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Walking a Delicate Geostrategic Line: Azerbaijan’s Role to the U.S. and Russia

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Although the Cold War is long over there has still been a large degree of geopolitical competition between the West and Russia. This geopolitical battle is now being waged on the coast of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is in a unique position in that the West and Russia are both vying to gain influence in it. The desire for this influence goes far beyond the potential for access to natural gas. The West is seeking to deny Russia any allies in the area while Russia is trying to retain its traditional sphere of influence. Through Azerbaijan the West will also significantly reduce its energy dependence upon Russia. Through an analysis of recent Azeri relations with the West and Russia, the West has an opportunity to gain this new geostrategic ally.

After the end of the Cold War, Western states immediately began expanding their influence eastward into traditional Russian-allied states and former Soviet Republics. This was meant to provide two geostrategic benefits to both Western states and their new allies in the east. The ‘West’ benefited by gaining access to these new economies and by shortening the list of Russian allies. The ‘East’ benefited by being able to integrate economically with the West and begin gaining security guarantees, particularly Eastern states trying to join NATO, not dependent on Russia. Over 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union this has been the standard Western policy position. Therefore it is logical that this policy would be aimed into the Caspian Sea region with Azerbaijan.

Despite the policy of geopolitically isolating Russia, European countries have become somewhat dependent on Russian natural resources. This is in reference to large-scale Russian gas exports to Europe which represent around a third of its natural gas needs. This economic interdependence with Russia has made responding to Russian initiatives such as the Ukraine crisis very difficult. With new resources ripe for extraction in the Azeri Caspian, Azerbaijan is a prime target for courting by the West to reduce energy dependence with Russia and continue the policy of denying Russia regional influence.

The West already has its foot in the door in regards to building a security relationship with Azerbaijan. As with many other former East European Soviet states which joined NATO, this could be the beginning step of Azeri entry into NATO as well as closer economic relationships with the EU, both of which Russia naturally opposes. Azerbaijan has participated in various NATO military operations with troop deployments in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Azerbaijan has also hosted NATO military exercises despite not being an official member. The US in particular has begun aiding the Azeri military with new supplies from small arms all the way to upgrading its navy.

Perhaps the most substantial future extension of the West’s military foot in the Azeri door comes from Turkey’s relationship with the country. Turkey has its own ambitions in the Caucasus region, trying to expand its influence into Azerbaijan. This is in alignment with overarching Western policy, which seeks to deny Russian influence and expand economically. Turkey would greatly benefit from access to Azeri natural resources in the Caspian Sea. Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan recently joined in a military alliance with one another which includes joint exercises. Being that Turkey is vying for influence in this region, its clear targets are the other two major regional powers, Russia and Iran. With Turkey being a member of NATO and now militarily-linked with Azerbaijan, the West has a new foot in the door, gaining access perhaps to Azeri natural resources in return for lessening its dependence on Russian ‘security.’

The West is also trying to bring Azerbaijan closer to its economic orbit and away from Russian monetary/trade influence. Many Western companies are already in the Azeri Caspian region extracting natural gas. The major energy player, BP, just expanded its scope and length of stay in Azeri Caspian waters. Although there are already numerous and diverse Western companies involved in Azerbaijan, the main economic goal is the creation of a pipeline from Azerbaijan to the West, with the West willing to foot the bill for it. However, despite this shared benefit and interest, there is much resistance from Azerbaijan’s former benefactor as it seeks to keep it away from Western influence. Azerbaijan is of high importance to Russia due to the economic benefits it provides. Keeping Azerbaijan in its orbit will result in these Caspian Sea resources going towards the Russian economy and will prevent them from benefitting the West, thereby keeping Europe mostly dependent upon Russian natural gas. However, disputes over the legality of and boundaries within the Caspian Sea, plus the attractiveness of the West overall, makes Russia’s attempt to retain exclusive influence in Azerbaijan quite difficult.

The 2008 Georgia War, with its ongoing disputes, and the Ukraine crisis presently highlights the dangers when leaving Russia’s orbit to move towards the West. However, Russia’s relationship with the former Soviet Republic Armenia is of particular concern to Azerbaijan. Armenia was supported militarily by Russia during a brutal war with Azerbaijan from the late 1980s until the mid 1990s. Russia continues to maintain a large military presence in Armenia, even as tensions and skirmishes persist to this day. Russia’s support of Azerbaijan’s old problem (and the concern it may one day again be a ‘new’ problem) will undoubtedly be taken into consideration as it decides how much to align with the West or not and how much to keep Russia within its interests and objectives.

Post-Cold War Western policy has and continues to seek to deny Russia its traditional allies militarily and economically, which in turn benefits the West by militarily softening Russian coercion and economically steering these Caspian economies away. Azerbaijan is in the West’s sights exactly for this reason. It will also hurt the Russian economy through loss of access to Azeri resources and the loss of Western business. The West has much to offer Azerbaijan, which it has thus far readily accepted with military ties, equipment, and even a security guarantee from NATO-member Turkey. Russia on the other hand is somewhat feeling backed into a corner with little to offer Azerbaijan other than not taking military action. The one foreseeable problem with this trend, however, could be what happened in Ukraine: not the idea of military aggression or civil unrest, but the under-emphasized aspect of EU promises to Ukraine being far more long-term and unrealized when compared to Russian proposals that were more immediately lucrative and short-term. Russia may not have as many diverse resources for negotiation with Azerbaijan compared to the West, but it likely does have a higher motivation level to make those negotiations more favorable in the present-day to Azeris. This could prove quite impactful, as Azerbaijan tries to steer a very delicate middle balance between the two: wanting to be more part of the West economically while still in Russia’s good favor geostrategically. This might end up being the REAL Azeri foreign policy, one that neither Russia nor the West is ready to fully engage but will likely have to before long.

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Eastern Europe

Will Russia serve the old wine in a new bottle?

Angela Amirjanyan

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Nowadays, one of the main features of global political developments are non-violent or color revolutions. These revolutions are brought about by wide-spread corruption, poverty, unemployment and a deep gap between masses and the ruling elite with the latter being the biggest political risk for the ruling party. Most analysts argue that these factors are combined also with outside support, which can culminate in the revolution. However, what happened in Armenia after a few weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the Velvet revolution, that brought down the regime and has exercised true people power, is considered to be unprecedented for it didn’t owe its origin to the external assistance or wasn’t an attempt by ‘‘US to export democracy’’ in Armenia. The geopolitical factor was initially excluded.  In fact, Russia has traditionally had negative attitude towards color revolutions and has seen them ‘‘as a new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties’’.This means that Russia, desperate to maintain its own standing in the Caucasus, was likely to intervene in the events unfolding in Armenia. However, the Kremlin didn’t view turmoil in Armenia as a Ukraine-style revolution. Asked if Russia would intervene, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the matter was “exclusively an internal affair” and Russian action would be “absolutely inappropriate”. Moreover, after Armenia’s unpopular leader Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Armenians “a great people” and wrote, “Armenia, Russia is always with you!”

The prospect of a Russian intervention was low for 2 key reasons

One of the possible reasons behind Russian inaction was that Moscow didn’t regard the revolution in Armenia as a threat to its geopolitical prerogatives, but rather as an opportunity to make a strategic move through a global panic over Russia’s continued warlike behavior. Satisfied that this is genuinely an internal Armenian issue directed at an incompetent and ineffective government, Russia proved with its muted response to Armenia’s color revolution that Kremlin embraces the policy of non-interventionism.

Secondly, a rapid spread of pro-Western sentiment among local journalists, civil society representatives and youth was prevalent in Armenia in the past decade. This process only accelerated after Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly decided in 2013 to join Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) over EU Association Agreement.Yerevan’s decision of September 3, 2013 to involve in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was mostly conditioned by Moscow’s ultimatum imposition, which left a deep track in the perception of Armenia-Russia relations and formed a comparatively new cliché. Anti-Russian sentiments were on rise in Armenia in recent years due to major levers of influence that Russia maintained over Armenia: Armenia’s corrupt oligarchic system and the military threat coming from Azerbaijan. Civil society and the opposition in Armenia viewed Russia as the sponsor of the autocratic, oligarchic system of governance in Armenia. They have traditionally criticized the government for having closest ties with the country which provides 85 percent of arms export to Azerbaijan-a country which is in continuous conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.  This anti-Russian sentiment reached its apex in 2016 when the intense fighting broke out in Karabagh known as Four-Day War. This drew the public attention to the Russian-supplied arms which played a role in the deaths of dozens of soldiers.

Both opposition leaders and civil society members demanded not only Armenia’s exit from the EAEU, but also an end to the Russian military presence in the country. The anti-Russian rhetoric was useful for both the Armenian government and the opposition to alert Russia not to take Armenia for granted.Hence, in one way the April Revolution in Armenia was a test for Russian-Armenian relations, and Russia viewed it as a new impulse for mutually beneficial relations aimed at restoring the damage of Russia’s protective image among Armenians.Needless to say,Armenia is important to Russia, as losing Armenia would cause fundamental changes in Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus. Furthermore, Armenia can’t cherry-pick among its closest allies because its landlocked position limits the freedom to maneuver in its foreign policy and its economic and defense imperatives dictate a close alignment with Russia. This was reaffirmed by new prime minister and protest leader of Armenia, Nikol Pashinian, who not only supported maintaining the current Russian-Armenian relationship but also suggested a “new impulse” for political and trade relations during the meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 14. During another meeting a month later, Armenian PM expressed his hope that ‘’the relations will develop more effectively on the basis of mutual respect for the best interest and sovereignty of the two States’’.

On the whole, Armenia will continue to pursue its “Complementarian” or multi-vector foreign policy, which means that no radical change in the realm of foreign policy is expected to take place.  Yet there is no strong anti-Russian current in Armenian political and society rhetoric. The recent civic movement was significant in realizing the potential of Russian-Armenian mutual relations for economic development and security. Undeniably, Russia should adopt new approaches towards Armenia and it should realize that under new circumstances the backward-looking policies are destined to be counter-productive. In Armenia people hope that Kremlin wouldn’t serve the old wine in a new bottle.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania deserves better life

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The latest expressive headlines on delfi.lt (the main Lithuanian news portal) such as “Gender pay gap increased in Lithuania”, “Sudden drop in EU support pushes Lithuania into middle income trap, finmin says”, “Lithuanian travellers spent EUR 186.5 mln abroad this year” and “Lithuania’s Jan-May budget revenue EUR 14.3 mln below target” clearly demonstrate difficult situation in the country. The only positive thing in this fact is Lithuanian authorities do not try to hide the social problems or they just cannot do it anymore.

While in the international arena Lithuania continues to be very active and promising, the internal political and social crisis as well as decrease in living standards of the population make Lithuanians worry about their future. Idleness of the Lithuanian authorities makes the country poorer.

The most acute social problems today are emigration of young people, unemployment rate, increase in the number of older persons and poverty. The appalling consequences of such phenomena are alcoholism and suicides of the Lithuanians.

According to Boguslavas Gruževskis, the Head of Labour Market Research Institute, in the next 5-6 years, Lithuania must accumulate reserves so that our social protection system can operate for 15 years under negative conditions, otherwise serious consequences are expected.

Over the past two years the level of emigration has grown by more than 1.5 times. In 2015 the country left about 30,000 people, in 2017 – 50,000. This is a social catastrophe, because, in fact, the country has lost the population of one Lithuanian city. And the situation with depopulation cannot be corrected by an increase in the number of migrants coming to Lithuania. Their number is too small because Lithuania cannot afford high living conditions for newcomers like Germany or other European countries and may serve only as transitory hub.

As for unemployment rate and poverty, in Lithuania, 7.1% of the population is officially considered unemployed. The more so according to the Department of Statistics for 2016, 30% of Lithuanian citizens live on the verge of poverty, which is 7% higher than the average European level.

One of the most profitable sectors of the economy – tourism, which allows many European countries to flourish, Lithuanian authorities do not develop at all. Even Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis plans to spend his summer vacation in Spain. This fact speaks for itself. Skvernelis notes that spending vacation in Spain is cheaper than in Lithuania. Thus, he is lacking the will or skill to do something with the situation as well as other high ranking officials. He is named one of the main presidential candidates but does nothing to improve the distressful situation.

At the same time, Lithuanian President wants more foreign troops and modern weapons, increase in defence budget and uses all her skills to persuade her NATO colleagues to give help. Probably, she is afraid of her own people, which is tired of helpless and indifferent authorities, and wants to protect herself by means of all these new weapons and foreign soldiers?

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Eastern Europe

Spoiled Latvia’s image in the international arena

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Latvia is actively preparing for one of the most important political event of the year. Parliamentary elections will take place in October 6, 2018. Submissions of the lists of candidates for the 13th Saeima elections will take place very soon – from July 18 to August 7, 2018. But the elections campaign as well as all political life in the country faces some problems which require additional attention from the authorities. And these problems spoil the image of Latvia as a democratic state which might respect the rights of its people.

This is a well-known fact, that the image of the state is composed of several components: it heavily depends on its foreign and domestic policy directions. The more so, internal events very often influence its foreign policy and vice versa.

Latvia considers itself a democratic state and tries to prove it by all possible means. But all attempts fail because of a serious unsolved problem – violation of human rights in Latvia.

It is not a secret that about one third of Latvians are ethnic Russians. Their right to speak and be educated in their native language is constantly violated. This problem is in the centre of attention of such international organizations as OSCE and EU. This fact makes Latvian authorities, which conducts anti Russia’s policy, extremely nervous.

Thus, the Latvian parliament recently passed in the final reading amendments to the Education Law and the Law on General Education under which schools of ethnic minorities will have to start gradual transition to Latvian-only secondary education in the 2019/2020 academic year. It is planned that, starting from 2021/2022 school year, all general education subjects in high school (grades 10-12) will be taught only in the Latvian language, while children of ethnic minorities will continue learning their native language, literature and subjects related to culture and history in the respective minority language. This caused

Hundreds joined a march in the centre of Riga in June to support Russian-language schools in Latvia. The event was held under the slogan: “For Russian schools, for the right to learn in native language,” as the government wants to switch the language of the education system to Latvian.

The European Parliament deputies called for support of Russian education in Latvia. 115 people have signed the joint declaration that will be forwarded to the Latvian Sejm and government. The declaration is signed by representatives of 28 EU countries, and almost all parliamentary factions. Every 7th deputy supported the necessity of the Russian school education in Latvia. The document authors marked that this is unprecedented expression of solidarity towards the national minorities, especially Russian residents of the EU. Authors of the letter sharply criticize the education reform that takes away from children of national minorities the right to study in their native language.

On the other hand the parliament contradicts itself by rejecting a bill allowing election campaigning only in Latvian.

The matter is in parliamentary election will take part not only Latvians, speaking Lantvian, but Latvians, who speak Russian. Their voices are of great importance either. The authorities had to recognize this and tempered justice with mercy.

After years of oppressing Russian speaking population and violating their rights Saeima committee this month rejected a bill allowing election campaigning only in Latvian.

It turned out that politicians need ethnic Russians to achieve their political goals. They suddenly remembered that Campaigning Law should not promote discrimination because publicly active people should not have problems using the state language.

“Wise” deputies understand that Russian speaking children are not going to participate in the elections while Russian speaking adults can seriously damage political plans. Only this can explain the controversy in the Parliament’s decisions.

In Russia Riga’s decision to transfer the schools of national minorities to the Latvian language of teaching considers as unacceptable and could cause introduction of special economic measures against Latvia as well as condemnation by the international community.

So, Latvia’s on-going war against its residents also could become a reason for deterioration in attitudes not only with Russia but with EU and OSCE that will have unpleasant economic and political and even security consequences for Latvia. It is absolutely clear that making unfriendly steps towards own citizens and neighboring states, Latvia can not expect a normal attitude in return.

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