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Blogger Lapshin to Stand Trial in Azerbaijan

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he arrest of Aleksandr Lapshin, a Russian blogger who was detained in Belarus and then extradited to Azerbaijan to stand trial, prompts a salient question about the role social media can play in either aggravating or mitigating ongoing conflicts.

Aleksand Lapshin, who was deported from Belarus to Azerbaijan last Tuesday, is accused of violating Azerbaijan’s state border laws, visiting Nagorno-Karabakh without Azerbaijan’s official consent and calling for the region’s independence in his blog posts, which appear to have been deleted from his blog following his arrest.

At a press conference in January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov weighed in on the issue of Lapshin’s extradition to Azerbaijan. Lavrov told reporters that Russia is against the extradition of Alexander Lapshin. “Russia is opposed to the criminalization of visits by journalists or other people to this territory or other territories in different regions. Moscow disagrees with the extradition to a third country of Russians detained abroad,” Russian Foreign Minister said. In his interview with Russian media outlet RIA Novosti, Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said that he is baffled and outraged by “unnecessary politicization” of this issue, adding that Lapshin has been placed on Interpol’s wanted list on legal grounds and detained in accordance with the Chisinau Convention on legal aid and legal relations among CIS members.

It is worth mentioning that differences in opinion on certain matters between Azerbaijani authorities and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are not limited only to the Laphin’s case. At the same press conference in January, Lavrov also told reporters that Nagorno-Karabakh is not Azerbaijan’s internal matter. These comments drew criticism from Azerbaijani authorities, who emphasized that the 2016 April clashes were, in fact, internal matter of Azerbaijan.

The claim that Azerbaijan would not have granted permission to travel to Nagorno-Karabakh even if Lapshin were to ask for appears to be false. In the past, the Azerbaijani government allowed foreign journalists to visit Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2015, Baku gave permission to the BBC World Service reporter Rayhan Demytrie to travel to Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, one of the main reasons why it is so difficult for journalists to get permission to visit Nagorno-Karabakh is because Azerbaijani authorities are wary of distorted coverage that the conflict might receive, especially in the age of “fake news.” There have been many instances when this concern seemed particularly justified. During the April 2016 clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh some media outlets ran now completely debunked stories about ISIS involvement in the conflict. Some media outlets even referenced a fake news story about nonexistent ISIS forces being deployed by Turkey to Azerbaijan.  

What’s more, banning people from visiting separatist territories or putting sanctions on them for doing so is not a new practice. In February 2015, Iosif Kobzon, a famous Russian singer and member of the Russian State Duma, was put on the EU sanction list and banned from traveling to the Union because he visited the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and made statements supporting separatists. So far, more than 140 people have been subject to visa bans by the EU for their actions undermining or threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

There is no doubt that both mass media and social media play a crucial role in ongoing conflicts. Such a role can take two opposing forms. Either the media can actively engage in the conflict and instigate violence – often deliberately, in other cases unintentionally – or it can try to stay objective and contribute to the mitigation of the conflict. More often than not, however, social media nowadays tends to act as a catalyst for destruction and promote the very worst in people, by producing lies about genocidal threats, awakening old fears, and dehumanizing “the other.” Unfortunately, this seems to be the case with Lapshin as well. It is not given, however, that both social media and mass media should always play a destructive role in conflicts. On the contrary, they can and should actively engage in helping to prevent further escalation of violence. Journalists have the power to defuse tensions before they even reach a dangerous point. At the same time, providing distorted coverage of the conflict and contributing to the dangerous pattern of omission and misrepresentation which just increases tensions between the sides is not the way to achieve that.

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Eastern Europe

Another government but the same problem in Latvia

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Latvia is on the brink of a social explosion. Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš’s statement cold serve as the impetus to it. In an interview with LNT’s programme 900 sekundes last week he said that “Latvia is currently unable to significantly raise the wages of teachers, because it would require either increasing the budget deficit or higher taxes.” This statement was made despite all promises to teachers made by the previous government. The head of the government cynically reminded that compared to other countries, Latvia has too many teachers per its number of pupils.

In the morning of Wednesday, February 13, he told that the promise by his fellow party member, ex-Minister of Education and Science, Kārlis Šadurskis, had been made in relation to school reform. The increase included in the Latvian state budget of 2019 had actually been an effort to avoid the reduction of the size of teacher salaries, the PM explained. Thus he insisted that there were no plans to increase salaries, just to keep them at the same level. To all appearances school reform will raise questions. The government is not going to fire teachers directly, it plans to reduce the number of schools and as a result teachers will be forced to quit.

According to the news that the Riga City Council is planning to shut down two schools and merge eight, the promises not to cut the number of teachers are forgotten. The new government which only few weeks ago struggled for people trust, does not care about people’s loyalty any more.

Such behaviour could be easily regarded by Latvians as betrayal and an insult. So the new government could not even fight the results of short-sighted social policy not to mention the needed fight with the causes of such problems.

According to Statistical Yearbook of Latvia 2018, public and private pre-school education institutions’ pedagogical staff (at the beginning of 2017 school year) in the public sector counts 10 633 persons. These professionals monthly earn about 800 euro.

Is it a big problem to find the source of financing such vulnerable sphere as education?

That’s for sure, people, who are near our children, give knowledge, spend a lot of time with them, who are responsible for Latvian future should not make ends meet.

For instance, government does not make any difficulties for the realization of ambitious military projects. It has become known that from 2018 to 2021, Latvia plans to invest about €50 million annually into military infrastructure, the ministry of National Defence said January 25, reports LETA. The bulk of the funds will go to the Ādaži military base.

€50 million annually would be a substantial help to Latvian teachers! Unfortunately, teachers are not so important for the country image, so they will continue not to live, but to exist.

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Eastern Europe

Expansion of Georgia’s Black Sea Ports: Modus Vivendi for Georgia

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Over the past several months, a whole range of actions has taken place to expand all of Georgia’s existing and future Black Sea ports. These moves, in their entirety, could have geopolitical significance on at least the regional level as it will help further connect the country to the world maritime routes, increase the country’s transit potential and also enhance its position when it comes to China’s multi-billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Several weeks ago, the European Union decided to financially support the Anaklia Deep Sea Port. In a document published by the European Commission regarding the development of the ‘Trans-European Transport Network’, it is stated that 233 mln Euros have been allocated for financing the 2nd phase of the Anaklia Deep Sea Port. It is also noted in the project that hundreds of millions of Euros have been assigned for the construction of the rail lines and highways throughout Georgia which will lead to the Anaklia Deep Sea Port. Moreover, the German Development Bank (DEG) together with the Dutch development bank have also decided to invest in Anaklia.

Further south, in Poti, a decision was made to construct a multimodal transit terminal. The facility will have modern equipment able to store up to 60,000 tons of fertilizer. Wondernet Express, the international logistics company behind the project, will invest $20 million in the project.

International port operator APM Terminals, along with Poti New Terminals Consortium, have submitted a conceptual design for the expansion of the APM Terminals’ Poti Sea Port. The project entails a 14.5-meter water depth at the 700-meter quay wall and 25 hectares of land for the bulk operation yard and covered storage facilities for various cargo types, including grain, ore, and minerals.

The US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) has issued a loan of $50 million to Pace Group to develop a multi-functional marine terminal in Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti, aimed at expanding its operational capacities.

In Batumi, it was agreed that the expansion of the port will take place with the construction of an additional terminal.

It was even announced by the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development Giorgi Kobulia that the discussion of a ferry line between Georgia and the EU has been renewed.

Overall, these decisions show that there is a certain progress being made on Georgia’s Black Sea ports development and their inclusion in the world maritime network. This global financing from Europe to the US also shows how these geopolitical players regard the South Caucasus and Georgia in particular. One could surmise that the geopolitical projection of those global companies is based upon the idea that the situation in Georgia will remain stable and that Georgian-Russian relations are unlikely to take a confrontational course (at least from the mid-term perspective).

But this expansion of Georgia’s sea port infrastructure could also lead to increased interest from China in the Georgian transit corridor. I argued in a previous article for GEORGIA TODAY that, although Georgia does not figure in China’s BRI, the Chinese project is an evolving one. I suggested in the same article that over time, new corridors would appear; that the BRI, rather than being a static initiative, is in fact a model which will constantly adjust to rising opportunities.

It might be suggested that a more developed infrastructure will eventually draw the Chinese to Georgia’s Black Sea ports. The above-mentioned developments at Anaklia, Poti and Batumi can be considered the first stage in this process.

Taking a global perspective of these economic developments, I will argue that one of the scenarios in which Georgia and all the neighboring countries will reap benefits, is when as many world actors as possible have stakes in the Georgian economic corridor. It would be a certain modus vivendi for Georgia’s future development.

Analysts often argue that there is a solely military solution to Georgia’s problem with Russia. However, it is suggested here that yet another, and probably more accurate, solution to the Georgian dilemma for everyone (including the Russians) would be a Georgia where every great player has economic interests and is forced to upkeep the geopolitical security in the country for those very interests.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Times

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Eastern Europe

Trump buys Lithuania, EU cannot stop it

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The US President Donald Trump is no doubt a successful businessman who rules his country as if it is a huge enterprise. And this kind of management, to his mind, should lead to success. And very often it really works. As a wise leader he uses different tools to reach his goals. Thus, the most cunning one, which the US exploits in Europe – is indirect influence on the EU countries to gain the desired aim. The EU just becomes a tool in “capable hands” of the US.

Let us give the simple example. Last week the Ministry of National Defence of Lithuania announced that the Lithuanian Air Force Base in Šiauliai would get de-icing equipment for the aircraft. It would be acquired according to an agreement signed by the Ministry of National Defence and the AF Security Assistance and Cooperation Directorate (AFSACD) on behalf of the Government of the United States of America.

It is known that the new equipment is capable of removing ice from aircraft at the necessary height which allows the Šiauliai Air Base to support bigger aircraft of the Alliance, such as C-17 – one of the largest transport aircraft capable of moving a large number of soldiers and large amounts of cargo.

It is said that “the procurement for the Lithuanian Air Force Base will fill a critical capability gap and allow the Base personnel to carry out cold weather operations, as well as support the NATO Air Policing Mission. The equipment will also be used for providing servicing for the aircraft of the NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battalion Battle Group-contributing countries and other NATO allies at the Air Base.”

But according to data, only three C-17s belongs to NATO. The US, in its turn, has 222 C-17s in service as of Jan. 2018. Among EU member states the only country that has C-17A ERs is the United Kingdom with 8 C-17A ERs in use. But The United Kingdom is in the process of leaving the organization. So, it is logical to assume that the most interested country in deploying C-17 in Lithuania is the US, not the EU or even NATO. And of course Lithuania cannot even dream of having such planes.

The second issue which is even more important is the fact that the agreement of approximate value of USD 1.03 million is financed from the European Security Assistance Fund (ESAF). Lithuania is not able to share the burden.

So, nothing depends on Lithuania in this issue. It only gives permission.

In the recent years Lithuania’s procurement from the US has grown significantly. The ministry of National Defence is currently in negotiations with the US department of Defence for procuring JLTV all-terrain vehicles.

Unfortunately, being a member of the EU, Lithuania so hardly depends on the US in military and security spheres that it often mixes up its real needs, responsibilities to the EU with the US interests in the region. Such approach could seriously complicate the relations with neighbouring Russia and Belarus which Lithuania borders. These two countries are interested in Lithuania as an economic partner. But if Lithuania will pose military threat to them, deploying US military equipment, these states could terminate any economic cooperation.

Is it a cooperation or manipulation and who will benefit?

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