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Eastern Europe

Armenia sides with Russia again- This time in Syria

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Authors: Rusif Huseynov, Abbas Zeynalli*

On February 8, Armenian Defense Ministry spread the news informing that 83 Armenian specialists – doctors, deminers and security officers– will be dispatched to the Syrian city of Aleppo. According to the information, this group was to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. Severe humanitarian conditions, UN Security Council’s Resolutions 2393 (2017) and 2401 (2018), Syria`s formal requests, as well as Aleppo`s big Armenian community have been referred to as the main reasons for the deployment of the so-called non-combat team, which is supposed to work in those areas which are not engaged in any military operations (Mil.am, February 8).

This action is actually not the first engagement of Armenia in the Syrian civil war. Since the outbreak of the conflict, thousands of Syrian refugees, mainly of Armenian origin, were accepted by the South Caucasian nation (OC-Media, February 19). However, some of refugees were illegally settled in Nagorno Karabakh, a conflict area which is internationally recognized as part of neighboring Azerbaijan (Al Jazeera, December 17, 2017).

While some questioned the legality of the action, as Armenian law has no provisions for protecting civilians or involving its military service people in such humanitarian activities, several politicians spoke out against the government’s decision. For instance, Hovsep Khurshudyan believes that Russia dragged Armenia into the Syrian conflict, which will have unpredictable consequences for Armenia, which has not received and will not receive anything in return (OC-Media, February 19).

The first international reaction on the formed Armenian team naturally came from Bashar Assad`s key ally Russia that covered the trip`s logistics and security issues.On the same day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu thanked his Armenian counterpart David Tonoyan by stating that “You were the first to respond to our call to provide assistance to the Syrian people” (Al Jazeera, February 9). 

For a long time, at least since 2012 the Kremlin had been seeking support in Syria from its military allies (Eurasianet, June 1, 2012). Although some news on a CSTO peacekeeping mission circulated in the following years (Eurasianet, October 5, 2016), with Russia being especially interested to involve Central Asian Muslim countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (Eurasianet, June 23, 2017), those speculations never materialized as other CSTO members seemed less enthusiastic to get engaged in the bloody conflict.

The negotiations on possible Armenian participation in the Syrian war started a few years earlier. In 2016, Russian and Armenian foreign ministers discussed the deployment of army sappers to the Syrian town of Palmyra (Azatutyun, August 28, 2017). These discussions took place during the presidency of Serzh Sargsyan, openly pro-Russian, who stepped down as a result of the Armenian revolution in spring 2018. The protests were led by Nikol Pashinyan, who had long criticized his predecessors` foreign policies, opposing Armenia’s joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and calling it a “serious threat” to Armenia (Euractiv, October 23, 2018).

Therefore, Armenia`s teaming up with Russia in Syria now should raise some questions to Yerevan`s post-revolution government; Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his team have already worsened their relations with Moscow but could not make any dramatic U-turn westward either despite the expectations both from within and outside of Armenia.

In fact, the current government`s Syria deal with Russia was announced at least back in summer 2018, when Pashinyan disclosed on August 17, 2018, that Yerevan and Moscow were to undertake an “unprecedented humanitarian initiative” in the Middle East (Jamestown, September 17, 2018). Later in September both Pashinyan and Defense Minister Tonoyan confirmed Armenia`s plans of dispatching troops to Syria (Panarmenian, September 12, 2018).

The negative reaction by the United States also arrived immediately in September 2018, during the visit of U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton to Yerevan. The top official warned Armenia against sending its troops to Syria to back up government forces or their allies. “It would be a mistake for anybody else to get involved militarily in the Syrian conflict at the moment… There are already … seven or eight different combatant sides. To get involved with anyone of them for any other country would be a mistake,” he noted (Azatutyun, October 25, 2018).

In February 2019, the U.S. Embassy to Armenia issued a special statement of the State Department, which “did not welcome” the initiative: “We do not support any interaction with the Syrian Armed Forces, regardless of whether it is about providing assistance to civilians or is of a military nature” (Ritm Eurasia, February 16).

This action was claimed to be the reason whythe planned visit of Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan to Washington was canceled by a decision of the U.S. State Department, which followed a conversation between Mnatsakanyan and John Bolton (Regnum, February 22).

Interestingly enough, Armenian plans were announced and then realized amidst and despite the tensions between Yerevan and Moscow, as well as within the CSTO. Having not heavily interfered with the revolution and post-revolution processes in Armenia, the Russian authorities did not still welcome Armenia`s new officials warmly. Moscow seemed particularly upset with Pashinyan`s policies and attempts to bring to court his pro-Russian predecessors.

As for the CSTO, during the Khachaturov case, when the post of Secretary General of the organization became vacant and the Armenian authorities tried to fill in the position with its another representative, they faced the resistance of other member-states, especially Belarus and Kazakhstan. The situation has fully exposed Armenia’s vulnerable position in the organization (New Eastern Europe, November 28, 2018).

Among the main factors of Armenia`s decision to enter Syria could be Pashinyan`s desire to appease Putin who may consider a threat any revolutions and democracy attempts in Russia`s near abroad (Jamestown, September 17, 2018). Moscow could have especially been interested in such a serious move in order to demonstrate the Western community Armenia`s alliance with Russia despite the increase of pro-Western sentiments in Armenian society, the cooling of Armenian-Russian relations and inner problems within the CSTO.

It is not the first time when Armenia openly sided with Russia against the West. After the incorporation of Crimea into Russia, an event condemned by many countries, especially Western community, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was the first person to congratulate Vladimir Putin on a happy annexation (Eurasianet, March 28, 2014). No surprise that Armenia was also one of the 11 states which voted against the United Nations Resolution calling upon the states not to recognize changes in status of the Crimean region (UN, March 27, 2014).

A humanitarian mission sent by the new government is said to either appease Putin or to acquire some concessions (e.g. non-interference in Armenia`s domestic policy) from the Kremlin.

No matter what could be the calculations of the post-revolution Armenian authorities that replaced a pro-Russian government, it is obvious that they cannot turn to the West or even balance between Russia and the West. Russia`s omnipresence in Armenia (Russian military base, dominance of Russian companies) leaves little or no room for maneuver for Yerevan, making it virtually impossible to shift its domestic and foreign policies.

It will be too difficult for Armenia to get rid of Russian umbrella and diversify its foreign and security policies, given that the landlocked and resource-short nation has problems and sealed borders simultaneously with two of its neighbors – Turkey and Azerbaijan. Moscow`s relatively calm attitude towards the Armenian Maidan (unlike the cases of other color revolutions in the post-Soviet space) may also stem from the fact that the Russian authorities are fully aware of their strong positions in Armenia and realize that this country cannot unanchor from Russian sphere of influence.

*Abbas Zeynalli is the Research Fellow from Topchubashov Center, Azerbaijan. His areas of interest cover Middle East, Chinese foreign policy, South Caucasus and European integration. 

Rusif Huseynov is the co-founder of the Topchubashov Center. His main interest is peace and conflict studies, while his focus area covers mainly Eastern Europe, Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia.

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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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