• Armenian Exodus From Karabakh Gathers Pace

    Breakaway region could soon have virtually no Armenians after Azerbaijan’s defeat of local separatists.

    STEPANAKERT-KHANKENDI, Azerbaijan (Reuters) | Thousands of ethnic Armenians fled the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday, queuing up for fuel and jamming the road to Armenia after their decades-old separatist state was defeated by Azerbaijan in a lightning military operation.

    The leadership of the 120,000 Armenians who call Karabakh home told Reuters on Sunday that they did not want to live as part of Azerbaijan and that they would leave for Armenia because they feared persecution and ethnic cleansing.

    In the Karabakh capital, known as Stepanakert by Armenia and Khankendi by Azerbaijan, crowds of people were loading belongings into buses and trucks as they left for Armenia.

    Refugees who reached Armenia told Reuters they believed the history of their breakaway state was finished.

    “No one is going back – that’s it,” Anna Agopyan, who reached Goris, a border town in Armenia, told Reuters. “The topic of Karabakh is over now for good I think.”

    Srbuhi, a mother of three who reached Armenia, shed tears as she held her young daughter.

    “I left everything there,” she said.

    The Armenian government, making preparations for thousands of refugees, said that as of 5 a.m. on Monday, more than 2,900 people from Nagorno-Karabakh had crossed into Armenia.

    The ethnic Armenian leadership said it would remain in place until all those who wanted to leave what they call Artsakh were able to go. Meanwhile, they urged residents to hold back from crowding the roads out, to allow the evacuation of the injured.

    “We inform you that all citizens who wish to move from Artsakh to Armenia will have that opportunity,” the leadership said. It said free fuel would be provided later on Monday for all those who wanted to leave the territory.

    People wait to board outward-bound buses in Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city on 25 September. Photo by David Ghahramanyan via Reuters.

    The Armenians of Karabakh, a territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, were forced into a ceasefire last week after a 24-hour military operation by the much-larger Azerbaijani military.

    Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev was due to host his ally Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday in the autonomous Nakhchivan exclave – a strip of Azerbaijani territory separated from the rest of the country by Armenia.

    They will attend a ceremony for a gas pipeline that will bring gas to Nakhchivan and inaugurate a newly modernized military installation in the exclave, Turkey said.

    Armenians Mourn

    The Azerbaijani victory alters the delicate balance of power in the South Caucasus region, a patchwork of ethnicities crisscrossed with oil and gas pipelines where Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Iran are jostling for influence.

    Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia had relied on a security partnership with Russia, while Azerbaijan grew close to Turkey, with which it shares linguistic and cultural ties.

    The United States has said it was deeply concerned by Azerbaijan’s military operation, which Baku launched on 19 September after what it said were terrorist attacks on its civilians by Karabakh fighters.

    The Armenians of Karabakh said Russia, the West, and Armenia itself had abandoned them, and some spoke through tears of the end of an era for the Karabakh Armenians.

    Petya Grigoryan, a 69-year-old driver, said his village in what the Armenians know as the Martakert district of Karabakh had been pummeled by Azerbaijan armed forces. There were two KAMAZ-truckloads full of civilian dead in the village, he said.

    “There was nowhere to bury them,” Grigoryan told Reuters.

    Of the 500 villagers, he said 40 had got out.

    Reuters was unable to independently verify his account but it chimed with the outline given by other ethnic Armenians fleeing Karabakh, which Azerbaijan says will be turned into a “paradise” and fully integrated.

    Azerbaijan’s Victory

    Azerbaijan’s victory reverses a humiliating defeat the country suffered as the Soviet Union broke up, which left around a seventh of its population homeless and Armenians in control of swathes of territory around Karabakh.

    Nagorno-Karabakh has over the centuries come under the sway of Persians, Turks, Russians, Ottomans, and Soviets. It was claimed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917 and in Soviet times it was designated an autonomous region within Azerbaijan.

    From 1988 to 1994 about 30,000 people were killed and more than a million people, mostly ethnic Azeris, displaced as the Armenians threw off nominal Azerbaijani control in what is now known as the First Karabakh War. Azerbaijan gained back much of its territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in a war in 2020.

    Erdogan, who backed Azerbaijan with weaponry in the 2020 conflict, said last week he supported the aims of Azerbaijan’s latest military operation but played no part in it.

    Armenia says more than 200 people were killed and 400 wounded in last week’s Azerbaijani operation. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is facing calls to resign from protesters in Yerevan, has blamed Russia for failing Armenia.

    Pashinyan has warned that some unidentified forces were seeking to stoke a coup against him and has accused Russian media of engaging in an information war against him.

    Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; writing by Lidia Kelly and Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Michael Perry, Gerry Doyle, Peter Graff.

  • Invest in Communities, Not Just Companies

    Has the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development learned anything from past mistakes?

    In 2020, nature-lovers from Kakanj, in central Bosnia and Herzegovina, started to notice tree-cutting in the mountains behind the town, together with damage to the forest’s biodiversity and the presence of heavy machinery. Local activists soon discovered that Adriatic Metals PLC, a UK-registered company, planned to open a zinc, lead, and barytes mine in the area, and that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) had invested almost 7 million euros to buy shares in the company and further the exploration of the mine.

    All that activity was a surprise, local residents say, because they had not been consulted on the plans for the mine, despite the EBRD’s requirement that its clients engage with communities in projects where the bank invests. This example and another prominent mining investment in Armenia cast serious doubt on the bank’s willingness to live up to such commitments and raise questions as to whether it will change its approach in its mining strategy, which is under revision and will shape millions of euros in investment in the EBRD’s countries of operation in the coming years.

    Biodiversity Impact

    The bank and Adriatic Metals have touted the Bosnian mine project as a rare investment into the country’s antiquated mining sector, and an opportunity to transfer best practices from abroad to local industry. So far, activist groups say, the investors have not lived up to such promises. They contacted CEE Bankwatch Network, my organization, and in November 2022 we visited Kakanj.

    During our trip, it immediately became clear that an access road to the mine had been built in a different location to the one noted in the environmental studies for the project published by the EBRD. And it had been done carelessly. It was built on a preexisting forest path, considerably widened by dug-out stone material. This also narrowed the stream bed running alongside, which local people feared would increase flood and landslide risks.

    The fact that the access road was not mentioned in the environmental studies also means that the local community was not consulted about it – a potential breach of the Aarhus Convention. The leading international agreement on environmental democracy, the convention, among other things, protects every person’s right to live in a healthy environment, including the public’s right to receive environmental information held by public authorities.

    The environmental studies show that the mine and its access roads will damage critical habitats, a term embracing important habitats for endangered, critically endangered, endemic, or geographically restricted species. The bank’s Environmental and Social Policy is meant to prohibit work in such habitats unless very stringent conditions are met.

    But in this case, although adjustments were made to avoid some critical habitats such as bear dens, the project’s environmental studies dismissed the remaining impact as not that significant after all, instead of seriously assessing whether the project should be further changed or stopped.

    In response to complaints, the Federal Ministry for the Environment and Tourism sent environmental inspectors to the scene and in mid-July, announced that several violations had been found. The landfill at the site was not lined, no concrete channels were built at the edges, no sedimentation tank was built, and the landfill is not fenced.


    The EBRD stopped financing work on the Amulsar mine in the face of mounting local opposition.

    If all of these issues weren’t enough, local people in Kakanj have long complained about a complete lack of public consultation about the mine in their town, saying any outreach took place only in the nearby, much smaller town of Vares – another breach of the Aarhus Convention and EBRD’s policy requirements for stakeholder engagement.

    In August 2022 a group of local residents filed a complaint to the EBRD’s internal grievances mechanism, established by the bank to check potential breaches of its policies. And in June 2023 a citizen group organized a protest against the mine. Civil society organizations throughout the country added their voices, jointly sending an open letter to the UK, U.S., and Norwegian embassies, expressing regrets at their support for the mine development, and lack of respect for the community’s concerns.

    Amulsar Gold Mine

    The EBRD’s track record elsewhere for including local communities during the consultation process is not encouraging. In 2015, the company Lydian International Limited completed exploration of the Amulsar gold deposit in southeast Armenia, near the health resort of Jermuk, and secured financing to start mine development. The EBRD invested a total of 11 million euros in equity in the company between 2009 and 2017. Construction was halted in June 2018 after local people opposed to the project blocked the access roads to the mine.

    Among their complaints was the negative impact on tourism and local livelihoods, and on the health of the local population (revealed in a 2018 study). In addition, local groups raised concerns about the destruction of endangered species habitats, the failure to establish a promised, new national park to offset biodiversity loss, and the pollution of the Arpa and Vorotan rivers, and potentially Lake Sevan. Joined by Armenian and international civil society groups, including CEE Bankwatch Network, they also filed a complaint to the EBRD, charging that the planning and construction of the gold mine had excluded public opinion during consultations on the project, damaged the town’s tourism potential and reputation as a spa destination, and polluted the local environment and precious water resources in this pristine area.

    Lydian did not stand still, initiating dozens of SLAPP lawsuits against journalists and activists, with a clear intent to suppress civil society and freedom of speech. In spite of legal threats by the company, the blockade continued until the eruption of the military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of 2020. As a result of all the controversies, Lydian became insolvent and was restructured, resulting in the EBRD exiting the project the same year.

    [In February, the Armenian government reached a deal with the mine’s operating license holder, Lydian Armenia, allowing work on the mine to restart– Transitions note.]

    As the EBRD reviews its mining strategy, these projects present valuable lessons with a great potential to shape future policies. One of the most important is the advisability of negotiating and maintaining a so-called social license.

    However, the bank continues to tolerate the same old exclusionary practices, avoiding meaningful consultations with communities affected by mining projects.

    It’s time to hold inclusive discussions and listen to the feedback of those potentially affected by EBRD investments, instead of blindly rushing forward and enabling environmental destruction through the bank’s mining projects.

    Martina Vranic is a Croatian lawyer, currently working as the human rights and gender policy coordinator for the CEE Bankwatch Network, which monitors projects financed by multilateral development banks and other public finance institutions.

  • What Unites and What Divides Poland?

    Much divides Polish society, yet with parliamentary elections coming up in October, the country remains united in its attitude toward sovereignty. From EUROPP.

    When writing about Poland, commentators abroad usually focus on what divides the country politically. Liberal democrats fight populists, pro-Europeans fight nationalists and so on. But while such a focus aptly captures the current political scene in Poland, this approach is not fully comprehensive. Thus, in this article, I will focus instead on what is common to the two sides of the conflict – namely a nervous attitude toward sovereignty.

    In a survey conducted after Russia invaded Ukraine, 84 percent of Polish respondents said they were afraid of the war spilling into Poland. “I think about it every day,” one man living on the Polish-Russian border told the press. “They could come any time. Kill us in our beds.”

    More than a year has passed. Still, no word is more important in Poland today than “sovereignty.” Commonly understood as “security,” the term has become one of the most essential within the repertoire of Polish politicians. A CBOS public opinion survey, conducted in June 2023, shows that 73 percent of Poles believe the war in Ukraine threatens the security of their country.

    In their own way, Poles are used to the war across the eastern border. On a daily basis, they are preoccupied with the European problem of high inflation, as well as the more local collapse of the health service. However, the threat to the state from Russia’s invasion invariably remains “in the back of their minds.” The issue of sovereignty therefore is crucial to the political agenda and looms ever larger in the election campaign.

    Why Is Sovereignty so Important for Poles?

    The need for industrial sovereignty, sanitary sovereignty, and migration sovereignty, among others, is now being discussed all over the world. Central and Eastern European states, including Poland, however, fear the loss of sovereignty in the most classic sense.

    They are afraid of the state being completely wiped off the map or of a puppet state being established. For states such as Poland and Lithuania, these situations are not theoretical. On the contrary, regaining and losing an independent state are experiences of the last 300 years which have become enshrined within the collective identity. Each time, the collapse of the state has been associated with an outbreak of violence, usually war, the collapse of old forms of public life, emigration, confiscation of property, imprisonment, and terror.

    Importantly, these collective fears based on real history are transmitted in the public and private spheres. They provide the framework through which present policies are assessed and the future is projected. The war in Ukraine is reviving trauma; however, in truth, the post-traumatic attitude around sovereignty has shaped domestic and foreign policy since independence in 1989.

    For example, the two crucial geopolitical decisions Central and Eastern European states have made – joining NATO and the EU – were motivated not only by a desire to improve material well-being but also and overwhelmingly by a desire to escape historical traps. For Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn, leaving Moscow’s sphere of influence is significant in the context of not decades, but centuries.

    This brings us back to current politics. At the moment, we in Poland have two dominant political parties. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party (comprising anti-liberal national populists) is in power. Civic Platform (pro- European liberal democrats) is in opposition. Aleks Szczerbiak provides an excellent, detailed description of the political scene in a recent blog.

    The attitude toward sovereignty has become an ultimate criterion for judging a political opponent, or even for excluding him or her from politics as a “traitor.” The national populist government warns against losing sovereignty to the East, but also to the West. Rhetorically, Kaczynski’s party is thus able to equate Brussels or Berlin with Moscow – in a way that is astonishing to Western commentators, but convincing to its own electorate.

    On the other hand, Donald Tusk’s main opposition party sees the threat to sovereignty mainly from the East. Civic Platform accuses Kaczynski’s party of ignorantly demonizing the West to the point of actually considering the country’s “Polexit” from the West. Implicitly, this means that Poland – oriented toward maximizing sovereignty in the classical sense – will find itself once again in a gray zone between East and West.

    The leader of Poland’s Civic Platform opposition party, Donald Tusk, speaks with journalists aboard a bus heading to a campaign appearance on 20 September. Photo by Kacper Pempel via Reuters.

    In practice, this would mean a return to Russia’s sphere of influence, for the “third way” between East and West means only the scenarios familiar to Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. This way of expressing post-traumatic sovereignty, as we can see, can take on governmental and oppositional, anti-EU and pro-EU faces.

    Is There Life Beyond Polarization?

    Two things can be said in conclusion. Although “post-traumatic sovereignty” may seem a rather abstract concept, for Eastern Europeans it is as real an experience as the current war in Ukraine.

    First, it means an even bigger army. Among the first consequences for the future, it is worth noting that expenditure on armaments will increase regardless of whether Kaczynski’s party or Tusk’s party governs. This is because concerns about the security of the state are shared by citizens across party affiliations and “post- traumatic sovereignty” continually conjures up worst-case scenarios.

    Currently, the sums projected for military spending are astronomical and expected to reach 4% of GDP. As The Economist wryly commented in a recent article, “no country in Europe, not even the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which all promise to up their military spending to 3% of GDP, has felt more threatened by Mr. Putin.”

    Second, it means orientation toward the United States. Central and Eastern European countries are looking at the possibility of real support in the event of a threat of aggression. They recurrently equate NATO and the United States. In this sense, theirs are no different from the policies of Finland and Sweden, which immediately abandoned neutrality after the outbreak of full-scale war in Ukraine.

    But for countries like Poland, maintaining a certain distance from Germany and France as the joint engine of the European Union is equally important. Economic issues within the EU are important, but as can be seen from the first reactions of Poles to the war (such as willingness to make sacrifices), they do not outweigh the basic problem of preserving sovereignty.

    For without national sovereignty, there can be no economic success. We see this demonstrated not only by the tragic fate of Ukraine, but also by the last 30 years of prosperity associated with the abandonment of the centrally-controlled economy as imposed by Moscow.

    Jaroslaw Kuisz is a writer and political analyst and the editor-in-chief of Kultura Liberalna. A senior fellow at the Zentrum Liberale Moderne in Berlin and a senior researcher attached to the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Present at the CNRS in Paris, he is the author of a new book, The New Politics of Poland.

    This article originally appeared on the website of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, a publication of the London School of Economics. Sign up to the EUROPP newsletter here. This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP or the London School of Economics.

  • Armenian Separatists Surrender as Azerbaijan Takes Full Control in Karabakh

    Reports say more than 100 dead as Baku retakes remaining territory lost to Armenian forces after the Soviet collapse. From Reuters.

    YEREVAN (Reuters) | Azerbaijan said on Wednesday it had halted military action in its breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenian separatist forces there surrendered and agreed to a ceasefire whose terms signaled the area would return to Baku’s control.

    Under the agreement, confirmed by both sides and effective from 1 pm (0900 GMT) on Wednesday, separatist forces will disband and disarm and talks on the future of the region and the ethnic Armenians who live there will start on Thursday.

    Karabakh, a mountainous area in the volatile wider South Caucasus region, is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, but part of it has been run by separatist Armenian authorities who say the area is their ancestral homeland.

    Fearful of what the future might hold, crowds of ethnic Armenians made their way to the airport in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh which is known as Khankendi by Azerbaijan. Others took shelter with Russian peacekeepers.

    Azerbaijan, which sent troops backed by artillery strikes into Karabakh on Tuesday in an attempt to bring the breakaway region to heel, has said it planned to integrate the area’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians and that their rights would be protected under the constitution.

    But some Armenians – given the region has been at the center of two wars since the 1991 Soviet fall – are skeptical and neighboring Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of trying to ethnically cleanse the territory, something Baku denies.

    “They are basically saying to us that we need to leave, not stay here, or accept that this is a part of Azerbaijan – this is basically a typical ethnical cleansing operation,” Ruben Vardanyan, a former top official in Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian administration, told Reuters.

    He said that close to 100 people had been killed and hundreds more injured in the fighting. Reuters could not verify that.

    Residential buildings and cars were damaged in the military operation by Azerbaijani armed forces in the city of Stepanakert on 19 September. Photo by Siranush Sargsyan/PAN Photo via Reuters.

    Armenian Prime Minister Under Pressure

    The outcome, a military victory for Turkey-backed Azerbaijan, whose forces far outnumbered the separatists, could cause political turmoil in Armenia, where some political forces are angry that Yerevan was unable to do more to protect the Karabakh Armenians.

    Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was already facing calls on Wednesday from some opponents to resign.

    Some Armenians are also furious that Russia, which has peacekeepers on the ground and helped broker an earlier ceasefire deal in 2020 following a 44-day war, was unable to stop Azerbaijan.

    The Kremlin rejected that criticism on Wednesday and President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying that Russian peacekeepers would protect Karabakh’s civilian population.

    Separatists running the self-styled “Republic of Artsakh” said they had been forced to agree to Azerbaijan’s terms – relayed by Russian peacekeepers – after Baku’s army broke through their lines and seized a number of strategic locations while the world did nothing.

    “The authorities of the Republic of Artsakh accept the proposal from the command of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to cease fire,” they said in a statement.

    Azerbaijan had said it could no longer tolerate a situation it regarded as a threat to its security and territorial sovereignty.

    Handover of Weapons

    The formal surrender of separatist fighters and the handover of their weapons and hardware was expected later on Wednesday.

    Armenia, which says it has no military forces in Karabakh despite Azerbaijani assertions, did not intervene militarily.

    It was unclear how many ethnic Armenians would opt to stay in Karabakh.

    Russia’s Defense Ministry, which has thousands of peacekeepers on the ground, broadcast footage of Karabakh Armenians being given temporary shelter at a makeshift Russian military facility.

    Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Paruyr Hovhannissyan told Reuters that Karabakh Armenians could “in an ideal world” live under Azerbaijani rule but that historical experience made it hard to imagine.

    Azerbaijan’s military operation had faced sharp criticism from the United States and some European countries.

    They said the Karabakh problem should have been solved through talks and that Baku’s actions were worsening an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground following a nine-month blockade of the area by Azerbaijan.

    Writing by Andrew Osborn in London and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow.

  • Latvia Opens the Doors to Women in the Military

    Women volunteers joined the first intake of soldiers since Latvia reinstated compulsory conscription, and their role is set to grow. From CEPA.

    In the end, Latvia decided on mandatory military service for men alone, but in the first draft since the law took effect in July, 11 of the initial 488 voluntary applicants were women (subsequent drafts will be compulsory for men, although women can apply voluntarily.) The number might seem modest at first glance but on closer inspection, the country is doing surprisingly well in attracting female recruits. Better than its Baltic neighbors, and most other NATO member states, in fact.

    Women are comparatively well represented in the Latvian National Armed Forces (LNAF). The female share of the Latvian army has held stable at above 15% for the past decade. As of now, women make up 16.5% of the army’s total strength of 6,700 troops. Latvia has an ambitious 2026 goal that aims to raise that figure to 25%. In the National Guard, a voluntary branch of the LNAF numbering about 10,000 troops, women accounted for an even more impressive 20% share last year.

    In NATO, the proportion of women service members rose from 10.5% in 2013 to 13% in 2020. Such statistics have shown Latvia at the forefront of the alliance for some years, and it has uninterruptedly ranked within NATO’s top 10 since joining the alliance. In 2020, the country had greater female representation than 19 NATO members, including Norway, Spain, Germany, and the UK. Latvia shared seventh place with Canada.

    Latvia is also the Baltic leader in this regard, ahead of Lithuania, with 12.2%, and even further ahead of Estonia, with 9% women in the military.

    Statistically, women have better career prospects in the Latvian military than the NATO average, although hurdles remain. They still lag behind their male peers in military career development, and non-combat duties are predominantly designated to women. But things have been changing. 

    Reestablished in 1994 following the restoration of Latvia’s independence, the LNAF is a young institution. The country has had only three decades to rebuild its state defense system from scratch, and to train today’s officers.

    In 2020, Latvia appointed its first woman colonel, Ilze Zilde. After 26 years in the armed forces, she is a senior military officer and is currently seconded to the United States as Latvia’s military attache.

    Zilde’s military path was more a choice than a vocation at first. The 1990s were exhausting for Latvians, much as for other post-Soviet peoples. The rapid transition from a command to a market economy led to skyrocketing inflation and unemployment. Joining the fledgling armed forces was a rational choice, providing secure employment and a stable income.

    She has never regretted joining up and now sees a considerable increase in serving women and an improved attitude among male colleagues.

    There are now 11 female lieutenant colonels (from six in 2019) who occupy roles including the commanders of the airspace surveillance squadron and the National Armed Forces Joint Headquarters Battalion. Other new roles are opening up, with women now serving in the Honor Guard, which carries out ceremonial duties.

    The fourth decade of the LNAF is likely to see an accelerating pace of advancement, including the acceptance of women into more combat roles. Catching up with Latvia’s Scandinavian neighbors can provide additional motivation – Denmark recently assigned a female major general to command NATO’s Multinational Division North.

    This is not just about representation; there are solid reasons to encourage women into the military sphere, including broadening the talent pool. Warfare has changed; armed forces do not need to be so reliant on physical might, and indeed such differences are wholly irrelevant when it comes to skills like drone operations and cyber-warfare as well as traditional roles like aviation and command. Women can provide new capacities to fill personnel shortages – a pressing issue in the Latvian and other European armies.

    Evija Djatkovica is the deputy director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies in Riga. She is a researcher and doctoral student at Riga Stradins University, and recently conducted field research in the war-affected areas of Ukraine.

    This article was originally published in Europe’s Edge, CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. Reprinted with permission.

  • Slovakia’s Janus-Faced Electorate

    Twenty-five years after defeating Meciar, Slovaks face a similar West vs. East choice.

    At the end of this month, Slovaks will vote in Central Europe’s most consequential election in a year and a half. At stake: will the new government strengthen Europe or strengthen Russia?

    Unlike when Hungarians re-elected Viktor Orban in April 2022, Slovaks will almost certainly elevate to power the fourth different prime minister in less than four years. Turbulence has dominated the last half decade since massive street protests forced Robert Fico to resign after governing for 10 of the previous 12 years. That has led the country into a power vacuum.

    The double murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in 2018 highlighted high-level corruption and shocked citizens into action. Their demands for change translated into unexpected electoral victories for two previously untested outsiders. In 2019, Zuzana Caputova was elected the country’s youngest and first female president. In 2020, Igor Matovic’s Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) party rode the wave of discontent to a surprise win in the parliamentary election. But whereas polls show Caputova consistently remaining one of the most trusted politicians in the country, Matovic resigned after barely a year in a government crisis triggered by the purchase of Russian COVID vaccines.

    Two government reshuffles later, Caputova announced in June that she will not seek a second term next year. Meanwhile, the caretaker cabinet of Ludovit Odor, which the president appointed in May after yet another government collapsed, has no electoral mandate.

    Views on Ukraine War Could Decide the Election

    It is thus easy to understand why Slovaks are weary of politics and politicians. The 25 parties on the ballot for the 30 September parliamentary election include no less than five parties led by former prime ministers.

    Among many vital questions facing Slovaks is whether the new government will be a continuation of politics driven by personalities or a shift toward politics driven by values.

    The most prominent divide over values hinges on the war in neighboring Ukraine. The governments of Odor and his predecessor Eduard Heger were steadfast in their support of Ukraine, as has been Caputova, whose responsibilities include that of commander in chief of the armed forces. But Fico and others currently in opposition have been vocally questioning why Slovakia should be spending precious euros on defending another country, or on public benefits for the approximately 100,000 Ukrainian refugees currently in Slovakia.

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Slovakia in July at the invitation of President Zuzana Caputova. Slovakia’s popular leader recently announced she will not seek reelection in 2024. Photo via Slovak presidency.

    The precariousness of this election presents dangers for Europe. The country is wedged between Poland and Hungary, both of which have caused political headaches for European Union and NATO leaders in recent months and years. In June, the European Court of Justice sided with the European Commission, which had sued Poland for breaching EU law with sweeping changes that endangered the independence of judges. And Hungary’s parliament has dragged its feet in approving Sweden’s accession to NATO, apparently over criticism from Swedish politicians over Hungary’s democratic backsliding.

    In contrast, until now Slovakia has been a reliable bastion for European unity on topics ranging from Ukraine to the euro. (Unlike its four EU neighbors Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Austria, Slovakia is a member of both NATO and the eurozone.)

    But the current election campaign shows that Bratislava’s faithful pro-EU and pro-Ukraine advocacy cannot be taken for granted. On the contrary, Slovakia has been among the EU states most vulnerable to Russian propaganda and disinformation. And Republika, a far-right extremist party that calls for Slovakia’s withdrawal from NATO, is currently polling in fourth place with 8 percent support. If Fico’s party, which leads the polls, wins, it will likely seek to form a coalition with Republika. The Kremlin would like nothing more.

    Will Young Voters Lead the Way?

    Aiming to prevent such a scenario are several pro-EU, pro-NATO, pro-Ukraine parties, including Progressive Slovakia, currently polling in second place, and several smaller parties hovering around the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

    But these parties’ most important offer – which undecided young Slovaks tell us they are seeking – is a set of values that will remain stable, regardless of who happens to be the leader at any given time.

    Young Slovaks are very concerned about their future. In recent years, many have already chosen to study or work abroad. Approximately 17 percent of Slovak university students are enrolled in universities outside the country. After only tiny Luxembourg, this is the second highest rate among OECD countries, where the average is 2 percent. Now, many more young Slovaks are considering leaving their country if the election turns their government in a euroskeptic direction.

    These young professionals and students do not pine for a charismatic populist leader. Rather, they want politicians and parties to finally develop a mature political culture, where thoughtful leaders debate how to mitigate climate change, enhance energy security, responsibly address migration, and reduce the risks of another pandemic.

    Slovaks face a choice similar to that they made 25 years ago this month, when Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, a populist Russophile, was defeated by a coalition of parties that had campaigned on unambiguous European and transatlantic integration. Thanks to the results of that election, Slovakia quickly got back on track and was admitted to both the EU and NATO within six years.

    Will Slovak voters steer their country towards Europe again? The results are not likely to be so decisive as to leave the danger at the door. More likely, citizens will be tested again in the first half of 2024, when they will vote in both presidential and European elections. If young and internationally minded Slovaks turn out to vote each time, they can determine the fate not only of Slovakia, but also of Europe.

    Lucia Klestincova and Rick Zednik are co-presidents of Volt Slovensko, the Slovak national chapter of the pan-European political party Volt Europa.

  • In Russia, It’s the State Against the Internet

    The authorities’ advancing block of the internet paves a grim future, according to one of Putin’s critics. From Global Voices.

    In an interview for the RussiaPost and Global Voices, Mikhail Klimarev – director of the nonprofit organization the Internet Protection Society and founder and host of the Telegram channel “Za Telecom” – talks about how the Russian state blocks the Internet, how Russian software developers and Chinese telecom tech giant Huawei are involved, and what might happen to Google in Russia.

    Global Voices (GV): How would you describe what is going on with the Internet in Russia right now?

    Mikhail Klimarev (MK): It’s simple and straightforward: What the Russian authorities are now trying to do with the Internet is censorship. 

    The first Internet block in Russia was in 2012, more than a decade ago, when telecom operators were obliged to block, at their own expense, certain internet resources that appeared in a Roskomnadzor register. It worked pretty poorly. 

    Then, in 2017, the Russian company MFI-Soft, from Nizhny Novgorod, introduced the Revizor system, which monitors the resources telecom operators access. Pretending to be internet subscribers, officials would request resources in Roskomnadzor’s register of prohibited materials. If found available, the telecom operator was issued a fine. But when Telegram was blocked in 2018, this system proved completely ineffective. 

    Finally, in the winter of 2020, following an unsuccessful year-and-a-half block of Telegram, Russian authorities began to construct what is called a “sovereign Runet.” 

    GV: What do the Russian authorities mean when they talk about a “sovereign Runet,” and how are they trying to build it?

    MK: No one really understands what a “sovereign Runet” is. According to Russian authorities, the system will destroy all the “bad guys” and reward all of “our guys” on the internet. There is a device called the Technical Means for Countering Threats (TSPU), which looks at every data packet passing through a telecom operator’s network. TSPU then decides what to block and what to approve. I’m oversimplifying so as not to get too technical. 

    GV: Are there any keywords for which resources or pages are blocked?

    MK: No. It is impossible to block keywords in the modern Runet, simply because now approximately 97 percent of all internet traffic is encrypted. Blocking keywords can only be done on individual platforms, like VK and Odnoklassniki. 

    GV: Then what is the difference between Russian and Chinese censorship?

    MK: The main difference between the Chinese internet and the Russian internet is its architectural structure. Nothing inside China is blocked; authorities simply control internet companies. With the monopoly on China’s internet market, this is quite easy. China has something like three large telecom operators. There are 3,500 in Russia. 

    This size difference is important. 

    All cables from the three telecom operators in China arrive at one point: data centers, which are situated between the Chinese internet – ChinaNet – and the world wide web. Located in 10 different cities around China, these data centers use really complex and interesting solutions and algorithms to filter incoming data. This is known as The Great Firewall

    Russia’s internet functions similarly, but on a smaller scale. Creating and maintaining such a device is expensive, so only approximately 350 operators function like China’s, rather than all 3,500. 

    GV: Who delivered these solutions in Russia, and do they continue to update them? Are these companies under sanctions? What happens if they stop updating them? Can this censorship system continue to work?

    MK: There are a couple of players. 

    Roskomnadzor has a center for monitoring and managing the public communication network. 

    The Data: Processing and Automation Center, created exclusively for this project, builds nodes for Russia. Every telecom operator needs its own simplified interface, so this outfit supplies equipment, as well as designs, configures, and installs the nodes. The complex itself consists of servers, which should be subjected to various sanctions, up to and including destruction. But it is not known who owns what. 

    The software is developed by the Russian company RDP, recently acquired by Rostelecom. Originally, it was itself a telecom operator and made equipment for telecom operators, under a different name. RDP began to produce routers to replace expensive imported equipment. After the company earned renown within the blocking market, Rostelecom purchased it. 

    TSPU provides telecommunications equipment, made in China, and switches, which are manufactured by Eltex from Novosibirsk. Naturally, equipment for the switches also comes from different suppliers from China and Taiwan – motherboards, power supplies, network modules, interfaces. 

    And the servers are supplied by Huawei.

    GV: So, the blocks will work as long as Huawei supplies and maintains the servers, the Russian company updates the software, and China and Taiwan supply components for the rest of the equipment?

    MK: Yes. Technically, servers of this class are under sanctions. But China supplies them anyway, through Huawei directly. This is open information. In 2022, they delivered about $100 million worth of servers for the purpose of blocking the internet in Russia.

    GV: How exactly do they block certain resources so that they are inaccessible to Russian users?

    MK: There are several ways. One, by prohibiting access to a specific IP address. Or by prohibiting access to specific domain names. These blocking methods have existed in Russia for a long time and are simple. 

    A more complex way to block resources is through the so-called “slow-down.” In 2021, for example, Russia attempted to slow down Twitter [now known as X]. 

    In August, Russia introduced a new way of blocking – by protocol. There have been previous attempts to block by protocol, like disrupting Smart Voting in September 2021, but we’re seeing it more and more now. 

    GV: To bypass that kind of block, new VPN protocols must constantly appear?

    MK: Yes. Look at the resources that state organizations have: In 2022 alone, they spent 20 billion rubles, about $300 million, on upgrading the equipment for these TSPUs. 

    This information became available thanks to a leak from Roskomnadzor’s Main Radio Frequency Center. [In November 2022, the Belarusian group Cyberpartisans announced that it had managed to infiltrate the internal network of the center and download documents and correspondence of employees, the total amount of data exceeding two terabytes.]

    GV: Should we expect the authorities to be more active in blocking VPNs?

    MK: Actually, it is impossible to just block the “undesirable.” One must decide which protocols are necessary and which are “undesirable.” How can someone differentiate one packet on the internet as “good” and another as “bad”? It’s impossible. So, protocol-based blocking – it’s a rotten method. I did not think that Russia would resort to it, because it affects their own economy very much.

    VPNs, in fact, were not invented to bypass blocking – they were invented to provide some services on the internet, like combining remote offices, creating secure data transfer, and managing large networks. Also, for the function of ATMs and surveillance cameras. Blocking VPNs makes it all stop working.

    GV: But the authorities have proven ready for this? 

    MK: They’ve prepared seriously, and for several years. But so far, we haven’t seen big complaints about the fact that certain services have stopped working in Russia. Perhaps it is the relevant organizations and operators who decide not to block internal VPN services that work for business. Or maybe it is some cunning algorithm that detects only internal VPNs and does not touch them. 

    We were not ready for this, to be honest. We did not expect that they could, but they did it. 

    In any case, even if only external VPNs are blocked, foreign economic relations will become complicated. It is a double-edged sword: Blocking a VPN securely enough means blocking your own economy as well.

    GV: Do you think YouTube will be blocked? If so, when? And how will Google react? 

    MK: In 2013, Google was unavailable in the entire region of Crimea. Google stopped accepting payments. The search engine worked, but the use of other Google services was expressly prohibited. However – crucially – Google did not block updates to Android operating systems. 

    YouTube actually might not get blocked; it will just be very difficult to use. Russia could just turn off the equipment. With almost every telecom operator, Google has its own equipment, known as the Google Global Cache (GGC). When someone requests a video from a given telecom operator, it is immediately loaded onto the GGC for that telecom operator. So, the next time someone requests that same video in that region, it is distributed locally, rather than from the Google servers in California. This saves a huge amount of international traffic and loads videos much faster – think about the most popular YouTube videos, watched by hundreds or thousands or millions of people. 

    If this equipment is turned off, it will be like 10 years ago, when you pressed the button, sat for five minutes, and waited for it to load the cache, before you could finally watch the video. 

    GV: Do the 3,500 telecom operators in Russia have this equipment?

    MK: Fewer than that, but a decent number. More than 2,000 operators.

    GV: So Roskomnadzor can come and turn it off, even if this equipment belongs to Google?

    Yes. They can put out some kind of resolution, recognize Google as an extremist organization, and then shut off the equipment.

    GV: Can Google disconnect Russian users from the Android operating system?

    MK: That has never happened before. On the one hand, Google’s attitude toward the situation is known – it made a statement in support of Ukraine almost immediately after the Russian invasion. But on the other hand, turning off Androids means that at least millions of people in Russia will be left without phones. 

    GV: Is it technically possible to make a service like Rostelecom wanted to do – showing only certain YouTube videos, while blocking others?

    MK: There are such services, and they even have open-source code. But if it creates a lot of traffic, Google will notice it and block it, of course, because it’s theft. I’m amazed that Rostelecom approved this idea. It is theft in the literal sense of the word. You take someone else’s content, make your own packaging for it, and resell it to your users. I myself am a former employee of Uralsvyazinform – not Rostelecom, but Uralsvyazinform. I remember all these meetings. Is someone at Rostelecom saying: “let’s just steal it?”

    GV: How is censorship in Russia different from North Korea?

    MK: In North Korea, there is only a closed internet. They have about 1,000 domain names registered in total for the entire country. So, it is about 1,000 sites, but much fewer actually work. About 100 sites in total. Just imagine – you have only 100 sites. 

    GV: And VPN does not work for North Korea?

    MK: It does not, because they don’t have any physical cables with the outside world.

    GV: How do you convey information to people about bypassing censorship, like new VPNs that you or someone else is developing specifically for Russia?

    MK: I think a big educational program is needed with the purpose of conveying this technological knowledge to Russians. 

    For example, we have the project Generator, where an advanced user can access a special server that is specially created for them. Then they can go out, give access to their friends. I think that there should be a lot of such services. 

    GV: And the global platforms, Meta, Twitter, which are blocked in Russia, do they help with this somehow or not?

    MK: We have no contact with Twitter. Google communicates with us a little, but I cannot say it is on an official level.

    We are talking to Meta, but they were recognized as extremists, and they are now afraid to do anything. What if Russia decided to throw anyone with relations to Facebook or Instagram in jail? Meta wouldn’t want to take that responsibility. 

    GV: Speaking of Russian platforms, what do you think of the latest statements by Yandex founder Arkady Volozh?

    MK: I believe that he is in a comfortable position. He was silent for a long time at first. Then he spoke out against the war, and now he is asking for “his money back.” History will judge. 

    I spoke with Arkady several times. On the one hand, he seems incredibly talented. But I cannot stand it when they say: “we only built [the concentration camp], we did not throw people in there.” I think he got what he deserved.

    Volozh, of course, should be exempted from sanctions, but not immediately – like how he waited to express his protest [against the war]. He should do something first. If he starts doing something, then I will believe that sanctions should be lifted from him.

    GV: What could be the worst internet blocking scenario?

    MK: The worst thing that can happen is that they turn off the internet completely. This would indicate that the ruling elites are going after each other. We’ve seen this happen in other countries – in 2016, this happened in Kinshasa, Congo.

    Daria Dergacheva is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Media and Communication Research (ZeMKI) at the University of Bremen, Germany. She has also worked for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and Open Russia. This article originally appeared on Global Voices. Reprinted under a Creative Commons license.

  • The World’s Therapists Are Talking to Ukraine

    To prevent a mental health crisis, a multinational effort is bringing therapy to the war-torn country from thousands of miles away. From Reasons to be Cheerful.

    This is part one of a two-part story from Reasons to be Cheerful about how telehealth is bringing therapy to places where it is often difficult to access. Read part two: For Older Rural Folks, Telehealth Bridges the Mental Health Gap

    After Russian armed forces moved on Kyiv in February 2022, Ivan (not his real name) decided that, despite the risks, he would fight to defend his city and his country. 

    He joined one of the volunteer groups working alongside Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, trading gunfire with Russian forces using weapons supplied and distributed by the Ukrainian government. An ordinary civilian turned unlikely soldier, he never thought he would find himself on the front lines of what would become known as the Battle for Kyiv.

    After an offensive lasting almost five weeks, Russian troops withdrew in the face of Ukrainian defiance. But for Ivan, a more personal battle was just beginning. His history of panic attacks and anxiety, which predated the war, came surging back. He began to experience trouble breathing if he ventured too far from his home near the Dnipro River, which passes through three countries and had become a key front line in the war against Russia.

    That’s when he sought out TeleHelp Ukraine, a virtual health service co-founded by Stanford University medical student Solomiia Savchuk in April 2022. Over the course of around 12 virtual mental health support sessions – in which Ukrainian native Savchuk acted as an interpreter – Ivan was able to regain the ability to drive without suffering a panic attack. He learned breath and visualization exercises, and regularly drew graphs to numerically express how he was feeling on a particular day. As an avid cyclist, Ivan felt most comfortable on a bike and would take cycling trips that allowed him to venture slightly further from the city and river each time, until he felt confident enough to get back behind the wheel of his car and drive longer distances. 

    Eventually, Ivan was able to drive far enough to visit his family, in time to meet his newborn grandson. 

    Based in Los Angeles, Savchuk co-founded TeleHelp Ukraine to provide virtual health services to people in her home country, where, in many areas, the conflict with Russia has destabilized public health systems. Working with members of Stanford’s Ukrainian Students Association, she and her peers began recruiting providers, interpreters, and volunteers across the globe, creating a network that has grown into a free, worldwide, virtual health service that any Ukrainian with an internet-connected device can access. Nearly 16 months on, TeleHelp Ukraine has facilitated over 1,400 virtual consultations, from cardiology to neurology to reproductive health, in sessions often conducted by providers thousands of miles away. 

    Over 800 of those consultations have been specifically for mental health issues, an often invisible repercussion of the conflict. It is estimated that one in four Ukrainians – some 10 million people – may suffer from mental health issues because of the ongoing crisis, with more than 60 percent of Ukrainian soldiers said to be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The public health implications of this threaten to upend Ukraine’s social and economic stability while the war grinds on, and its ability to rebound after it’s over. As such, an array of parties, from international aid groups to Ukraine’s presidential office, are mobilizing to prevent what could become a nationwide mental health crisis. 

    Yet a crucial obstacle remains: Ukraine simply doesn’t have enough mental health providers, and those that it has, because of the war, can’t always get to the people who need help.

    Telehealth to the Rescue

    Amid this scenario, a solution has, as they say, entered the chat. As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, a medical landscape transformed by telehealth is emerging in its wake. Across the world, patients are meeting with doctors in the virtual realm for a host of reasons, from pain management to mammograms. And online therapy is no exception. The remote mental health market is estimated to have expanded by more than 27 percent over the past year. Now, through TeleHelp Ukraine, patients there are able to meet with mental health professionals in other parts of Europe, the U.S., and beyond.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, mental health disorders run rampant in war zones. Rates of anxiety, depression, and PTSD are up to three times higher among people exposed to armed conflict, and more than one out of five people living in these areas grapple with a mental health condition. Yet due to the very nature of conflict zones, mental health services in these places are often insufficient, disrupted, or difficult to access.

    “We’ve seen folks that have served in the military and on the front lines, and in local volunteer groups,” said Savchuk. “We’ve had patients from the occupied territories. A ton of folks who have had their houses destroyed have had to move to a small village somewhere in western Ukraine, and have found it tough to adjust. Sometimes these folks may have family members in the military and are working through the anxieties of that. Some are just dealing with previously diagnosed mental health conditions that they’ve been working through, and the war has just exacerbated them.  

    “This is a very challenging environment in which Ukrainians have to live through and continue to work and support themselves and their families, but with a war going on,” added Savchuk.

    TeleHelp Ukraine is part of a wider movement to mitigate these problems, and ensure Ukraine’s recovery from the war isn’t hindered by a lack of mental health resilience across the population. For example, the workforce development team of USAID has compiled a database of free psychological aid providers and resources all over Ukraine, and shared it with students and teachers at Ukrainian educational institutions. The World Health Organization is working with the Ukrainian government to provide mental health training to 10 percent of the country’s primary health workforce by the end of this year. And Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, has been at the forefront of a robust campaign aimed at “promot[ing] the formation of a culture of caring for mental health in society.” 

    “Against the background of daily alarming news, missile attacks, human grief, and trouble, it doesn’t seem appropriate to ask yourself ‘How are you?,’ ” the first lady said in a statement. “But in fact, psychological well-being and understanding of what is happening in our inner world is more timely than ever.”

    “The leadership of Ukraine is very aware of how critical and essential the mental health of the nation is to victory,” says Savchuk. “If you want to help Ukraine, which every Ukrainian does, you have to maintain that capacity and strength. The government is supporting multiple initiatives to bring awareness to mental health and to create the infrastructure for folks to be able to access it. We hope we are part of that puzzle.”

    Changing Perceptions of Mental Health

    Ironically, the war may ultimately help catalyze a broader positive shift toward mental health, increasing awareness and reducing stigma among the public. Before now, discussing mental health was somewhat taboo in Ukrainian society, and just two percent of Ukrainians polled last year planned to seek professional support. But seeing popular influential figures like First Lady Zelenska talk about the issue may be changing that. Savchuk and her team have seen bookings steadily increase as word continues to spread across the country. 

    “For a lot of these folks, this might be the first time they have sought mental health support, and we might be their first encounter with that,” said Savchuk. “What we see among veterans especially is that they sometimes see seeking support as a sign of weakness, and see it as their duty to help themselves, and just aren’t used to accepting help in that way. So this is something to work through.”

    For the providers working with TeleHelp Ukraine, speaking with patients who are in a war zone can be challenging in its own way. When a video consultation suddenly cuts out, is it simply because of an unstable internet connection, or something more dangerous? 

    Dr. Anaid Atasuntseva – a clinical instructor at Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, who has been a volunteer therapist with TeleHelp Ukraine from its inception – has experienced this. She recalls a session with a Kharkiv-based ADHD patient that cut out halfway through the call, just as they were going through an organizational skills exercise. 

    “An explosion happened near his house. I could see a flash of light, then everything went dark. In those moments, you anticipate the worst,” said Atasuntseva. “Thankfully, we have a wonderful staff of health navigators and other volunteers who are there to reach out to the patient and make sure they’re okay. So I learned very quickly from them as they were able to contact him that everything was fine.” 

    Then there’s the language barrier. Treating people through an interpreter in another language is a new experience for many therapists, though Savchuk notes that the language barrier has hardly been a barrier at all.

    “We were worried at first about how well our services would work with an interpreter,” she said. “But what our data seems to reveal is that there isn’t a difference in the degree of satisfaction that the patients have if they had an interpreter present versus if they had one with a provider who speaks their language.” 

    “We’ve heard from patients that the interpreter becomes an extra source of support in the room,” Savchuk continues. “They’re not necessarily a bridge they have to go through to get to talk to the provider, but rather, it becomes a three-way team where they are all working together to get the patient on a path to recovery.”

    Of Russian and Armenian heritage, Atasuntseva speaks Russian, but is mindful that while many Ukrainians also speak Russian, they may not necessarily want to in their sessions.

    “There’s a big movement to take back a lot of Ukrainian culture and focus on speaking Ukrainian. And at the same time, just because of the past colonization of Ukraine by Russia, a lot of older adults predominantly speak Russian,” said Atasuntseva.

    “If anyone prefers me not to speak Russian, understandably, then I will just speak English and we’ll have a translator, or it’ll be a mix of them speaking to me in Ukrainian, me speaking to them in Russian, and the translator filling in. But many patients in their 20s and 30s are fluent in English, so they actually want to practice it.”

    Atasuntseva has treated around 40 patients in Ukraine, between six and 70 years old, for a range of issues: PTSD, suicidality, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and self-harm. Typical behavioral issues in children, like tantrums, nightmares, and aggression, have been exacerbated by the war. 

    Across the board, the most common technique she teaches patients is a form of behavior therapy called the “TIP skill.” It includes cooling the face with ice or cold water to lower body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate, as well as a short burst of intense exercise that initially raises the heart rate, but then sends it back down. It also involves deep breathing, and tensing and relaxing different muscle groups.

    “It is actually a way to tip or change your body chemistry, when your nervous system is activated or over-regulated, and you feel like that emotion is just too big to handle or you feel you’re maybe going to act on an urge that’s problematic or will make things worse,” said Atasuntseva.

    Despite Savchuk and her team’s efforts, international aid may need to be scaled up to stably provide mental health care to the 50 percent of Ukrainians estimated to need professional help. Aid will also be needed to help fill the hole created by the displacement of Ukraine’s own mental healthcare workforce throughout the conflict. 

    Atasuntseva even sees TeleHelp Ukraine as a blueprint for how mental health support services can be delivered all over the world – not just in war zones, but to address the gaps in access to care that exist due to lack of resources and finances.

    Until then, TeleHelp Ukraine will keep signing up volunteers and providers to keep the support flowing. It is also adding mental health services to the mobile clinics established in May to help people in remote villages close to the front lines that have been entirely disconnected from all healthcare.

    “Branching into mental health is a lot tougher as we are hosting appointments in the back of a van, but we hope to grow into that because we think this is where that need is the most severe,” said Savchuk.

    For Savchuk, bringing mental health care to war-torn Ukraine has been a way of shifting her own mindset. “You see how life does go on, and you can improve and grow, even as you’re helping your country fight a war that we didn’t start and didn’t want.” 

    MaryLou Costa is a freelance writer fascinated by the future of work, especially changes that advance women in the workplace. She also covers sustainability, innovation, technology, startups, marketing, and more. Her work has featured in The Guardian, The Observer, Business Insider, Raconteur, Sifted, Digiday, Marketing Week, and others, plus she has appeared on Times Radio, BBC, and Sky News. This article was originally published in Reasons to be Cheerful. Reprinted with permission.

  • From Czechoslovakia With Love

    Kofola, developed as a response to “Western” colas during the Cold War, is thriving, besting even its international rivals.

    The original flavor is still the most popular around the Czech capital, typically served with a slice of lemon. Photo via Mark Harmon.

    “How do I rank Kofola? Easy, a 15 out of 10. There’s no way I’m going lower. It’s even better if you get it on tap,” says Petr Hais, a young Czech man. “If you have to get a bottle, it’s not as good, but it’s still better than Coca-Cola,” he adds, his thirst bubbling up amid the rising heat of a Prague summer day.

    He’s far from the only one. According to a study by the market research company Nielsen, the Czech drink was the most popular cola brand in 2018, with 37 percent of total market sales, beating out Coca-Cola with a 28 percent share. Kofola, a Cold War-era drink that is still sold across the Czech Republic, is part of the select few soft drinks around the world that have stood up to the might of Coca-Cola and beat the giant’s incursion into their respective home markets. The most famous are Scotland’s strident-orange Irn-Bru and Peru’s electric-yellow Inca Kola, which was partly bought by Coca-Cola in 1999.

    Just as Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once referred to the Peruvian beverage, which still outsells Coca-Cola in Peru with its bubble-gum flavor, as “an implausible drink,” and a thickly accented Scottish man described Irn-Bru’s taste to the author as “like fokin’ coins laddie,” Kofola also attracts a particular palate with a penchant for licorice and 14 herb and fruit extracts. Such taste, coupled with a very strong nostalgia and country-of-origin bias, are the main factors marketing experts cite when speaking about the beverage’s long and storied success.

    Cold-War Era Roots

    The Czech beverage can trace its origin back to the height of the Cold War, when high-ranking government officials tasked the country’s labs in 1957 with the development of an alternative to “Western” cola drinks. These had started to make their way to the local populace after World War II when American soldiers traded cans of Coke for the local Pilsner beer.

    One of the fleet of trucks that delivered Kofola during its heyday in the 1960s. Source: Kofola.cz

    It took two years, but in 1959 Professor Zdenek Blazek produced the Kofo syrup that became the basis for Kofola’s unmistakable flavor, best understood through the lens of the company’s longtime slogan: “If you love it, nothing else matters.” Kofola’s taste profile comes not only from its founding formula, but also from containing 30 percent less sugar than Coca-Cola and no phosphoric acid, the component that makes fizzy drinks fizzier. In its first decade on the market, the Kofola factories exhausted the required local herbs and had to have them imported from neighboring countries.

    After the Velvet Revolution ended the 41-year reign of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia in 1989, and later with the peaceful separation of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in December 1992, the love for Kofola entered hibernation as Western-made products flooded through the now drawn Iron Curtain into the former Warsaw Pact nation. This chrysalis stage lasted until the early 2000s when Kofola reemerged into the market. It did so triumphantly by riding a wave of what analysts refer to as “retro-nostalgia” that has carried it well, and profitably, into the 2020s.

    In 2022 the company registered 7.88 billion Czech crowns ($345 million) in sales – an 18.7 percent jump from the previous year. And Martin Pisklak, CFO of the Kofola Group, forecast up to 1.25 billion crowns in profit for 2023. Such growth would be underpinned both by the group’s iconic soft drink and an ever-expanding portfolio that has seen the company branch into mineral water and healthier juice options, he explained.

    A boy enjoys his Kofola under the Czechoslovak sun. Source: Kofola.cz

    “Look around, they are only selling Kofola, not Coke,” says Karolina Fejtova, a young woman attending the local Colours of Ostrava festival in Moravia, as she shelters from the sun under a Kofola-branded tent. “When I go to the river with my friends that’s what we have,” she says, as she turns away to order a glass of the undying drink.

    Ian Garrahan is a social communications and journalism graduate from the University of Buenos Aires. He has previously reported from Kenya for the Spanish publication Planeta Futuro and recently participated in Transitions’ Going on Assignment in Prague study abroad program where he had the opportunity to report this story.

  • We Are FSB

    The imprisonment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich pushed a scholar of Russia to recall his own arrest by the FSB 20 years ago. From the NYU Jordan Center. 

    Two men approached me as I walked out of the government building where I had just been interviewing the local finance minister.

    “We are from the FSB. Come with us.”

    Everyone who has visited Russia probably imagined being arrested by the security services (now called the FSB, successor to the KGB). That vague possibility may have added to the thrill of traveling to an exotic land. Well, in 2002 it finally happened to me.

    I was spending a week in the Republic of Mari-El, 500 miles east of Moscow, to monitor the census – the first held since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. I was part of an international team of scholars sent to more than a dozen regions of Russia, in a project coordinated by Valerii Tishkov, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Ethnography. We were interested in how people responded to questions about their ethnic identity and language use.

    The FSB officials took me back to their headquarters. In such circumstances the U.S. State Department advises people to say nothing, to speak only in English – not Russian – and to ask to contact the embassy. Instead, I decided to cooperate. I told them (in Russian) that I would talk to them if they promised to put me on a train leaving Mari El that night. (There was one train a day to and from Moscow: an 18 hour trip.) They agreed.

    They interrogated me for about four hours. It was the only meeting that week when I was not offered tea. The questions were all on the same theme: “How long have you worked for the CIA? Why did the CIA send you here?” “Do you want another Chechnya in Mari-El?” etc. I insisted that I was not working for any intelligence agency, I was just a university professor. I showed them a letter approving the project signed by the minister for Regional and National Affairs of the Russian Federation.

    That seemed to mollify them, or at least plant a seed of doubt in their mind. It was classic good cop/bad cop: the young officer was angry and aggressive, the older one was more measured. (He also had a stutter.) I was afraid that they would plant evidence that I had been gathering secret information – Mari-El has many arms factories, including one that manufactures the S300 air defense system. It was closed to foreigners in Soviet times.

    One problem was that when I arrived in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Mari-El, I was told by the local ethnographer partner that the census office would not allow me to accompany their teams – despite the instruction to cooperate from the ministry in Moscow. Instead, I spent the week interviewing local officials, politicians and journalists.

    I was arrested an hour before I was due to meet with the leader of the local Mari national revival movement. The Mari are a Finno-Ugric minority, some 600,000 strong. They have their own republic, but it is tightly controlled by Moscow, and they fear that the Mari language (which is related to Finnish) is being displaced by Russian.

    Interviewing the local officials, I realized how swiftly Vladimir Putin had moved since becoming president in 2000, appointing former FSB and military men to staff regional offices and restore central authority – the “power vertical.” That proved to be the most important finding from my fraught research trip, one that is still relevant to understanding the dynamics of Putin’s Russia today. At 6 p.m., the FSB officers took me to the train, as promised. The older one waved me off and actually said, apparently without irony, “Come back and see us sometime.”

    When I related all this to my colleagues in Moscow, they said I had done the right thing. Presumably, the local FSB did not have permission to arrest me, but they could now file a report and demonstrate their vigilance in defending the Motherland. In 2002, Putin was still in his honeymoon period wooing Western allies; but the Chechen war was grinding on and Islamist terrorism was a real threat. Academic researchers in Russia have often had similar experiences. Usually, the pretext was a violation of your visa regime – such as doing archival research while traveling on a tourist visa.

    I said nothing about this incident for 20 years. But it came back to me when I learned of the 29 March arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Ekaterinburg. It was the first arrest of a Western journalist since the detention of Nicholas Daniloff in 1986. Gershkovich has been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison for over 150 days. On 26 August, his detention was extended until 30 November. He was presumably detained in order to be exchanged for some high-value Russian prisoner in the United States. His trial will probably be in secret, so until he is released we may not know whether they planted evidence of espionage on him, or if he was arrested just for doing his job – interviewing local sources about the state of the economy.

    Gershkovich’s arrest is just one more piece of evidence that Russia’s security services are out of control, violating norms of civilized behavior, and so desperate in their efforts to prove Russia is still a “great power” that they need to arrest innocent Americans to demonstrate the might of the Russian state.

    Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University. This article was originally published by the NYU Jordan Center. Reprinted with permission.

  • Doing Battle with Ageism

    How a Ukrainian NGO is helping over-50s engage with a fast-changing world and unleash their creative potential.

    Natalya Bondarenko, from her YouTube page.

    Natalya Bondarenko is a Ukrainian civic activist who relocated from her hometown of Slovyansk when fighting broke out nearby early in the Russian invasion. Before the war, she had begun working with older people in Slovyansk, promoting their engagement and acceptance in society through the Age of Happiness Foundation to fight stereotypes about age and support technological adeptness in people over 50 – those who grew to adulthood when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The foundation also relocated further from the front line and is now based in central Ukraine. Bondarenko is currently living in Prague, where she is a fellow at the Prague Civil Society Center.

    Transitions: What is the mission of your foundation?

    Our mission is to support people who are 50-plus years old and help them continue to develop a desire to grow and learn something new. We focus a lot on adaptation to contemporary ways of life and media literacy, and technology modern people need. We’re not like a regular social benefits program for elderly people, but we empower them to help themselves so they know how to do things on their own. Especially now as we deal with the war, there are many people who are displaced and we try to help them adapt and understand how to live in new places.

    How does the war impact the way you run the foundation?

    We used to be in Slovyansk, a town very close to the front line. We moved to Kropyvnytskyi in central Ukraine. I had worked in the civil society sector for five years and developed contacts in different cities. This was helpful when we moved to Kropyvnytskyi, where the local activists were very helpful and supportive.

    You went back to school later in life. What inspired you to do that?

    When I became head of the foundation, I grew very interested in how people think, especially those whom we were helping. How they think, why they do what they do, why they make certain decisions. I decided to go back to school at 57 and at the age of 58 I earned my master’s degree in psychology from Slovyansk Pedagogical University. I am now studying age psychology, working with the university, and co-authoring some articles.

    How does your psychology background impact the way you work with your NGO now?

    It is fundamental to understand the psychology of a person who lived through Soviet times to learn how they can navigate this post-colonial context. It’s essential to understand how to work with people who went through this trauma, and how to help them to change the way they think.

    How is your foundation helping to educate people over 50 about misinformation and disinformation?

    In this era, there is a lot of misinformation and PSYOPs [psychological operations]. We currently have a media literacy course for elderly people where we teach them what is fake, how to spot the original source of information, and how to counteract this. The main thing is that we teach them to move from this “we” that was important during Soviet times when people thought of themselves as “we the people,” to “I” or “me” as the main agent. We teach these people to pay attention to their personal needs and desires, and how to translate this to the outside world. We have them use different media tools to help with this. For example, we have them record videos in selfie mode to teach people to look at themselves and perceive themselves. And we teach them how to pose for photos, and then they look at them together, to make them feel more free about themselves.

    So it’s like a knot, the combination of three elements of what’s happening in Ukraine right now: people’s psychology, media education, and the events happening in our country.

    Can you give an example of the foundation working successfully to help older people grow and learn?

    There are many examples of the foundation being successful, especially as we have participants create media projects on their own after the media literacy courses. They can create a Facebook group, or a podcast, or do a photo shoot and present it to everyone. There is one participant, Svitlana, who is from Lyman and had to evacuate to Kropyvnytskyi with her family. One of the few things she took with her was her mom’s cookbook. She digitized it and put it on Facebook where she created a group, and still talks about the recipes and stories from her family history. It’s not just recipes; it’s storytelling. Now, the group is more like a community with discussions, and she feels more at home in Kropyvnytskyi, so much so that she would choose to stay there than return to Lyman.

    Is there a connection between self-empowerment and falling for disinformation?

    Yes, of course, absolutely. We always consume information. It’s like food: even if you eat high-quality food and not low-quality food, you still have to eat. But we focus on how to filter what “food” you “eat,” and a big part of that is improving your confidence. If you feel more empowered, you do not get hooked so easily by clickbait, and you feel more adapted to the contemporary world.

    What does the foundation look like now, since you came to Prague?

    We are still focused on helping people over 50, and now I’m able to meet with more organizations. We have new connections, and we’ll develop them here in Prague. We’re hoping this helps us establish new European connections and integrate into the European community.

    Looking to the future, what is your dream for the organization?

    The main dream is to have a representative in the Council of Europe. The second dream is to influence policies regarding elderly people in Ukraine, and maybe later at the European level. We want to ensure that these people don’t only receive social benefits but also culture, development, respect, and no discrimination because of age. So these are the goals, and in general, the movement needs to be not only from the bottom up, but from the government, from the state level, too.

    Ella Skelsey is studying chemistry and journalism at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas. She just completed a summer internship at Transitions, where she had the opportunity to conduct this interview.

  • Dodik’s Dystopia

    Has the populist Bosnian Serb leader met his match in the form of the country’s free-swinging international overseer?

    At the end of June, lawmakers in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity adopted a law prohibiting the implementation in the entity of decisions of the Bosnian Constitutional Court.

    “This is the day when we start a completely new story. It implies that we will have our relationship with the Constitutional Court in this way, as we had the other day with the fake High Representative,” declared the president of the majority ethnic Serb entity, Milorad Dodik.

    The previous week, the entity parliament adopted amendments designed to stop publishing High Representative Christian Schmidt’s decisions in the official gazette, in effect refusing to recognize the “fake” official’s power to act in the entity. 

    Dodik “is pursuing a ‘Dayton a la carte’ approach, with secessionist threats and moves forming an integral part of that policy,” commented Bodo Weber, a political analyst and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think tank. He was referring to the Dayton Peace Agreement, signed in 1995 to end the Bosnian War, which killed an estimated 100,000 people and displaced over 2 million.

    For Dodik, dramatic announcements – although rarely backed by action – have been his stock in trade for more than a decade, marked by frequent speculations that the entity might hold a referendum or otherwise seek independence from Bosnia.

    Law and Chaos

    For years, Dodik has annoyed both the national-level authorities and the country’s Western partners with his calls for greater autonomy or even independence for Republika Srpska. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, his support for Vladimir Putin has further eroded relations.

    Dodik has been the biggest figure in the Serb entity’s political life for a quarter-century, at various times serving as prime minister, the Serb member of the tripartite Bosnian presidency, and now for a third term as the entity’s president after being declared the winner in the disputed election last October.

    He has also been an ideological thorn in the heart of a supranational political project, casting doubt on the EU’s expansion into the Western Balkans. “The Western Balkans have never been farther away from the EU,” Dodik told Der Spiegel in 2021.

    That stance may now change, following the EU’s decision to grant Bosnia the status of a candidate country in December, in part, Al Jazeera said, as a countermove to rising Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

    Such concerns are not overblown, Weber believes. “The scenario for Putin to open a second front, be it via Dodik … or in [Serb-majority] northern Kosovo, continues to present a potential risk,” he said. 

    Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Milorad Dodik during their meeting in Moscow on 23 May. Photo by Sputnik/Alexey Filippov/Pool via Reuters.

    Yet whatever his views on the EU, Dodik’s controversial denials that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre constituted a genocidal attack against Muslims and his involvement in a possible self-determination process of the Serb entity create a dangerous mix.

    The West Strikes Back

    On 1 July, to a chorus of approval from the EU, the United States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Schmidt used his sweeping powers to cancel the two controversial laws in Republika Srpska. At the same time, he amended the Bosnian criminal code to treat acts that violate the constitutional order of the state as criminal offenses, and called for coordinated international sanctions against those who violate the terms of the Dayton Agreement, which, besides ending the war, created the labyrinthine political structures designed to placate the country’s warring Serb, Croat, and Bosniak communities.

    Western countries had other arrows in their quiver, and soon used them, as well. By early August, Germany had announced the shuttering of four infrastructure projects in Republika Srpska over Dodik’s secessionist aims, and the U.S. Treasury hit four of the entity’s highest-ranking officials with sanctions as being “directly responsible” for encouraging the passage of the Constitutional Court law.

    Dodik himself was the target of U.S. sanctions under both the Biden and Trump administrations: in 2017 for obstructing the Dayton accords and again in 2022 for the same reason and additionally his “destabilizing corrupt activities.”

    When Schmidt, a German Christian Democrat politician, took up his post in 2021, he declared that he would not hesitate to use the powers of his office if necessary to change bad laws, signaling a more robust policy than that of his predecessor, Valentin Inzko, who had held the office since 2009. 

    Christian Schmidt speaks during a news conference in Sarajevo in March 2022. Photo by Dado Ruvic via Reuters.

    Schmidt’s recent actions mark a revival of the high representative’s activist stance. His recent interventions “forced BiH’s judicial institutions to move out of past inaction against anti-constitutional acts by Dodik and the RS authorities,” Weber argues. 

    On the eve of his decision to cancel the two Republika Srpska laws, Schmidt warned of a “serious reaction” to Dodik’s “serious attack” on the Bosnian constitutional order.

    “We in the international community have been talking about this for the past few days, and I think there is a unified position. I think they will stand behind me and fully support the intention to ensure the work of the Constitutional Court,” he told a Bosnian TV interviewer.

    Yet the scope for the high representative’s authority, known as the Bonn powers – which have been used for everything from prohibiting the denial of genocide to designing banknotes – has never been explicitly set out, allowing Dodik to question the office’s very right to exist.

    What Do Bosnian Serbs Want?

    Dodik remains firmly entrenched as the most powerful Serb politician in Bosnia. Still, Schmidt’s remark on 1 July, the day he annulled the two laws, that “Dodik is leading his entity into isolation and I think the time will come when the citizens of Republika Srpska will start asking him questions,” might not have been too far off the mark. In a nationwide survey held in late 2021, for instance, only 34% of Bosnian Serb respondents favored Dodik’s intention to withdraw from state institutions.

    The study by the National Democratic Institute also found rather weak support for independence in the entity: 35% of respondents favored it against 45% opposed to the idea. Support for Bosnia’s EU membership was strong across the three major ethnic groups, although at 64% support, Serbs were less enthusiastic than the Croat and Bosniak communities. At the same time, the Serbs overwhelmingly opposed NATO membership.

    Surveys like this show that Dodik’s political strength “is based on the West’s political weakness and not an expression of the entity’s citizens’ genuine needs and interests,” Weber said.

    At the state level, where Serbs share power with Croat and Bosniak parties, there is also growing frustration at what some see as Dodik’s deliberate hamstringing of the country’s institutions. On 11 August, the state prosecutor’s office charged Dodik with failing to implement the high representative’s decisions, a crime that could carry up to five years in prison.

    Although Dodik’s indictment hit a snag after the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina returned it to prosecutors for clarification, Schmidt ultimately “has the power to remove Dodik from office and ban him from politics,” Balkan Insight wrote.

    When the news outlet’s interviewer asked Schmidt about that possibility, he replied, “it’s good to have all possibilities on the table.”

    Kristian Kudela is a student in the Europe-North America Program at Sciences Po and is currently an editorial intern at Transitions.

  • Caution and Embrace 

    Europeans should act as hosts for free debate among Russian emigres, but not view them as channels of influence to reform Russia. From ECFR.

    Life as a refugee is always difficult. And being a Russian exile in Europe is difficult in its own way. You are blamed for the war you opposed. You might fight the blame, or you might own it and try to atone – either way, there is little you can do. And what you are able to do inevitably proves inadequate: it is hard to convince Europeans that Russian society does not bear blame for Vladimir Putin’s war; and you can never apologize enough to shake away the guilt. Alternatively, you might be of the opportunistic type, who arrives with a sense of entitlement in search of the good life – and also ends up disappointed by the cool welcome. Either way, you start slowly losing touch with home, while never quite agreeing with the worldview of your new neighbors.

    The politically motivated exodus of Russians to Europe started slowly in around 2012 and dramatically intensified over the past year and a half. The exiles come with a panoply of views. There are those who indeed feel guilty about the war, because, as Russian citizens, they feel responsible for failing to prevent it. There are those who think of themselves first and foremost as victims of the Putin regime and refuse to be answerable for its crimes. There are those who do not bother with questions of guilt at all, but just come in search of a safe haven – for their money, perhaps, or from mobilization. There are those who worked for the Putinist system before becoming disillusioned or falling out of favor; there are those who kept their distance from the very start. And finally, there are surely those who have not truly fled at all, but have been planted among the refugee community by the Russian special services.

    Europeans and the European Union lack a common policy toward the exiles. While Ukrainian refugees will correctly remain Europeans’ priority, what should European decision-makers do about the fleeing Russians: embrace them; reject them; or put them on probation?

    Watch Out

    Some in Europe view the exiles as our best link to civil society in Russia – as a group who could be instrumental to democratizing the country in the future. They suggest welcoming them, helping them, and working with them. Behind the scenes, though, many others, especially European officials working on security matters, are governed by caution: “We don’t know who these people really are,” they say in private. ‘They might be anti-Putin, they might be undercover FSB. And if they are effective in their anti-Putin activities, the Kremlin might send assassins after them – which won’t help our security either.”

    A third approach is to approve of Russians as long as they think and behave in particular ways. In many places the exiles are welcome as long as they conform to local expectations, which vary widely, and are maximalist in some places. A good illustration of this is the fate of TV Dozhd. Russia’s last-remaining liberal television channel moved its operations to Latvia, but soon lost its license for its programming’s lack of Latvian subtitles, for referring to the Russian army as “our army,” and for using (probably accidentally) a map that showed Crimea as part of Russia. Consciously or otherwise, the Latvian government seems to have hoped TV Dozhd would become essentially a Russian-language Latvian television channel, taking Riga’s official line and helping to sway the views of Latvia’s extensive Russian diaspora. When TV Dozhd continued to operate as part of the Russian debate and media landscape – hence its reference to the Russian army as “ours” – it went beyond the bounds of the expectations of the Latvian authorities.

    All approaches have their logic and merit. All have shortcomings too.

    It is likely true that, for the time being, the exiles are Europe’s best link to Russian society. Most have friends and family in Russia, with whom they communicate on a daily basis. However, if the standoff endures, over time these links will weaken. Former friends, some of whom stayed, some of whom left, will take separate paths in life. They will be part of different debates, with different social codes. The exiles will slowly lose their authentic “feeling” for Russia; they could start projecting their own hopes and fears upon reality. At that point, anyone who relies on the political analyses of the exile community alone will need to start double-checking its members’ assessments.

    It is also hard to say what part the exile community can play in post-Putin Russia. To an extent this will depend on the length of time they are away. The Russians who fled the Bolshevik revolution after 1917 believed they would soon head back – and as a result lived out of suitcases for most of their lives. By contrast, those who left in the 1970s and 1980s expected never to return – but many had done so by the early 1990s. We simply do not know what the future holds for today’s emigres.

    It is also impossible to predict the influence they will have if they go back. In some societies – the Baltic states, for instance – returning exiles adapted smoothly and played important political and social roles following the collapse of the USSR. Not so in Russia – in the 1990s, the homegrown networks of post-Soviet Russian politics proved fairly impenetrable to those who had been away. This may change after Putin; or it may not.  

    It is unlikely that Europeans will ever have a truly common policy toward their Russian exile community. The questions of Russia and Russians are of different levels of sensitivity in different countries, and different states’ policies will always reflect that. Accepting this will make life easier for everyone, and Europe is diverse enough to welcome Russians in various ways. For instance, TV Dozhd may have moved to Latvia in the hope of being close to Russia in a town inhabited by exiles. But ultimately it may be better off in its new home in the Netherlands, where society is less instinctively suspicious of everything Russian.

    The Need for Uniform Rules

    Also, much of what regulates the daily life of Russian exiles – rules on visas, border crossing, residence permits, asylum – will remain in the competence of interior ministries, and thus outside the regulatory reach of the EU. Its institutions may still wish to draw up a list of recommendations or best practices, which could help member states at least streamline their actions, so that unilateral steps by some do not leave others exposed. (Think, for instance, of how the visa bans introduced by the Baltic states last year increased the migration pressure on Finland and Norway – until they, too, restricted the movement of Russians.) This would also help address the Kafkaesque set of regulations inside the EU faced by the exiles. But truly uniform policies across the bloc or the Schengen visa space are probably unrealistic for the time being. 

    Of course, the exiled Russians need to adapt to the societies where they have settled. They need to follow local rules and laws, and put up with local views about Russia – there is no avoiding that. However, their hosts should allow them to be themselves – Russian Russians – not just Russian-speaking Europeans.

    Ultimately, Europeans’ approach should be to provide space for Russians without over-investing in them or instrumentalizing them. Allow them space to live, safe from the Kremlin. Enable them to talk freely about Russia – painful and necessary as it is. For now, exile is the only place where there can be a Russian debate about the country’s political system, how to fix it, and how to atone for its crimes. Parts of their soul-searching may connect with the discourse in Russia, although there is no guarantee of this. But above all, Europeans should not view them as a column that will smash the Putinist regime. Do not embrace them as such, do not project your hopes onto them, and do not try to micromanage Russian politics with the help of exiled political leaders (even if they ask you to).

    The rationale for welcoming Russians should be that Europe is Europe: a place that provides shelter for refugees and a home for honest debate. Europeans’ reasoning should not be rooted in any expectations about the political influence exiles will have in a future Russia – because that may never materialize. If those who departed eventually acquire such influence, it will be a welcome surprise. Above all, the more that Europeans steer clear of intra-Russian intrigues and political manipulation, the more likely it is that such influence will be worth the steadfastness of circumspection.

    Kadri Liik is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, where this article was originally published. Her research focuses on Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Baltic region. Before joining ECFR in October 2012, Liik was the director of the International Centre for Defence Studies in Estonia from 2006 until 2011, where she also worked as a senior researcher and director of the Centre’s Lennart Meri Conference. The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors. Reprinted by permission.

© Transitions Online 2020. All rights reserved. ISSN 1214-1615
Published by Transitions o.s., Baranova 33, 130 00 Prague 3, Czech Republic.