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Why Azerbaijan is Unable to Offer Viable Solutions to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

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Azerbaijan has cornered itself with the inability to offer peaceful solutions to the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict. The impasse has been caused by Baku’s assumption that time will force Armenia and the Armenians of NK into economic collapse and thus push Armenia to sue for a resolution of the conflict in the interest of Azerbaijan. That resolution would be to integrate the Armenian inhabited lands of NK into Azerbaijan proper.

The region of NK, and much of the surrounding area are currently under Armenian sovereignty. At the time of the sovietization of the greater Caucasus region, NK had an Armenian population well over 90%. For various reasons, rather than NK being set under the jurisdiction of Soviet Armenia, rulers in Moscow placed it, as an autonomous region, under Soviet Azerbaijani rule. At various times during the seventy years of the Soviet Union, demands that NK be placed under Armenia’s jurisdiction were made, but rejected. This demand actively re-emerged in the late 1980s as Moscow’s control was under pressure and the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. NK Armenians exercised their right under the Soviet constitution for a referendum which overwhelmingly supported secession. The re-emergence became violent as NK demands for a union with Armenia, or self-rule, were met by a brutal crackdown by authorities in Baku. Pogroms against Armenians across the whole of Azerbaijan culminated with the violent expulsion of over a quarter million Armenians from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and  hundreds of thousands more across the breadth of Azerbaijan. In reaction, Armenia expelled its Azerbaijani minority.

The ensuing war between Azerbaijan and the Armenians of NK resulted in over 30,000 killed and the displacement of about a million people on both sides. In May of 1994 a cease fire was arranged. Since then the region of NK has exercised independence. Although not recognized intentionally as a state, it exercises democratic sovereignty over the region. Border skirmishes and sniper deaths are daily occurrences as aew limited-sized battles along the lines of contact. At the ten thousand foot level, in lieu of a negotiated agreement, Armenians want the status quo and Azerbaijan endeavors to make this status quo come at the highest cost to Armenians.

Negotiations over NK, ironically, have taken place between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, not with NK. Azerbaijan rejects any acknowledgment of such entity as NK not under its jurisdiction. This is the first mistake Azerbaijan made in limiting its diplomatic options. Negotiations have been sponsored by several international bodies, including the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the OSCE Minsk Group organized by  the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) now known as Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE.

The OSCE is mandated to encourage a negotiated settlement of this conflict. Armenians have offered  to release land outside of NK, especially those to the east and south to Azerbaijan in exchange for Baku’s recognition of NK’s status. Azerbaijani negotiators have offered many packages that are associated with autonomy, self-rule, etc, but predicated on NK being placed under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Thus, we have an apparent zero sum: Baku demands NK be integrated into Azerbaijan, NK want their republic recognized.

However, what appears zero-sum outwardly, upon closer inspection reveals something else. Over the past two decades, when Azerbaijan claims to offer an integrated NK  with all the benefits of “broadest autonomy” [1] under Azerbaijani jurisdiction, such offers are operationally disingenuous. Not only was “broadest autonomy” noted during negotiations multiple times, but specific references were made to Aland Islands, Tatarstan, Northern Ireland, South Tyrol, Trieste, and Catalonia by political historians in Baku, such as Elhan Shahinogly [2]. Taking Finland’s Aland Island as an example, if such a status were a serious offer in negotiations, operationally it would mean:

Azerbaijan’s constitution would have to change as it is currently a unitary state. If NK Armenians gain autonomy, surely other ethnic minorities who find themselves under Azerbaijani jurisdiction such as the Lezgin and Talish, will demand geo-ethnic autonomy. None of this is in the interest of the Azerbaijani state.

Armenian will become an official language within Azerbaijan and so will other non-Turkic languages. The chance of this being enacted is near zero as Armenians, their language, religion, and culture have been demonized within Azerbaijan.

NK will have a direct say in Baku’s foreign policy direction and decisions. This is not in the interest of the Azerbaijani state.

In addition, if Azerbaijani demands for the return of all displaced peoples were enacted:

Armenians would return to Baku, displacing Azerbaijanis living in their former homes and the Azerbajianis who lived in NK would return to either destroyed, pillaged, or weather-ravaged homes. This is not in the interest of the Azerbaijani state or its people.

Armeno-phobia has reached such a level in Azerbaijan, with a generation being socialized to equate all evil with Armenians; inter-ethnic strife would run rampant across Azerbaijan, probably uncontrollable for years.

This last point is where time worked directly against policy-makers in Baku. Time, rather than to bankrupt Armenia and the Armenians of NK, unfortunately created conditions making it virtually impossible for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live in close proximity to each other.

Basically, Azerbaijan can propose all or any such autonomy-centered items during negotiations but  they are not in the interest of Azerbaijan. The impact of the points noted above could have been minimized if Azerbaijan had engaged the Armenians of NK in direct negotiation, avoided extreme official ethnic hatred campaigns, or simply had recognized NK as an independent entity early on.

Azerbaijan is left with the only remaining option (outside of complete disintegration of the Aliyev ruling elite and associated oligarchy) and that is the military option. The feasibility of this option is enhanced since Azerbaijan’s military budget has grown rapidly and it alone is larger than Armenia’s entire state budget. Azerbaijan claims its military budget is ten to twenty times that of Armenia’s.

A recommendation would be for Azerbaijan to immediately begin to tone down its gross discriminatory rhetoric against Armenians and then to recognize the status of NK outside of its jurisdiction. Logic dictates either Baku recognize its status or engage in a war that will devastate the economies of both Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the greater region. The other option, keeping the status quo, is not sustainable.  Baku may be assuming that time is on their side again and will bring a disintegration of larger regional power structures enhancing a decision for a military solution. However, as Sun Tzu noted, “He wins his battles by making no mistakes.”


[1] Autonomy Possible For Karabakh Armenians https://www.rferl.org/a/1086938.html and Azerbaijan Ready to Grant Wider Autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh https://sputniknews.com/world/201607221043467831-nagorno-karabakh-azerbaijan-autonomy/

[2] Azerbaijan suggests the status of autonomy for the neighboring states http://www.nkr.am/en/news/2011-01-28/332/

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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Eastern Europe

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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