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.
Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement
Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.
Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”
On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”
So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.
Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.
Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.
As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.
Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.
Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch
Tighter Ties with China Signal Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy
Ukraine is eager to cut deals with China as it confronts the West’s moves to allay Russian concerns. Whether Kyiv’s moves are a sign of a larger foreign policy adjustment or just a bluff aimed to mitigate faltering ties with the EU and the US, they could beget big consequences.
On June 30, Ukraine touted an agreement with China, which proposes revamping the country’s decrepit infrastructure. The decision comes following a US-German resolution to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite longstanding concerns of Kyiv and other CEE nations. Yet, perhaps the biggest motivation was the growing unwillingness in the West to advance Ukraine’s NATO/EU aspirations.
The current state of affairs pushes Ukraine to find alternatives in foreign policy. China, with plenty of cash and political clout, comes as an obvious choice resulting in the signing of the bilateral agreement in June. The document outlines China’s willingness to invest in railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure across Ukraine. But otherwise, the agreement details few specifics.
The available details from the deal fit comfortably into the pattern China has been following across Eurasia. For example, China signed similar deals with Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others, demonstrating its willingness to penetrate those states’ vital infrastructure. Still, the documents can be also characterized as an umbrella agreement that serves as a roadmap rather than an accord listing concrete details and commitments.
The China-Ukraine agreement is all the more surprising as Kyiv rebuffed earlier this year a Chinese proposal to buy a Ukrainian aerospace company, Motor Sich.
Nevertheless, there are several reasons behind the rapprochement. First and foremost, it is about Ukraine adjusting its foreign policy stance to the state of economic relations. China is now Ukraine’s biggest single-country trade partner outstripping Russia and having a 14.4 percent share of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Perhaps fearful of possible Chinese countermeasures over the Motor Sich decision, Kyiv has been open to mending ties with Beijing with the June agreement.
Secondly, it paves the way for a more active role in China’s near-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims at connecting China with the European market across the heart of Eurasia. Ukraine was among the first to endorse the initiative but has avoided signing memorandums on cooperation similar to what China has done with many others.
More immediately, the tilt toward China follows Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang. While Ukraine initially joined the initiative, together with 40 other states, Kyiv abruptly changed its mind on June 24. It has been confirmed that the withdrawal followed Chinese threats to limit trade and deny access to COVID-19 vaccines for which Ukraine had already paid.
Some larger geopolitical dynamics are also at play, such as Kyiv’s attempt to acclimate to the changing world order and the growing global competition between Beijing and Washington. In this environment, Ukraine might want to carve out an equidistant place between the two powers so as to avoid possible backlash from siding clearly with either of them.
As such, Ukraine appears to be embarking on a multi-vector foreign policy. It would allow Kyiv to alleviate its dependence on the West and seek lucrative economic and political ties with large Eurasian states. Put simply, relations with the West did not deliver on the expected benefits. The country was not offered NATO or EU accession, while the collective West’s consistent concessions to Russia undermine Ukraine’s interests. Ukraine has also often tended to look at China and other Eurasian powers from the ‘Western perspective’, which limited its options.
In Kyiv’s understanding, elimination of this obstructive dependence would enable it to find new partners able to bring in investments and ideally political support in multilateral organizations. China undoubtedly can be such a partner.
Kyiv’s calculations are more understandable when taken in view of its larger diplomatic readjustment in the region. For example, Ukraine recently began building closer relations with another Eurasian power in Turkey. When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul in April 2021, nascent bilateral military ties were seen as a new chapter in the countries’ relations. Most indicative of this shift, a memorandum was signed on the creation of joint defense-industrial projects, which includes joint development of unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine.
The story of Turkey could serve as a microcosm, whereby Kyiv displayed that it is more interested in balancing the pressure from Russia and mitigating the failures in its pro-Western foreign policy course. Ukraine thus foreshadowed its increasingly multi-vector foreign policy as a solution to its geopolitical problems. In Kyiv’s understanding, rapprochement with China and Turkey could mitigate threats emanating from Russia as both Beijing and Ankara enjoy closer ties with Moscow, but nonetheless consider it a competitor.
The multi-vector foreign policy for Ukraine however does not mean abandoning its pro-Western cause. It rather involves seeing its NATO/EU aspirations as complementary with the closer economic ties with China and others. It will require an agile foreign policy and leveraging the country’s geopolitical assets.
New Type of Bilateral Relations
Ukraine’s behavior might herald the birth of what could be characterized as a Eurasian model of bilateral relations. Across the continent, the notion of traditional alliances is being gradually replaced by partnerships. Devoid of formal obligations, China, Iran, Turkey and Russia find more space for interaction and see a larger pool of opportunities across the vastness of the supercontinent. Bigger maneuverability makes their foreign policy more agile in finding a common ground for cooperation.
The Eurasian model is a byproduct of an evolving global order in which each state with geopolitical influence recalibrates its foreign ties to fit into the post-unipolar world. Russia and China officially refuse to have an alliance – indeed, they claim an alliance would undermine their purportedly benevolent intentions toward one another. More specifically, the concept relates to how China sees the future world order. It opposes alliances – the ‘relic’ from the Cold War era.
Thus, the shift in Kyiv’s foreign policy could be part of this Eurasian trend where Ukraine seeks to construct its Asia policy which would better correspond to the unfolding China-US competition, Asia’s economic rise, and most of all, the failure to become a NATO or EU member state.
However, closer ties with China and most of all the dependence on Beijing’s investments also involves risks. China’s infrastructure projects are mostly financed through loans, which poorer and weaker countries are unable to repay. Often, ownership of the sites ends up in Chinese hands.
Chinese involvement in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure could also risk giving control over strategic technologies to Beijing, which would be channeled to China and successfully used to advance Chinese interests.
For Kyiv, dependence on Beijing also involves risks because of China’s close partnership with Russia. Dangers could be manifested in a concerted pressure on Ukraine in international organizations, or even China heeding Russian fears and abandoning infrastructure projects which would harm Russian interests.
The June agreement is an umbrella deal that lays out the foundation for deeper cooperation, but in no way guarantees its fulfillment. This could mean that Ukraine only sought to restore worsening bilateral relations with China following the Motor Sich saga. Alternatively, Kyiv might merely be trying to raise stakes in its stagnated relations with the West and hold Washington to account, signaling that it can successfully navigate between geopolitical poles if need be.
Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers
Ukraine’s independence: Shaping new political narratives through art
Ukraine’s 30th Independence Anniversary brings forth a discussion on forming a modern cultural identity in the wake of political instability.
Despite gaining independence 30 years ago, Ukraine is still facing consistent attacks on its sovereignty, both political and cultural. From the ongoing war with Russia in Eastern Ukraine, where 10,000 people have lost their lives since 2014, down to the root of oversimplification of Ukrainian issues in the media, Ukraine’s story is often being told by opponents attempting to distort the modern Ukrainian cultural identity.
My first-hand experience working with kids at the Ukrainian warzone has taught me a deep appreciation for cultural independence. For five years together with youngsters I wrote, directed and staged a performance piece titled ‘Contact Line’ about life at the warzone and personally witnessed the huge impact of arts and culture on the kids’ lives. This experience demonstrated that for too long Ukraine has let someone else present its identity to its youth, citizens and the world.
Shaking away the Soviet legacy
There’s no denying that the Soviet Union left a lasting legacy on Ukraine. The culture of Ukraine is to this day tainted by lingering ghosts of the Soviet past. Soviet authorities vigorously supressed the development of independent cultural identities in all the member states. In Ukraine’s case, simplistic rural folklore was imposed on society as a primary culture and was a means of suppressing creative or progressive thought. National collectives and one-dimensional traditional themes were presented as the essence of Ukrainian culture throughout the 20th century. Anyone who didn’t fit the Soviet mould was eliminated. A specific term, Executed Renaissance, is used to define a generation of Ukrainian artists who were repressed by the Soviet regime for their artistic non-conformism.
It has taken decades for Ukraine to regain its cultural voice and iron out its Soviet imprint. A key concept of postcolonial theory examines the creative resistance to the colonizers’ culture and the fraught slow development of a postcolonial identity. Ukraine has been struggling through this process for 30 years. However, since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity the country has been reimagining its culture, exploring its history and reconnecting with its identity. Ukraine is now striving to be on par with Western culture by ridding itself of remaining Soviet influences. Cultural institutions previously under government control or censorship are finding an independent voice and the population is discovering that authentic artistic expression is providing hope in difficult times.
Looking at the future
Over the past 10 years, Ukraine has witnessed a robust change in the arts sector. The cultural scene has made a significant move away from a conservative ethos to a more contemporary one. Visual arts are the most progressive form of expression in Ukraine, with cinema rapidly catching up. Ukrainian filmmakers are winning awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Ukrainian artists are receiving praise at La Biennale di Venezia. The expectation is that this trend will not only magnify in the coming years, but also position Ukrainian artists as global creative trailblazers.
Despite ballet being an extremely politicised art form during the Soviet period, it is now going through a revival and modernisation. The Ukrainain school of ballet is gaining recognition as one of the world’s best and Ukrainian ballet dancers are headlining the top ballet companies across the globe, showcasing their immense talent and training. British audiences will have an opportunity to watch the best Ukrainian ballet dancers from the world’s top theatres come together for a one-off unique performance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on September 7th.
Georgian-American ballet choreographer George Balanchine famously said, “Ballet will speak for itself,” and the artform remains a true demonstration of the universal language of dance. The Ukrainian Ballet Gala will be a showcase of the innovation and traditions of the contemporary Ukrainian ballet school.
Global cultural promotion
In a globalised world it’s the wish of every country to promote and engage in cultural exchanges, and Ukraine is very much part of this movement. Ukraine wants to be an active player on the world stage, both politically and culturally, and to be a dynamic culture creator, particularly in Europe. Trust in soft diplomacy is growing and Ukraine’s international relations and diplomacy are benefiting from this trend.
As a Ukrainian-born and British-educated theatre producer and director I appreciate the importance of bringing the best of Ukrainian culture to the world not just for Ukraine’s benefit, but to enrich global culture and share experiences through creative means. It is the job of people like me and my colleagues to tell Ukraine’s story through art and, thus, shape new political narratives about Ukraine internationally. We want to share our rich culture with the world and events, such as the Ukrainian Ballet Gala, are key to achieving this.
Ukrainians are now left with no choice but to stride forward – no outside force should ever again control the vibrant culture of Ukraine.
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