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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

Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus

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The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.

The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.

It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.

The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.

The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.

In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.

Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.

Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.

With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.

The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.

The Western stance

The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.

Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.

Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.

The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.

The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.

Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.

Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.

Georgia’s position

Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.

Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.

The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”

The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.

Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.

But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.

The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.

Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.

After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.

Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

Author’s note: first published in dailysabah

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Eastern Europe

An Impending Revolution

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Large crowds have demonstrated their anger at the results of the presidential election in Belarus. Photo: Kseniya Halubovich

Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.

The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.

The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.

On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.

European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.

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Eastern Europe

The 44-Day War: Democracy Has Been Defeated by Autocracy in Nagorno-Karabakh

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The people of Artsakh are seen as pro-Russian. Is this Pro-Moscow assessment of people of Artsakh accurate, and why Russian peacekeepers are welcomed in Nagorno-Karabakh?

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The Republic of Artsakh and its people developed the nation’s democracy for approximately three decades. Back in 1991, Artsakh held a referendum on its independence, as well as democratic elections under a barrage of Azerbaijani rockets. The people of Artsakh accomplished this step by themselves, being convinced that without freedom of the individual, there is no freedom for the country. The Artsakh National Liberation Movement was nothing but a struggle for freedom and the right to decide one’s own destiny.

The development of democracy was not easy for a war-torn country with ade-facto status, limited resources, lack of institutions, combined with the threat of resumption of hostilities and the temptation of using elements of authoritarianism in governance as well as in the public mood. 

Nevertheless, during the last three decades, the people of Artsakh have managed to develop working democratic institutions, ensure political pluralism, and form effective human rights institutions. The vivid examples thereof are the 2020presidential elections held on a competitive basis, a 5-party Parliament, and the constitutional mechanisms for the separation of powers.

It is noteworthy that the full spectrum of democratization in Artsakh has been carried out by the country alone, without the direct support of international governmental and non-governmental organizations, and despite the numerous appeals by the civil society of Artsakh made to them.

However, Artsakh’s democracy has been highly regarded not only by parliamentarians, politicians and experts who have visited Artsakh, but also by the international organizations, such as Freedom House in its Freedom in the World annual reports. In these reports Artsakh is on the list of partly free countries, making progress in ensuring political and civil liberties each year, while Azerbaijan holds on to a not free status all the while making regressive steps in every aspect.

The people of Artsakh believed that the development of democracy would inevitably strengthen the position on unimaginability of any vertical relationship with dictatorial Azerbaijan. The people of Artsakh believed that they were keeping the eastern gate of the European civilization and its set of values. The people of Artsakh believed that those in West involved in the conflict settlement process, particularly France and the United States would view the Artsakh struggle with an understanding that it was created by their examples and ideals of freedom.

And what did the people of Artsakh receive as a result of believing in the West? They faced a new war and a new bloodshed unleashed by the same Azerbaijan. They also faced a harsh reality in the form of gross violations of human rights, war crimes and destruction of their cultural heritage. The principle of equality and self-determination of peoples in general, and the notions of freedom and human rights in particular completely collapsed before the eyes of the people of Artsakh.

One doesn’t have to be a military expert to understand that Artsakh, a small country with limited resources and capabilities, could not on its own resist Turkey-backed Azerbaijan for long, especially given the direct involvement of Turkish command staff and thousands of mercenaries from the Middle East terrorist organizations in the conflict, and the use of advanced military technology likethe banned weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

What did the people of Artsakh need to prevent this war? The answer would have been the de jure recognition of Artsakh that at least would have dampened the possibility of a new war, put an end to the century-old conflict, and establish long lasting peace and security in the region.

Instead of recognizing their unalienable right to self-determination, a new war was imposed on the people of Artsakh. As a result of this war, the people of Artsakh were left with a devastated country, thousands of dead and wounded compatriots, a new generation of refugees and IDPs, dependence on the peacekeeping mission for physical security, a “neither peace nor war” situation, as well as an uncertain future.

Russia wanted to come to Karabakh and so it did. Russia is in Artsakh not because the people of Artsakh were dreaming of weakened sovereignty while they continued to think of what West would do, but Russia came to Artsakh because Russia, unlike the West, acts rather than speaks. When on the one hand there are European and American concerns expressed in empty statements and on the other hand there are Russian peacekeepers and tanks, there is no room left for thinking long.

Let’s look at the values in which European Union, United States, Canada, and the rest of the so called “civilized world” believe in: the ideas of human rights and freedoms which they been advocating for years across the world. Now let’s try to see what is left from them all. Maybe once can find an inspiration for writing new books and sharing ideas about the future of humanity vis-à-vis the civilized world. Perhaps, in the European Union, in the United States, in Canada, and in the rest of the so called “civilized” world, their population may enjoy the ideals of human rights, but the people living in small and unimportant countries are often deprived of such rights. Perhaps the Western intellectuals and authors will write books on how the West left the faith of the people of Artsakh to the hands of the terrorists while empowering the Turkish-Azerbaijani dictators with their indifference and inaction. Indeed, for the West, the lives of the people of Artsakh are not valuable just because they are from a ‘gray’ zone, because they live in a country that doesn’t officially ‘exist’. These discriminatory phrases are definitions time and again used by the Western officials. It is what it is. The West, however, should not forget to celebrate Zero Discrimination Day and quote articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Later, when Turkish expansionism and terrorism will knock on the Western doors, the West will remember those unimportant people from an unrecognized country that absorbed the first blow. At that juncture, the West will also remember how it admired the people of Artsakh’s endurance and collective resistance, but at the same time left them alone in their fight against terrorism and modern military technology. Perhaps, for the West it is just like watching a fun action movie with popcorn and cola.

Having 193 or 194 member-countries in the United Nations (UN)as a result of recognition of Artsakh would not change the existing international legal order, however, it could serve a textbook example for rising democracies and a lesson for the dictatorships and international terrorism. By not recognizing the right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination, the West is burying the concepts of human rights, freedoms, and democracy, thereby paving a way for the next military-political adventures of dictators. The West should decide. The longer the West spends on thinking without any concrete action, the further the region will move away from it.

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