Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The news from Ukraine is a little unclear

The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament (yes, dear readers, it was elected) has passed two pieces of legislation, as EUObserver reports.

Ukraine has granted semi-autonomy and amnesty to pro-Russia rebels, the same day as ratifying a strategic EU treaty.

Its parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed the rebel laws in a closed session on Tuesday (16 September) by 277 and 287 votes out of 450, respectively, a pro-Western MP, Andriy Shevchenko, said on Twitter.

They give the separatist strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, east Ukraine, limited self-rule, or “special status”, for the next three years.

The rebels will be allowed to create their own police forces and to build closer relations with Russian regions, with local elections in December to lend weight to the separatist leaders.
This has caused a certain amount of discontent among some MPs. As Yuliya Tymoshenko, whose party voted against the laws said, they "legalize terrorism and the occupation of Ukraine". Then again, the reality of the situation is that, no matter what we hear from the Russian media and the people who get their information from it, there are something like 3,000 Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. This is not enough to invade the rest of the country or, even, establish Russian rule in the east but it is enough to prevent Ukraine from re-establishing its rule there.

Radio Free Europe covers much the same ground though it prefers to concentrate on the fact that it is the rebels who hold the territory in dispute. As we have seen in the last few months, the rebels were defeated by the Ukrainian army but something happened to push them back. One wonders whether that something is related to the appearance of body bags in Russian towns where families had not been informed where their sons had been sent to fight. (More of that in another posting.)
The Verkhovna Rada on September 16 passed a law giving parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions broader autonomy for a three-year period, seeking to end a deadly conflict with pro-Russian separatists and keep the country of 45 million in one piece.

The law allows local authorities to set up their own police forces and name judges and prosecutors. It provides for snap elections on December 7 to establish new councils in certain districts of the region known broadly as the Donbas.

The broad-ranging political legislation also guarantees the right for Russian to be spoken in state institutions, and allows local authorities to strengthen relations with neighboring regions of Russia.

It promises to help restore damaged infrastructure and to provide social and economic assistance to areas particularly hard-hit by the conflict, which has killed more than 3,000 people since April.

A separate law passed in the same closed-door hearing grants amnesty to participants in the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government forces, excluding those who have committed "serious crimes."
Secondly, the Verkhovna Rada as well as the Toy Parliament ratified the EU-Ukraine Trade Accord, as both news stories make clear. However, let us not forget that it is not a particularly meaningful ratification as the two sides have already agreed to postpone its implementation for another year. (That I have already blogged about.)

Moving on to another post-Soviet state, we have some worrying reports from Moldova (worrying but not surprising for those of us who have followed what President Putin is up to). Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor is the best source of news about that whole area and its daily e-mails, which are a long way ahead of the blog itself, are to be recommended to anyone who really wants to know what is going on.

This was one of the items in yesterday's e-mail:
Chisinau Says Pro-Moscow Provocations Ahead

Mihai Balan, director of Moldova’s Intelligence and Security Service (SIS), says the organization has evidence that Moscow is planning to stage provocations in his country in the coming weeks, in advance of the Moldovan November parliamentary elections. Russia will utilize not only traditional sources of Transnistria in the north and Gagauzia in the southeast, he argues, but Moscow also intends to put in play “hundreds of NGOs [non-governmental organizations]” and political parties that receive financing and direction from the Russian government. The goals of these actions, he says, are to sow confusion and split Moldova apart (, September 10).

According to Balan, “the country’s leadership is receiving information in a timely fashion about the situation in the country and in the region.” But he said that “citizens, too, must be vigilant and not fall victim to provocations by those forces that do not wish good for our country. Unfortunately, the number of such provocateurs is greater than those who love the Republic of Moldova.” Nonetheless, he pledged that “if not today, then tomorrow, those responsible will answer before the law.”

To counter this growing threat, Balan said that Chisinau has stepped up control measures concerning visitors to Moldova, “in the first instance at the Chisinau airport,” in the hopes of blocking an influx of activists who might be used to stir up trouble. Some suspicious individuals have already been detained and then sent back to their country of origin, the security services chief noted.

Three things about Balan’s statement are significant. First, while he said that Transnistria and Gagauzia remain problems, his remarks suggest that Chisinau is now more worried about groups within the Moldovan population that Moscow is organizing to challenge the existing regime. Almost all Western analysis has focused on one or the other of these neuralgic problems rather than on divisions real or promoted by Moscow within Moldovan society. Balan’s comments suggest that it is time to refocus attention there, while not neglecting the ways in which Moscow can exploit either Tiraspol or Komrat.

Second, his remarks call attention to a calendar that few outside Moldova have appeared to pay attention to: the approaching parliamentary campaign in which ethnic tensions are likely to run high in any case. If Moscow is focusing on this, then the probability that it will organize provocations in Moldova will increase with each passing week before the vote. Electoral campaigns are typically the time when emotions are most raw and when demagogues can play on them to destabilize the situation. Putin has been particularly sensitive in his planning to the timing of his actions, and it is almost certain that the Kremlin—even if not the West—is focusing on this calendar.

And third, Balan’s tone was distinctly pessimistic, suggesting that he and others in the Moldovan government are worried that such provocations may have their intended effect; typically, government officials and especially those in the security agencies exude confidence. Granted, it is of course possible that the security chief is seeking more funding for the SIS and increased support of other kinds by playing up a conflict that few have paid attention to up to now and one that, within Moldova, only his organization is ready to deal with.

That emotions and even fears of such Russian actions in Moldova are running high is suggested by the statements of several other Moldovan leaders. In particular, Mihai Gimpu, the leader of the Liberal Party of Moldova, which favors ending that country’s neutrality and pursuing membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), says he fears that “first Russia will swallow Ukraine and then eat us for dessert.” He continued, “We are a small country of three million residents and with a weak economy that rests on tomatoes and carrots. Would we be able to survive if Putin goes further? Of course, not” (, September 5).

The concerns Bilan has expressed and the emotional tone of Gimpu’s remarks mean that there is almost certainly going to be trouble ahead in Moldova. That danger is something Western officials must take into consideration, not only with respect to Moldova, but also in their planning for Ukraine. If the situation in Ukraine deteriorates or even continues at its current level, there will be an increasingly serious chance that Moscow will make a move in Moldova, which, in turn, could additionally destabilize Romania and, indeed, a good portion of the Balkans. And to the extent a scenario like this occurs, Hungary almost certainly would become involved as well—a reminder that once again, as a century ago, some small thing in the Balkans could trigger a much bigger conflagration for Europe and the world.
I must admit that given several possible scenarios, Eurasia Daily Monitor tends to take the most pessimistic one but that is no bad thing in the circumstances. One needs to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Undoubtedly, if things go badly wrong with Moldova we shall get the usual suspects to whom we can now add a large number of eurosceptics and the leadership (at least) of UKIP telling us to leave that nice Mr Putin alone and, anyway, it is all the West's fault.

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