Russia had few friends at the “Baku Forum 2016”, a conference that attracted some 27 members of the Club de Madrid and other present and former heads of state to discuss the most pressing geopolitical issues at the moment.
Organised by the Azerbaijani government through a cultural centre called the Nizami Ganjavi International Centre, the event ostensibly brought regional leaders together to foster dialogue about issues like security, education, inequality, and energy. Clearly a source of pride for Baku, the conference was graced with the presence of Azerbaijan’s first family, as well as that of the presidents of Georgia, Albania, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Bosnia & Herzegovina and a number of former officials from countries like Italy, Norway, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Israel and Pakistan to name just a few. An overwhelming number of cameramen covered it thoroughly, sometimes outnumbering those in the audience and leaving the impression that the content of what was being discussed was slightly less important than prestige of the speakers.
But while the event was a good PR exercise for crisis-ridden Azerbaijan, which vied to prove its importance in regional affairs perhaps to distract from worries about its economy, not the same could be said about Russia. “Russia is destabilising the region,” Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili railed, with policies “alarming not only for Georgia, but for the entire international community”.
“We don’t want to live under the influence of great powers,” he went on. “Neighbouring countries should build bridges to avoid occupation, and I want to note that, as a country suffering from occupation, Georgia is actively participating in the fight against terrorism.” Margvelashvili was of course referring to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway regions that Russia supports and that have been the cause of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia.
His feelings were echoed by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, who devoted a ten-minute speech during a panel on Ukraine to “clearly define” the terms of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. “In order to solve any conflict, we must define the who and the why. And what is happening in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea is not a Ukrainian civil war, but a Russian invasion. Otherwise, how would you explain the presence of 12,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine at the moment?” he lamented.
Yushchenko continued by referencing frozen conflicts in host Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova, representatives of which filled the auditorium, to rally them in support of Ukraine. “We do not want Donbas or Luhansk to become like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, South Ossetia, or Abkhazia – a sham of internationally overseen peace negotiations, where no progress has been made for decades.”
In order to avoid turning eastern Ukraine into a frozen conflict, Yushchenko contends, all sides must be honest about their role in the conflict. “The aggressor should sit in the aggressor’s seat, the puppet government in the puppet government’s seat and the mediators in the mediators’ seats.”
Yushchenko pointed out that the Minsk Protocol, a 2014 first attempt between between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany to effect a ceasfire, did not even mention the word “Russia”. “Why? Because Russia has controlled peace negotiations all along,” he said, while countries that once “guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity, like the US, the UK and China” have been absent from negotiations.
Former Russian PM Viktor Zubkov countered that Ukraine is not fighting a war against the Russian army. “Kyiv and Donetsk need to have a dialogue, which is non-existent at the moment,” he continued, adding that there needed to be an investigation to determine whether or not there were Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
During the Q&A session, Friedbert Pfluger, former defence state secretary of Germany, jumped in to support Zubkov. “Germany has always negotiated with Russia based on an understanding of its importance in the region. Why can’t Kyiv accept Russia’s influence as a regional power and shape its relations with it to reflect this power dynamic?” he asked Yushchenko.
“I will respect Russia when it begins to respect my country and my nation,” Yushchenko retorted. “Whether Ukraine becomes a part of the EU or of Nato should be decided in Kyiv, not in Moscow.”
Latvia’s former president Vaira Vike-Freigberga stepped in to counter Zubkov’s claim that the Russian army was not present in Ukraine. “At the Munich security conference last year, [Ukrainian] President [Petro] Poroshenko came waving an armful of passports that had been seized from Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. So if it looks like a Russian, talks like a Russian, carries a Russian passport, and fights with Russian weapons, is it a Russian or a little green man from Mars?” she asked rhetorically.
“The [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] might not have decision-making mechanisms or resources to intervene in Ukraine, but it can and has asked to be allowed to monitor the Russian-Ukrainian border. With the exception of two little crossing points, it has not been allowed to do that. There are a lot of weapons and soldiers crossing that border every day. And with all due respect to the [Irish moderator of the panel], the time to be nice and understanding [of Russia] is over. It is very difficult to have a dialogue with Russia with a gun to your head,” she continued.
The take-home lessons from the Ukrainian conflict, Yushchenko contended, were that this was a geopolitical conflict that ought to be dealt using geopolitical mechanisms and restoring international agreements that had been violated, like the 1994 Treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons; that the EU had to support Ukraine through the peace negotiations and EU institutions had to be involved in them; and that Russia had to assume its role in the conflict in order for negotiations to be effective.
Finding a solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine would also address political instability in Kyiv and the lack of trust in the Poroshenko administration, Yushchenko told bne IntelliNews after the panel. “If Kyiv finds a solution for the conflict, it will automatically restore trust in the government. But for that, we need support from our allies. It is unfortunate that no EU institutions are present at the negotiations today, despite the fact that it is a heated conflict taking place on its doorsteps,” he reiterated.
One friendly face for Zubkov at the conference was Turkey. Its representative, former foreign minister Hikmet Cetin, refrained from lambasting Russia, with which Turkey has had a tiff since November after shooting down a Russian jetfighter plane, in his uncontroversial – and uninformative – speech about Turkey’s involvement in Syria during a separate panel. Not one to let friendly gestures unrecognised, Zubkov duly approached Cetin after his speech to thank him for not criticising Russia.