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Eastern Europe

Is Caucasus the next Syria – Don’t forget OSCE

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The recent all-shoot out in Azerbaijan between the ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijani forces brought yet another round of casualties, psychological traumas and property destructions. Sudden and severe as it was, the event sent its shock waves all over Caucasus and well beyond.

Is Caucasus receiving the ‘residual heat’ from the boiling MENA? Is this a next Syria? Is a grand accommodation pacific scenario possible? Or will it be more realistic that the South Caucasus ends up violently torn apart by the grand compensation that affects all from Afghanistan up to the EU-Turkey deal?

Most observes would fully agree that for such (frozen) conflicts like this between Azerbaijan and Armenia, mediation and dialogue across the conflict cycle have no alternative. Further on, most would agree that the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) with its Minsk Group remains both the best suited FORA as well as the only international body mandated for the resolution of the conflict.

However, one cannot escape the feeling that despite more than 20 years of negotiations, this conflict remains unresolved. What is the extent of the OSCE failure to effectively utilize existing conflict resolution and post-conflict rehabilitation tools?

The very mandate of the Co-Chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group is based on CSCE Budapest Summit document of 1994, which tasks them to conduct speedy negotiations for the conclusion of a political agreement on the cessation of the armed conflict, the implementation of which will eliminate major consequences of the conflict and permit the convening of the Minsk Conference. In Budapest, the participating States have reconfirmed their commitment to the relevant Resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and underlined that the co-Chairmen should be guided in all their negotiating efforts by the OSCE principles and agreed mandate, and should be accountable to its Chairmanship and the Permanent Council (PC).

Nevertheless, as it emerged from this sudden eruption of violence in the region in late March/early April of 2016, the OSCE and its Minsk Group have been side-stepped from the settlement process. Why?

Over the years, the role of the OSCE and its participating States, including those that are members of the Minsk Group, has been limited to extending formal support to the activities of the Co-chairmen. It gradually led to change the conflict resolution process into conflict containment activities as reflected in artificial and out-of-mandate prioritization of tasks of the co-Chairmen to focus on prevention of escalation rather than lasting solution, and interference with the activities of other international organizations wishing to contribute to the true and comprehensive settlement of the conflict.

In parallel, one may observe rather selective approaches by some OSCE Member States and regional groupings to the principles with regard to the protracted conflicts in the OSCE area.

As an ending result, the Organization as such lost its control over the process. Such a lack of control over the activities led to negligence to inherent balance and inter-linkage between the principles of the most fundamental Security structure of Europe achieved ever – the Helsinki Final Act. It is rather dangerous and counterproductive to equalize the principles of non-use of force against the territorial integrity of political independence of the States, territorial integrity and equal rights and self-determination of peoples, which some publicly present as a basis for a settlement. Misinterpretation is evident even in naming of these principles.

These voices claim that there is no hierarchy among the above mentioned principles and that these elements should be observed and applied independently of each other. In fact, such a voluntary interpretation of the principles is in direct contradiction to the letter and very spirit of the Helsinki Decalogue and its Final Act, which in seven out of ten principles places strong emphasis on the necessity to fully respect internationally recognized borders of states and their territorial integrity against any attempt of forceful acquisition of territories or change of borders, and (one-sided) application of self-determination.

Such a deviation from the agreed character of the principles unfortunately provided Armenia with a card blanche to justify its territorial claims against Azerbaijan, consolidate the status-quo and made the process of settlement dependent on whims of the Armenian side.

Several FORAs (incl. the OSCE mechanisms) openly claim that they have no responsibility for the conflict resolution, and that the parties need to demonstrate political will and to make necessary compromises (‘no way to exert pressure on the sides’ and ‘we can only be a communication channel between the two conflicting parties’ lines of usual rhetoric).

In the meantime, Armenia keeps holding a premium over the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan, which it continues to occupy. Clearly, that ‘process’ is far away from OSCE principles and commitments, and will dangerously backfire elsewhere in Europe.

Unless we want another Syria, and yet Europe entirely enveloped by the insecure neighbourhood all the way from Mediterranean to Caucasus, we need a tremendous progress in the settlement of the conflict. Over last years, most of conflict resolution-potent initiatives have been blocked in the OSCE. Discussion on the conflict has been turned into a taboo within the OSCE, even when the informal discussions are in question – and so, not only when Caucasus was in case.

If we want to revive this particular process and return it from a de facto conflict containment back on track to the conflict resolution process, the following steps for Caucasus are needed:

  • To unblock and fully revitalize the OSCE Minsk Group, and intensify the efforts towards earliest pacific solution of the conflict, especially by using the best services from the member countries willing to constructively solve the problem;
  • Serious attempt of the OSCE to re-establish the dialogue at the level of the communities affected by the conflict is more than essential stabilizer. It is an indispensable instrument for any confidence building measure. To it related as complementary is the exchange of data on the missing persons, a mechanism foreseen in a tripartite approach by the French, Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents late last year. It should be coupled and further enhanced by variety of the P2P programs that could bring Armenians and Azerbaijanis all profiles, ages and origins together;
  • Items above surely presuppose the relaxation of tensions and renunciation of usage of military effectives as a means of conflict resolution. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan (either at different occasions, also through their top diplomats at the OSCE Vienna, ambassador Arman Kirakossian and ambassador Galib Israfilov) signalled their wishes and efforts to move beyond this status quo. That is in line with all statements of the UN and OSCE in past 20 years. Surely, the best way to shake this status quo of containment back on track to the lasting solution, is to eliminate the military factor;
  • Regrettably, the only military factor remaining in the region in/around Nagorno Karabakh is the presence of the Armenian troops – something that surely does not service Armenian community there on a long run! (Min how much Serbs harmed their own community in Kosovo by their rigid military stance.) If, as currently as of now, Armenian Government is serious of the danger and incidents along the Line of Contact they should withdraw their troops. If so, people could at least feel safer in those territories, halt the massive migratory wave, and plan their own future viably;
  • And finally, a pacific, orderly and balanced re-integration of the currently occupied territories back into the Azerbaijani political, legal, social and economic system – that serves ethnic Armenians on a long run the most. It will shield them from an otherwise lost demographic battle.

This would be the best way to reinvigorate the OSCE’s relevance in mediation efforts and create an environment in which the OSCE as an organization can play a meaningful role applying its existing tools – all for the lasting benefits of the peoples and nations of Caucasus. The OSCE area should be what is meant to be – the area of security and stability. Stubbornness and irrational pride should never be an obstacle to this higher end.

Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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