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South Gas Corridor and the recent escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh

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Authors: Rusif Huseynov, Murad Muradov

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] E [/yt_dropcap]urope`s longest running conflict was reactivated in Nagorno-Karabakh on February 25, when the cease-fire regime along the contact line was violated. The skirmishes lasted several days and left dead corpses behind without producing any other result.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry stated its forces had “suffered losses” when repelling the large-scale Armenian assault. By a suspicious coincidence the skirmish happened just on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Khojaly genocide that was commemorated in Baku with a 40,000 people-strong march.

Azerbaijani diplomats consider that the recent Armenian provocation was aimed at disrupting the negotiation process over the conflict’s peaceful settlement. However, such an interpretation of the events could be too diplomatic and may not reveal the echoes of deeper geopolitical struggle in the region and beyond.

Lately there have been alerts on Armenia`s preparations for a new skirmish, which was strengthened by the news on supply of MiG-29 fighters and other sophisticated aircraft from Russia to Armenia in February 2016. The Kremlin also promised the Armenian authorities a $200 mln-credit for arms purchase. In the autumn last year, media reported the transfer of Iskander ballistic missiles to Armenia. The military cooperation was further deepened when Putin submitted a project of a Russian-Armenian agreement on creating the Unified Caucasus Air Defense System to the State Duma in October and approved a proposal to create a joint Russian-Armenian military group in November. It should have been obvious that such a massive and quickly armament poses a threat to the entire region. But ‘why?’ and ‘when?’ could be the main questions.

A few days prior to the shootouts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku hosted the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) Advisory Council. The Azerbaijani authorities attached a great importance to the event; President Ilham Aliyev himself delivered an address to the meeting. It was attended not only by high-ranking officials of the countries involved in the Southern Gas Corridor, but also senior representatives from the European Union and United Kingdom.

The Southern Gas Corridor is a complex of several infrastructural projects aimed at bringing natural gas from the Caspian basin to Europe. With a total investment estimated at USD 45 billion, this route comprises the South Caucasus Pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TAP) and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TANAP). Although Azerbaijan`s Shah Deniz gas field is regarded as the major supply for the project, the involvement of other suppliers from the region is also being discussed. Several sources refer to the SGC as “…arguably the global oil and gas industry’s most significant and ambitious undertaking yet.”

The Southern Gas Corridor project is designed to improve the security and diversity of the EU’s energy supply, to reduce Europe`s dependency on Russian gas. Since energy has turned into a cornerstone of the foreign policy of Putin`s Russia as a vital source of income and tool of influence, the Kremlin feels quite jealous of any attempts to diversify Europe`s energy supply. And when such attempts are either initiated or supported by a former Soviet nation or Eastern European satellite such as Azerbaijan, to ensure independence in this issue or, even worse, to become an active energy player, Moscow may use its influence to prevent possible projects through both “carrots” (allegedly more efficient alternative projects, such as “South Stream”) and “sticks” (efforts to sabotage the projects viewed in Moscow as hostile). The TAP project which is the final stage of the SGC project, has been under constant threat from environmentalist groups in Italy, a country where Russian interests are well represented.

Even in the 1990s when Russia`s policies were relatively “dove”ish, the Kremlin did try hard to prevent the conclusion of the 1994 oil contract and later initiatives that directed the major energy flows from Azerbaijan towards the West. The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surronding regions, several coup attempts (one of them happening just 2 weeks after “The Contract of the Century” was signed) and terror attacks in Azerbaijan in early and mid-1990s unsurprisingly coincided with the period, when Azerbaijani officials and foreign companies were actively negotiating and signing oil agreements. Then Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Valter Shonia could not have been more frank when he was quoted as saying, “Any politician denying the reality of Russian power is not going to remain long in office. Russia is interested in cooperation with the West over Azerbaijan but if there is some attempt to unseat Russia, there will be unpleasant consequences.” In the end, Russia secured a considerable share of the contract to be entrusted to a Russian company. Moreover, Azerbaijan agreed to continue selling oil via the the outdated, lengthy and uncomfortable Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline.

In other words, since the 1990s Russia’s policies have been aimed to block by all means all independent regional energy and other infrastructure projects in the South Caucasus that bypass Russia and there have not been any substantial changes in the policies of Russia to say that Moscow is happy with these projects. Moreover, the events around Ukraine and occupation of Crimea demonstrate that Moscow has become more aggressive toward any projects that diminish the influence of Russia in the post-soviet space. Thus, the recent escalation on the line of contact between Azerbaijan and Armenia can be viewed through prism to pressure Azerbaijan for its new energy project.  

The interest of the European Union in diversifying its energy sources means that Europe has a real stake in the latest energy contest for the Caspian energy resources. The continuing Western standoff with the Kremlin means that Azerbaijani gas will become more important to Brussels in the coming months and years. Since weak Europe is a key to Russia’s “divide-and-rule” strategy in Eurasia, one should beware of the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine the feasibility of the SGC project.

Moscow has a couple of reasons to worry that a negative status-quo it helped to build up in the region, might be undermined in favor of a more cooperational approach. Such strategic initiatives as the SGC, as well as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, set to be launched soon, bear potential for deepening the participation of the South Caucasus countries in global supply chains. In Armenia, many realize now that the only factor keeping their country from seizing these opportunities is the protracted conflict with Azerbaijan and quasicolonial dependence on the “Russian bear”. A large trend of the recent months has been the “Baku platform”, the first-ever attempt at independent people’s diplomacy whereby a number of Armenian public figures openly supported peaceful resolution of the conflict and normalization process, and some of them even visited Baku at the time where the intergovernmental contacts are probably at a historic low. The Platform discourse emphasized the benefits obtained by “the third forces” (usually an euphemism for Moscow) from the unrelenting conflict and alienation between the two neighbouring nations. The latest escalation might have been a signal sent to the countries “not to relax” and keep the confrontational mood that has recently become totally prevalent in both Baku and Yerevan, again raising security concerns of foreign investors.

(*) Murad Muradov is an independent researcher who has recently graduated from an MSc in Comparative Politics course at the London School of Economics. He also holds an MA degree in International Affairs from the ADA University (Azerbaijan). Mr. Muradov’s spheres of interest includes the Politics of Europe, post-Soviet countries and the Middle East, as well as international political economy.

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

Western Influence Wanes in South Caucasus

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Over the course of past year, Georgia’s relations with its Western partners have notably cooled. Under the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party which came to power in 2012, ties with the West had strengthened. But recently, as the popularity of the party declined and the political landscape in Georgia altered, distrust has grown, accusations have flown, and questions regarding the sustainability of Georgia’s pro-Western path are loudly discussed. 

A primary driver is an internal political crisis which followed the 2020 parliamentary elections. That worsened following a July 28 decision by GD to walk back a deal it reached with the political opposition to end a month-long internal political crisis. The process was supervised by EU diplomats along with the U.S. ambassador. A six-point plan was produced that envisaged long-sought electoral and judicial reforms, and power-sharing in parliament. It also involved stipulations on the possibility of new elections and the issue of political prisoners (though the government says there are none.) 

The decision to withdraw from the deal might be also linked to the upcoming local government elections and troubles faced by the ruling party. IRI-produced polls showed that GD is backed by only 28% of the population, with the United National Movement, traditionally the biggest opposition party, coming second with 15%. Other polls showed only slightly higher support for the ruling party. 

Georgian Dream also faces serious dissent within its own ranks. Former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s active political campaigning and growing popularity (9% according to the IRI polls) have taken significant support from Georgia Dream to his new party, called For Georgia. The proliferation of parties as well as the steady process of generational change is breaking the political status quo. Gradually, older parties are losing popularity, while newer groups manage to attract support in the 5-10% range. Diffusion of political power among multiple parties is thus a significant development which breaks with traditional Georgian politics of single party dominance of the entire political landscape. 

Although pro-EU sentiment within the Georgian public remains fairly high, for the political elites it has become increasingly clear that membership prospects are bleaker than ever before. Reasons range from troubles in the liberal world order, to the rise of illiberalism and the divisions within the EU on expanding onto Russia’s doorstep. 

America’s failures should not be magnified, but its prestige has been shaken by the Afghan withdrawal, meaning U.S. authority is being diluted. President Joe Biden’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region has provided an opportunity for Georgia’s government to consider a more balanced approach to the Black Sea neighborhood. This involves the establishment of more equidistant external ties, both to regional and global powers. Ukraine, another long-time EU-hopeful, did something similar when the country was essentially shunned from EU and NATO membership. The country turned to China, and signed a large investment deal to improve railway and ports infrastructure. Reaching out to Turkey is another option. 

In Georgia’s case, its fixation with the West no longer provides the expected results. However, this does not mean Georgia will abandon its pro-Western stance. Ideally, constructing closer foreign ties with other actors would allow the country to partially compensate for its inability to win EU/NATO membership. A multi-vector foreign policy is already visible in Turkey, Iran, Russia and other neighboring states. Even Armenia, much constrained by asymmetric dependence on Russia, is actively looking at diversifying its foreign policy options by actively seeking a rapprochement with Turkey.  

One possibility is that Georgia seeks an improvement of relations with Russia — badly marred by the 2008 war — as part of a more agile and balanced foreign policy. As ties between Georgia and the West deteriorate, Russia seems to want an understanding. A series of offers on normalizing bilateral relations was suggested by the Kremlin, aiming to exploit the rising disagreements between Georgia and its Western partners. 

In the end, the shift from fixation on the West to a policy of criticism as part of a broader foreign policy reflects changes in the balance of power. The West is no longer seen in the wider Black Sea region as a decisive power. The rise of an illiberal alternative to the Western liberal democratic model allows countries to take another path. That of course ultimately harms the U.S. and its friends, reduces their credibility, and may reverse liberty’s advances, achieved over several decades, both in Georgia and Ukraine. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Ukraine’s EU-integration plan is not good for Europe

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Late this summer, Estonia, in the person of its president, Kersti Kaljulaid, became the first EU country to declare that Ukraine remains as far away from EU membership as it was after the “Revolution of Dignity” – the events of 2013-14 in Kiev, which toppled Ukraine’s vacillating pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after, the ambassador of Estonia’s neighbor, Latvia, in Ukraine, echoed Kaljulaid’s statement, although in a slightly softer form. This came as unpleasant news for the current authorities of Kiev, especially amid the celebration of Ukraine’s 30th independence anniversary and the “Crimean Forum,” which, according to President Zelensky’s plan, was supposed to rally international support for the country in its confrontation with Russia. However, during the past seven years, Ukraine has been a serious problem for the EU, which is becoming increasingly hard to solve.

Back in 2014, the Kremlin’s response to the overthrow of its ally, Yanukovych, was just as harsh as to the coming to power in Kiev of pro-Western elites. Without firing a single shot, Russia annexed Crimea, a major base for the Russian Black Fleet, and populated by a Russian-speaking majority, many of whom sincerely welcomed the region’s reunification with Russia. Meanwhile, a civil war broke out in Ukraine’s also Russian-speaking southeast where the local separatists were actively supported by Moscow. Europe then realized that it was now necessary to ramp up pressure on Russia and support the budding democratic transformations in Ukraine. However, the country’s successive pro-Western presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, who shared European values, have since failed to achieve any significant results in European integration. Moreover, they became enmeshed in US electoral scandals and the war of compromising evidence, and they do not create the impression of being independent figures. Moreover, they were consistently making one mistake after another. In two major battles with separatists near Debaltsevo and Ilovaisk in 2014-15, the Ukrainian Armed Forces suffered a crushing defeat, despite the upsurge of patriotism backed by US and European support. The closure of the borders with Russia has divided families and left tens of thousands of people without jobs. An inept language policy and rabid nationalism split the Ukrainian nation, which had just begun to shape up, with wholesale corruption plunging the country into poverty.

In their clumsy effort to prove their adherence to European values, Petro Poroshenko, and after him Volodymyr Zelensky, both made clumsy attempts to prove their adherence to Western values, starting to prioritize the interests of the country’s LGBT community. As a result, gay people were given prominent positions in the country’s leadership, and the square outside the presidential palace became the venue of almost weekly gay pride parades. This open disregard for the conservative values ​​of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians led to an even greater split between the ruling elites and the nationalists, who are now at loggerheads with the Zelensky administration on many issues – another gigantic problem hindering Ukraine’s European integration.

The fact is that Ukrainian nationalism has old and very controversial roots. Starting out as fighters for independence, the Ukrainian right-wingers quickly joined the camp of Hitler’s admirers and committed a number of serious war crimes not only in Ukraine proper, but on the territory of neighboring Poland as well. Their heirs now honor Hitler and Ukrainian collaborationists, deny many crimes of Nazism and espouse anti-Semitic views that are unacceptable for Europe. Moreover, they do not see Russia as their only enemy, actively provoking conflicts with the Poles and accusing them of the “genocide of the Ukrainians” during the 1930s in the territories that until 1939 were part of the Polish state.

In the course of the seven years of Ukraine’s “pro-Western turn” the local right-wingers, who already represented an organized force, were reinforced by veterans of the Donbass war, members of the country’s military and security forces. They were long regarded by the Washington as important allies in the fight against Russia, failing to see real neo-Nazis hiding under patriotic slogans. Now it is exactly these people, who are breaking up gay parades in Kiev and crippling LGBT activists. They feel no need for European values because they take much closer to heart the legacy of the Third Reich. Thanks to visa-free travel to Europe, they have become regulars, and often the striking force of neo-Nazi gatherings from Germany to Spain. They are ready to kill refugees from the Middle East and burn synagogues. Moreover, some of them have retained ties with their Russian neo-Nazi brethren, who, although in deep opposition to Vladimir Putin, continue to propagate the idea of superiority of the Slavic race.

President Zelensky and his administration are smart enough to distance themselves from the local right-wingers. Moreover, they are detained, and sometimes their rallies are broken up by police (albeit without any consequences for the leaders). Even though the ultra-nationalist Right Sector lost their seats in parliament in the last elections, they retained their hard-core base and influence. De facto neo-Nazi leaders maintain good contacts with the outwardly liberal presidential administration and are thus immune from prosecution. They also go to Europe, where right-wing sentiments are very popular.

Meanwhile, President Zelensky continues to pointlessly lose soldiers along the “contact line” with separatists, unable to “be strong with his weakness” and establish a full-fledged truce in a war he does not yet want to win. As a result, more and more illegal arms are seeping into the country’s central regions from the frontlines and many soldiers, fed up with the war, are now joining the ranks of right-wing militants! These are by no means pro-European activists. They will be just as happy to beat up LGBT members and destroy a refugee camp as the Russian embassy. The authorities simply cannot fight them in earnest because the ultranationalists have too many supporters in the state apparatus and too many activists capable of plunging Kiev into chaos in a matter of hours. Small wonder that such post-Soviet countries as Estonia and Latvia, which themselves had problems with both nationalism and the justification of local collaborationists, were the first to raise their voices criticizing Kiev.

Well, Ukraine could and should be viewed as a potential new EU member. However, it must be forced to root out Nazism, instead of holding staged gay prides in downtown Kiev just for show to demonstrate the elites’ adherence to European values! Otherwise, we would have a faction of real neo-Nazis in the European Parliament, compared to whom any members of the European Far Right would look like moderate conservatives. In addition to stamping out corruption, President Zelensky needs to eradicate neo-fascism, which threatens Europe just as it does his own country. Only then can we talk about European integration. Meanwhile, we have to admit that, just as the Estonian president said, seven years of “European democracy” have not brought Ukraine one step closer to the United Europe…

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Eastern Europe

Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement

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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

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