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Leaving the Euronest: Why Azerbaijan is Unhappy

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The European Union may have found itself deeper into a conflict than it had originally planned when it invited both Armenia and Azerbaijan into the Euronest.

Recently, Azerbaijan has felt as though it was dealing with unfair persecution from a select group of members in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly and decided to formally withdraw from the union. According to the resolution that was drafted on 10 September of this year, the Milli Mejlis (the Azeri Congress) cited:

They [Euronest members] slander Azerbaijan, trying to damage the image of our country and isolate it. Since last September when this institution began to operate with a new staff, Azerbaijan hasn’t managed to begin a dialogue with it due to the fault of several European Parliament members, including its President.

Many of the members of the Euronest have been plaguing Azerbaijan with accusations of human rights violations. These violations stem from the treatment of prisoners that are being held in Azeri prisons. The accusations came soon after Azerbaijan refused to participate in the session that was held in March 2015. Azerbaijan claimed that the reason for non-participation in the session held in Yerevan, Armenia stemmed from the continuing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the horrendous state of the Sarsang Reservoir, and the continued blockade of Nakhchivan. Azerbaijan has continued to voice concerns over these three regions over the years, but seems to be especially irritated that little progress has been made through Euronest in obtaining any type of satisfactory solution or even substantive progress.

The Nagorno-Karabakh region is a part of Azerbaijan that is run by the ethnic Armenian population. In the summer of 2014, clashes between the Armenians and the Azeris rose to the highest levels since 1994. The area is still prone to frequent commando raids and sniper fire, which makes the lives of residents there difficult to say the least. Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to reign in the leaders by calling them both to Sochi. Putin was able to stop the rising tension, but was not able to bring either party closer to a resolution. When the Euronest decided to hold the 2015 session in Armenia, it left Azerbaijan feeling like it had no place within the assembly. Azerbaijan did not understand how the Euronest would claim such atrocities committed by the Azeris while turning a blind eye toward the Armenians’ bad behavior and even giving them a great honor by holding the next session in their state.

Azeris also felt slighted when Russia persuaded Armenia to join Putin’s Eurasian Union. It is this alliance, where Russia is providing a security backing to Armenia, which has increased the Azeri feeling of insecurity. In response, Azerbaijan has been utilizing its hydrocarbon revenues to increase the size and strength of its military. Combine this with a new more nationalist defense minister and diplomatic problems are arising in all areas. The Azeris have lost trust in the West to deal fairly with its issues with Armenia. The reason for this can be attributed to how the West has dealt with President Putin over Crimea: Azeris do not seem to understand how the West can try to punish Putin for that, but continue to ignore the alleged illegalities and immoralities committed by the Armenians against them.

The second reason that Azerbaijan decided not to attend the session in Yerevan is the increasingly dilapidated status of the Sarsang Reservoir. Since 2013 it has been known that the dam at the reservoir was in an emergency condition. Since the dam was seized over 20 years ago, it has been under the control of Armenia. The problem is that if—more likely when—there will be a failure at the dam, it will threaten the lives of over 400,000 people that live downstream, who are predominantly Azeri. The Azerbaijani Government continues to make evacuation plans in the event the dam fails, but the estimates of engineers give less than one hour from the catastrophic collapse of the dam to the whole area being submerged underwater.

The other issue that revolves around the Sarsang Reservoir is that the Armenians continue to use the reservoir as a way to threaten the livelihood of the inhabitants on the Azeri side. Since the dam is controlled by Armenia, it can decide when to turn the water and power generation features on and off. It uses this control to leverage threats against the Azeris. This is serious enough that the Chairman of the Azerbaijani Delegation to the Euronest PA, Elkhan Suleymanov, forwarded his concerns about the physical status of the dam as well as the way Armenia uses the dam against Azerbaijan not just to Euronest but to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Suleymanov included in his reports that during the summer months Armenia would shut the dam down, depriving the people downstream of the commodity of water. During the winter months Armenia would open the floodgates, causing agricultural lands to flood and roads to wash out.

The last reason that Azerbaijan protested attending the last session of Euronest in Yerevan is because of the blockades that have been in effect against Azerbaijan’s autonomous province of Nakhchivan. The blockades proved severely detrimental: Azerbaijan was unable to supply food and fuel and the gas, rail, electrical, and radio lines were all cut to the province. During the harsh winter there was not enough fuel and some of the people resorted to burning their furniture in order to stay warm. The only lifeline in the early days of the blockade that sustained Nakhchivan were the two small bridges that were built by Heydar Aliev. It is a testament to the province and the people of Azerbaijan that the province is now a growing, self-sustaining region. The increasing hydrocarbon wealth of Azerbaijan has also helped significantly to revitalize and supply the area. The future endeavors of the province include spiritual and ecological tourism. Therefore the accusations that have been made against Azerbaijan in the recent past by Euronest members threaten the continued prosperity of the region.

These newest claims by Euronest against Azerbaijan only further ignite the fury of the Azeris. Unfortunately, some of that anger has fueled a Baku crackdown that has led to many anti-government activists’ arrests and non-governmental organizations finding their accounts suddenly frozen. The growth of Azerbaijan’s wealth has rebuilt its confidence so that it no longer wants to be controlled by any organization, whether that is European or Russian. But Europe choosing to ignore the faults on the Armenian side and continuing to prosecute those on the Azerbaijan side relatively exclusively, while Russia provides additional economic opportunity to the Armenians, is taking a negative situation and fanning into a full-on future inferno of hostility. Consequently, in this instance, the ‘Euronest’ is something the Azeri bird is eager and happy to leave.

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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Eastern Europe

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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