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Can Sargsyan’s ouster trigger new wave of violence in the South Caucasus?

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On April 23, Armenian PM Serzh Sargsyan resigned after days of mass protests. He was a President for the last ten years and tried to continue to rule his country as a Prime Minister after the constitutional amendments. Some commentators rushed to express their satisfaction and evaluated the resignation of Sargsyan as a triumph of democracy. Yes, in fact, the broken promises, endemic corruption, and the widening gap between the country’s haves and the have-nots played a significant role in bursting anger of masses against Sargsyan. At the same time, the view of the events only through the perspective of democracy and will of people ignoring complex dynamics of power-politics inside the political elite, the oligarchic groups and regional politics prior and during Sargsyan’s resignation is very simplistic and half-finished approach. The commentators also tend to forget the negative socio-economic implication for Armenia that brought people to the streets, of isolation and closure of the 83 percent of all borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey as a result of the continuing occupation of territories of Azerbaijan. Understanding of these variables in Armenian politics properly is very important for making predictions for possible scenarios for Armenian domestic politics and Yerevan’s regional policies namely its approach toward the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The prologue of the downfall of Sargsyan has started long before his resignation, when the amendments to the Armenian Constitution of December 2015 were adopted and as a result, the country entered to the most important period of institutional and constitutional transition from semi-presidential system to parliamentary system where the Prime Minister will be a commander in chief of armed forces and the main person in executive power. This period was marked by fierce but silent competition and resistance between then Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan and former President Sargsyan over who will be a future Prime Minister. Obviously, Sargsyan’s desire to continue to rule the country as a Prime Minister has been met by the resistance of not only a former Gazprom executive Karen Karapetyan but also other political groups and the general public.

One of the important implication of the recent development and the transition of Armenian political structure from semi-presidential system to parliamentary republic are even more diffusion of power among many political stakeholders. Even before the recent events, one of the key elements of Armenian political system was the distribution of power among coalitions, political groups, oligarchs, civil society and influential lobby. Sargsyan in past ten years has been a successful equilibrium and a balance-player among these different stakeholders and has not been able to consolidate the absolute power in his hands. From a democratic perspective, it might look a positive element, but from a regional peace, security and stability perspective it will have a negative effect. In past twenty-five years, one of the main obstacles for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and substantial negotiations has been the weak government that is vulnerable to the outside and domestic pressures and lack of a strong leadership that could overcome all pressures, pursue substantive negotiations and accept the responsibility for unpopular compromises for a peace agreement and impose its will on the society. Diffusion and distribution of power among many rival stakeholders in Armenia have always been a major reason why the representatives of this country have not been able to take courageous and intrepid decisions and steps for the resolution of the conflict. The modern history of Armenia has a good empiric example of the consequences of an attempt to take bold steps in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in case of former President Levon Ter Petrosian when he was forced to resign from the office for his readiness to make compromises. On October 27, 199, there was also a mass shooting in the Armenian parliament that killed influential political figures who were ready and proponents of the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict like L. Ter Petrosyan. The consequent presidents from Karabakh clan Kocharyan and Sargsyan perfectly understood how dangerous can be for the future political career playing with Nagorno-Karabakh card and talks about compromises.

After the amendments to the Armenian Constitution of December 2015, the political fate of the Sargsyan became under the serious question and challenged because of political instability in Armenia that was triggered by events and failures of April 2016 in the frontline. After bloody skirmishes on the frontline in April of 2016, the possible scenario of comprises on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict instigated the political instability and the revolt of nationalist radicals who called themselves Sasna Dzres (Daredevils of Sassoun) that opposed any kind of comprises. The initiators of the 14 day hostage crisis, who were accusing the President for his readiness to betray the national interest of Armenians, was able to get strong public support from almost all dimensions of the society and the opposition that were unhappy with the overall policies of the ruling regime. This serious backlash made the President Sargsyan to abstain from any serious moves and thoughts about the compromise that could hinder his political future, at least for very sensitive period of power transition in the country. Instead of the language of moderation and peace-seeking, Sargsyan, especially for his domestic audience, opted for tough, nationalist and maximalist language obstructing any possible progress in the negotiation and returning to old dilatory tactics which have “successfully” procrastinated the resolution of the conflict for more than 23 years after ceasefire was reached in 1994.

Last year in Geneva, fearing unwanted speculations and accusations that might have put him again in defensive position ahead of very important political developments in the country former President Sargsyan rushed to the media to give comments few minutes right after the end of the talks with President Ilham Aliyev. During the meeting with the members of Armenian community in Switzerland in his statement for the media President Sargsyan made his best efforts to assure everyone in Armenia that he did not make any compromise and any compromise and concession are beyond of the talks. He stated that “no specific arrangements have been made about the settlement options. But they have agreed to take measures to ease the tension so that we do not have losses in the front line”. Then what angered the officials of Azerbaijan most was when Sargsyan ruled out any options of compromises boldly stating that “the only solution acceptable for us is that Karabakh be outside Azerbaijan. Never can any Armenian leader accept and implement other solution whatsoever”.

Unfortunately, after further power diffusion and distribution this kind of hard and populist stance will be a more dominant rhetoric from Armenian side in the negotiation process for the resolution of the conflict.  As the country will enter to the period of fragile coalitions and the competition of different political groups with relatively similar strength, the nationalist and populist rhetoric around Nagorno-Karabakh will be one of the tools of political rivalry. This condition will restrict any group from any courageous comprises fearing to be blamed in betrayal. Even if after all political battles and struggles there will appear a political strong-man it will not be easy for him to make any comprises even he will want to it. Ultimately, this condition will put the country in more political, regional and economic deadlock and dependence on external forces. Therefore, the western observers should be very careful, in their enthusiasm about Armenian events, since this movement will make Armenia and Armenians more nationalist rather than liberals, like in their national movement in the 1980-1990s.

Leading Research Fellow, Foreign Policy Analysis Department. Center for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

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Eastern Europe

Ukraine war’s first anniversary and beyond

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photo source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The first anniversary of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine falls on February 24. The Russian strategy of attrition war has not yet produced the desired political outcome but has been a success nonetheless, writes Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer M.K. Bhadrakumar.

The delusional “westernist” notions of the Moscow elite that Russia can be a dialogue partner of the West have dissipated thoroughly, with ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunning disclosure recently that the West’s negotiations with Russia regarding the Minsk Agreement were an “attempt to give Ukraine time” and that Kiev had used it “to become stronger.”

Thus, the accession to Russia four ex-Ukrainian regions — Donetsk and Lugansk [Donbass], Zaporozhye, Kherson oblasts – accounting for around one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, is a fait accompli now, and Kiev’s recognition of it is a pre-requisite for any future peace talks.

The Kremlin has put necessary mechanisms in place to galvanise the defence industry and the economy to meet the needs of the military operations in Ukraine. From a long-term perspective, one historic outcome of the conflict is going to be Russia’s emergence as an unassailable military power that draws comparison with the Soviet Red Army, which the West will never again dare to confront. This is yet to sink in.

Under the plan approved by Putin, the Moscow and the Leningrad military districts will be created, three motorised rifle divisions will be formed in the Kherson and the Zaporozhye oblasts (that have been annexed in September) and an army corps will be built in the northwestern region of Karelia bordering Finland.

The internal western assessment is that the war is going badly for Ukraine. Spiegel reported last week that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) “informed security politicians of the Bundestag in a secret meeting this week that the Ukrainian army is currently losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day in battles.”

The Biden Administration is hoping to buy time till spring to revamp the pulverised Ukrainian military and equip it with advanced weaponry. The old stocks of Soviet-era weaponry have been exhausted and future supplies to Ukraine will have to be from hardware in service with NATO countries. That is easier said than done, and western defence industry will need time to restart production.

All the bravado that ‘Kiev is preparing for an offensive to drive the Russians out of Ukraine’ has vanished.

The big picture, therefore, as the war enters the second year is that the West is working feverishly on plans, with the Biden Administration leading from the rear, to deliver heavy armour to the Ukrainian military by spring, including German Leopard tanks. If that happens, Russia is sure to retaliate with strikes on supply routes and warehouses in western Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, the outspoken former Russian president who is close to Putin and serves as deputy chairman of the powerful security council, explicitly warned, “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

There is the ‘X’ factor — US domestic politics as it approaches the 2024 election year. The Republicans are insisting on an auditing of the tens of billions of dollars spent on Ukraine — $110 billion in military aid alone — making the Biden Administration accountable.

The CIA chief William Burns paid an unpublicised visit to Kiev, reportedly to transmit the message that US arms supplies beyond July may become problematic.

International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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