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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

With Warsaw Summit approaching, Duda stresses NATO unity in remarks at National Press Club

WASHINGTON-President Andrzej Duda of the Republic of Poland stopped by the National Press Club in downtown Washington D.C. this morning to deliver remarks to an audience of about 500 and to take part in a question-and-answer session with the hosts of the cable news program "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.

The event was organized by the Atlantic Council and Center for European Policy Analysis, two American think tanks with vested interests in Polish affairs both within her borders and in her region of Europe.

Introductions were made by Frederick Kempe, the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council and Wess A. Mitchell, the President of the Center for European Policy Analysis. Their remarks set the stage by emphasizing Poland's central location in Europe, its relatively large Armed Forces, and its growing influence in the region. Poland has also been particularly active in NATO since the Kremlin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine.

Poland is a country of 38 million people, eighth largest in Europe and slightly larger than Canada.

President Duda was elected into office in Poland's two-round Presidential election last year, beating out incumbent president Bronislaw Komorowski of the center-right Civic Platform party. He won the presidential election as a member of the right-wing Law and Justice party, but resigned from the party membership in May 2015. Before running for president he was a member of the Polish Sejm (equivalent to the House of Representatives) and the European Parliament.

"Poles and Americans...stand united and speak with the same voice on issues of importance."

Duda focused on foreign policy and cooperation with regards to security in his speech.

First, President Duda outlined Polish foreign policy and the three principles it is based upon, which he claimed "are based in the deep historical experiences of my country, sometimes very difficult and painful experiences."

"Three pillars define Polish foreign policy: first, the obeying of international law, international sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all states, no matter how strong or weak they are", Duda explained, in a clear nod to Warsaw's fierce opposition to the Kremlin's aggression in Ukraine and its sudden annexation of Crimea two years ago.

Duda then explained his second principle, partnership and dialogue among nations, and its contributions to stability. "History has taught us that such a system never guarantees a permanent peace in our world."

Duda's third pillar was that of "Euro-Atlantic Unity". "For the last twenty-six years, Poland has been a consistent advocate of trans-Atlantic cooperation." He expressed pride in Poland's membership in the European Union and in NATO, despite the soft Euroscepticism of his former political party. He then thanked the United States for its continuing support for Polish sovereignty and in NATO's unity.

"Our goals are the same. We need to keep NATO strong and united, with the United States engaged in European security as the leading guarantor of credibility in the alliance. It's our goal to strengthen the security of our common states, with a special focus on the Central and Eastern European countries. For Poland, this means strengthening NATO on its eastern flank."

Duda also stressed the importance of contributions from each different NATO state. This has been a recent controversy as the United States has pressed various European countries to add to their defense budgets to mixed results. While countries like Germany lag behind, Poland has maintained and turned itself into a considerable and modern power in the area of defense, and Duda was keen to remind his mostly American audience that Poland sent troops to be part of the coalitions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Just as everyone should expect NATO to come to their aid, everyone must also chip into the common maintenance of the alliance, and Duda maintained that Poland would stand firm to its obligations to NATO, specifically the policy of keeping defense spending as at least 2% of national GDP.

This focus on the unity of NATO by President Duda is not by coincidence. NATO's next summit will be in early July and will be meeting in Warsaw, Poland's capital and largest city.

Despite the various different perceptions and prioritization of threats across the countries of NATO, it is imperative that NATO members remember that they all belong to the same alliance with the same values and principles. According to President Duda, the main threat facing NATO was the rule of force replacing the rule of law; another not-so-subtle nod to continuing aggression in Eastern Ukraine as well as Syria.

However, Duda was quick to reassure the audience that he did not seek a hostile relationship with Poland's neighbors.  "What threatens Europe today is not a particular state, or a particular nation. It is the policy of a certain state which results in permanent violation of international law. Poland, like the whole of Europe, does not seek to isolate Russia. We don't want the Cold War to come back, as Prime Minister Medvedev suggested a short while ago in Munich...nations do not want to live in the balance of fear, however, we need to remember that if we're going to have a partnership, it must be built upon mutual respect for common rules is needed. In other words, in order for a dialogue to be possible, law has to be respected."

Duda called for sanctions to be brought against every country that violated those common laws, citing their nonviolent nature, and hoped that the upcoming Warsaw summit would reassure the international community of NATO's ability to resolve conflicts both in Eastern Ukraine and in the Middle East where the Islamic State still wreaks havoc.

In his closing remarks, President Duda cited President John F. Kennedy's famous quote "There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction."

In his question-and answer session with Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, President Duda was asked about a wide variety of both domestic and international subjects. Poland's recent constitutional crisis was a topic of discussion that emerged quickly. After Duda's former party, Law and Justice, won the parliamentary elections last October, it proceeded to nominate judges to Poland's Constitutional Court that would replace the judges appointed last minute by the rival party Civic Platform. The crisis has raised eyebrows and cooled relations between Germany and Poland, but Duda, now speaking in Polish rather than English, seemed calm and convinced that his former party was in the right. 

 The discussion also shifted to the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election, set to occur in November.  Ms. Brzezinski seemed very keen to ask President Duda about his opinion of Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has been running on a platform similar to the European right-wing, which tends to be more nationalist, populist, and isolationist than the traditional American right which advocates for decentralized government, individualism, lower taxes and firm foreign policy. Duda decisively avoided the question, saying that it was the American people's decision and that he did not wish to get involved in domestic affairs of the United States.  The President walked the tightrope as he reiterated broad support for NATO, an organization which has been called "obsolete" by the real estate mogul, but also claimed he understood the message of "America First", claiming he naturally wants to put Poland first as its head of state. 

President Duda also received a bit of criticism on Poland's reluctance to be pro-active in the Refugee Crisis, but he stood his ground and a bit of soft euroscepticism emerged when he explained that Poland was not going to be told what to do by Germany when it is capable of making its own decisions and mentioned that refugees were not heading to Europe with Poland in mind as it does not have as high a living standard or as generous a social safety net as Germany. 

Andrzej Duda is still a relatively new president and the government he oversees is less than a year old. His messages of unity across NATO will continue to resonate, but there may be more gridlock to come when it comes to the European Union as the union faces an enormous challenge in the refugee crisis. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Experts discuss Russian-Turkish relations and their international ramifications

On March 23rd, Johns Hopkins University hosted a discussion about Russian-Turkish relations and how they affect the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as the Middle East. 

Featured at the discussion were Kurt Volker, Olga Oliker, Eric Edelman, Avinoam Iden, and Svante Cornell, who was tasked with opening the talk. 

Eric Edelman, former Ambassador to Turkey, was quick to remind the audience that conflict between Russia and Turkey is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, the Russian and Ottoman Empire fought each other. When Russia was overtaken by the communists in 1917, tensions subsided somewhat, but Turkey’s accession into NATO kept embers smoldering.

After the fall of communism, Turkey saw an opening to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as both regions are home to large populations of Turkic peoples. In the Caucasus, Turkey quickly became friendly with Azerbaijan, a country that speaks a language called Azerbaijani which is nearly identical to Turkish. Similarly, four of the five Central Asian countries, Tajikistan being the exception, that became independent in 1991 are Turkic countries that have varying levels of similarity to the Turkish language.  Turkey’s allies in the West considered its new potential for influence as positive, but Russia disagreed. 

To understand Turkish foreign policy, one must understand Turkish domestic policy under President Erdogan. Erdogan has been in power in Turkey since 2002 when his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party swept to power. Though Turkey remains considerably freer than most countries that it surrounds, plenty of problems have arisen. Press freedom is under attack. The foreign policy program of “Zero problems with neighbors” has quickly become the exact opposite. The conflict with PKK terrorists in the southeast continues to fester. The economy is faltering. 

Turkish foreign policy took another hit when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24, especially after evidence emerged that the plane had spent less than a minute in Turkish airspace. 

Another squabble has to do with a small neighbor of both countries: Armenia. Turkey and Armenia have been at odds for over a century because Turkey refuses to call what the Ottoman Empire did to its Armenian population in 1915 genocide. Russia has recognized the events of 1915 as genocide since 1995 and because of this, Armenia enjoys relative friendship with Russia against Turkey and its other neighbor Azerbaijan, who also refuses to acknowledge the events as genocide. 

On the topic of Turkey’s oil-rich Azerbaijani cousins, Avinoam Idan, Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, stressed a relationship based on energy. Azerbaijan is sitting on a large amount of oil and Turkey hopes to get its hands on that oil. There also exists a possibility that a stronger Azerbaijan backed by will try to move towards unfreezing the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Russia, because of its friendly relationship with Armenia, would likely apply pressure on Azerbaijan to do the opposite by stationing more troops in Armenia. 

Russian support of Hezbollah, however, could hurt relations with respect to Israel and its borders, whereas it looks like Turkey and Israel are mending their relations. 

Another important point is that concerning NATO. NATO has doubled in size since the fall of communism, and most of the countries that have joined were once communist. The end of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term may also entice the Kremlin into taking military action somewhere else as the South Ossetia conflict took place at the end of Bush’s 2nd term, though this may be pure coincidence.

Next to speak was Olga Oliker of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. It’s important to remember that neither Turkey nor Russia wanted to harm relations with the other country. The actions both countries are taking shouldn’t be described as a proxy war either as in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and Russia “...are two different countries, supporting two different sides, for two different reasons.” 
Both countries are in a rut with economic problems in Russia and a wave of refugees spilling into Turkey, but Russia is more concerned overall with taking the stage as a great power than Turkey is and the Kremlin constantly is on the lookout for ways it can show Russia to be that great power. 

It’s also interesting to note that Turkey and the United States are not quite on the same side in the Syrian Civil War either and this represents an opportunity for the Kremlin to take action. 

The Kremlin’s openings for opportunities seem to come at the expense of the United States, which, according to Kurt Volker, former US ambassador to NATO. Indeed, the American involvement in the Syrian Civil War has been “bumbling”, while Turkey’s goals are clear, namely defeat of the PKK, the end of the Assad regime in Syria, and the prevention of an independent Kurdish state. Russia’s goals meanwhile run almost exactly contrary. The Kremlin is friendly with Assad and its involvement in Syria has definitively turned the civil war in favor of Assad’s forces and to some extent the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition in the north of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians. Meanwhile, Washington, Mr. Volker argues, seems to be going back on its already loosely defined goals. The United States doesn’t want ISIS to be powerful, but at the same time action against them has been largely restrained, and there’s not been much cooperation on the Refugee Crisis in Europe. 

The personalities of the Turkish and Russian heads of state have been considered quite similar for some time. Erdogan has been accused by his critics of wanting to turn Turkey into a state similar to Russia where the President wields considerably more power than in Turkey’s present parliamentary structure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both are disliked by pro-Western “liberal” Russians and Turks. And both leaders have led their respective countries into uncertain futures both on a global and domestic scale. 

Yashin presents report on Kadyrov

Russian dissident Ilya Yashin presented a report to the Atlantic Council in the United States about Chechen firebrand Ramzan Kadyrov on March 24. 

“People are afraid to talk about Kadyrov”, he said in his opening remarks. “Chechnya under Kadyrov is becoming a quasi-independent, quasi-Islamic state growing away from Russia.”

The tiny region in the Caucasus has come a long way since the two wars in the 1990s turned Groznyy into a living hell twice over. The city now glitters like Las Vegas, but behind the new buildings life is still difficult. Kadyrov is awash in wealth and Chechnya is constricted by rampant corruption, most obviously manifested in the Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation, which is a public fund that Chechens are required to pay into as a legalized system of tribute to Kadyrov. The Chechen firebrand is famous for his huge wealth, which he does not hesitate to flaunt with expensive cars and watches and even paying out sums of money to boxing legend Mike Tyson and soccer legend Maradona for appearances with him

Kadyrov rules Chechnya with an iron fist and frequently threatens members of the Russian opposition with assassination, and he is widely believed to be behind the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. 

Kadyrov is also a thorn in the Kremlin’s side despite Putin’s relationship with him. Nobody seems to know what will happen going forward, but prospects are bleak. Kadyrov is a dictator, but if he was to be ousted suddenly, enormous risk could turn into violence and even war. President Putin has at times tried to keep a tighter leash on Kadyrov’s outspokenness, but Yashin summed up the rut frankly “Unless Russian society speaks up, I don’t think Kadyrov leaves.” 

Some claim Kadyrov’s loyalists assassinated Boris Nemtsov on his orders in order to appease President Putin. The Kremlin claims that that is erroneous because “Putin was the last person interested in Nemtsov”. Indeed, Nemtsov’s time in the spotlight had dimmed considerably leading up to his assassination, but he was a major catalyst and the “backbone” of the opposition, Yashin described. And while Putin’s direct involvement  in the assassination is disputed even among the opposition, the Kremlin deserves to be given some indirect responsibility because they let Kadyrov become who he is today. 

The Caucasus is a powder keg, Yashin explained, and if Putin removed Kadyrov from power, “it would explode”. “Putin feeds the monster rather than fighting it, but sooner or later the monster could get out of his cage.” A third Chechen way is unlikely since “very few Chechens want to fight Russia again”. 

Kadyrov is active in intimidation of the Russian opposition outside Chechnya as well. Journalists, human rights activists, and NGOs are frequently targeted by Kadyrov’s goons and Kadyrov himself frequently posts open threats on social media with opposition figures’ heads in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle scope. Yashin himself was asked to cease using facebook by the Kadyrovtsi. 

Regardless of the hardship, Yashin vowed to continue his fight. “This is our duty regardless of danger. If we want to transform this country, we need to hit the weakest link in the chain, and that is Kadyrov.” 

Kadyrov is an ambitious man and notoriously distrustful of western values, and he uses the Chechen diaspora to his advantage, and he presents a grim challenge to Russian national security as well as international security. 

When asked about Kadyrov’s inclusion into the Magnitsky Act, Yashin claimed it was less important because he’s on multiple sanctions lists already. Instead Yashin called for an international investigation into Nemtsov’s murder, and he did not spare cold words for the Chechen leader himself. “Even if the opposition elects a president, I don’t believe in negotiation with Kadyrov. He is a murderer.” 

Kadyrov is a liability for Putin as well as for Russia. Yashin claims that “Kadyrov shows that Putin the Emperor has no clothes”. Indeed, Kadyrov has been compared to an extreme version of Putin, without the covertness of repression and international image. 

If an international investigation into the murder of Boris Nemtsov does conclude that Kadyrov had a hand, he could be a subject of discontent, but it’s going to take serious change for things to turn against him. He is not an adequate leader for Chechnya and if Russia is to improve its domestic security, there needs to be a change in the Kremlin’s attitude towards him. 

Boris Nemtsov's Life and Legacy

On March 8th, International Women's Day, a panel discussion was held at the George Washington University in Washington, DC to commemorate and remember the life of Russian politician and Putin dissident Boris Nemtsov.

Nemtsov's legacy was mixed. He promoted reform at the local level of government and was received by prominent heads of state such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Bill Clinton as well as gaining some popularity in the city he built his political career, Nizhny Novgorod. His political prominence in the chaotic 1990s, however, managed to damage his reputation as a fighter of corruption. The 1998 financial crisis also severely hurt his popularity as he was Deputy Prime Minister when it struck. Before that, he looked like a front-runner to succeed President Yeltsin.

Nemtsov remained influential in the Russian government after 2000, but the rising popularity of the Putin administration and its ability to take credit for the economic surge that started in the early 2000s  unfortunately pushed him out of the Duma. After leaving the Duma, Nemtsov consistently and fervently opposed policies set forth by the Putin Administration, which he claimed were eating away at the Russian people's liberties. Nemtsov worked to provide a consistent voice against the most controversial actions of the Putin government including the military operations in Eastern Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the saga of Ramzan Kadyrov, and the Chechen Wars. For this Nemtsov was known as a "white crow" by his admirers, someone who fought for his principles rather than political expediency.

First to speak at the panel discussion was Andrey Markarychev, a fellow native of Nizhny Novgorod who now teaches at the University of Tartu in Estonia. Mr. Markarychev, like many in the Russian opposition was shocked to hear of Nemtsov's grisly assassination. He was most particularly interested in Nemtsov's exposure of corruption with regards to the Winter Olympics in Sochi and pondered the question-"What place does Nemtsov occupy in Russia and with respect to academic analysis?"

Why did Sochi pique Mr. Nemtsov's interests? For one, he ran for mayor of the Black Sea town. He seemed to believe that the Winter Olympics were not just a celebration of Russia and a mega-event to increase Russia's profile on the world's stage but a celebration of power for the Kremlin. To be clear, Nemtsov didn't oppose the Olympics in principle, but he had a keen eye to recognize the problems that came with it.

Still, his name was not seen much in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in many Western news media outlets. Western media was focused on an issue Nemtsov did not focus on at all-the discrimination of LGBT Russians. Nemtsov, by contrast, focused exclusively on corruption issues rather than social issues such as the evictions and environmental concerns.

Nemtsov knew he was facing an uphill battle. Support for the Sochi Olympics on one level was a loyalty test. Support for the Games meant, however indirectly, support of the Putin administration-to oppose the Games led to political isolation.

Mr. Markarychev also pondered what Nemtsov would have thought in regards to the upcoming FIFA World Cup set to happen in the summer of 2018. Sanctions and corruption scandals have already thrown it into question, and the Greek economic catastrophe is often said to have begun when Athens hosted the 2004 Olympic Games.

Nemtsov's national prominence ended in the 2003 State Duma elections in Russia and Professor Henry Hale presented a comprehensive analysis as to why that happened.

Nemtsov voters in 2003 favored a market economy, lived in cities, and favored a western-style democracy as the optimum system of government for their country. Nemtsov ultimately failed to get into the Duma because his pro-market stance was eclipsed by Putin's United Russia effectively taking credit for the economic upturn. By 2003, the Russian media, especially on TV, had become vigorously pro-Putin. The survey run also exposed the fact that Nemtsov's voter base was small to begin with and even if he had been able to get parliamentary representation, it would not have been much. The fractured nature of the "liberal" Russian opposition (for instance, the Yabloko party and their waffling on Chechnya) also meant Nemtsov had to fight against similar parties for the same representation.

That may be the most important lesson for the present-day opposition to learn. If they cannot unite, their small chances of gaining parliamentary representation may evaporate and they may be further undermined.