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Security and Stability in the Southern Caucasus

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More than twenty years ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Recommendation 1247 (1994)[1]. The Recommendation read: “In view of their cultural links with Europe, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia would have the possibility of applying for membership provided they clearly indicate their will to be considered as part of Europe”.

This proposition was an invitation to the South Caucasian States to remember, rethink and rebuild their European roots and identity.

At that time, the Russian Federation was still two years away from membership. Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996. Georgia followed in 1999 and, in January 2001, Armenia and Azerbaijan completed the membership as regards the Caucasus region.[2]

From the political point of view the Caucasus is part of Europe. That has been confirmed not only by the Pan-European Council of Europe but also by its smaller sister, the European Union, e.g. just recently when the summit of the Eastern Partnership took place in Riga with the participation of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

We often speak about European family of democratically-minded nations, about European, or Council of Europe standards. But what it is to be European? What is the meaning of Europe in the 21st century? What does it mean with regard to stability and security in a region belonging to Europe?

Seen from Baku, Yerevan or Tbilisi, the Europe of Berlin, Paris, London, Vienna may seem impossibly prosperous and peaceful. Let me remind that Europe of 1949, when the Council of Europe was created, was quite different: war-torn cities, ruined economy and uncertain future.

The Council of Europe was created as a reaction to the horrors of war. What was the remedy? Respect for Human Rights, pluralistic democracy and the Rule of Law. These were the principles enshrined in Article 3 of the Statute.[3] And Strasbourg, long the centre of bitter Franco-German conflicts, was chosen as the headquarters of the Organisation.

I invite you to pause and think for a moment: the guns of the Second World War went silent 70 years ago on 9 May 1945. Four years later, on 5 May 1949, the Statute of the Council of Europe was signed. Now imagine that four years after the Armenian-Azerbaijan cease-fire of 9 May 1994, on 5 May 1998, a regional Organisation for the respect of Human Rights, democracy and the rule of law was created and the town of Shusha was chosen for its seat.  

That is the meaning of Europe. Perhaps not everybody saw that back in 1949, but today there is no doubt: Europe is all about renouncing war, once and for all – also in the minds of political establishment and the public. Europe is all about reconciliation, assuming past history, learning how to live with one’s neighbours, accepting and enjoying diversity.

Europe is by far not yet perfect. There is still a lot to be done, not only in the Southern Caucasus, in Europe and its neighbourhood.

And what about the South Caucasus as part of Europe? Even without detailed knowledge of history, a look at the map is enough – with Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan, with their interspersed and mixed populations, Azerbaijan and Armenia are tied together like Siamese twins. As late as 2001, it was manifested in the “joint Council of Europe accession option for Azerbaijan and Armenia”, chosen by all Council member States.

When I spoke in 2002 to an audience in the Yerevan State University I used for the first time the metaphor of the Siamese twins. It was not to the liking of everybody. Several weeks later, the Armenian Ambassador to the OSCE mentioned it in Vienna and argued against my message. I found no reason to change my mind: yes, Azerbaijan and Armenia are inseparably linked together, as I pointed out also at the Baku University. trying to separate Siamese twins by the sword will inevitably lead to death for both. Azerbaijan and Armenia have only one future – to live together, as one organism, as two neighbours separated by borders which have lost all meaning in everyday life, as two states within the larger European family.

As Secretary General I was used to organize workshops of young people from still existing conflict regions, e.g. Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine in our proximity and of course the Southern Caucasus. In general it was always refreshing and promising how fast young people can overcome prejudices and stereotypes. E.g., when I had invited youngsters from Kosovo and the Middle East, on the first day the Albanians and Serbs from Kosovo told me how surprised they were seeing Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, while the participants from the Middle East were shocked that the relations between different people living in the same area could be worse than in their part of the world. But after one week they all became friends!

Another year I brought together again young Israelis and Palestinians, Greeks and Turks from Cyprus and … Armenians and Azerbaijanis. I asked them to sit together in regional groups and work on conflict resolution. But not on their own conflict, but on one of the other regions, the ones from the Middle East on the Cyprus conflict, the Cypriots on the Nagorno Karabakh issue and the Caucasians on the Middle East case. All of them elaborated reasonable suggestions, for Cyprus a blue print of the Kofi Annan plan – but one year before the Secretary General of the UN came out with it, for Armenia and Azerbaijan a compromise which seemed for me to be acceptable for the partners and a very interesting approach for the Middle East.

What did young Armenians and Azerbaijanis suggest to Israel and the Palestinians? The essence was, don’t argue about the past, don’t waste time by blaming each other for mistakes of the past – just start where you are now. This is of course the only way to solve the Middle East conflict – if you are going to the past you end up with the Holy Books as land register, arguments used by the extremists of both sides.

But then I asked my young friends from the Southern Caucasus – why shouldn’t we apply the same principle for your region. You do not need to deal with the past looking for problems. There are current problems enough. Of course, they are rooted in the past, and several of them belong to what I would call the Soviet legacy.

There is the problem of Georgia, with two separatist entities, protected and supported by Russia. Hundreds of thousands refugees from these entities are staying in the rest of Georgia, dismantled of their property, separated from their homes, now nearly since a quarter of a century. The result of the attempt of former Georgian president Mikhail Sakashvili to solve one of the conflicts with military means is well known. The situation with Southern Ossetia became worse than before when there was a kind of status quo for ethnic Ossetians and ethnic Georgians.

Azerbaijan is still suffering from the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. A large part of the country beside Nagorno Karabakh is occupied by Armenian forces, more than 1 million people had to flee from these 7 Azerbaijani districts and are living now as IDPs, far from their destroyed homes. I visited refugees in 2004 and about 9 years later. I realized that Azerbaijan did a lot to provide for a life of dignity for these people. They have suffered enough; they should not endure alone the consequences of an unsolved conflict. Due to the conflict Azerbaijan has to spend more than 4% of its GDP for the army. Another consequence of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is that the province of Nakhichevan is separated from Azerbaijan by Armenian territory and cannot be reached on land.

But Armenia is suffering from the conflict too: The economies of both sides have been hurt by their inability to make substantial progress toward a peaceful resolution. Also here more than 4% of GDP goes to the military. The border to Turkey has been closed by Ankara in support of Azerbaijan as retaliation to the conflict with Azerbaijan. Between Yerevan and Ankara is also the open question of the recognition of the genocide of 1,5 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire. Allegedly up to half of the population has left the country due to the circumstances. The situation seems even worse in Nagorno Karabakh where 180,000 ethnic Armenians lived before the armed conflict and according to well-informed sources only one third is left. Due to the conflict Armenia is to a large extent dependent on Russian support.

Talking about stability and security in the region one should not forget that Russia despite its involvement in Georgia and in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has its own problems in the Northern Caucasus, being confronted with islamist extremism.

The international community succeeded in my view only to freeze the conflicts. The OSCE is involved in mediation efforts in several unresolved conflicts:

The conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh – through the Minsk Group (co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States) and a Personal Representative of the Chairman-in-Office on the Conflict Dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference.

In the post-2008 conflict in Georgia – the OSCE, together with the UN and EU, co-chairs the international Geneva Discussions in the wake of the conflict in Georgia. It also, with EUMM, co-facilitates the meetings of the Dvani/Ergneti Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) dealing with matters that affect the daily life of populations on the ground

You see what I mean when I say one does not need to deal with the past looking for problems. There are current problems enough. Priority should be given to solve the current problems the population of the whole region is suffering from. I admit that I don’t have a perfect recipe. But what I certainly know is that there is no military solution for any of the conflicts. The key words are dialogue, cooperation and reconciliation.

This is what was happening in Europe, earlier or later. France and Germany have led the way. Shortly after Azerbaijan and Armenia joined the Council of Europe, the remaining border control facilities on the Bridge of Europe, connecting the neighbouring cities of Strasbourg in France and Kehl in Germany were completely dismantled and two new bridges were built.

This was my first message – Europe is all about reconciliation, tolerance and enjoyment of diversity. I am deeply convinced – with political will and courage, within only one generation the South Caucasus can be a completely different place.

My second message is about caring of the interest of the people. Fighting poverty, improving education and health services should be given priority to military expenditure.

My third message is about cultural and regional co-operation.

Here again, I wish to speak the exact words I spoke in Baku, in Tbilisi and in Yerevan: Regional and transborder co-operation have given a remarkable contribution to the reunification and prosperity of Europe, we believe they can do much more so in the Caucasus region. This works not only between France and Germany. We can see that in another troubled region of Europe, the Western Balkans. Former enemies in SEE formed a Regional Council as well as CEFTA. By far not all problems have been solved including very serious ones such as the dispute over Kosovo. Nevertheless Serbia and Kosovo can both participate in these activities.

However, the political courage, the difficult compromises, the reconciliation efforts – this is all for the region to accomplish. But Europe can help. The events in Ukraine have demonstrated that we would need a genuine Pan-European security system – including Russia. Such a system should have a conflict management instrument which can be applied without further discussions. And such a system should cover of course the Southern Caucasus too.

I am convinced that peace and reconciliation in the Southern Caucasus is feasible. In Baku as well as in Yerewan I expressed my wish to go one day by train from one capital to the other. And perhaps, like Strasbourg, one day the town of Shusha will become the symbol of reconciliation.

 


[1] http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=15281&lang=en

[2]http://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/47-members-states

[3]http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/Commun/QueVoulezVous.asp?NT=001&CM=8&DF=27/05/2015&CL=ENG

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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