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A nation must think before it acts.
Maia and Aaron are back with us this week! Last week, we took a little detour to discuss the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. It’s worth a read if you’d like to learn more about Taiwan’s COVID-19 response efforts and the challenges that the country will face over the next four years. We’re back to our normal discussion about all things Asia, Eurasia, Nat. Sec, and Middle East. As Aaron mentions, there is a lot a convergence on a number of issues we’ve been discussing over the last couple of months.
General reminder to our readers to keep up to date with guidelines coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; continue to stay home as much as possible; and when you must leave your home and engage with people, be mindful of social distancing practices; and wash your hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds.
Thomas Shattuck: Maia, this month will mark one year since a political crisis broke out in Georgia after the infamous “Gavrilov night” protests. What is the situation like at this time?
Maia Otarashvili: This week, Georgia celebrated its independence day with good news—the country is slowly starting to reopen and even expects to receive tourists starting in late June. Georgia has done an exceptional job mitigating the pandemic, shutting down the country early and taking very strict measures to avoid community spread. As a result, Georgia has had some of the lowest number of cases. According to the latest data, Georgia has only had 735 cases of COVID and 12 deaths. But as the country reopens, its year-long political crisis rears its ugly head again.
It all started last June when anti-government mass protests were dispersed with brute force, prompting further demonstrations that persisted throughout the remainder of the year and creating a major standstill between the government and the opposition. The central issue has to do with electoral reform. This fall, Georgia is set to hold parliamentary elections, but without replacing the representative system with a proportional one, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party will retain its unfair advantage. The existing electoral system has allowed GD to occupy 76% of the seats in parliament, even though the party only garnered just under 50% of the popular vote. The electoral reform was one of the key demands of the protestors. While GD initially agreed to implement the reform in time for the fall 2020 election, it eventually walked back the promise, and even arrested some of the protestors and opposition party members on charges of attempted coup on Gavrilov night. To add insult to injury, Giorgi Gakharia—the Minister of Interior presiding over the violent clashes with the protestors on Gavrilov night—was appointed Prime Minister of Georgia.
In early March 2020, eight months into the political turmoil, the GD and opposition forces came to an agreement. The deal was brokered by the U.S. and EU allies, and aims to transform the parliament to include 120 proportionally elected members, and 30 members elected through a majority system. But the fate of this agreement seems to be uncertain again. GD politicians have started to show signs of walking back on their promises again, claiming that freeing the political prisoners is not a part of the deal. This has created a new wave of clashes between GD and the opposition. It has become clear that each side interprets the terms of the deal very differently. On May 11, the facilitators of the agreement issued a joint statement, urging the Georgian government to uphold the terms of this agreement: “The resulting agreement is well-known to the public. It was welcomed by Georgians and the international community alike. We note that this agreement is composed of two parts — one focused on the election system and the other on addressing the appearance of political interference in the judicial system. We call upon all sides to uphold the letter and spirit of both parts of the agreement with a view to its successful implementation.” This week’s debates in parliament have been particularly heated, and so far, we are only seeing signs of escalation, which means the worst is yet to come. This will be another turbulent summer for Georgia, and the main question remains: will the electoral reforms be put in place in time for the fall elections? And if so, is the GD’s 8-year rule coming to an end?
Aaron, it looks like one event impacted three FPRI subject areas this week. Russian jets, flying south to Syria, where they landed and were repainted, then carried on to Libya, where they were met by a U.S. Navy P-8, before they landed at an airbase, where Russian mercenaries are now based after the Turkish armed forces ousted them and their Libyan partners from Watiya air base. What is going on?
Aaron Stein: Well, it is fortuitous timing. With my colleagues Chris and Maia, we have launched a European Security Initiative at FPRI, which will examine a myriad of issues ranging from the U.S. competition with Russia to transatlantic security to issues in the Mediterranean. Well, we have our first case study of the interlinkage between events in Europe and North Africa, the role of Russia, and what this all means for U.S. and European security interests. This event, it would appear, was a long time in the making. The Libyan civil war has become a playground for external powers, with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, along with some indirect support from France, for General Khalifa Haftar, a mercurial and odd individual who has sought to oust from power the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, a Turkish and Qatari ally. The GNA is the United Nations-recognized government, while Haftar controls the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). Both the GNA and LNA are made up of militias, each with their own contracted labor and mercenaries, and each beholden (in some way, shape, or form) to an external patron.
The news of late is that after the LNA had marched to the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital city, Turkey doubled down, deployed a larger number of armed drones, which have targeted inexperienced and poorly trained LNA fighters and mercenaries. The battle for Watiya airbase, which Haftar had used to launch airstrikes, appears to have prompted Russia to plan to move in its own air force. About a week ago, Twitter was abuzz with reports that Russia had sent to Libya the Mig-29, along with the Su-24. The U.S. Navy confirmed these reports with pictures, capturing the Mig-29 in flight, as well as releasing a satellite image of it on the ground at Al-Jufra air base, in addition to the Su-24 (which had Russian Air Force tail markings) as well as the Su-34 and Su-35 Flankers.
If I had to guess, the Mig-29s are now in Libya to provide overwatch from Russian Mercs—from the Wagner Group—who left the front lines near Tripoli for relative safety in Bani Walid, where they appear to be boarding aircraft for relocation in Libya in areas under firm Haftar control. So, now what? Well, we don’t know. The Mig-29s appear to be slotted for drone patrol, meaning that they will patrol for Turkish armed drones. The Su-24, in contrast, is designed for air-to-ground strikes. Does Russia plan to use them for this, perhaps as part of a Haftar counteroffensive? Allah wahid yaarif. Only god knows. But what the U.S. has done, without seriously getting involved (and that is a good thing), has removed the veneer of deniability that Russia has sought to use through its use of Wagner, which we describe as a private mercenary force but which may be a convenient arm of the Kremlin for things like this—where it wants to get in and muck around, but doesn’t want to use conventional infantry to do it.
Tom, Hong Kong looks to be falling apart. It experienced protests throughout 2019; what makes these new protests different?
Shattuck: As I type my answer, the situation in Hong Kong deteriorates. By the time I post our discussion, what I say here could be outdated—that’s how fast things are moving. China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) ends today (it ran from May 22 to 28 this year). The most consequential bit of news from the NPC is the imposition of Article 23 on Hong Kong. The Article mandates that the HK government must “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government.” The HK government has never been able to pass such laws because the population has always opposed such a move via mass protests. However, the NPC has essentially said that enough is enough.. The NPC is circumventing normal democratic procedures in Hong Kong by passing the law itself. Beijing is doing this as a result of “a failure at the legislature . . . for 23 years.”
The law would essentially give the HK government (and really Beijing) carte blanche to arrest protestors under the guise of sedition or terrorism. Since the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, Hong Kong has enjoyed a special status in the PRC. The people could vote for legislative officials (which has exponentially deteriorated of late), and the court system was independent from the PRC’s. People could protest, and the people of Hong Kong took advantage of that right for many years. However, the HK government, under pressure from Beijing, has slowly but surely cracked down on these freedoms, most recently in 2019 in response to mass protests over a proposed law that would allow for extradition to the Mainland. The people were able to stop the bill’s passage, but at a high cost due to the brutal tactics used by Hong Kong’s police force.
This new law, the national security law, is the death knell for “one country, two systems” arrangement between Hong Kong and the Mainland. As Beijing has demonstrated throughout China, it uses vaguely worded language in laws to crackdown on dissent and activism. That will likely be the case if this new law is passed and implemented. Taiwan is looking closely at these developments because it is further proof that “one country, two systems” would never work if Taiwan were to be “reunified” with the Mainland.
Protests have erupted throughout Hong Kong since the announcement last week. Images abound of schoolchildren being handcuffed and taken into custody by police. Over 300 people were arrested on Wednesday. The city experienced relative “stability” during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that all ended with the national security law’s announcement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reported to Congress that Hong Kong can no longer be considered autonomous from China. As required by the Hong Kong Policy Act, Pompeo had to report to Congress on Hong Kong’s status. In a statement, he said, “I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997. No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.” With Pompeo’s declaration, it is now up to President Trump to make the final move on implementing possible sanctions or revoking its special trade status. These decisions—the passage of the law and Pompeo’s declaration—will continue the ongoing downward spiral that is U.S.-China relations in 2020.
Thanks for joining again, Aaron and Maia!
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.