Vostok Cable Editor, Josh Black, looks back on an eventful year in the CEE and CIS space.
Looking back at twelve months’ worth of events is a decidedly human impulse, yet the need to categorise by calendar years is a futile exercise. The last year carried on where 2012 left off, and leaves no neat and tidy resolutions to sign off on. Next year will almost certainly promise new beginnings, but history never really ends. Nonetheless, if only to remind ourselves how far we come, this is Vostok Cable’s take on 2013.
The Times of London chose Vladimir Putin as its International Person of the Year, a few months after Forbes Magazine elevated the Russian President above Barack Obama in its ‘Most Powerful’ list. Given the turnaround from his dicey re-election in 2012, there were indeed grounds for recognising his success.
Putin was widely regarded as having out-manoeuvred the US government in his opposition to military action in Syria – his curious New York Times op-ed providing a rare personal insight. However, Secretary of State John Kerry’s probably deliberate misspeaking and the Obama administration’s haste to pursue a peaceful alternative suggests a pre-arranged compromise.
Whether the wave of repression following the 2012 elections has subsided is an open question. Alexei Navalny was allowed to compete in Moscow mayoral elections, earning a respectable 27% of the vote, before being given a suspended sentence on trumped-up fraud charges. The year ended with unexpected amnesties for Greenpeace campaigners arrested on hooliganism charges after a protest in the Arctic Circle, two members of Pussy Riot, and most-surprisingly, Mikhail Khordorkovsky.
Perhaps it would be better to say that, while opposition to the Putin-Medvedev tandem is still latent, 2013 was the year when the President again found himself without serious enemies. The end of the era of oligarchy, proclaimed a few years too late in the wake of Boris Berezovsky’s death and given weight by the way Mikhail Prokhorov substituted in for Sulieman Kerimov at Uralkali, suggested that cracks in the establishment are not yet real.
Nonetheless, the signs suggest that Russia’s economy will be a priority in 2014. Despite uncertainty in the eurozone and Cyprus in particular, Putin has not been successful in his longstanding ambition to halt Russia’s capital flight. The country’s new central banker, Elvira Nabiullina, will have a tough choice on interest rates to make in the New Year, knowing that low rates will do nothing to incentivise Russian businessmen to keep their money at home, and high rates could hurt businesses.
Outside of Russia, 2013 saw people-power fall short on a number of occasions. In one of those ironies of fate, Francis Fukuyama gave a lecture in Kyiv, shortly before history resurfaced with a vengeance in November. Euromaidan, Ukraine’s protest against creeping-authoritarianism and the fading hope of a European future, tested the unity of the opposition and at times appeared directionless, if sincere. Many have compared it unfavourably to 2004’s Orange Revolution, but its anti-corruption elements and poor timing suggest a closer resemblance to 2002’s ‘Ukraine Without Kuchma’ movement.
Similarly, Bulgaria’s protests failed to dislodge an unholy parliamentary coalition from government has brought together disparate elements and at times veered towards the anti-establishment. Perhaps Albania best illustrated the power of protest, when street demonstrations forced the government to reject a proposal by the OPCW that the country receive and destroy Syrian chemical weapons.
Among many deaths in 2013 – the aforementioned Berezovsky, former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Mr Kalashnikov, one dear to this blog was Juan Linz. The Spanish political scientist contributed a huge amount to understanding not only the region we are all interested in, but also politics in the world at large.
Terrorism sadly featured highly on the agenda for 2013 and will be one of the major talking points in the New Year. With the Tsarnaevs’ chilling journey from suburban hyphenated-Americans to Boston bombers via Dagestan and the monstrous events in Volgograd bookending the year, fears for the safety of the Sochi Olympics will be high.
A happier theme to end on, and one hopes a more influential one in the long-term, could be new European beginnings. Croatia joined the EU on 1 July 2013, and Romania and Bulgaria see restrictions on the free movement of their citizens lifted tomorrow, when Latvia will also join the Euro. Despite the stalling of Ukraine’s progress – something that may lead to a more decisive European reaction – Moldova and Georgia initialed Association Agreements and Serbia was given a date for the opening of membership negotiations. Despite much talk of increasing irrelevance, all of these events suggest a momentum often unfairly discounted.