1. Poland: Could anyone spell PiS as 'peace?'
Recent Polish parliamentary elections, if viewed at face value, present a major setback compared to the moderate and pro-EU policies pursued by the dethroned Civic Platform-Polish People's Party coalition government, and slim chances of bettering relations with its immediate big neighbor, Russia. However, the right-left political pendulum often swings in mysterious ways.
True, the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), chaired by hard-line politician and former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, subscribes to a set of values that do not promise easy times for neither Brussels nor Berlin or Moscow.
Among other things, Kaczynski keeps blatantly accusing Moscow of masterminding a hideous plot to assassinate his brother, the then President Lech Kaczynski who perished in a plane crash near the Russian city of Smolensk in 2010. With no facts to support this allegation, the PiS leader invokes a Russophobe ethos that some parts of Polish society hold as tradition. It works, since prejudices are known to die hard.
The EU is no less apprehensive as to how to engage with the right-wing government in Warsaw, notably on several crucial dossiers including: refugee quotas; the dismantling of the heavily-polluting coal industry, regarded by PiS as the pillar of national energy sovereignty; the handling of the eroding European unity crisis in Eastern Ukraine; and dealing with Moscow and in particular applying EU sanctions, which are hailed by Polish nationalists as the ultimate and only way of dealing with Russia.
What’s more, there is the likelihood that PiS will in no way be a “party of peace” but rather a party of war. Warsaw was heavily involved in the agreement that led to Viktor Yanukovich’s removal from power and remains until now the formal patron of the pro-U.S. and pro-EU government of Petro Poroshenko. But…
Since some politicians in Kiev sympathize with Nazi collaborators in order to help mold an ideological platform and beef up nationalist sentiment, Polish public opinion has become more and more disgusted with the elevation of those who are responsible for the massacre of Polish civilians in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, which took place between 1943 and 1944, to the status of “heroes of Ukraine.” The change of mood in Poland with more citizens leaning towards nationalist ideology leaves little chance for preserving the status quo in relations with Ukraine.
This week Russia marked the Day of National Unity. Basically, this holiday commemorates the expulsion of the Polish invaders back in 1612, with local bloggers rekindling patriotic sentiments with an unfortunately inevitable aversion to Slavic neighbors with whom they share a lot in terms of common history (the Russian empire for some time incorporated Poland), culture and other similarities.
Now, under the new circumstances, is it all gloom and doom for re-starting a dialogue between Moscow and Warsaw? Will relations still be handicapped by the legacy of this constructed animosity? Sergei Utkin, head of the Strategic Assessment Department at the Center for Situation Analysis at the Russian Academy of Sciences, sounded cautiously pessimistic for a change when discussing the matter with the Troika Report.
“The troubles in Russian-Polish relations started a long time ago and were exacerbated by the Ukrainian crisis.”
“In the years to come we probably can’t expect any progress to turn the relationship into better shape. But small steps could be made to stabilize the relationship if both sides are willing to do it. So far in Poland politicians of various leanings welcome a larger NATO military presence on their soil and this will not endear Russia. It is not an easy task to find common ground. Yet both countries would gain from more stable political relations and economic cooperation.”
A slightly more positive scenario was drawn up for the Troika Report by Nadezhda Arbatova, head of the European Political Studies department within the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and co-chairperson of the Trialogue Forum involving Russia, Poland and Germany.
“The victory of the right-wing Law and Justice party will not necessarily result in the deterioration of bilateral relations. A great deal will depend on how far to the right the party’s pendulum swings. If it goes too far in this direction, it risks losing all the advantages achieved by the previous government. There are objective restrictions to PiS anti-EU sentiments and its Euroscepticism. I think it would be tempting for the new government to establish workable relations with Russia on a pragmatic footing.”
The formidable obstacle, as phrased by Polish liberal journalist Ziemowit Szczerek, is the heavy dependence of PiS on the “naiveté and fanaticism” of its supporters. This unmerciful verdict might be a bit of an exaggeration. At least, these two qualities can hardly be the dominant trait of the PiS leadership if we consider Jaroslaw Kaczynski (and his role in the party). Conservatives by definition tend to calculate properly what they deem as the “national interest,” and this could be the lynchpin of a newly launched rapprochement between Moscow and Warsaw.
After all, the PiS-appointed Prime Minister Beata Szydlo while saying the usual mantra that “Russia is first and foremost an adversary” preceded it with a conciliatory overture: “we would like to see Russia as an economic partner.” The finale of the sentence was no less positive: “We must remember that wise economic policy and diplomacy can be very helpful on this issue.”
This is exactly what Troika Report is supportive of: “wise” diplomacy. Over last two years Moscow has proved it has the brains and guts to conduct a proactive and effective foreign policy.
Let’s take into account several worthwhile breakthroughs on thorny issues, including setting the four-party Minsk negotiations into motion over the civil war in Ukraine and the future of rebel republics in Donbass, coming to a settlement on the Iranian nuclear deal and persuading archenemies like Saudi Arabia and Iran to start talking to each other to bring peace to Syria.
In all of these “cause célèbres” Moscow showed restraint and eagerness to accommodate opposing opinions and alternative options. It never allowed itself or others to take the “my way or the highway” approach, while building up the image of an honest broker.
PiS would be a difficult partner. But Moscow has a track record of establishing workable relations with conservative political forces in many places, from Republican administrations in the U.S. to Gaullist politicians in France.
Today could be another moment of truth. Moscow would be “wise” to capitalize on these gains to positively engage with Poland, irrespective of the initial response, and keep trying to open up and activate all channels of communications.
2. Syrian crisis: Vienna-2 has brought UN, Iran and hope on board
The cautious assessment of the outcome of the Vienna-2 meeting might be justified and yet the sheer scope of participants and the value of the decisions reached – including compromises reached between irreconcilable rivals like Iran and Saudi Arabia – elevate the event to the status of a diplomatic breakthrough.
The assembly of peacemakers – with the addition of Iran – agreed to concentrate on setting up a sustainable nationwide ceasefire in Syria, persuade conflicting parties to work out a new constitution and hold elections to be supervised by the United Nations. These elections should include all Syrian nationals including members of the diaspora and refugees in other countries who should have secure guarantees to cast votes and decide the fate and future of their embattled homeland.
Moreover, the Vienna-2 negotiators consented to hold a separate meeting later to draw up a comprehensive list of terrorist groups that are operating in Syria.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN's envoy to Syria, reflected the mood on the ground by saying it was “unimaginable” even a few weeks ago that all parties with such diverging interests would have agreed to talks. What’s more, no one could have envisaged that the United Nations would be placed back at the wheel with a powerful mandate from all the actors. In this context, it is a symbolic achievement that two archenemies, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are sitting at the same table and talking of bringing peace to Syria where they have been at odds over the survival of Assad’s regime.
Was it a sudden change of mood? Probably not. More likely it was the end result of Russia’s painstaking and consistent diplomatic efforts to convince and persuade other counterparts that without Iran, a major protagonist of the big game going in and around Syria, nothing would be achieved and in fact could turn out for the worse.
Iranian academic Lana Ravandi-Fadei, a senior scientific collaborator at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Middle East Studies, talked to RIR on this sensitive subject.
“Iran is very important for the negotiation process. Bashar al-Assad and the opposition are unable to come to any substantial agreement. It is the external actors like Iran, Russia, United States and Saudi Arabia that must provide the foundation for any agreement. Iran and Saudi Arabia play a powerful role in the internal situation in Syria. Saudi Arabia not only sponsors different opposition groups in Syria but also employs special units in direct combat there.
On the other hand, Iran supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime economically, financially and militarily. The latter is shown by the involvement of the Lebanese Hezbollah combat units in Syria, which have become a crucial player in the civil war and provide great support for the government. It is worth mentioning that Syria has been the only country with which Iran has signed an agreement on mutual defense in the case of external aggression. So it is virtually impossible to resolve the Syrian wart without Iran.”
- To what extent do you think that Russia and Iran can act as tandem players at these negotiations?
“During the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, many wondered what was the logic of Russia in being part of the P5+1 negotiation team. Would Iran fall into the embrace of the United States? Would Iran flood the global markets with its oil and hurt the Russian economy? What was there in the deal for Russia? Now with cooperation between Iran and Russian in Syria we see that the two countries had developed more plans for working together than many had realized.”
So, could the emergence of three Iranian high-ranking diplomats at Vienna-2 gathering be interpreted as a breakthrough and a feather in the cap of Sergei Lavrov?
Alexei Arbatov, a Russian academic and political scientist, provided his insight into the matter for RIR.
“I think it’s a victory. Moscow and Tehran will almost certainly act in tandem. Our interests coincide. These interests are focused on assisting the government of Bashar al-Assad and helping him regain control over a large part of Syria. Not all of it but the territory primarily populated by Alawites.”
- What is the middle game for this multi-layered conflict in Syria? The expert community is thoroughly split on the forecasts of the provisional political settlement. Where are you in this dispute?
“I side with the realists. First, the negotiations will go on for a long time. The major powers involved in talks do not control all the factions warring on the ground in Syria and definitely do not control the Islamic State. Second, the most that I can expect from negotiations is to achieve a ceasefire, primarily between Assad’s government troops and the Free Syrian Army, which is representing the so-called “moderate” opposition. A ceasefire would be essential as without it there is no point in talking about a political reconciliation to pave the way for a composite government embracing representatives of all ethnic and religious groups.”
Yet, it is still a long haul. The most divisive issue remains the figure of Bashar al-Assad with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry firmly stating that in no way can this person “unite and govern Syria,” while adding that “Syrians deserve a different choice.” One can find echoes here of the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who reiterated Moscow’s stance stating, that “the Syrian people should decide Assad's fate” adding that he “did not say that Assad has to go or that Assad has to stay.”
For many observers it was a clear sign that Moscow and Washington have inched towards a more compatible position on Syria. The relative consensus of Vienna-2 negotiators gives ground for a modest hope of pacifying the ravaged region. Moreover, Vienna-2 is a testimony to the comeback of diplomacy as the ultimate means of settling disputes and conflicts.
3. U.S. and Japan posing as alternatives to Russia and China in Central Asia?
The four-day tour of Central Asia by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, preceded by a similar diplomatic engagement of the five post-Soviet republics by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, revealed the growing importance of the region, always viewed as a grand chess board in relations between Russia and the West.
Taken at face value, the almost synchronized “pivot” to Central Asia is dictated by mounting concerns over radicals and militants, especially from Islamic State affiliates seeking to establish control over Afghanistan with an eye on expanding its outreach to neighboring countries.
However, the other unspeakable motive of the two global powers belonging to the “collective West,” seems to be to counterbalance the legacy of Russia’s influence, which has received a boost recently in these nations with their slightly diluted ethnic Russian middle class and the increasingly visible economic and financial presence of China. At least, this was the unanimous verdict reached by observers in the U.S. media.
In a remarkable display of pragmatism, John Kerry during a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman Islam Karimov, described by American media as an “autocratic ruler… among the world’s worst human rights offenders,” avoided an accusatory tone and sounded surprisingly conciliatory. Moreover, in the ancient city of Samarkand Kerry talked to the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian “stans,” assuring them that United States is keen to engage with all of them, irrespective of their democratic credentials and geopolitical leanings.
Kerry was quoted advising ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that “in Central Asia as elsewhere, people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective.” Yet another proof that the focus was on the possible security vacuum in Central Asia and on “buying influence” is found in the final statement agreed upon after the foreign ministers' meeting, which features just a casual mention of commitment to protecting human rights and developing democratic institutions.
Judging by what was omitted rather than by what was said publicly, it looks like a major “pivot” to Central Asia by the West. Or is it? Alexander Karavaev, political scientist and deputy director at the Center for CIS studies at Moscow State University, disagrees. He made the following comment for Troika Report.
“This is hardly anything new. Since the end of the 1990s the U.S. has been engaging Central Asia, kick-starting a number of investment projects and sponsoring an alternative to a Russia-led integration of the post-Soviet territory in the form of the GUUAM alliance, comprised of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova, which began to take shape in 1997. Uzbekistan, for instance, was playing the Moscow card and the Washington card to get favors from both. The same balancing and fine-tuned foreign policy was followed by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The leadership of these states is keen not to limit their reliance solely on Russia and China, but to seek additional partners. They are not ready to jump on Russia’ anti-terrorist bandwagon. But due to concerns over the existential threat emanating from the “arch of instability” stretching from Syria to Afghanistan, they are eager to welcome any credible security provider, and here is where the U.S. and the West general fits in.”
Conspiracy theory aficionados claim that visits by Abe and Kerry should be interpreted as attempts to push aside Russia and China from the region. Is it a valid assumption? Vadim Kozyulin, Senior Research Fellow at the PIR Center, a Moscow-based independent think tank, dismissed these plots in an interview with the Troika Report.
“In accordance with the new U.S. strategy towards Central Asia, the U.S. is no longer the sponsor. The U.S. cannot invest much; its businesses have little interest in coming to the region. It diminishes the economic foundation of the relations. Yet the U.S. has to maintain some level of presence. So, Washington concentrates on political ties.
- Is American presence in the region a challenge for Russia or, on the contrary, a benefit?
“A certain level of presence of the United States in the region would be to Russia’s benefit. It would help counterbalance the influence of China. Besides, even with diminished capabilities, the U.S. remains one of the key players in the region, it would monitor the developments and affect them.”
The same positive assessment of the U.S. involvement in regional affairs was spelled out to the Troika Report byDmitry Kosyrev, a political analyst at RIA NovostiRussian news agency.
“It looks like an adjustment of America foreign policy to the new realities in Central Asia.
“The two dominant nations in the region are certainly Russia and China, and let’s not forget India, which is pursuing an assertive foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi. Then there is Iran, which is poised to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and there are other players too. Here the United States is just one of the external powers. It wants to be present in the region, otherwise it would lose credibility.”
- How should Moscow react to Western powers flirting with local elites?
“Believe it or not, but Russia and China never tried to block the American presence in Central Asia. We only wanted to prevent regime changes initiated from the outside. That’s all. The United States is welcome here as long as it follows the rules of engagement with nations in this vital area for us. In fact, the same ‘rules’ are applicable to Russia and China.”
In sum, the United States and Japan while not counting on undermining the dominant position enjoyed by Russia and China in the region, considered it timely and worthwhile to grant assurances to Central Asia. The assurances basically amount to an unwritten pledge that even after U.S. presence in Afghanistan is either terminated or curtailed, the largest military power in the world will be standing guard to prevent religious wars and chaos in Central Asia, should it come to that.
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