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April victory: How important it is for Azerbaijan

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The fighting that broke out in the Karabakh conflict zone in early April 2016 was the heaviest since the 1994 ceasefire agreement between the belligerent sides, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Part of the long-lasting Karabakh war, the recent clashes, in which the warring parties used heavy weapons took the lives of hundreds of combatants and civilians. The conflict continued for four days and ended with ceasefire.

Ethnic clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous province inside the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, arose in 1988, toward the end of Soviet rule. The conflict, which started on a local scale developed into a full-fledged bloody war between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Azerbaijan tried to maintain its control over the region, while Armenia backed the separatist movement of the ethnic Armenians.

Although Azerbaijan was admitted to the United Nations with its Soviet-era territory that included Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian side managed to occupy both the province and the adjacent districts and proclaimed the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. As a result of the conflict, which cost the both sides more than 30,000 lives, nearly one million Azerbaijanis were expelled from their homes in the occupied territories and since then have dwelled as refugees in their own country.

The Russia-brokered negotiations secured a truce in 1994 and ceased the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but failed to ensure sustainable progress. Controlled by the Armenian separatists, Nagorno-Karabakh has maintained de facto autonomy ever since, while the region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Official mediators of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia, the USA and France, initiated several proposals and organized direct meetings of Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Yet any attempts to finally resolve the conflict have failed: Baku has repeatedly offered a wide autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, while the Armenian side demands independence for the breakaway region.

Although border shootouts and skirmishes were not unusual all along the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994 and claimed dozens lives every year, the April clashes labeled as ‘Four-Day War’ marked a new chapter in the history of the conflict. Along with the tangible results they brought, the clashes and the events around them were accepted as a victory in Azerbaijan for the following outcomes.

The most tangible result of the four-day battles was the liberation of several territories by Azerbaijani armed forces that managed to re-capture a few strategically important heights- the first change in the frontline since the inconclusive ceasefire 22 years ago. Responding to Armenian statements on the loss of 800 hectares of territory, the officials from Baku reported that the Azerbaijani military took control of 2000 hectares of territory. However, strategic positions inside Karabakh, which the Azerbaijani troops seized allow them to control more territories now, are considered the major gains of the Azerbaijani side.

The blitzkrieg also became an opportunity for Azerbaijani military to display its capability and hardware. Azerbaijan’s forces have been heavily modernized in the past 10 years since the beginning of the oil boom in the 2000s. Relying on weighty military investments and boasting with their military budget, which was equal to or more than the entire national budget of Armenia, the Azerbaijani authorities would regularly utilize bellicose rhetoric and threaten to unfreeze the conflict. In April, the Azerbaijani troops finally obtained a chance to exhibit the expensive, exclusive and state-of-the-art weaponry they have been affording from various sources.

Furthermore, Azerbaijan finally overcame the syndrome of the defeated: the active phase of Karabakh war (1988-1994) ended with the victory of Armenia that occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territories. The defeat and loss of territories to the neighboring country, which is much smaller in terms of territory, population and natural resources, has been perceived in Azerbaijani society as a disgrace for years, while the local society would always try to explain the failure by different arguments (such as domestic chaos and anarchy, Russia`s military aid to Armenia). The feelings of humiliation that lasted 20 years were finally downplayed and replaced by self-confidence in the aftermath of the April victory.

The Azerbaijani party could also demonstrate that it still considers Karabakh as an integral part and has no plans to abandon the hopes and opportunity to reclaim the territory. That was a message to both domestic and international community that the conflict is not ‘frozen’ as claimed, and can unravel at any time again. Although a new generation has grown up during the 20 years since Karabakh was occupied, the memory and knowledge of what belongs to Azerbaijan is still strong in society: this was proved by the active participation of young soldiers in the offensive and eagerness of thousands of moreto enlist in the army.

Another important nuance related to the conflict could be the parity Azerbaijan managed to attain in informational conflict. Possessing strong diaspora across the world and actively lobbying in many countries, including France, Russia and the United States, which are the official mediators of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Armenian organizations, political groups and media organs have been promoting the Armenian viewpoints and propagating against Azerbaijan. Their activities used to be hundred times more effective than Azerbaijan`s. At present, media war could be estimated more or less equal. The access of Azerbaijani politicians and journalists to foreign media and their opportunity to address to wider audience has become greater and greater; these opportunities were utilized maximally throughout the four-day conflict. Moreover, during many international events held during and/or after the conflict Azerbaijan`s position was openly and clearly expressed.

Azerbaijan managed to attain superiority in foreign policy as well. Turkey and Pakistan backed Azerbaijan ‘to the end’ against Armenia, while Ukrainian and Georgian authorities expressed support Azerbaijan`s territorial integrity. Furthermore, Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman blamed Armenia for provoking the clashes and said ‘Azerbaijan’s position in the conflict is justified.’ Pedro Agramunt, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, called for “the withdrawal of all Armenian armed troops from occupied Azerbaijani territories in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions”. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation also supported Azerbaijan and made a similar statement on “the withdrawal of Armenian troops.“

Meanwhile Armenia found itself abandoned even by its formal allies: Belarus and Kazakhstan- Armenia`s close partners within Eurasian structures (Eurasian Economic Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization)- stated their respect to Azerbaijan`s territorial integrity. The Belarusian ambassador was therefore summoned to Armenia`s Foreign Ministry to be informed that Yerevan was “deeply bewildered” by Minsk`s statement. A planned summit of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)in Yerevan got cancelled after Kazakhstan, one of the bloc`s member-states, refused to attend it in an apparent show of support for Azerbaijan. Although the Russian authorities formally called on parties to end hostilities, the Armenian people feel dissatisfied with Russia`s attitude and sales of arms to Azerbaijan. As anti-Kremlin sentiment grew in Armenia, mass rallies were organized in Yerevan against Russia.

Territorial gains, military and moral victory should bring Azerbaijan additional advantages on the negotiation table, experts and ordinary people think, especially on the Azerbaijani side. Baku made it obvious that it would no longer tolerate endless negotiations with no results. Rich military budget, state-of-the-art weaponry and international support put Azerbaijan in a much advantageous situation, which should be taken into account in Yerevan. How the April clash will influence the future Karabakh talks and to what extent Azerbaijani diplomats will be able to utilize its benefits are open questions, which will find their answers in the upcoming months.

Rusif Huseynov is the co-founder of the Topchubashov Center. His main interest is peace and conflict studies, while his focus area covers mainly Eastern Europe, Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia.

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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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