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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

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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