MO09. Februar 2015

Yanis Varoufakis at Bruno Kreisky Forum in 2012

In December 2012 Yanis Varoufakis, meanwhile Minister of Finance in Greece, had been invited by Robert Misik/Genial dagegen, to the Bruno Kreisky Forum for international Dialogue.  His main theme: the European Crises in it’s Global context.

Visit Varoufakis’ blogroll thoughts for the post-2008 world to listen to his speech.


DI20. Jänner 2015

Interview mit Zygmunt Baumann


The Charlie Hebdo Attack And What It Reveals About Society

Political assassination is as old as humanity and the chances that it will be dead before humanity dies are dim. Violence is an un-detachable companion of inter-human antagonisms and conflicts – and those in turn are part and parcel of the human condition. In various times, however, political murders tended to be aimed at different kinds of victims.

Read the Interview

MI14. Jänner 2015

Rethinking the Politics of Israel/Palestine. Partition and its Alternatives

This volume, published by Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue and the S&D Group in the European Parliament, editetd by Bashir Bashir and Azar Dakwar, brings together the voices and views of leading Palestinian, Israeli Jewish and European intellectuals, politicians and activists, who prpose alternative approaches and „out of the box“ thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More specifically, this unique volume aims to contribute to the emerging efforts of re-examining the current strategies and paradigms through proposing and exploring new perspectives, visionary discourses and alternatives to partition in the case of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Put differntly, it seeks to enrich European public discourse with original and refreshing views and alternative paradigms to settling this lingering conflict.

We present the volume as eBook. To order the free of charge coverversion please send an email to



DO08. Jänner 2015

Charlie Hebdo

Douze personnes ont trouvé la mort dans l’attaque du siège de Charlie Hebdo, dans le centre de Paris, mercredi 7 janvier. Onze personnes ont également été blessées par les assaillants, dont quatre grièvement, parmi lesquels le journaliste Philippe Lançon et deux policiers.

Artikel von Le Monde

MO15. Dezember 2014

Americans Against Genozid In Gaza (AAGG)

Netanyahu disrupted during congress by a brave Jewish girl who exposes Israel, to be tackled by AIPAC .

Rae Abileah, a 28-year old Jewish daughter of an Israeli, is a member of Code Pink, a pacifist organization. She told Ynet that she had disrupted another speech by Netanyahu at the Jewish Federations General Assembly in New Orleans in November.


DI02. Dezember 2014

Rage in Jerusalem

by Nathan Thrall*

What the government of Israel calls its eternal, undivided capital is among the most precarious, divided cities in the world. When it conquered the eastern part of Jerusalem and the West Bank – both administered by Jordan – in 1967, Israel expanded the city’s municipal boundaries threefold. As a result, approximately 37 per cent of Jerusalem’s current residents are Palestinian. They have separate buses, schools, health facilities, commercial centres, and speak a different language. In their neighbourhoods, Israeli settlers and border police are frequently pelted with stones, while Palestinians have on several occasions recently been beaten by Jewish nationalist youths in the western half of the city. Balloons equipped with cameras hover above East Jerusalem, maintaining surveillance over the Palestinian population. Most Israelis have never visited and don’t even know the names of the Palestinian areas their government insists on calling its own. Municipal workers come to these neighbourhoods with police escorts.

Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have the right to apply for Israeli citizenship, but in order to acquire it they have to demonstrate a moderate acquaintance with Hebrew, renounce their Jordanian or other citizenship and swear loyalty to Israel. More than 95 per cent have refused to do this, on the grounds that it would signal acquiescence in and legitimation of Israel’s occupation. Since the city was first occupied 47 years ago, more than 14,000 Palestinians have had their residency revoked. As permanent residents, Palestinians in Jerusalem are entitled to vote in municipal (but not Israeli national) elections, yet more than 99 per cent boycott them. With no electoral incentive to satisfy the needs of Palestinians, the city’s politicians neglect them.

All Jerusalemites pay taxes, but the proportion of the municipal budget allocated to the roughly 300,000 Palestinian residents of a city with a population of 815,000 doesn’t exceed 10 per cent. Service provision is grossly unequal. In the East, there are five benefit offices compared to the West’s 18; four health centres for mothers and babies compared to the West’s 25; and 11 mail carriers compared to the West’s 133. Roads are mostly in disrepair and often too narrow to accommodate garbage trucks, forcing Palestinians to burn rubbish outside their homes. A shortage of sewage pipes means that Palestinian residents have to use septic tanks which often overflow. Students are stuffed into overcrowded schools or converted apartments; 2200 additional classrooms are needed. More than three-quarters of the city’s Palestinians live below the poverty line.

Since 1967 no new Palestinian neighbourhoods have been established in the city, while Jewish settlements surrounding existing Palestinian areas have mushroomed. Restrictive zoning prevents Palestinians from building legally. Israel has designated 52 per cent of land in East Jerusalem as unavailable for development and 35 per cent for Jewish settlements, leaving the Palestinian population with only 13 per cent, most of which is already built on. Those with growing families are forced to choose between building illegally and leaving the city. Roughly a third of them decide to build, meaning that 93,000 residents are under constant threat of their homes being demolished.

The government has no shortage of bureaucratic explanations for this unequal treatment, but it doesn’t always try to hide the ethno-religious basis of its discrimination. After the recent terrorist attacks by both Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the government demolished the homes only of the Palestinian perpetrators. Palestinians who live in houses abandoned during the 1948 war have been evicted to make room for Jewish former owners and their descendants, but the reverse has yet to occur.

Jerusalem was once the cultural, political and commercial capital for Palestinians, connected to Bethlehem in the south and Ramallah in the north. But the construction of the separation wall cut Jerusalemites off from the West Bank and from one another. The route of the wall was chosen to encompass as many East Jerusalem and West Bank Jewish settlements as possible while excluding the largest possible number of Palestinians. In the Jerusalem area, only 3 per cent of the wall follows the pre-1967 border. The wall divides the Palestinians in Jerusalem into two groups: three-quarters have found themselves on the Israeli side; a quarter are on the West Bank side, and are now forced to wait in long lines at checkpoints to get to schools and other services. Some smaller Palestinian villages are completely encircled by the wall.

Because areas on the West Bank side of the barrier are still within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority is forbidden to enter them. But the Israeli police, in common with the providers of other basic municipal services, largely refuse to go to these places. Despite this, residents are still obliged to pay municipal taxes, in order to qualify for healthcare and benefits. These neighbourhoods have become a no man’s land where criminals can escape from both Israel and the PA.

In Palestinian areas on the Israeli side of the wall, too, crime has become pervasive. Israeli security forces tend to enter these areas only when there’s a security threat to Israeli Jews. The Israeli security presence in East Jerusalem is made up mostly of paramilitary units, which are there essentially to quash dissent and prevent attacks on settlers rather than to protect Palestinians. Non-co-operation with Israeli forces, because of rejection of their authority or out of fear of being seen as collaborating, has allowed gangs to proliferate. They are involved in robberies, drug smuggling, gun-running and extortion, which affects large numbers of Palestinian businesses. Rising crime and insecurity have helped make East Jerusalem a ghost town at night.

Unrest and ethnic tension have been increasing for some time now, but only since July have people been referring to the growing protests and violence as an intifada. At the end of June, the Israeli army discovered the bodies of three teenage students at West Bank yeshivas who had been murdered earlier that month. The next day, hundreds of Jews demonstrated in West Jerusalem, chanting ‘Death to the Arabs,’ ‘Mohammad is Dead’ and similar slogans. Several dozen protesters attacked Palestinian workers and passers-by. Before sunrise the next morning, three Jewish nationalists abducted a randomly selected 16-year-old Palestinian called Mohammed Abu Khdeir, from the upper-middle-class neighbourhood of Shuafat, beat him and burned him alive.

In the days following his murder, riots broke out in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem. A new light railway that passes through Shuafat on its way to the nearby settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev has been repeatedly stoned and the service suspended. Demonstrations spread when the war in Gaza broke out a week after Abu Khdeir’s murder. Since then, protests have taken place in East Jerusalem nearly ever day.

Two of the focal points are Silwan, south-east of the Old City walls, where Jewish settlers with state-funded private security guards have taken over numerous buildings, and the Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount), where Israel has been restricting Palestinian access and allowing more visits by a small but vocal Jewish minority which boasts a minister and deputy ministers in the present government and which ignores ultra-orthodox prohibitions by advocating prayer and even the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site.

Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, said recently that the number of incidents involving stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails had risen from two hundred per month in the period preceding the Gaza war to five thousand per month since. More than a thousand Palestinians in Jerusalem, most of them minors, have been detained since July – four times the total arrested in East Jerusalem for security-related offences between 2000 and 2008, a period that includes the Second Intifada.

To counter the unrest, the Israeli government has seconded a thousand special forces officers to the Jerusalem police; deployed four extra border police units; conducted large-scale raids and increased the presence of paramilitary forces in East Jerusalem; established checkpoints and barricades around Palestinian areas; called on Israelis who have firearms licences to join a volunteer security force; ordered the houses of Palestinian attackers to be demolished and their relatives arrested; dispersed crowds by hosing them with a foul-smelling liquid known as the ‘skunk’; erected concrete barricades at stations; formed a police task force to address the violence; threatened to fine parents of teenage demonstrators; proposed prison sentences of up to twenty years for throwing rocks; and handed out fines in Palestinian neighbourhoods for such minor offences as jaywalking and spitting out the shells of sunflower seeds.

So far, none of these measures has had much effect. Growing numbers of Palestinians, particularly in East Jerusalem, have been injured and in several cases killed by Israeli forces. In November, another Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem was abducted and beaten, but left alive. Several Palestinians in the West Bank have been deliberately run over by Israelis in recent months. Attacks on Israelis have increased sharply. A leading supporter of Jewish prayer in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount was shot. Two axe, knife and gun-wielding Palestinians from East Jerusalem killed a police officer, a worshipper and three ultra-orthodox rabbis at a West Jerusalem synagogue on 18 November. There have been gruesome attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians by Palestinians using guns and knives and vehicles. More Israelis have died in such incidents in recent weeks than in 2012 and 2013 combined.

The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as well as Israeli government spokesmen, have claimed that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is inciting this violence, but this assertion is aimed at thwarting Abbas’s diplomatic initiatives rather than providing a sober assessment of the causes of the unrest. As Israel’s senior security officials have stated, recent attacks have actually been the work of ‘lone wolves’ – spontaneous acts of violence, not committed by followers of a particular political faction. They stem precisely from the absence of Palestinian political leadership, unified or otherwise.


Palestinians in general feel disconnected from their political leaders, but the sense of abandonment is particularly acute in Jerusalem, where the PA is strictly forbidden from acting and to which Ramallah, like most of the Arab world, devotes many lofty words but very few deeds. When he assented to the five-year interim arrangements for Palestinian self-governance in the Oslo Accords, Yasser Arafat agreed to exclude Jerusalem from the areas that would be governed pro tempore by the PA. Local leaders, notably the late Faisal Husseini, refused to agree to this, which is one reason Yitzhak Rabin, who resolutely opposed dividing Jerusalem when he was prime minister and said he would rather abandon peace than give up a united capital, chose to bypass Husseini and instead pursued secret negotiations in Oslo with Arafat’s emissaries.

Palestinians in Jerusalem have been bereft of political leaders since Husseini’s death in 2001. All four of Jerusalem’s representatives in the Palestinian parliament – all of them members of Hamas, elected in 2006 – have been deported. Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, monitors ‘political subversion’, which includes lawful opposition to the Israeli occupation. Since all Palestinian political parties oppose the occupation, they and their activities have, in effect, been criminalised. Even innocuous Palestinian institutions such as the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce have been shut down. Years of Israeli suppression of Palestinian political activity have ensured that when violence erupts in Jerusalem, there is no legitimate leadership to quell it; and spontaneous, unorganised protests and attacks are far more difficult for the security forces to thwart and contain.

The notion that Abbas has incited them to protest is laughable to Palestinians in Jerusalem. When permitted entry to the city, his representatives and associates have been verbally and physically attacked by Palestinian residents. A former religious affairs minister and his bodyguards were hospitalised after an assault while they were in the Haram al-Sharif, and a PA governor was shouted out of the mourning tent of the family of Abu Khdeir. The PA is accused of standing idly by as a withering Palestinian Jerusalem has been encircled, divided and constricted.

Abbas is adamantly opposed to leading an intifada, peaceful or otherwise, and he will almost certainly resign if a new one begins. Understanding his deep-seated abhorrence of violence, Hamas agreed to a joint campaign of peaceful protest with Abbas’s Fatah movement in the West Bank, but Abbas and the security forces under his command have continued to act against such demonstrations. Even now, with Hamas’s rise in popularity after the Gaza war and Palestinian frustration in Jerusalem and cities within Israel, Abbas has refused even the non-violent means of pressuring Israel that have been available to him for several years, such as supporting the boycott of goods not just from the settlements but from the state that creates and supports them, and curtailing security co-operation with Israel. Thanks in part to collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian security forces, Palestinian dissent is more conspicuous in areas outside the PA’s control: hunger strikes in Israeli prisons, boycotts and divestment in the diaspora, and protests and violence in Palestinian communities in Israel and Jerusalem. When the PLO’s political strategy is to submit resolutions to the UN Security Council which it knows in advance will be vetoed, it is little wonder that Palestinians in Jerusalem are acting on their own.

The current upsurge in protests and violence has been called the silent intifada, the individual intifada, the children’s intifada, the firecracker intifada, the car intifada, the run-over intifada, the Jerusalem intifada and the third intifada. But what it most closely resembles isn’t the First (1987-93) or the Second (2000-05) Intifada but the surge in unco-ordinated, leaderless violence that preceded the largely non-lethal protests in the early part of the First Intifada. Then, as now, such violence was blamed wrongly on the PLO leadership. Then, as now, that leadership appeared defeated and in decline. The PLO had been ousted from Lebanon, Israeli settlements were expanding, and Palestinians didn’t see how their leaders could achieve the national movement’s goals. As in 2006, local nationalist leaders in the West Bank came to power in 1976 in elections whose results Israel sought to undo. These legitimate leaders were toppled and deported, and more compliant, unelected figures were put in their place. Then, as now, with no organised leadership in the West Bank and Gaza offering a clear strategy of national liberation, sporadic assaults on Israelis, not attributable to any political faction, were on the increase.

The crucial difference between the mid-1980s and today is that Palestinian civil society is now much weaker, and so, too, is the likelihood of coherent political organisation of the kind that emerged soon after the First Intifada began. The groups that then channelled political activity have been supplanted, either by the institutions of a technocratic PA whose existence is premised on close co-operation with Israel, or by NGOs whose foreign funders make assistance conditional on the pursuit of apolitical development projects or vague peace-building strategies that explicitly rule out non-violent confrontation with Israel and any initiative likely to drive up the costs of military occupation. Palestinian society is afflicted with dependency, and it is dependent on forces that wish to preserve the status quo.


Israelis don’t like to admit it, but both intifadas brought significant progress to the Palestinians in their quest for liberation. After a short-term increase in the scope and severity of the occupation, Palestinians were given greater autonomy, not just from Israel but also, in the First Intifada, from Jordan, which renounced all claims to the West Bank in 1988. No less important, after both uprisings Israel, the US and the international community moved closer to Palestinian positions.

Israel, however, took steps to immunise itself against some of the weaknesses exposed by these uprisings. After the First Intifada, it established the PA, to which it outsourced much of its responsibility for crowd control and counter-terrorism, thereby limiting the exposure of its soldiers. The PA was financed mainly by Europe and the US, which also made Israel less vulnerable to economic pressure, such as the non-payment of taxes or the mass resignation of public employees. It allowed fewer Palestinian workers into Israel, protecting the economy from the effects of strikes. During and after the Second Intifada, Israel took measures to protect its population on both sides of the pre-1967 borders, erecting the separation barrier, removing settlers and soldiers from Gaza, and further restricting the movements of residents of Gaza and the West Bank.

With all the despairing talk today of the impossibility of a two-state solution and the inevitability of protracted civil war in a single state, it is easy to forget how different the conflict looked two intifadas ago. Before the First Intifada, no one of any importance spoke of Palestinian statehood, rather than autonomy. Today statehood is publicly accepted, even if only rhetorically, not just by the US and the UN but by a long-serving Israeli prime minister from the hawkish Likud. Before the First Intifada, Israel and the US refused to engage with the PLO. Dividing Jerusalem was unthinkable, as was the idea of partition along the pre-1967 borders, with equal swaps. Today these are the positions of most of the international community and growing numbers in Israel. Many Israelis, however, see no reason for their country to take substantial risks and pay a large cost to change an imperfect but long-lasting and manageable status quo. It would be a great tragedy if nothing less than a third uprising, at a terrible price, could convince them otherwise.

21 November 2014

Nathan Thrall is a senior analyst with the Middle East and North Africa Programme of the International Crisis Group. He lives in Jerusalem.

DI25. November 2014

Antrittsvorlesung des Vranitzky Chair

Rede von Botschafterin und BKF Vorstandsmitglied Dr. Eva Nowotny am 24.11.2014 an der Univ. Wien

Magnifizenz, sehr geehrter Herr Bundeskanzler, sehr geehrter Professor Gries, meine sehr geehrten Damen und Herren,

Ich freue mich, dass ich auch Gelegenheit habe, bei diesem feierlichen Anlaß ein paar Gedanken mit Ihnen zu teilen und bedanke mich sehr herzlich für die Einladung. Ich fühle mich dem Vranitzky Chair auf mehrfache Weise besonders verbunden – einerseits als Vorsitzende des Universitätsrats der Universität Wien, an der dieser Chair verankert ist, und als Vorstandsmitglied des Bruno Kreisky Forums für Internationalen Dialog, welches den Chair aktiv unterstützt. Andererseits und vor allem aber, weil ich das Glück und das Privileg hatte, von 1986 bis 1992 im Büro von Bundeskanzler Vranitzky mitarbeiten zu dürfen. In der Erinnerung an diese Jahre schließt sich für mich auch der Kreis zu der heutigen Veranstaltung und zum Thema der Vorlesung von Professor Gries. Drei außenpolitische Entwicklungen von besonderer Bedeutung hatten diese Jahre geprägt: zum einen der Weg Österreichs, gemeinsam mit Schweden und Finnland in die Europäische Union, zweitens der Zusammenbruch des kommunistischen Herrschaftssystems in Zentral- und Osteuropa, der Fall des Eisernen Vorhangs, die Auflösung des Warschauer Pakts und schließlich der Zerfall der Sowjetunion und ihre Transformation in die Gemeinschaft Unabhängiger Staaten, und drittens, besonders relevant für das Thema des heutigen Abends, der Beginn des blutigen Zerfalls Jugoslawiens.

Politische Gegner haben oft und gerne polemisiert, wir hätten damals die Realität nicht erkannt, bzw die Situation falsch eingeschätzt, und krampfhaft versucht, Jugoslawien als gemeinsamen Staat aufrecht zu erhalten – ein Vorwurf, der nicht berechtigt ist, der aber trotzdem immer wieder und gerne auch heute noch in den Medien kolportiert wird. Es war einerseits ein Ergebnis der geographischen Nähe, weit mehr aber noch ein Ergebnis der zahlreichen und intensiven Kontakte, die Österreich auf allen politischen Ebenen, von der Bundesregierung bis zu lokalen Bürgermeistern hatte, dass uns früher als vielen anderen bewusst war, was sich in unserem Nachbarstaat unheilvoll zusammen gebraut hatte. Ebenso war uns bewusst, dass angesichts der politischen Spannungen, aber auch des historischen Ballasts, den alle Balkanstaaten mit sich tragen, eine Explosion der Gewalt und eine blutige Auseinandersetzung zu befürchten war. Es war gerade Bundeskanzler Vranitzky, der seit den späten 80er Jahre jede Gelegenheit bei seinen internationalen Kontakten dazu benützte, auf diese drohende Gefahr aufmerksam zu machen. Wie wir wissen, war im Vorfeld des Krieges das europäische, aber auch das internationale Interesse an dieser Krise sehr gering.

Winston Churchill hat angeblich (und ich betone angeblich, weil es gerade von Winston Churchill sehr viele kolportierte Zitate gibt) einmal in einer Parlamentsrede gesagt: „The problem with the Balkans is that they have always produced more history than they can consume.“ Nun ist das etwas, das man über viele Staaten sagen kann, Österreich durchaus miteingeschlossen. Aber jedem, der sich mit der Geschichte dieser Region und gerade auch mit dem gewaltvollen Zerfall des alten Jugoslawiens beschäftigt, ist klar, dass die Geschichte hier eine ganz besonders belastende Rolle gespielt hat. Es sind hier Mythen im Spiel, die weit in die Vergangenheit zurück reichen, Berufungen auf vergangene Größe, Rache für nie vergessene Niederlagen und so weiter, die von einer Generation an die nächste tradiert werden und so immer weiter leben.

Es ist zu wünschen, dass es gelingt, durch das Angebot und in der Folge die Realsierung einer Mitgliedschaft in der Europäischen Union diesen Ballast abzubauen und vor allem der jugendlichen Bevölkerung dieser Staaten andere Orientierungen, andere Perspektiven und andere Denkmuster anzubieten. Die Tatsache, dass die Europäische Union allen Staaten des sogenannten Westlichen Balkans die Beitrittsperspektive eröffnet hat, bestätigt, dass man sich dieser Verantwortung bewußt ist und auch die Bedeutung der EU Mitgliedschaft für Sicherheit, Stabilität, wirtschaftliche Entwicklung und Modernisierung der gesamten Region erkennt. Ebenso wäre es mehr als wünschenswert, wenn sich aus diesem Vranitzky Chair als Forschungsprojekt andere Formen der kollektiven historischen Erinnerung für die gesamte Region entwickeln ließen. Wir wissen sehr gut, wie schwierig das ist, und ich erinnere nur an die jahrzehntelange Arbeit der sogenannten Wandruszka Kommission für das gemeinsame österreichisch-italienische Geschichtsbuch. Ich wünsche dazu Herrn Professor Gries den besten Erfolg.


* Franz Vranitzky Chair for European Studies, transdisziplinäre Professur am Institut für Zeitgeschichte und am Institut für Publizistik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft der Universität Wien in Zusammenarbeit mit der Sigmund Freud Privat Universität Wien


DO20. November 2014

The Kurdish Issue and the Islamic State (IS)

by Walter Posch, SWP Berlin

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq is widely understood as a threat to the whole region and the entire international community. It is with this insight that the US has decided on airstrikes, and convinced some of their local allies to contribute militarily. According to international and Iranian media reports, US and Iranian interlocutors have even held talks about the common threat, without, of course, coming to any tangible conclusion, let alone cooperation. At the time of the UN General Assembly, Americans and Iranians were back to where they had been before: agreeing to disagree on regional policy.

Hence, action to subdue IS on the ground seems to be limited to airstrikes, financial sanctions, the build-up of a new volunteer army, and military support for the Kurds, which is better for the Kurdish forces of the KRG, and of course the Iraqi government. Even for the most illiterate in military matters, this seems to be a modest, albeit expensive contribution to fight an organization that excels militarily, seems unstoppable, has displayed a range of savagery, including the enslavement of women and children of the Ezidi Kurds, plays the Western media skillfully and – just to top it – recruits in Europe and is building up a terror infrastructure in the West. Thus arises the question: what to do next? And therein, as the bard would tell you, lies the rub.

The issue is as much about vision and ideas about the region as it is about strategy and/or military planning. Apparently, all actors on the ground know what they want, why they want it, and how they envision shaping their region. Iran wants to keep Asad in power, strengthen its grip on Iraq, check the
Saudis, and prevent Kurdish independence. Turkey focuses on the PKK and wants to see Asad go. Saudi Arabia wants Iran’s influence checked and, like Turkey, wants to see Asad gone. Asad wants to stay, and dubs resistance against him Islamist, tacitly hoping the West will bomb the Islamists away. All players have followed up on their intentions quite consistently. If they can avoid it, none of them would like to deploy painful and expensive military means. Instead, their disagreements are fought out by proxies. This is not the case with the West. True, there is some idea about preferring stable nation states with more or less democratic and pro-Western regimes to emerge. Given the fact that such a benign scenario will most likely not emerge, the West should take a combination of restringing measures in order to contain and on a later point to destroy IS, combined with a long term commitment of support for newly emerging players. Because one thing is clear neither the EU nor the US or the G7 have enough manpower – let alone political will – to stop IS by force. These measures can be summarized as follows:

  • Regard the fight against IS as three fights, depending on the “theater” of war: the fight against the international jihadists, the fight in Syria and the fight in Iraq
  • Realize that regional powers have framed their strategic competition in religious terms, which means the West is unable to propose a counter-narrative, which would be a precondition as a starting point for any peace process; hence the confrontation will last for long, perhaps longer than a generation;
  • Muster support of the few remaining militarily capable and secular and/or pro-Western organizations, even if they are aligned to banned organizations such as the PKK
  • Help facilitating Turkish-Northern Syrian/Kurdish relations
  • Realize the entrenched Asad regime is of no real value in the fight against IS
  • Support a thorough security sector reform in the Iraqi KRG region and underpin it with a long term commitment
  • Realize that Western and Iranian interests align in Iraq but diverge over Syria
  • Continue cooperation with Saudi and other moderate Arabs and Turkey over Syria
  • Ponder limited military cooperation with Iran against IS in Iraq, coordinated via the Iraqi government

The end of the “strongmen era”

Perhaps it helps to start with stating some obvious facts, such as the end of stable dictatorships, the rise and radicalization of political Islam, regional strategic competition expressed in sectarian hatred, and the Kurdish question.

Although slightly embarrassing, dealing with stable dictators or strongmen was the only way for Western elites to engage with the Middle East, and maybe it was even the preferred one. The “stable dictators” ruled their countries with a mix of nationalist Arab and – more or less – secular ideologies, plus the hard fist of the security apparatus, which was often manned and staffed by relatives, party cronies or related tribes. It is a moot point to muse about whether the “stable dictatorships” were already a model of the past when the shah fell in 1979, or whether one should take 1992, the year of the Basra intifadha against Saddam Hussein or any other date, as its endpoint. The fact is that what replaces the dictator is not liberal democracy, but some form of political Islam.

In general, followers of political Islam are anti-Western and anti-imperialist by inclination. For them as for their nationalist forerunners the Palestine plays a central role in their political thinking, they differ however on their religious as opposed to nationalist interpretation of the “Palestinian cause”. But it is the economic and moral bankruptcy of the secular elites that brings them to power: political Islam is populist too, promising work to the working class and economic liberalization to entrepreneurs. The social differences are dissolved with public morality, hence the importance of issues like the headscarf.
Politicians and scholars in the West, especially those from Europe, have long searched for organizations and parties who would combine political Islam with democracy. But political
circumstances in the region are not conducive to the work of democratic parties, Islamist or not. And even in Turkey, circumstances more tolerant of the ruling Islamic-conservative AKP bewildered many of its former friends and benign transatlantic supporters with outlandish remarks and occasional disrespect for democratic rules and procedures.

The sectarian divide

The rise of political Islam with or without only minor democratic values would have been less problematic, if it wasn’t combined with sectarian hatred. This too is a result of several factors. History and middle-class bigotry is the base for it, but Saudi-Iranian competition is one of its main triggers. Both countries used to wind up or scale down the sectarian factor for tactical purposes. However, Arab nationalism neutralized sectarianism to a certain degree, because it was a challenge to both Tehran and Riyadh. With the end of Saddam’s Iraq and the US’ reframing of the Iraqi society in sectarian terms – some scholars went so far as to describe three ethnic (!) groups in Iraq: Sunni, Shii and Kurds – Pan-Arabism was kicked out of the political arena and driven underground. Given circumstances in Iraq over the last decade, it had to undergo a marriage with radical Sunni Islam, as we can observe with the Islamic State (IS), which integrated many Baathist nationalists. Of course to publicly reject Iraq as an Arab country because it has a Shiite Arab majority had to drive the Arab Shiites throughout the region into Iran’s arms, regardless of whether they follow Khamenei as Supreme Leader or not, notwithstanding the big cultural differences between the Arab and Iranian Shiites.

Iran’s allies

As the simplistic equation Shii=Persian and Sunni=Arab does not allow for any differentiation, it allows the hawks in Tehran and Riyadh to continue their confrontation from Baghdad to Damascus. Obviously, they are trying to avoid a spillover into Lebanon, where Iran has already taken deadly blows like a bomb attack on its embassy.1 In general, the situation is a bloody draw: the Iranians had to mobilize all of their reserves to support its one and only ally, the embattled pan-Arab, Baathist and secular dictatorship of Bashir Asad. Tehran admits the presence of military and intelligence advisors and a certain amount of volunteers from the wider Shiite communities in the region. However, its biggest asset is the Lebanese Hezbollah. The political price for the Syrian theater is already high, because it led to Hezbollah’s political isolation in Lebanon and destroyed their reputation in the Arab world that they gained in 2006 after the 33-day war. A different situation prevailed in Iraq. The Iranians had been aware of the reconfiguration of radical Sunni-Arab and Baathist forces at least from 2012 onwards. What is unclear is whether they were aware of the weakness of the Iraqi army. In any case, towards the end of 2013, they reactivated their creation from the long Iran-Iraq war: the Badr Brigade.

The Badr Brigade

Badr consisted of Shiite Iraqi volunteers who were sympathetic to Ayatollahs Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim and Muhammad Baqer al-Sadr. They were organized as an infantry brigade under the command of Iran’s “Corps of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”. After the end of the war, Badr was further “Iraqized” when Hadi Ameri assumed command in 1992. It was he who led Badr to Iraq in 2003, where they fought some skirmishes with Saddam’s troops, and it was he who made his Brigade “vanish” before it could be forcefully disbanded by the US Viceroy Paul Bremer. Meanwhile Ameri held some government positions at ministerial levels, such as transport minister, and members of Badr became integrated into the Iraqi administration, some of whom were able to take over positions in the security apparatus, certainly against the will of the US. Reactivating Badr was a meaningful step on behalf of the Iranians, and it was not undertaken without Iraqi consent. Badr will not only be a Shiite militia, but enjoys a special status, as it signed an agreement with the Iraqi army. Not much is known about the contents of this agreement; most likely it contains issues like recruitment and areas of responsibility. What is known is their new base – the former MKO headquarters “Camp Ashraf” near Baghdad.

Tehran’s tempered ambition

It was largely thanks to Badr that the Iraqi government was able, with Iranian help, to push back the advance of IS. For Iran, the main risk was that after Mosul, Erbil might fall, and this radical anti-Shiite force might show up on the borders of the Islamic Republic. As seen from Tehran, preventing IS from entering Baghdad or Erbil and pushing them back from other strategically important and Shiite inhabited areas, such as the Shiite Turkoman village of Amerli, saved the day. The Iranians know they are in no position to retake Mosul for the Iraqi government. In the end, Tehran is content to hold the frontline in Iraq, where it converges with a more or less clear line of delineation between Sunnis and Shiis in Iraq. Beyond that, Iran knows about its own limits, and therefore seems not to have a great appetite to go after IS in Syria. In other words, Iran commits itself to contain IS and does not promise to destroy it, a promise it may find hard to live up to militarily anyway. Tehran prefers to send volunteers, military advisors and intelligence. The better part of the latter belongs to a specialized unit called “niru-ye Qods” commaned by Qasem Soleymani, an Iranian major general who enjoys some celebrity status in the Western press. Apparently, Qods is responsible for coordinating military support between Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish groups. In short, Iraq and Syria have shown the limits of Iran’s capability for projecting its power. Iran is no longer the revolutionary, aggressive, pan-Islamist power it was 30 years ago, but rather it became a concerned Shiite nation state that is careful not to punch too often beyond its weight.

The Kurdish issue

The Kurdish issue goes beyond Iraq, but it helps to better understand the current situation by starting with an analysis of Iranian-Kurdish relations. A multiethnic country on its own, Iran has actively cooperated with Turkey and Iraq for years to prevent an independent Kurdish state from emerging. But at the same time, both imperial Iran and the Islamic Republic have worked with Iraqi Kurdish political groups – namely the Kurdistan Democratic Party/KDP led by the Barzani family and tribe, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, in order to pressure concessions from the Iraqi central government. Depending on political circumstances, Iran supported both Kurdish parties with military advisors and arms from the 1970s until today. In the 1980s and 1990s, Iran took in large numbers of Iraqi Kurdish refugees, among them well-known pro-Western Kurdish politicians like Jelal Talabani, Masud Barzani or Hoshyar Zebari, to name the most prominent ones. Iran was also a tacit party to the Drogheda agreement conducted between Turkey, the US, the UK and the Kurdish parties in Iraq, which ended the inner-Kurdish civil war in the 1990s. And Iran is an important economic partner to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Yet Iran’s help and support for Kurdish groups is far from being altruistic, and does indeed come with strings: in exchange for arms and support, both Kurdish parties were obliged to deny safe haven to Iranian Kurds fighting Tehran.FN As a result, Iran’s domestic Kurdish opposition was successfully emasculated from the 1980s until around 2002.


After the fall of Saddam and the establishment of the KRG in 2003, Tehran and Ankara did not have any reason to be satisfied with the status quo: the Kurdistan Region is a de facto bi-partisan state, where two parties dominate their respective zones of influence. Due to his excellent relations with the West and control over Erbil, Mas’ud Barzani is widely regarded as quasi-president of Kurdistan – i.e. the KRG region plus “contested areas” such as Kirkuk – and insists that Kurdistan has all the attributes of a state, a fact that can be easily rejected when looking at essential issues like its security apparatus. As an example, each party still prefers to keep its party militia under its own command, and does not allow for a unified command under the defense or peshmerga ministry. Only after the fall of Sinjar in August 2014, when the weakness of peshmerga forces was revealed, did public pressure force both parties to address this issue. The reasons for the peshmergas’ failure are still awaiting examination. Dated weaponry may have been a reason, but this cannot explain everything.
TEXT In any case, as “first aid”, European countries have delivered modern anti-tank weapons and started training peshmergas from the KDP.

The fall of Sinjar was crucial not only because it stained the reputation of the peshmerga, especially those who are under the control of Masud Barzani. More important is the fact that another player forcefully entered the scene and was able to cover the flight of the Ezidi population from the advance of the IS: the PKK.


The PKK has undergone an impressive recovery following their military defeat in the 1990s and the capture of their leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. At the beginning of the 2000s, splits in their own ranks, the war weariness of the Kurdish population in Turkey, and the loss of backers like Hafiz Asad’s Syria made the organization look like a spent and isolated force. Öcalan, who remained the ideological and political head of the organization, even in his prison cell, reacted to the new situation with a comprehensive review of the organizational setup and the strategic aims of the organization. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) was renamed or remodeled as KCK (Confederation of Kurdistan Communities), the aim of an independent Kurdish state was officially abandoned and instead, a system called “democratic confederalism”, which encompasses national boundaries, was introduced. In other words, the PKK/KCK prepared the buildup of a parallel administrative-political system, which tolerates but does not share power with other political parties. This is reminiscent of various “people’s fronts” created in the mid-20th century, and a typical form of organization rooted in the far left wing of the political spectrum. The PKK/PYD’s exclusionist policies created tensions with Barzani, who has some followers and a rudimentary party structure in Syria too.

Öcalan was clearly following a double strategy: on one hand he supports the peace process in Turkey – and it took the Turks about a decade to realize there will be no tenable peace without involving Öcalan – and on the other side, he analyzed the consequences of the US led invasion in Iraq for the Kurds: after Saddam’s Iraq, the ayatollahs’ Iran and Baathist Syria may be next. Hence in the years from 2003 onwards, he ordered the creation of several PKK clones, such as PJAK in Iran and PYD in Syria, who enjoy a high degree of autonomy but still remain under firm command of the military political center in Qandil. The best proof of Qandil’s oversight is an agreement between Murat Karayilan, a member of the leadership council, and the Iranian authorities in 2011. After Iranian security forces had captured Karayilan, both sides agreed that in exchange for setting him free, the PJAK would retreat – to Syria.

Rojava and the Fight against IS

Meanwhile, young Kurds from Iran, Iraq and Syria started to fill up the ranks of the new PKKs/KCK’s military apparatus (guerilla), both in the regional organizations and with the military center in Qandil (HPG). It is in this context that the situation in Syria became so important, because the PKK only rules directly in the three Kurdish regions of Syria (Rojava). Its local branch, the PYD, was able to build up an efficient administration, including self-defense forces (YPG, Self-Defense Units, and asayish, police), face down Kurdish competition, and maintain a delicate balance by not openly breaking ranks with the Syrian regime, but not supporting it either. Although the whole setup was defensive in nature, the PKK was able to come and cover the flight of the Ezidis from Sinjar. Therefore, the confrontation with IS had to come sooner rather than later.

IS operates largely in the Sunni-Arab region of Syria and Iraq. There, it tries to capture and hold as many strategic nodal points as possible in order to consolidate its territory. Sinjar is one of those points, and Kobanê in Rojava is another one. Kobanê is a relatively isolated Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria with a strong Kurdish hinterland on the Turkish side of the border. Concentrating on an important border town like Kobanê makes sense: it is relatively weak, hard to defend, and once captured would bring an important border crossing under the control of IS. Crushing the PYD/YPG there would be a serious blow to the self-confidence and manpower of the PKK-fighters in all of Northern Syria and beyond. From a Turkish perspective, IS routing the armed PKK forces in Syria would be an ideal outcome, because it would fulfill a long-standing aim the Turkish army was unable to achieve. At the same time, Turkey’s government does not share the same assessment of the West on the danger posed by IS. Instead, both the leadership of the Islamist AKP and the country’s security elites see a bigger threat in the PKK. Naturally, an assessment like this has to lead to a more cavalier position towards the recruitment of Islamists in Turkey, letting through foreign fighters and allowing medical treatment of IS militants in Turkish hospitals. But it also explains why many in the West doubt the Turkish narrative on what had happened with its diplomats taken captive in Mosul. Erdogan refused for a long time to call IS “terrorists”, and gave in only when NATO allies and the international media accused him of complicity.

In hindsight, it appears Turkish authorities had already expected the fall of Kobanê for a long time, since Ankara had prepared refugee camps awhile ago and even published exaggerated numbers of refugees. With the fighting having dragged on for over a month, the political mood in Turkey as well as internationally has changed. The “Kobanê resistance” became an important cause célèbre for all Kurdish activists, especially those who are sympathetic to the PKK. The mishandling of the case of Kobanê might be the straw to break the camel’s back in the Turkish government’s dragging of the peace process, and therefore may destroy everything Erdogan has achieved in the Kurdish issue so far. As a warning, Cemil Bayik, co-head of the KCK who resides in Qandil, issued a statement that if Kobanê falls because Turkey refuses to allow military help for the Kurds to pass through, the peace process in Turkey is in danger. A few days later, Öcalan reaffirmed Bayik’s statement, and thus declared it “official” PKK policy. But ending this peace process may be a bigger disadvantage for the PKK/KCK than for Turkey, which could legitimately claim its good will to the international community, especially to the Europeans, who are traditionally more sensitive on the Kurdish issue and minority rights.

Besides, a resurfacing of the civil war in Eastern Turkey will yield no other results but terror and disrupt Turkey’s still fragile economy. For Öcalan, any resurgence in hostilities means his influence over developments in the Kurdish cause and the control over KCK events and procedures will decrease. For Erdogan, a direct military confrontation in Northern Syria would be a high risk endeavor too: if the Turkish army goes after IS, their followers and sympathizers in Turkey will wreak havoc, but the same will happen if Turkish troops try to crush the PKK in Kobanê. Hence, the Turkish army will most likely continue to do “business as usual” on the border and wait in cold blood until the resistance in Kobanê either falls or is victorious. At the same time, Erdogan will try to reassure the international community about Turkey’s earnest will to fight “any terror group” in Northern Syria, which translates to IS in Western countries, but to the PKK in Turkish ears.


One notable aspect of IS’ expansion is how well it fits into the strategic setup of regional powers: without necessarily being in cahoots with the caliphate, Saudi Arabia benefits from its presence as it pushes back Iranian influence in Iraq and checks the Syrian regime. From a Syrian perspective, IS checks the Kurds’ and other Islamists’ positions and for Saudi Arabia, it checks Iran’s position. Iran is unhappy about IS, but is content to see it active west of Shiite dominated areas. And for Turkey, IS may crush the PKK and check Asad. Seen from this angle, IS functions as a buffer preventing the direct confrontation of regional players.
The West has no clear vision or idea on the region, but at least some positions and commitments are clear: to crush the IS because via its expatriate members from Europe and elsewhere, it is on its way to becoming a bigger threat than Al-Qaida. A super-Al-Qaida, so to speak, which combines elements of organized crime with military power, terrorist capacities, and a rudimentary knowledge of how to run state-like structures.
If this is the aim, airstrikes are not enough and military action on the ground is needed. Here, one has to observe the fact that there are two theaters: Iraq and Syria.

No Asad

Syria first: This situation led to the facile, understandable but erroneous conclusion that Western countries should swallow their pride and cooperate with the Syrian regime against radical political Islam. But the problem is that Asad is simply a dysfunctional dictator. Most certainly, he may drag on for as long as this conflict lasts, but he is no position to conduct any decisive military action. After all, he is fighting on so many fronts that he cannot afford to open a new one against IS. At least for now, IS is not his priority, nor is it the priority of his allies, Iran and Hizbullah. Obviously, they are content to see IS establish itself in the East and the North of the country, fighting other groups there.

More FSA

Among them is the Free Syrian Army, the very militia the West pushed but could not deliver. There is no other way than reviewing past mistakes and retraining, re-financing and re-supporting the FSA throughout Syria. Some of this is already on the way, and the US already trains Syrian volunteers in neighboring Arab countries. But even so, it will take time and before these troops are combat ready. But combat readiness and military skills are not everything. One reason why, for example, relatively modestly trained Shiite militias prevail is faith and ideology. The battle against IS is not only a military one, but also an ideological one, and there, the West does not have much to offer. Whatever the West promises ideologically (democracy, secularism, human rights, economic liberalization, women’s rights), it is in a difficult position when it comes to the martyrs’ paradise promised by IS (literally so!). Let alone the fact that even more secularly inclined groups have their doubts about Western sincerity, given its position on Palestine. This ideological weakness was one of the main reasons why splinter groups trained by the US would later join IS.

Hence Sunni Islamists stick with Sunni Islamists, and Shiite Islamists with Shiites. In this identity game, the West has no card to play. The only possible thing to do is to reframe the political discourse again in a more secular direction, for instance by stressing the fact that sectarianism is just a cover for strategic power games, and thus contribute to the “secularization” of the conflict. This does not leave many choices in the Syrian theater. Except one, and that is a taboo: the PYD.

Safe haven in Rojava

In fact, it is surprising to witness the physical survival of an organization like the PKK in the Muslim Middle East where religion and sectarianism are irrelevant, women equal to men, and which has political aims one can understand and negotiate about. This is not to ignore the PKK’s more sordid aspects, like the bizarre Öcalan leadership cult, its undemocratic structure (it is rather a “people’s democracy”) and its involvement in organized crime in Europe. What remains is the fact that in Syria, the PYD is the only remaining relevant secular power, and the only one that in spite of its anti-imperialist Third-Worldly ideology is not essentially anti-Western; in Syria, that is what is needed.

Yet, in order to come to any tangible results, one has to address Turkey’s legitimate security interests first. And this means a reinvigoration of the peace process inside Turkey, and a guarantee for Ankara that all PKK guerillas be pulled out of the country, that the PYD sever its ties with Qandil and the KCK system and stress its nature as a Syrian Kurdish party. In exchange, Turkey should allow military aid to be delivered under Turkish control and with Turkish cooperation to the PYD. In the midterm, this means an emancipation of the PYD/YPG from the PKK, and a relationship of Rojava to Ankara similar to the one that exists between the KRG and Turkey. Thus Rojava would be more than Turkey’s envisioned “buffer zone”, but could become a safe haven for all Syrians on Syrian territory.

Security Sector Reform in Iraq

This brings us to Iraq, and here too, one key to the solution is in Kurdistan. At the same time, one needs to face the reality that the Iraqi army must be rebuilt and reformed, and the whole counterinsurgency strategy reviewed. In short, the country is in a situation worse than before General Petraeus initiated the Sahwa, and succeeded in isolating and crushing Al-Qaida. These years have been wasted and the situation has been aggravated, because unlike a few years ago, Shiite militias have now been strengthened and play an important role in the country’s security setup.
Here, the first priority is to remain realistic, as any reform will be long-term and there are no short-term fixes. However, Western governments are well-advised to actively pressure Baghdad for a reconciliation process with its Sunni Arab population. Only once Baghdad initiates meaningful steps in this direction can other attempts (counterinsurgency, security sector reform, etc.) be envisioned. And only then, i.e. when the Iraqi government does its “homework”, would it make sense for the US to directly or indirectly talk to Tehran about Iraq’s future.

This may take several years, while the West has to deal with the situation on the ground in the mountains. The sorry performance of the peshmerga and the disunity of the KRG security apparatus is the final proof of the necessity of security sector reform in the KRG. The first step, the delivery of modern weapons systems to KRG forces by Germany, is actually the first step in the right direction, and certainly the first step in a long-term commitment for Kurdistan. It should quickly be followed up by immediate steps under US-led international supervision. It is not so important whether one draws on NATO, the EU, or the national assets of the willing and the capable. What is important is that the following fields be addressed, including the military, with training facilities, new command structures separated from the political parties, and the unification of the peshmerga units (unified uniforms, promotion system etc.; a military reform would necessarily have a certain DDR aspect). This alone will take time, but unlike in the rest of the country, the preconditions are not all that bad in Erbil, Duhok, Suleymaniya and Khaneqin. What holds true for the military must apply to the intelligence and police services too, but it is less pressing, since other countries also have several intelligence organizations. The core is to refit the structures of intelligence sharing and evaluation. This is related to a general problem in the KRG: the weakness of impartial regional institutions vis-à-vis party structures. This problem was partially addressed by EUJUST Lex, which trained police officers and reformed the penitentiary system, but was closed down in 2013.

Although there is no going back to EUJUST Lex, the necessity of police reform is still evident in the KRG, and should be part of the commitment high ranking European politicians have promised KRG leadership on various visits over the last several months.

DO13. November 2014


Mutual mistrust

Nobody can deny that the relations between the West, especially the EU and Russia are not in good shape. Maybe some on both sides are happy about it. Some regarded the pragmatically good relations of the times after the break down of the Sovietunion always with mistrust and skepticism. And you could find them amidst the nostalgic dreamers of the Russian empire and the Sovietunion as well as amidst those, especially in some new member countries, for whom the Russian imperialism is „genetically“ founded. For some of them, Putin’s Russia was and is the same as the Sovietunion and therefore Putin was and is another Stalin.

On the other side some nostalgics of the the strong Russia – before or inside – the Sovietunion have a deep mistrust against the West with its liberal values and especially with its new freedoms for homosexuals and secular, even anti-religious tendencies. It is in line with these tendencies that the former KGB officer Putin is on very good terms with the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church. We should never forget the parallelism of the domestic and foreign policy of today’s Russian policy.

Missed chances after the Sovietunion’s breakdown

This trend has its origin in the Russian history and its use by today’s Russian ideologues and politicians. But this new trend, which is based on old and traditional structures, ideologies and policies was also supported by the „one sided“ enlargement of EU and NATO.  Nevertheless one can understand that, regarding the history of Soviet domination and policies after the World War II -and partly even before – there was a strong incentive and pressure to go foreword as quickly as possible with enlargement and integration of the the now liberated countries into the Western political and military structures.

But we have to recognize that the enlargement was planned and at least seen by Russia as a strategy according to the principle: „The winning takes it all.“ And in politics also in international politics, this is never a good and successful principles. The neglect of any strategy to involve and include – parallel to the enlargement process – Russia into a comprehensive defense structure in Europe was a grave mistake. Such a wide ranging and courageous strategy should have been considered from the beginning.

The later reaction of the so called Medvedev Plan, when he was Russian president, was typical for the Western lack of visionary ideas and conceptions towards a wider European strategy. Maybe the Medvedev plan had in mind  to exclude the US from a European security structure, but this was never tested. Anyway, the EU never seriously and in right time tried to present and offer a far reaching and innovative approach to an all – European security structure with Russia and the USA as strong partners.

Acute crisis with Ukraine’s rapprochement with EU

The diverging courses of the EU and Russia became acute with the approaching of the EU enlargement process to the borders of Russia in what was called the „Near Abroad“ of Russia. With a certain stabilization of Russia, also due to high energy prices and the build up of financial reserves, Putin became much stronger and assertive in his new presidential period. Just at this time, the negotiations about an Association and Comprehensive Trade Agreement with Ukraine and some other countries of the common neighborhood came into its final phase. Armenia withdrew from an already fixed agreement. With Georgia and Moldavia Russia had not really new and strong measures and tools of pressure at hand. Both countries already were affected by Russian sanctions and support for breakaway regions. And these countries were not as strategically and ideologically important as Ukraine.

Negotiations with Yanukowitch & Co.

In regarding and evaluating the Russian reactions to the negotiated agreement with Ukraine, it has to be underlined, that these negotiations were done principally with President Yanoukowitch and the government of Prime minister Azarov from the Party of the Region. And all other negotiators like Andriy Klyuyev were representing the same party. And in all talks – and I myself had many talks with them, often bilaterally – they underlined the willingness to sign the agreements negotiated. Only at the very end came the No from Kiev, due to the enormous pressure from Moscow. The decline of signing the agreement had the protest at the Maidan as consequence. This was less a probes against Russia as such as a protest which was directed against the interruption of the association process, which was rightly interpreted as a stop to the internal reforms of a corrupt system. This system with many deficiencies concerning the state and rule of law was an obstacle to the modernization of the country and the development of democracy.

Even then the EU tried to mediate between the Maidan movement and Yanukowitch. But the trust into the Ukrainian President, who recently switched from Yes to No and was seen as the symbol of a corrupt system was no longer existing. And the fact, that Russia is not „using“ Yanoukowitch as the legitimate president and that it had respected the recent presidential and parliamentary elections is clearly a sign for their recognition of him as a persona non grata in Ukraine. As in the years after the break up of the Sovietunion also in course of the negotiations of the association agreements the EU may have made mistakes not considering Russia’s concerns and fears. But we had respected the elected representatives of all these countries and their clear willingness to come to an agreement with the EU.

Crimea and secession

On the other hand, the support for the secessionist movements in the Eastern region and the well prepared and illegal annexation of the Crimea was violating clearly internationally law and also the Budapest agreement in which also Russia recognized the territorial integrity of the new Ukraine. This was and is a behavior the EU could not and cannot accept. One cannot compare this enforced annexation with the lengthy process of giving Kosovo – after many years of suppression – the chance for independence. Even in the case of Kosovo, the EU did not support an annexation by a foreign country, for instance by Albania, and the West especially the EU is trying to find an agreement with Serbia and to establish good relations between Kosovo and Serbia, including supporting the Serb minorities in Kosovo. It is along and internationally accorded process to a new regional order.

The choices of the EU

The EU had basically three choices how to react to the direct Russian interference:
neglect it,
go for the military option, directly or by delivering weapons to Ukrainian government
or decide on sanctions, political a or economic nature.

To neglect the annexation and the support for separatist movements would signify acceptance and would have brought enormous strain and divisions inside the EU. The military reaction would never met consensus inside the EU and even NATO and would have been disastrous. So sanctions are the least damaging reaction for the EU, the least damaging, but not without damages for the EU itself and some serious setbacks!

EU and Russian sanctions

Sanctions in an economically and politically interconnected world create always collateral damages also for the countries who decided on sanctions and apply them and not only in the countries who are the target of sanctions. In addition they go against the ideological supported principle of free trade. And they always raise the questions how and under what conditions to get out of the sanctions, what kind of exit strategy has been considered if any. This was as well the case with the sanctions concerning imports of wine, meat, fruits etc. Russia levied against some of its neighbors. And it is now the case with the different kind of political and financial sanctions decided by the EU.

And we should not forget the very differentiated gas prices as political tools, which sometimes can also be interpreted as sanctions. The same could be said about the insistence to deliver gas to Europe not via Ukraine but either directly or via countries which would have no conflicts with Russia.

What we all missed was the chance to have a joint policy concerning the Russian gas transfer and transition to Europe via Ukraine. Already at that time some of us in the European Parliament suggested a joint EU. Ukrainian and Russian ownership of the transport infrastructure. A joint pipeline ownership would create a strong common interest on the functioning of the gas transport, otherwise everybody would loose. This joint ownership could have been – and may still be – the basis for a common policy on economic policies. Ukraine’s economy and its regional position would give a clear preference for a strategy of a tripartite policy for economic development, the gas business and a security structure.

Concerning the legal basis the EU is bound by the law, which finally is interpreted by the European Court, which already in the past decided against several decisions for example taken against Iran. We have to wait, what kind of decision will be taken in the case of sanctions against Russia or Ukraine. It is known, that several Russian companies and also Ukrainian individuals have appealed to the European Court to challenge the legal basis of the sanctions.

New basis for sanction regimes

Independently from the legal questions, the EU should create a legally sound and reasonable basis and framework for sanction regimes, to which CEPS made recently some proposals. One of the vital questions is of course if sanctions will reach the goal intended with them. And what kind of goals will be chosen. The costs of the sanctions on all side should be taken into account. Also the unintended effects should be considered. And most importantly it should be clearly evaluated if sanctions are in line with the other political aims and objectives of the EU foreign and security policy.

The costs of sanctions

Concerning the costs – of the sanctions imposed on Russia and the counter-sanctions with which Russia retaliated  – a recent study done by the very reliable Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW)  shows that they may go up to one percent of Russian GDP for the period 2014 – 2016, primarily on account of increased investment risks. You had already before some capital flights and reduction by foreign investment, but sanctions seemed to have strengthened this development. One of the consequences of sanctions is that Russia is less able to meet the challenges of slow growth and increasing inflation than without. And the devaluation of the Rubel will even increase inflation!

A much smaller impact is evaluated for the EU, alas with a  very wide spread between different countries, depending on their exposure to the Russian market. The Baltic states and Finland are much more affected than for example Austria. For Lithuania and Estonia the costs would be about 0,4% and for Austria less than 0,1%.

Apart from these costs, we have to realize, that Ukraine is of course the biggest victim of the dispute. And Ukraine stays the biggest single trade partner for Russia. And Russia needs Ukraine for energy imports.

Russia’s economy and the oil price

Unfortunately to this day, no exit out of the crises is visible. The separatists still have the support, at least politically and morally by Russia and even the Minsk agreement seems not to be respected. And this means, the sanction imposed by the EU will not be lifted. Especially as some hope, that the decline of the oil and gas price will in particular hit Russia and force Putin to a change of course. Some even speculate, that the lowering of the oil price is artificially manipulated by the US and Saudi Arabia to the detriment and disadvantage of Russia and Iran, which has been officially denied.

Russia today is economically and financially not in a very good position. Some of the sanctions, especially concerning new technologies, the reduction of foreign investment from the West and the decline of income from energy exports is creating a lot of problems for Russia. But Russia still has financial reserves. And politically Putin could rally many friends around him and received strong public support. In addition many elite groups,  who had different views before, now have to support the Russian foreign policy. This is the non-economic effect. Even if it is called „collateral“ it is a major effect.

New Russian alliances?

And of course President Putin and Russia will look for other alliances in the  Eurasian neighborhood and in China. But that will be not so easy, as the Russian actions against Ukraine and other neighbors has met mistrust and not found much support. The resurgence of Russian nationalism and imperialistic tendencies is not a god basis for a close cooperation. Even some Chinese companies, for example those with subsidiaries in the USA, are not happy to work together with Russian companies, because of fears to be sanctioned by USA. On the other hand, some countries like Kazakhstan and Belorussia have got a stronger position because they are the source of western imports into Russia affected by sanctions to Russia.

Looking to the high importance of energy exports, the strong dependence on European markets and the extensive use of Dollar and Euro an alternative direction towards Asia and especially China is not easy. Nevertheless Europe must be careful and vigilant and enhance its relations with all those who could be attracted to a strong alliance with Russia against the EU. Otherwise China would be the big winner, at least politically.

From status quo to Helsinki II

We have to recognize that the overall situation in the relations between Europe and Russia will not easily improve. We will have to leave with frozen and /or lukewarm conflicts, hoping we can avoid of overheating. But this is not a stable and secure situation. We should look for ways to overcome this fragile status quo. And the minimum would be a de-escalation of words. We have to stop the war of words in order to prevent the outbreak of a real war.

What we would need in addition, are channels of dialogue which would prepare an exit strategy for both sides. With the annexation of the Crimea and the support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine and by thus violating the Minsk agreement, it will be difficult. Both sides do not want to be seen as week and compromising too early. But a Helsinki II process to give the whole Europe a new security structure would be necessary. A courageous reset in the relations between the EU and Russia will be vital for peace in Europe. And to be honest it would include a stop of NATO enlargement, should not include a stop to EU enlargement and must include a new all- European security structure. This cannot be done without the USA.

But it will be vey difficult to agree on the neutrality for Moldavia, Georgia and especially Ukraine. The leading politicians in these countries will argue, that only NATO would protect them against Russian intervention. And of course for the USA even if they are not eager to extend NATO into this conflicting zone, they never like neutrality. And if Russia would take that initiative it would be met with much resistance and skepticism. And if we can find an agreement in Europe is at least at the moment doubtful. But the initiative must come from the European Union. And Austria and several institutions like this can be helpful to keep the dialogue going. It is in anyway better than war and also better than economic and political sanctions.

One possibility to take steps towards an agreement is of course to think about a renovation and reconstruction of the OSCE. Here we have European Union countries and other European countries, Russia and the USA and others together and a sincere dialogue would all of them give the possibility to bring in their ideas. The OSCE now as a platform and in future as a reconstructed and strengthened security organization could be the way out of the present stalemate.

Yalta – Helsinki – and now?

Next year, 2015, we will remember speciall  the Yalta Conference of 1945 and the Helsinki Conference of 1975. Both were historic events in reconstructing the political and security landscape of Europe. The one helped to overcome the war started by Nazi Germany, the other confirmed national sovereignty but added the necessity to respect the different human rights as basis for European security. Commemorating these two historic events is not enough. We need a new event which would again bring a new and comprehensive security structure not based on division, confirming the Helsinki principles but finding a new consensus between EU, USA and Russia.