Democratist

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Archive for May, 2011

Whispers of change in Tiraspol.

Posted by democratist on May 31, 2011

May 31st 2011,

Rumours are circulating in Tirsapol, capital of the unrecognized breakaway Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) of a change in political leadership at the next Presidential elections, due in December.

The PMR has been run by former Communist appartchik, Igor Smirnov, since the conflict which led to its succession from the rest of Moldova in 1992, and, since that time, has developed an international reputation as a hotbed of smuggling, corruption and authoritarianism.

But while any meaningful attempt to address these problems is unlikely in a place where a handful of people own almost the entire economy, and there is no real history of free or fair elections, at least some superficial alteration among the current leadership may be in the offing.

The reason behind this trend is a newly heightened pressure from Russia, which retains 1200 peacekeepers in the PMR, and (so it is said) wants the intransigent Smirnov out of the way so they can move forward with a plan to bring the frozen Transnistria conflict closer to resolution.

This, in turn, is seen as a first step as part of a controversial broader proposed deal with the German government, contained in the “Meseberg Memorandum” (signed by Chancellor Merkel and President Medvedev last June) which could potentially give Russia an enhanced voice in the EU’s security decision-making bodies.

A possible liberalization of visa restrictions for Russians entering the Schengen zone may be an additional incentive.

Apart from the rumours, another, more concrete indication of Russian intentions is that formal internationally brokered negotiations on a settlement of the PMR’s status are expected to reconvene at a meeting in Moscow on 21st June, after a break of some five years.

But while the formal resumption of negotiations would certainly be a step in the right direction,  Smirnov’s ouster, if and when it comes, is likely to be a more significant indicator of Russian seriousness in relation to moving the process forward, and it will be interesting to see how things progress following the selection and announcement of Presidential candidates in September.

Democratist remains sceptical about the extent to which other EU members will be willing to accept any Russian influence over their foreign policies in the coming years. But we hope that some tentative peaceful move towards a resolution of the current stalemate, combined with a change at the top (even a stage-managed one) will nudge the long-suffering Transnistrian people (unemployment is 49%, and 80% in the villages) a little closer towards considering the possibility of eventually taking their destiny into their own hands.

Posted in European Union, Moldova, Russia and the EU, Russia Foreign Policy, Transnistria, Western Foreign Policy | Leave a Comment »

Moldova’s 2011 Local Elections will confirm its European Orientation.

Posted by democratist on May 27, 2011

It will be harder for Moldova to join the EU that it was for neighbouring Romania, but Moldovan society has already made its preferences clear.

27th May 2011,

Moldova remains in a state of political upheaval initiated by the inability of the Communists to win the constitutionally required 61 seats to elect a President in the April 2009 parliamentary elections. The two years since then have seen several additional early votes – the last in November – but while the three-party coalition that forms the ruling Alliance for European Integration (AIE) has gained a few more MP’s each time, they still have only 59, and so are unable to elect one of their number to the presidency.

Marian Lupu (former Communist rising star and now leader of the breakaway Democratic Party) has filled the role of acting President since December. He looks set to do so for some months to come, especially since the constitutional court decided in February that it was not necessary for the government to hold a vote to appoint a new President within two months of the resignation of the last one (and did not provide an alternate time frame).

And yet a new set of elections early next year remains a possibility: Two rounds of municipal polls are due on 5th and 19th June. If the AIE, and especially Vlad Filat’s Liberal Democrats perform well (as expected), and the Communists lose control of one of the larger cities currently under their sway, then Filat may decide to have another crack at the top job.

In the meantime, it looks unlikely that either of his two AIE partners (Lupu’s Democrats or Mihai Ghimpu’s Liberals) will seek to block his path to power by cutting a deal with the Communists: They would almost certainly be seen as traitors to the cause of Moldova’s European integration (supported by about 70% of the population), and would suffer badly at the next election.

However, this might change if the fallout from the local polls provoke a challenge to Vladimir Voronin’s leadership of the Communists. If Igor Dodon, their mayoral candidate in Chisinau does well, while the Party’s vote in the rest of Moldova declines, then the young, centrist Dodon may make a bid to take control of the Party from the septuagenarian Voronin. This in turn would make the Communists a much more acceptable prospect for a possible deal with one or more of the AIE coalition partners.

But whether the current coalition continues, or the Liberal Democrats, or (less likely) a new coalition including Lupu and Dodon comes out on top, it seems implausible the EU’s generous financial support to Moldova will dry up any time soon: Corruption remains a serious problem with has still not been properly addressed, but in terms of progress towards democratization, media freedom and civil society, as well as prospects for co-operation with the EU on issues such as border controls and visa regularization, Moldova’s prospects are notably better than those of fellow EU Eastern Partnership members Belarus or Ukraine. This is not likely to change, given the demographic situation as expressed in the last three parliamentary elections (older Communist voters are dying off, and are not being replaced by many younger ones).

On this basis, the political and sociological foundation for Moldova’s continued EU orientation will remain in place. This is a positive development which, combined with increased free trade, and ongoing remittances from the EU, will do much to propel already robust economic growth (6.9% last year) and lead to the continued entrenchment of Moldova’s remarkably vibrant democracy. However, given enlargement fatigue and economic malaise, as well as the ongoing Transnistria issue, while the EU may be able to provide some additional incentives over the next few years, it looks like Moldova’s path to membership may still take several decades.

Posted in Democratization, EU Enlargment, European Union, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR), Moldova | 2 Comments »

Ukraine: The other 2012.

Posted by democratist on May 24, 2011

24th May 2011,

Last week, Democratist presented our readers with a vision of Ukraine’s future as seen from the upper reaches of the Party of the Regions (PoR). This week we’ve been talking to some friends from the other side of the political divide about the current situation, and ongoing preparations for the October 2012 parliamentary elections.

They made the following points;

Opinion polls are of varying quality, but it seems likely that the PoR has lost up to half the support it had at the time of the presidential elections last February, and is unlikely to be able to recapture it. This may be one reason why the government has decided to hold the next parliamentary elections as late as possible.

The popular mood has become angry and frustrated due to continuing problems with the economy, and more specifically in relation to rapidly increasing corruption. This is more pronounced in the east, where politically connected criminals have started to demand larger sums from local businesses.

The oligarchs that fund the PoR are interested in access to European markets, and support the signing of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) as part of an Association Agreement with the EU. However, it is necessary for the leadership to maintain the rhetoric of continued good relations with Russia to placate their supporters. There are doubts about whether the EU will be ready to sign the DCFTA by the end of the year, despite the fact that it has become a central element of government policy. The EU may seek to postpone the deal on the basis that greater progress needs to be made on human rights issues, or reforms proposed by the IMF. The normal process of ratification is, even without additional complications, is usually rather drawn out. A continuing unwillingness to upset Russia may also be a factor.

The language issue is critical for the PoR. Currently, only Ukrainian has the status of a state language, even though many Ukrainians prefer to speak russian. The PoR has repeatedly promised to make Russian an official language, but has not yet delivered. The reason for this may be at least partly that, given how unpopular they have become, they fear that if they were to do so before the parliamentary elections next October, many of their voters would see no further reason to support them. However, this presumably depends on how the other parties react.  Nationalist grandstanding from the opposition could in fact help the PoR considerably.

With its ratings falling, the PoR would almost certainly fare very badly in next year’s parliamentary elections, given a free vote. They are therefore in the process of introducing a number of measures to tilt the situation to their advantage. These include;

  • The politically-motivated legal harassment, and possible future imprisonment of Tymoshenko (and other opposition figures).
  • Increasing the threshold for party representation in Parliament from 3% to 5, 7, or even 10%.
  • The creation of an electoral system which allows for half of MP’s to be drawn from party lists, and the others to be elected as independents (thereby allowing these to be bribed or blackmailed into joining the PoR’s ranks after the election, as happened in he wake of last year’s presidential elections).
  • Plus all of the usual post-soviet electoral fun and games.

Additionally, given the popularity of acting Mayor of Kiev Oleksander Popov (who took over the running of the city from the erratic Leonid Chernovetskyi last December) it seems likely that the PoR will push for a mayoral vote in Kiev at the same time as the parliamentary elections.

Posted in Ukraine, Ukrainian Politics | 3 Comments »

Ukraine may be turning back towards the EU, but integration remains a distant prospect.

Posted by democratist on May 18, 2011

18th May 2011,

Democratist has spent the past couple of days in Odessa, where he met a new contact who seems to know everyone worth knowing there, and certainly talks a good game.

Our new friend informs us that the next 18 months are about to witness a significant and decisive shift in Ukrainian foreign policy.

Apparently, the intensified wave of high-level corruption since Yanukovich came to power last year is essentially a final fight over the spoils as part of a prelude to a new period of Ukraine making a concerted effort to deepen its relationship with the EU. This in turn will lead to enhanced domestic reform, a clampdown on corruption, and an unequivocal return to the path of democratization.

In this regard, the PoR’s key aims over the coming months are the completion of an EU Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) by the end of he year, and the agreement of a much simplified visa regime for Ukrainian Citizens visiting the EU next summer (perhaps to coincide with Ukraine’s joint hosting of Euro 2012 with Poland in June/July). The PoR believes that the successful conclusion of these agreements would give it a considerable (and badly needed) boost in the October 2012 parliamentary elections.

This renewed concentration on EU integration comes after Ukraine ignored Russia’s invitation to join its Customs Union in late April, despite Putin’s promises that Ukraine would earn an additional $6.5 billion to $9 billion per annum from the deal. It has been rumoured for some time that the oligarchy that funds the PoR has come to see the Russian “virtual mafia state” as a key threat to its own independence (although this does not automatically make them keen Europeans, or mean that they will easily accept restrictions on their own activities). Additionally, according to almost everyone Democratist has spoken to, there is considerable popular sentiment throughout the country that Ukraine will be far better off as an independent state than it would be as a glorified southern province of Russia. More specifically, the pro-European policy is being driven to a considerable extent by the First Deputy Head of the presidential administration, the economist Irina Akimova.

From Democratist’s perspective, Ukraine’s timely completion of the Association Agreement and DCFTA would be most welcome, as it would prove beneficial to both the European and Ukrainian economies and set the stage for further integration. If these negotiations are indeed successfully completed by the end of the year then it certainly would make a great deal of sense to reward the government with a relaxation of the EU’s visa requirements next summer (provided all required criteria are met) with a view to scrapping visa requirements entirely for Ukrainians over the medium term. The current tight restrictions are very unpopular in Ukraine, with many people feeling that they are being treated more like potential criminals, than potential “Europeans”.

However, further progression towards full integration beyond that point is clearly going to take some time, and the current situation is not very promising. A critical indication of whether Yanukovich is really serious about Ukraine’s eventual European orientation will come during the conduct of the parliamentary elections next October: If domestic and international observers conclude that these are run in a free and fair manner (with none of the problems witnessed in the municipal polls last year), if the media and judicial situations show sharp improvements, if there is no abuse of “administrative resources”, if the rumours that the PoR is secretly funding the nationalist Svoboda Party in Western Ukraine suddenly cease, and if Tymoshenko does not discover that she is unable to contest the poll because she is in prison on politically-motivated charges, then even the more reluctant EU member-states will have to concede that Yanukovich is someone who means to transform Ukraine, and with whom they should do business.

Posted in EU Enlargment, European Union, Russia-Ukraine Relations, Ukraine, Ukrainian Corruption, Western Foreign Policy | 3 Comments »

Ukraine Under Yanukovich.

Posted by democratist on May 14, 2011

May 14th 2011,

Over recent weeks, Democratist’s attention has started to shift towards Ukraine. Here are some of our initial thoughts on the current domestic situation;

The two key trends that have dominated Ukrainian politics in the period since Viktor Yanukovich became president last February have been a marked expansion of authoritarianism, and an increase in high-level corruption. As Anders Aslund recently commented in the Kiev Post, reforms introduced as part of a $15 billion IMF loan arrangement have not boosted Ukraine’s competitiveness or market freedom, but have instead benefitted a few businessmen close to the President. Officially the economy appears to be bouncing back from the global financial crisis, with growth projected at 4.5% this year and 6.5% for 2012, but this does not yet appear to be filtering down to the popular level. While the opposition leadership remains weak and unpopular (a result of Orange-era bickering and stagnation), social tension and resentment of the government is increasing, and a number of protests are planned in Kiev over the coming days.

Last year saw a return to the 1996 constitution, which has in turn meant a far greater concentration of power in the Presidency than had been the case under the constitution agreed in 2004 (and followed by former President Yushenko). The Rada has become a compromised and unpopular rubber stamp, with parliamentarians regularly and illegally voting for others who have not bothered to turn up to work, or passing laws at the first reading – sometimes apparently without knowing what they contain. Some MPs switched sides shortly after Yanukovich came to power (perhaps as a result of financial or other inducements) and are therefore very unlikely to be re-elected. There were also a number of credible allegations of electoral fraud in relation to last October’s local elections from the respected non-partisan OPORA NGO, and Freedom House downgraded Ukraine from “Free” to “Partly Free” in its annual Freedom in the World Index for 2011. It currently seems unlikely that Parliamentary elections set for next September will pass smoothly, considering the increasing unpopularity of the current government, even in its Eastern strongholds.

The media (TV and most papers) are owned by oligarchs with close connections to the President, and have very quickly fallen into self-censorship. The IMI Press Freedom NGO reported a drastic decline of freedom of expression in Ukraine last year. Only a couple of smaller independent titles remain, such as Dzerkalo Tyzhnya and Ukrainska Pravda (both owned by the journalists who write for them). Pressure has also been applied to the English-language press, including the Kiev Post, although both the Post and Ukrainian Week magazine are still independent, and both critical of the government.

The judiciary has also become a tool of the regime; the high court and prosecutors office have come under Presidential control, and last year saw a number of selective and politicised criminal cases launched against at least eight Tymoshenko allies, including former interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko (arrested on 26th December, and still in jail). Meanwhile only one, very junior cabinet minister from the current government, plus a couple of PoR officials, have been charged with corruption. The SBU (Security Service) was reported to have been attempting to place pressure on Ukrainian Catholic University rector Borys Gudziak in May 2010. It’s role since that time remains unclear.

In terms of corruption, while independent Ukraine has always been corrupt (part of the Soviet inheritance) quite a few of the current ministers appear to be trying to steal as much as possible, in as short a time as possible – and regardless of the damage they might be inflicting on the wider economy, to Ukraine’s international reputation, or even whether they are discovered (indicative of how tightly the media and judiciary are controlled by the government, and of a lack of desire to control this problem at the highest level). Ukraine has been slammed on this count by both Transparency International and the World bank.  A well placed source has suggested to Democratist that up to 30% of the state budget is siphoned off by various scams.

Perhaps the most instructive case in this regard relates to the grain export quotas that were set after an apparently disastrous harvest last summer (in fact only 13% down on 2009). In August 2010, Deputy PM Andrei Klyuev announced that state control of the grain market needed to be strengthened and a previously unknown company called Khilb Investbud was appointed as the state trading agent in the grain market with exclusive rights to effect all operations connected with grain on behalf of the state. Then in October the government decided to introduce grain export quotas, and who should get a big chunk of the much-prized licenses required in order to export Ukrainian grain, other than the very same Khlib Investbud. It later transpired that, while 49% of Khlib Investbud belonged to the Ukrainian state, the other 51% belongs to a company called Kolossar. Kolossar is partly owned by a man called Mykola Prysazhniuk, who just happens to be…the Minister of Agriculture (and an old friend of President Yanukovich). The other major owner of Kolossar is Russian bank Vneshekonombank. No action has been taken against  Prysazhniuk, and there are no plans to withdraw the quota system, despite the fact that Ukraine is a member of the WTO, and grain quotas restrict an important source of export earnings and tax revenue.

A similar degree of murk surrounds the privatization of the national telecommunications company UkrTelecom which, after having large sums of public money invested into it over the past decade, was sold for a minimal $1.3 billion in an auction in which only one firm, a mysterious Austrian private equity firm called EPIC, was permitted to bid, thereby excluding competitors including Deutsche Telekom. UkrTelekom is currently the only company to have a 3G license, and looks set to have a monopoly on 4G services as well.

A similar story is apparent from the introduction of a series of new tax laws passed by the Rada. These seem to have been specifically designed to favour large corporations at the expense of Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs), and allow greater scope for corruption: Tax inspectors are now allowed to raid businesses as often as they want (previously this was a maximum of once per year), and they are able to seize property for up to 96 hours without a court order. One result of this is that FDI into Ukraine (once money reentering the country from Cyprus is discounted) remains negligible. More significantly, there’s a growing sense of anger among SMEs that may well soon spill over into protest.

In terms of the broader  economy, it currently looks unlikely that Ukraine will convince the IMF to part with the two remaining $1.6 billion loan tranches to be decided in July because of  lack of action on pension reform, VAT and gas prices. However, cash from the UkrTelecom sale was received by the treasury in April, and along with an unexpectedly strong trade balance, and the planned privatization of 700 state-owned companies over the coming year (due to bring in about $1.2 billion), fears that Ukraine will default on its $42.1 billion of short-term public debt due for repayment, refinancing or restructuring in over the summer have waned slightly, although they remain considerable.

Nonetheless, Ukraine is now suffering from a number of serious economic problems including soaring prices (especially food and fuel), a weak credit market, wage arrears and  unemployment. As a result, according to an article in 12th May Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta, in a recent survey some 45% of respondents said that they might be willing to participate in antigovernment protests. While we feel that this figure may be exaggerated, a number of protests are planned in the coming days in Kiev, and the level of participation in these will give a better indication of the level of popular anger.

Posted in CIS Media, Democratization, Freedom of the Press, Ukraine, Ukrainian Corruption, Ukrainian Politics | 3 Comments »

Alexander Lukashenko – Free Speech Advocate.

Posted by democratist on May 8, 2011

8th May 2011,

Democratist is currently traveling in the CIS and his limited internet access, and therefore limited scope to inform the world of our myriad brilliant insights.

Nonetheless, one short piece has caught our eye, which we think shines a little light on the current situation in Belarus, and which we would like to share with our esteemed readers.

As such, we reproduce in full this short article of two days ago from that impartial and internationally respected, if generally undervalued Belarusian news organ, Telegraf;

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“One can’t Shut People’s Mouth, Lukashenko

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko believes that no one may interfere with one’s free expression of personal point of view.

This was stated by the Head of State on May 6 at the meeting on the progress of investigation into the Minsk Subway explosion on April 11.

“I have received information that some of our bureaucrats are trying to shut the people’s mouth. One should no way let it happen,” he said.

“Everyone, having worked out his working hours, has the right to express personal views in certain places, at home, for instance, like in a real democratic state, and nobody has the right to interfere with this,” BelTA quoted Alexander Lukashenko.

“If a person violates the law, he must answer for this to the fullest extent.

If we start crushing people, we won’t be understood,” said President of Belarus.”

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So, all is now clear.  If you thought Lukashenko was some kind of despot, you were quite wrong: Every citizen of Belarus has the right to say whatever they want – provided (following the best Soviet tradition) they confine their democratic exuberance to their own kitchens.

Posted in Belarus | Leave a Comment »

 
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