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The Price of Opportunism: Georgia’s Saakashvilli and the Lessons of History

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Modern diplomacy does not imply one should ignore the lessons of contemporary history. Nor should one sacrifice prudent long-term policies for the perception of short-term national gains. Both may have taken root in Mikhiel Saakashvilli’s reign in the Republic of Georgia. An observer might wonder why Georgia has put itself in positions that have reduced its sovereignty.

Sovereignty does not simply represent the relative extent to which the military and economic power of a state is measured, but rather it is the capacity of a state’s power and right to act. Clearly, sovereignty can be projected beyond the recognized physical bounds of a state.

In January 2004, Saakashvilli became the president of Georgia, riding the wave of the Rose Revolution, predicated on ridding the country of endemic corruption, removing Russian military bases from Georgian territory, and centering on European integration and NATO membership. While many of these goals might be laudable, what appears as an underlying assumption by Saakashvilli and others is by acting the part of a surrogate, the west will automatically embrace all that is in Georgia’s interest. The folly of such assumption was made clear in 2008 when events in South Ossetia degenerated into a short mini-war between Russia and Georgia. With Georgia on its own, it lost sovereignty over South Ossetia and Russia recognized the independent status of former Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

During the Saakashvilli years, citizens of Turkey were given Georgian citizenship by claiming they were of Georgian ethnicity by, for example, speaking a few words in Georgian. [1] Many of these dual citizens set up shop in Batumi on the Georgian Black Sea coast where there is a clear Turkish flavor to Batumi today. Others opened businesses throughout Georgia, mainly in Tbilisi. In the short term this might not be an issue. However, Saakashvilli set up conditions in Batumi something akin to what took place in the region of Alexandretta, the once French-administered, mainly Arab populated Mediterranean coastal province of post-WWI Syria. Saakshvilli’s policies did not take two important items into account: the very dynamic nature of states in regional relations, and the existential expansionist tendency of Turkey. The latter is expressed today as neo-Ottomanism, which has always existed since the very early 1920s. In 2004, who would have thought the somewhat secular nature of Turkey would be transformed into a near-Islamic state within a decade? In any case, it should have been predicted. Part of national strategic planning is to understand the forces, sometimes hidden just under the surface, which could potentially end up working against state interests, decades in the future. In Georgia, such planning was firmly centered on NATO membership, uber alles. Saakashvilli’s strategic long-term planning was in fact short-term opportunism.

Turkish Policies

Since the 1920s, Turks have claimed lands as far apart as Bosnia, Bulgaria, Crimea, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Syria, and all of Cyprus. [2] This was based on what was known as Misak-ı Millî, or National Pact. See map. Only last year, Turkish President Erdogan questioned Greek sovereignty over the Dodecanese Islands and the mayor of Ankara added all of the Greek Aegean to Erdogan’s list. [3] All these claims could be dismissed as political rhetoric, but Turks have traditionally used such statements as trial balloons, gauging the degree of international response. Countries with transformational or expansionist agendas wait for opportunities to execute their plans, and Turkey has been rather successful with this strategic policy; its trail is briefly reviewed below.

turkmap1

The Republic of Turkeys borders according to the National Pact [4]

Alexandretta cum Hatay

During the lead-up to WWII, anti-fascist powers sought political allies, for much of the world was fracturing between fascist and non-fascist camps. With French officials looking the other way, a fraudulent referendum employing also Turkish soldiers and tens of thousands of imported Turkish citizens, a joint French- and Turkish-administered pseudo-republic of Hatay was “voted” into being in 1938. This pseudo-republic was formerly known as the Mediterranean coastal region of Alexandretta under the French Syrian Mandate. France relinquished control of this region solely to Turkey in late 1939. The pseudo-republic did not have a Turkish majority; rather, it was 60% non-Turk. In a quid pro quo with France, Turkey agreed not to enter WWII on the side of Nazi Germany. However, within two years, Turkey signed a friendship treaty (Türkisch-Deutscher Freundschaftsvertrag) with the Nazis. Subsequently, “neutral” Turkey supplied the majority of Germany’s chrome and other essential material aiding the Nazi war effort. Turkey exited WWII with a larger landmass and eventually joined NATO in 1952.

Cyprus

In 1974, Turkish armed forces invaded and eventually occupied about 40% of the Republic of Cyprus. Although not an outright annexation, the Turkish occupation continues to this day, backed by 40,000 soldiers. As with Alexandretta/Hatay in 1939, Cyprus was a right-time/right-place venue with prevailing conditions in favor of a Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation. After years of Greek-Turkish ethnic strife on this island subsequent to its 1960 independence from the UK, Turkey had its plans ready, only requiring the right conditions for their implementation. On July 20, 1974, Turkish troops invaded Cyprus, five days after a coup d’état in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital. The coup’s goal was Cyprus’ annexation with Greece. Great Britain was a guarantor of the island’s sovereignty. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger strongly lobbied against a British military operation that would have preempted the second Turkish invasion while Article IV of the 1947 agreement between Turkey and the United States required Turkey to obtain US consent to use its military assistance for something other than it was furnished. [5] Clearly, the guarantor of Cyprus’ sovereignty had other plans as thousands of British troops stationed in Cyprus didn’t interfere with the Turkish invasion while the US spoke out of both sides of its mouth.

Within a couple of weeks, Greece’s ruling military junta collapsed and Turkey invaded the island again, expelling nearly 150,000 Greeks from the north of the island. Eventually, Turkey imported 150,000-160,000 settlers from mainland Turkey into the northern occupied zones, as well as absorbed ethnic Turks living south of the front lines. This enabled the 18% Turkish population of the island to grab almost 40% of its land mass. Since the formative days of the Turkish Republic, an undertone of Turkish designs on Cyprus existed. The north of the island is referred to as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an internationally unrecognized entity.

Abkhazia

In September 2009, Unal Cevikoz, the Deputy Under Secretary for Political Affairs in the Turkish Foreign Ministry met with the Abkhazian Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba in Abkhazia. An offer of Turkish recognition of Abkhazia in exchange for Russian recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was denied by Russia of any such quid pro quo. Turkey’s Abkhazian lobbies were pushing for recognition, making a striking parallel to events in Northern Cyprus. [6] Quoting  Today’s Zaman, September 17, 2009 [7],

“During a period in which Abkhazia’s independence process has begun to gain momentum, Cevikoz could not have gone to Sukhumi to engage in efforts to restart a peace process between Abkhazia and Georgia. Therefore, we can presume that, to prevent Abkhazia from unifying any further with the Russian Federation, Ankara may have asked Tbilisi to allow a controlled relationship with Abkhazia. To be more explicit, the door may be opened to preventing Georgia from intercepting ships on humanitarian missions or those involved in trade traveling between Turkey and Abkhazia using the Black Sea.”

Further it was argued

“…Ankara sees that a close relationship with Abkhazia would eventually produce a similar multi-dimensional relationship with Cypriot Turks in the eastern Mediterranean. Abkhazia in this case would become an accessible Black Sea coastline for Turkey.”

Turkey was attempting to preempt a closer Russian relationship with Abkhazia by offering its own close relationship.

Armenia

On two occasions, October 6 and 7 of 2015, Turkish military helicopters violated Armenian airspace. NATO ignored the incident, which was clearly designed to send a message to the Russians, whose interests in Syria – at the time – were not in line with those of Turkey. This culminated in the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian SU25 only six weeks later. The resulting war of words, Russian sanctions of Turkish products and services, as well as a break in relations changed when Russian and Turkish Syrian interests just happened to line up a year later.

Adjaria

Late last year, Turkey made it known that based on their Turkish National Pact and a parochial interpretation of 1921 Treaties of Kars and Moscow, the Autonomous Georgian Republic of Adjaria, with the major Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi, will revert to Turkish jurisdiction in 2021. [8] Various maps and interpretations exist regarding such claims. [9]

Erdogan, in a speech at Rize University in Turkey, said, [all parentheses mine]

“Our physical boundaries are different from the boundaries of our heart … and I am asking you Rize my dear bothers. Is it possible to separate Rize from Batumi? Or is it possible to think Edirne (far NW Turkey on the Greek border) apart from Thessaloniki (in Greece proper) or Kardzhali (in Bulgaria, just west of Edirne)?” [10]

It is unknown what prevailing regional conditions may exist in 2021. Perhaps Turkey will make no demands, or it will come to some agreement for even a stronger relationship with Adjaria. Will conditions deteriorate in Turkey where their irredentist reaction would be to protect “our Adjarian brothers and Turkish investment in Batumi?” Erdogan’s words may be dismissed but what cannot be dismissed is long-term Turkish planning.

The success Turkey has had in expanding its landmass and regional influence, combined with the vagaries of state interests coinciding makes one wonder what Saakashvilli was thinking when he basically opened Batumi for heavy Turkish investment. In the short term, it may have had a positive effect on the economy of Batumi. However, in the long term, Georgia has opened up the gate to an increased Turkish influence in Adjaria where, given the right conditions, a Turkish occupation would be agreed to by other regional powers. This is not out of the realm of possibility considering events over the past hundred years. A Turkish firm, TAV (Tepe-Akfen-Vie), has been awarded management control over Tbilisi and Batumi airports. [11] Are not Georgians able to run their own airports? [12] How much more of Georgia’s sovereignty is being bargained for short-term gain?

With east-west pipeline routes that crisscross Georgia, which clearly concern Azerbaijan and Turkey, one has to wonder why the May 23, 2017 meeting of Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Turkish defense ministers was allowed to take place in Batumi. The meeting resulted in closer military cooperation. What message was being interpreted by long-term Turkish planners? The Georgian track record includes Tbilisi having already acquiesced to both Azerbaijani and Turkish pressure on Georgian control over its section of the proposed Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad. [13]

Earlier this year, the Georgian government suspended the license of Batumi’s Refaiddin Shahin Friendship School. [14] This institution was part of the Gulen school system sponsored by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkish President Erdogan of being behind the July 2016 attempted Turkish coup d’état. Georgia granted Turkey’s demand for the school to be shut down and replaced with a new school supervised by the Turkish Ministry of Education. [15] Note the venue. One might ask where the Georgian flag is; this being Batumi, after all.

On June 21, 2017, Kutaisi Street in Batumi was blocked off for a Turkish celebration with Turkish flags flying everywhere, and there were no Georgian flags to be seen. [16] There are repercussions, some irreversible, upon confusing long-term strategic planning with short-term tactical opportunistic decisions made a decade ago.

Marnueli

Both Iran [17] and Turkey are competing for influence in the Georgian Marnueli region of southern Georgia, which is demographically a Shia-Muslim Azerbaijani-speaking majority. While Iran has not engaged in expanding its borders for centuries, the Turkish army completed the modernization of Georgia’s Marneuli airfield. [18] Starting from March 2000, Turkish warplanes could use this Marnueli airbase in an agreement signed by Eduard Shevardnadze. [19] The question is not who will win influence in Marnueli, but how much Georgia may have already lost.

Georgian Public Reaction

The Georgians themselves have reacted to such encroachment. Last September, a riot-like rampage erupted on Aghmashenebeli Street in Tbilisi with clear anti-Turkish overtones. [20] This street has many Turkish-owned businesses and the rampage resulted in a lot of property damage.

Nerves got frayed in Batumi during April of 2016 [21] when a Turkish land owner was accused of destroying the wall of a church. Although details were not clear, such reaction was magnified by the efforts associated with the construction of a second mosque in Batumi, specifically of the Turkish-Ottoman style. This controversy has been brewing for over five years. Former Prime Ministers Bidzina Ivanishvili promised to build the second mosque in 2012 and his successor Irakli Garibashvili promised to look into this request.

Turkish Defeat at Didgori, Turkish Victory in the Georgian Parliament

On March 23, 2017, the Georgian Parliament approved the first hearing of the Didgori War Day, August 12, as “Great Victory Day”. [22] This celebrates the Georgian victory over Seljuk Turk invaders on August 12, 1121. However, at the request of the Turkish government, the Georgian parliament suspended discussions on making this Georgian victory a national holiday, claiming such a decision will result in “unpleasant relations”. Georgian PM, Nuktri Kantaria noted [in translation],

“Unfortunately, we are a small country, we do not have imperial intentions, and we do not try to put someone else under our influence. Thats why we have diplomacy, we have to tread carefully on the edge, so we will not lose anything and harm the countrys perspective. Turkey is our huge neighboring state, it has the capability to substantially increase tensions with us. Turkey does not recognize Abkhazia or Samachablo [South Ossetia] as independent countries, we are grateful for that, and has no pretensions on Adjara; however, the national perception document is clearly written that Adjara is its [Turkish] territory. The Kars Treaty has no time limit and this agreement clearly states that Georgia conceded land to Turkey in 1921. In other words, these lands were mine and were conceded to you, not that justice has been restored. There are a lot of things we need to use a little bit of intelligence for their resolution.”

This bill will come up for parliamentary discussion in July. Its outcome will be interesting, for the “Great Victory Day” defined the survival of the Georgian nation. The Georgian Parliament will have to decide what is more important for them, the celebration of national survival or serving Turkish whims. They are, in fact, mutually exclusive.

[1] „გაუგებარია, რატომ მისცეს თურქეთის მოქალაქეებს საქართველოს მოქალაქეობა

[2] Turkey’s New Maps Are Reclaiming the Ottoman Empire

[3] Ankara’s mayor claims all the Greek islands as Turkish property [Map]

[4] Deliogul at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

[5] Turkey’s Foreign Policy in Transition: 1950-1974, 1975, Kemal Karpat, page 33

[6] Turkey: Ankara Probing for Stronger Ties to Renegade Georgian Region of Abkhazia and Turkey and Georgia: Zero-Problems?, page 4

[7] Turkey Considers the Status of Abkhazia

[8] Erdoğan’ın sözünü ettiği Misak-ı Milli nedir?

[9] Turkey’s Misak-i Milli and Caucasus

[10] “We Are Present in the History of Mosul”

[11] Georgia Airport Profile

[12] New Airport Terminal Opened in Tbilisi

[13] The silk & steel road through the Caucasus

[14] Georgia: Gülen School Loses License

[15] Turkey opens first state school in Georgia’s Batumi

[16] Events in Batumi June 21, 2017

[17] Iran Builds Soft Power in Georgia to Foster Tighter Nexus With Russia

[18] Turkey and Georgia: Strategic Connections

[19] Turkish Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Period, Nasuh Uslu, Nova Publishers, 2004, page 72

[20] შსს – სამართალდამცველებმა „მარჯანიშვილზე“ არასანქცირებული, აგრესიული მსვლელობა დაშალეს და 11 პირი დააკავეს

[21] ბათუმში თურქმა ბიზნესმენმა ეკლესიის გალავანი დაანგრია

[22] თურქეთის საელჩოს თხოვნით პარლამენტმა დიდგორის დღის უქმედ გამოცხადებაზე კანონპროექტი შეაჩერა

David Davidian is a Lecturer at the American University of Armenia. He has spent over a decade in technical intelligence analysis at major high technology firms.

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Hard way to Westphalia: Ukraine on the brink of new Thirty-Year War?

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Does Petro Poroshenko see the red line drawn 370 years ago in Westphalia and will the leaders of the democratic world remind him of it again?

The President of Ukraine has declared his intention to unite several largest Ukrainian Orthodox confessions into one Church. Wow… Even the first sentence was too much for me. It’s hard for a modern European to imagine it. It’s too strange. It’s too unbelievable. Nevertheless, it clearly depicts the complicated religious situation in Ukraine.

Let me do it this way: The President of Ukraine has declared his intention to unite several largest Ukrainian Orthodox confessions into one Church to defend against the hybrid aggression from Russia and to provide an ideological independence of the state. Yes, this is how the Ukrainian authorities justify their involvement in Church affairs. This is a matter of national security, preserving the unity of the state and nation.

Of course, the process is also aimed at boosting the president’s popularity. Next year, Ukraine is to witness presidential elections. The role of religion in Ukrainian society is highly important, polls show. The Ukrainian authorities may have preferred the nation to be less religious: being a dimension of the social life, faith introduces additional divisions and nuances that not always comply with the economic and political ones. This makes ruling the country more complicated.

The Ukrainian Orthodox communities (the UOC MP (Moscow Patriarchate), the UOC KP (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC)) are divided by the issue of the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction. After the beginning of war in Donbas in 2014, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate compromised itself by its pro-Russian position. Tolerating it means supporting the aggressor. President Poroshenko was elected as a European democratic leader and peacemaker who promised to end the war in two weeks after his inauguration. That’s why the Ukrainian authorities are eager to get rid of the Moscow Patriarchate by forming a new national Church based in Kyiv and securing for it an independent status (autocephaly) bestowed by the Constantinople Patriarchate, to which the Orthodox Ukraine had been subject to until the 17th century.

No one asks for the Moscow Patriarchate’s opinion: the new Church will be formed of the UOC KP and UAOC. However, without the UOC MP, the goal of Poroshenko’s church project cannot be reached. Which means it will be forced to join the new religious organization. The Primate of the competing confession, UOC KP, Patriarch of Kyiv and all Rus-Ukraine Filaret stated at one of European Parliament events that “there is only one Church in Ukraine”, the UOC MP will lose its status and name and that the biggest monastery of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine will be handed over to the new Ukrainian Church, that is the one created by Poroshenko.

The UOC MP’s rivals claim that this process won’t be difficult as, according to polls, it is not popular among the faithful. Maybe the numbers are objective but once even Protestants seemed to be minority in Europe. If there are no faithful, who then maintains each of 12,000 UOC MP parishes in Ukraine? Putin and Russian oligarchs? According to the national statistics, it’s more than all largest Ukrainian Churches have altogether! For comparison, the Kyiv Patriarchate controls just 3640 congregations, and others even less.

According to the Ministry of Culture, only 70 UOC MP communities joined the Kyiv Patriarchate since 2014. But these conversions often caused the restraint of those who opposed them.

The Moscow Patriarchate’s faithful quickly and smartly get organized to act together, as shown by numerous religious marches and protests in recent years. Ukrainian experts admit that no political power in Ukraine can immediately take so many people out to the streets. Among UOC MP members are also those who can make resistance, and maybe even radicals.

However, the Administration of the President of Ukraine, Verkhovna Rada and government keep acting like they’ve not seen it and are not aware of it. It’s unclear why the authorities are so blind and what they count on in the upcoming conflict, which can be provoked by the new Single Local Church. The Greek Catholics have declared their neutrality. The only way the balance of powers can be affected is the involvement of law enforcers and radical nationalists acting under their cover. But what will be the consequences then?

The nationalists’ leader Oleg Tyahnybok urges the authorities to act instead of waiting for the autocephaly from Constantinople: “We believe the Ukrainian authorities can do a lot more without Constantinople. For instance, to seize the relics captured by the Moscow Patriarchate, which in fact belong to the Ukrainian people. We shouldn’t ask for Bartholomew’s permission. Hand over Kiev Pachersk Lavra, Pochayiv Lavra to the Ukrainian Church. Any problems?”

Indeed, there is only one problem – the start of the election race. Petro Poroshenko seems to be blind to other issues. The question is whether Washington and Brussels see them.

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Who makes Expenses Plan for the Baltic States?

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The Baltic states today are no more a clean sheet of paper waiting for somebody to write something on. During almost 30 years of independence from the USSR the authorities have been cleaning the countries from the Soviet-era’s hangover and are writing new history by themselves. And the results of their activity are various and often disputable.

On the one hand the idea of gaining independence which was in the air for long time had been realized. But unfortunately this is the only great thing that happened to the Baltic states.

The first years of independent existence were marked by national enthusiasm. It seemed as if there were no unrealizable goals for strong in spirit Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians. The three peoples were ready to move mountains. Almost thirty years have passed. And only now it becomes clear, that those who were given the power to decide for the whole nations did not always make right political and economic decisions. And they continue to be in error.

People’s interests are no longer in the list of priorities. The authorities very often forget that they were chosen by people, they are not Lords but they are servants for people’s good.

This fact is proved by the increasing immigration rate. The reality is that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are losing people. According to U.N. statistics, “in 2000 Latvia’s population stood at 2.38 million. At the start of this year, it was only 1.95 million. No other country has had a more precipitous fall in population — 18.2 percent. Only Latvia’s similarly fast-shriveling neighbor, Lithuania, is with a 17.5 percent decrease.” The officials’ explanation of such catastrophic statistics arouses surprise and even resentment. Do they really think that young people leave because “borders are open, information about life in other prosperous EU states is available and they just go to see the world.” NO! They do not just want to see the world, they just want to live in prosperous countries, because Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are poor! Young generation even does not see any perspective at home. No enthusiasm is left, no more trust to the authorities exists. Who is to blame?

But now it is not so important to find those who are guilty, the question “what to do to stop loosing people” is on the agenda.

The scenario of a fairy tale when a hero comes and saves the country does not work in reality. It is time to stop choosing such heroes. Russia, US, NATO or the EU are not those who can make the Baltic states prosperous. It is enough to rely on their decisions and advice. What have the Baltic states achieved since gaining independence? They became a place for possible war conflict. Paradoxically, they took over this status of their own free will. First of all they permitted foreign troops deploying in their territories which irritates neighboring Russia and locals. The authorities allowed to build military warehouses, these steps aren’t also attractive for local population. The matter is foreign military activity is to some extend occupation even if it is conducted for the important purpose. Do the Baltic states really need foreign troops? They need foreign investments, foreign tourists, foreign goods, but not troops and old military vehicles that pollute their soil, air and water. The worst thing is the countries loose self-sufficiency and can’t exist without the so called “donors.” These “generous” countries feel free not only to advice, but to decide for the Baltic states.

One of such examples is the assessment of the Baltic states railways condition made by Modern War Institute at West Point in April 2018. According to the report, “currently, the Baltic states operate Russian-gauge railroad tracks, while other European NATO members utilize a standard European gauge. Such differences impose a big problem for NATO’s Logistics in Northeastern Europe. This incompatibility means that trains “carrying military equipment and supplies from larger NATO bases in Germany or Poland would have to transfer their cargo to Russian-gauge trains or proceed via ground convoys to their destinations. Not only are both options time-consuming, they require trained personnel and significant military resources (e.g., heavy equipment transporter systems, military police and security elements), as well as proficiency and familiarity in conducting such operations.” The documents of such type “advice” to rebuild Baltic rail infrastructure. By the way this will demand huge amount of money. Who will pay for new railway? Most likely the NATO problem once again will become the Baltic states’ problem. As well as the decommissioning of Lithuania’s Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant has become purely Lithuanian problem. Thus strengthening its Western flank NATO automatically makes the Baltic states poorer and weaker.

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Azerbaijan after the Presidential Elections: Internal and Foreign Policy Dynamics

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The campaign, which ended on April 11, was held ahead of schedule. If it had been held in the “normal mode,” the vote would have taken place on October 17. Thus, the shift of the election date itself already indicates a certain intrigue. Indeed, Ilham Aliyev did not have any real competitors before announcing the shift of the campaign to an earlier date. They did not appear even during the election race, although it should be noted that Ilham Aliyev’s exclusive position in Azerbaijani politics can be explained not only by his notorious administrative resource, which, no doubt, was used to its full capacity.

For many years, the Azerbaijani authorities have skillfully appealed to various strata of the population. Pro-Western intellectuals see it as an embodiment of the principles of secularism and active cooperation with the U.S. and the EU, especially in the economic sphere. In this regard, complaints towards the authorities related to, for example, restraint of freedom are compensated for by a choice in favor of stability and deterrence of Islamic extremists (the threat comes both from neighboring Iran and the Russian North Caucasus, and in the last few years from the “Islamic State”, banned in the Russian Federation and a number of other countries, as well). A paternalistic mindset makes the rural population content with the current government. As for ethnic minorities, they tend to be conservative and not interested in changing the leadership, which might bring unpredictability to their status. An aim to strengthen the army (as a reference: the military budget of Azerbaijan is higher than the national budget of Armenia) makes the armed forces a serious ally of the state. Stability is an attractive brand both for the common man on the street and for businessmen who experienced the short-term rule of the “Popular Front” in the 1990s. At the same time, social discontent is managed by high labor emigration. Azerbaijanis are the fourth-largest group of foreigners on the territory of the Russian Federation: only according to official figures, the number is 620 thousand people, and according to available expert estimates, it exceeds 1 million people.

During the recent election campaign, the absence of a strong secular opposition was also in favor of Ilham Aliyev. Its representatives (primarily the National Council of Democratic Forces, as well as the Republican Alternative Movement (ReAl)) declared their non-participation in the campaign. Previously, the opposition, representing other structures, had repeatedly imposed a boycott, but did not achieve much success in this area. In 2018, ReAl and the National Council of Democratic Forces could not come up with any other effective way to counteract the aspirations of the authorities to extend Ilham Aliyev’s period in office.

Politicians who had already participated in presidential election campaigns were among the competitors of the current Head of State. In 2003, 2008, and 2013, the following candidates stood for election: Gudrat Hasanguliyev (0.55, 2.28 and 1.99% respectively) and Hafiz Gajiyev (0.40, 0.65 and 0.66%). In 2013, Zakhid Oruj (1.45%), Faraj Guliyev (0.86%), Araz Alizadeh (0.87%) and Sardar Mamedov (0.62%) also took part in the elections. Only Razi Nurullayev had not participated in presidential campaigns before.

Ilham Aliyev’s opponents expressed oppositional views in one way or another in different years. At the same time, some of them were often ahead of the government in terms of populism and nationalism. For example, in January 2012, Gudrat Hasanguliyev initiated a renaming of the country to the Republic of Northern Azerbaijan, declaring Azerbaijanis a “divided nation”, and fighting for unity with fellow Iranians. Hafiz Gajiyev is famous for the scandal he raised by claiming the Azerbaijani origin of the Prophet Muhammad, and also for promising a reward for reprisals against writer Akram Aylisli for his allegedly «Armeniaphilic” novel “Stone Dreams” [1] . He also announced full support of Ankara in the face of “Russian imperialism” after the incident with the Russian Su-24 in the sky over Syria.

During the presidential campaign of 2018, all these scenarios were played over again. Razi Nurulaev called for strengthening strategic ties with Pakistan to quickly resolve the Karabakh conflict, and Gudrat Hasanguliyev promised to return “lost lands” in case of his victory. Set against the other candidates competing in populism, Ilham Aliyev maintained the image of a respectable politician, although he did not escape the rigid rhetoric about Karabakh. What is the sense of shifting the election’s date then, if the result was quite predictable?

Formally, the elections were shifted because of the ceremonies dedicated to the centenary of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the first national state of Azerbaijanis, proclaimed in May 1918. Visits of representative foreign delegations and negotiations about prospects for cooperation between the pre-Caspian republic and other countries are scheduled for these dates. However, when answering the question about the timing of elections, it should be kept in mind that the 2018 campaign was the first after the implementation of constitutional reforms in Azerbaijan. Due to two rounds of constitutional amendments (in 2009 and 2016), restrictions on the number of legislatures for one head of state were lifted, and the term of office was extended from five to seven years. In this context, the “accelerated” elections were called upon to “cement” this power model in order to shorten the time for possible discussions (not so much in a public format, but among the ruling elite) and avoid unpleasant surprises. In fact, the election of Ilham Aliyev for a new, fourth term signifies the completion of the constitutional reforms.

New Government and Old Staff

Having taken office (the inauguration took place a week after the vote), the Azerbaijani President did not take a path of cardinal personnel changes. Nevertheless, in April 2018, a new prime minister was approved. For many years, Arthur Rasizadeh [2] had headed the office, and after the election he was replaced by Novruz Mamedov. On the one hand, an ‘older than old’ political figure left one of the first posts in the country. At the time of his resignation, Rasizadeh was 83 years old! However, Mamedov is not a newcomer to politics. He is 71 years old. Being a professional French language interpreter, he worked in Africa during Soviet times, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he held various posts in the team of Geydar Aliyev and later in his son’s team. Upon taking up the position of prime minister, Mamedov left the post of presidential aide on foreign policy issues. In this capacity, he was very active in public, making regular statements on international issues.

With Mamedov taking the post, the composition of the government changed slightly. The key ministers retained their seats in the new government. Among them are the “defense” men (Zakir Gasanov, Head of the Ministry of Defense, and Ramil Usubov, Chief of the Ministry of Internal Affairs), as well as Elmar Mamedyarov [3] , a key Azerbaijani diplomat. However, it is worth noting that the head of the State Committee for Diaspora Issues was replaced in the new Government. Fuad Muradov replaced Nazim Ibragimov, who was subjected to public criticism for being unable to cope with his duties.

Most likely, the new Prime Minister will not become an alternative center of power. Mamedov is being called upon to play the role of Aliev’s assistant in the settlement of informal relations within the Azerbaijani elite, representatives of the “old team” (inherited by the current head of the Republic from his father) and the “new” group that has common interests with Ilham’s wife, first Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva. Strengthening the vertical of power requires unity among the ranks. For many years, Ramiz Mehtiyev, another veteran of Azerbaijani politics and long-term Head of the Administration of the President (since 1995), has successfully been playing the role of moderator, but due to his health problems, additional strength is required; otherwise the “cementing” of the power system will be incomplete.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s stability comes with a downside. It is built on the monopolization of the political space and the marginalization of secularist opposition. It is important that the weakness of the secular opposition, the absence of bright leaders and attractive programs, bears a risk of accumulating social discontent with the help of various non-systemic forces (non-state actors). Today, these groups (like radical Islamists) are scattered and not strong enough. Nevertheless, there are certain risks in this regard.

Nagorno-Karabakh, Security, International Agenda

With regards to foreign policy and security, the significance of the past elections can hardly be overestimated. They showed that both the authorities and the opposition (even those who boycotted the campaign) still maintain a consensus on the prospects for the settlement of the Karabakh situation. Even so, different opinions were voiced on this issue. According to Rasim Musabekov, an influential expert and deputy of the Azerbaijani Milli Mejlis, the shift of the election date was connected to a kind of “breakthrough solution” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution, which would involve compromise. At the same time, there was no shortage of statements about the return of not only Karabakh, but also Yerevan. Consequently, the familiar algorithm is still working, when tough rhetoric is combined with promises of progress in the negotiations. On April 21, there was a slight aggravation on the line of contact between the sides. The mass actions in neighboring Armenia and the deepening of the “velvet revolution” (as the leader of the protests, Nikol Pashinyan, called it) could result in destabilization. In March 2008, the most significant violation of the truce at the time was recorded just after clashes between the authorities and the police in Yerevan (on completion of the presidential election).

However, for Baku, which is extremely uninterested in maintaining the current status quo, there are limits to escalation. Firstly, it is the commitment to the traditional course: pressure on all political azimuths without a descent into war. Secondly, Russia and the West, despite the confrontation over Syria and Ukraine, remain united in their views on the prospects for Karabakh issue settlement. The entire “big three” (the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group: Russia, the United States, and France) favor the implementation of the “Updated Madrid Principles” exclusively through negotiation. To challenge this approach means to oppose oneself to the West and Russia at the same time, and Baku is not ready for this. On the contrary, Baku is trying to use careful balancing between them in its own favor. Iran is a separate issue. Tehran does not support the “Updated Madrid Principles,” but at the same time insists on a peaceful resolution of the conflict based on a compromise between Yerevan and Baku. Turkey is supporting Azerbaijan, its strategic ally, in every way. However, today Ankara is focused on the Middle East (Iraq and Syria) and is not interested in the escalation in Transcaucasia with possible interference from both Moscow and Washington. Thus, the most likely scenario is a maintained status quo with constant attempts to find opportunities for its revision.

First published in our partner RIAC

[1] Published in the Russian literary journal Druzhba Narodov (Friendship of the People) in December 2012 (2012, № 2), narrating about Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict at the beginning of the 20th century and in 1980s. It has a dedication: “In the memory of my countrymen, who left behind their unmourned pain.” At home, the writer was severely criticized as “Armeniaphile”.

[2] For the first time he got this post in November 1996, and gave it up for only a few months (from August to November 2003) to vacate this place for Geydar Aliyev’s successor Ilham, who, after his father’s election as president, immediately returned «the settled post» to its previous holder. Since that time, Rasizadeh has been Prime Minister for almost 15 years. But in this capacity he was more a technical leader than a political player.

[3] Gasanov has been in office since October 2013, Mamedyarov since April 2004, and Usubov from April 1994.

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