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Author: Adam Reichardt

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

A battleground of identity

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet space has become a battleground for world and regional powers competing over economic, political and security dominance. This rivalry has been accompanied by a competition between different identity narratives, which are instrumentally used to attract, or intimidate, the societies in the post-Soviet states. The most illustrative region in this regard is Central Asia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought new opportunities to its former republics, now states, to integrate or ally with organisations and powers from outside the region. It also allowed them to build new co-operative projects with other post-Soviet states. Such co-operation, though, was not limited to economic, political and security relations. The most fundamental questions the newly independent states had to address, at that time, were those regarding their own cultural and national identity. Therefore, the public debate focused heavily on issues like religion, language, alphabet, historical heritage and state tradition. These topics generated serious emotions, including among ordinary people.

March 5, 2019 - Adam Balcer

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

Belarus in the multipolar world

Strong political and economic ties with Russia prevent Belarus from becoming a fully neutral and independent state. And any change of geopolitical orientation or integration with the West is out of the question. The only option Minsk has, if it wants to maintain sovereignty, is to find its place in the multipolar world, one that is now coming into view.

Recent talks about the possible incorporation of Belarus into the Russian Federation have brought wide attention to the country and its place in the changing world. It sparked a series of discussions on Belarus’s neutrality and multipolarity, which have been the foundation of the republic’s foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. First stipulated in Article 18 of the 1994 Constitution, it was repeated and further developed in official state documents. Yet for almost two decades, these two important principles were reduced to words on paper while the behaviour of the Belarusian authorities, especially President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, displayed a completely different approach. Indeed, almost since the beginning of his rule, Lukashenka was tightening co-operation with Russia. The milestone agreement in this regard, concluded in 1999, established the Union State of Russia and Belarus.

March 5, 2019 - Krzysztof Mrozek

Transdniestria’s new opening?

The multipolarity of today’s world is changing Transdniestria. The unrecognised para-state that until recently was almost exclusively dependent on Russia, now trades with the European Union. While this new reality may not have reduced Russia’s influence in the region, it has certainly offered Transdniestrian oligarchs a new business opportunity.

A quick look at the breakaway territory of Transdniestria’s trade balance confirms that its authorities’ narrative, which assumes near-sacred political and historical ties with Russia, does not match the economic reality. In 2018 as much as 36 per cent of Transdniestrian exports were sent to European Union states, while only ten per cent made it to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU, a customs union made up of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – editor’s note). Ukraine and Moldova are also important recipients of Transdniestrian products.

March 5, 2019 - Piotr Oleksy

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

Can the Three Seas bring a new balance to European politics?

The Three Seas Initiative has evolved into a geopolitical and geo-economic grouping of primarily post-communist EU member states. Despite their diversity and differences in policies towards Russia, the members are showing certain common interests.

The Three Seas Initiative was originally developed as a geopolitical alliance of NATO/EU member states of “New Europe”: from Estonia to Croatia, connecting the Baltic and Adriatic Seas. The initiative was officially launched in 2015 as the Adriatic-Baltic Sea Initiative by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and has been referred to as the ABC (Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Sea) Initiative, first designated by Polish President Andrzej Duda. It has also been referred to as “the vertical”, considering the north-to-south direction of the bloc of countries which make up the initiative.

March 5, 2019 - Petar Kurecic

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

Customs wars in the Balkans

The implementation of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (or CEFTA) offered hope of economic growth and more efficient integration with the EU. However, differences in the trade balance and international political disputes have hindered the region's economic integration. The recent trade wars could threaten it altogether.<.I>

The idea of free trade has become so well incorporated into the public discourse on European integration that any infringement of its principles is either overlooked as a minor incident or unintended behaviour of a less experienced partner. Meanwhile, a regular customs war broke out in the Balkans. Slowly and quietly, in a manner unusual for the region, the Balkan governments have mustered their best warriors to fight their enemies in the trenches of bureaucratic regulations. The very traditions of the Byzantine and Ottoman courts laid the foundations for impermeable administrative fortresses hampering free trade and European integration of the region.

March 5, 2019 - Jan Muś

Who can make Ukraine great again?

The upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections are an opportunity to continue the reform process that has, so far, produced effective results and to instil a political will to deliver other fundamental changes. But this opportunity is likely to be missed, as many candidates offer band-aid solutions with no clear strategic vision.

Much like champagne and fireworks, the presidential address delivered before the countdown to midnight is a traditional ingredient of New Year celebrations in Ukraine. As 2018 was ending, 1+1 – a top TV channel owned by oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky – broke that sequence. It aired Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian and entertainment producer, announcing his long-speculated bid for the presidency. “There is a third way: to try and change something in the country and I have chosen it for myself,” he said in a soothing voice familiar to his comedy show, jewellery ads and TV show The Servant of the People, a series where he plays an honest schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president and sends corrupt officials to jail amidst dramatic soundtracks and standing ovations from vyshyvanka-clad extras.

March 5, 2019 - Anna Korbut

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