On May 6th, 2016 appeared on Foreign Policy Journal’s website an article on the 1915−1916 Armenian Genocide (Metz Yeghern) in the Ottoman Empire written by Raffi K. Hovannisian, an independent Armenia’s first minister of foreign affairs, currently chairs the opposition Heritage Party and directs the Armenian Center for National and International Studies in Yerevan which once again launched the public debate on responsibility of those who did it and a compensation to the posteriority of those who perished in the genocide. It also rose the question of collective responsibility of the nation (the Turks and the Kurds) to which the perpetrators belonged as well as of the state that is a legal successor (Turkey) of that one in which the genocide (the Ottoman Empire) occured.
Nevertheless, we belive that many new facts and proves on this issue are going to reach the public audience soon as the Catholic church recently reveals unpublished Armenian Genocide documents from its secret Archives in Vatican. The 1915−1916 Armenian Metz Yeghern is a case of genocide that is requiring the implementation and futher development of the international norms on human and minority rights. Finally, we can not forget and the Great Catastrophy or the genocide of the Ottoman Greeks from 1914 to 1923 organized and committed by the same authority as the Armenian one.
A massive destruction of the Ottoman (Orthodox Christian) Armenian population in 1915−1916 is probably the greatest atrocity committed during the WWI and for sure a first 20th century case of the genocide as up to 1.500.000 ethnic Armenians were executed by the Ottoman authorities and their collaborators (the Kurds). As a consequence, the survivors are scattered across the globe. Today it is already a century old event, but the issue of the 1915−1916 Armenian Genocide is undoubtedly still alive and divisive political issue firstly between the Armenians and the Turks but also and among the western “liberal democracies” on the question of their responsibility in the genocide similarly to the question of the western indirect participation in the WWII Jewish holocaust.
The Ottoman Empire, as all other empires in the world history, was multiethnic, multiconfessional, multilingual and multicultural state. At the eve of the WWI it was being located at three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe) with approximately two million Christian Armenians who have been living in historical-ethnogeographic Armenia, Istanbul and other towns within the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman (Turkish-Kurdish) committed genocide on the ethnic Christian Armenians, organized and realized a century ago, was one of the most comprehensive examples of ethnic cleansing ever happened and recorded. It started on April 24th, 1915 in the Ottoman capital Istanbul (a Greek Constantinople) and soon was spread over the whole empire when thousands of well-known and well-to-do Armenians were firstly arrested and detained and later tortured and murdered. The organized genocide was over in August 1916 when its second phase happened (March−August 1916) with a massive killings of the Armenians who were at that time deportees in the Syrian Desert, in or around Del el-Zor. It is today estimated that the genocide cost up to 1.500.000 Armenian lives what practically means that after the WWI left only a minority of the pre-war Armenian population (one quarter). In our days, as a direct consequence of the genocide from 1915−1916, for instance, it is very hard to find the Armenians living in the interior of Asia Minor (Anatolia, a word of the Greek origin that means the East).
Ideological background of the Armenian genocide
As all genocides, the 1915−1916 Arminian Genocide had its own ideological background. In principle, if the mass killing is not based on certain ideology it is considered to be “just” the mass killing but not either the ethnic cleansing or the genocide. Of course, every genocide ideology has its own historical background.
The rapid process of declination of the Ottoman Empire (Sultanate) started with the Serb (1804−1815) national revolution and the Greek War of Independence (1821−1829) against the Ottoman yoke. Prior to the WWI the Ottoman authorities lost almost all their European possessions followed by the establishing of the French, British and Italian protectorates (colonies) in the Ottoman North Africa from 1830 to 1912. What concerns the Armenians within the Ottoman Empire; they had very important economic and financial influence before 1915. The Ottoman government throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was allowing to the Armenian financial and industrial elite to develop their businesses. The Armenians became even responsible for the Ottoman state’s mint, having in their hands cannon and shipbuilding industries and above all the Ottoman Armenians dominated trade in the country. Especially the Armenian businesses located in Istanbul were well known in Europe. Such economic prosperity of the Ottoman Armenian higher social strata gave a foundation for the Armenian national-cultural revival in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. The Armenian economic superiority can be seen the best perhaps from the very fact that there were 32 Armenian bankers out of total 37 throughout the Ottoman Empire. However, the Armenian elite did not possess any political power in the Ottoman Empire for the very common reason and rules as this area of activity was reserved exclusively for the Muslim believers regardless on their ethnolinguistic origin.
Nevertheless, a year of 1889 is one of the most important turning points in the history of the Late Ottoman Empire as it was established illegal the Committee of Union and Progress (the CUP) by a group of well-educated civil servants and military cadets with the ultimate political-national goal to stop further declination of the state which could bring the Ottoman Empire to the end of its existence. More immediate goal was to restore the 1878 Constitution which was proclaimed as a consequence of the 1877−1878 Russo-Ottoman War and the 1878 Berlin Congress. The establishers of the CUP were the Young Turks, the Turkish intellectuals imbued by the West European nationalistic theories, of whom majority have been living in Paris where they were spreading propaganda against the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876−1909). The CUP party’s leaders were Mehmed Talaat, Major Ismail Enver Pasha and Dr Bahaeddin Shakir – all three of them later became mostly responsible for the Armenian genocide in 1915−1916.
When the Young Turks took power in Istanbul in 1908 by the revolution their party’s ideology became more crystallized and threefold divided into the Ottomanism, Islamism and Turkism. The main ideological point developed by the CUP was that all Ottoman citizens have to accept the Turkish nationalism as the crucial ideological principle of the Ottoman state and society. Therefore, the policy of Turkification of the whole Ottoman Empire was unavoidable in the areas of language, confession, culture and ethics. However, as the Turks were the Muslims, a policy of Turkification in practice meant the Islamization of non-Muslim segments of the Ottoman society. Being already in power, the CUP government expressed open hostility towards non-Turkish and subsequently non-Muslim Ottoman population – a hostility that became the foundation of the Armenian genocide. A fact was that simultaneously with the declination of the state the party’s ideology, based on profoundly ethnic Turkish nationalism, was becoming more and more radicalized with, according to David Kushner, anti-Armenianism as one of the most radical issues.
Three factors as the main causes of the Armenian genocide
There were three factors which mostly influenced the Turkish-Kurdish committed genocide of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915−1916:
1.The Ottoman loss of the First Balkan War and as a consequence the loss of almost all Ottoman land possessions in Europe in 1912−1913.
2.The putsch by the Young Turks of January 23rd, 1913 during the First Balkan War.
3.The beginning of the WWI.
1.The First Balkan War started in October 1912 with the war declaration to the Ottoman Empire by Montenegro, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria (the Balkan Alliance) for the sake to expel the Ottoman state from the Balkans and to share its Balkan possessions between themselves. Regardless to the German help in the improvement of the Ottoman military under the Young Turks the Ottoman army was in general not enough prepared and ill-equipped to successfully fight especially after the exhausting Italo-Ottoman War, 1911−1912 over the province of Libya. The Treaty of London signed between the Balkan Orthodox Christian states and the Ottoman Empire on May 30th, 1913 left to the Ottoman state in Europe only a strip of land around Istanbul and as an aftermath it had a very deep traumatic impact on the Muslim segment of the Ottoman society. After the Balkan Wars of 1912−1913 the Armenians and Greeks became two largest Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire. As both the Orthodox Christians, it was only a question of time when both of them will experience the Muslim Ottoman revenge: the Armenians in 1915−1916 and the Anatolian Greeks in 1922−1923. After the Balkan Wars the Ottoman society, culture and even identity suffered a heavy blow that brought an idea of revenge including and an option of genocide as the most radical instrument of its realization. The CUP’s leadership well understood that after 1913 a project of the Ottoman identity was over as unrealistic and unacceptable by all non-Muslim subjects of the empire. However, the most important impact of the Balkan Wars to the Muslims of the Ottoman society, especially to its ethnic Turkish segment, was the creation of a mental schizophrenia of a “knife in the back” by the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. The CUP’s MPs openly were accusing in the parliament the Ottoman Bulgarians, Greeks and Armenians for the state’s treason during the Balkan Wars.
2.A new putsch by the Young Turks, who never have been elected to power, committed on January 23rd, 1913 was the second factor of the main causes of the 1915−1916 Armenian Genocide. After the 1913 Coup a CUP’s dictatorship (Talaat-Enver) was established (1913−1918) that was followed by the restriction of a free-speech in the Parliament and terrorizing the members of the opposition. The final result of the putsch was a complete concentration of power in the hands of the CUP which started a policy of transformation of the Ottoman multiethnic society into a homogenous national state of the ethnolinguistic Turks. Such policy required either assimilation or extermination of non-ethnic Turkish Ottoman population. In addition, the course of the Armenian genocide was strongly influenced by the internal rivalry within the CUP’s dictatorship between Enver Pasha as the Ottoman military commander and Mehmed Talaat who was the civil leader of the empire.
3.Nevertheless, the beginning of the WWI was the crucial factor of the causes of the Armenian genocide. From the very start of the WWI it was clear which side the Ottoman Empire is going to support as the Ottoman government signed an agreement with Germany on close bilateral cooperation on August 2nd, 1914 including and the issue of mobilization. The Ottoman army’s commander-in-chief Enver Pasha became directly responsible for the start of military operations against the Entente as he ordered to the Ottoman navy to bomb the Russian sea coast on October 29th, 1914 without official proclamation of war. That was reason for the Entente to declare war on the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, the Armenian position became very delicate as the Armenians were living on the very border with Russia and as such they were seen by the Young Turk’s regime as a potential collaborators with the Entente and even as a dangerous “fifth column” in the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, from September 1914 the CUP’s government started with persecution of the Armenians by different means as, for instance, arbitrary war requisitions, arrests, closing the Armenian-language schools, banning Armenian political-national parties and societies, etc. The Ottoman Empire became officially at war with the Entente on November 11th, 1914. For the Young Turks’ government the Ottoman participation in the WWI was a good opportunity for both recovering the empire and implementation of radical solutions to the acute internal cluster of problems. One of the crucial motifs for the participation in the war was territorial expansion of the empire that was possible only in the East, i.e. at the expense of Russia. However, on the very border with Russia there were the Armenians who were in principle supporting the Russian Empire as a potential liberator of them from the Ottoman yoke. Nevertheless, the Ottoman army suffered heavy losses as a number of the Ottoman invasions finished with catastrophic results. But the crucial point was that Enver Pasha accused exactly the Armenians for these abortive military campaigns as a nation who betrayed the Ottoman national interest. The Turkish propaganda openly accused the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire of state’s treason, calling the Turks and other Muslims to boycott all Armenian businesses and even it was spreading stories about alleged crimes against the Turks committed by the Armenian nationals. As a consequence, Mehmed Talaat Pasha on December 26th, 1914 ordered the resignation of all government’s officers of the Armenian origin and arresting of all who defy these measures. From January 1915, more radical anti-Armenian policy was implemented as the Armenian-language newspapers are shut down and some of prominent Armenians, especially in Istanbul, have been arrested and later murdered.
A course of the Armenian genocide
The Armenian genocide was deliberate action of systematic destructions, executions, dispossessions, deportations, forced assimilation, induced famine, ethnic cleansing and annihilation of material signs of the Armenian culture and national existence on the territory of the Ottoman Empire. Originally, the genocide started with the massive killings of the economic, religious, political and intellectual elite of the Armenian society in Istanbul on April 24th, 1915, but it soon became a pattern for whole-range genocide on all segments of the Ottoman Armenian national elite throughout the empire who were arrested, imprisoned, terrorized and ultimately exterminated. The entire higher social and national strata of the Armenians became eliminated during only several weeks up to June 1915. The executions of the Armenian dignitaries have been organized even on the public squares of the towns according to preserved documentary material (photos) in Armenian National Institute and Armenian Genocide Museum Institute in Yerevan.
The next and real genocide’s phase started when Mehmed Talaat Pasha as a Minister of Internal Affairs issued on May 23rd, 1915 the official order for the ultimate deportation of all Armenian population. The CPU’s government of the Young Turks introduced new provisional Law of Deportation on May 29th, 1915 which gave a legal provision for the beginning of the mass deportation of the ethnic Armenians to very inhospitable Syrian Desert’s city of Der el-Zor and its vicinity. This law was followed on June 10th, 1915 by new law that was providing a legal ground for appropriation of the Armenian properties in business and trade. More precisely, it was a law on establishing of the Abandoned Property Commission with the only task to organize collection of the Armenian properties after their deportation or killings. That was a final blow to the Arminian economy as all Arminian property simply became legally transferred to the Ottoman government and put to its disposition. The administration for the deportation of the Armenians was given to the Directorate for the Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants that was under direct authority of the Ottoman army. It is known that a Minister of Internal Affairs was all the time well informed about the course of deportation by telegraph correspondence and other means. For the matter of illustration, for instance, there is a report by the German consul in Erzurum on deportation from Erzurum when around 40.000 Armenians living in the city were sent by force to Der el-Zor. According to the report, that was “an absolute extermination” of the Armenian city’s population. During the march the Armenians were tortured and killed and their bodies are thrown to the Euphrates River. Finally, only about 200 Armenians from Erzurum succeeded to reach a city of Der el-Zor. In the other words, a destruction rate was in this case almost 100 percent.
Very quickly after the start of the “Final Solution” of the Armenian Question in the Ottoman Empire the Armenians were uprooted and bound for the Syrian Desert (by mid-July 1915). In many cases the Armenians had to travel around 1.000 km. throughout inhospitable territories during the hot summer time and constantly tortured by the Ottoman army who was escorting them to the final destination to which overwhelming majority never came. The essence of the whole issue is that the members of the Young Turks’ government in Istanbul knew very well that chances to survive on the road to the region of Der el-Zor are basically zero especially for the children, pregnant woman and elderly people. In fact, that was a “March of the Death”. Nevertheless, those survivors of the death march found simply nothing to be arranged for them. The bad living conditions in Der el-Zor caused a terrible famine at the beginning of 1916 to prolong a progress of genocide. Moreover, Talaat Pasha’s decision in the summer of 1916 was that too many Armenians survived the march to Der el-Zor, and consequently gave an order to the local city’s authorities to collect the Armenians into the surrounding caves and to exterminate them.
The forced loss of authentic ethnolinguistic, cultural or confessional identity is a part of the genocide definition accepted by the contemporary post-1945 international law. That was exactly implied to the Armenians in 1915 and after by the Young Turks’ regime as a part of the “Final Solution”. More precisely, the Armenians, especially children and women, had to renounce their original Christian (Orthodox) religion and identity and to be converted into Islam. The Armenian orphan children were placed in the Muslim orphanages (like in Konya or Beirut) where they became converted into Islam, allowed to speak only Turkish language and changed their original names into the Turkish according to the Ottoman pattern of “devshirme” (“taxation in blood” of non-Muslim subjects) from the 14th to the mid-17th centuries. Therefore, many Armenian survivors of the march through the desert lost their collective national identity and original cultural-linguistic characteristics.
Material culture of the Armenians became destroyed or transformed into different purposes. The Armenian churches have been systematically destroyed and inscriptions in the Armenian language removed from the buildings. The purpose of such policy of genocide was clear and successful: to as much as eliminate cultural-national traces and roots of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Knowing that, it is “understandable” why the Turks destroyed a number of Armenian medieval churches and monasteries. As the Armenians have been understood as the first nation to accept Christianity, a destruction of their medieval Christian shrines by the Muslim Turks and Kurds had the feature of the “Clash of Civilizations”. The destruction of Armenian material culture and private property, as in all similar cases of the genocide and ethnic cleansing, had at least a dual aim:
1.To make an impression that the Armenians as a nation never existed on certain territories.
2.To ensure that the Armenian survivors will never return back to their original places of living.
The cardinal perpetrators directly involved in the Armenian genocide have been the Turks and the Kurds (both Muslims) composed by almost all social strata. The main force taking open actions in the murdering of the Armenians were the Muslim bands of violent convicts who were at the beginning of the WWI released from the prisons to fight against the Russian troops. When the Armenian genocide started their new task has been to eliminate the Armenian population. The main engineer of the genocide was Mehmed Tallaat Pasha as a Minister of Internal Affairs who created a propaganda framework of it by accusing all Armenians as a collective national body of high treason, disloyalty and practical sabotage actions against the Ottoman army and state. It is clear from his conversations with the German consul that his government has to use the war situation to get rid of all internal enemies of the empire but on the first place of all indigenous Christians. More precisely, the Turkification of the Asia Minor by ethnic cleansing of all Armenians was a prime goal of such policy. However, Dr Bahaeddin Shakir, as one of the most prominent CPU’s members, had a crucial role in the process of practical implementation of the genocide which had its second stage in 1916 from March to August when were the massive killings of the Armenian deportees in Syrian Desert and in vicinity of Der el-Zor.
The Armenian genocide is one of the most important and influential instances of ethnic cleansing, people’s transfer and economic dispossession in the history of modern times. As the first 20th century’s genocide, the Armenian genocide has to be, and is, taken into consideration as an example and pattern for subsequent genocides in the coming decades. As such, it is of cardinal historical significance, and it is critically important that today’s generations can properly understand this case study of inhumanity.
Before the act of genocide, the Ottoman Armenian community possessed around 2.600 churches, 450 monasteries and 2.000 schools. However, after the WWI around 3.000 Armenian settlements were depopulated. Today, the Armenian population in Turkey can be practically found only in Istanbul. Present day Armenian community in Turkey has only six churches and no single school or monastery.
The evidences and records of genocide are numerous but probably the most valuable archival material are gone forever when on November 2nd, 1918 the ultra right wing members of the CUP burned documents before the government’s top politicians and main organizers of the genocide escaped the country in a German submarine to Odessa. A new liberal government of the Ottoman Empire on February 5th, 1919 established a special tribunal in Istanbul for the war crimes which officially accused the previous Young Turks’ government of “deportation and massacre” but only after the British pressure. As a final result of a court procedure, the CUP’s government in April 1919 was sentenced to death and the court proclaimed that:
“The disaster visiting the Armenians was not a local or isolated event. It was the result of a premeditated decision taken by a central body… and the immolations and excesses which took place were based on oral and written orders issued by that central body”.
However, probably and unfortunately, the cardinal consequence of the 1915−1916 Armenian Genocide is a fact that this unpunished crime became a pattern for the other genocides in the 20th century. It is clear at least in two cases:
1)The Jewish holocaust during the WWII committed by the Nazi Germany’s NSDAP regime in occupied Europe.
2)The Serb holocaust on the territory of the Independent State of Croatia, 1941−1945 committed by the Ustashi Croat regime.
Namely, in both of these holocaust cases, a cardinal motif for the genocide was the fact that exactly the Armenian genocide became absolutely forgotten, no spoken and unpunished by the international community. In the other words, if very soon after the genocide the world was not remembering the Armenians and not punishing the perpetrators of the genocide it can be very likely to be the same with the Jews and Serbs or with any other nation in the coming future.
Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement
Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.
Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”
On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”
So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.
Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.
Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.
As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.
Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.
Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch
Tighter Ties with China Signal Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy
Ukraine is eager to cut deals with China as it confronts the West’s moves to allay Russian concerns. Whether Kyiv’s moves are a sign of a larger foreign policy adjustment or just a bluff aimed to mitigate faltering ties with the EU and the US, they could beget big consequences.
On June 30, Ukraine touted an agreement with China, which proposes revamping the country’s decrepit infrastructure. The decision comes following a US-German resolution to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite longstanding concerns of Kyiv and other CEE nations. Yet, perhaps the biggest motivation was the growing unwillingness in the West to advance Ukraine’s NATO/EU aspirations.
The current state of affairs pushes Ukraine to find alternatives in foreign policy. China, with plenty of cash and political clout, comes as an obvious choice resulting in the signing of the bilateral agreement in June. The document outlines China’s willingness to invest in railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure across Ukraine. But otherwise, the agreement details few specifics.
The available details from the deal fit comfortably into the pattern China has been following across Eurasia. For example, China signed similar deals with Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others, demonstrating its willingness to penetrate those states’ vital infrastructure. Still, the documents can be also characterized as an umbrella agreement that serves as a roadmap rather than an accord listing concrete details and commitments.
The China-Ukraine agreement is all the more surprising as Kyiv rebuffed earlier this year a Chinese proposal to buy a Ukrainian aerospace company, Motor Sich.
Nevertheless, there are several reasons behind the rapprochement. First and foremost, it is about Ukraine adjusting its foreign policy stance to the state of economic relations. China is now Ukraine’s biggest single-country trade partner outstripping Russia and having a 14.4 percent share of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Perhaps fearful of possible Chinese countermeasures over the Motor Sich decision, Kyiv has been open to mending ties with Beijing with the June agreement.
Secondly, it paves the way for a more active role in China’s near-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims at connecting China with the European market across the heart of Eurasia. Ukraine was among the first to endorse the initiative but has avoided signing memorandums on cooperation similar to what China has done with many others.
More immediately, the tilt toward China follows Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang. While Ukraine initially joined the initiative, together with 40 other states, Kyiv abruptly changed its mind on June 24. It has been confirmed that the withdrawal followed Chinese threats to limit trade and deny access to COVID-19 vaccines for which Ukraine had already paid.
Some larger geopolitical dynamics are also at play, such as Kyiv’s attempt to acclimate to the changing world order and the growing global competition between Beijing and Washington. In this environment, Ukraine might want to carve out an equidistant place between the two powers so as to avoid possible backlash from siding clearly with either of them.
As such, Ukraine appears to be embarking on a multi-vector foreign policy. It would allow Kyiv to alleviate its dependence on the West and seek lucrative economic and political ties with large Eurasian states. Put simply, relations with the West did not deliver on the expected benefits. The country was not offered NATO or EU accession, while the collective West’s consistent concessions to Russia undermine Ukraine’s interests. Ukraine has also often tended to look at China and other Eurasian powers from the ‘Western perspective’, which limited its options.
In Kyiv’s understanding, elimination of this obstructive dependence would enable it to find new partners able to bring in investments and ideally political support in multilateral organizations. China undoubtedly can be such a partner.
Kyiv’s calculations are more understandable when taken in view of its larger diplomatic readjustment in the region. For example, Ukraine recently began building closer relations with another Eurasian power in Turkey. When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul in April 2021, nascent bilateral military ties were seen as a new chapter in the countries’ relations. Most indicative of this shift, a memorandum was signed on the creation of joint defense-industrial projects, which includes joint development of unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine.
The story of Turkey could serve as a microcosm, whereby Kyiv displayed that it is more interested in balancing the pressure from Russia and mitigating the failures in its pro-Western foreign policy course. Ukraine thus foreshadowed its increasingly multi-vector foreign policy as a solution to its geopolitical problems. In Kyiv’s understanding, rapprochement with China and Turkey could mitigate threats emanating from Russia as both Beijing and Ankara enjoy closer ties with Moscow, but nonetheless consider it a competitor.
The multi-vector foreign policy for Ukraine however does not mean abandoning its pro-Western cause. It rather involves seeing its NATO/EU aspirations as complementary with the closer economic ties with China and others. It will require an agile foreign policy and leveraging the country’s geopolitical assets.
New Type of Bilateral Relations
Ukraine’s behavior might herald the birth of what could be characterized as a Eurasian model of bilateral relations. Across the continent, the notion of traditional alliances is being gradually replaced by partnerships. Devoid of formal obligations, China, Iran, Turkey and Russia find more space for interaction and see a larger pool of opportunities across the vastness of the supercontinent. Bigger maneuverability makes their foreign policy more agile in finding a common ground for cooperation.
The Eurasian model is a byproduct of an evolving global order in which each state with geopolitical influence recalibrates its foreign ties to fit into the post-unipolar world. Russia and China officially refuse to have an alliance – indeed, they claim an alliance would undermine their purportedly benevolent intentions toward one another. More specifically, the concept relates to how China sees the future world order. It opposes alliances – the ‘relic’ from the Cold War era.
Thus, the shift in Kyiv’s foreign policy could be part of this Eurasian trend where Ukraine seeks to construct its Asia policy which would better correspond to the unfolding China-US competition, Asia’s economic rise, and most of all, the failure to become a NATO or EU member state.
However, closer ties with China and most of all the dependence on Beijing’s investments also involves risks. China’s infrastructure projects are mostly financed through loans, which poorer and weaker countries are unable to repay. Often, ownership of the sites ends up in Chinese hands.
Chinese involvement in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure could also risk giving control over strategic technologies to Beijing, which would be channeled to China and successfully used to advance Chinese interests.
For Kyiv, dependence on Beijing also involves risks because of China’s close partnership with Russia. Dangers could be manifested in a concerted pressure on Ukraine in international organizations, or even China heeding Russian fears and abandoning infrastructure projects which would harm Russian interests.
The June agreement is an umbrella deal that lays out the foundation for deeper cooperation, but in no way guarantees its fulfillment. This could mean that Ukraine only sought to restore worsening bilateral relations with China following the Motor Sich saga. Alternatively, Kyiv might merely be trying to raise stakes in its stagnated relations with the West and hold Washington to account, signaling that it can successfully navigate between geopolitical poles if need be.
Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers
Ukraine’s independence: Shaping new political narratives through art
Ukraine’s 30th Independence Anniversary brings forth a discussion on forming a modern cultural identity in the wake of political instability.
Despite gaining independence 30 years ago, Ukraine is still facing consistent attacks on its sovereignty, both political and cultural. From the ongoing war with Russia in Eastern Ukraine, where 10,000 people have lost their lives since 2014, down to the root of oversimplification of Ukrainian issues in the media, Ukraine’s story is often being told by opponents attempting to distort the modern Ukrainian cultural identity.
My first-hand experience working with kids at the Ukrainian warzone has taught me a deep appreciation for cultural independence. For five years together with youngsters I wrote, directed and staged a performance piece titled ‘Contact Line’ about life at the warzone and personally witnessed the huge impact of arts and culture on the kids’ lives. This experience demonstrated that for too long Ukraine has let someone else present its identity to its youth, citizens and the world.
Shaking away the Soviet legacy
There’s no denying that the Soviet Union left a lasting legacy on Ukraine. The culture of Ukraine is to this day tainted by lingering ghosts of the Soviet past. Soviet authorities vigorously supressed the development of independent cultural identities in all the member states. In Ukraine’s case, simplistic rural folklore was imposed on society as a primary culture and was a means of suppressing creative or progressive thought. National collectives and one-dimensional traditional themes were presented as the essence of Ukrainian culture throughout the 20th century. Anyone who didn’t fit the Soviet mould was eliminated. A specific term, Executed Renaissance, is used to define a generation of Ukrainian artists who were repressed by the Soviet regime for their artistic non-conformism.
It has taken decades for Ukraine to regain its cultural voice and iron out its Soviet imprint. A key concept of postcolonial theory examines the creative resistance to the colonizers’ culture and the fraught slow development of a postcolonial identity. Ukraine has been struggling through this process for 30 years. However, since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity the country has been reimagining its culture, exploring its history and reconnecting with its identity. Ukraine is now striving to be on par with Western culture by ridding itself of remaining Soviet influences. Cultural institutions previously under government control or censorship are finding an independent voice and the population is discovering that authentic artistic expression is providing hope in difficult times.
Looking at the future
Over the past 10 years, Ukraine has witnessed a robust change in the arts sector. The cultural scene has made a significant move away from a conservative ethos to a more contemporary one. Visual arts are the most progressive form of expression in Ukraine, with cinema rapidly catching up. Ukrainian filmmakers are winning awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Ukrainian artists are receiving praise at La Biennale di Venezia. The expectation is that this trend will not only magnify in the coming years, but also position Ukrainian artists as global creative trailblazers.
Despite ballet being an extremely politicised art form during the Soviet period, it is now going through a revival and modernisation. The Ukrainain school of ballet is gaining recognition as one of the world’s best and Ukrainian ballet dancers are headlining the top ballet companies across the globe, showcasing their immense talent and training. British audiences will have an opportunity to watch the best Ukrainian ballet dancers from the world’s top theatres come together for a one-off unique performance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on September 7th.
Georgian-American ballet choreographer George Balanchine famously said, “Ballet will speak for itself,” and the artform remains a true demonstration of the universal language of dance. The Ukrainian Ballet Gala will be a showcase of the innovation and traditions of the contemporary Ukrainian ballet school.
Global cultural promotion
In a globalised world it’s the wish of every country to promote and engage in cultural exchanges, and Ukraine is very much part of this movement. Ukraine wants to be an active player on the world stage, both politically and culturally, and to be a dynamic culture creator, particularly in Europe. Trust in soft diplomacy is growing and Ukraine’s international relations and diplomacy are benefiting from this trend.
As a Ukrainian-born and British-educated theatre producer and director I appreciate the importance of bringing the best of Ukrainian culture to the world not just for Ukraine’s benefit, but to enrich global culture and share experiences through creative means. It is the job of people like me and my colleagues to tell Ukraine’s story through art and, thus, shape new political narratives about Ukraine internationally. We want to share our rich culture with the world and events, such as the Ukrainian Ballet Gala, are key to achieving this.
Ukrainians are now left with no choice but to stride forward – no outside force should ever again control the vibrant culture of Ukraine.
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