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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.

PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Regional Studies and Foreign Policy, Russian State University for the Humanities, RIAC Expert

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Eastern Europe

Can economic cooperation contribute to sustainable peace in Karabakh?

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A major step has taken towards the Karabakh conflict on November 10, 2020. The century-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has undoubtedly, entered a different phase with the signing of a trilateral statement by Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia. Before this, in late September, Azerbaijan has launched a successful counter-offensive to implement the UN Security Council Resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884) through liberating its territories that were under Armenian occupation for almost 30 years. As a result of the military campaign, Azerbaijan was able to get back the majority of the strategic points in Karabakh including the historic city of Shusha. 

While the protests broke out in the Armenian capital Yerevan, when PM Pashinyan publicly declared that he was obliged to sign the agreement to prevent its army from a total collapse, the Azerbaijani side enjoyed the victory by massive celebrations in Baku. The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev signed the statement on a live broadcast, and right after, addressed the nation and familiarized the Azerbaijani public with the context. As the details revealed by President Aliyev, it became obvious that the agreement was the capitulation of the Armenian side.

Afterward, the consequence of the “44-day war” was described as “a defeat both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena” by the Armenian President Armen Sarkissian. Namely, the agreement comprised the unconditional withdrawal of the Armenian troops from the occupied territories within a definite schedule, the return of all refugees, and the deployment of the Russian peacekeepers in the several points of Karabakh. Furthermore, the cardinal element of the statement is that there was not a word about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Apparently, the overwhelming military advantage of Azerbaijan induced the Armenian government to come to the negotiation table and finalize its illegal military presence within the boundaries of a neighboring sovereign state.

The agreement further articulates the opening of all communications, restoration of economic and transport links. Due to the stipulated economic notions, the statement possesses a significant role for lasting and sustainable peace. In this context, if Armenia would ensure adherence to the principles of the trilateral statement, the possible economic consequences will encapsulate in two dimensions: regional and global.

The regional dimension or local basis encompasses joint initiatives and shall include Georgia as well. For instance, the “South Caucasus Economic Union” could emerge to build high-quality cross-border infrastructure, to establish intraregional supply chains, and to form stronger financial links. The project rationale derives from the recognition that the development of an integrated South Caucasus, which can guarantee peace and spur growth in all fields, requires multiple, cohesive, and long-term efforts. Thus, the fundamental prerequisite for Armenia is to terminate all the hostilities with neighboring countries.

In the mutually assured peace environment, Azerbaijan and Armenia would strongly benefit from enormous savings on conflict-related fiscal expenditures. Military expenditures could be lessened by 2% of annual GDP in both countries to a reasonable level as in the countries at peace. Besides, Azerbaijan could eventually save expenditures for supporting refugees amounting to 0.4% of annual GDP, thus diminishing total expenditure by 2.4% of GDP yearly. Armenia could save annual expenditures of 0.9% of GDP for supporting the local economy in Nagorno-Karabakh and 0.1% of GDP in interest payments, thus saving 3% of GDP every year. Such massive fiscal savings would enable both countries to avert the budget-related issues and at the same time substantially increase spending in social spheres by eliminating any budgetary pressures.

In the global dimension, South Caucasus is capable of creating opportunities for sustainable growth. The ongoing conflict was generating an elevated extent of risks, which were constituting several constraints for the capital flow to the region. Since an opportunity has emerged to settle the conflict thoroughly regarding the trilateral statement, the effect that it would create in the future on ratings, risk premiums on bonds, loans and equity, investment, and finally, economic growth are likely to be very positive.

The South Caucasus region, acting as a link between the Middle East, China, Russia, and Europe, has immense strategic significance. Previously opened the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, today serves as the shortest way to deliver Chinese goods to Turkey and reduces delivery time to Western Europe. This project was developed within a larger Trans-Caspian International Transit Route, as part of the Belt & Road Initiative.

Within the scope of the agreement, Azerbaijan gained a corridor that links the mainland to the exclave Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic through the Zangazur region of Armenia. The new corridor seems to be a more efficient alternative from distance and timing aspects. Thus, the agreement can be characterized as pivotal since it will not only stimulate the regional development credibly, it will transform the region into a hub of the international supply chain system, as well.

Undoubtedly, the foremost economic issue will be compensation as Armenia officially approved itself as the aggressor state in this conflict with the sign of PM Pashinyan on November 10. According to the United Nations, the overall damage to the Azerbaijani economy has estimated to be around $53.5 billion in 1994. Recently, President Ilham Aliyev stated that foreign experts are going to be invited for the up-to-datecalculations of the total damage as the result of the occupation.

After a longstanding negotiation process, the situation has been exacerbated, and inevitably, processes oriented to the military theatre. This trilateral statement can forestall the risks of resumption of the military operations in this phase. Here, strengthening the capacity to manage the conflict and promote peace through regional economic integration, trade facilitation initiatives, and other policy measures will be on the agenda. There is a plethora of similar practices in the world so that it might lead to a feasible solution.

The Karabakh conflict was making South Caucasus one of the most explosive regions in Eurasia. Nevertheless, from this moment, the focus shall be on the peacemaking process as it yields considerable economic benefits. As mentioned, the flow of investments to the region will tremendously increase, whereby the states in South Caucasus will be able to maximize their economic potentials. For Armenia, it is time to act on facts and realities rather than dreams. So, it should renounce territorial claims and start to rational cooperation with neighbors for a better future.

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The new border geopolitics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Azerbaijan

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Borders are spatial-political phenomena that have a prominent importance and place in the global political sphere because they have divided the world arena into countries and put them together as actors. This importance and prominent position of borders has caused various fields of study such as political science, political geography, international law, etc. to study them from their point of view and continuously to follow and monitor their developments and changes. In the meantime, it seems that after the acceptance of the ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia along the northwestern borders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, some developments have happened that need to examine. So, we examine these developments with a geopolitical perspective. The geopolitical attitude towards the border developments of Iran and Azerbaijan can analyze in the form of the following angles:
Border geopolitics in terms of location is the knowledge, acquisition, exploitation and preservation of geographical sources of power in border areas and related areas in transnational, national, regional and global relations. In other words, designing and reviewing the strategies of actors to achieve benefits and goals based on the geographical resources of power in the border areas called border geopolitics. The developments along the Iran-Azerbaijan border after the ceasefire show these developments cause the geographical sources of Iran's power: alliance with Armenia; severance of Iran's position as Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan communication bridge; reducing Azerbaijan's dependence on Iran for access to the high seas; reducing the possibility of transferring Iranian gas to Europe, etc. that along the borders should significantly reduce. On the other hand, the increase of geographical sources of power: increasing the size of the territory; establishing a connection with the Nakhchivan sector; forming a new opportunity to connect with the high seas through Turkey, etc. has brought about for the country of Azerbaijan. Based on this, it seems that in designing the forthcoming strategies of Iran and Azerbaijan, we will see changes in the geographical sources of power due to these changes.
 
Border geopolitics from a functional point of view is the knowledge, acquisition, exploitation and preservation of geographical sources of power in transnational, national, regional and global relations to achieve protection, control, management, security and other objectives in the length of borders and border areas. In other words, designing and reviewing the strategies of actors to achieve protection, control, management, security and other goals based on the geographical sources of power in the border areas called border geopolitics. If we examine the developments along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border after the ceasefire from this point of view, we will see that the importance and value of Azerbaijan's geographical resources along the border with Iran is increasing compared to Iran's geographical sources of power. It seems to put more effective and successful strategies in front of Azerbaijan to achieve goals such as control, security, etc. along the common borders. On the contrary, it will change the strategies facing Iran to some extent.

Border geopolitics from a player point is the knowledge, acquisition, exploitation and preservation of geographical resources of power in the border areas of the two countries, by Iran and Azerbaijan to achieve their goals and aspirations in transnational, national, regional and global. In other words, the use and exploitation of the geographical sources of power in the common border areas of Iran and Azerbaijan to achieve their goals and aspirations in transnational, national, regional and global relations called geopolitical borders.If we examine the developments along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border after ceasefire from this point of view, we will see that these changes have made Azerbaijan, as a geopolitical player compared to Iran, more powerful than geographical sources. On the other hand, variety of actors such as Turkey, Russia, etc. are present directly along the borders of the two countries.

In general, the changes that have taken place along the borders of Iran and Azerbaijan from a geopolitical point of view of the border seem to have been in favor of Azerbaijan and the geographical sources of power along the border between two countries in favor of this country. It has changed and thus increased the efficiency of the strategies facing Azerbaijan against the strategies of Iran based on the geographical sources of power in the border areas.

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Eastern Europe

The Emerging Nakhchivan Corridor

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As the details of the Karabakh deal are being fleshed out, the stipulation on the new corridor through Armenian territory has caused great debate. Beyond the signatories of the deal, Iran and Georgia are particularly worried as any meaningful change to the connectivity patterns in the South Caucasus could harm their transit capabilities.

The 2020 Karabakh war ended with major Russian diplomatic success on November 9 when a tripartite agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia was signed. The surrounding seven regions were to be returned to Baku, while Russian peacekeepers would guarantee the security of the truncated Nagorno-Karabakh. Though the exact role is yet to be confirmed, based on the rhetoric from Ankara and Baku, some sort of direct Turkish military involvement on Azeri soil is likely to materialize. 

More importantly, however, Turkey gained a land corridor to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan. The stipulation in the document reads: “Armenia guarantees the security of transport links … for unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and cargo in both directions” between mainland Azerbaijan and the exclave of Nakhchivan, which are separated by Armenian territory. Moreover, “Transport control is exercised by the Border Service of the Federal Security Service of Russia. By agreement of the parties, the construction of new transport communications connecting the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Azerbaijan’s western regions will be provided.”

The stipulation is a major breakthrough for Turkey as it would allow the country to anchor its influence on the Caspian Sea and perhaps, in the longer term, look even further towards its Central Asia kinsmen. 

This would create a major dilemma for Iran and Russia, as Tehran and Moscow have historically perceived the Caspian Sea as a condominium between themselves (plus the littoral states since the end of the Soviet Union). Potential Turkish involvement could disrupt this equilibrium and especially Iran’s standing. However, this is highly hypothetical. After all, it would need years if not decades for this scenario to be realized and even then Turkish influence could not be as large as Chinese or Russian – two major forces in the region.

What bothers Iran is a potentially major shift in the region’s transportation routes. For decades Azerbaijan has been dependent on Iran for transiting energy and other supplies to Nakhchivan. The new Karabakh deal could change it. Armenia will now guarantee the opening up of a corridor through its territory to allow Azerbaijan to transport goods directly to Nakhichevan. Quite naturally, this limits Tehran’s leverage over Baku.

However, Javad Hedayati, who heads transit operations in the Iranian transportation ministry, announced that Iran is likely to stay a favorable route for trade despite the planned opening of the new corridor. “It is likely that this corridor will merely accommodate local traffic between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan,” said Hedayati.

Ankara has long been working on using the Nakhchivan corridor for geopolitical purposes. This is proved by the quickness with which the Turkish government announced the plans to build a railway to Nakhchivan following the November agreement. This comes on top of an earlier announcement of a gas pipeline construction to the exclave, and underlines the seriousness behind the Turkish intention, at least regarding the section from the Turkish territory to the exclave itself.

Much, however, remains unclear about the new corridor on the Armenia territory itself. First of all, will the road be used by the Turks and Azerbaijanis only? Considering the level of mistrust in Ankara and Baku towards Moscow, whose forces will be controlling this corridor, it is highly unlikely that Azerbaijan and Turkey will be willing to commit large financial resources to rebuild links on the Armenian land. After all, will the corridor be the Armenian territory, or will it fall under the tripartite administrative regime? These are arguably the defining questions which remain unanswered. One could also imagine constant incidents along the corridor as Armenia will remain unhappy with the stipulation. Transit fees could soften Yerevan’s position, but why should Russia be interested in the operation of the corridor? If the corridor is operational, these troublesome questions will have to be managed between the two sides sharing no trust in the other. These dilemmas were well summed up in the words of the Iranian official Hedayati. He stressed that Armenia could prevent Turkey’s access to the corridor for transfer of freight or passengers through Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan and further to countries to the east of the Caspian Sea.

Georgia is worried

One country which is particularly worried with the potential development of the new corridor is Georgia. Various pipelines, roads and a major railway transit the country from Azerbaijan on to Turkey. This has been a backbone of Georgia’s regional importance since the end of the Soviet Union and indeed served as a major attraction for larger players such as Europe and the US.

Quite naturally many in Tbilisi have begun to think whether this enviable position could be challenged. The consensus thought is that in the short and medium term no reshuffling in the region’s connectivity patterns is likely to take place. Even in the longer term, if the above mentioned uncertainties around the new corridor are resolved, many still believe that Baku and Ankara would not trade the already built and functioning railway and pipeline infrastructure, which runs through Georgia, for the Nakhchivan alternative. Perhaps the corridor will serve for ensuring local connections, perhaps limited trade (though highly unlikely).

After all, Georgia has been officially engaged in the trilateral partnership with Turkey and Azerbaijan for nearly a decade. The endurance of the format has been tested by changes of governments and region-wide geopolitical transformations over the last decade. Each country of the three needs the others. Turkey wants a more stable Georgia with deeper economic and energy relations, while Azerbaijan needs Turkey’s backing. Georgia, under pressure from Russia and, given that it is located between its two fellow members of the cooperation, dependent on transit, in turn needs both Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Georgia also sees its position as straddling between two large regions – Europe and Central Asia. The 826-kilometre Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway unveiled in 2017 enables the delivery of cargo between China and Europe with a haulage duration of approximately two weeks. Up to eight million tons of cargo may be carried via the railway by 2025.

Abandoning this transit corridor would undermine the efficacy of the South Caucasus transportation and energy corridor. This makes the extent of the Nakhchevan corridor quite limited. Perhaps, what the region is likely to see is the growing interconnectedness of the exclave with the Turkish territory. The emergence of a major corridor through the Nakhchivan is likely to happen if, at minimum, a meaningful improvement of Turkey-Armenia relations takes place. 

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch.de

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