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.
Quality of Life in Latvia is not a priority
Four presidents, 14 governments and eight Seimas have changed in Latvia over the past 20 years. The country joined the European Union and NATO, and then switched to the euro. But have Latvians become better off? Has their quality of life improved? Statistics shows that the general well-being of population remains very low. Political turbulence only worsens the situation.
Thus, according to Numbeo.com portal, one of the largest databases on the cost of living and quality of life worldwide, Lithuania and Latvia are the worst Nordic countries for quality of life.
Quality of Life Index by Country 2019
The leaders of the rating are Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Latvia
showed the lowest result, the quality of life index here is 149.15 points. In
Lithuania, the result is slightly higher – 156.36 points.
Numbeo experts took into account the purchasing power of the population, safety, health care, the cost of living and some other factors.
It is noted that the world ranking of countries for the quality of life is led by Denmark, Switzerland and Finland. Estonia took 11th place, Lithuania – 29th, and Latvia – 34th.
The more so, experts said that the proportion of shadow economy in Latvia rose by 2.2 percentage point last year to 24.2 percent.
The shadow economy proportion in Latvia has risen for the past two years in a row.
EU-SILC survey gives another frightening indicator. According to eurostat.ec.europa.eu, Latvia, as well as Estonia and Lithuania are top three EU countries in terms of poverty risk among pensioners.
Political and economic short-sightedness has lead to the state when the Baltic States have become the first battlefield in case of war between NATO and Russia.
The United States is preparing for the use of nuclear weapons in Europe along with non-nuclear countries, said Vladimir Ermakov, director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Experts point out that military airfields in the Baltic States and Poland have already been prepared to receive NATO aircraft that can carry tactical nuclear weapons. If take his words seriously, this means the end of the Baltic States’ existence.
The behavior of the authorities guaranteed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia the status of the first battlefield, despite the fact that in the event of war, economy would be completely destroyed and population would disappear.
How the Caspian Sea joins the Black Sea
In the development of international cooperation and the deepening of industrial cooperation, the leading role belongs to the formation of a network of international transport corridors. It has a special place in solving transport problems associated with the expansion of interstate transportation, economic, cultural and other ties, with the creation of an international transport infrastructure that has common technical parameters and ensures the use of a single transportation technology as the basis for the integration of national transport systems into the global transport system.
Developing corridors are to play a system-forming role in the economic and social development of the territories along which they pass. Their creation is directly related to projects for the development of sectors of the economy and social sphere.
If a modern transport corridor connects the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, it will lead to uninterrupted cargo transportation between Asia and Europe. New opportunities for the regional states will be opened up. This was confirmed by the first meeting of the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Romania, Georgia and Turkmenistan, held in mid-March 2019 in Bucharest.
According to its results, a political declaration was signed. The document reflects the determination of the four states to implement the project of an international freight route between two seas by joint forces.
As expected, the corridor between the two seas will have a real impact on the standard of living in the participating countries and cause a sharp surge in business activity in neighboring regions.
The idea of the project is to make full use of the geographical proximity of Romania, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as well as the capabilities of the ports of Constanta in Romania, Poti in Georgia, Baku in Azerbaijan and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan.
New transport route will allow establishing a direct connection between the port of Constanta and the Danube River, and then the rivers and canals on the European continent, that will open access to Central and Northern Europe.
In general, the Caspian-Black Sea region is becoming links of a single Eurasian transport network.
The main question is how to direct the necessary volumes of cargo along this route, which would make its work profitable and profitable. To meet these challenges, in the near future four countries have planned to create an expert working group, optimize working procedures, harmonize tariffs, identify remaining infrastructure and legal constraints, and jointly promote the project at the international level, including in the course of interaction with the European Union. But it will not be easy for them to achieve all these ambitious goals.
The closest allies of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia, support all the projects aimed at strengthening economic cooperation between Baku and other countries of the Caspian-Black Sea region. Moscow and Ankara are lobbying for the creation of a transport corridor between the two seas.
Azerbaijan once again demonstrates that it is becoming one of the most important transport hubs of Eurasia – a transit hub in which the East and the West are tightly tied.
This country is interested in East and West, not conflicting with each other, but driven forward by the single energy of partnership.
China’s changing interests in South Caucasus
On April25-28,“Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation” took place in the capital city of China. From South Caucasus region only Azerbaijan leader Aliyev was in the list of 36 top-Level attendees (Diplomat, April 27).As the Azerbaijan was participating first forum in 2017 on ministerial level, visit of President in second forum demonstrates intention of both sides for close cooperation within the framework BRI.
Despite fact that China’s strong ambition to enter European market through BRI makes Georgia one of the most important players in the region (it has FTA both with China and EU) its high-level officials did not attend the forum (Emerging-Europe, January 3, 2018).
Generally, South Caucasus region was not in the Chinese focus when the BRI project was unveiled in 2013.Its attitude to the region has changed afterwards. Being part of the Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor, South Caucasus has strategic importance for China. At the same time, transportation projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and Anaklia Deep-Sea Port has increased significance of the region.
From geopolitical point of view stability in Azerbaijan and Georgia’s political problems with Russia creates ground for Chinese presence in Caucasus. It is clear that having political problems with West Russia is not willing to confront China. Therefore, using these opportunities and establishing good relations both with Georgia and Azerbaijan China is able to avoid its biggest rival in Eurasia and use shortest way to European markets (Trend.az, April 10).
Importance of South Caucasus countries within the BRI framework is not same. Armenia has less potential for BRI. It does not have enough transportation infrastructure and its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey closed. Armenia has a potential to become a corridor to markets of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Iran. However, it does not have borders with the members of EEU and railway project between Armenia and Iran is not viable due its high costs ($3.2 billion) and less importance in commercial means (Vestnikkavkaza, August 25, 2018).Also, China has borders with two biggest members of EEU and could easily reach EEU markets through them.
In the case of Georgia, China is the biggest foreign investor. China’s Hualing Group controls Kutaisi free industrial zone (FIZ), owns Basis Bank, hotels, wine export enterprise. It also constructs “Tbilisi Sea New City” near Tbilisi Sea in which company has already invested around 150 million dollars (hualing.ge).Another Chinese company CEFC Energy owns 75% of Poti FIZ (Cbw.ge, March 20).
Unlike the Georgia, mostly state-owned Chinese companies have invested in Azerbaijan. One of these companies CTIEC Group constructed biggest cement factory in Azerbaijan in 2014.China also has a great interest on Baku International Sea Trade Port as it is one of the main ports within BRI. Based on intergovernmental grant agreement China transferred $2 million worth equipment to the port (Azernews, April 4, 2018).
Despite fact that Azerbaijan is China’s key trade partner in the South Caucasus (it accounts 43 percent of China’s trade turnover in the region) it has massive investments in Georgia (Azernews, April 25). It mostly related to political orientation of these countries. Georgia follows more western orientation that made it more attractive for China while Azerbaijan implements balanced strategy and it does not want to feel China’s pressure. Besides, Azerbaijan is not in need of financial assistance like Armenia and Georgia as it has enough financial reserves.
However, recent developments of Sino-Azeri economic relations within the framework of the Second Belt and Road Forum creates new perspectives for China’s presence in South Caucasus. During the forum 10 agreements worth of 821 million USD has been signed (Azvision.az, April 24). These contracts cover different economic spheres of non-oil sector including the construction of a tire factory in the Sumgayit chemical-industrial park, the creation of a 300-hectare greenhouse complex in the Kurdamir region of Azerbaijan, and the construction of agrological industrial parks in the Guba, Goychay and Khachmaz regions (Turan.az April 24).If we take in account that Chinese investors have invested800 million USD in the economy of Azerbaijan since independence, obtained agreements in the forum worth of same amount shows China’s growing interest in Azerbaijan.
Nevertheless, it does not mean that China’s preference of Georgia has changed. Within the BRI project both Azerbaijan and Georgia are of geopolitical importance for China. It is in China’s interest to boost bilateral relations with both of countries. It is apparent that China already has considerable investments in Georgia and now it is time to deepen cooperation with Azerbaijan. At the same time Azerbaijan is not going to cross limits of its balanced policy. Chinese companies that signed agreements in second forum are government affiliated companies as well. It again shows that Azerbaijan is willing to deepen cooperation without creating room for pressure in its domestic economy.
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