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Suicidal Nuclear Gambit on Caucasus

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Nuclear security is seemingly in the vanguard of global attention, but the large framework of international provisions is increasingly perceived as a toothless tiger. In the contemporary age where asymmetric threats to security are one of the most dangerous ones, the time is high to mitigate the risk of rouge actors having potential access to materials, necessary to develop nuclear weapons.

Nowhere is this urgency more pivotal than in already turbulent areas, such as the South Caucasus. With many turmoil instabilities, lasting for decades with no completely bulletproof conflict resolution process installed, adding a threat of nuclear weapons potential means creating a house of cards that can cause complete collapse of regional peace and stability. That is precisely why recently uncovered and reoccurring actions of Armenia towards the goal of building its own nuclear capacity must be addressed more seriously. They should also attract bolder response to ensure safety of the region is sustained.

According to the report by Vienna-based nuclear watch-dog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Armenia has established quite a record of illegal trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials. There have been a couple of serious incidents spanning from 1999 onward. A large number of reported incidents has occurred on the country`s border with Georgia, tempting the IAEA to conclude there is high probability that the so called Armenian route does in fact exist. There is a further evidence to support this assertion. There were an unusually high number of Armenians caught in nuclear trafficking activities. Additionally, some of the reported incidents that made their way to the official reports suggested that the main focus of trafficking activities is in fact smuggling of nuclear material that could be used for nuclear weapons capabilities. There were also reports suggesting the trafficking of other radioactive material that could be utilized for alternate purposes, such as the building of a so called dirty bomb. Since the stakes with nuclear weaponry are always high to the extreme, the recognition of this threat must not be underrated and dismissed easily.

Only days henceforth the latest illegal activities have been uncovered by border control in April, 2016, former Armenian Prime Minister Bagratyan shocked the international public with the claim that Armenia indeed has nuclear capabilities and the ability to further develop them. The main reason for the possession is to deter neighbors such as Turkey and Azerbaijan. More specifically, to discourage them from resorting to aggressive foreign policy measures and mitigate potential threats to Armenian territorial integrity, especially in the disputed regions. Even though Turkey and its intelligence network was quick to dismiss these claims and labeled them as a failed attempt to increase the geopolitical importance of Armenia, as well as to deter its much more militarily capable neighboring countries, such claims should not be taken lightly, either. Thus, there is no cause for alarm yet.

However, there should be increased interest of the international community to investigate these serious claims. If documented, they would pose a grave desta-bilization factor for the already turbulent region. They would also trigger deepening of hostilities and mistrust in extremely delicate regional framework of peace.

The prospects and dangers of potential acquisition of a dirty bomb by rouge actors are rising on the international agenda. The recently detected activities in South Caucasus showed that there were substantial efforts made in order to smuggle and illegally sell Uranium 238, which is highly radioactive. At the beginning of 2016, a different group was trying to smuggle a highly radioactive Cesium isotope that usually forms as a waste product in nuclear reactors. What is also worrying is that the majority of the activities are occurring in highly instable and unmonitored territories of Azerbaijan and Georgia that are under the control of separatists, such as Nagorno- Karabakh and South Ossetia. The mere organization of the Armenian route proves to show that illegal activities can flourish in the security blind spots of the region.

There is also the Iranian connection. Armenia borders this Middle Eastern country that found itself in the centre of global attention until the ratification of The Joint Comprehensive plan of Action in 2015. The international agreement supposedly effectively mitigated the risk of Teheran developing its own nuclear capabilities and established a proper international regime to monitor compliance to the installed provisions. However, fears remain over future developments of this issue. The unusually high number of truck traffic between Armenia and Iran further fuels suspicion on what exactly goes down under the cloak of darkness.

Iran is not the only powerful ally of Armenia that holds knowledge on all things nuclear. Yerevan is extremely close with Russia ever since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and fully relies on Moscow when it comes to upholding its security, territorial integrity and political autonomy. Russia is of course a member of the elite nuclear club, and besides the US holds one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear capabilities in the world. This is of course a leftover of the Cold war era and fears of the Eastern or the Western devil, depends on which side of the wall the threat was being perceived.

It is worrying to note that some of the nuclear material that was trying to find its way into Armenia through South Ossetia has been, at least according to some reports, traced back to Russian nuclear facilities. This is of course of small wonder, since Russia is an official supplier of nuclear fuel for the only nuclear power plant in Armenia, the Metsamor nuclear plant that supplies roughly 40 % of electricity to the country`s population.

But the reactor itself falls into another aspect of nuclear threats posed by Armenia, specifically nuclear safety threats. The reactor is extremely outdated, and there are no proper safeguard and safety mechanism installed that would ensure adequate monitoring of its operations and recognition of potential faults in the system.

The world just marked the thirtieth anniversary of the devastating Chernobyl accident, and it is unsettling to know there is high risk of a similar disaster in the adjacent area. Nuclear safety, like nuclear security, should be taken extremely seriously. Any outdated systems, like the one at the Metsamor nuclear plant, should be either closed down until repaired and adjusted to proper security standards, or shut down completely if the plant is unable to follow necessary legal provisions. To make the future prospects even grimmer, the area where the Metsamor plant is located is being said to have very vibrant seismic activities. Thus, not only is the plant dangerous due to outdated security systems and technology, but also due to naturally occurring phenomenon that is highly likely to cause significant damage on the plant itself. Armenian officials should protect their own population and not risk a nuclear holocaust. Instead, they continue to stubbornly extend their self-entrapment grand ambitions.

Reviewing the manifold danger that Armenia represent in nuclear terms, there are no simple answers, although there are a few clear conclusions. The Metsamor power plant should be considered as an imminent and serious threat to millions of people in Asia, Middle East and Europe, and shut down. Additionally, this issue should not be shielded anymore for the sake of pure Macht politik.

Macht prefers secrecy and coercion and we already well know how it always ends up. After Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima disaster, the last thing the world needs is another nuclear catastrophe. Additionally, there are clear ambitions present in the country to develop and acquire nuclear capabilities. For more than one reason that is an extremely dangerous endeavor to pursue. Not just for the region itself and adjacent countries but also for the world which should be evolving towards the future nuclear free world instead. Consequently, we have to do all we can to prevent yet another blow to an already shaking NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty).

Conclusively, Caucasus is full of frozen yet unsolved, highly polarizing, toxic and potentially inflammable conflicts. We also have to be aware that the raging flames of instability from Syria and Iraq are not far away. We do not need another nuclear meltdown inferno. It is high time to localize the overheated blaze of Middle East. It would be a good start by stabilizing Caucasus in a just, fair and sustainable way.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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Eastern Europe

No borders to struggle against COVİD-19: Solidarity of humanity can help the situation

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Just as COVID-19 does not recognize borders, it is necessary to build the struggle against it on the basis of organization, solidarity, mutual assistance, the use of positive experience, and it should not recognize borders.

2021 was a year of continued struggle against the pandemic and of the emergence of new variants of the virus. The South Caucasus also was not away from COVID-19 and its variants. Azerbaijan continued its effective fight against COVID-19, making the most of the lessons of previous years and the opportunities for rapid response. The vaccination campaign, which was conducted as well as in highly developed countries, is a real sign of performance in this sector. During the year Azerbaijan gave humanitarian and financial aid to more than 30 countries in order to fight the pandemic, made a voluntary financial contribution of 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization and freely donated 150,000 doses of vaccine to four countries.

The newly appointed head of the EU delegation to Azerbaijan, Petr Michako, also stressed the high level of vaccination in Azerbaijan. The capital – Baku is working closely with The European Union in this direction. The European Union and the World Health Organization have supported the fight against COVID-19 in Azerbaijan with the necessary medical equipment. Medical personnel in Azerbaijan have been repeatedly provided with respirators, goggles, transparent masks and overalls for this purpose. All equipment sent for the safety of medical personnel fighting the virus on the front lines was tested for compliance with quality and safety standards. Kestutis Jankauskas, Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, said that his organization, as a “Team Europe”, is helping to prevent, detect and combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Healthcare workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which increases their risk of contracting the virus,” he said. -They are our heroes and they need protection. “As part of the Team Europe initiative, the EU has launched an individual COVID-19 package with a budget of around € 32 million to support urgent needs and socio-economic recovery.

In 2021, Azerbaijan achieved major progress in combating the pandemic and the global economic crisis and in mutual cooperation. As a chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Azerbaijan put forward an initiative to establish a UN High-Level Panel on global restoration after COVID-19. The member states of the Non-Aligned Movement took a unanimous decision to extend Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the movement for another year, until the end of 2023.

Azerbaijan proposed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement on equal and universal access to vaccines for all countries and the resolution was passed unanimously in March 2021. This resolution showed Azerbaijan’s stance on the increasing vaccine nationalism in the world and became an international success.

As a result of all measurements now the number of people receiving the second,third and further doses of the vaccine in Azerbaijan has exceeded 40 percent. Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the continent where the number of virus infections is rapidly declining. Azerbaijan is doing its best to observe this trend around the world. Solidarity can help the situation.

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