The new great game

Our next anniversary guest post is written by the the great Jonathan Edelstein.

It’s starting to look like the season of referenda in the near abroad.

On September 17, less than a week from today, voters in the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, located between Moldova and Ukraine, will be asked to vote on whether to “renounce [their] independent status and subsequently become part of the Republic of Moldova” or “support a policy of independence… and subsequent free association with the Russian Federation.” The option of “free association” with Russia, which is widely considered a prelude to outright annexation, is reportedly backed by a large number of Russian-financed business and political organizations, some with long-standing presence in Transnistrian politics and others apparently formed for the occasion. In the meantime, South Ossetia, which had earlier explored the possibility of petitioning Russia’s constitutional court for annexation, has just announced its own referendum for November 12, and although Abkhazia currently denies similar plans, there are rumors that a plebiscite may be in the works there as well.

The referenda, which are rather transparently supported by Moscow, represent something of a change in policy for the Russian Federation. It’s certainly nothing new for post-Soviet Russia to attempt to maintain its influence over the countries comprising the former Soviet Union, and it has at times used Russian citizenship to cement the “soft” annexation of neighboring territories; for instance, at least 90 percent of Abkhazians and South Ossetians now hold Russian passports. Nevertheless, up to now, it has soft-pedaled the issue of de jure territorial expansion. The forthcoming vote on whether Transnistria should become a second Kaliningrad suggests that policymakers in Moscow are at least starting to think seriously about taking formal responsibility for the territories that have broken away from other former Soviet republics.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Russia would push such a policy at the present time. All three of the breakaway republics have substantial minorities who oppose union with Russia; Transnistria is almost evenly divided between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians, and despite post-Soviet ethnic cleansing, South Ossetia and Abkhazia retain Georgian minority enclaves. The recent wave of terrorist bombings in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol may well be linked to the referendum, and Russian annexation of the Georgian breakaway republics would only intensify border conflicts such as the Kodori Gorge. Nor would successful plebiscites lend a veneer of legitimacy to a Russian annexation; indeed, given the current international attitude toward non-consensual secessions from recognized states, this would only make Russia’s legal position worse by transforming it into an occupying power.

In other words, the referenda seem like a recipe for stirring up ethnic conflict within the breakaway republics, making Moldova and Georgia even more alarmed over Russian political ambitions than they already are, and creating new diplomatic and legal problems for Moscow. Which leads naturally to three questions: why now, what does Russia stand to gain in compensation for these risks, and how much should the rest of the world (and particularly Europe) care?
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Steinmeier on Belarus

Well, following up the last post on Belarus, it seems that German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has mirrored what went on in that Patterson School command post exercise to an eerie degree. In the simulation, apparently, Gerhard Schröder made a fool of himself by lining up with the Russians…and, strange to tell, Steinmeier has done so too, at least in the eyes of Transitions Online’s Belarusoblogger.

Seems he’s arguing for a “measured” approach and more “dialogue” with the Belarus government – or to put it another way, doing nothing. Is it “the natural gas, stupid”? Perhaps. One of the delivery pipelines from Russia to Germany (the Yuma pipeline) passes through Belarus, but German policy seems to be more about bypassing the Central Europeans, and surely (as I blogged regarding the Ukrainian gas crisis) it would be in the EU’s interest to limit the degree to which Russia can disaggregate the customer states.

Deeper than that, I think it’s fair to say that Germany – or to be more accurate, the German foreign policy establishment – has an enduring preference for Moscow. As far back as Willy Brandt, in fact. The Treaty of Moscow in 1970 preceded the Treaty of Warsaw and the Grundlagenvertrag with East Germany, and extensive partnership agreements were signed with Gorbachev as a preliminary (indeed a quid pro quo) to the reunification. Timothy Garton Ash, I think, remarked that “this Germany and all previous Germanies have a special interest in good relations with Moscow”.

This was obviously true regarding Deutschlandpolitik and reunification–the Ostpolitik was a prerequisite of the Deutschlandpolitik. But is it still true now? Clearly the degree of hostility between Germany and Russia is much less, which is all good, but the degree of interdependence is much greater. And the conflicts of interest are hardly less.

One thing the German policy establishment did well in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was to synchronise their own policy with that of the EU. It would seem that a tension is emerging.

Did Russia come out ahead in the gas crisis?

Expanding on (and slightly copying) my comments in Edward’s post below, I was really shocked to see the spin in the western coverage of the Ukrainian gas crisis. The part that didn’t shock me – just made me groan – is the spin of a western press that seems to have decided in advance that Russia must be the bad guy, so Ukraine must be the good guy. Russia may be the bad guy, but I don’t think is Ukraine is the good guy. From what I can tell from the press, Russian claims that Ukraine was siphoning off gas seem well founded – Russia had been complaining since summer about siphoning, Gazprom was willing to let third parties audit the difference between what was going into Ukraine and what was coming out, while Ukraine refused. Also, it seems that the Russians weren’t the only ones making allegations about siphoning. Yes, Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine are not honorable, nor is this some purely commercial conflict free of political meaning. But, that does not exclude the prospect that Ukraine was screwing Russia.

But what really surprised me was the claim that Russia was the loser here.
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Enter The People. Why We Are Wearing Orange.

It is getting colder in Kyiv, so it may not be too surprising both camps are busy fueling the flames of their conflict. In a country eagerly awaiting its Supreme Court’s decision about the validity of last week’s Presidential election, the second week of popular protests in Kyiev begins with the incumbent president Kuchma’s threat to enforce martial law, and more secessionist motions passed by Eastern regional assemblies/authorities, which, although likely a consequence of oligarchic pressures and thus questionable true popular support, have caught the attention of the Yushenko campaign – as Scott’s post below indicates. In many ways, things could take an ugly turn soon.

Given the growing awareness that Mr Yushenko is a politician with oligarchic friends of his own, who is making, as the Kyiv Post stated on Saturday, “a multi-faceted attempt to take power”, and not a saint, I think it is appropriate to explain exactly what we want to express by wearing orange these days: orange is, after all, Mr Yushenko’s campaign color. But then, it seems, orange is no longer just his campaign color.

Former US National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated last Thursday, in a roundtable discussion, hastily arranged by the American Enterprise Institute, that we witness “the meeting of Ukrainian nationalism with Ukrainian democracy on a popular basis”. Well, nationalism clearly has its role, and not unexpectedly in a country featuring such a motley collection of salient cleavages. Yet for all I hear, I do not get the impression that the nationalism exhibited by the crowds peacefully demonstrating for Yushenko is of divisive, ethnically exclusive nature – while the Yanukovich camp apparently scared ethnic Russian voters in the East. Arguing that the Kuchma administration has talked up ethnic tensions to be able to act as mediator, Tarik Amar writes in a very informative, long primer at John Quiginn’s

“[c]rucially, even in round one the opposition managed to win all Ukrainian regions in the West as well as the Centre of the country, including ? by a large margin ? the largely Russiophone capital city Kyiv. The government has always liked to pretend that the opposition?s base was restricted to the Ukrainophone West, implying that it was ?nationalist?, even ?separatist.? Some Western observers still cling to these facile stereotypes. It is Yanukovych who has been cornered in a minority of eastern oblasts. If anybody represents an above-regional Ukrainian solidarity, it is clearly Yushchenko. He speaks proper Russian as well as Ukrainian and his being a native of one of Ukraine?s most eastern oblasts and having spent his student and working life in western as well as central Ukraine cannot be matched by Yanukovych, whose biography is strictly mono-regional and whose Ukrainian is not perfect.”

So I think Mr Brzezinski’s statement is by and large correct about the nature of what’s going on. And while most Ukrainians as well as political analysts will probably have agreed even before last week that this election was a crucial event for Ukraine, I think everyone has been surprised by the hundreds of thousands of people who have turned the election into a plebiscite about the kind of society they want to live in. Let me again quote Tarik Amar –

Even if some Western minds jaded by overfeeding on ?Civil Society? rhetoric may find it old hat, for Ukraine things are at stake that were achieved in Poland in 1989: essential respect for the law and the sovereign people, pluralism, and, indeed, freedom from fear. Ukraine is facing a choice not between different policies or regions but between mutually exclusive political cultures. Without undue idealization, the opposition stands for a reasonable understanding of rules, laws, and good faith in observing them.

Wearing orange is – now – essentially about aspiring to a different standard of governance. Yet I am not as certain about the prospects of Ukrainian civil society as Mr Brzezinski, who believes it would survive even a failure of the current stand-off. I am worried by the failed 1953 East-German uprising – it’s (bloody) failure led to widespread decades-long political apathy. Despite all efforts by political activists from inside (and outside) Ukraine, Ukrainian civil society must still be weak. Thus, as every little thing may count, we have decided to display a few additional orange bits to show our support for all those in Kyiv who are aspiring – and freezing.

One more thing. Over the last few days, some reports have led to not unreasonable suspicions about a renewed confrontation between Russia and “the West” about Ukraine, including some about several Western, particularly American, governmental as well as non-governmental organisations having “meddled” with the Ukrainian elections, particularly by funding grassroots protest-organisations like the student movement PORA.

Yet “meddling” is a matter of degree – a week before the second round of the elections, the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow quoted a Russian political consultant with the so-called “Russian club”, Sergei Markov, using the American grassroots support to justify the – far more extensive – Russian involvement in Ukraine –

“[l]ook at what the U.S. is doing here – supporting foundations, analytical centers, round tables. It’s how contemporary foreign policy is pursued. And it’s exactly what we’re doing.”

I would never claim that “the West” or any of its constiuent parts would be above the use of electoral manipulation; particularly, in situations where it had a clear idea where it wants to go and what to expect, how to direct, and what to achieve through any political movement.

Yet, as opposed to Russia, whose motives with respect to Ukraine are clear – if there is one truth about the American and European involvement in Ukraine, I think it would be that there is no strategy, simply because there isn’t a monolithic or even prevailing view of Russia anymore. Absent any real strategy, Western support is likely to have actually achieved what it was supposed to achieve: create process awareness.

It was the latter that brought the people to the streets, not some handbook of popular opposition, pollsters, political consultants, or stickers paid for with money from Washington or Brussels. And that is one more reason to wear the ribbon.
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Odd, But Interesting

Gregg Easterbrook of the New Republic writes:

MOSCOW LOST THE COLD WAR, BUT DREAMS OF WINNING THE GLOBAL WARMING WAR: Why won’t Russia ratify the Kyoto Treaty? It would seem very much in Moscow’s interest to do so.

The United States has dropped out of Kyoto negotiations, but most other Western nations remain in. Russia now holds the swing vote on whether Kyoto goes into effect for most Western nations except the United States. If Kyoto actually did take effect, requiring most Western nations to make dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases, Europe would inevitably end up involved in “carbon trading” with Moscow. The European Union would invest in modernization of Russian industry, in order to reduce Russian greenhouse-gas emissions; then Europe would buy the reduction credits so created. The European Union also would reduce its use of greenhouse-offender coal, substituting lower-carbon natural gas from Russia. Thus it seems Moscow and its industries would come out a winner under a Kyoto regime. Yet the Duma has been resisting ratification of Kyoto for two years, and yesterday, Vladimir Putin said he is also opposed.

Possible reason for Russian resistance–Moscow wants global warming! Much of the world might suffer, but the freezing former Soviet states might be better off. The agricultural region of Russia might expand significantly, while Siberia became reasonably habitable. If Siberia and other ice regions became reasonably habitable, global warming would effectively be expanding Russian territory by climate change, not war. And what government doesn’t want more territory?

Sidelight: Why does Germany favor the Kyoto Treaty? Not so much for greenhouse reasons but so that Berlin can shut down the country’s subsidized, politically powerful coal-mining industry. German leaders have wanted for decades to cut subsidies for coal production–even the presumably pro-labor current government wants this–because coal mined in Germany costs more than twice the world price, mainly owing to featherbedded work rules. Every move to reign in the German coal industry has been greeted by public howls. But if Berlin could blame a coal shut-down on an international obligation, and polls show the Kyoto accord is very popular among Germans, the equation would change.

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The sidelight is even odder and even more interesting. Hmm.