Friday, May 28, 2010

What Does It Take To Be A Female Leader In Central Asia?

By Erica Marat

By all measures, the story of Kyrgyzstan’s current leader Roza Otunbayeva’s is an exceptional one. She is the first female leader in power in Central Asia and the only leader who boasts wide international experience prior to assuming power. Otunbayeva rose to the top when other political leaders lost their support because of their inability to challenge former Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, succumbing to dirty tricks to achieve their personal gains. She was consistent, sharp, and fair—at times in stark contrast to most other politicians. Her main supporters are urban and educated Kyrgyz of a different age. She is also widely respected internationally.

Kyrgyzstan is known for its female activists. Compared to neighboring states, more women are engaged in NGO work and international aid agencies. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more women were forced to depend on their own careers in Kyrgyzstan, where the industrial complex is underdeveloped and no significant sources of carbon resources are available. Mixed with generally lax religious traditions and high education rates, women were able to find opportunities in business and politics.

Some anecdotal evidence suggests that in neighboring Kazakhstan, the structure economy does not permit a woman’s rise to the top. Dominated by male entrepreneurs in the oil and gas industry, women are encouraged to occupy more “feminine” positions in society. This is not to say that Kazakhstan does not have prominent female leaders in the private and public sectors; President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga, is notorious for her skill to manage her media conglomerate and play a leading role in politics. Few other female leaders head important government institutions as well, but none of them have clear prospects to compete for the president’s or prime minister’s seat.

In Uzbekistan, Gulnara Karimova is often mooted to succeed her father, President Islam Karimov, though not everyone in Uzbekistan is convinced that she would be able to hold on to power over competing male leaders. “If she ever inherits power, it won’t take long before she sees a ‘checkered sky,’”, commented one Samarkand resident, hinting that Karimova might be put in jail by her competitors. No female leaders have a real chance of succeeding in Tajikistan or Turkmenistan.

Otunbayeva will go down in history as the first female leader in Central Asia. What is less clear is if she will be able to retain power beyond the upcoming presidential elections in October 2011. She is surrounded by male politicians with endless ambition, some of them infamous for their extramarital affairs. Even her strongest supporters in Bishkek think that to succeed, Otunbayeva will either have to build a more feminine image of a “mother of the nation”, or play rough by the rules of her male competitors.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Maksim-Zhanysh Affair Goes Public

By Erica Marat

A telephone conversation allegedly between former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev's son and brother—Maksim and Zhanysh respectively—was recorded and posted on Youtube. Both are captured discussing their plan to seize power in Bishkek in late May or early June.

Neither Maksim nor Zhanysh seem to be apt enough to come with an elaborate course of action. Rather, they rely on some 500 paid protestors who would violently take over the government headquarters and major TV channels in Bishkek. "…it must be done towards the evening… The time when everyone goes away towards their houses", Maksim suggests. "It will be better even to do it in the morning, for instance at 6 a.m.”, his uncle offers. Maksim would offer $2,000-3,000 to protestors and double the pay after the goal is achieved. According to his calculations, all it would take is paying a crowd and finding the right person to place as a president in order to undermine the provisional government.

At least two more conversations were similarly recorded—between Almazbek Atambayev (responsible for economic policies at the provisional government) and Azimbek Beknazarov (Prosecutor General), and between Temir Sariyev (interim finance minister) and Azimbek Beknazarov. These conversations captured politicians' corrupt deals and exposed their ambition to grasp more power and benefit financially from the ongoing mayhem in the country. "Hey, my friend, you know that I can arrange a third revolution if need comes", says the voice of Beknazarov. "Why don't you scare someone else but me!?", responds Atambayev. Both quarrel about competing interests in allocating positions in the provisional government to their own people.

The Maksim-Bakiyev conversation is transcribed into English, suggesting that it was prepared for the broader public. According to Jamestown's sources, the phone conversations were taped by specialists in Russia.

It takes two communications professionals to capture mobile conversations. Some Kyrgyz military experts assume that the videos were prepared by people unfamiliar with politics in Kyrgyzstan or politics in general because a few slang words and expressions were not translated into English accurately and failed to reflect their intended meaning. The overall translation was grammatically sound but likely done by a non-native speaker. By contrast, the Kyrgyz language transcription was quite accurate.

According to experts in Kyrgyzstan, Maksim is likely to still be residing in Latvia and Zhanysh in Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan. Mobile connection signals in Maksim and Zanysh’s conversation indicate that they are located in the territories of these states.

Fresh Polls Confirm Russian Proxies’ Poor Rates in Georgia

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

All public opinion polls that have been conducted in Georgia over the past several months show dismal performance of the pro-Russian opposition figures and the ad hoc alliances they have created in the run-up to the crucial local elections scheduled for May 31.

First came the results of the survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI), published on March 31, which gave low single-digit rates to the parties and their leaders closely associated with the Kremlin, while the ruling party, United National Movement and its mayoral candidate Gigi Ugulava scored relatively well with 36% and 46% of public support, respectively. By comparison, the two radical pro-Russian figures, the ex-speaker of Georgian Parliament, Nino Burjanadze, and the former prime minister, Zurab Noghaideli, gleaned 4% and 3% each. The remainder of the support went to more or less moderate political leaders.

On May 11, another internationally acclaimed organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), published the figures of its research conducted throughout the country in mid-April. According to Georgian media, 51% of those polled “positively” or “very positively” appraised the performance of the country’s president Mikheil Saakashvili while only 11% said it was “negative” or “very negative” and 19% saw it as “neutral.” 53% of Georgians thought that their country is developing in the right direction while 20% said that the course was wrong. The 22 institutions and public figures Georgians trusted most were topped by the head of the Georgian Church, Patriarch Ilia II, the army, the police, President Saakashvili and his ruling party. The opposition, as a whole, was assessed as playing a “positive” or “very positive” role by 12% of the Georgian public, “not negative, not positive” by 35% and another 35% said they viewed the opposition’s performance as “negative” or “very negative.”

Among the mayoral candidates, Gigi Ugulava seemed to have further improved his rates from the previous IRI poll to 57%, while Georgia’s former UN envoy and now one of the eight mayoral candidates, Irakli Alasania, came in second with some 7%. Other candidates scored even lower as 15% of those polled said they were still undecided and 6% refused to reveal their preference. According to election laws, 30% plus one vote is needed to avoid a runoff and decide the Tbilisi mayor in the first round.

The NDI survey also showed that 36% wanted Georgia’s next president to be from Saakashvili’s party while little more than 8% gave their support to Giorgi Targamadze, the leader of the moderate Christian Democrats and around 8% to Irakli Alasania. Only 1% of Georgians want Noghaideli or Burjanadze to become their next president and some 32% said they did not yet know who they would vote for in the next presidential elections. Georgians will elect a new president in 2013 when Saakashvili’s second term in office expires.

On May 19, the results of the newest public opinion poll were published. This time it was carried out by CSA, a French public research institute. Saakashvili’s United National Movement has 44% of support followed by the Christian Democrats with 23% and Alasania’s Alliance for Georgia with 16%. Noghaideli’s pro-Moscow National Council is supported by a mere 7% of the Georgian public. 64 percent of those polled say that the local elections will be fair and free with 22% believing that this will not be the case. As far as the mayoral candidates are concerned, Ugulava has 57% and Alasania 14%. Zviad Dzidziguri, the candidate from the Noghaideli bloc is supported by only 6%. The French company conducted its poll between May 1 and May 4 in the capital Tbilisi, and it is worth mentioning that Saakashvili’s party traditionally enjoys even greater support outside the Georgian capital.

The same day the results of the fresh poll were announced, there came reports about Russia once again violating Georgia’s air space in areas adjacent to the zone of occupation in the Tskhinvali region. Several military aircraft conducted “unplanned” surveillance of Georgian territory. Two days earlier, Russian media reported that the Russian military personnel in the occupied Georgian territory were distributing leaflets apparently aimed to boost the morale of the Russian soldiers and their awareness about the “Georgian enemy.” The report has not been yet confirmed by Georgian authorities but media and political commentators in Tbilisi have started recalling that similar “know your enemy” leaflets had been given to Russian military units prior to the Georgia invasion campaign in August 2008.

Noghaideli and Burjanadze have been in close contact with Moscow since at least December 2009, but those contacts have further intensified lately as they have started talk of repeating the bloody “Bishkek scenario” in Tbilisi. Upon his return to Georgia from Moscow on May 11, Noghaideli said, “after Saakashvili is no longer president of Georgia, Georgian troops will participate in the victory parade in Moscow’s Red Square.” Burjanadze on her part accused Georgia of bombing its own territory during the Russian invasion in 2008.

Every time Noghaideli and Burjanadze make similar comments, their political rates see further decline suggesting a greater concern for unequivocal loyalty to their Moscow patrons than approval rates at home and in the hearts and minds of the Georgian public.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Georgia Supports Turkey’s Bigger Regional Role

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

Turkey has been Georgia’s number one trade partner ever since Moscow imposed harsh economic sanctions on Tbilisi some four years ago. To Russia’s great disappointment, the full-scale embargo has failed to compel Georgia to change its liberal domestic policy and pro-Western foreign orientation. What it produced instead was Georgia’s even more rigorous political and economic liberalization and faster reorientation of its markets to seek trade partners and investors in Europe, the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe.

Arguably, Turkey has been the biggest beneficiary since its businesses have rushed to fill the vacuum Russia left behind. And with that the already close political ties between the two Caucasus and Black Sea neighbors have turned into a strategic partnership. Tbilisi hopes that Ankara’s increased engagement in the region would be key to economic prosperity and political stability and would also dilute the negative role Moscow has traditionally played in the Caucasus.

Perhaps this thought was behind the sentiment Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili expressed on May 17 as he cordially greeted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Batumi, Georgia’s burgeoning Black Sea Riviera, during the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Sheraton Batumi Hotel, built on Turkish money. Welcoming Erdogan in his native Turkish, the Georgian president underscored the benefits the two countries have garnered by establishing a visa-free free trade relationship with one another. “The cooperation between Turkey and Georgia is an example for Europe and the whole region,” Saakashvili was quick to stress, and among the examples of rapidly developing economic partnerships he named the Batumi international airport – which has been under dual Georgian-Turkish authority; two million people crossing the Georgian-Turkish border annually who will soon require no international passports to enter each other’s territory; and the hundreds of millions of dollars that Turks invest into Georgia’s tourism and infrastructure in its Black Sea cities, Tbilisi and elsewhere around the country.

Georgians estimate that this year alone some two million foreign tourists will visit their country, with more than 800,000 in Achara, a southwestern Black Sea region in Georgia with Batumi as its central city. Turkish companies are interested in further developing Georgia’s capacities to transit more Azeri and Caspian oil and gas through its territory beyond the already operational Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines. In addition, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan are building a railroad segment to connect the three nations and Turkish firms are keen to invest into Georgia’s hydro power and tourism industries.

Before coming to Georgia, Prime Minister Erdogan had had important talks in Iran and Azerbaijan. In Tehran, Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva negotiated a deal with the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that could potentially help alleviate the international community’s fears over Iran’s nuclear program. In Baku, the Turkish leader discussed with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan a variety of issues ranging from strengthening bilateral economic and political ties to Nagorno-Karabakh to the Turkish-Armenian relationship.

The political part of President Saakashvili’s speech was no less impressive. Saakashvili called the West’s standoff with Iran the “life and death” issue for the “survival [of] small [third] countries” and praised Erdogan for trying to make “a diplomatic breakthrough” to defuse tensions. This would be a “diplomatic victory,” the Georgian leader underscored, “for Iran, Europe, America, Turkey and…for Georgia.”

Saakashvili apparently wants to make clear that there is a growing fear in Georgia that if Western capitals and Moscow negotiate a bargain in order to resolve the Iranian nuclear program issue, it increases the chance of Russia’s domination over Georgia and other post-Soviet nations. That the Kremlin would, as a bargaining chip, demand a sphere of influence at the expense of Georgia’s sovereignty and freedom of choice leaves almost no doubt in Tbilisi. Also, it is a widespread sentiment in Georgia that the United States and its European allies are not pressuring Russia enough to make it honor its international obligations and withdraw its troops from the occupied Georgian lands. When it comes to Georgia’s NATO membership, Georgian analysts believe, the West has not been persistent enough in keeping Russia out of its decision-making process and in setting clear goals and a due timetable for Georgia so that no doubts are left in the alliance’s commitment to the enlargement process and the moral principles.

Georgians already view the Obama administration’s “Russia first” policy with alarming concern and their fears only increased after the White House announced that “the war [Russia waged against Georgia in 2008] should no longer be an issue” when it resubmitted on May 11 the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement to Congress. Tbilisi’s desire to see the Iranian nuclear problem be solved without Russia being granted a free hand in Georgia is only natural and hence Saakashvili’ calling the Iran issue the matter of “life and death” for his small country. Turkey’s overall bigger regional role and more economic and political involvement in the Caucasus, in Tbilisi’s calculations, might positively influence the present and future developments in and around Georgia.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Is Kyrgyzstan Destined to “Color Revolutions”?

By Erica Marat

Unrest continues in Kyrgyzstan, this time in southern cities Osh, Batken, and Jalalabad. Tens of people took over local government headquarters, demonstrating their disapproval of the provisional government. Most in Bishkek believe these are supporters of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev who were likely paid to protest. Kyrgyz National Security Service reports that Bakiyev’s family spent over $1 million to challenge the provisional government. Tashkent and Astana’s reluctance to reopen the border with Kyrgyzstan is contributing to social tensions in the south.

For the first time since the April 7 regime change, the head of the provisional government Roza Otunbayeva traveled to Osh. There she spoke about the nation’s unity, asserting that any calls for the nation’s split come from people struggling for power. Otunbayeva sounds convincing, yet she can’t afford to openly criticize Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s close door policies.

Kyrgyz NGO leaders claim that most members of the provisional government, including those who are originally from the south, prefer to avoid visiting southern parts of Kyrgyzstan fearing for personal safety. But they are not afraid of regular people who might disagree with the new leadership in Bishkek. Rather, they are worried about being challenged by local criminal leaders disinterested in sharing their power because of the regime change. Syndicates of the previous regime remain the only viable force that Bakiyev and his family members can rely on when it comes to challenging the new government. They control drug trade and local economy. They are probably also the reason why Bakiyev’s brother Zhanysh and son Marat, both of whom enjoy wide support among criminal leaders, have been able to hide in various parts of Kyrgyzstan.

Unlike the Bakiyev government that enjoyed instant support after coming to power in late March 2005, public trust in the provisional government remains low. Local NGOs are mobilized to oversee the new government’s work closely. The government is under extreme pressure from NGOs and the international community to avoid using forceful methods in response to anti-governmental unrests.

To date the government has been trying to use civil methods in dealing with outbreaks of violence. But because the borders with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are shut and the criminal groups are widely spread, Kyrgyzstan will continue to be an unstable place. Many farmers have been hit hard because of shortage of fuel, numerous small and medium businesses in urban areas are in despair. Indeed, several members of the provisional government are impatient to deploy force to reassert own power against angry crowds despite NGOs and international pressures.

Tensions are expected to renew on May 17th, when the 40-day commemoration period after the April 7 tragedy is over. To resist crowds susceptible to criminal leaders’ influence, Otunbayeva’s government will be bound to use force. Several voluntary guards made up of government supporters are likely to forcefully defend the new regime as well. The clashes might turn ugly and lead to more bloodshed. Perhaps this is precisely what Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors are wishing for by failing to open up the borders; to prove that “color revolutions” lead to uncertainty and continuous violence. As Kyrgyzstan is forced deeper into greater isolation, their point gains more substance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pro-Russian Forces and a Religious ‘Militia’ in Georgia

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

Last week a series of turbulent events took place in Tbilisi. A violent rally was held against the establishment of the Day of Georgian Police on May 6. Clamorous crowds gathered several times to protest against what they called “anti-Orthodox policy” of Ilia State University, a liberal school in downtown Tbilisi. And as a culmination, a radical group got embroiled in a fistfight during debates at the Kavkasia television station. Although the rally on the Police Day was organized by pro-Russian political groupings led by ex-prime minister Zurab Noghaideli, the stone-throwing incident against the police involved many of those who participated in both the violent demonstrations against the liberal university and in the brawl at the independent TV station.

The radical organization behind said incidents is the newly established People's Orthodox Movement. Chaired by Malhaz Gulashvili, a Georgian media tycoon and businessman with close Moscow connections, the organization is associated with the Union of Orthodox Parents, itself in existence for several years. The declared goals of the People’s Orthodox Movement are “to cherish Georgia’s Orthodox Christian legacy” and turn the country into a constitutional monarchy. Gulashvili claims that his organization is “apolitical” and has no special relationship with the Georgian Church and Patriarch Ilia II, but nonetheless emphasizes the importance of developing close ties with Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Gulashvili is a frequent guest in Moscow and has even presented his book to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during one of his latest visits to Russia.

The major targets of the radical organization’s violent rhetoric and actions are President Saakashvili’s government and all liberal political parties, academic and social institutions that have a pro-Western stance and advocate for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. High on Gulashvili’s agenda is the Liberty Institute, a leading pro-Western Georgian NGO chaired by Levan Ramishvili, that was one of the driving forces behind the Rose Revolution in November 2003 and whose former members are now top officials in the Saakashvili government.

On May 7, Gulashvili, addressing a gathering of his supporters in Tbilisi, demanded that the Liberty Institute be banned altogether and the rector of Ilia State University, Gigi Tevzadze, a liberal scholar, be removed from his post. “The Liberty Institute is a major threat to Georgia’s statehood and to the very future of our nation,” Gulashvili said, “Its activities are directed against the Georgian Orthodox Church.”

On May 6, Georgians traditionally celebrate a major Christian holiday, Saint George’s Day (Giorgoba) and Gulashvili’s followers joined other pro-Russian groupings, including Noghaidli and the ex-speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Nino Burjanadze, to protest the celebration of the Police Day that they claimed was a “blasphemy” against the Georgian Church.

While Georgia’s Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili had earlier said that celebrating the Police Day with a parade on the same day as Saint George’s Day “had nothing to do with politics”, and was instead a move to further strengthen the morale and the already high approval rates of the Georgian police, pro-Russian opposition leaders first demanded that the parade be canceled and then mobilized several hundreds of their activists in protest. The rally turned violent after demonstrators started to throw stones at the security forces.

Dozens of activists of the People’s Orthodox Movement repeatedly attacked a group of liberal students and their supporters who were defending the right to free speech after the publication of an “unorthodox” book by a young author, Erekle Deisadze, had enraged the extremist religious groups. As Georgia’s libertarian weekly magazine Tabula said in its editorial, “Although Deisadze would not even come close to Salman Rushdie, and Malkhaz Gulashvili is no Ayatollah Khomeini… nevertheless there is some similarity…It is all about freedom of expression and [the religious fundamentalists’] determination to kill it” (Tabula magazine, May 10).

On May 8, religious vigilantes organized a fistfight during the political talk-show at the Kavkasia TV station when the host of the program was trying to engage the radical and liberal youth activists in a discussion. Police interfered and arrested several religious extremists.

The Georgian Church has yet to comment on the latest actions of the violent religious groups and although President Saakashvili’s press secretary condemned the extremists’ “attacks on the Kavkasia journalists,” many in Georgia think that police and other law enforcement agencies should more vigorously act in defense of the civil liberties that the religious fundamentalists are now trying to undermine.

Human rights activists have already called the People’s Orthodox Movement and its fraternal organizations “fascist” groups and Georgian media have started talking about a dangerous linkage between the pro-Russian forces and their religious “militia” that threaten both Georgia’s sovereignty and democracy.

Lukashenka and Bakiyev: Friends in Need?

By Erica Marat

Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenka has recently told Reuters that he isn’t planning to extradite former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev back to Kyrgyzstan. The ironic union between Lukashenka and Bakiyev shows how both leaders share many similar traits of post-Soviet dictators.

Both used and abused their relations with Russia. Over the past decade Lukashenka was able to secure millions of dollars in economic aid from Russia to withhold social discontent in his country. Bakiyev, too, was able to receive $2 bn from Russia, part of which went directly to financing his presidential campaign last year.

But the more the Kremlin showed its support to both presidents, the more they became pragmatic about their relationship with the bigger neighbor. Their strengthened domestic power (largely thanks to Russia’s donations) gave them the confidence to play games with Moscow just to earn more aid in the future. Bakiyev’s example has obviously shown that such games backfire, as Russia ruthlessly revenged by exerting more pressure on the Bakiyev regime through mass media and support of his opponents who currently represent Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government.

Luckily for Bakiyev, Belarus was ready to accept and protect him at a time when the United States, Russia, Europe and Kazakhstan turned against him. For Lukashenka, however, Bakiyev is a useful domestic and international tool that shows how he is not going to allow “color revolutions” on his own turf. Indeed, compared to Bakiyev, Lukashenka was able to build a much stronger and loyal security sector ready to protect him both from angry crowds and individual opposition leaders. But Bakiyev’s destiny is the Belarusian leader’s worst nightmare.

How can this union last? Perhaps Lukashenko has not yet realized the shrewd nature of his new-found friend. Over the past five years Bakiyev has shown that he is skilled in bargaining for the best possible outcome for himself and is quick to betray his closest supporters. As U.S. and Kyrgyz governments continue to investigate allegations on corruption related to Bakiyev’s family, the former president will remain at the center of U.S.-Kyrgyzstan relations.

This weekend at the Victory day parade in Moscow, which Lukashnka also plans to attend, Kyrgyzstan will be represented by Roza Otunbayeva, head of the provisional government. This will be the first foreign visit for Otunbaeva, showing that her government is committed to maintaining close relations with the Kremlin. She and Lukashenko are likely to meet on numerous other occasions led by Russian-dominated organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and CIS.

For Lukashenka, Bakiyev is therefore a mixed blessing. Bakiyev might turn into a political liability for the Belarus president, when he will turn to Russia for more help. The Bakiyev issue might fade into the background of Russia-Belarus relations, but for now it is causing friction between Minsk, Moscow and Bishkek.

Ironically, Lukashenka and Bakiyev are similar in character; their awkward manners are an endless source for popular jokes. Once it became known that Bakiyev found refuge in Belarus, numerous jokes circulated inside Kyrgyz social networks about the Lukashenka-Bakiyev union despite the overall anger in Kyrgyzstan about the April 7 bloodshed.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Council of Europe’s Georgia Policy Ignores Realities on the Ground

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) was scheduled to adopt a resolution on the consequences of the war between Russia and Georgia during its spring session on April 26-30. Since the Russian invasion in August 2008 and the brief war between the two countries that followed there have been three PACE resolutions strongly supporting Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. On top of this, as stipulated in Resolution 1633 (2008), PACE put forward very specific conditions to the Russian Federation: withdrawal of the Russian troops to the prewar positions, full deployment of European Union and OSCE observers into the Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia, and renunciation by Russia of the recognition of the independence of “South Ossetia” and Abkhazia. Those three conditions were named as “minimum conditions for a meaningful dialogue” between Russia and Georgia.

While Moscow has neglected all of them, PACE failed to adopt a new resolution. Instead, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was invited to speak before the Parliamentary Assembly, as was Heidi Tagliavini, who headed the E.U.-commissioned “Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia.”

Lavrov’s speech at the Assembly on April 29 said nothing about his country’s war against Georgia and the obligations Moscow took under the E.U.-mediated August 2008 ceasefire agreement. The centerpiece of the Russian minister’s talk was instead “the significance of the 65th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War and World War II for the formation of today’s democratic European order,” “the decisive contribution of [the Soviet Union] to the defeat of fascism,” and “the inadmissibility of falsification of this tragic chapter in the history of the continent.” Lavrov’s emphasis on history cannot be interpreted in any way other than Russia’s desire to connect its victory in the Second World War 65 years ago with a claim to a sphere of influence today at the expense of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries in the post-Soviet space.

Unlike Lavrov, Heidi Tagliavini, a Swiss diplomat, did focus on the Russo-Georgian relations, the 2008 war and its consequences but stopped short of saying anything new from what she had already stated in the fact-finding mission’s report some six month ago.

“There are no winners and losers in this conflict: everyone has lost,” Tagliavini told the PACE session. “All parties to the conflict failed, there were terrible violations of humanitarian and human rights law, and both the threat and use of force have returned to European politics.” Co-rapporteur on the conflict the Hungarian parliamentarian Mátyás Eörsi ominously stated in his own presentation that “Europe can never approve a new Yalta,” while Wilshire called on the parties to the conflict to start “confidence-building [and] dialogue to build trust.”

In general, the Tagliavini report accurately discussed the circumstances preceding the Russian intervention two years ago, but shied away from calling Moscow’s behavior an act of aggression. “Russia called its military actions in Georgia a ‘peace enforcement operation,’ the document dryly stated, “While Georgia called it an ‘aggression,’ and “the international community…was reluctant to enter into any formal qualifications.”

No matter how one would interpret the events of 2008, there is solid evidence that Russia invaded Georgia and keeps under its military occupation 20 percent of Georgia’s sovereign territory. Both invasion and occupation are acts of aggression by definition under international law, not to mention all other violations of Georgia’s sovereignty before, during and after the invasion which also fall in the category of aggression. On top of this, there was a brutal ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population both in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali during and after the Russian invasion, Russia continues building its military bases in the occupied territories, and it does not allow return of the internally displaced Georgian citizens to their homes.

Shortly after the war, Russia vetoed the extension of the UN’s and the OSCE’s missions to Georgia. Currently, the only European presence in the country is through the European Union’s monitoring mission whose observers are denied entry to the occupied Georgian lands. The Council of Europe was until this past session the only forum that could at least issue resolutions reminding Moscow of its international obligations. Unfortunately, this avenue has also been blocked by Russia as its demand “to take into consideration the new political and legal realities in the region,” is increasingly answered in Europe by deafening silence.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Usual Suspects: Who is Behind the Proposed Russian-Ukrainian Gas Merger?

By Jiri Kominek

When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin proposed a merger of Gazprom and Naftogaz on April 30 in Sochi, his Ukrainian counterpart Mykola Azarov responded by saying the offer was an “impromptu move”, but that his government would nevertheless consider the offer.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov countered by telling media that the merger was “thoroughly thought through” and reflects the extent to which Russia is ready to integrate with Kyiv”.

Gazprom head Alexei Miller said that negotiations over the proposed merger or joint venture would begin immediately following the May holidays (First week of May) and ideally would result in the creation of a new entity that would be integrated across the production chain from exploration to the end user.

Sources in Kyiv have pointed out that the Ukrainian government hired a law firm that has worked closely on numerous contracts revolving around Naftogaz to study the legal aspects of a merger between the state-owned company and Russia’s Gazprom.

This would indicate that Putin‘s impromptu merger proposal has indeed been in the making for quite some time. It also casts doubt over how serious the Yanukovych Administration is serious about further integrating Ukraine with Western structures such as the E.U.

Western diplomats monitoring recent events in Ukraine ranging from April’s agreement to extend the lease for Russia’s Black Sea fleet in exchange for discounts on gas to the most recent Gazprom-Naftogaz merger proposal are said to be alarmed at the pace of developments. Western governments are now having to take a good hard look at the direction in which Ukraine's new government chooses to lead the country.

The recent calls for a merger add credibility to speculation in media that Ukrainian businessman Dmitry Firtash, the co-owner of the opaque Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo (RUE) gas trading venture could be lobbying the Yanukovych government on behalf of the Kremlin’s interests to merge Gazprom with Naftogaz.

Firtash, after all, does share a cozy relationship with Sergiy Lyovochkin who is chief of staff to President Viktor Yanukovych.

Apart from RosUkr Energo, the two men were allegedly involved in a number of other less-than-transparent schemes including financial machinations revolving around a number of banks including TKB and the Ukrainian National Bank.

As a significant financial sponsor of the Yanukovych Presidential bid, Firtash appears to be cashing in for his loyalty by orchestrating the appointment of a number of his confidantes to the Azarov government including energy minister Yuriy Boyko whom former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko refered to as one of RosUkreEnergo’s “godfathers”.

It remains to be seen whether Firtash, Lyovochkin and Boyko prove to be the Kremlin’s point men who lobby in favor of a Gazprom-Naftogaz merger by making Viktor Yanukovych an offer he can’t refuse.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Ready to Integrate: Russia Fast-tracks Merger with Ukraine

By Jiri Kominek

Russia does not appear to be wasting any time in convincing Ukraine’s new government that past differences should be put aside and instead a merger of strategic economic interests pursued, albeit at the expense of Ukraine’s national sovereignty.

The first big signal that Ukraine’s government was selling the country to the Kremlin came with the signing of the discounted gas-for-Black Sea Fleet lease extension agreement, inked on April 21.

If this move left Western leaders, diplomats and investors dizzy, then Putin’s announcement on April 26 during a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Mykola Azarov—in which he proposed closer cooperation on the nuclear energy front with a joint venture between Russia’s Atomenergomash and Ukraine’s Turboatom—must have caused a full-on blackout.

If this was not enough, on April 30 while meeting with Azarov in Sochi, Putin dropped the latest gem: a merger between Russia’s Gazprom and Ukraine’s debt-ridden Naftogaz.

“We spoke about integration of the nuclear sphere. We are prepared to do the same in gas. I propose to merge Gazprom and Naftogaz of Ukraine”, said Putin after the meeting.

Following Putin’s comments, a surprised Azarov ACTH claimed the issue of merging the two gas companies never entered the discussion.

“The idea expressed by the Russian Prime Minister was impromptu. So, we will discuss impromptu proposals and we will look into concrete proposals”, said Azarov on the heels of Putin’s statement.

While the Ukrainian government seemed taken aback by Putin’s “impromptu”, and immodest proposal, his spokesman meanwhile let it be known that Russia had taken more than enough time to think the deal through.

The merger idea was “thoroughly thought through” and “reflects the extent to which Russia is ready to integrate with Kyiv”, said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Peskov’s remarks give weight to rumors seeping from the background in Kyiv that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his government, led by Mykola Azarov, have known about and expected Russia’s accelerated efforts to integrate the key economic infrastructure of the two countries several weeks, if not months in advance.

Sources in Kyiv say the Yanukovych administration ordered a law firm to study the legal aspects and ramifications of a potential merger between Gazprom and Naftogaz several weeks ago.

Furthermore Russian media has touted the proposed merger as Kyiv’s last chance to benefit from closer economic ties with Moscow before the completion of the Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines, which will bypass Ukraine and deliver gas to E.U. markets, while its own aging pipeline infrastructure retires to the scrapheap of historical irrelevance. Source:

Yanukovych and Azarov could be playing the “dumbfounded” card and quickly implement any and all of the Kremlin’s proposals without giving Ukraine’s citizens, who are fatigued with years of political instability and economic hardship, time to react.