Azeri Janus: Baku Balancing both East and West
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.
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
Latvia risks to turn to a ghost state
Latvia 2020 population was estimated at 1,886,198 people at mid year according to UN data.
At the beginning of 2022 population of Latvia accounted for 1 million 876 thousand people, which is 17.5 thousand people fewer than a year ago.
The current population of Latvia is 1,826,608 as of May 17, 2023, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data.
For many years Latvia has suffered from a so-called “brain drain”, a phenomena when young highly trained and qualified people emigrate from the country. Since Latvia became a member of European Union and Schengen Area and when working in other countries became especially easy, the human capital flight from the country has intensified and reached high figures, when Latvia lost many residents due to emigration.
The number of young people continues to has decline sharply. At the beginning of 2022, there were 234,500 boys and girls aged 13 to 25 living in the country. This is 12.5% of all residents. Behind the reduction of this group is not only a decrease in the birth rate, falling living standards but also emigration. The young and talented people prefer not to stay here.
One new reason for youth to leave the country has appeared this year. Latvia reintroduces compulsory military service. The decision was made by the country’s parliament on April 5. Latvia has not had compulsory military service since 2007 when it was abolished.
From 2024 onward, the number of conscripts will increase. The plan is to call up 7,500 Latvians every year, starting in 2028. This will increase the size of the army from over 22,000 soldiers to 50,000, including territorial defense and reserves.
The Baltic nation feels threatened due to the war in Ukraine. But, new public surveys show that many young men are not convinced that compulsory military service is the right reaction. Only a small share of people back compulsory military service.
Young men are known for their rebellious ways. So, it’s hardly surprising that the Latvian government’s recent decision to reintroduce compulsory military service has not gone down particularly well with them.
Far fewer people wanted to become professional soldiers. There have not been any national opinion polls conducted on the topic recently. But a study in May 2022 found that more than 40% of Latvians opposed it. According to Maris Andzans, a professor at Riga Stradins University, who wrote in a February briefing for the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, support was lower among younger respondents, with only 34% in the 18-24 age group supportive of the idea.
In Latvia, there is also another segment of the population that doesn’t like the idea of military service. Some members of the country’s Russian-speaking minority are skeptical about what they perceive as the country’s pro-Western course. Russian-speakers make up about a quarter of Latvia’s 1.9 million-strong population. Joining the Latvian army to “fight against your own people” is not something they wanted to do. So many are planning to leave. So, a phenomena of “men drain” when young highly trained and qualified people emigrate from the country because of unwillingness to serve.
Russia and Georgia Working Towards Improving Bilateral Relations
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest decree to review the visa regime for Georgian citizens and relaunching Tbilisi-Moscow flights between the two capitals starting May 15, has sparked antagonism among members of the European Union. Putin signed the decree waiving the visa requirement for Georgian citizens. In another decree, the president canceled the ban for Russian air carriers to perform flights to Georgia and on selling tours to the country.
According to the document, “from May 15, 2023, citizens of Georgia may enter the Russian Federation and leave the Russian Federation without visas, on the basis of valid identity documents.” In addition, a decree was issued to lift restrictions on flights to Georgia, which have been in force since July 2019.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili branded these decisions as provocative, while Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili said that he welcomed the visa-free travel and direct flights. Russia introduced visas for Georgians in 2000. Georgia waived the visa requirement for Russians in 2012.
According to several media reports, the United States and the European Union have warned Tbilisi about the risks of sanctions in the event of the resumption of air traffic with Russia. Both Russia and Georgia have had cross-haired relations down the years. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were severed by Tbilisi in 2008 after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia, like any other former Soviet republics, to some extent have reservations on their political relations with Russia. In a number of post-Soviet republics prefer dealing with the United States and the European Union. Russian authorities are aware of these facts and trends, while policies are still considered or seen as hard and dominating.
Addressing the third Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club on May 16, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin said that some Central Asian countries and the former Soviet republics are showing little appetite for risk and, there also signs that may join sanctions against Russia.
However, he warned that any artificial severance of ties with Russia may cause more damage than the costs of any secondary sanctions. The senior Russian diplomat emphasized that Russia is seeking to consistently intensify its strategic partnership with these countries across the region. With with the bulk of them experiencing economic transformations, more foreign investments are trickling in from the United States and European.
Despite that, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili expressed hope that European partners would understand the importance of the decision to carry on trading with Russia because trade is among the broad interest of and the proximity as a factor for Georgia.
Georgian Airways launches its Tbilisi-Moscow flights starting May 20, the Civil Aviation Agency has already issued a permit to Georgian Airways for flights, to be operated seven times a week, to Russia.
The Russian Transport Ministry said that after the restrictions are lifted, Russian airlines will also fly between Moscow and Tbilisi 7 times a week using domestic aircraft. Red Wings, whose fleet is comprised mainly of Russian SSJ100s, quickly announced they were ready to start flights to Georgia if they could receive the necessary permits. Three Russian airlines have applied for direct regular flights to three Georgian airports including Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi.
Restoring flights between Georgia and Russia in 2023 could bring $300 to $400 million in additional revenue for the Georgian tourism sector, Georgian Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili said at a briefing after a government meeting held May 15.
Davitashvili noted the successes achieved in the tourism sector in the post-pandemic period and expressed hope that this year the flow of travelers from Russia will increase even more, as well as from other countries, in particular from neighboring Azerbaijan.
The Deputy Prime Minister stressed that it would not be “pragmatic” to turn down direct flights between Russia and Georgia. That the country’s population would positively assess the efforts that the authorities are making to improve the country’s economy. At the same time, Davitashvili stressed that the country’s course towards joining the European Union remains unchanged.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s relations with former Soviet republics has remarkable difficulties due to several factors. Georgia, like all the former Soviet republics, has its political sentiments, viewpoints and approach towards Russia, which mounted ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine since February 2022, and has currently come under a series of stringent sanctions.
Russia, Ukraine to receive African Delegation for Potential Peace Plan
Local Russian and foreign media awash with the latest potential peace efforts, this time, from African leaders. Presumably this group of peace-makers, headed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, will demonstrate collective efforts at resolving the heightened political differences between Russia and its neighbouring Ukraine.
According official sources monitored by this author, the peace plan is backed by African leaders of Senegal, Uganda, Egypt, the Republic of the Congo and Zambia. Four of those six African countries – South Africa, Congo, Senegal and Uganda – abstained from a U.N. vote last year on condemning Russia’s invasion. Zambia and Egypt voted in favour of the motion.
Zambia has historical ties with Russia. Uganda is a U.S. ally on regional security in East Africa, but Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has spoken of his country’s friendship with Russia and its neutral position in the war in Ukraine. Previously, the African Union, regional economic organizations have officially called for the adoption of diplomacy mechanisms and negotiations through which to end the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
Last year in March, Senegalese President Macky Sall and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, held discussions on the main aspects of the special military operation and on the importance of humanitarian issues and suggested ending the conflict through diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a phone conversation May 12, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Putin supported his idea of several African leaders participating in the Ukrainian settlement. The South African leader pointed out that the Ukrainian crisis negatively impacts Africa because it triggered growing food and fuel prices. “A group of African heads of states took the view that Africa does need to put forward an initiative, a peace initiative, that could help to contribute to the solution of that conflict,” he added, according to report by Singapore’s CABC radio station.
Ramaphosa said he spoke with Putin and Zelenskyy by phone over the weekend and they each agreed to host “an African leaders peace mission” in Moscow and Kyiv, respectively. “Principal to our discussions are efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the devastating conflict in the Ukraine,” Ramaphosa was quoted in media reports.
According to Russian media, a group of African countries is in the process of coordinating the terms and timeframes of its visit to Moscow and Kiev in order to lay out their Ukrainian reconciliation initiative. It said further that “the modalities of the trip are being worked on with both countries. It’s a group of African Heads of State.”
It said the governments of Russia and Ukraine had agreed to receive an African delegation, whose goal is to find a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian conflict. Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zelenskyy have given their consent to receive the African delegation in Moscow and Kiev.
Details of the plan have not been publicly released, although Ukraine’s stated position for any peace deal is that all Russian troops must withdraw from its territory. But Ramaphosa said the United States and Britain had expressed “cautious” support for the plan and the U.N. Secretary General had also been briefed about the initiative.
Considered one of Moscow’s closest allies on the continent, South Africa says it is impartial and has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions on the war. Last week, it rejected claims by U.S. ambassador to South Africa that weapons were loaded onto a Russian vessel from a naval base in Cape Town in December. Reports said Ramaphosa had opened an inquiry into the allegation.
South Africa is preparing to attend the next Russia-Africa Summit in July 2023 in St. Petersburg. In August, it will host the next BRICS gathering in Durban. The BRICS group of nations are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. With BRICS as an example, China has attempted playing a crucial role in the conflict resolution between Russia and Ukraine.
China has been, so far, offering to mediate possible peace talks, an offer clouded by its show of political support for Moscow. Beijing released a proposed peace plan in February, and a Chinese envoy is preparing to visit Russia and Ukraine. But there appeared to be little chance of an imminent breakthrough to end the war since Ukraine and its Western allies largely dismissed the Beijing’s proposal.
The Kremlin wants Kyiv to acknowledge Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, which most nations have denounced as illegal. Ukraine has rejected the demands and ruled out any talks with Russia until its troops pull back from all occupied territories. Ukraine is determined to recover all Russian-occupied areas.
Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan also includes a tribunal to prosecute crimes of aggression, which would enable Russia to be held accountable for its invasion. Zelenskyy had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 14, later saying he sought support for Ukraine’s peace plan from the pontiff.
As a new world is awakening to the worsening situation, it is necessary that all countries must be guided by the principles of non-interference, respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Due to its ‘special military operation’ that it started in February 2022, Russia is currently experiencing a raft of sanctions imposed by the United States and Canada, European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and a host of other countries.
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