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Eastern Europe

The Potential of the North-South Trade Corridor

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One of the major historical obstacles for Russian territorial (or simply geopolitical) expansion over the past several centuries has been the Caucasus Mountains.

Thence comes Russia’s permanent drive to reduce the role of the mountain range through artificial construction of passes and roads into the South Caucasus. The success of these policies has been largely dependent on how Russia was allowed into the South Caucasus at any given time. From the Russian perspective, the Georgians, who control all major access through the Caucasus, could not be trusted. To alleviate this, the Russians had to have their own territorial strongholds – that’s how we come to Georgia being constantly invaded and its various regions being from time to time under the Russian protectorate.

Beyond this purely military aspect, minimizing the role of the impassable Caucasus range has had the Russians working on extending their economic power. When the territory was under Moscow’s direct control in the Soviet period, or earlier in the Romanov epoch, the Russians were keen on using/exporting local natural resources. Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia’s primary drive has been to increase trade with and buy crucial infrastructure (pipelines, railroads etc.) from the South Caucasus countries.

The North-South Economic Corridor project runs from Russia to Azerbaijan, Iran and then to the Persian Gulf and possibly to India too. This is an ambitious project, with goods from India and Iran able bypass the Suez Canal and reach Europe (the Baltic Sea) through Azerbaijani and Russian territories. In fact, this potential route is shorter than the one via the Suez Canal.

The talk on implementation of the North-South Corridor has been going on for some time, and substantial progress has already been made on the Astara Railway which connects the Iranian and Azerbaijani railway networks.

Somehow related to the implementation of this economic corridor might be cooling of tensions around the Caspian Sea, as seen last year.

Ironically, Russia’s problems with the West and Moscow’s pivot to the Middle East and Asia-Pacific (in whatever form its takes) has pushed the country to find other great trade partners. India, via Iran, would serve the Russians perfectly. Teheran and Moscow are both under Western sanctions and this, too, might be a very good incentive to aim for success in the Corridor project. In other words, an increased emphasis on Moscow’s economic interests through and around the Caspian Sea to India and Iran is related to larger geopolitical developments of Russia being shut off in the West and having no other opportunity but to move southwards.

Arguably the biggest winner in the project will be Azerbaijan, which will benefit from its strategic position not only as a hub for east-west trade and energy routes, but also for north-south commerce.

However, it is still very unlikely that much of the India-Europe trade could be diverted to the North-South Corridor. In fact, as is always the case with new trade routes, quite some time will be needed to pull the project off the ground, a crucial obstacle being the heavy economic sanctions imposed by the US on Iran which could easily undermine the efficiency of the project.

Overall, this and in coming years, we will see an intensified struggle between the regional powers surrounding the South Caucasus for laying down new trade routes, pipelines and roads, etc. In fact, a very good example of this is the reports in the media that Chechnya plans to build a road to Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Yet another development surrounds Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (the so-called “South Ossetia”) regions, where the Russians want to have trade routes passing through the breakaway territories to connect with Armenia.

Again, this is all part of Russia’s drive to minimize the impassability of the Caucasus range.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Eastern Europe

Armenia: Lies and realities

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The OSCE Minsk Group was established to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which arose as a result of Armenia’s brutal interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs and military aggression. However, the activities of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have been fruitless for almost 30 years. Armenia did not comply with the UN Security Council Resolutions No. 822, 853, 874 and 884 on the unconditional, prompt and complete withdrawal of the Armenian occupying forces from the territories of Azerbaijan. Armenian was trying to impose occupation fact and to bring it to a “fait accompli.” At the same time, Armenia was preparing to occupy new territories of Azerbaijan and commit provocations. Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan confessed: “We will not return an inch of land to Azerbaijan and will occupy new territories.”

In July 2020, the Armenian leadership committed another provocation in the direction of the Tovuz region of the Azerbaijani state border. There were several purposes in this provocation. First, to occupy the territories, where the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main export oil pipeline, which plays a vital role in Europe’s energy supply, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, TAP and TANAP lines pass, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway connects Europe and Asia. Furthermore, as a result, to obstruct the access of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Europe. Second, to divert attention from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and involve the CSTO, especially Russia, in the war. However, the Armenian occupying forces were repulsed and failed to achieve any of the above purposes. Armenia’s intentions against European countries and peoples have failed.

Later, Armenia committed provocations again, in response, when Azerbaijan took action, the Armenian leadership began to spread slander and false news in order to deceive European public opinion. Let us look at just two of them. First, the Armenian side tried to cover up their aggression policy and abuse the religious feelings of Christians around the world by spreading false information about the alleged attack of the Azerbaijani army on the church in Shusha. Even those unfamiliar with military science know that if the church had been hit by a rocket, it would have collapsed. However, the church was in place. On the other hand, mosques, churches and synagogues have coexisted in Azerbaijan for many centuries. Even the Armenian church, which is located in the centre of Baku, including its library, is protected by the Azerbaijani state and its guard also is Armenian. It can be questioned that what did Armenia do in return for Azerbaijan’s care for the church, the house of God? Armenians intentionally kept pigs in mosques in the occupied Aghdam and Zangilan regions of Azerbaijan. Their photos and videos are available on the Internet. The church, the mosque and the synagogue are the houses of God. By treating mosques as an object for insults, Armenia is tarnishing Christians, and Christianity, which is a religion of peace and coexistence. Russians, Jews, Georgians, Ukrainians and others, who are Azerbaijani citizens in the ranks of the Azerbaijani army, are fighting for the liberation of Azerbaijani lands from occupiers. Prayers for the Azerbaijani soldier are being held in all churches and synagogues in Azerbaijan. His Holiness Pope Francis, who visited Baku a few years ago, praised the policy of Azerbaijan in terms of inter-religious and inter-civilizational dialogue as an example.

Secondly, Armenia is lying about Azerbaijan’s alleged “genocide” of Armenians, which is nonsense. Because currently, more than 30000 Armenians live in Azerbaijan peacefully. If there was any discrimination policy against Armenians, how could so many Armenians live in Azerbaijan? However, the situation is different in Armenia. Since 1988, over 250000 Azerbaijanis have been savagely expelled from Armenia. Today there is no single Azerbaijani in Armenia and Armenia is a mono-ethnic state. At the same time, more than 750000 Azerbaijanis were expelled from the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories of Azerbaijan and became internally displaced persons.

Thus, on the one hand, the Armenian leaders pose a direct threat to Europe’s energy supply, and on the other hand, they try to use the religious feelings of the European people for their own interests by spreading false news and figments. However, they forget that the world is very small now, and everyone sees everything well. So, the question is: what is the name of Armenia’s policy? The answer is clear!

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Eastern Europe

Ceasefire Violated, Civilians of Ganja, Azerbaijan Hit –Again

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Image source: Azerbaijan Ministry of Defence

Authors: Julia Jakus and Anar Imanzade

Intensifying rocket and artillery fire exchanges between Armenia and Azerbaijan have driven military overtures from both sides as well as mutual accusations that civilians are being unlawfully targeted. The disputed region Nagorno-Karabakh has long been the catalyst of periodic clashes, but the situation dramatically deteriorated over the last several weeks. Why is Nagorno-Karabakh so ardently contested, and what are the implications of recent escalations in this conflict?

The Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts were occupied by Armenian forces between 1988-1993 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020). One year prior to the end of this occupation, Armenian forces massacred over 600 Azerbaijani civilians in Khojaly on February 26, 1992. Following the military occupation of the region as well as its seven surrounding districts, over 1.000.000 people were displaced – most of whom had immediate family members and relatives who were killed during the 5-year occupation.

Since 1992, the Armenian military has occupied upper Karabakh laying claim to the territory on the basis that the region harbors an ethnic majority of Armenians. However, no less than four UN Security Council resolutions (822,853, 874, and 884) recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh region as being a part of Azerbaijan and actively call for the immediate withdrawal of the Armed Forces of Armenia from occupied territories within Azerbaijan. Although a ceasefire was signed in 1994, the region has remained under Armenian occupation (Jeyhun Aliyev and Ruslan Rehimov, 2020).

From Border Clashes to Bombings

In July,the border clashes near Tavush of Armenia (Tovuz of Azerbaijan)resulted not only in 16 deaths (12 Azerbaijani, 4 Armenians) but also spiked these long-simmering tensions between the two countries. Azerbaijan responded by shelling military objects in Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh). The most recent operations recommenced on the 27th of September when Azerbaijan took the city of Hadrut (which is geostrategically important because of its proximity to the heart of Karabakh). Since then, the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan have liberated some of its territories namely via targeting military components such as artillery batteries and other facilities. While Azerbaijan proclaims that they are liberating the region, Armenian officials decry that Azerbaijan and Turkey are conspiring to commit another genocide against the Armenian people.

Although memories of 1915 still burn painfully in the hearts and minds of Armenians, many might argue that mobilizing memories of the 1915 Genocide with reference to the Nagorno-Karabakh actively ignores the fact that geopolitical conditions have markedly changed over the last 100+ years. Because Armenia is a member of the CSTO, if Armenia is attacked, then Russia and other members of this organization bear an obligation for military interference on their behalf. Likewise, more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians live in Azerbaijan in relative peace while veryfew Azerbaijani live in Armenia which means that very little threat should emanate from within Armenia’s borders. From this angle, it certainly appears that the main aim of Azerbaijan remains exclusively the liberation of its occupied territories.

The last week of September and the first week of October were marked by particular ambiguity as both sides ardently claimed to have succeeded in gaining the upper hand. However, the dynamic changed significantly on the 9th of October when both the Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Minister were invited to Moscow. There, they each agreed to a humanitarian ceasefire and promised to exchange the bodies of fallen soldiers beginning on October 10th. However, on the 11th of October between 2:00 and 3:00 am, Armenian Forces launched another missile attack on Azerbaijan’s second-largest city Ganja (the first occurred on the 5th of October). In the second attack, a missile struck a civilian residential building and resulted in the deaths of 10 people, more than 35 injured. Children were among both the fatalities and casualties. By targeting residential areas in the city of Ganja immediately following a ceasefire agreement, this military overture not only violated the Geneva Conventions but also upended over 30 years of negotiations presided over by the Minsk Co-Chair Group of the OSCE.

The city of Ganja lies in the West of Azerbaijan, just North of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. It is seen as an energy corridor from the Caspian Sea to global markets, and for this reason, bears a strong geostrategic value. On the heels of 3-decades of diplomatic stagnancy, the Armenian Prime Minister NikolPashinyan has made provocative remarks that steer away from rather than toward conflict resolution such as, “Karabakh is Armenia…full stop” (Eurasia.net, 2019). The deaths of Azerbaijani civilians in recent attacks appear to have had the greatest unifying effect on the Republic of Azerbaijan since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Azerbaijani demand to end Armenian occupation has even garnered the support of opposition leaders for Ilham Aliyev, the president of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Global Implications

As Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions escalate, both Russia and Iran have offered to broker peace talks. Macron and Trump have also publicly advocated for a ceasefire, in spite of powerful Armenian lobbies residing in both states. Azerbaijan has indicated that it is not willing to wait another 30 years without action. The ceasefire, to Azerbaijan, is tantamount to the permanent withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. To Armenia, stepping away is associated with abandoning ethnic Armenians living in the Azerbaijani territory—in spite of the international resolutions demanding them to.

External actors have also played a complicating role. For example, while Moscow publicly advocates for a ceasefire, Russia maintains a military pact with Armenia to the extent that they have continued to send military equipment to Armenia… while simultaneously bearing otherwise good politico-economic ties with Azerbaijan. This, in turn, raises Russia-Turkey tensions. Erdoğan recently pledged his allegiance with Baku on the basis both of historic alliances and existing economic ones. This is not surprising given the historic animosity between Yerevan and Ankara as well as the fact that vital oil and gas pipelines run from Baku to Turkey. Global responses have been mixed. All foreign powers watching the violence escalate have kept a keen eye on the pipelines, but some surmise that –until oil and gas are impacted – those same powers are likely to try to dismiss the issue as an internal clash. Still, other world leaders to UN Secretary-General António Guterres have been calling for a true ceasefire.

The dispute presents a situation riddled with competing narratives, but one thing is certain: as military overtures bleed beyond the traditionally contested region and into civilian cities of Azerbaijan, the prospects of fruitful diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh recede. 

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Eastern Europe

A Chill in Georgia-China Relations

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Photo: Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia at the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum, Tbilisi, 22 October 2019. Credit: Prime Minister of Georgia

A sense of growing disenchantment is starting to dominate China-Georgia relations. Given China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Georgia’s geographical importance to the realization of China’s plans, Georgian elites had high hopes for the future. Today, few people are as enthusiastic.

The relationship used to look promising. In 2017 China and Georgia signed a free trade agreement to remove customs barriers, in a move Georgian leaders hoped would boost exports and help develop the Georgian economy. The Georgian government also expected an increase in Chinese investments into Georgia’s infrastructure, specifically its Black Sea ports of Poti, Batumi, Anaklia, as well as east-west rail and road links. Several large-scale investment forums were held in Tbilisi for that purpose.

Fostering closer ties with China was also seen as a vital component of Georgia’s quest to balance Russia’s regional influence, and as a hedge against Russian military moves in occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The hopes for improvements in trade have not panned out. While there has been a steady increase in overall volume, statistics show that Georgia mostly exports raw materials to China, such as copper and various chemicals. A market for goods higher up the value chain has not materialized. Similarly, concerns over corrupt practices have increased, especially tied to how Chinese companies have been awarded contracts. One illustrative case concerns Powerchina’s subsidiary Sinohydro winning a €26.3 million tender for the reconstruction of a 42-kilometer section of the Khulo-Zarzma road. Sinohydro has a long record ­– both in Georgia and abroad – of corruption, environmental degradation, and of generally shoddy work. And yet it keeps winning new tenders.

Furthermore, it has become apparent to policymakers in Tbilisi that China will not go out of its way to harm increasingly important relations with Russia. For example, China has been generally unhelpful on key diplomatic issues critical to the Georgian side. It repeatedly failed to back Georgia’s UN vote on refugees forcefully expelled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia by separatists and Russian troops. It repeatedly failed to denounce de-facto presidential or parliamentary elections held in Georgia’s occupied territories. China has also stayed silent on Russian cyber-attacks against Georgia over the last few years, as well as on Russian “borderization” policies in South Ossetia. Its Ministry of Defense even announced that it would participate in the Russian-led “Kavkaz-2020” exercises, alongside troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

China has also helped the Kremlin seed destabilizing disinformation in the country. On September 2, the Chinese state media outlet China Daily questioned the utility of the U.S.-funded Lugar Laboratory located near Georgia’s border with Russia and alleged that it both represented a biohazard risk to Georgia and that Georgian citizens were being unwittingly used as test subjects.

All this stands in striking contrast with Georgia’s Western partners, who continuously stand up for Georgia’s foreign policy priorities, as well as for its territorial integrity. Though increasingly disenchanted with China, Georgian leaders continue to walk a diplomatic tightrope, keen to not draw ire from China while preserving its ties to the West. But as America’s stance on China hardens, it will be more and more difficult to maintain this balance. In a series of public letters addressed to the Georgian government sent earlier this year, U.S. congressmen and senators have been explicit that Georgia needs to avoid deep entanglements with China and hew closely to Western standards and trade practices.

The balancing act is simply unsustainable. Georgia’s NATO and EU membership aspirations, the cornerstone of its geopolitical orientation, are an irreconcilable irritant for China, especially as the Alliance expands its scope to face down China’s growing military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. Georgia will be forced to pick sides eventually.

And the outcome is a foregone conclusion. At this point, criticizing China openly would cost Georgia a lot, which means that Tbilisi taking a firm stance on Taiwan or on human rights issues is not likely. But as tensions ratchet up between the West and China, expect Georgia to side more firmly with the West, not only politically, but also increasingly economically, by embracing Western 5G technologies as well as its trade and investment standards.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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