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The limits of geopolitical thinking

A conversation with Andrew Wilson, professor of Ukrainian Studies at University College London and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt

ADAM REICHARDT: On many occasions you have brought attention to the “multi-unipolar world” doctrine formulated by the late Russian thinker, Vadim Tsymbursky, which – as you argue – is a key to Russian geopolitics and which stands in opposition to the more classic US-led unipolar world that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Tsymbursky’s view, the multi-unipolarity assumes the existence of regional hegemons who control their neighbourhoods. Tsymbursky died precisely a decade ago and much has happened since. Many events may even indicate that, from the Russian perspective, this doctrine or ideal-type geopolitical system is still alive and well. Do you agree with this statement?

ANDREW WILSON: It is always interesting to talk about Tsymbursky. In his time he was a more fashionable Russian intellectual than Aleksandr Dugin (though we often hear more about Dugin). Using the framework of a geopolitical system implies that the active agent here is geopolitics. Certainly Russia thinks in that way. Russia loves the word geopolitics. The European Union, on the other hand, does not think in a geopolitical way. Nor have we jumped from a unipolar order to a new world order – over whatever chasm lies in between.

March 5, 2019 - Adam Reichardt Andrew Wilson

The failure of Pax Americana

The collapse of the international order we are now witnessing is also seen in the failure of Pax Americana in the post-Soviet space. Since the end of the Cold War, the West has targeted this region with hyper-fast change and the peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy. Today, we know that it has had a limited impact.

In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the world was faced with a colossal challenge. It was clear that the obsolete Soviet system had to be replaced with a new model, preferably one that based on the free market and liberal democracy. The transition started in Central Europe in 1989 but did not spread to the whole post-Soviet space. On the ruins of the former Soviet empire, many states did not succumb to the democratisation processes which, in time, created an opportunity for the ancient empires (Russia, China and Turkey) to develop an alternative plan and fill the void that was caused by the limited effectiveness of the West’s engagement. For the leaders of these powers (Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in particular) the post-Soviet states offered new lucrative opportunities.

March 5, 2019 - Paweł Kowal

Georgia between Russia and a rising China

China’s economic and military rise is arguably one of the central themes of 21st century geopolitics. As Chinese investment and interest in Georgia increases, Tbilisi must consider the geopolitical potential that a closer relationship with China might bring to a country long marginalised and weakened by Russia.

Like many other rising powers throughout history, China bears strategic imperatives that clash with those of the United States. Beijing needs to secure its procurement of oil and gas resources and to diversify transportation routes, as it currently relies on the piracy-ridden Malacca Strait. In an age of American naval dominance, the Chinese imperative is to redirect its sectors of economic dependence – as well as its supply routes – elsewhere.

March 5, 2019 - Emil Avdaliani

How to buy a republic

The strategic dynamics of elite capture often take place when three main interests fall in line. First, it is the clear geopolitical interest of a foreign power. Second, it is the political interest of a significant portion of the domestic political establishment which has reason to turn its politics and policies in that direction. And third, a major domestic economic actor, in line with the new policy, drives and lobbies for it. The Czech Republic is a good case study of how the processes of elite capture works.

Security policy discussions across Europe in recent years have focused on hostile Russian disinformation, cyber attacks, military aggression in Ukraine, support for extremist groups and classical Russian or Chinese espionage. One major tool of foreign influence, however, has been underrated. It is relatively cheap and often not seen as particularly aggressive, but it takes quite a long time to achieve (intelligence professionals nickname it “boiling up a frog”). This method is called “elite capture” and, in some countries, it is a relatively easy way of arranging the desired strategic dependence of a targeted country, if there is not much resistance.

March 5, 2019 - Jakub Janda

Germany in the post-Merkel era

An interview with Stephen Szabo, a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington, DC. Interviewer: Kate Langdon

KATE LANGDON: Transatlantic relations have been a cornerstone of German foreign policy for decades. As US President Donald Trump questions the political legitimacy of the European Union (EU) through acts such as downgrading the EU’s economic and diplomatic priorities, will Germany seek to strengthen transatlantic ties? Has President Trump inflicted any irreparable damage already?

STEPHEN SZABO: Yes, Germany certainly will seek to strengthen transatlantic ties. Germany has too many interests at stake to allow these ties to be dissolved simply due to the actions of one administration, or more precisely the actions of the White House. The US market is the largest single-export market for Germany and the American security relationship remains indispensable to German security. Chancellor Angela Merkel learnt from the split over the Iraq war that Germany could not afford another break of the type that occurred with former Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schroeder’s split with the Bush Administration.

March 5, 2019 - Kate Langdon Stephen Szabo

What could a Serbia-Kosovo border swap achieve?

The idea of changing the borders of Kosovo has existed in the Serbian debate since the 1990s, but was never seriously discussed internationally. A new opening suddenly emerged late last year and serious talks and support seems to be growing. The question remains, however, whether an agreement would lead to a break in the status quo or create even greater problems for both countries and the region.

The dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo has become a permanent feature of the relationship between the two countries over the past eight years. Along the way, there have been numerous agreements, mostly concluded in Brussels behind closed doors with only press releases of the European Union to document them. The atmosphere has been a continuous up and down, filled with tense moments, from a clash at the border checkpoints in 2011 to the train incident in 2017, to the tariffs imposed on Serbian and Bosnian goods in the last number of years. Paradoxically, the longer the dialogue has continued, the tenser relations appear to have gotten.

March 5, 2019 - Florian Bieber

Integration impasse

Since the early stages of the creation of the union state between Belarus and Russia, leaders of both countries have exhibited distrust towards one another. This was even more visible in recent years, especially since the annexation of Crimea. The last few years have seen more differences emerge which could actually close any path to full integration.

Despite being considered a pariah in Europe, Belarus belongs to many international organisations. In addition to being a member of the OSCE, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Eurasian Economic Union, it participates as a member (or observer) in lesser known organisations such as the Non-Aligned Movement or the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. It was also a signatory of an agreement with the Russian Federation which, in 1996, established a formal union between the two states. This moment is annually commemorated by both countries (every April 2nd) as the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Russia and Belarus.

March 4, 2019 - Maxim Rust

The ghosts of Armenia’s past

The Velvet Revolution in Armenia brought not only Nikol Pashinyan to power but also hope of changing Armenia’s trajectory. However, overcoming the challenges that Armenia faces, particularly in geopolitics and foreign policy, will be critical in order to break the cycle of events that has plagued the country since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Political analysts and scientists frequently forget about their core responsibility, often preparing a simple analysis of events and extrapolating superficial conclusions. However, the actual challenge lies in an attempt to find patterns and long-lasting determinants behind power relations in everyday political dynamics. In the case of Armenia, much has already been written about the revolutionary events from last spring, which brought an end to the decades-long ruling class and a new face to the political scene – most notably Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The order of events, possible outcomes and varied predictions were produced by many from different angles of interpretation.

March 4, 2019 - Bartłomiej Krzysztan

Orbán’s dangerously familiar discourse

Hungarian rhetoric vis-à-vis its minorities throughout Central and Eastern Europe find more and more similarities with Russian policy toward its own Russian (speaking) minorities. Meanwhile, Hungary’s concept of “Christian Democracy” finds common roots with the Russian concept of “sovereign democracy”.

Viktor Orbán’s political power relies on his ability to build a philosophical skeleton for Fidesz’s domestic and foreign policies. In that sense, Orbán follows Vladimir Putin’s path in building an unstable system for his own reign’s sustainability: making Christianity the structure of the political and social system and elevating themselves as guarantors of self-declared Christian values while scapegoating the decadent West which has humiliated Hungary’s or Russia’s greatness.

March 4, 2019 - John Mastadar

Estonian elections: A crucial test for political stability

"Many of the dimensions you can see at the European level or even global one are present also in Estonia. I would say that the main leitmotif here is a macro clash between closeness and openness," says Stefano Braghiroli in an interview for New Eastern Europe.

March 1, 2019 - Maciej Makulski Stefano Braghiroli

The intellectual in Central Europe: Havel, Orbán and Walter

What option is open to Central European intellectuals today? How can they maintain their independent stance and moral principles, yet find a position where they can support democracy in their countries? This is a particularly pressing question today, when Central Europe is again traversing a rocky road paved with nationalism and populism.

At a recent conference of European editors of cultural journals, an English participant remarked, a bit puzzled, how only in Central Europe do people still talk in all seriousness about – and even quarrel passionately over – the role, place and responsibility of intellectuals. First, I felt slightly embarrassed recalling that Kritika & Kontext, the journal I founded in 1996, had devoted a whole issue to “The Intellectual and Society”. The debate then was both serious and passionate and, rereading it now, seems still valid today. Perhaps after all there is a special place for intellectuals in the heaven and hell of Central Europe.

January 2, 2019 - Samuel Abrahám

Ukrainian intellectuals after Maidan

The war with Russia creates a difficult task for Ukrainian intellectuals. We must take care of decommunisation and de-Sovietisation not only by renaming our streets and cities but also in the consciousness of our citizens. Ultimately, decommunisation is a part of the decolonisation process in Ukraine.

The Maidan has changed our lives forever. This might sound a little pathetic, but for anyone who was directly involved in the events of 2013/2014, the Maidan has far-reaching significance and harkens great emotional stress. The same applies to those who were not concerned about these events or those who opposed it. And, of course, it definitely applies to Ukrainian intellectuals.

January 2, 2019 - Vakhtang Kebuladze

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