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Trump Meets the Baltics

Dr. Andris Banka

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Donald Trump welcomed the heads of Baltic states to the White House this week. It was supposed to be a celebration of their centennials and a tribute to shared ideals of freedom and democracy. In ironic twist, as Baltic leaders touched glasses with the host, it was precisely his illiberal views that have shredded the US credibility and strained transatlantic relations.

The presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, however, put on a tightly scripted charm offensive during the meeting. One can decode their behavior as follows: Trump may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.

Former US Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, while quibbling over the Baltic policy at the margins, never questioned the US commitment to collective defense. With his remarks about conditional security guarantees, Donald Trump had stepped into a new territory. This, naturally, unsettled many in Eastern Europe. A recent poll found only 16.1% of Lithuanian’s have trust in the current White House incumbent.

In hopes of shaping the US policy in more favorable direction, Baltic representatives have looked for all possible levers and keys. Cutting across party lines, they managed to arrange visits of influential Congressional power brokers and extract statements of unconditional support. One the one hand, they have taken comfort in the actions of Congress, which has systematically sought to punish Russia for its misdeeds.

But they are also aware of the fact that vast power and potential for unilateral action lay in the Oval Office. Hence, systematic effort has been made to establish links with people close to president’s ear – Mike Pence, James Mattis, H. R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, last two of which are already out of the administration.

At a time when many allies were trembling about the appointment of a new national security adviser, the Baltics may have quietly cheered. When in summer Trump questioned if he would automatically leap in defence of the Baltics, John Bolton had called it ‘a massive failure of deterrence’ and suggested that the President retract his statement. But targeting people in Trump’s orbit may as well be a losing strategy. Simply put: anyone could be next in the firing line.

No one in the Baltics wanted Donald Trump as a gift – an erratic man at the wheel. One must admit, however, that his ambivalent presidency has prompted allied governments to hold up a mirror and engage in some self-inspection. Opposing Vladimir Putin is easy: he jails opponents, grabs foreign lands and orders brazen assassinations. To figure out how to deal with Trump, illiberal leader of the free world, requires significantly more skill and statecraft.

Trump has left allies with an unpleasant choice: either you hitch your wagon to an aspiring authoritarian in the service of national interest or stand up to his improper behavior while endangering your most valued partnership.

Pragmatically, the Baltic coping strategy, knowing Trump’s thin-skin, has been to weigh words carefully and avoid airing of any personal criticism. Instead, they have looked for every opportunity to compliment the man in the Oval Office. During the April 3 meeting, Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite even bizarrely suggested that Trump’s ‘unpredictable leadership’ has somehow put ‘very good pressure to all of us, all members of NATO’.

Stephen Walt, a leading realist thinker, has incisively observed that ‘when you really need allies, you can’t be too choosy’. The Baltics need all the friends they can get, which also explains their uncritical praise of Trump.

However, there is also real a danger of swinging too far in attempts to please populists and autocrats. In one instance, Baltic lawmakers have already demonstrated their willingness to abandon democratic principles in the name of vital security concerns. All three governments were unwilling to back any EU punishments on Poland, a country that has seen the rule of law and democracy unravel.

The Baltics can and should retain willingness to oppose the US at the policy level. A case in point was the UN vote on Jerusalem. Despite threats that ‘names will be taken’, Estonia and Lithuania did not bow to US pressure and rejected proposed recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (Latvia shamelessly abstained). Their opposition, however, was couched in diplomatic language so that it does not catch Trump’s personal radar.

Perhaps this is the only possible balancing act in the Trump era – staying out of TV headlines and twitter feed – mediums that are crucial for the US president, while still challenging the administration on policy in measured and bureaucratic fashion. After all, it is his own public image that President Trump is most concerned with, not the details and intricacies of actual policies.

For any country, reconciling interests with certain set of values can be a very narrow corridor to walk. But it is also something that the trio of Baltic countries must aspire to if they want to belong to the family of mature democracies.

As these republics reach one hundred years of modern statehood and celebrate their impressive achievements, they should recognize that it is not only Moscow’s blunt power tools that pose risks to their democracies. Values of freedom can also be eroded in seemingly innocent fashion by cozying up to disgraced Western demagogues. This is their challenge at 100.

Dr. Andris Banka is Assistant Professor at Cag University. He has previously written extensively on the Baltic countries defense matters in outlets such as World Politics Review, Canada Open, The Small War Journal, Real Clear Defence and New Eastern Europe, among others.

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Eastern Europe

Monument Dispute in South Caucasus: Why Should It Be Given More Attention?

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Authors: Farid Shafiyev & Vasif Huseynov*                                         

The global protest movement calling for the permanent removal of memorials that reinforce dangerous or discriminatory ideologies, such as Nazism or racism, express important messages that are, unfortunately, frequently ignored or disregarded. The advocates of the movement rightly argue that memorials are more than historical artefacts: they glorify the past, commemorate a questionable historical figure or policy, send misguided messages about the present and are intended to shape ideas and outlooks. In a nutshell, these types of monuments say how the present and future should look like.

Those monuments that are built as memorials to controversial historical figures, such as the colonialist leaders who played key roles in the enslaving or killing of thousands of people or to Confederacy figures in the United States, “are making their own political statements and promoting a distorted and often whitewashed version of the past.”Commemoration of the people who have committed reprehensible crimes should, thus, be condemned, despite possible counterarguments about their historical context.

Disputes about monuments to question able historical actors are not new to the South Caucasus, a region inflicted with violent ethno-territorial conflicts and military clashes. However, the recent verbal battle between the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia at the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Turkmenistan’s capital on October 11 has reignited the issue and brought it to the forefront of regional media over the past weeks.

One of the documents adopted at the summit related to the celebration of the 75th anniversary of victory in the Second World War. It was an appeal to the CIS and the international community to recognize the decisive role of the USSR in defeating fascism and the inadmissibility of a revision of history and glorification of Nazism

On this occasion, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev criticized the establishment of a monument to Garegin Nzhdeh, a wartime Nazi collaborator from Armenia, in the centre of the capital city, Yerevan. In response, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan did not shy away from defending Nzhdeh, who had also founded a supremacist ideology called Tseghakronism (the combination of two Armenian words for “race” and “religion”) in the early 1930s.

Pashinyan praised Nzhdeh’s role in the fight against Turkey and Azerbaijan in the context of Armenian nationalist history, disregarding his involvement as the commander of the Armenian Legion of the SS in the extermination of more than 20 thousand people, mostly civilians, and in the massacres against the Azerbaijanis in the Caucasus.

President Aliyev is neither the first nor the only person to have criticized Armenia’s glorification of Nazi collaborators. In February 2018, a senior Russian lawmaker wrote an article for the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta headlined “The Return of Nazism from the Baltics to Armenia,” condemning Armenia’s heroization of the “Third Reich collaborationist Garegin Nzhdeh”. A similar position has been voiced by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For Holocaust scholar Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the building of the Nzhdeh monument is “an unfortunate mistake and is an insult to the victims of the Nazis and all those who fought against the Nazis”.

Not only did the government build a statue to Nzhdeh, they also gave his name to a village in Armenia’s southern Syunik province and to an avenue, a large square and a nearby metro station in Yerevan. Thus, he has become an extensively celebrated national hero in the country.

Unfortunately, he is not the only controversial historical figure in Armenia’s past whose hazardous legacy is commemorated and propagated by the country’s leaders in a way that sends a dangerous message to the society amid growing right-wing populist tendencies in official policymaking. Most prominently, the members of ASALA, an Armenian association that targeted and murdered Turkish diplomats around the world and, as such, arerecognized by many countries (including the United States of America) as a terrorist organization, are honoured as national heroes in the country.

Monte Melkonian, one of the leading figures of ASALA, is glorified by Armenians for having killed Turkish diplomats and for playing a leading role in Armenia’s war against Azerbaijan. Since Armenia gained independence in the early 1990s, statues have been built in his honour, his name has been given to educational institutions, and a foundation has been named after him. In the cemetery where he is buried, there is a memorial built in honour of ASALA. In 2014, in a live broadcast, another ASALA memorial was unveiled in the Armenian city of Vanadzor with the participation of the priests of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the national church of Armenia.

One of the most recent monuments to a war criminal was erected this year in the Armenian-dominated region of Samtkhe-Javakheti in Georgia. On January 20, the day the Azerbaijani people mourn the victims of a massacre committed by Soviet troops in Baku in 1990, Armenia ceremoniously opened a monument to Mikhail Avagyan, an Armenian military officer who took part in the extermination of hundreds of people in Khojaly village in Azerbaijan in 1992, the largest massacre committed during the conflict according the Human Rights Watch.

Taking into account ongoing conflicts, the erection of statues of “national heroes” which, by international standards, fall into the category of ‘war criminals”, undermines the efforts promoted by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs “to prepare the populations for peace”, an initiative which deals with the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and, in general, the international efforts for promoting reconciliation in the region. On the other hand, and more dangerously, these types of monuments justify and legitimize terrorist tactics in the pursuit of alleged national causes and encourage the next generation to follow suit.

Ostensibly, the memorials and statues to terrorists and Nazi collaborators do not revive the past in a neutral way; on the contrary, they honour a specific vision of the attitude of society toward the past and shape the collective memory in an unproductive way. 

The removal of these memorials from Armenia, following the example of the removal of statutes to colonialist leaders around the world and Confederate figures in the United States, is necessary to give due respect to thousands of victims. It would also be a good starting point for reconciliation between Armenia and its neighbours, makingan important contribution to the settlement of the violent conflicts in the region.

* Dr. Vasif Huseynov is a senior research fellow at the AIR Center and Adjunct Lecturer at Khazar University, Azerbaijan.

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Eastern Europe

Who really defends the Baltic States?

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About 500 U.S. troops arrived in Lithuania in October. This news is widely discussed all over the Baltic States and Europe. The issue of permanent NATO presence in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia has been discussed for a decade. There is still no legal basis for this step, but NATO and Baltic authorities found the possibility to deploy troops on a long-term basis. The justification for such long deployment becomes participating in military exercises that take place almost continuously on the territory of the Baltic countries.

The U.S. armed forces are among the most powerful in the world. American soldiers participated in numerous wars, operations, missions and exercises. In the U.S. military persons have a lot of preferences and substantial allowances. The occupation of a military person attracts a lot of young men, even those who have criminal records. Unfortunately, the need of military personnel enforces the authorities to turn a blind eye to the criminal history of applicants.

Though some types of criminal activity are clearly disqualifying; other cases require a waiver, wherein the each service examines the circumstances surrounding the violation and makes a determination on qualification. Applicants require a waiver for enlistment.

Applicants with six or more minor traffic offenses, where the fine was $100 or more per offense are required to obtain a waiver.

Applicants who have three or more civil conviction or other adverse dispositions for minor non-traffic offenses are required to obtain a waiver.

Felonies are the most arguable of recruitment offenses.

The problem is the U.S. Armed Forces utilize their own definitions of what constitutes, for example, a felony. Examples of felony offenses include aggravated assault, arson, burglary, manslaughter, robbery, and narcotics possession. Many states allow a felony conviction to be expunged and reduced to a misdemeanor.

All military branches consider felony as a disqualification, but they do make some exceptions. In recent years, it appears that the US Army has issued more waivers when we talk about percentages. Bad conduct and drug waivers in the US Army accounted for 19% of waivers issued in 2016, 25% in 2017, and over 30% in the first half of 2018.

Thus, if a person receives a waiver for such cases of antisocial behavior he could be enlisted regardless of his or her criminal records.

When the authorities of the Baltic States allow U.S. troops to deploy on the national territory, they even cannot imagine the possible consequences. Locals can face alcoholics, traffic offenders, brawlers and other criminals in the U.S. uniform, who even cannot be judged by national courts. And it’s a very complicated question if foreign criminals are worthy of being called defenders of the Baltic States.

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Eastern Europe

Dilemma for the Baltic States: Prosperity or defense

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The Jamestown Foundation, an influential US think tank, published a report in October – “How to defend the Baltic States” written by R.D. Hooker, Jr.

The report examines NATO capability to defend its eastern flank – the Baltic States.

It contains harsh criticisms towards the Baltic States which do less than they can to strengthen their security. It is stated that“stronger NATO ground forces in the Baltics do not seem politically feasible for now. The remaining option is to rely on host nation solutions.”

The author admits that this approach will require significant security assistance to the Baltic States and strong support from key allies, but the Balts themselves must first step up. He insists that “although small in population and GDP, they are capable of much more than they are doing now. With a combined population of some 6 million, only 22,000 citizens are under arms. Most are contract soldiers who serve short tours of duty, although Lithuania has recently reintroduced nine-month limited conscription. Thirty thousand indifferently trained and equipped reservists are also on the books.”

According to the report, the Baltic States can do much more to increase their own defense potential.

The last decade the Balts did their best to convince allies of the need for money. And it should be said that they have already got huge financial assistance. Nevertheless, American experts consider attempts to improve military capabilities by themselves as insufficient.

The more so, the threats have become even stronger. The Baltic States still need more money. The way out is to attract money from the U.S. and EU and NATO partners. The author considers an opportunity to ask for some security assistance from wealthier EU and NATO allies like Germany.

In other words, the U.S. experts insist on strengthening the Baltic States defence by using all possible means: both at their own expense and by attracting other sources of financing.

It should be said that this particular report strongly recommends further increase in defence spending without taking into consideration the difficult social situation in these countries. It is clear that the Baltic States are interesting to the U.S. first of all because of their geographical position which allows the U.S. to use Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to deter possible Russian aggression. To their mind all energies should be directed to deter the U.S. adversary – Russia. And last of all the U.S. experts think about well-being of the Baltic population.

In case NATO and the European Union continue to actively help to strengthen the military defence of the Baltic States, it is logical to assume that the assistance of the European Union on social projects in these countries will be significantly reduced. In some fields this would be even a social “disaster” for them.

The question arises if the Baltic States are ready to develop themselves only in one direction – as military strong countries? Is it really a guarantee of prosperity?

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