Syriza – Using Russia as bargaining tool?


When Syriza came to power, it was no surprise for leaders in Brussels and Berlin that the new Greek government is trying to accumulate as many bargaining chips as possible.

While on the domestic front, Alexis Tsipras and his team, emphasized that they will stick to campaign promises – which is (call it whatever you want) a lower debt burden and consequently acquire more space for manoeuvring social programmes, such as raising the minimum wage, freezing privatizations, rehiring workers in the public sector and reducing costs for patients in public hospitals.

So far so fair

The suggested programmes may even find support at some groups of the EU parliament (though the EU parliament has little to say on the Euro crisis and the Troika in Greece). Indeed, the European Greens have been critical on the austerity measures, and so have been some other groups. But what is different are the means to oppose them. The main cleavages between the example of European Green and Syriza (and other left-wing parties) are the position on Russia.  Perhaps this is one reason why Syriza is portrayed in such an extremist light, while the anti-austerity position is not uncommon among Europe legislators.

It’s politics, stupid.. (yes, I know this phrase is use way too often)

The real issue for Brussels may be the bargaining card Syriza is using – and that is what politics is about, like it or not.  Presuming it was on purpose, Syriza made something that was rather annoying for Germany, puzzling for the European Union and attractive for Russia. On Jan. 26, his first day as prime minister, Tsipras did two notable things: He placed a rim at a war memorial honouring the Greek victims of Nazi occupation (and, of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but the symbolism is key, not the moral argument), and he received the Russian ambassador before meeting any other foreign official. Tsipras also appointed the leader of the Independent Greeks — a nationalist party that wants to develop closer ties with Russia — to the position of minister of defence. Though symbolic, these actions were part of a wider strategy. It is not symbolic though, when Syriza was about to block (or complained about) the new round of sanctions towards Russia, but latter agreed.

So, it’s a bargaining card, but can it reduce tensions between EU and Russia?

Greece has a strategic interest in keeping good ties with Russia (as many other states), one is to maintain a bargaining edge, but the other is that Greece is dependent on Russian natural gas and pricing is always a sensitive issue. Moreover, though an agreement between Athens and its EU lenders is the most likely scenario, failure to reach a deal could force Greece out of the Eurozone and if that is true, Greece would indeed be dependent on Russia.

Syriza’s game plan may see no alternative than to keep the relationship to Russia in good deeds, and whereas this is an issue for the Common Foreign Policy of the EU, but can not say for sure that it might not be even fruitful in the long-run, a discourse may even help the process. Let’s say it is still too early to call.

Meanwhile, Tsipras emphasizes that the negotiations with the EU are priority, but there are little doubts that the door is open. And the bargaining chip is here to stay, that’s for sure.

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EU Policy towards Russia: Getting the frequency right – it’s the signal not the noise

The European Council on 18 December 2014 confirmed the EU’s resolve “to stay the course” and that it is “ready to take further steps if necessary”.

Well, if the EU wants to seriously pursue its goals, it needs to take more precise action in aiming for understanding the issue. At the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC- Meeting of all 28 EU foreign ministers under the Chairmanship of HR Mogherini) an issue paper was used as a starting point for discussions. There is nothing wrong with that. And there is even nothing wrong with no deep analysis on what has actually happened – ministers have little time and usually this is done in advance, mostly by less senior people (in that case, presumably, the Political and Security Committee – PSC).

EU has the wrong frequency

The main issue with the paper is that lacks even an abstract of what would come out of  a reflective assessment of Russia’s interest towards the EU, and hence, the means to achieve the EU’s goal. Which, by the way, is not to isolate or destroy Russia, but to find a way to make Russia modify its behaviour to correspond to international law and to an OSCE-based international order, and thereby, in the end, to arrive at a new level of co-existence and cooperation that would also include elements that appeal to Russia.

To be fair, the paper does talk about Russia’s interest. Here’s what is says:

“Russia’s interests with regard to cooperation with the EU, in addition to the lifting of sanctions, mostly lie in: resumption of formal EU-Russia dialogues; limiting a perceived negative effect of EU-UA association on Russia; recognition of the Eurasian Economic Union; enhanced technology transfer and investments; exemption of Gazprom from provisions of the third energy package; achieving visa freedom for short term travel; increased transport cooperation while maintaining Siberian overflight fees and imposing PNR requirements.”

While this all may be true, it is not on the same type or nature of the mentioned EU’s interest – which among others also include an end to Moscow’s destabilising activities on the EU’s borders and to Russian pressure in the common neighbourhood, and improvements in fundamental freedoms and human rights in Russia.

Let’s face it; there will be no expert that would seriously claim that these interests can be seriously exchanged in order to find a compromise, not mentioning succeeding to find a long term agreement. E.g.: Exempting Gazprom from provisions of the third energy package will not make Russia stop putting pressure on its neighbours. Or even more foolish, who would think Russia stops putting pressure on neighbourhood or improve fundamental freedoms because it wants Gazprom to be exempted from the third energy package.

Russia’s behaviour is also an internal matter

More convincingly is the idea of Russia willing to promote itself as a great power. To which Putin’s rhetoric fits – one just needs to read the speeches given to the diplomatic corps. That itself would not be such a big problem for the EU, but the overlapping spheres of interests, to put it discreetly, and the willingness to have this sphere starting from outside its own boarders, creates a cleavage of interest.  That said, it is not just for the purpose of power game rhetoric, it is, perhaps, more because it resonates well within the Russian population. Putin has gained popularity since the conflicts in the Ukraine started.

This is where the subject gets critical. The Kremlin may regard the current policies as successful in the sense that it gives its decision-makers, especially Putin, some leverage.

Furthermore, an ever more integrated EU is not in the interest of Russia either. A fragmentation of Europe (and EU) would play in Russia’s hand, while it is pursuing a path towards reallocation of the means of a great power.

Differences are even greater than the FAC thinks

Henceforth, the differences between the EU (or West, if you want) and Russia are even more profound than admitted. And this would not change if the EU focuses on relatively insignificant issues. To underline point, just think of what would happen if in a decade or less, a similar situation would occur with another east European state. Quite possibly, the arguments would be the same of today.

In addition, the different perceptions with European states on these profound differences are striking. Whereas in Germany, people seem to be remembering the time of Ostpolitik and therefore prefer a balancing act; Poland, and its people, seem to remember its history with Russia, and hence, have a very different reaction and understanding. But EU citizens need to understand that the current developments will, one day, be a common EU memory.

As stated by Kadri Liik in a piece on a similar topic: “We want to share the continent with a Russia that accepts international rules, respects its neighbours’ freedoms, and seeks influence by means of its own attractiveness rather than by coercion.”

Poland: more significant than ever

History and Geo-Poland

Poland’s geography makes it a critical place in Eurasia, and hence (particularly since Mackinder’s heartland theory), a critical place for international power politics. That would be the basic argument of realist and geopolitical thinking.

Because of Poland’s geographic exposure to Russia and its traditional strategic interests in neighboring countries like Ukraine, Warsaw has had the most aggressive stance toward Moscow of all the EU countries. When Poland had the EU presidency in 2011, a key focus of Prime Minister Donald Tusk (Now European Council President) and former Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, have aimed at bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union through the signing of association and free trade agreements. But the interest of Poland is also partly due to the fact that parts of western Ukraine used to be part of Poland just before the WWII.

In addition, going through Poland’s history, it has rarely been the master of its fate nor the captain of its soul – as the poem of invictus goes. The history of Poland finding its place in Europe is as fascinating as it is dramatic – and, what’s more, Poland, have often been betrayed (from almost every big power within Europe over the last centuries). But as many new EU  and NATO members, they have embraced the new strategic opportunities that come with it.

Poland’s place in EU and NATO

Interestingly, and perhaps deriving from its geographically position, it seem Poland is identifying itself more with NATO then, say, Germany.  In 2014, Poland (and the Baltic states) demanded that NATO makes greater commitment to its collective defense due to the perceived or potential military aggression by Russian. Yet, NATO was not willing to establish a permanent military base on their territories, though, the United States and NATO countries have indeed increased focus and intensity of military exercises in the region.

In a recent op-ed by Poland’s former minister of defense and now Senator Bogan Klich, entitled “Standing Up to Putin”, he writes that “Of course, there still has been no direct Russian attack on a NATO member state. But the state of turmoil just beyond the Alliance’s eastern border has created a reasonable fear in NATO’s Baltic member countries, as well as in Romania and Poland, about whether or not the Alliance would actually stand with them should they be threatened.” And thereby, once more, emphasizing Poland’s strategic interest of having a strong stand together.

Digging deeper, due to Poland’s profound skepticism towards Russia, it managed to undermine other potential assets of Russia’s geopolitical toolbox. Most notably, to ease dependence of Russian gas by constructing a liquefied natural gas import terminal and exploring its own large shale gas reserves for supplies in the long-term.

This is also confirmed by Klich, who writes “In the long-term, the best course of action will be to reduce European dependence on Russian energy. New liquefied natural gas terminals in Europe and legislative changes in the United States to enable the export of America’s burgeoning energy supplies will demonstrate to Russia that its window of energy-based leverage is closing.” That said, Poland also needs to watch out. The same reasons that make Poland attractive to occupy, and this notion of invasion may seem obsolete until recently, makes it attractive to be used as a proxy power, by the US, for example, which could undermine the EU’s cohesion as well. Hence, I regard Mogherini’s choice (or by her advisors) to do her first trip in office to Poland to meet the new Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, as an excellent one. The making of Tusk as European Council president may also be along the same line.

No doubt, Russia cannot be appreciative for these developments. Hereafter, the example of Poland to be repeated by Ukraine (though, arguably, that wasn’t really ever an option in mid-term) was, for sure, taken in consideration by Russia strategists.

Germany remains more significant

But make no false interpretation. Germany remains the key player within the EU, and not only the Euro zone. It is the one setting the agenda and this will also influence the area of foreign relations. It has, lately, played a very active role in Ukraine crisis – a role that fits surprisingly well, and was necessary, because of the risk of escalation. But that is another topic. The currently adopted stronger sanctions towards the rebels in the East of Ukraine and the lack of the same towards Russia was surely promoted by Germany.

Implications

More significance means more power. But more power means more responsibility. Poland has a better hand to be the master of its fate or the captain of its soul, but it should be aware that its position isn’t necessary easier because of this fact. Every move, every statement is now closely watched. Moving towards EU and NATO, and away from the former Warsaw (yes, I am aware of how paradox this is) Pact may enable Poland to become a significant player, but maneuvering the old Ship called EU, can be challenging.

Especially, because Russia is really exploiting and take advantage of the yet to be integrated Europe, presumably to facilitate also the disintegration of Europe from the US, and hence, NATO. Yet, the EU does not have one shared strategic vision. Certainly, Poland (as some others) is trying to shape this vision actively.

Ghana can still overcome the Resource Curse: Ghana can be a Tiger

“We’re going to really zoom, accelerate, and if everything works, which I pray will happen positively, you come back in five years, and you’ll see that Ghana truly is the African tiger, in economic terms for development.”[1]

That was the comment of the former Ghanaian President John Kufuor in the year of 2007. The reason for this enthusiasm was the discovery of oil reserves on Ghanaian territory. But while corks were popping in Accra, there was also some concerns being raised. Ghana has experienced solid economic and social development within the years before finding the oil. Now that oil has been found, one should not forget that there are many countries in Africa which are rather cursed than blessed with natural resources. This phenomenon is known as the resource curse or more specifically the oil curse. The oil curse predicts that oil abundant countries experience lower growth than countries which are not having great resources. By saying African tiger Mr. Kufuor actually refers to East Asian states which are known for their magnificent economic boost. However, they achieved this economic development although, or because, they were having no resources at all.[2]

But that is not the full story. In fact countries that have reached a certain threshold of institutional quality, tend to enable its economy to bypass the curse. In the research I conducted back in 2011, my observation was that Ghana can be compared with Botswana. Why Botswana? Do they have recently found oil? NO, they did not but their entire economy is based on another mineral, that is, at the second glance, not much different from oil – Diamonds. In Africa’s history, diamonds have –at least- prolonged many conflicts in various regions, perhaps even more than oil.

Botswana, the Idol

Botswana is indeed one of the shining positive examples from the least developed continent. When the landlocked country became independent in 1966, it was one of the most economically challenged countries in the world. At that time Botswana had 12 km of paved roads, 22 grads from university and 100 from secondary school! Good economic policy and stable institutions made it possible for the country to gain from its natural resources. Then Botswana experienced enormous growth between 1966 and 2007. But what has happened in Botswana did not happen in Sierra Leone (another diamond abundant country).

More recent comments and contemporary paradigms

To answer that question, I would like to comment on a recent article published in the Foreign Affairs magazine, titled “Petroleum to the People”. In this excellent piece the authors discuss Africa’s coming resource curse—and how to avoid It. In doing so, they suggest some sort of direct transfer of cash to the people, which is then taxed. This concept should lead to more accountability and transparency at the government level. A recent post by “the International” written by Alexandra Kerr describes the other side of the same coin by underlining and demanding the importance of transparency from both the industry and the government.

Ghana goes Good Governance

While I personally agree with the first article, I want to add something that is not fully addressed. The article states that “Even Ghana, the most liberal and stable democracy in West Africa, could fall victim to the problem of oil revenues.” While I will have no tool to prove that Ghana could not fall victim, I simply do not think so because of the following: Good Governance.

The relationship between Ghana and its resources is just like any other relationship. If you treat them well and wisely, you will gain the most. Good Governance is one of the factors that may be ruined by windfall rents, but we have measures that suggest that Ghana will not end up in a, what economists call a grabbers equilibrium. Grabbers are defined as identities which target rents from natural resources by using all their capacity to do so. The ratio of grabbers to producers is determined by the institutions of country. If the ratio become too high for the economy to handle (this is not clearly defined) the grabbers will take over and the institutional quality will go down.

Grabbers? Not in Ghana!

At least not too many, I might add. Only time will show whether Ghana will be a true African tiger or not. Forecasts, however, may be done when taking into account the theory and thereby seek to find out if certain policies conducted would be successful. The theory and the literature on the resource curse is well-established when it comes to determining why a country has been curse or why a country finds itself in a situation that prohibits it from developing, but here the question is what can a country do to gain from its natural wealth.

But, Ghana seems to have already learnt a lot from the best performers as they are providing an excellent framework to engage in these policies. The findings of this study also show that the Petroleum Revenue Management Act is able to facilitate the government with a legal and policy framework that enables them to challenge every aspect of the resource curse.

The Petroleum Revenue Management Act suggests the following distribution of oil based revenue (see graph).PRMA

If Ghana’s government is able to maintain its tax base, to be accountable to its people (currently the Ghana’s government was able to allocate a solid tax-based income – as tax revenue as a percentage of GDP, it’s 12-14%, which is higher than the rate of Germany, for example.) and to maintain the policies outlined in the Petroleum Revenue Management Act (PRMA), Ghana will be on a solid path to lift the resource curse. Similarly, these two factors can be taken as tool to verify the vulnerability of Ghana’s institutional quality or the quality of the governance to come. In other words, as long as the tax remains the same (or shrinks a little, due to the structural changes) and the concept outlined in the PRMA, I would think Ghana is on a solid track towards becoming a true African tiger.

After all, Ghana can, in order to prevent the oil curse, focus on a more sustainable future: Soil – the sustainable alternative to oil income. But all of that will strongly depend on the path politics take within the next few years. Investments can indeed come from the “long-term investments” of the PRMA.

[1] BBC News, Ghana “will be an African Tiger”, BBC News online,

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6766527.stm (accessed December 21,2010).

[2] See, Huebner, A.; “Ghana and the Resource Curse”. Vienna. 2011.

Why are our leaders misbehaving?

Review on The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. 2012

by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith

For those of you who aren’t satisfied with the moral superiority explanations that friends, colleagues and partners use when talking about bad behavior politics and those who have always thought there must be a reason for the patterns in which politicians act must read this book.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith may be known to some insiders for the contribution to selectorate theory and the ~500 pages work The Logic of Political Survival. If you are new to this field, don’t worry, there is no needed prerequisite knowledge for the dictators handbook.

In terms of tradition, the two are definitely not disinclined by Machiavelli’s the Prince. Though, there are several new and original aspects of political behavior that are raised.

The main aspect of selectorate theory is to categorize three groups of people which affect leaders. These groups are the nominal selectorate (also interchangeables: includes every person who have some say in choosing a leader), the real selectorate (also influential: are those who really choose a leader), and the winning coalition (also essentials: are those whose support translates into victory). In addition, BdM and Smith fundamental premise is that leaders are rational, and in its rationality their first objective is to remain in power. That said, BdM and Smith make no fundamental distinction between business leader, autocrats or democrats. Though, they do emphasize extensively that the characteristics of the outcomes within the spectrum of, say, a perfect democracy and a dictatorship differ sustainably.

The book offers solutions from seizing power to maintaining power and beyond. The book suggests 5 main rules to increase the chance of surviving:

  1. Keep the winning coalition as small as possible
  2. Keep the selectorate as large as possible (this makes it easy exchange trouble makers)
  3. Control the flow of revenue
  4. Pay key supporters just enough to keep them loyal
  5. Never take money out of you supporter’s pockets to make the people’s live better

The golden rule, however, is the first. On this you can distinguish between an autocrat and a democrat. Because although, the authors, in a Machiavellian tradition, are keen not in having a normative perspective, they do hint on the more effective outcomes in a democracy, and occasionally (and perhaps, rightfully) do praise democracies for doing so. When the winning coalition is small, as in autocracies, the leader will tend to use private goods to maintain the coalition. When the winning coalition is large, as in democracies, the leader will tend to use public goods to satisfy the coalition. Consequently, it can be said, then, that everyone in the selectorate, including the winning coalition, reap the benefits of public goods while only those within the winning coalition enjoy private goods.

The two then go on and explain almost every issue of international politics through the lenses of this theory (from extraction industry revenue and the resource curse to taxation and foreign aid; from military coups to lost elections). The rules are really illustrated in well-told anecdotes, though focusing a lot on African dictatorships – perhaps, because Robert Mugabe, Sargent Doe, Charles Taylor and other really do offer excellent text-book examples for this theory.

What this book also suggests is that, to a large extent, international politics is the sum of internal matters – unlike traditional realist would see our world.

The book is definitely worth reading, not only because it is really an easy read. In addition, more on the selectorate theory can be found in BdM’s TED talk on Iran’s politics. See below:

Thanks to my wife for this excellent Christmas present!

Nuclear Weapon Politics: Away from the World of Treaties, back to the Balance-of-Power?

Not that the balance-of-power has ever ended, when it comes to nuclear weapons politics. But it seems that after some steps forward, we are now going back again. It is well-known that the nuclear weapons related treaties are so important, that it has implications on almost all aspects of international politics.

When the international community meets to review the most important Nuclear Weapons related treaty (the treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)), which bring the five-year review cycle to an end, it is very likely that another nuclear weapons related treaty has failed along the way – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987.

US and Russia are not on best terms, that are no news, but are they really willing to exhaust the tools they have establish to restrain themselves to enter into another nuclear arms race, or even worse a nuclear escalation.

Here is the short but frightening story:

US claims:

On 28th of July of this year, according to the New York Times, senior American officials allege that Russia has tested a ground-launch cruise missile in violation of the INF. The treaty bans ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles capable of flying 300 to 3,400 miles (about 483 to 5,500 kilometers). In a letter to President Vladimir Putin July 28, President Barack Obama emphasized his interest in a high-level dialogue with Moscow discussing steps the Kremlin might take to come back into compliance. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a similar message in a July 27 phone call to Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

Even more precisely, the accusation was made in the State Department’s 2014 Compliance Report, which states:

“The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”

Whereas the New York Times article remains silent over the kind of missile Russia was testing, some experts were cited that the cruise missile in question is the R-500. This missile could indeed, according to some sources do 2,000km. That reach would include targets in almost all mainlands of France and Great Britain.

Russia’s claims:

Russia, on the other side, points to the non-compliance of the US and its developments of armed unmanned aerial vehicles that it claims could be used as cruise missiles. In addition, Russia has voiced concerns over the ballistic defense plans in Europe for its strategic implications and the deriving imbalances, but also more specifically because of the envisaged deployment of ground based Mk41 Vertical Missile Launch Systems that could be modified to house cruise missiles because of their modular nature.

Weakening Treaty – who is benefiting?

Seemingly, Russia’s claims are not that clear-cut and as strong, one may argue, but it leaves no doubts that both have issues with remaining to pursue the objectives of the treaty in good faith – as diplomats would say. But then again, it is not astonishing that if two power decline in confidence towards each other, the norms they have established are threatened as well. That is the elementary argument of the realist school.

Though, what is important here is that the implications of the INF treaty’s potential death are not limited to Russia and the United States (and its allies). As with every solid analysis, one has to look at who is benefitting and who is not. Presumably, the parties involved are not benefitting in the long run in relative terms with each other. One may argue that the stronger may have an interest in weakening the treaty in order to portray its power more effectively. However, the fundamental question of who is more powerful in conflicts that are with and around nuclear weapons is a dead-end. I may be wrong here, but for now, let’s assume they are even.

China, the next big player, however, is not a party to the treaty, and, hence, has greatly benefitted from the limits placed on the U.S. and Russian militaries. In the south Asian Sea China has defended itself against a potential crisis in the Taiwan Strait, for instance, by deploying approximately 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. In fact, Russia threatened to withdraw from the treaty, unless it is expanded to include other states, as early as 2007. Presumably, this was referring to China, India and Pakistan specifically.

The United States, at least for this chapter, may be on the same page. In responding to China in the south Asian sea, it can only rely on cruise missiles delivered by aircraft or naval vessels. Withdrawing from the INF treaty would allow the United States to overcome these limits.

In the same way, and despite the increasing ties between Russia and China, Russia may still find it easier to deter its southern neighbor through deploying intermediate nuclear range missiles instead of bolstering its tactical weapons on its southern border.

Conclusion and Implications

While still in place, the INF will see great opposition from both sites of military planners in both the US (and perhaps NATO) and Russia. China one the other side may take the role of a broker to facilitate a balance between the two, since it is in its own interest.

In any way, the developments are as frightening as they are important, and decision-makers have to be aware of what they are doing. It is most certain that any additional aspects that comes into the strategic thinking of people involved, can lead to further misunderstanding and misconception. The United States’ ballistic missile defense plans in Europe are set to progress in 2015, and provocative flights by Russian aircraft and differences over the conflict in Ukraine only add to the tension between Washington and Moscow. Proposals of both sides are extremely concerning, if European states accept a U.S. deployment of nuclear cruise missiles, and if the possibility of deploying Russian nuclear weapons in Crimea are actually pursued, the INF treaty would indeed be destroyed.