Authors: Aliyar Azimov and Aynur Azimzade*
South Caucasus has always been a focus of geopolitical competitions for centuries with its geo-strategic location and natural resources. The transportation and energy projects, which implemented in the region, have further increased strategic importance of South Caucasus due to being in the junction West and East in the globalized 21st century. After the dissolution of USSR two major processes occurred: 1) regional cooperation between independent states in terms of common threats and economic-political projects; 2) geopolitical interests and competition among the regional powers (Russia, Iran, Turkey) and the US and the EU.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the three South Caucasus countries found themselves in a new geopolitical vacuum, which resulted in serious events also (territorial conflicts and separatism). On the other hand, this vacuum enabled two of the newly independent South Caucasus countries – Azerbaijan and Georgia – to build and maintain good neighboring relationships, to jointly implement major and strategic regional oil and gas projects (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline) without any intervention of Russia. Until 2008, Russia was a major gas supplier to Georgia. However, the August War in 2008 ended with cut off relations between Russia and Georgia. Starting from 2007, Azerbaijan has steadily been supplying the majority of Georgia’s oil and gas demand, especially after the August War Azerbaijan provided more energy flow by completely meeting its strategic ally’s energy needs.
The development of east-west energy corridor in the South Caucasus allowed Azerbaijan and Georgia to involve in the projects as the main partners and to promote the development of the infrastructure by improving the macro-economic environment and international integration. Turkey also gives support to the international projects in the region and deepening the multilateral relations between Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey also promotes and intra-regional cooperation and diplomatic resolutions of regional problems. This cooperation is the most functional; it is built on interdependence by trade and transportation relations.
Since 1992, political relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia has reached a high level, cooperation in all fields has become more strategic year by year, and neighborship relations are based on the principles of the strong friendship and mutual respect. Because of this, all officials in Georgia have always firstly visited Azerbaijan in their terms.
Why Georgia needs Azerbaijan?
The East-West strategic energy cooperation helped to strengthen the state independence of Georgia and Azerbaijan. The projects, which implemented and proposed to be realized, are the basis of a strong foundation for economic stability and prosperity for both countries, even for South Caucasus. Considering this fact, in 2009 Georgia was not affected by the energy crisis thanks to Azerbaijan and energy contracts for the supply of gas and oil. Georgia is especially interested in energy transportation from Azerbaijan because since the gaining independence Georgia has had a permanent and stable supply of energy which allowed industries to operate smoothly and contributed the economy of Georgia significantly by making it as a transit country.
Azerbaijan also plays a vital role in the transformation of Georgia into the EU and the development of EU-Georgia relations. The lack of stability in the Middle East increases the role of Caspian Basin not only as a significant energy source but also more secure and shortest supply route for both countries as well as for the EU. Azerbaijan-Georgia good neighborhood relations are vital for the EU in the context of east-west energy cooperation. As the EU is more interested in ensuring a reliable flow of energy resources to the Member States and cooperates with Azerbaijan and Georgia, it makes both countries to be a significant player in the projects and economically and politically powerful in the South Caucasus region.
Salome Zourabichvili’s first official visit to Azerbaijan
On 27 February 2019, newly elected Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili made her first official visit to Azerbaijan. It was a signal of Georgian administration’s desire to continue its strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is one of the biggest investors to the Georgian economy and considering large regional projects between both countries, her first official visit to Azerbaijan in the region was not surprising.
In the recent past, there was a tension between Azerbaijan and Georgia due to:
- The monument of an Armenian separatist, who fought against Azerbaijan during the occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory of Azerbaijan by Armenian military, in the Akhalkalaki region of Georgia, where ethnic Armenians live, and the participation of Georgian administration in the opening ceremony of this monument,
- In the response of this event, protest of Baku against the unveiling of a monument to a separatist in Georgia.
For this reason, the Georgian President’s visit to Azerbaijan was of particular importance. The Georgian President knew well that Azerbaijan plays a crucial role in the energy supply and settlement of the problems in the region. At the same time, because its energy sector is dependent on Baku-Supsa, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines and Southern Gas Corridor, Georgia does not want to lose Azerbaijan as a strategic partner. Georgian President’s visit to Azerbaijan also showed that some provocations could not affect the relations between the two countries. Zourabichvili’s speech in Baku once again confirmed that Georgia always stands together with Azerbaijan on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh by stating, “Conflicts and violation of territorial integrity are tragedies for both countries. We still fight together to restore and recognize our territorial integrity in international organizations.” The Armenian media expressed assurance that Zourabichvili would change her statement during her visit to Armenia on March 13-14.However, Georgian President protested visit to Abkhazia and South Ossetia paid by Nagorno-Karabakh separatists by stating “It is very unfortunate when delegations from Nagorno-Karabakh visit Abkhazia and South Ossetia and discuss these two conflicts as of the same type. This is very sad and painful for us. These conflicts impede the development of our region. Georgia has two occupied territories, and if we talk about the country’s interests, then one single concern for us is recognition of our sovereignty in deeds than in words.” After the meeting, the Russian newspaper “Kommersant” mentioned about the Georgian president’s visit in its article by stating, “These statements by President Zurabishvili were not seen in the Georgian post-Soviet history, because Georgia has pursued an impartial policy in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict till now.”
Armenia has tried to position itself as a bridge between Iran and Georgia to transport Iranian energy resources to Europe. However, in 2008, its position in the Russian-Georgian war strained relations between Georgia and Armenia. Armenia was interested in North-South cooperation in order to escape from regional isolation and to revive its economic condition. Nevertheless, newly elected Georgian President’s visit to both countries and her statements declared that relations with Azerbaijan are a high priority for Georgia and for being leading countries in East-West cooperation, Georgia has extensive interests in establishing strong friendship relations.
Azerbaijan and Georgia have been cooperating in several political and economic projects since the early years of independence. Several factors influence the dynamics of the Georgian-Azerbaijani relations in a positive way. Firstly, cooperation in transportation, energy, and economics is interdependent. Georgia’s location makes it more essential for Azerbaijan in terms of to reach European and World markets. On the other hand, Georgia has increased its economic prosperity by participating in regional projects. In 2018, Azerbaijan was a third-largest direct foreign investor (33 million dollars) to the Georgian economy, second in Georgian imports (14.4%) and third in Georgian exports (10.7%).
Another key factor in the Azerbaijani-Georgian relations is that Azerbaijan and Georgia support eachother’s positions on important issues in the international arena. Georgian officials always stress all the official statements that the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which occurred as a result of the occupation of Azerbaijani lands by Armenia, within the framework of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
When it comes to energy cooperation, Azerbaijani oil-gas company SOCAR is the main supplier of gas to Georgia as a reliable energy partner. Despite the gas agreement signed between Georgia and Russia in 2017, SOCAR has a large share in the Georgian energy sector. In 2018, gas transportation volume was 2.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Georgia. High dependence on Azerbaijani gas arose the concerns about national security, but in fact, Azerbaijan never used energy shipments as a political pressure tool. Even Azerbaijan have supplied more energy to Georgia in order to resolve energy shortages during difficult times.
S. Zourabichvili’s recent visit to Baku declared that Georgia does not want to lose its strategic ally. Because political and economic support by Azerbaijan is essential for Georgia in terms of its integration to the West. Also, because of Georgia plays a transit role between Azerbaijan and the West in the field of transportation and energy, losing this position is unacceptable for the Georgian administration.
*Aynur Azimzade is research fellow at the Institute of Caucasus studies of Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences
Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers
Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv. In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.
The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.
Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.
It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.
They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!
Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?
The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.
A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.
One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.
The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.
Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.
First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.
Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.
Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.
Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.
The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.
The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.
Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.
But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.
The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.
Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.
Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.
This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank
Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia
Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.
On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.
But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”
For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.
The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.
In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.
That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.
A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.
It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.
Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.
One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.
It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.
Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.
The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.
To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.
Author’s note: first published at cepa
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