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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.

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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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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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