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What UK defense minister was doing in Odessa, or a taste for farce

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History repeats itself. This popular maxim also rings very true today. Many episodes of the Crimean War are still fresh on the memory of Russians, French and the British. Disregarding the sanctions and “annexation,” Britons and French nationals keep coming to Sevastopol to take part in a historical festival, donning period costumes and engaging in mock battles.

And yet, the distant successors of those who fought Russia during that war still remember, on a genetic level, how Russian soldiers kept fighting on against the tallest of odds (during one of the battles fought  in Sevastopol, mortally wounded and bleeding members of a Russian regiment still refused to plead for mercy and, instead, continued fighting the enemy with their bayonets) even at lunch, after five in the evening, and, most unpleasantly, at night. The war fought not by the book, the freezing cold of the Crimean winter and the well-known “balaclava” headdress is something Russia’s foreign guests will never forget.

It still looks like the lessons of history have been lost on some representatives of the British elite. In December 2018, Britain’s Defense Minister Gavin Williamson arrived in Odessa in southern Ukraine to vent his outrage about the detention by Russia’s Coast Guards of three Ukrainian boats at the approaches to the Kerch Strait, and express London’s support for a second Ukrainian naval foray into the Sea of Azov. It was not Williamson’s first visit to Ukraine though – in September 2018, he bravely spent a whole 20 minutes on the line of disengagement in Donbass.

London is backing up its military-diplomatic efforts with real action.

“At 20:30 local time, on December 17, 2018, the Royal hydrographic survey ship HMS Echo sailed into the Black Sea via the Bosporus Strait. This modern reconnaissance ship is designed to conduct operations in support of submarines and amphibious operations. It can share adapted information almost in real time. (…) This is the first NATO warship to enter the Black Sea in the wake of the Azov crisis to demonstrate the UK’s support for ensuring freedom of navigation in the region,” Ukrainian expert Andrei Klimenko happily wrote.

In the mid-19th century, Britain regarded Russia as an enemy in the Big Game, and opposed it using political and economic means available to it. Simultaneously, it was the case of an empire facing off against another empire – in the Balkans, in the Caucasus and over the straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles). Britain no longer rules the seas, but its keen interest in strategic straits, such the Kerch Strait, is still very much alive.

London’s strategy, being implemented as part of the anti-Russian bloc, can best be described as “I’m doing all I can.” However, the former empire is playing an ever increasing role now that Ukraine is not being viewed by US President Donald Trump as an object worth of any effort. Still, there are powerful anti-Russian forces out there, which will not just sit and watch the presidential elections in Ukraine and, even though they have lost their patron in the person of the US president, they remain hell-bent on making Ukraine instrumental in their efforts to ramp up the conflict with Moscow.

Washington is reviewing international agreements and withdrawing its forces from Syria focusing instead on playing spy games, but now on its own territory, to fight the “Russian threat,” “Russian aggression,” and most importantly – “Russian intervention.” The central events and characters here are the Mueller investigation, the case of Maria Butina, and the recent detention in Moscow of a former US Marine, Paul Whelan, on charges of espionage.

But this is not enough, so you need something else, more dramatic and attention-grabbing, preferably done by someone else.

No matter how opposed to Trump’s policies some top officials in the US government may be, they still can’t afford to openly defy the president and thus destroy the country’s power institutions. And here political analysts  come up with a very interesting version: “Therefore, England takes the burden of orchestrating the Ukrainian-Russian war in its own hands. Well, not England as such, but, rather, the real masters of both England and the United States (…) Poroshenko may not venture a provocation, and to make sure that he gets no ideas about giving up on the war, the British defense minister arrived in Ukraine. (…) Britain is bringing pressure to bear on Kiev to go to war with Russia in the coming week, period.”

Although a second foray into the Kerch Strait planned for the coming week never happened, the plan itself hasn’t gone anywhere. A follow-up to the provocation in the Kerch Strait has gone beyond the time frame outlined by the martial law President Poroshenko imposed ahead of the presidential election, but the threat of new provocations fraught with a confrontation  lingers on nonetheless.

The law “On the adjacent zone of Ukraine,” signed by Petro Poroshenko in December 2018, provides a legal basis for actions by the Ukrainian military and diplomats by expanding Kiev’s border and customs control in the Black Sea.

“In the adjacent zone, the State Border Service of Ukraine will prevent violations of national immigration and sanitary legislation. Border guards will be able to stop vessels, inspect them, detain or seize vessels or their crew members, with the exception of warships and other state ships used for non-commercial purposes.”

The new law sets the stage for further provocations against Russia by portraying it as “an aggressor and invader,” backing this up with “irrefutable evidence” and showing it on TV.

The coordinated nature of the actions and intentions by the “friends” of Russia in ensuring “free navigation in international waters” is too obvious to ignore. Following the provocation in the Kerch Strait, the US guided-missile destroyer McCampbell was allegedly spotted in the vicinity of a Russian naval base in Vladivostok.

US Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said that the ship had carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation.

“The USS McCampbell sailed in the vicinity of Peter the Great Bay to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other Nations,” McMarr told CNN.

She emphasized that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

Britain’s policy of the past few years has been pretty strange. Execution-wise, its actions are perceived as a farce and essentially as a tragedy for the country’s political elite. London is taking cue from Kiev, with its actions and “projects” (the Skripal case and the Salisbury subproject) very much resembling Ukrainian projects. London came up with the “Skripal poisoning,” and Kiev – with the day-long “Babchenko’s murder” circus.

Sadly, this anti-Russian trend translates into a real policy based on farce and fakes, which does not change the essence of London’s foreign policy projects based on fakes.

Ukraine, for its part, continues its attempts at “coercion to conflict,” which may bring about a clash of civilizations, since this is an attempt to influence the decisions of the “core states of civilization (Samuel Huntington). However, the conflicts that Ukraine has been involved in and has initiated are the result of outside bidding and made possible thanks to the support from and sanctions by external forces.

Ukraine’s foreign policy is by and large determined by the logic of its policy at home. Ending up as a zone of inter-civilization conflict, Kiev is willy-nilly trying to rebuild the cultural foundations of the Ukrainian state and society.

The West appears all set to extract Ukraine from the sphere of the political, economic and socio-cultural influence of Russia. It is within this framework that Kiev and all sorts of other actors are working as they try to achieve their domestic goals thus stoking up tensions and radicalizing both the country’s political forces and some elements of the Ukrainian society.

All this farce and grandstanding by European and overseas leaders and politicians still fails to smokescreen the potential threats to the security of the Russian Federation. In this sense, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait should be viewed as a place where the West may attempt a series of “tests” similar to the November 2018 attempt by Ukrainian naval boats to break into the Sea of Azov. The recent “heroic” cruise by US naval ships 100 kilometers off Vladivostok, presumably to “challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other nations,” could be repeated also in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, along the Northern Sea Route, in the Arctic and the Baltic Sea.

The Black Sea region thus becomes a model of counteracting the “sea claims of Russia.” Indeed, it is a really volatile region with an unstable Ukraine ready for any provocations, Crimea, reunited with Russia (plus the Crimean Bridge), a high-handed NATO member, Turkey, which maintains close contacts with both Russia and the West, and the Caucasus region. It poses a problem for Russia due to the flurry of potential and real threats existing there, but it is also a problem for Russia’s “friends,” because of the high degree of security of the Crimean border and other borders of the Russian Federation. This combination of security and threats makes the Black Sea region an ideal place for all sorts of provocations and endurance tests.

Well aware of Russia’s strength, the West is trying to test Moscow’s determination with small, albeit significant, provocations, such as the Ukrainian naval ships’ attempt to enter the Sea of Azov on November 25, 2018. The West is equally aware of Russia’s response to such provocations by Kiev. What is not so clear to the West, however, and London’s activity attests to this, is how Russia will respond to similar passages by multinational flotillas. This uncertainty could only stem from a desire to trigger a conflict or from misguided thoughts about Russia’s indecisiveness to enter into a serious confrontation with the West.

Whatever grounds London or Washington may have for organizing a second cruise to the Crimean Bridge, no matter how many ships will take part and the flags they will sail under, Russia will do all it takes to protect its territory, border, water area, and important infrastructure.

The question London has to answer now is how will the former empire get out of this situation? There are only two options available: either to stage ever new provocations or continue grandstanding and firing verbal broadsides.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

Armenia’s position blurred the progress for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and leads to an escalation

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The conflict between two South Caucasus countries – Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh became as one of the bloodiest and long-lasting conflicts contributing to instability in the region. After a ceasefire agreement signed in 1994 halting the armed skirmishes in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, Armenia and Azerbaijan pursued, albeit a fragile, diplomatic negotiations to reach a peaceful end to this bloody conflict.

However, peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairing countries (namely the US, France and Russia) have been lasting for decades without any tangible results to achieve total peace. The current status-quo in the conflict zone was mainly favored by Armenian leadership until today in order to continue illegal activities in the occupied territories and seek for legitimacy for its occupation policy.  However, four-day April 2016 fights demonstrated once again that status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone is very indeed dangerous.

All these developments clearly show that the status quo in the conflict zone should be changed as soon as possible, because such situation cannot be kept “frozen” any more. Any tangible result on the conflict resolution requires, first of all, Armenia to take finally result-oriented actions in order to achieve peace and prosperity in the region.

Following the government change in Armenia in 2018 with the fall of the government of Serzh Sargsyan composed of so-called “Karabakh clan” and take-over of ruling by Nikol Pashinyan (as a new Prime Minister) through mass protests against corruption and cronyism in Armenia, there was hope that the new government in Yerevan would change the situation and choose peace instead of sticking to the previous government’s policy of occupation.

The first high-level meeting (since the velvet revolution in Armenia) between Azerbaijan and Armenian foreign ministers took place on 11 July 2018 in Brussels with the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs. Actually, in the first meeting the Ministers discussed the certain parameters for re-engaging in substantive negotiations and vowed to take confidence-building measures. These meetings were conducted regularly until and after the first official meeting of head of states of Azerbaijan and Armenia in Vienna in 2019.

The first official meeting between Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was held on 29 March 2019 in Vienna. In an interview to the Russian TASS news agency President Ilham Aliyev noted “we have discussed the issues related to strengthening trust measures during contacts between people and the negotiating process should be supported by humanitarian measures”. President Aliyev also emphasized that “it is of huge importance that the format of talks remained unchanged and only Armenia and Azerbaijan discuss their problems as it was many years before”.

Prime Minister Pashinyan also regarded “the meeting as positive”, but he ruled out “that there has been a breakthrough in the negotiation process, or an evolution”.

Unfortunately, despite all aforementioned talks and positive thoughts, Pashinyan changed his position and started to support the previous Armenian policies on the conflict. Later, he even said that he will not engage in any discussions of “land for peace”. Pashinyan also demands that the format of negotiations should be expanded from the current bilateral format to include officials from the separatist regime (so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”) established in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. It is very obvious that Pashinyan’s that proposal aims to maneuver in the negotiations or to preserve the status-quo in the conflict zone. Whereas, it seems unacceptable for Azerbaijan when Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh region, which were forced to leave their homes and became refugees, are not considered in this regard. 

The process clearly illustrates that new Armenian government is not ready for compromise to reach a peace with Azerbaijan. Instead of constructive engagement, they opted for sticking to hate speech. For instance, during the UEFA Europa League Final in Baku (29 May 2019) Arsenal’s player Henrikh Mkhitaryan (of Armenian origin) refused to visit Baku despite all high security guarantee promised by Azerbaijani government. His choice was regarded as being part of a “dirty” political game instead of playing football. Nikol Pashinyan even hailed his position in his twitter feed. Whereas, until now, many Armenian athletes participated at the Baku 2015 European Games, and many others at the international events hosted by Azerbaijan, and there were no threats and incidents for them.

In general, sportsmen may have a very positive role in conflict and hate situations. For instance, according to researchers from Stanford University, Liverpool’s Egyptian football striker Mo Salah effect is having an impact beyond the stadium walls, who found a drop in hate crimes around Liverpool since Salah signed with the club in June 2017. Mo Salah often celebrates goals by dropping to his knees and touching his forehead to the grass in the sujood (an Islamic prayer position), while Liverpool fans have a chant that goes: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim, too”. Henrikh Mkhitaryan with arrival to Baku could also use this opportunity to convey a peace message to other Armenians.

The short-term environment of peace was deteriorated by another provocation by Armenia against Azerbaijan. On 30 May 2019, during the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs’ visit to Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani officer was killed by an Armenian sniper shot. On 9 June 2019 another Azerbaijani soldier was killed by the Armenian side, and Armenian Defense Minister awarded that who executed the Azerbaijani servicemen. These military incidents were followed by proportional casualties in Armenians’ side as well. Moreover, on June 12, 2019, Azerbaijan’s trainer plane has been detected and targeted by Armenian anti-aircraft missile system at the frontline (on Fizuli direction), but no incident was registered.

All aforementioned facts confirm that Armenian new government sticks to old mechanism, and all attempts to change the format of negotiations to present de-facto Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent party are just a maneuver to maintain the status-quo in the conflict. It is necessary to consider that, the conflict hitherto causes violence and human suffering for both nations, and without tangible results, further civil and military causalities will be from both sides. Both Armenian and Azerbaijan people suffered enough from this bloody conflict, and it is very time to achieve a peace in the region. As the Armenian journalist, social activist Susan Jaghinyan emphasized – “Sargsyan and Kocharyan destroy[ed] the people, if they continue[d] their rule, the Armenian people [would] not exist in the future”.  After Velvet Revolution, Armenian people managed to change a regime, and now Armenian new government has all chances to prepare its population for peace and benefit from the regional economic cooperation. As soon as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolves, the Armenian people will be able to benefit from the opportunities of the current regional economic cooperation of Azerbaijan with other partners.

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Armenia-Iran: Good neighbourly relations absolute necessity

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Some experts believe that Iran’s cooperation with Armenia could become costly for the latter owing to the ever increasing hostility demonstrated by US President Donald Trump towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. They predict that American sanctions and extensive pressure on Iran could throw Armenia into a kind of blockade.

What comes to mind in connection with this is the words that are thought to have been said by Napoleon Bonaparte: geography is destiny. Even though it could not always be the case but it definitely is with the Caucasus. There are few if any regions whose military, strategic and economic significance would combine with unprecedented ethno-religious diversity on a fairly small territory with historically conditioned disputable issues. This naturally creates all the conditions for an atmosphere of permanent tension which over the last two centuries has repeatedly exploded in armed conflicts and wars.

In the 21st century, the situation in the Caucasus is formed by a most sophisticated political gamut of bilateral and multilateral relations among three former Soviet republics of Transcaucasus – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, and also, not in the last place, by the Caucasian states of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Besides, one should not forget about the military and political influence of non-regional countries, first of all, the United States, the European Union and Israel.

Undoubtedly, today we are witnessing the influence of multiple forces in different areas of  Caucasian politics, and these forces are dragging Caucasian states into various alliances. Moreover, the regional policy of each of the South Caucasian states is determined by a variety of factors that spring from the specifics of bilateral and multilateral relations.

But we will not analyze the whole spectrum of complicated and entangled relations between groups of countries and within groups proper. We will focus on relations beween Iran and Armenia.

What is the role of Armenia, taking into account the US anti-Iran sanctions?

Iran is the largest multi-ethnic state in the Middle East. Present day Iran is home to more than 40 nationalities, each at a different level of socio-economic development. The multi-million population of Iran is ethnically related to the peoples of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia.

For centuries, Iran has been maintaining close economic and cultural ties with the peoples of the Transcaucasus. But its relations with Armenia stand out as somewhat specific.

Significantly, the first state formations of Armenia and Iran appeared in the VII – VI centuries BC, that is, nearly 3 thousand years ago. Since then their territories and regimes have undergone numerous changes, but Armenians and Persians, as state-forming ethnic groups, have passed through the centuries unchanged.

An idea which is deeply rooted in both the Iranian and Armenian consciousness is that Persians and Armenians boast ancient culture that cannot be thrown into oblivion. This explains cultural ties between the two nations and a comprehensive respect for the specifics of each other’s national and religious mentality.

At present, Iran is home to more than 200 thousand Armenians. Iranian Armenians enjoy substantial rights. Under the Constitution of Iran, they have guaranteed representation in parliament and local councils. Not so long ago, Russian Orientalist Karine Gevorkian reported that in 2018, a young Armenian woman was appointed head of the financial department of the Iranian oil company.

The Armenian Christian community is the largest of its kind in Iran. Functioning throughout the country are about 200 Armenian churches and about 30 Armenian schools. Some universities have departments of the Armenian language and culture. Iran publishes books and magazines in Armenian. Also, there are Armenian theatrical, cultural, and sports societies, and the Armenian Club.

It should be pointed out that Iranian Armenians are taking an active part in the social and political life of the country.

Naturally, Iranian Armenians maintain permanent ties with the Republic of Armenia, which undoubtedly cements Iranian-Armenian relations at the state level.

Although Iran and Armenia are not comparable in their scope and position, as history and current geopolitics show, they need each other.

Iran is interested to maintain ties with Armenia, in the first place, because, as it was already mentioned above, the country is home to an influential Armenian community. Secondly, given that the Armenian diaspora exists in many countries of the world, it could become a kind of bridge connecting Tehran with the capitals of other, not always friendly, states where an Armenian community is also active. Also, it is through authoritative Armenian lobbies that Iran could secure favorable political and economic solutions. Thirdly, the territory of Armenia, as a neighboring country, is important for Iran as a corridor to the North (through Georgia) and further to Russia, which is clearly beneficial for Iran considering the current  geopolitical situation.

Armenia, in turn, is also interested in friendly relations with neighboring Iran, not only on account of links between the Armenian diaspora and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran assumed a fairly balanced position regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, by refraining from backing fellow believers from a neighboring country and complying with the Minsk format, the decisions of the Minsk Group (OSCE).

Moreover, the continuing trade and economic ties between Armenia and Iran have become, to a certain extent, a lifeline for Yerevan. Blocked by Turkey and Azerbaijan from two sides, Armenia  has only two windows to the outside world: via the borders with Georgia and Iran. Therefore, for Armenia Iran is of vital importance. The Armenian-Iranian border, running through the Araks River, is the shortest for two countries – a mere 35 km. Nevertheless, this border is of great importance, both for Armenia and for Iran, being used for developing trade and economic relations between the two countries and promoting touristm. Statistical data say Iranians (and not only Armenian) enjoy visiting Armenia.

In recent years, Armenia and Iran have seen a successful implementation of various economic programs. One of the first projects was a bridge erected across the Araks River. Also, two high-voltage power transmission lines have been built, a third one is currently under construction.

One of the key areas of economic cooperation between Armenia and Iran is provided by an interim agreement signed in May 2018 between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) on the creation of a free trade zone. Thus, there have appeared opportunities for merging the 180-million market of the EEU with the 80-million Iranian market. Since Armenia is the only EAEU country that has a land border with Iran, it plays a crucial role in cooperation between the EAEU and Iran, which provides it with an opportunity to develop its relations with Iran.

Undoubtedly, Armenia and Iran’s shared interest in bilateral cooperation envisages good prospects for the future. However, it is not that simple, as there have arrived new times, both for Yerevan, and Tehran.

In 2018 Armenia saw a change of government, as a result of which Nikola Pashinyan was elected Prime Minister. There have been changes in domestic policy. As for foreign policy, at least in relation to Iran, there have been no particular  changes and, in all likelihood, there will not be any. Given the present-day conditions, good-neighborly relations between Yerevan and Tehran are not a luxury, but an urgent need.

In this regard, Nikola Pashinyan’s official visit to Iran in February 2019 is of special significance. During the visit the two parties held high-level talks with the participation of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who rarely receives foreign guests. The negotiations were held in a fairly warm atmosphere, with both sides underscoring the importance of bilateral relations and expressing readiness to exert efforts to develop them.

In the course of above-mentioned talks, representatives of Armenia and Iran signaled the high level of political cooperation, emphasizing yet again that the current level of economic cooperation does not match the full potential of the parties involved. Although by the end of 2018, trade turnover between Armenia and Iran had reached $ 364 million, which is the highest figure since 1991.

Among major projects of the Armenian-Iranian bilateral economic cooperation program is  the construction of the third power line, the implementation of the Meghri hydropower project, the North-South highway corridor, trilateral and quadrilateral economic cooperation with Georgia and Russia.

What makes the visit to Iran by Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan special is that Iran is under the US sanctions. In 2018, a transitional year for Armenia, the United States subjected Iran to unprecedented pressure. In addition, the US “secondary sanctions” were imposed against all countries, legal entities and physical persons of foreign countries which dare to maintain relations with Iran. This meant a challenge for Armenia, in many ways economically connected with Iran.

In October 2018, US National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to secure support for US plans to further isolate Iran. Reports say Washington is lobbying for the closure of the Armenian border with Iran through opening the border with Turkey.

While in Yerevan, Bolton told Prime Minister Pashinyan that since the United States will pursue the policy of sanctions against Iran, the Armenian-Iranian border is a “big problem.” Pashinyan responded by saying the following: “We respect the requests and national interests of any country, but Armenia has its own national  interests, which do not always coincide with the interests and ideas of other countries.” But as they say, there could be options.

It is necessary to emphasize that Washington, despite its hostile policy towards the IRI, has always had to tolerate cooperation between Armenia and Iran. Such tolerance is due to the US awareness of the geo-economic situation of Armenia, which, without extensive ties with Iran, will face social and economic problems. In addition, as said before, the Armenian lobby has a lot of sway in Washington, especially in the US Congress, which does not give much say to Iran’s opponents with regard to Armenia. That this is true is confirmed by the absence of any US sanctions against Armenia. That’s why John Bolton all but voiced proposals, and not warnings or threats. Suren Sargsyan, Chairman of the Armenian Center for American Studies, said recently, “Washington is fully aware of the situation and the realities that exist in the region. This means that the United States will never pressure Armenia into rejecting Iran or Russia. And this is good, because Washington knows that we will not survive without Iran and Russia … “

As is known, besides the United States Iran has another “big friend” – Israel. Apparently,  the strengthening of Armenian-Iranian relations is not welcome in Jerusalem, and Yerevan is aware of this. The Armenian diplomacy has taken sophisticated measures to neutralize the negative Israeli reaction. Right after Prime Minister Pashinyan’s visit to Iran, Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigor Hovhannisyan paid a visit to Israel, where he discussed opening an embassy in Israel “in order to bring bilateral relations to a new high”. The Armenian delegation also focused on organizational issues related to the upcoming visit to Israel by Armenian Prime Minister Nikola Pashinyan and Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan.

In all likelihood, the main point of Prime Minister Pashinyan’s foreign policy agenda and the main goal of his government is tolerance and absence of problems in relations with foreign countries: with Moscow, with Tehran, th Washington, with Brussels, with Jerusalem.

Thus, it is possible to conclude that the change of government in Armenia and large-scale US sanctions against Iran and its partners did not affect the stable nature of Armenian-Iranian relations. In these conditions, the Armenian-Iranian border is unlikely to ever be closed – a complete blockade of Armenia is highly impossible. Moreover, the small Armenia, pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy, has become an important factor in ensuring security in the South Caucasus. 

From our partner International Affairs

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China Set to Increase its Influence in Georgia

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China-Georgia relations since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been positive in both the economic and overall political sense. However, they are often overestimated by analysts in Georgia and elsewhere. Bilateral trade growth as well as a gradual increase in Chinese investments in Georgia have oft been hailed as exceptional and a marked sign of increased Chinese influence over Tbilisi.

True, economic growth has been taking place, but this has been but a small portion of the real potential. In fact, despite analysts’ positive views, Georgia and the South Caucasus transit corridor has yet to feature in official versions of the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Overall, China has been cautious. Russia’s factor too might have been at play when Beijing only minimally involved itself in the economy of Georgia. But the biggest obstacle has been geographic barriers such as the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus range, difficult Georgian terrain as well as the Black Sea.

Still, in a number of articles for GT, I have suggested that the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is not static in nature and, like any other trade routes in ancient or medieval periods, it does respond to rising challenges and opportunities. Another suggestion was that Georgia, if it improves its railroads, roads and ports infrastructure inside the country, will become more attractive to China and its BRI.

Indeed, there are signs proving this scenario. On 24 May, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Georgia. This is crucial as it is the first official visit of a Chinese foreign minister to Georgia in 23 years. According to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the focus of the minister’s visit was to understand more about Georgia’s future and its potential as an important transit state.

The visit to Georgia came as a part of the Chinese delegation’s regional trip. China and Armenia on Sunday signed an agreement for mutual visa exemption for ordinary passport holders.

The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the visit to Georgia confirmed the “clear vision” of China regarding Georgia and its role in China’s plans for large-scale projects. Here, most likely BRI was meant, a clear emphasis on Georgia’s potential as a transit state. “Trade, investments, transport, as well as partnership within the frames of international organizations, were set as the major priorities for future cooperation,” states the Georgian Foreign Ministry.

The Chinese Foreign Minister said that “China is implementing a foreign policy which is based on the principles of peaceful coexistence. We are ready to develop friendly relations between our countries further. We have a firm position that all countries are equal, regardless of their size. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and other countries.”

China’s interests in Georgia are also intricately linked to the latter’s territorial problems with Russia. For Tbilisi, it is important that China supports it on the issue of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. Indeed, the issue of the Georgian occupied territories was also raised during the meetings and Georgian officials mentioned the “high importance” of Chinese support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Chinese delegation’s visit follows the Georgian Minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Maya Tskitishvili’s, trip to Beijing, where she attended the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. More importantly, she signed an agreement on cargo and passenger transportation with Chinese Minister of Transport Li Xiaopeng.

Overall, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister’s visit to Tbilisi has been important, but attention in the Georgian media was only paid to official statements; no analysis has yet been made. However, what is crucial is the timing of the visit, as China and the US are locked in a geopolitical battle over influence in the Indo-Pacific world. Since Georgia is close to the US in terms of military and political cooperation, it will be interesting to see how far China-Georgia cooperation will go. One thing is likely to happen: Beijing will try to increase its influence in Georgia through economic and various political moves.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Times

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