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#Georgia overtures to #Abkhazia and #SouthOssetia are flawed

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In its latest ‘peace initiative’, the Georgian government has failed to engage with important political questions that cannot be sidestepped.
Academy Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

A street scene in Sukhum/i. Photo: Getty Images.In April, the Georgian government made a new attempt to formulate a policy towards the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, publishing a peace initiative intended to help improve economic and educational opportunities for their residents. It has been welcomed by several European capitals for its commitment to peaceful means of conflict resolution and its pragmatic approach, but has attracted little interest and much scorn from its supposed main target audiences in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The economic component of the initiative is related to new trade links between Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia, as well as with the wider European Market through the existing Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Georgia. It is envisioned that these proposals would help diversify, enhance and support the growth of economic markets within Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The education component outlines opportunities for residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, granting them access to Georgian state education programmes. This includes activities related to formal and informal education in and outside of Georgia.

But the plan has numerous problems. To begin with, it seems misguidedly inspired by the case of Transnistria in Moldova, where trade and economic ties have long been the foundation for people-to-people cooperation. In short, Moldova needs Transnistria. Even during Soviet times, it was the most industrialized part of the country, and thus had a strong incentive to restore trade links after the war in the early 1990s.

Abkhazia is different. It has no such incentive to maintain trade links with Georgia. Its economy was built around tourism, niche agriculture (like wines and tangerines) and the production of raw materials primarily used in local construction work. The war of 1992–93 and the economic blockade of Abkhazia that followed damaged infrastructure and the economy. Abkhazia is slowly reviving and growing, but it is still far from the scale it was at before the 1990s.

The Georgian peace initiative only offers the possibility of selling goods originated in Abkhazia in Georgian and European markets. This means that Abkhaz products would have to comply with the regulations and standards of the European Single Market, which is not realistic for Abkhaz producers. Abkhaz production is very limited in quantity and variety and has never been exposed to the regulated business culture of the EU. But it does have well-established trade links with Russia.

The trade element of the proposal might have been more appealing to Abkhazia if it had included the two areas that are most important for its economy: tourism and unrestricted transit of through Abkhazia. However, the initiative does not address these.

The second half of the proposal, education, also has fundamental flaws, for Abkhazia in particular. It outlines educational opportunities for Abkhaz students, but they are all processed through Georgia, which is unlikely to be acceptable to residents of Abkhazia. Even the electronic processing of Abkhaz diplomas by Georgian state institutions is a sticking point. Although the initiative covers freedom of educational movement, it refers to ‘neutral travel documents’. These documents contain no overt reference to the Georgian state, but do contain the Georgian country code. This seems petty to outsiders, but it is an unacceptable deference to Georgian dominance for most Abkhaz.

Unlike the Transnistrian conflict, the questions of citizenship and national identity are key in Abkhazia. No matter how big the promised prospects and development opportunities are, they will never appeal to the population if they are seen to undermine Abkhaz identity and their political goal to be recognized as an independent republic.

Such a conviction from Abkhazia suggests that even if the limitations above were addressed and there had been consultations prior to the proposals publication, it still would not have been accepted. Indeed, a popular narrative is that the whole proposal is PR aimed at currying favour from Georgia’s western allies, rather than a plan for Abkhaz and South Ossetian citizens.

Georgia’s initiative has no political element and uses relatively neutral language, but it is seriously detached from the reality on the ground. It would, at least, be more effective if the proposals were not labelled a ‘peace initiative’ – since Abkhazia now considers itself to be at peace. The plan calls for the need for alteration of the Law on the Occupied Territories, but that law is seen by most Abkhaz as one of the main obstacles to its economic development, and many want it abolished.

A set of unilateral steps that supported the development and access of Abkhaz residents to the wider world without being packaged into a political proposal would create incentives for Abkhazia, which could eventually lead to both parties addressing the even more difficult issue of statehood. But this is not Georgian policy, and with the current approach, there will never be a conflict resolution.

Belarus

Seven ways the West can help #Belarus

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Outlining the key steps that government, international institutions, and NGOs can take to bring an end to the suffering of the Belarus people.
Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
1. Acknowledge the new reality

A huge number of Belarusians across all levels of society simply no longer recognize Lukashenka as their legitimate president. The unprecedented size and persistence of protests against his regime and the sheer scale of reports of repressive actions, torture, and even murder, mean Belarus will never be the same again.

However, current paralysis in EU policy and the absence of a comprehensive US policy are both serving as a de facto licence for Lukashenka to deepen the political crisis. The sooner policymakers realize this and act with more responsibility and confidence, the quicker the increasing repression can be reversed.

2. Do not recognize Lukashenka as president

If the international community stops recognizing Lukashenka as president, it makes him more toxic to others, including Russia and China, both of which will be reluctant to waste resources on someone who is seen as the main cause of Belarusian instability. Even if Russia still decides to save Lukashenka and financially support him, ignoring Lukashenka decreases the legitimacy of any agreements he signs with the Kremlin on collaboration or integration.

Demanding a re-run of the presidential election should also remain firmly on the agenda as functionaries within Lukashenka's system should know this international pressure is not going away until a truly transparent vote takes place.

3. Be present on the ground

In order to curb repression and establish ties with actors within Belarus, a monitoring group should be organized under the auspices of the UN, the OSCE or other international organizations to establish a presence on the ground, and to stay in the country as long as it is needed, and is possible. Governments and parliaments can send their own missions, while staff from international media and NGOs should be encouraged to report on what is actually happening inside the country.

The bigger the visible presence of the international community is in Belarus, the less brutal Lukashenka’s agencies can be in persecuting protestors, which in turn would then allow more substantial negotiations to take place between the democratic movement and Lukashenka.

4. Announce a package of economic support for a democratic Belarus

The Belarusian economy was already in bad shape before the election, but the situation is going to get much worse. The only way out is support from the international community with a ‘Marshall Plan for a democratic Belarus’. States and international financial institutions should declare they will provide significant financial assistance through grants or low-interest loans, but only if there is democratic change first.

It is essential to make this economic package conditional on democratic reform, but also that it will have no geopolitical strings attached. If a democratically-elected government decides it wants to improve relations with Russia, it should still be able to count on an assistance package.

This would send a strong signal to economic reformers who remain inside Lukashenka's system, giving them a genuine choice between a functioning Belarusian economy or sticking with Lukashenka, whose leadership is seen by many as to be responsible for ruining the country’s economy.

5. Introduce targeted political and economic sanctions

The Lukashenka regime deserves tough sanctions internationally, but so far only selective visa restrictions or account freezes have been imposed, which have little to no effect on what is actually happening on the ground. Visa sanction lists need to be expanded but, more importantly, there should be increased economic pressure on the regime. Companies which are the most important to Lukashenka's business interests should be identified and targeted with sanctions, all their trading activity halted, and all their accounts abroad frozen.

Governments should also persuade their own country’s large companies to reconsider working with Belarusian producers. It is shameful that international corporations continue to advertise in media controlled by Lukashenka and appear to be ignoring the reports of human rights violations at Belarusian companies they do business with.

Moreover, there should be a deadline set to halt all repression, or broader economic sanctions will be imposed. This would send a strong message to Lukashenka and also his entourage, many of whom would then become more convinced he has to go.

6. Support NGOs to investigate allegations of torture

There are few legal mechanisms to prosecute those thought to be involved in election fraud and acts of brutality. Nevertheless, all reports of torture and falsifications should be properly documented by human rights defenders, including identifying those alleged to have taken part. Gathering evidence now prepares the ground for investigations, targeted sanctions, and leverage on law enforcement officials in the future.

But, given that such an investigation is not possible in Belarus right now, international human rights activists should be enabled to start the process outside the country with support from Belarusian NGOs.

7. Support known victims of the regime

Even with an unprecedented campaign of solidarity among Belarusians, many people need support, especially those alleged to have suffered torture. Some media outlets claim to have lost a significant amount of revenue because advertisers were forced to pull out, and journalists arrested. Human rights defenders need funds to keep organizations running in the heat of this crackdown.

Supporting all these people and organizations will cost tens of millions of euros, but it would significantly ease the huge financial burden facing those who have opposed the regime.

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Chatham House

Domestic violence in #Ukraine - Lessons from #COVID-19

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The pandemic has shed light on domestic violence in Ukraine, mobilizing civil society to demand more nuanced policy on the issue.
Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House
A protester chants slogans on a megaphone during an International Women's Day protest on 8 March 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images.

A protester chants slogans on a megaphone during an International Women's Day protest on 8 March 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images.

The virus of violence

During quarantine, the greater economic vulnerability of Ukrainian women has locked many of them with abusive partners. The uncertainty of personal finances, health and security in confinement has exacerbated domestic violence against women, in certain cases aggravated by the perpetrator’s war-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In pre- pandemic times, only one third of domestic violence victims, 78% of whom are women, reported the abuse. During the pandemic, the calls to domestic violence helplines increased by 50% in the Donbas war zone and by 35% in other regions of Ukraine.

However, more precise estimates are hard to make. This is largely because some fractions of Ukrainian society still see domestic violence as a private family matter, which will get little assistance from the police. Also, reporting from a small confinement place permanently shared with a perpetrator during the lockdown can trigger more abuse.

The COVID-19-tested legal framework

The spike in domestic violence during lockdown has intensified the debate about the inadequacy of Ukraine’s approach.

Ukraine adopted the law on domestic violence in 2017 and made such behaviour punishable under administrative and criminal law. Importantly, the law does not limit domestic violence to physical abuse, but recognizes its sexual, psychological and economic variations. Domestic violence is further not limited to a married couple or close family members, but can be perpetrated against a distant relative or a cohabiting partner.

The extended definition of rape now includes rape of a spouse or a family member as an aggravating circumstance. A special police unit has been designated to deal with domestic abuse cases. Police can now issue protection orders in prompt reaction to an offence and immediately distance a perpetrator from a victim.

The victim can also spend time in a shelter - a system which the Ukrainian government has promised to create. A special registry of domestic violence cases has been set up for the exclusive use by the designated law enforcement and social security authorities to help them be more holistically informed in building a response.

However important, the introduced legal and institutional infrastructure was slow in proving its efficiency pre-COVID-19. It is struggling even more to stand the test of the coronavirus.

Changing the established mindset takes time. 38% of Ukraine’s judges and 39% of prosecutors still struggle to see domestic violence not as a household issue. Even though the police are becoming more reactive to home abuse complaints, getting emergency protection orders is still difficult. The court restraining orders are more effective, however they require the unnecessarily protracted and humiliating procedures of proving one’s own victimhood to different state authorities.

In response to the challenges of coronavirus for women, the police spread information posters and created a special chat-bot about the available help. However, while the domestic violence helplines of La Strada and other human rights NGOs are busier than ever, the police statistics suggest that the lockdown has not catalyzed home abuse.

This could indicate a higher trust to non-state institutions and the inability of a considerable group of women to use more sophisticated communication means such as chat-bots when they cannot call the police in the presence of an abuser. This problem is exacerbated by a current  lack of shelters in rural areas, as most are located in urban settings. Overcrowded in ordinary times, the shelters’ capacity to accept survivors during the lockdown is further limited by the social distancing rules.

Istanbul Convention – The bigger picture

Ukraine failed to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, better known as the Istanbul Convention, largely due to the opposition of religious organizations. Concerned that the treaty’s terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexual orientation’ would contribute to the promotion of same-sex relationships in Ukraine, they argued that Ukraine’s current legislation provides adequate protection against domestic violence. However, this is not the case.

The Istanbul Convention does not ‘promote’ same-sex relationships, it only mentions sexual orientation among the non-exhaustive list of prohibited discrimination grounds. Remarkably, Ukraine’s domestic violence law itself is against such discrimination.

The Convention defines ‘gender’ as the socially constructed roles a society attributes to women and men. Ukraine’s overcautiousness about the term is ironic at least in two dimensions.

First, the 2017 domestic violence law restates its aim to eliminate discriminating beliefs about the social roles of each ‘sex’. In doing so, the law supports the rationale of what the Istanbul Convention denotes as ‘gender’ without using the term itself.

Second,  it is exactly the constraints of the rigidly defined niches for both sexes in Ukraine that have substantially contributed to the intensified domestic violence, whether it be  war or  coronavirus-related. The lack of sustainable psychological support for traumatized veterans and the stigma of mental health struggles, especially among men, mars their reintegration to peaceful life. This often results in alcohol abuse or even suicide.

As the economic uncertainty of the war and the virus prevents some men from fully living up to their traditional socially - and self-imposed - breadwinner role, this increases the risk of problematic behaviour and domestic violence.

By diverting the focus of the debate  to the term ‘gender’ used in the Istanbul Convention, conservative groups have ignored the fact that it describes the priority already enshrined in Ukraine’s 2017 law - to eliminate discriminatory beliefs about the socially constructed roles of men and women. This has drawn away time and resources needed to protect those vulnerable to domestic abuse.

Ukraine has not addressed the pigeonholing of women and men into gendered stereotypes. This has harmed men while further victimizing women and children, especially during the lockdown. Ironically, this is leading to the undermining of the very traditional family values certain opponents of the Istanbul Convention appealed to.

Fortunately, Ukraine’s ever-vigilant civil society,  dismayed at the wave of the lockdown domestic violence, petitioned President Zelenskyy to ratify the Convention. With a new draft law on ratification, the ball is now in the parliament’s court. It remains to be seen whether Ukraine’s policymakers will be up to the task.

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Belarus

Prepare for a #Belarus without Lukashenka?

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Aliaksandr Lukashenka is likely to remain president after this August’s election. But the foundations on which his rule is built are no longer solid, and it is naive to assume Belarus’ political future will resemble its past.
Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House
Activists gather citizens' signatures in support of Nikolai Kozlov's candidacy in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. Photo by Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images.An essentially sham presidential election in Belarus will take place on 9 August but, despite the expected extension of Lukashenka’s already 26-year rule, what is becoming clear is that this electoral campaign is significantly different from previous ones. The three major pillars of support that Lukashenka depends on to rule are feeling unprecedented strain.

The first pillar is public support. Lukashenka, in power since 1994, would actually have won every election he has been involved in regardless of whether they were fair or not. But now his popularity among the people appears to have plummeted as not a single publicly available opinion poll indicates significant support for him.

In fact, in the polls conducted by prominent Belarusian non-state websites, Lukashenka receives only around 3-6% support - which prompted the Belarusian authorities to ban the media from continuing to run polls. But even without precise numbers, it is clear his popularity has crashed because of the country’s worsening economic and social conditions.

At the end of 2010, the average monthly salary in Belarus was $530 – ten years on in April 2020 it has actually dropped to $476. In addition, Lukashenka's recent irresponsible reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced people’s overall dissatisfaction.

And support for alternative candidates is clearly growing. In just one week, 9,000 people joined the campaign group of Lukashenka’s main rival Viktar Babaryka(opens in new window) - almost as many as in Lukashenka’s equivalent group. Thousands of Belarusians queued for hours to add their signatures in support of Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a jailed political blogger who has been declared a political prisoner by Belarusian human rights organizations.

The second pillar of the regime is the Kremlin’s economic support which has been reduced since Belarus rejected proposals to deepen integration with Russia. In previous years, Russia’s ‘energy subsidies’ - selling Belarus oil and gas on favourable terms - amounted to as much as 20% of Belarusian GDP. Now Belarus imports significantly less Russian oil and is paying even more for its gas than customers in Western Europe. Significantly, Russia has not yet declared support for Lukashenka in the election, while the president has accused Russia of supporting alternative candidates – albeit so far without presenting evidence.

The third pillar is the loyalty of his own elites. Although still difficult to imagine a splitting of the Belarusian ruling class, it is no secret that many Belarusian officials, such as recently fired former prime minister Siarhei Rumas, hold liberal economic views that seem closer to the vision of Viktar Babaryka than Aliaksandr Lukashenka.

But Lukashenka does have subordinates who remain loyal, not least the security forces. The support of the security apparatus is crucial given that in all likelihood his expected electoral victory will be strongly disputed, and any mass protests are likely to be countered with force.

Certainly the promotion of Raman Halouchanka to prime minister from his previous role as head of the state authority for military industry appears to be a clear of signal of intent that security forces should receive carte-blanche for their actions. Halouchanka is a close associate of Viktar Sheiman who is perceived as the president’s “most loyal soldier” and as one of four people connected to disappearances of opposition figures in 1999-2000.

Although talk of Lukashenka’s departure is premature, the fact that the foundations of his rule are not as solid as they once were does mean greater attention should be given to what the political scene may look like when he has gone, and who the stakeholders of the future system could be.

Several groups are challenging Lukashenka during this election, such as growing numbers of people publicly reflecting the social discontent - Siarhei Tsikhanouski has a YouTube channel with 237,000 subscribers – or those capable of investing large sums of money into election such as Viktar Babaryka, a former head of the Belarusian branch of Russia’s Gazprombank.

There are also those once connected to the regime, but who fell from favour, and therefore have a good understanding of how the state operates, such as Valer Tsapkala. And there is the formal opposition, which has challenged Lukashenka in the four previous presidential elections and enjoys international support.

From the outside, the ruling class may look like a monolith but clear divisions exist, especially between those who want economic reform and those who want to preserve the status quo. The former may appear more competent but the latter constitute the majority. Some elite also believe the regime could relax its more repressive measures, but others consider repression to be the only tool to preserve power.

In terms of foreign policy there is more of a consensus. Everyone wants to decrease dependence on Russia but none of them can be called ‘pro-western’, and the extent to which Russia infiltrated the Belarusian ruling class with its agents is hard to ascertain.

Lukashenka demands loyalty but the recent trial of Andrei Utsiuryn, a former deputy head of the security council, for accepting a bribe from a Russian company does raise questions as to how loyal the elite really is. With the pillars of Lukashenka’s rule looking so shaky, the time has come to start thinking about what Belarus without him is going to look like.

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