In the early days of the current year, the ambassadors of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Germany collectively wrote a petition asking German media to stop referring to the above-mentioned nations as “former Soviet countries”. The issue had been prompted by the Soviet Legacy column on the German news portal Die Zeit.
The Facebook page of Latvia`s embassy in Germany posted an image of the letter co-signed by the Latvian ambassador Elita Kuzma along with her counterparts from Estonia and Lithuania.
In the letter to the German portal, the ambassadors noted that their countries were independent from 1918 until 1940 and did not join the Soviet Union voluntarily but were occupied and annexed, while the majority of Western democracies, including Germany, never recognized the Soviet occupation of the Baltics.
The letter also claims that the Baltic states did not create themselves from nowhere in the early 1990s after the downfall of the USSR but restored their independence that had been severed by the Soviet rule, thus declaring continuity of their statehood. The Baltic states are not successors to the Soviet Union`s statehood and rights and therefore cannot be politically defined as former Soviet republics.
The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry also touched upon the issue by stating that the portal responded to the remark, pledging to stop using the concept inaccurate in terms of international law.
Interestingly, the article from “The Legacy of the Soviet Union”series, to which the ambassadors draw the attention was actually written by Sergejs Potapkins, an opposition member of the Latvian parliament.
According to an Estonian news site, the misnomer, frequent in the German-speaking countries, is regularly used to describe any territory that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
In order to demonstrate the absurdity of referring to the Baltic states as “former Soviet”, a Latvian media agency made fun of different countries by, too, recalling their past: “…The letter [of the ambassadors] was sent in the former Prussian capital, Berlin…News outlets in the former Roman and Norman colony of Great Britain, the former Carolingian territories of the Holy Roman Empire and former Grand Monarchy of France, and the former British and French colonies in North America have also been known to do the same thing.Curiously the tendency is less prevalent in the former Warsaw Pact countries and even in the former Tsarist Empire and former dominions of the Golden Horde to the east of Latvia…”
That was not the first attempt of the Baltic trio to get rid of their Soviet history and legacy that might somehow be extending up to now.
Immediately upon restoring their independence, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania decided to abandon the Russian sphere of influence and drift towards the West. As a logical result of the relevant processes, all the three countries took part in the 2004 enlargement of NATO and the European Union by becoming full member of both organizations. The EU accession process ran in parallel with that to the NATO. Although the two were not officially linked, one apparently gave additional impetus to the other. For the Baltic states, NATO membership might be even more attractive and vital. Security was justifiably their priority since their entire recent history had been marked by an absence of security. The EU was perceived to be primarily a Single Market and lacking in a security dimension. This was partly because joining the EU appeared to be an eventuality, whereas the Baltics’ NATO membership was not a foregone conclusion since there was strong opposition to it mainly by the Kremlin.
In 2011, Estonia switched to euro. So did Latvia in 2014 and Lithuania in 2015, having completed the Baltics` entering into Eurozone.
Today the three countries are liberal democracies, a fact which indeed pushes them further away from their Soviet heritage and other ex-Soviet countries.
In a parallel process, the three countries strive to build a Nordic identity. This tendency is especially strong in Estonia, which refers to its cultural and historical ties with Sweden, Denmark and Finland; with the titular people of the latter, the Estonians belong to the same language group. In December 1999, then Estonian foreign minister, who would later ascend into presidency, Toomas Hendrik Ilves delivered a speech entitled “Estonia as a Nordic Country” to the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. According to another Estonian politician, Marko Mihkelson, head of Riigikogu`s foreign affairs committee, his country`s belonging to Northern Europe “make(s) perfect sense in geographic and geopolitical terms.”
It is therefore no surprise that the Estonian society has even debated over a change of the flag: from the post-Soviet tricolor to a Scandinavian-style cross design with the same colors. According to the supporters of the proposed version, it would symbolize the country`s links with Nordic countries.
In order to further develop a Nordic brand, Estonian diplomat Eerik-Niiles Kross even suggested modifying the country`s official name in English and several other foreign languages from Estonia to Estland (which is the country`s name in Danish, Dutch, German, Swedish, Norwegian and many other Germanic languages).
Indeed, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been receiving the strongest support from their northern neighbors even prior to their independence. The Nordic countries were the first to open their borders, introducing visa-free regimes with the Baltic countries, facilitated their smooth integration into European and transatlantic institutions. A regional cooperation platform called Nordic Baltic Eight plays an important role in deepening the relationship between the two regions.
While Euroskepticism may today prevail in some EU member-states and the European Union itself has been recently shattered by a wide of range of issues from the Greek crisis to the flood of refugees to the Brexit, leading some pundits to forecast ultimate disintegration of the Union, the Baltic three seem to be ardent supporters of the concept of a united continent. In the light of Donald Trump`s statements on diminishing the American influence in the eastern part of Europe, the Baltic nations that constantly feel the breath of the Russian bear on their necks are haunted by the ghost of the Soviet Union. Especially in this complicated period, when both Russian officials and experts call on reviving the borders of the USSR and, sometimes going even further, of the Russian Empire. Fears were especially intensified after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine just like it incorporated the Baltic countries during the WWII and backs the ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking population in the eastern Ukraine nowadays. Accommodating a big portion of Russian minorities, which are accepted as an anachronistic relic of the Soviet past, the Baltic nations, especially Latvia and Estonia have serious reasons to worry.
According to Leonid Bershidsky, the anti-Soviet arguments by the Baltic countries, however, make little sense. Willingly or not, they were part of the USSR. They were subject to its economic planning and migration policies, a history that is far more recent than the colonial past of the U.S. or almost any former part of the British Empire. The Baltic nations` large, often disenfranchised, Russian minorities are a lasting legacy of the Soviet past, with Concord, the party representing the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, winning a plurality of the vote in the last parliamentary election. “Post-Soviet” is not an insult but a statement of fact.Going back even further, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia spent most of the last two centuries as part of the Russian Empire. Russian military might forced them to gravitate east rather than north, adds L.Bershidsky.
The officials in Russia, the recognized successor-state of the USSR, have, in their turn, repeatedly denied the occupation calling it a voluntary incorporation. According to the Russian viewpoint, no military force was used for the incorporation and it was made by the decrees of the legitimate governments in Baltic states in accordance with international law. Moreover, Russia’s main diplomat, Sergey Lavrov stated in one of his interviews that the USSR had modernized economy and industry in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and made more investment per capita in the Baltic countries than in the other constituent republics of the former Union. It was a response to the claims of Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn to the reimbursement of “the Soviet occupational damage”. Only the compensation to Latvia was first estimated by the Latvians at 185 billion euro, later having been raised to 300 billion euro.
Despite the efforts of the Baltic states, it seems to be tough to get rid of their red past as the Soviet heritage is in the living memory and still continues to exert profound effects on the current situation in the region. However may the Baltic people hate to confess it, both Soviet and post-Soviet thoughts are still influential in their countries. Perhaps when this mindset is finally gone, others may then stop referring to them as former Soviet states.
The State of Civil Society in Belarus and Armenia: Challenges and Opportunities
A vibrant civil society has long been thought to be a crucial instrument for political change in countries in transition and a key component of a democratic society.
While civic activism was critical to the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia, and posesformidable challenges to Aleksander Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule in Belarus, a question remains as to whether or not civil societies have the capacities to evolve into powerful agents of democracy in the two post-Soviet countries.
The two countries share much in come in terms of their communist past and close alliances with Russia, vividly manifested in their being members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO. Moreover, the post-Soviet transition of both countries has been marred by a series of authoritarian malpractices, ranging from centralization and personalization of power to extensive crackdown on civil liberties and political freedoms
In both countries civil society organizations have been characterized by their organizational weakness, and marginality in terms of their social base, financial assets and influence over policy making.
Controlling the mass media and civil society has been crucial for Europe’s ‘last dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko’s rule. As a result, freedom of association has been extremely limited in Belarus, where the registration of groups remains entirely arbitrary, while the foreign funding to NGOs is treated as interference in the country’s domestic affairs. Only a few human rights groups continue to operate, amid huge harassment by the government. Alarmingly, in 2018, the Criminal Code of Belarus introduced the prospect of large fines for unregistered or liquidated organizations, thus aiming to curbtheir activism.
Moreover, the lack of a vibrant civil society has led to a situation where Belarusians have huge misconceptions about civil society organizations and do not tend to use the available resources within civil society and human rights organizations to defend their rights
The situation in Belarus turned upside down in the wake of 2020 presidential elections, that unleashed a huge wave of civic activism: hundreds of thousands of Belarusians raising their voices and taking to the streets.
The anti-government protests following the 2020 presidential elections show that the Belarusian opposition and civil society have the potential to challenge the status quo meticulously preserved by Lukashenko.
Nevertheless, it would be misleading to treat the successful actions by protesters or even civil society representatives per se as s shift in a robust or “emerging” civil society. The question remains as to if protests are organized by well-established and institutionalized organizations, or do groups emerge spontaneously out of the protests themselves?
By contrast, the Armenian civil society organizations enjoy considerable freedom and face less harassment by the government. While civil society played a critical role in the “Velvet Revolution,” the absence of an umbrella organization or clearly reform-oriented movement in Armenia, seems to leave the fate of the societal coalition that brought Nikol Pashinyan to power uncertain. Not surprisingly, the societal coalition started to break into pieces as Armenia endured tremendous setbacks in the war against Azerbaijan in November 2020. Overall, the demonstrations leading the revolution showed the “Velvet Revolution was a one-time fairy tale, rather than a feature of a vibrant civil society. Meanwhile, civil society organizations and activists need to move beyond the victory in the street and pursue victory in town halls and elections, with the growing realization that the “Velvet Revolution” now needs to be in people’s minds and behavior rather than in downtown Yerevan .
Despite the growing number of civil society organizations (there are more than 4,000 registered civil society organizations, mainly non-governmental organizations (NGO), absolute majority of them are inactive with little to no potential to represent certain interest groups. NGOs are especially weak in terms of their social base, funding and heavily depend on foreign donors.
Arguably, the Russian oversize influence over Belarus and Armenia has been one of the core challenges to a vibrant civil society advancement in both countries. Of all the Eastern Partnership countries, Armenia and Belarus is by far the most vulnerable to Russian influence. This reflects its structural dependence on Russia in the economic, energy, security, geopolitical, as well as socio-cultural spheres, particularly in case of Belarus.
Belarus displays a series of characteristics that allow Russia to have a strong impact on civil society. These include a weak national identity, issues around language, the prevalence of Russian information in the media, exposure to Russian information warfare, as well as the presence in Belarus of Russian government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Notably, within its strategy of promoting Eurasian integration within the Eurasian Economic Union and beyond, Russian propaganda would frequently target Armenian NGOs by framing those which are Western-funded ones as threats to Armenian-Russian relations. Such claims would be followed by the calls for ‘neutralizing’ them through information campaigns and other methods, including through the legislature. Not surprisingly, the 2017 amendments to existing NGO legislation in Armenia, with imposed restrictions on their activities, would be largely viewed as a direct result of the mounting pressure emanating from Russia.
Boosting CSOs Actorness
Studies show that the path to a vibrant and consolidated civil society has two main dimensions. The first dimension boils down to the changes in the nature of civil society relations with the state and society and its potential and ability to induce reform, or what is often referred to as “change on the outside”. This has much to do with increasing their impact on public policy and practice, not least through engaging more with their constituencies and improving their interaction with public institutions and actors. It has not been uncommon for post-Soviet societies to treat civic associations as threat to the power and stability of the state together with the conviction that the state bears the responsibility for the wellbeing of the society.
Moreover, the CSOs’ tendency to prioritize relations with Western donors over engagement with citizens would result in their treatment as donor-driven, rather than community-oriented organizations. Meanwhile, greater engagement and effective communication with various social groups is critical to breaking down the public misconceptions about CSOs and their activities.
Thus, the “change on the outside” is instrumental in dissolving the apathy of the wider public leading to their shift from spectators to actors.
A major impediment to civil society in both countries is prevailing post-Soviet “informality” in the form of behavioral practices, such as considerable tolerance towards informal governance, the use of informal networks and connections in exchanges of favors, phone justice, corruption, etc. The latter has long condemned both countries to a vicious circle of underdevelopment and bad governance. Even though it would be an oversimplification to contend that graft is a way of life it takes a long time for deep rooted behavioral practices to change. Therefore, both governments, as well as CSOs have a crucial role in eradicating the informality and culture of corruption in both societies, not least through promoting liberal values and good governance practices.
The second critical dimension is “change on the inside”, related to the nature of civil society per se: such as the way it is organized and operates. This in turn has a great deal to do with the development of adequate institutional and professional capacity in civil society organizations and networks as a vital tool for influencing policy making. The institutional development at the organizational level includes building organizational capacities for governance, decision-making, and conflict management, as well as clarifying organizational identity, values and strategy of impact.
The latter is of crucial relevance as a lot of CSOs in both countries were established in response to certain needs or funding priorities with no predefined mission, strategic plans and organization structure. That said, they were doomed to failure in terms of addressing the specific needs of their constituencies.
Overall, these changes and reforms are vital to the advancement of a vibrant civil society that can become an agent of democracy in both countries.
Can economic cooperation contribute to sustainable peace in Karabakh?
A major step has taken towards the Karabakh conflict on November 10, 2020. The century-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has undoubtedly, entered a different phase with the signing of a trilateral statement by Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia. Before this, in late September, Azerbaijan has launched a successful counter-offensive to implement the UN Security Council Resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884) through liberating its territories that were under Armenian occupation for almost 30 years. As a result of the military campaign, Azerbaijan was able to get back the majority of the strategic points in Karabakh including the historic city of Shusha.
While the protests broke out in the Armenian capital Yerevan, when PM Pashinyan publicly declared that he was obliged to sign the agreement to prevent its army from a total collapse, the Azerbaijani side enjoyed the victory by massive celebrations in Baku. The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev signed the statement on a live broadcast, and right after, addressed the nation and familiarized the Azerbaijani public with the context. As the details revealed by President Aliyev, it became obvious that the agreement was the capitulation of the Armenian side.
Afterward, the consequence of the “44-day war” was described as “a defeat both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena” by the Armenian President Armen Sarkissian. Namely, the agreement comprised the unconditional withdrawal of the Armenian troops from the occupied territories within a definite schedule, the return of all refugees, and the deployment of the Russian peacekeepers in the several points of Karabakh. Furthermore, the cardinal element of the statement is that there was not a word about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Apparently, the overwhelming military advantage of Azerbaijan induced the Armenian government to come to the negotiation table and finalize its illegal military presence within the boundaries of a neighboring sovereign state.
The agreement further articulates the opening of all communications, restoration of economic and transport links. Due to the stipulated economic notions, the statement possesses a significant role for lasting and sustainable peace. In this context, if Armenia would ensure adherence to the principles of the trilateral statement, the possible economic consequences will encapsulate in two dimensions: regional and global.
The regional dimension or local basis encompasses joint initiatives and shall include Georgia as well. For instance, the “South Caucasus Economic Union” could emerge to build high-quality cross-border infrastructure, to establish intraregional supply chains, and to form stronger financial links. The project rationale derives from the recognition that the development of an integrated South Caucasus, which can guarantee peace and spur growth in all fields, requires multiple, cohesive, and long-term efforts. Thus, the fundamental prerequisite for Armenia is to terminate all the hostilities with neighboring countries.
In the mutually assured peace environment, Azerbaijan and Armenia would strongly benefit from enormous savings on conflict-related fiscal expenditures. Military expenditures could be lessened by 2% of annual GDP in both countries to a reasonable level as in the countries at peace. Besides, Azerbaijan could eventually save expenditures for supporting refugees amounting to 0.4% of annual GDP, thus diminishing total expenditure by 2.4% of GDP yearly. Armenia could save annual expenditures of 0.9% of GDP for supporting the local economy in Nagorno-Karabakh and 0.1% of GDP in interest payments, thus saving 3% of GDP every year. Such massive fiscal savings would enable both countries to avert the budget-related issues and at the same time substantially increase spending in social spheres by eliminating any budgetary pressures.
In the global dimension, South Caucasus is capable of creating opportunities for sustainable growth. The ongoing conflict was generating an elevated extent of risks, which were constituting several constraints for the capital flow to the region. Since an opportunity has emerged to settle the conflict thoroughly regarding the trilateral statement, the effect that it would create in the future on ratings, risk premiums on bonds, loans and equity, investment, and finally, economic growth are likely to be very positive.
The South Caucasus region, acting as a link between the Middle East, China, Russia, and Europe, has immense strategic significance. Previously opened the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, today serves as the shortest way to deliver Chinese goods to Turkey and reduces delivery time to Western Europe. This project was developed within a larger Trans-Caspian International Transit Route, as part of the Belt & Road Initiative.
Within the scope of the agreement, Azerbaijan gained a corridor that links the mainland to the exclave Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic through the Zangazur region of Armenia. The new corridor seems to be a more efficient alternative from distance and timing aspects. Thus, the agreement can be characterized as pivotal since it will not only stimulate the regional development credibly, it will transform the region into a hub of the international supply chain system, as well.
Undoubtedly, the foremost economic issue will be compensation as Armenia officially approved itself as the aggressor state in this conflict with the sign of PM Pashinyan on November 10. According to the United Nations, the overall damage to the Azerbaijani economy has estimated to be around $53.5 billion in 1994. Recently, President Ilham Aliyev stated that foreign experts are going to be invited for the up-to-datecalculations of the total damage as the result of the occupation.
After a longstanding negotiation process, the situation has been exacerbated, and inevitably, processes oriented to the military theatre. This trilateral statement can forestall the risks of resumption of the military operations in this phase. Here, strengthening the capacity to manage the conflict and promote peace through regional economic integration, trade facilitation initiatives, and other policy measures will be on the agenda. There is a plethora of similar practices in the world so that it might lead to a feasible solution.
The Karabakh conflict was making South Caucasus one of the most explosive regions in Eurasia. Nevertheless, from this moment, the focus shall be on the peacemaking process as it yields considerable economic benefits. As mentioned, the flow of investments to the region will tremendously increase, whereby the states in South Caucasus will be able to maximize their economic potentials. For Armenia, it is time to act on facts and realities rather than dreams. So, it should renounce territorial claims and start to rational cooperation with neighbors for a better future.
The new border geopolitics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Azerbaijan
Borders are spatial-political phenomena that have a prominent importance and place in the global political sphere because they have divided the world arena into countries and put them together as actors. This importance and prominent position of borders has caused various fields of study such as political science, political geography, international law, etc. to study them from their point of view and continuously to follow and monitor their developments and changes. In the meantime, it seems that after the acceptance of the ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia along the northwestern borders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, some developments have happened that need to examine. So, we examine these developments with a geopolitical perspective. The geopolitical attitude towards the border developments of Iran and Azerbaijan can analyze in the form of the following angles:
Border geopolitics in terms of location is the knowledge, acquisition, exploitation and preservation of geographical sources of power in border areas and related areas in transnational, national, regional and global relations. In other words, designing and reviewing the strategies of actors to achieve benefits and goals based on the geographical resources of power in the border areas called border geopolitics. The developments along the Iran-Azerbaijan border after the ceasefire show these developments cause the geographical sources of Iran's power: alliance with Armenia; severance of Iran's position as Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan communication bridge; reducing Azerbaijan's dependence on Iran for access to the high seas; reducing the possibility of transferring Iranian gas to Europe, etc. that along the borders should significantly reduce. On the other hand, the increase of geographical sources of power: increasing the size of the territory; establishing a connection with the Nakhchivan sector; forming a new opportunity to connect with the high seas through Turkey, etc. has brought about for the country of Azerbaijan. Based on this, it seems that in designing the forthcoming strategies of Iran and Azerbaijan, we will see changes in the geographical sources of power due to these changes.
Border geopolitics from a functional point of view is the knowledge, acquisition, exploitation and preservation of geographical sources of power in transnational, national, regional and global relations to achieve protection, control, management, security and other objectives in the length of borders and border areas. In other words, designing and reviewing the strategies of actors to achieve protection, control, management, security and other goals based on the geographical sources of power in the border areas called border geopolitics. If we examine the developments along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border after the ceasefire from this point of view, we will see that the importance and value of Azerbaijan's geographical resources along the border with Iran is increasing compared to Iran's geographical sources of power. It seems to put more effective and successful strategies in front of Azerbaijan to achieve goals such as control, security, etc. along the common borders. On the contrary, it will change the strategies facing Iran to some extent.
Border geopolitics from a player point is the knowledge, acquisition, exploitation and preservation of geographical resources of power in the border areas of the two countries, by Iran and Azerbaijan to achieve their goals and aspirations in transnational, national, regional and global. In other words, the use and exploitation of the geographical sources of power in the common border areas of Iran and Azerbaijan to achieve their goals and aspirations in transnational, national, regional and global relations called geopolitical borders.If we examine the developments along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border after ceasefire from this point of view, we will see that these changes have made Azerbaijan, as a geopolitical player compared to Iran, more powerful than geographical sources. On the other hand, variety of actors such as Turkey, Russia, etc. are present directly along the borders of the two countries.
In general, the changes that have taken place along the borders of Iran and Azerbaijan from a geopolitical point of view of the border seem to have been in favor of Azerbaijan and the geographical sources of power along the border between two countries in favor of this country. It has changed and thus increased the efficiency of the strategies facing Azerbaijan against the strategies of Iran based on the geographical sources of power in the border areas.
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