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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

Did Russia Really Win in the 2008 August War?

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Eleven years have passed since the short Georgian-Russian war started on August 7-8 in 2008. As every discussion on who started the war generally is, the Georgian-Russian one too is about finding moral grounds for military actions which both sides took at the time.

Morality in geopolitics, and the Georgian-Russian conflict is indeed caused by pure geopolitical calculations, is at most times a superfluous thing. All these years the Russians have been trying to convince the world and the public inside the country that the Russian military moves actions and subsequent recognition of the independence of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions were the only possible and correct actions to be taken. The Georgians also have their dilemmas: some marginal political figures still believe that it was the Georgian government that was most to blame for the catastrophe of 2008. Though close geographically, these diverging narratives and the constant need to prove one’s own truth says a lot about how far apart Georgia and Russia have grown in the past decade.

11 years since the war and it is still unclear what Russia has gained from its military and diplomatic actions since 2008. True, military build-up in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region limited Tbilisi’s ability to become an EU/NATO member state. Moreover, Russian intervention into Georgia in 2008 also showed the West how far Moscow can go if a strategic decision is made to draw Georgia into the alliances. At the time (August-September 2008) those seemed to be long-term (strategic) victories for Moscow. In international relations and geopolitical calculations, you can stop a country from attaining the aims harmful to you, but in the long run you will be unable to reverse the process by forceful actions alone: you have to provide a counter-policy to turn an unfriendly state into an amenable neighbor.

Put all of this into the Russian case. More than a decade has passed since 2008, only a few not-so-important states recognized Georgia’s territories as independent entities. The Georgian public is overwhelmingly anti-Russian, the last hopes of a grand geopolitical bargain – the return of the territories in exchange for reversing EU/NATO aspirations – have disappeared among the Georgian public, and support for western institutions so far has only increased.

In the end, though Moscow waged a reasonably costly war in 2008, took and still experiences a diplomatic burden for its moves against the West, and has yet to attain its grand geopolitical goal of reversing Georgia’s pro-western course. Politicians in Moscow, at least strategists behind the scenes, all understand that Georgia’s persistence, which seems naive today, might turn into serious business if Russia’s geopolitical positions worsen elsewhere in Eurasia.

Indeed, there are signs that Russian influence is set to diminish further in the former Soviet space as the country’s economy is unlikely to be attractive to the neighboring states. Imagine a scenario where Russian internal problems (Putin’s upcoming succession, economic downturns, China’s rise, stronger Ukraine, etc.) weigh ever stronger upon the Russian decision-makers in the 2020s, then Georgia’s western aspirations might become more concrete – it will be easier for the West to make a strategic decision to draw Tbilisi into EU/NATO.

Overall, Russia definitely gained significant results in 2008, but in the long run it did not change the strategic picture in the South Caucasus, though it did produce a grand design for geopolitical domination in north Eurasia: years after the war, Moscow initiated its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to draw its neighbors into one economic space – a prerequisite for building a world power. Ideally, it should have attracted Russia’s major neighbors and it would have served the people of the former Soviet space economically. But Moscow failed to get Ukraine and other states involved: without Kiev, the EEU, if not dead, is at least a marginal project. This means that Russian policies towards Georgia and the wider South Caucasus remain the same as before 2008 – keeping foreign powers out of the region, while failing to provide an alternative vision for Tbilisi.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania’s new chief of defence has no chance

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Lithuania’s new chief of defence, Major General Valdemaras Rupsys calls himself a realist though it seems as if he is a fatalist with no hope to change anything in the national armed forces.

In a detailed interview with BNS Valdemaras Rupsys demonstrates his inability and even lack of hope to modify national military system. He distinctly reveals his plans.

Major General Valdemaras Rupsys says he will seek to accelerate new armored vehicle and artillery system purchases if the country’s defense spending makes this possible.

The key words here are “if the country’s defense spending makes this possible”. The matter is Lithuania itself can rely only on foreign financing and help to strengthen its defence. Thus, he informs that a number of Boxer IFVs are currently being delivered to Lithuania. Renamed “Vilkas”, or “wolf” in Lithuanian, the vehicles will be provided only to two battalions of the Iron Wolf mechanized infantry brigade, in Rukla and Alytus. It should be noted that Mechanized Infantry Brigade “Iron Wolf” is the core unit of the Lithuanian Army and forms the country’s contribution to NATO collective defence. But even this unit will not be provided with all necessary vehicles and equipment.

The brigade’s other two battalions, in Rukla and Panevezys, will continue to use old M113 armored personnel carriers, with plans to replace them with more advanced vehicles by 2030. No budget money – no vehicles!

Major General Valdemaras Rupsys admits that the only thing he can definitely do – to speak to the authorities. “We’ll definitely have to speak to the ministry about whether there are possibilities to replace their platform earlier than planned,” the general told in an interview. “Plans call for doing so in around 2030 but everything depends on financial resources. There won’t be any drastic decisions to replace the acquisitions that we are already planning now,” he added.

When he answers to the question if the Iron Wolf brigade needs tanks he is very flexible and says that “being aware of our means and financial capacity, I don’t dream about tanks right now. We don’t have such plans.

Another question is if he dreams about fighter jets in the Lithuanian army. And he again says – “No, I don’t today. I am a realist and don’t dream about things we cannot have.”

The worst thing is his full satisfaction with the existing situation. He will not even try to change things. In terms of conscription system he shifts the responsibility on the political leadership, on the whole, which should decide on that. And then what is his responsibility? Does Lithuania need such a chief of defence who decides nothing from the very beginning?

Obviously, Lithuania has no money, but according to Major General Valdemaras Rupsys Lithuania even lacks of ambitious either to be a strong country. Possibly, this aim could be reached at the expense of others. At least he is honest.

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Eastern Europe

Polonia: Poland’s diaspora policy

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In 2007, the Polish authorities for the first time adopted a government program to promote cooperation with the Polish diaspora (Polonia) and Poles abroad. In 2002, they introduced May 2 as Day of Polonia and Poles Abroad.

The strategic objectives of this program for 2015-2020 include support for the development of Polish language and culture among Poles abroad, strengthening Polish national identity among representatives of Polonia, contributing to the popularity of Polonian organizations abroad and the return of Poles living abroad to their homeland, establishing economic, scientific and cultural contacts between Poland and Polonia .

The Polish Foreign Ministry estimates the number of members of the Polish diaspora, including ethnic Poles and people of Polish descent, at 18-20 million, one third of them were born in Poland. Polonia and the Poles rank the sixth if we compare the proportion of members of the diaspora abroad with the population of the country of origin. 18% of tourists visiting Poland are members of Polish organizations abroad and ethnic Poles.

The largest Polish diasporas are in the USA (9.6 million according to 2012 reports), in Germany (1.5 million) and Canada (1 million). Poles are also living in France and the United Kingdom (0.8 million in each), the Netherlands (0.2 million), Ireland and Italy (0.15 million in each), the Czech Republic (0.12 million), Sweden and Norway ( 0.11 million in either), Belgium (0.1 million). In countries such as Austria, Spain, Denmark, and Iceland, members of the Polish diasporas number less than 100 thousand people.

According to the Polish Foreign Ministry, more than 1 million Poles and people of Polish descent live in post-Soviet countries. According to the ministry, these estimates are not accurate – for one,  in Belarus, the most “Polish” republic of the former USSR, the number of Poles and people of Polish origin could amount to up to 1 million (official reports estimate the number of Poles living in Belarus at 295 thousand).

Lithuania comes second by the number of Poles residing there – (250 thousand), the third is Ukraine (144 thousand), then Russia (47 thousand), Latvia (46 thousand) and Kazakhstan (34 thousand) – the fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.

Polonia is conditionally divided by the Polish Foreign Ministry into ten functionality-based geographical groups: 1. Lithuania 2. Belarus 3. Ukraine 4. Latvia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic 5. Western European countries (Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, etc.). 6. USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand 7. Other European countries 8. Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia 9. Brazil, Argentina 10.Other countries of the world.

This division was carried out on the functional, rather than numerical basis and there is no universal approach as to how to categorize Poles living abroad – each of the above mentioned countries sets its own requirements for working with Polonia. People who have Polish roots but do not speak Polish and who reside in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Brazil are regarded as Polish diaspora by Warsaw. In this case, there is a need to popularize Polish informational and ideological products for Polonia in these countries in the language of the country of residence with emphasis on the economic and cultural components and projects for the study of the Polish language.

The latter bears particular importance. In Brazil, for one, there are more than a dozen Polish language courses. People who go there are provided with social benefits and all the necessary documents – student ID passes for students, work certificates for teaching staff (teachers get discounts 33% to 49% on public and rail transport in Poland, etc.), certificates of Polish schools for distance learning, etc.

Given the presence of anti-Russian sentiment in Poland’s policy, it is not surprising that Russia, the republics of the Caucasus, and countries of Central Asia are among those that Warsaw accuses of breaching the rights of ethnic minorities, including Poles, which is not true. Working with Polonia in these regions carries a clear ideological touch, as historical grievances prevail over culture and economy. By intentionally inciting conflict, concocting accusations of violating the rights of ethnic minorities,Warsaw equips itself with ideological tools to justify its aggressive Eastern policy towards Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

In particular, there are noticeable attempts by Warsaw to force Polish organizations in Russia to participate in anti-Russian propaganda campaigns, especially regarding retrospective assessments of Russian-Polish and Soviet-Polish relations. Polish diplomacy cites the unsuccessful Polish uprisings of the 18th-19th centuries, exiled and repressed Poles of the tsarist and Stalinist times, return of Poland’s western lands to Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus following the Red Army’s Polish campaign in 1939, etc.

The Polish Institute of National Memory (PINP), being an exclusively ideological structure, is on the list of state institutions and ministries that are responsible for cooperating with Polonia. A projecttitled “The Next Stop is History” has been launched in order to promote the historical and ideological heritage of Poland. Implemented within the framework of the Polish diaspora program of the Department of National Education of PINP in several countries at once (conferences, exhibitions, symposia, film screenings, lectures, military sports games), the project has no geographical restrictions and is conducted with the participation of certified teachers.

Let us focus on some characteristic features of the Polish diaspora policy:

– the prevalence of economic aspects while establishing cooperation with ethnic Poles living in the USA, EU and South America;

– a powerful propagandistic and political emphasis and a minimal presence of  economy while dealing with Polonia in countries of the former USSR;

– abandoning tactics of interaction with Polonia which presuppose acting through Polonian organizations only and which have proved ineffective;

– coverage by social, cultural and other projects of the largest possible number of ethnic Poles, in the first place, those who are not members of diaspora organizations;

– absence of heavy vertical hierarchy in disapora organizations in favor of horizontal links and shuttle diplomacy;

– contribute to the formation of a protest and opposition-minded stratum amongst the young in countries of the former USSR (Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine) with further placement of its representatives in local government structures, the media and other socially important projects. 

Summing up, we can say that Warsaw’s diaspora politics abroad are focused on strengthening its positions in the Western community and pursuing unilateral and controversial goals in the eastern direction. From our partner International Affairs

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