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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

Polonia: Poland’s diaspora policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eastern Europe

The US Naval Power & Georgia

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In many ways, Georgia’s sovereignty and slow but gradual integration into the western political and economic systems (NATO and EU) is contingent upon direct US support and power in the region. Therefore, tracking changes in American power and Washington’s vision of its military posture around the globe should be of importance for successive Georgian governments.

The starting point of course is the understanding that the US power in the South Caucasus and the Black Sea overall has always been of relatively limited character in comparison with other regions. This is largely caused by the fact the US is a sea power surrounded by large swathes of water and its reach into the depths of Eurasian continent through the deployment of troops is constrained.

Let us start with simple numbers. The Earth is a relatively modest-sized planet having 25,000 miles in circumference at the Equator, while its total surface area is 197 million square miles. This means that nearly three-quarters of the planet is water. The power controlling the world ocean thus commands numerous economic and military developments across the globe.

Americans know this well, seen in their efforts since the late 19th century to expand naval capabilities. The 20th century was an American century, but this is changing. China and India are building navies, Iranians grow assertive in the Persian Gulf, while the Russians do the same in the Black Sea.

Among them, the Chinese are crucial to watch. Their strategy is more to dilute American power than to engage them outright. This is a clever approach, more like hit and run, and creates uncomfortable conditions for a rival power. Chinese strategists of ancient times give some interesting insight into how the Chinese could be seeing their competition in the modern world.

Pure numbers and power overstretch too is blame. Consider the following fact. In the Cold War the US had to deploy fleets (overall up to 1000 ships) mostly in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. In a striking contrast, nowadays, with up to less than 500 ships, the US need to cover the whole world as the number of competing sea powers has risen, as mentioned above.

Another reason for probable decline of the US naval capacity is globalization. The faster the pace of globalization, the bigger is the need to control every corner of the world as a minor military confrontation in Asia, Europe or the Middle East might transform into a global problem.

The sea power throughout history has proved to be far more long-lasting than any other land power and it actually is the best indicator of a nation’s power.

The US might hope to retain its global dominance also by enlisting allies of similar geopolitical aspirations as its own. But even there, it will rather mean that the US naval power admits its relatively weaker position. Many would call it an elegant decline. Another possibility will be spending more on navy and building new fleets, but their cost is at times as high as the accumulated GDP of tens of African and Asian states.

In many ways, this is what the British officials experienced before World War I. The country has been a primary naval force in the world for almost two centuries (especially in the 19th century), but a gradual rise of the US and German naval fleets was becoming more evident and potentially threatening to the British order at sea.

One of the reactions of the British elite was to negate the trend and claim that their power will be unmatched. It is difficult to admit your relatively declining power.

What does all this mean for Georgia? It relies on the US for its security and it borders on the Black Sea. However, in the long run when the focus of the US grand strategy will more focused on containing China at sea, Washington will be less able to properly address the Russian navy in the Black Sea. As said, there are simply not enough naval resources to hand. The scenario is unfortunate for Tbilisi, particularly at a time when the country is set to build the Anaklia Deep Sea Port.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Why does Ukraine fret so much about Russia’s return to PACE?

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Ukrainian politicians and experts blame PACE’s decision to restore the Russian delegation’s voting rights on President Volodymyr Zelensky and his administration, and also on the leadership of the Council of Europe for allegedly wanting to ensure the resumption of Russia’s annual contribution of 30 million euros to the Council’s budget. They also foul France and Germany for striking a deal with Moscow, which they describe as “a shame not only for Ukraine, but primarily for European values.”

Kiev believes that there is only one right way to go, and that is an anti-Russian, nationalistic, dependent and provocative one, coupled with additional sanctions against Moscow. This stance was rejected by 118 PACE delegates from Azerbaijan, France, Spain, Italy, Norway, Austria, Slovakia, Portugal, Serbia and Turkey, with 62 delegates from Ukraine and Georgia, and the majority of delegates from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia,  Britain and Sweden voting for it, and 10 delegates abstaining.

Simultaneously, Ukrainian politicians and media representatives tried to ignore a statement by their Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who said that the decision to return the Russian delegation to PACE was taken before (!) the presidential elections in Ukraine. He said that this had been brewing for some time, and would have been made regardless of the political situation in the country.

“It is not an issue of a distribution of responsibility, which, by the way, I don’t exempt myself from. It’s not about Poroshenko, Zelensky or somebody else either. This is a common problem, which we should be working together to address. In view of the ongoing election campaign, I fully understand the need for people to go on air and social networks, but it is really a matter of honesty and readiness to face the challenges as they are.”

Well, a surprise sign of political sobriety on Klimkin’s part, and a very inconvenient interpretation of the event for Kiev.

The prominent Ukrainian political analyst Vitaly Portnikov paints a rather gloomy picture of where things could go from now.

“What we are dealing with is a banal political special operation, primarily aimed at the resumption of full-fledged cooperation between the West and the Kremlin. It is by no means coincidental that this special operation was set in motion during the presidential election campaign in Ukraine, because its masterminds were eager to show just how sick and tired the Ukrainians were of the conflict, how much they wanted to “end all this shooting” and  reconcile with Russia. Therefore, the West would subsequently change its tack and help implement popular aspirations so clearly expressed during the Ukrainian elections by making its own compromises with Russia. In the next stage of this special operation, US President Donald Trump would meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Osaka to seal the fate of the post-Soviet countries, agree joint efforts to “deoligarchize” them and create effective institutions there. The next stage would be to discredit Ukraine as a country run by oligarchs using a weak and dependent president and a controlled parliament of rascals to accomplish their goals. This, in turn, would help bring about a regime change in Ukraine, force out the oligarchs and bring to power a Moldova-style coalition working under Moscow’s control and imitating mutual understanding with the West.”

What is interesting here is that Ukrainian experts started talking about such scenarios only after Russia’s return to PACE. It seems that this fact alone proved enough to spoil the mood of Ukrainian politicians and experts, who now paint a grim picture of their country’s future. They are aware of a problem, but they have no idea how to deal with it. Ukraine has no desire to change, even though it understands full well that in its present state it is increasingly losing its appeal to Europe. Given the hysterical state of mind of the country’s political elite, the situation there is very alarming and dangerously fraught with the darkest possible scenario.

With Russia now back in PACE, Ukraine is in a state of shock, dreading the possible lifting of anti-Russian sanctions. Ukrainian ex-President Petro Poroshenko described Russia’s return to PACE as the first step towards lifting the sanctions, “a powerful challenge to Ukraine,” “the first serious diplomatic blow that Ukraine received in the last five years,” and also “a blow to fundamental European values, when a price has been chosen between values and price.” He also vowed to fight the spread of “the virus of forgiveness of Russia for the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbass.” Poroshenko’s statements reflected his relief and hidden joy that Russia’s return to PACE did not happen on his watch, because otherwise a  political defeat at home would have been compounded by a foreign policy debacle.

Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is equally “disappointed” by the Russian delegation’s return to PACE, despite all his efforts to prevent that happening.

“Last week I personally discussed this issue with the President of France and the Federal Chancellor of Germany. I tried to convince Mr. Macron and Mrs. Merkel that the Russian delegation’s return to PACE is possible only after Moscow has met the fundamental requirements put forward by the Parliamentary Assembly. It is a pity that our European partners did not hear us and acted differently.”

The young Ukrainian president was thus taught a lesson in Realpolitik where state interests always come before declarations, ideology or the spirit of the times.

Ukraine may find itself in the “gray zone” of European politics. Kiev can blame this on a compliant Europe or the “cunning Putin.” Or it could adequately assess its own foreign and domestic policy, which threatens to push it back to the very “gray zone” of world and European politics, which Kiev believes it emerged from thanks to the “revolution of dignity.” Later, however, Ukraine took a step back unleashing a civil conflict in the south-east.

The Minsk process and the Normandy format were meant to pull Ukraine out of the “gray zone,” to create the impression of a certain normalcy amid an ongoing civil conflict and the emergence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. A sort of political schizophrenia grown on an anti-Russian soil…

What came as the first blow to Kiev, however, was not Russia’s return to PACE, but rather the fall from power of the Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plakhotnyuk. For Kiev this is something more than just a precedent, it is the specter of a “big deal,” which came about so unexpectedly and translated into an agreement struck by political rivals in Moldova. This is something Kiev fears most, a future where, with Russian gas flows diverted elsewhere, the Ukrainian gas transportation system will turn into a pile of scrap metal, where nationalistic rhetoric will be increasingly criticized in the world and international demands for the implementation of the Minsk accords will likewise increase. 

The situation for Ukraine is very serious indeed: Moscow and Washington can act as one in Moldova, and Europe, interested in joint energy projects and economic relations with Russia, and facing strong US pressure on energy issues (regarding the construction of Nord Stream-2) is looking for ways to normalize relations with Moscow. 

 From our partner International Affairs

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