstration of popular power.” (See the Financial Times, 27 Nov 04, p. 7. The article is no longer available at the FT website.)

This blogger would quibble with Mr. Warner about one point – the popular movement that resulted in the November protests did not begin with Yushchenko. In fact, the opposition movement had been building for years. But Warner fully captured the sentiment on the street, as visitors to Kyiv at that time can attest. It was one of joy, hope, optimism and borderline euphoria.

As Yushchenko stood on the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kyiv on those bitter cold days of November 2004, he galvanized the public behind him in support of free elections, justice, an inclusive government and an end to corruption.

The expectations were too high for anyone, of course. But few would have predicted that Viktor Yushchenko could have failed so completely to implement what he promised.

By May 2008, European politicians were questioning Yushchenko’s commitment to reform, and wondering if his desire to undermine his political opponent, PM Yulia Tymoshenko, was more important than changing Ukraine. “There is no more depressing sight in politics than a leader who, desperate to cling to power, ruins his country in the process,” wrote MEPs Elmar Brok, Jas Gawronski and Charles Tannock. “Yushchenko,” they said, “seems motivated only by a desire to damage his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, whom he perceives as the biggest threat to his re-election in 2010.” (The article is syndicated and also available here)

With a good bit of help from Tymoshenko and her allies, Yushchenko succeeded. If polls are correct, voters fed up with empty promises appear ready throw out just about everyone associated with the Orange Revolution, including Tymoshenko.

Over the last year, Yushchenko’s allies have pointed to the free press and a history of free parliamentary elections as the President’s biggest legacies. But as the FT noted this week, “In backing last-minute [election] amendments put forward by supporters of Viktor Yanukovich, … Mr Yushchenko acted in apparent contradiction to the principles for which he fought in the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution,’ when he battled against late revisions to election laws.”

The article further quotes Yushchenko ally Vadim Karyasov, who confirms that Yushchenko supports his former opponent Viktor Yanukvoych in the presidential race. Yes, the same Yanukoych earlier accused by Yushchenko of election fraud, and the same Yanukovych in office when Yushchenko was mysteriously poisoned.

So, what will Mr. Yushchenko’s lasting accomplishments be? The press is generally free, elections are generally fair, and political competition is real and effective. But although Yushchenko and all government officials should be praised for not attempting to curtail political freedoms, Ukraine’s people and regional political system are a big part of the reason for these successes.

Therefore, it will be unfortunate if, when the history of President Yushchenko is written, the one accomplishment credited solely to him is the undermining of the hopes of those who elected him.

Good luck, Mr. Yushchenko.

Connect on twitter @TammyLynch

Friday, February 5, 2010

Kremlin Wagging the Dog: The Sergei Mironov Episode

By Greg Shtraks

One hundred and five years and one week after the peaceful marchers led by Orthodox priest Father Gaston were fired upon by Tsarist troops, another mass protest, this time in Kaliningrad, threatened to undermine the ruling regime of Russia. “Bloody Sunday”, as the massacre on January 22, 1905 was called, was precipitated by despicable economic conditions, a lethargic regime unable to deal with a rapidly changing world, and a distant war sapping Russia’s resources. The direct cause of the fiasco, however, was over-eager troops who were unsure of how to react to a 300,000 person demonstration. It should be noted that, unlike Nicholas Romanov, Vladimir Putin knows very well how to deal with protesters. Last January, when riots erupted in Vladivostok over tariffs on used Japanese cars (which constitute a major source of business in the Far East city), Putin had his best riot police flown in from Moscow to quell the uprising. Incidentally, this year’s protests in Kaliningrad were also caused by rioters unhappy over newly imposed tariffs on used cars (this time from Western Europe). It might be wiser for Putin to allow embattled Volga-based car company AvTOGAZ to go bankrupt (and then deal with the ensuing unrest in the middle of Russia) than to constantly have to find ways to assuage angry used-car salesmen on the Federation’s peripheries.

Either way, this time, Putin decided not to send in the riot police. There may be a number of reasons behind his decision. First, the economic situation one year ago—terrible as it may have been—is far more preferable to the critical situation that Russia is in today. Support for the regime has withered and a show of force in Kaliningrad might have caused protests to pop up throughout the many destitute cities of Russia’s rust belt. More likely, Putin was simply unprepared for the scale and the organization of the Kaliningrad protests and was caught off guard.

The administration’s approach to dealing with the public brouhaha that erupted after the Kaliningrad debacle would have made Stanley Motts and Conrad Brean proud. Motts and Brean, fictional heroes of the 1998 film “Wag the Dog”, devised a fake war in Albania in order to distract the American public from an embarrassing sex scandal that was bruising the President’s popularity at home.

The Russian version is equally clever. On February 1st, speaker of the Federation Council Sergei Mironov publicly criticized Putin’s 2010 budget proposal and some of the other “anti-crisis” measures that the Kremlin has recently undertaken. It’s entirely possible that Mironov’s criticism was spoken from the heart. But it’s unlikely. Mironov has been a loyal stooge of the Kremlin since his “election” in 2001 to the Federal Council as a representative from St. Petersburg. Putin, who himself hails from St. Pete, needed a loyal person as Russia’s “Third Man”, and Mironov rarely disappointed him. In 2004, for instance, Mironov engaged in the strangest presidential campaign in history. He ostensibly ran against Putin while constantly declaring his support for Putin’s candidacy. It seems that the Kremlin found it useful to have a loyal opposition in the race. Later that year, in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, Mironov was instrumental in pushing through a law that gave the Kremlin the power to appoint all provincial governors. I was unable to find anything mildly resembling criticism of Putin in the 433 entries in Mironov’s blog (although there are some fantastic pictures from his trip to North Korea).

I highly doubt that Mironov made this statement without a slight nudge from the Kremlin. The wails for his resignation from members of the United Russia Party (Edinorossi), however, were certainly the work of Kremlin spin doctors. Calling Mironov a “rat” and an “ungrateful scoundrel”, the Edinorossi have called for his resignation. However, it is a well-known fact throughout Moscow that, constitutionally, Mironov cannot be forced to resign. Mironov, for his part, has adamantly refused to even discuss resignation. Still, Mironov’s gaffe has provided an excellent opportunity for Putin to take the nation’s eyes away from the situation in Kaliningrad. The entire episode is reminiscent of the public shaming of Oleg Deripaska in the industrial town of Pikalyovo last summer. Putin personally supervised Deripaska as he was forced to sign a contract putting the town’s 20,000 industrial employees back to work. It was the benevolent father Czar protecting the people from the corrupt boyars. Meanwhile, Deripaska, far from being out of favor with the regime, has been quietly able to salvage his interests. The situation with Mironov is similar. In a few weeks he will have a meeting with Putin and the two will be able to “resolve their differences”. Putin has never sacked a highly-ranked loyalist. I sincerely doubt that Sergei Mironov will be the first.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

“Exotic Schemes” in Russia’s Georgia Policy

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

On February 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked during a press conference to comment on the pro-Russia Georgian opposition’s latest “proposal that if Russia renounces its recognition for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia will renounce joining NATO.” In response, Lavrov said, “it is a rather exotic scheme”. The press conference followed the Russian foreign minister’s meeting with his truly “exotic counterpart” Murat Dzhioev, “foreign minister” from the Russian-occupied Georgian region of Tskhinvali, what Russia now calls “the Republic of South Ossetia”.

According to information posted on the Russian foreign ministry’s official website, this latest reason for the summoning of “the South Ossetian foreign minister” to Moscow was to “discuss a wide range of matters pertaining to bilateral relations that included political dialogue, interaction between agencies…and, of course, our cooperation in the international arena”. And these were no less exotic topics for discussion between the Russian Federation and its tiny surrogate creation in the Caucasus.

The occasion was used by Lavrov to sign a rather exotic agreement with Dzhioev “on mutual visa-free travel for citizens of Russia and “South Ossetia,” which in fact is Russia’s zone of occupation in central Georgia, now nearly depopulated after a thoroughly conducted ethnic cleansing.

Prior to its military aggression against Georgia in August 2008, top Russian leaders, including Foreign Minister Lavrov himself, when coming out in support of “South Ossetia” always emphasized the fact that a majority of residents in this part of Georgia held Russian passports and were considered Russian citizens. A mass “passportization campaign in Tskhinvali and Abkhaiza” had for years shaped Russia’s rhetoric and actions vis-à-vis Georgia.

Furthermore, during the war some eighteen months ago, an obligation to defend its citizens “from Georgian aggression” was presented to the international community as a justification for Russia’s military assault on Georgian territory.

Since then, Russian leaders have slowly made an important alteration in their public relations campaign, arguably, to better serve Moscow’s long-term geopolitical objectives. Almost never would they even make mention of “South Ossetians holding Russian passports.” What has now become an official line in the Kremlin is that “South Ossetians” were in fact Georgian citizens whom they “defended” from “Georgian aggression” by embarking on “humanitarian intervention” in August 2008. A peculiar spin, isn’t it?

Foreign Minister Lavrov’s meeting with Dzhioev appears to be full of exotic revelations and the pro-Russia Georgian opposition’s proposed scheme does not lack exoticism either since there is no such thing as a sovereign and democratic Georgia in current Russian leadership’s geostrategic calculations.

What is more serious and less exotic though is the Kremlin’s continuing military buildup in the occupied Georgian territory. The very same day that the Russian foreign minister was testing his new language in the press conference, Russian media reported on “the Russian military base in South Ossetia being revamped with new sophisticated weapons and other military equipment”. “We have samples that will be showcased on Red Square for the first time during the military parade marking the 65-year anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War,” the commander of the Tskhinvali-based Russian military base Col. Shusharin was quoted as saying. He also added that in March they plan to have military exercises using “large caliber guns” among other weapons.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Trouble in Paradise

By Jiri Kominek

For those readers who have a fresh, firsthand recollection of public protest in Russia, the formula is quite simple. A few hundred anti-government protesters turn up to peacefully vent their dissatisfaction with the government, and the Kremlin responds by sending in an exponentially superior number of OMON interior ministry anti-riot troopers in what has become, for them, a routine training exercise in crowd control. The result: the crowd is controlled, almost always with brute force, and OMON gets some exercise.

Apparently something interfered with the formula throughout the course of the last weekend in January in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, when a few hundred people, angry over road tolls and public transit tariff increases, turned into a 10,000-12,000-strong mass protest against the Putin/Medvedev-led Korporatsiya.

Not only was the OMON caught off-guard, so apparently was Vladimir Vladimirovich.

While some Russia specialists interpret this as the beginning of the end for Putin’s Russia and expect this contemporary version of the time of troubles to spread across the country, similar incidents in Vladivostok last year that were also inspired by the government-imposed increase of import tariffs on used Asian cars failed to achieve a new Russian revolution.

“The Kaliningrad incident mirrors last year’s protests in Vladivostok since it indicates that the Kremlin’s centralized power is not recognized in outlying regions whose local economies are tied more closely to that of their foreign neighbors”, said Ondrej Soukup, a Prague-based journalist and Russia analyst.

This appears to carry some weight given statements made by protest leaders in Kaliningrad who stated, “We live in Europe and not Turkmenistan, we were promised living standards closer to that of the EU and so far the opposite seems to be taking place”.

Some analysts see a link between the protests and recent disclosures made by Rosstat, Russia’s Federal Statistical Authority which disclosed on February 2 that the country’s GDP shrank by 7.9 percent in 2009, marking a 15-year record, surpassing the 5.3 percent economic contraction of 1998 that almost resulted in the Yeltsin-era reformers being lynched in the streets.

“One can draw very few similarities between the events of 1998 and 2009-2010 where living standards have improved dramatically. Today people are far more troubled by the overbearing state bureaucracy and the omnipresent corruption that accompanies this rather than being concerned about having enough to eat”, said Soukup.

For many Russians, this ever-present state bureaucracy and banana republic-like corruption is symbolized in the country by all levels of law enforcement.

Yet even elements within Russia’s police community appear to be growing sick and tired of how their superiors expect them to remain at the pointy end of a very dirty system and face the wrath of the crowds.

Could this mark the beginnings of trouble in paradise?

Jiri Kominek is a Prague-based journalist specializing in economic, political and security issues throughout Central and Eastern Europe. He may be reached at

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tymoshenko Smells Fear; Yanukovych Smells Victory

(Photo: RFE/RL)

By Tammy Lynch

As debates go, the Ukraine Presidential debate on February 1 was lacking fireworks or drama. Of course, it’s hard to have fireworks and drama when only one candidate shows up.

As noted in last week’s blog, presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych previously declared his intention to skip the debate – and he was a man of his word. Instead, his opponent, PM Yulia Tymoshenko, attacked, joked and generally campaigned for the full 100 minutes of national airtime.

See a video of the full “debate” here from Tymoshenko’s official website. (You’ll need to scroll down the page just a bit).

Tymoshenko, who is known for her biting remarks, didn’t disappoint. During breaks from what amounted to her basic campaign stump speech, she branded Yanukovych a “coward” and a “marionette,” and when looking at his empty podium, said, “I believe an empty spot is what he is.” But mostly, she dripped contempt. "And although he is absent from here, I can feel his smell,” she said. “This is the smell of fear.”

Yanukovych, for his part, called her election campaign promises “dirt and evil” and was interviewed on a competing television network. Protecting his roughly 10 point lead by avoiding major debate gaffes seemed to be his mode of operation. Earlier, his representative had suggested that Yanukovich wouldn’t compete “in a contest of beautiful lies."

The former Prime Minister provided a different – if somewhat confusing - reason for skipping the debate one month earlier, comparing Tymoshenko to a simple entertainer. He “wasn’t trained as an artist,” he said, so he would not participate “as a matter of principle.” Moreover, “it’s not my profession.” The video of his answer, with English translation in the information box, is here:

The rancor between the two candidates isn’t confined to debate-centered rhetoric. In recent days, tensions appear to have risen as both sides accuse the other of planning to use violence to steal the election.

On Sunday, Tymoshenko suggested that Yanukovych had filled Kyiv’s downtown hotels with “fighters who are ready to take power using any means.” She continued, “As in 2004, we are going to put [Yanukovych] in his place in a severe manner and he will never get power in Ukraine, whatever the circumstances.”

In turn, Yanukovych claimed that Tymoshenko was bringing hostile Poles, Georgians and Lithuanians to Ukraine to “destabilize” the election. “It is clear they are militants,” he said, and demanded “the current authorities” take action, “otherwise, there will be a call to arms to show them what the Ukrainian people are.”

Ukrainians have expressed alarm at these statements, although most understand them as only rhetoric. It is no secret that both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych do not shy away from confrontation, but neither has acted on similar statements they’ve made in the past. Still, given their current inability to communicate verbally, the tensions and heated rhetoric are a concern.

Should the West be concerned? Let us know in the comment section.

For regularly updated Ukraine election news, see the Facebook groups Ukraine Presidential Elections 2010 and Ukrainian Presidential Elections.

Tammy Lynch is a Senior Research Fellow at Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy. Connect on twitter @TammyLynch.