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Azeri Janus: Baku Balancing both East and West

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Since its transition to independence, Azerbaijan has looked both east and west for its place on the world stage. Predominantly Muslim, Azerbaijan has no formal state faith and its constitution allows for freedom of religion.

“Under the constitution, persons have the right to choose and change religious affiliation and beliefs (including atheism), to join or establish the religious group of their choice, and engage in religious practice.” (Religious Freedom Report, 2013) However, like other Middle Eastern countries, Azerbaijan’s laws targeting religion lead to fines, closures mandated by court decisions, police harassment, and the restriction of importing some religious literature (Ibid).   Azerbaijan has used these laws to imprison and restrict the activities of religious groups that it considered ‘non-traditional’. Azerbaijan’s human rights record, at least as concerns real religious freedom, is thus tarnished. Several times this year the United States has called upon Azerbaijan’s government to respect the universal rights of all its citizens. (Daily Press Briefings, 2015) Yet Azerbaijan has continued to restrict religious freedom, freedom to assemble, and restrict and punish peaceful dissent. (Human Rights Report, 2015)

Previously, Western countries, while concerned about Azerbaijan’s human rights record, focused on the energy sector and Azerbaijan’s strategic location and willingness to provide NATO and U.S. forces a supply route to Afghanistan to fight the war on terror. Potentially a key transport hub from the region to Europe, Azerbaijan wants to peacefully promote oil imports away from Russian gas, hoping to double the flow to Europe and potentially transfer gas from Turkmenistan and/or Iran as well. (Farchy, 2015) However, with the potential for new gas now able to come from Iran directly (on account of the new accord) and with the American military drawdown in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan’s strategic importance for the West has arguably waned. Investing in its Southern Gas Corridor project, Azerbaijan’s focus will shift in the immediate future to the slightly less grand need of transporting regional oil to the Mediterranean. Yet with declining oil prices and the expensive funding of the pipeline, Azerbaijan will increasingly need to be looking for external investors.

This has led to some increasing friction between Azerbaijan and Western nations on the promoting democracy and human rights fronts. (Kauzlarich, 2015) This is at least partially explained because of the following: Azerbaijan’s rightful belief in its own inviolable sovereignty; the conviction that it is following international law already; the suspicion that there is a double standard in how the West applies international law related to human rights and sovereignty (for example, the West’s support for Ukraine’s demand to return Crimea while refusing to support Azerbaijan’s plea to return Nagorno-Karabakh).

In the midst of these changes, Azerbaijan participated in the IV Caspian Summit held in Astrakhan, Russia, on September 29, 2014. After this meeting both Russia and Iran spoke to the unanimous decision by the Caspian States on the inadmissibility of any foreign military presence. Both Russia and Iran have long sought to restrict Western influence in the region and highlighted in the agreement that regional militaries are fully capable of independently maintaining the security of the Caspian Sea. (Dettoni, 2014) According to a statement issued by Russian President Putin, “only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian”. His Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, added that “there is consensus among all the Caspian Sea littoral states that they are capable of maintaining the security of the Caspian Sea and military forces of no foreign country must enter the sea.” (Ibid)

Yet, paradoxically and nearly immediately after the meeting, the United States and Azerbaijan reaffirmed their commitment to each other. First, on September 30, 2014, one day after the Caspian Summit, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “We maintain a strong security cooperation relationship with Azerbaijan, focusing on border security, counterterrorism, NATO interoperability, and its capacity to contribute peacekeepers to international missions. We do not anticipate the Caspian Five joint statement will change that.” (Daily Press Briefings, 2014)  

Additionally, in an interview to Bloomberg in December 2014, the Azerbaijani President`s Aide for Public and Political Affairs, Ali Hasanov, highlighted U.S.-Azeri bilateral relations:

“The ties between Azerbaijan and the USA coincide both in terms of national interests and from the point of view of global international aspect, and are partner relations in nature. Today the relations between the two countries continue on main issues of mutual concern, including the global transnational aspect of cooperation and partnership. These are intensive mutual contacts. I believe that these factors will define the future trend of the ties between our countries.” (Alibayli, 2015)

However, Azerbaijan still strongly disagrees with the Western view that it has suppressed human rights and ignored international law.   To Russia and Iran’s benefit, Azerbaijan therefore has a love-hate relationship with the West. While it plans to continue its focus on energy production and gas exports to Europe’s markets, Azerbaijan hates the aforementioned double standard. Yet that main energy focus on Europe also somewhat injures its positions with Russia, who is the main exporter of oil to Europe, and Iran, who will enter the market quickly with the approval of the nuclear deal and removal of some of the West’s sanctions. Currently, Azerbaijan is also dependent on Russia and Iran for grain. Vugar Bayramov, Chairman of the Center for Economic and Social Development, states, “given the fact that Azerbaijan’s population consumes more bread, products like grain and bread became strategic items for Azerbaijani government. Although Azerbaijan produced 2.4 million tons of grain in 2014, the quality of major part of the grain was not appropriate for baking industry.” He noted only a few parts of the grain are appropriate for use in the baking industry, so Azerbaijan must purchase grain from neighboring countries, in particular Russia, Kazakhstan and Iran. “Although Azerbaijan has increased its grain production, the country practically depends on import in ensuring its domestic demand.” (Karimova, 2015)

Thus Azerbaijan must look to the East and to the West, both as ally and adversary. Azerbaijan depends on Western energy markets and NATO training and coooperation. Yet, Azerbaijan similarly depends on regional cooperation to build it’s pipeline, transport gas, and provide security to the region. Thus, like the Roman diety Janus, Azerbaijan is a country of transitions – facing both east and west, to and from conflict, from its past with Russia and Armenia to its future with the West and Iran, its desire for a heightened place on the world stage remains constant. It is a delicate and ever-changing balance indeed that shows no sign in the near future of becoming less so.

 


References
Alibayli, V. (2015, July 17). Azerbaijan says yes to the USA`s peace gesture, but…. News.AZ. Retrieved from http://www.news.az/articles/politics/99668
Daily Press Briefing. (2015). Department of State. Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/
Dettoni, J. (2014, October 1). Russia and Iran Lock NATO Out of Caspian Sea. The Diplomat. Retrieved from http://thediplomat.com/2014/10/russia-and-iran-lock-nato-out-of-caspian-sea/
Farchy, J. (2015, March 12). Baku seeks alternatives as Azerbaijan oil production declines. The Financial Times. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b86cb5b4-be99-11e4-8036-00144feab7de.html#axzz3gNu9zE3p
Human Rights Report: Azerbaijan. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm?year=2014&dlid=236500
Karimova, A. (2015, January 8). Azerbaijan increases grain fund’s reserves to ensure food security. AzerNews. Retrieved from http://www.azernews.az/business/75735.html
Kauzlarich, R. D. (2015, February 12). Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats: Azerbaijan’s New Direction: Human Rights Challenges and the Situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Brookings Institute. Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/research/testimony/2015/02/12-azerbaijan-human-rights-abuses-kauzlarich
Religous Freedom Report: Azerbaijan. (2013). U.S. Department of State. Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=2013&dlid=222191

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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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