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Expanding regional rivalries: Saudi Arabia and Iran battle it out in Azerbaijan

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s the pot calling the kettle black. As Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of seeking to encircle it with its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as Qatar, the kingdom and the Islamic republic are extending their bitter rivalry beyond the Middle East into the Caucasus.

The two countries’ latest battleground is oil-rich Azerbaijan, an authoritarian, majority Shia Muslim but secular former Soviet republic on Iran’s northern border with a substantial ethnic population in Iran itself. Recent Saudi overtures came amid reports that Azerbaijan’ s security services had warned the government about Iran’s growing influence in the country.

The report suggested that an informal lifting in 2013 of a ban on preaching by Islamic scholars linked to Iran that had been quietly imposed in a bid to stem the flow of Azerbaijani Sunni Muslims joining the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq had enabled the Islamic republic to make inroads.

“Iran’s religious activities have become particularly successful,” said Azerbaijani journalist Kenan Rovshanoglu in a study of religious freedom in the country.

Published by Turan, an independent news agency, the study noted that 22 of Azerbaijan’s 150 madrassas or religious seminaries were controlled by Iran.

Iran and Azerbaijan have long tiptoed around each other with both countries concerned that the other could use its religious and/or ethnic affinities to stir trouble. Azeri speakers account for at least a quarter of Iran’s population.

Azerbaijan is, for its part, worried about Iran’s close ties with Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked into a decades-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Iranian concerns about Azeri nationalism were fuelled when supporters of Tractor Sazi FC, a top club in Tabriz, the capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, that is a symbol of Iranian Azeri identity, chanted Azeri nationalist slogans three years ago during protests against the government’s environmental policy and alleged anti-Azeri corruption in soccer .

Azar News, leaked in 2015 a letter allegedly written by Brigadier-General Gholam-Asgar  Karimian, the club’s former chairman, detailing how Traktor Sazi could be used to unite Azeris against what the general termed “racist and separatist groups.”

Azar is operated by the National Resistance Organization of Azerbaijan (NROA), a coalition of opposition forces dominated by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a group that enjoys Saudi support but was tainted when it moved its operations in 1986 to Iraq at a time that Iraq was at war with Iran.

The letter said the groups were campaigning for a “study the mother tongue day.” It suggested that the mother tongue referred to was Talysh, a dying northwest Iranian language that is still spoken by at most a million people in the Iranian provinces of Gilan and Ardabil and southern Azerbaijan. The letter implied that the groups General Karimian was concerned included Azeri separatists.

The letter appeared to advocate measures to weaken the separatists by combatting widespread racist attitudes towards Azeris and improving services in East Azerbaijan. Racial attitudes towards Azeris is something Traktor Sazi knows a lot about.

“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” said a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.

Discussing Azerbaijani policy towards Iran, Elkhan Sahinoglu, head of the Center for Applied Politics at Baku’s Western Caspian University, noted that Azerbaijan had no intention of interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs, but could not “disregard the future of the Azeris who reside in Iran.”

Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corp said in November that it had “dismantled a terrorist team” in East Azerbaijan that was “affiliated with global arrogance,” a reference to the United States, and its allies, including Saudi Arabia. The announcement came weeks after Iran said that it had eliminated an armed group in a frontier area of the province of West Azerbaijan that borders on Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkey and is home to Azeris as well as Kurds.

Columnist Huda al-Husseini highlighted Saudi interest in Azerbaijan in a recent column on Al Arabiya, the television network owned by Middle East Broadcasting (MBC) in which the government reportedly obtained a majority share as a result of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent asset and power purge packaged as a campaign against corruption.

In an article entitled ‘Will Iran turn Azerbaijan into another Iraq?’, Ms. Al-Husseini, quoting an anti-Iranian Iraqi author, Raghd Abdel Rida al-Jaberi, asserted that Azerbaijan feared that it would follow in the footsteps of Iraq where Iran allegedly had destroyed the Iraqi military and turned Iraqis into slaves who had been convinced “that washing and rubbing the feet of Iranians who are heading to visit (Imam) Hussain’s tomb brings them closer to heaven no matter what they do afterwards.”

In a media environment that appears to be pre-occupied with supporting the government’s often sectarian-tinted, anti-Iran policy rather than reporting facts, Ms. Al-Husseini suggested that Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s recent attendance of a cultural festival in the kingdom at King Salman’s invitation was part of an effort to resist Iranian encroachment.

Military delegations from the two countries earlier this month discussed closer military cooperation including holding joint military exercises “as well as a number of other issues of mutual interest,” according to Azerbaijani media.

Azerbaijan has also over the years built close military ties to Israel, which like Saudi Arabia, is staunchly opposed to Iran. Israel and Azerbaijan discussed, prior to the 2015 international agreement that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program, using Azerbaijani airbases had it opted for taking out the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities. The agreement put an end to talk about a military strike.

The bottom line is that if Iran is seeking to encircle Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and Israel are trying to encircle Iran. The mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s belief that Iraq is Iran’s model for Azerbaijan is an Iranian suggestion that Lebanon is Israel’s model.

“Tel Aviv wants to Lebanonize (Azerbaijan) under a ‘new periphery doctrine.’ This means that Tel Aviv intends to create a new periphery region and encircle Iran through its presence in the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Region and Azerbaijan,” said Iranian analyst Salar Seifoddini. Mr. Seifoddini was referring to Israel’s policy of periphery that seeks to forge relations with those bordering on Israel’s enemies.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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