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Azerbaijan as a Model of Civility in the Caspian Region

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­­­To many around the world, Azerbaijan is considered a remote and mysterious place. If they have even heard of it. This is surprising because it borders four countries that have commanded much global attention over the past few years; Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran.

This may be because, save for its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the country doesn’t have as much drama to offer the world. They are much more concerned about peace, security, sovereignty, and political independence; things that don’t normally dominate headlines.

Azerbaijan was the first and one of the very few Muslim-majority countries that is both truly democratic and secular. It has a separation of powers among three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. It is one of the few Shia-majority countries. It has also proven to be very strategic geopolitically in that it has several important alliances both regionally and internationally. Turkey, a Sunni-majority country is one of these important alliances. The two are very culturally and linguistically similar and Turkey has backed Azerbaijan in all its major disputes including the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Strikingly, Azerbaijan has robust relations and a hearty trade agreement with Israel and still somehow has a warm relationship with Iran – even in the face of recent accusations that Israel is using Azerbaijan as a base for its military operations against Iran. There was some tension between the two countries when Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president but things have gotten much better since President Rouhani took the reins. Even though there are some issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and international sanctions, the border between Azerbaijan and Iran is open and they have pretty solid trade agreements. They share a lot of history, culture, ethnicity, and religion – even though Azerbaijan is much more secular and allows religious freedom. It is also much friendlier towards the West and even allows women to wear whatever they choose. There have been some minor tensions between Baku and Tehran over these issues but because Azerbaijan has been so gracious towards Iran in regards to joint exploration and production of oil in the Caspian Sea, these disagreements have not become too serious. Since most of the Caspian Sea’s deposits are either in the center or to the north of the Sea and this agreement would give Iran a more equal share, this has given them a considerable opportunity to boost their economy.

Speaking of economies, Azerbaijan’s economy is very strong due to its vast oil and natural gas reserves. The country has a complex system of trestles, pipelines, and causeways that connect the oil reservoirs off-shore in the middle of the Caspian Sea. This isn’t too surprising as they’ve been at it for a long time. In fact, Azerbaijan is the builder of the world’s first off-shore oil platform and the Baku port is the largest and busiest harbor in the Caspian Sea. Even though it has been more than a decade since the country declared its independence, the transfer of ownership of land and businesses from the state to individuals has been delayed. While most agricultural ventures are privatized, the government controls the oil and energy industries. Contrary to government track records, it is doing a surprisingly good job at it. It has paired with Western companies that will use less damaging methods and equipment to extract its natural gas and petroleum deposits. The same goes for the oil and natural gas found beneath the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan, with the help of more than twenty companies, led by the United States and Britain, are in the process of building a three billion dollar pipeline from Baku through the republic of Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. From there, the oil will be shipped to the United States which will even further boost Azerbaijan’s economy.

In addition to Azerbaijan’s oil industry, it also has rich supplies of other natural resources, a highly profitable and diversified agricultural industry, and fisheries – another benefit from the Caspian Sea. The country is a major source of caviar, which is considered a very valuable export. Even with problems stemming from pollution and overfishing, Beluga caviar – which comes from a very particular species of sturgeon found here – still fetches a high price and contributes to the country’s economy.

The Azeris, who enjoy a very low unemployment rate by world standards, take great pride in their country and place a very high value on sovereignty. While there have been ethnic conflicts and clashes over religion, most minorities – including Jews and Christians – have lived in relative peace. With the exception of the violence that erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has a very casual and relaxed atmosphere. In fact, despite their Islamic faith, many Azeris drink alcohol; this is forbidden in most other Muslim countries. This contradictory approach to Islam is most likely due to new ideas that are increasingly challenging the traditional ways of doing things. Their rapidly changing environment may be forcing them to make adjustments to their attitudes and way of life. And there are no doubts here that their willingness to adapt will ultimately pay off.

In fact, almost everything about the way Azerbaijan is handling their transition from a Soviet Republic to a modern, sovereign nation is admirable. From their ambitious efforts to preserve their ancient history to their desire to promote peace and stability in the region to their ability to build and maintain diplomatic relationships with key players in the Caspian Sea region (and beyond), Azerbaijan appears to have a very promising future. Their approach may have the potential to change the way the West and the Muslim world relate. After all, they were the first Muslim country to embrace theaters, operas, and modern-day universities. Now, they hold membership with 38 international organizations including the United Nations and work closely with NATO. The annual Caspian Oil and Gas Show held in Baku helps bring important visitors into the country and, even though some political activists have used the high-profile EU games event to shine a light on government corruption within the country, Azerbaijan will still gain a lot of positive visibility and will, in the near future, prove to the world it has earned the right to be recognized as – thanks to the Caspian Sea – one of the great producers of oil and natural gas. While there are of course challenges involving the fight against corruption, more equitable economic development, and continued relations in the often troubled Caucasus, on the whole there is much to praise in Azerbaijan. Though relatively small, it may just one day be able to accurately consider itself a model for civil and open interstate relations in this critical part of the world.

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Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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