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“This is clearly not just about Ukraine, but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole neighbourhood”

By Blog Admin, on 20 October 2014

Wilson UCWIMFTW coverAndrew Wilson  discusses his new book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for The West with SSEES Research Blog.

SRB: You made a trip to Ukraine when writing this book. Could you tell us about your experiences there?

AW: When I was there, it struck me as a good idea that there was a book in all this. The previous time I was in Ukraine was in November last year, just before the protests started. But by February, it was also pretty clear that things were getting exciting and heading to some kind of denouement. So what do you do? You just go.

I arrived in the middle of an old fashioned revolution. I remember a human chain collecting cobblestones. At the front you had young guys chucking them at the militia, but the human chain was made up of the entire citizenry of Kiev – well dressed women in high heels coming from the office, the grandmother at the front still holding her shopping in a blue plastic bag. It was like a nineteenth century revolution between the citizens and the evil rulers, a bit like Les Miserables.

The book went to press really quickly, but hopefully, I can put some pictures in the second edition.

SRB: You refer to the Orange Revolution as a precedent to the Ukraine crisis. To what extent do you see this crisis is a continuation of the 2004 Orange Revolution?

AW: Well, the protesters clearly had that in mind. Initially they were copying the tactics of the Orange Revolution and it started in the same way – a peaceful, carnival-like protest. But people were also thinking of how to do it better. It was clear very early on during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that the regime wasn’t capable of using violence, whereas this time the regime did use violence–but did so very early and not sufficiently to put an end to things. So had a very early set of calculations with how to deal with a very different regime.

Ultimately the tragedy is that immediately after the uprising there was a sense of optimism that Ukraine was doing better this time but it never got the chance to show that because people were still learning lessons from the disappointments that followed the Orange Revolution.

SRB: Do you think in the immediate future that the Russia’s hegemony will dictate the political paths of countries in Eastern Europe?

AW: We can see Russia trying to influence all its neighbours, not just Ukraine. The bigger picture is a pretty scary one. If it is true that the countries that reformed fairly successfully in the 1990s in Central Europe were able to do so only because Russia was not really able prevent them, whereas Russia is now so able to do so here –that’s a pretty depressing conclusion.

It’s not just Ukraine but other countries that might be unable to reform or undertake the EU-friendly policies that Brussels wants; Moldova is a big test case with the election coming up, Georgia is a very interesting case too, because it has already reformed but under Russian pressure is now backsliding a bit. We can also see the reintroduction of a more Russian political culture – back to corruption, patronage, political prosecutions. The Baltic States are an important test case too because they’re in EU and NATO, but will that protect them from Russian pressure?

What’s more, this is clearly not just about Ukraine but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole  neighbourhood. Long- term I think Russia is over extended, so it would be able make trouble everywhere, but it can probably make trouble in two countries at once. (more…)

Ten things you should know about Crimea

By Blog Admin, on 5 March 2014

Andrew Wilson  offers some key points to think about to understand the current crisis.

1. The new Crimean authorities were established at gunpoint. Despite Russian rhetoric about a “coup” in Kyiv, the real coup was in Crimea. The Crimean Assembly building was taken over at gunpoint after a seemingly successful rally supporting the authorities in Kiev. Berkut militia, fleeing from their crimes in Kiev, were allegedly involved.

2. This is totally unlike the Russian war in Georgia in 2008. Then, by most accounts, the Georgians were provoked into firing first. Only one Russian citizen has died in the current crisis, and he was shot by snipers in Kyiv.

3. The proposed referendum is against the Ukrainian constitution. Only a national vote can change the country’s borders.

4. The new Crimean “Prime Minister” Sergei Aksionov was a local gangster in the 1990s. His nickname was “goblin”. His Russia Party won only 4 percent at the last elections in Crimea

5. There are 266,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Before the coup they were chanting “Allah is Great! Glory to Ukraine!” Now they are reportedly forming “self-defence”units. They were all deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944; half died as a result. They were only allowed to return after 1989 and still live in marginal conditions. The 70th anniversary of the Deportation is this May.

6. The Crimean Tatars are Sunni Muslim. The Crimean Tatar Khanate was the dominant power in the region from 1441 until Crimea was occupied by the Russian Empire in 1783. The campaign to turn it into a Russian Athos, a centre of Orthodox Christianity, only gathered pace after the Crimean War.

7. There is an ethnic Russian majority in Crimea (58 percent), but most settled there after World War II. Some 24 percent are Ukrainian. Crimean Tatars are over 13 percent, but nearer 20 percent of the school population.

8. Crimea is a peninsula. It gets all its water and gas from the rest of Ukraine.

9. There are big deposits of oil and gas off the Crimean coast.

10. Russia is re-supplying its Black Sea Fleet for a role in the Eastern Mediterranean, including linking up with the old Soviet naval base in Tartus, Syria.

Andrew Wilson is Reader in Ukrainian Studies at UCL-SSEES.

This piece was first published in the ECFR Blog and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

Georgia may face power vacuum after presidential election

By Blog Admin, on 25 October 2013

Georgians go the polls on 27 October to elect a successor to President Mikheil Saakashvili. However, behind the scenes power politics, a populist outsider candidate and continuing pressure from Russia may combine to open up a period of uncertainty, writes Andrew Wilson.

The West has been struggling to make up its mind as to whether Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is a good thing or not, and now he has announced he is leaving after less than a year in office. The previous era is also drawing to a close, as sitting President Mikheil Saakashvili’s two terms in office come to an end with the presidential election scheduled for 27 October.

Despite the heated rhetoric of Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the West, the Ivanishvili government was not existentially opposed to all its achievements. Some have been expanded, others chipped away at. The real question is what will happen next, with the very real risk of a power vacuum after the dual departure.

Ivanishvili’s announcement was not a complete surprise. He has always indicated he saw solving Georgia’s problems as a short-term task, and is visibly not too keen on the day-to-day tasks of administration. However, his exit strategy is far from clear, and 71% of Georgians in a NDI poll taken on 23 September said they disapproved of his decision to quit. He has not ‘finished the job’; unless it is narrowly defined as dislodging the old elite.

Part of his appeal to voters to back Giorgi Margvelashvili, his party’s (Georgian Dream) candidate for the presidency, is to allow him to continue that work. “Showing trust to Margvelashvili means showing trust to me”, Ivanishvili said in September. But he doesn’t seem to want to be overshadowed by Margvelashvili, who was a personal not a party choice. Margvelashvili is Minister of Education, and safely uncharismatic; Ivanishvili having sidestepped stronger figures like Defence Minister Irakli Alasania or David Usupashvili, the chair of parliament. The presidency will have less constitutional power after the election, but Ivanishvili has yet to name a Prime Ministerial successor – he says he will do so in November.

Margvelashvili is in an impossible situation – even if he wins his mandate will be weak and on ‘loan’ from Ivanishvili, who has also declared but not defined his intention to head a new NGO network after the election. It is unclear whether this will make him a back-seat driver. It is also possibly a mixed blessing for existing NGOs, as Ivanishvili’s fortune may cause a migration towards his money and influence. It is also unclear whether Ivanishvili’s choice for Prime Minister will be a stronger choice. (more…)

“Medvedev is written off by Russian commentators, but they might find they’ve done so too soon”

By Blog Admin, on 14 December 2012

Dmitry Medvedev in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, November 2011-28

Photo: www.kremlin.ru Creative Commons license

Russia’s former President – and current prime minister – Dmitrii Medvedev is sometimes seen as a political puppet of Vladimir Putin. However, as Pete Duncan tells SSEES Research Blog, Medvedev’s role may have been underestimated.

 SSEESResBlog: Medvedev is often seen as a politically weak figure, wholly dependent on Putin. US diplomats privately described him as playing Robin to Putin’s Batman. Why does he deserve a whole chapter in your book on Russian foreign policy?

 PD: As president Medvedev had responsibility for foreign and security policy and Putin specifically gave him that responsibility. Even though Putin was still the most powerful figure in Russia at the time, it’s clear from looking over the four years that Medvedev made his mark on foreign policy. His foreign policy was separate from and different to that of Putin.

 This was partly a matter of style – that’s the most obvious difference – but style can become a matter of substance. And that’s what happened. As soon as Medvedev got the opportunity to change the state of relations, which had got so bad. Already in 2007-8 but then with the war in Georgia, Russia’s relations with the West were the worst they had ever been since the fall of the Soviet Union.

 When Barrack Obama came to power and the new American administration decided, they had to have the reset and Medvedev took full advantage of that. Now Russia and America were on friendly terms again. It’s very hard to see Putin with his KGB and macho background being able to pull that off. Or even getting support from the American side for it. (more…)

How bad were the Ukrainian elections?

By Blog Admin, on 6 November 2012

photo 1

Photo: osepa (Neil Simom. Creative Commons license via Flickr

In a follow up to his earlier post, Andrew Wilson considers just how clean last week’s Ukrainian elections really were,

The Ukrainian authorities expected a relatively clean bill of health for the parliamentary elections held on 28 October. Voting day itself was fairly peaceful; there were 3,800 international observers and over 100,000 domestic observers; and the results apparently reflected the exit polls.

There was even a trend, in October at least, towards slightly more balanced media coverage. A media monitoring project in which I was myself involved judged that 32% of news in the final week showed a balance of points of view – which is still not a lot, but an improvement from a low base, though the main official First National channel hardly changed.

But the critical tone of the preliminary report by OSCE Office for Democracy and Human Rights (ODHIR) caught the authorities off guard. In large part, this was because ODIHR reports have cottoned on to the fact that the damage is usually done long before voting day itself, when the authorities build their various advantages into the structure of the campaign. So ODIHR front-loaded its report by criticising the ‘lack of a level playing field, caused primarily by the abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparency of campaign and party financing, and [overall] lack of balanced media coverage’, and referring directly to the cases of Yuliia Tymoshenko and Yurii Lutsenko, stating clearly that ‘the fact that they were not able to run as candidates negatively affected the election process’. (more…)

Belarus: the last European dictatorship

By Blog Admin, on 31 October 2011

Cover of Belarus The Last European Dictatorship by Andrew Wilson The authoritarian regime of Aliasandr Lukashenka in Belarus has historical roots but little future, explains Andrew Wilson in his new book

Belarus hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in December 2010. After another rigged election, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, whom Condoleezza Rice once dubbed the ‘last dictator in Europe’, jailed scores of protestors, including three of the candidates who had had the cheek to stand against him. A still unexplained bomb on the Minsk metro in April killed fourteen. Demonstrations began again in the summer, inspired by the Arab Spring and ignited by a post-election economic collapse, with activists experimenting with social networks and ’silent protests’ to try and avoid arrest, not always successfully.

My book tries to explain how Belarus got into this mess, which I can at least claim was predicted by the last two chapters entitled ‘The Edifice Crumbles’ and ‘The Myth of the Belarusian Economic Miracle’.

The story goes back a long way – as many people argue that, paradoxically, Belarus has no real history. But the weakness of national identity in the present is not because Belarus lacks a past, but because the lands that are now Belarus have long been part of other states and projects. I therefore avoided using the term ‘Belarus’ until chapter five (‘Belarus Begins’). (more…)