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Moldova: Time to Overwrite the Mind Traps

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Image By Andrez1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39746488

Moldova is usually assigned the title of the poorest country in Europe mired in financial and corruption scandals. The ’frozen’ Transnistrian conflict is said to further divide the country between chimeric pro-Russian and pro-Western camps. Oligarchs are blamed for having captured the state and preventing democracy to flourish; and so goes on the litany of reputational prejudices about Moldova.

Although these clichés hold some water, they have generated mind traps and have prevented any alternative reading of Moldova. Caught in a thug of war between Brussels and Moscow, Europe has three options on how to approach Moldova: oppose Moscow on Moldovan territory; scale back its engagement; or honour its commitment to strengthen the rule of law and deepen economic cooperation with Chisinau. The last option requires the political maturity to accept that Chisinau can be a partner of both Brussels and Moscow.

The Bright Side of Scandals

Moldova made headlines in 2014 when the banking sector was defrauded of one billion dollars. Courtesy of the testimony of one oligarch, Ilan Shor, who himself has been convicted of involvement in the fraud, the former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was convicted and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. Despite his own conviction, Ilan Shoris now the mayor of the small town of Orhei, heads the Shor party and recently won a seat in the parliament. For many, this was a typical “à la moldave” scenario where most of the thieves got off scot-free whilst only one sits behind bars. Taken from another angle, even though Ilan Shor has been granted some form of witness protection and has escaped punishment himself, at least some part of the truth has been divulged and justice has been partly served. Following Shor’s revelations about the scandal, people took the streets and a citizen movement emerged under the name of Dignity and Truth, now a political party headed by politician Andrei Nastase.

The one-billion theft has understandably attracted a lot of public attention, as did the role of Moldova in the Russian Laundromat, a scheme that laundered tens of USD billions from Russia between 2010 and 2014, involving over one hundred countries. Following these two scandals, Moldova launched a large package of reforms of its banking and judiciary systems, and put in place a National Integrity and Anti-Corruption Strategy for 2017-2020. These improvements have not gone unnoticed: the World Bank extolled the efforts of the National Bank of Moldova and the country’s economic progress, which should boost investors’ trust. Furthermore, criminal activities, such as smuggling, have been curtailed thanks to international cooperation, but the grey zone of Transnistria remains a thorn in Moldovan development.

Transnistria – A Peaceful Frozen Conflict

The active phase of the short 1992conflict lasted four months and left a thousand people dead. Due to the prolonged absence of military engagement, the situation was branded as a frozen conflict – thisvague concept was coined to qualify the blurry simmering situations of violence that followedthe several wars in various post soviet republics. As time passed, the term conflict has become redundant in the context of Transnistria; not much is frozen: population travels freely, students from Transnistria study in Chisinau and Transnistrians voted for the first time in the most recent February elections. There is a need to rethink our reading of this so called frozen conflict in Transnistria – violence is unlikely to resume between Tiraspol and Chisinau as long as escalating tensions between Moscow and Brussels do not boil over.

Former Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Osmochescu, asserts that the settlement was on right track with the 1992 Settlement Agreement, although he questions the decision to include Transnistrian representatives in the joint commission as it eventually gave Russia – allied with Tiraspol – the upper hand. The former diplomat is convinced that settlement dialogue should only include Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, excluding Tiraspol authorities that continue to insist on international recognition as a state. It is highly unlikely that European countries will recognize Transnistria owing to the fact that the EU Council has adopted restriction measures against the leadership of Transnistria for stalling progress of the political settlement.

Thecurrent process is a 5+2 settlement format, named after its composition including 5 negotiators (Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, Moldova and Transnistria) + 2 observers (EU and US). Unfortunately it has not yielded any meaningful results with the tensions between Russia and the West increasingly running counter-productive to the intent of the mechanism. During the recent conference on Transnistria, Russian academic Natalia Kharitonova underlined the unprecedented situation whereby relations between the external participants to the settlement process are far worse than between the parties to the conflict.

Today, some observers claim that a new conflict is poised because of Russian troops’ presence in Transnistria and in 2018 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution introduced by Moldova on the withdrawal of foreign troops, specifically targeting Russian troop and armament presence. These elements demonstrate that Transnistria is being utilised by both the West and Russia in pursuit of their own strategic objectives and, arguably, Transnistria is more an international affair than an internal one.

An Unhelpful International Involvement

For decades the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria has been a major concern for NATO, which has been amplified by the situation in Ukraine; and in its efforts to counter Russia, NATO opened an Information Office in Chisinau in December 2017. In view of the militarisation of the region and the recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF),the NATO-Russia confrontation directly affects Moldovan sovereignty and security. The Foreign Policy Advisor to the President, Mr Ciocoi, acknowledged that his country is trapped between a rock and a hard place:‘as a constitutionally neutral country, we are not pleased with the presence of Russian troops or NATO on our soil. It is a legacy of the past and a consequence of today’s geopolitical realities. We have to deal with it.’

With most international efforts focusing on security issues and more recently on the fight against so-called Russian propaganda, little effort has been comparatively made to promote sustainable economic development and the rule of law in Moldova. Moldovans’ daily concern is about making ends meet and employment, whilst Brussels and Moscow use the carrot and stick approach to promote their policies. Using economic incentives and sanctions, Brussels and Moscow are forcing Chisinau to choose between the West and the East. This dilemma is leading nowhere as Moldova is both West and East with the country depending on Russia for its energy and the EU market to export its goods. No reasonable politician or businessman in Moldova today embraces a west or east approach, but all favour a mixed approach. It is thus misleading to label President Dodon as a pro-Russian or the tycoon Plahotniuc as a pro-Western.

Blame it on the Rich

An oligarch turned politician, Vlad Plahotniuc presides over the Democratic Party, which won 30 seats at the recent parliamentary elections. Often described as the puppet-master who captured the state, most people blame him for all wrongs in the country and believe that he pulls the strings of the country including the judiciary system.

In a recent discussion with Vitali Garmurari, the Spokesperson for the Democratic Party said that the accusations against Vlad Plahotniuc need to be substantiated. Only a court can rule over the guilt of a person and so far, Mr Plahotniuc has not been sentenced, he added. Recently, Interpol rejected the request of Russia to place Mr Plahotniuc on their wanted list for alleged involvement in the attempt on the life of German Goruntsov, a Russian banker. For Vlad Plahotniuc’s detractors, the absence of condemnation is not a proof of his innocence but evidence of his control over the judiciary.

In Moldova and abroad, rumours flourish about this man who has unquestionable power thanks to his key role in the energy sector. As a veteran in the oil and gas business, he has forged strong connections in the US, who are obsessed with replacing Russia as the leading gas exporter to Europe. The situation though is not as straightforward as it seems. Moldova relies completely on Transnistria for its energy and the region acts as a small hub for Russian gas to the Balkans. Moldovagaz – a joint venture between the Ministry of Industry of Transnistria, the Moldova Government and the Russian giant Gazprom – has the monopoly over gas transactions. One of the issues is that Moldova has committed to the European Third Energy Package that calls for the unbundling and opening of the energy market. As part of its commitment Moldova must strip Moldovagaz of its privileged position and, given the complexities at play, Chisinau was granted an exceptional delay until 1 January 2020. This European requirement corners Moldova as the country is totally dependent on Russian gas and Gazprom holds 50% of Moldovagaz shares and, de facto, the 13% nominally held by Transnistria. The situation gets even more complicated as the contract between Gazprom and Moldovgaz are valid until the end of 2019and Moldova does not have a meaningful gas alternative in place. Mr Plahotniuc understands perfectly the gains to be by playing Russian, the US and European against each other in the energy sector. In 2017,his close ally Vasile Botnari was appointed as the new head of Moldovagaz.

The ruthless energy competition between Russia and the United States for the European market is driving their political and security agendas. The year 2019 will be pivotal in the Moldovan energy market and, as this deadline approaches, the manoeuvrings of those invested parties both within Moldova and externally will be a riveting game to observe.

An Oligarchy on the Way to Democracy?

In the meantime, the Moldovan constitutional court has validated the result of the 24 February elections and Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party has emerged as the party with second largest number of seats. Alongside the Democratic Party with 30 out of 101 seats, the Socialists gained 35 seats, the ACUM group gained 26 and the remaining 10 seats were shared between the Shor party and independents.

One of the features of the Moldovan political landscape is the fact that oligarchs head several parties: Vlad Plahotniuc heads the Democrats, Ilan Shor has his eponymous party and Renato Usatii is the president of Our Party. According to popular narratives, oligarchs are involved in politics to further their own profit and wealth; however their involvement does not necessarily pose a barrier to democracy. Commenting on the recent elections and the political landscape, Professor Osmochescu sees the emergence of these parties as a genuine mirror of the diverse opinions held by the population. Looking back at the political developments over the past thirty years, Professor Osmochescu recalls the evolution from an early enthusiasm with plethora of parties, the uncertainties around the future and the disillusion with both Russia and Europe. Today, he is hopeful that the leading parties will observe democratic principles and contribute to a new political paradigm.

The OSCE statement on the recent elections echoes the same opinion: although violations were recorded, fundamental rights have been generally respected, says the preliminary report. Taken as a whole, Moldova is transitioning and some are definitely looking at the cup half full rather than focusing on shortcomings.

It’s All About the Money

Conflict specialist Iulia Cozenco has worked on various projects in Transnistria over the past decade and today she has one message: efforts should be directed towards social inclusion, and not only in Transnistria. Due to all the challenges Moldova has gone through over the past three decades, the population has become increasingly vulnerable and the country lacks a social protection system capable of responding to all the problems. She concludes that international assistance should be directed at broader social inclusion and protection initiatives rather than narrow Tiraspol-Chisinau confidence-building projects.

Commenting on the situation in Transnistria, Dumitru Budianschi, an economist at the Moldovan ExpertGrup,has observed that, the lack of a political settlement between Tiraspol and Chisinau does not prevent economics agreements from forging on. These agreements cover energy and mobile communications, however Mr Budianschi has raised the concern that these agreements lack transparency and have been extremely profitable to a select few people on both sides of the river. Unsurprisingly, the lack of settlement is perversely convenient for such shady deals. According to Mr Budianschi, the international policy of small steps in Transnistria will not pay off and a crackdown on the criminal activities in the region is needed in order to give any settlement a chance of succeeding. The growing trade with Europe, Moldova’s first export partner, is a positive development that can no longer accommodate the black holes around Transnistria.

International involvement in Moldova is both a part of the problem and the solution. Should involvement take the shape of interference advancing eastern or western interests, it will only serve to polarise and destabilise Moldova and will ultimately backlash on European security. Disengagement would be equally damaging as Moldova today relies on both Brussels and Moscow and wishes to maintain relations with both partners. At this point in time, Chisinau needs international cooperation with Moscow and Brussels to assert itself as a solid partner to both the West and the East.

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What stands behind escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

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Thousand Azerbaijanis are launching peaceful protests and marches around the world to support Azerbaijan’s position demanding a justice for this country which is suffering for over 25 years from the illegal occupation of its internationally recognised territory by Armenia, which was clearly acknowledged by four UN Security Council resolutions (822, 853, 874 and 884). Azerbaijan still has the largest number (1 mln.) of refugees and IDPs in Europe as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

During the peaceful protests of Azerbaijanis around the world we are witnessing a high level of violence and aggression by the Armenians against Azerbaijanis and even Azerbaijani diplomatic missions in certain cities such as Brussels, Amsterdam and Los Angeles. In some cases, the inaction of the law enforcement agencies in Belgium, the Netherlands and US, which admitted such attacks on the Azerbaijani diplomatic missions in these countries is deeply disappointing.  Obviously, the individual cases of such violence against Azerbaijanis abroad fall under the jurisdiction of the states where those crimes took place. Any inactivity or failure to do so by the local law enforcement agencies to investigate and bring to the responsibility of those criminals, would potentially give the Azerbaijani State a right to bring Belgium, the Netherlands or US to the responsibility under the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Under international law the territory of diplomatic and consular missions is considered as a territory of that state and they enjoy full diplomatic immunity.  Article 22 (2) of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations clearly provides that “The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity”. It should be noted that all of these countries, along with Azerbaijan joined the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This gives Azerbaijan the right to bring these states to international responsibility for non-compliance with the requirements of the Vienna Convention. In the 1980 United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran (United States of America v. Iran) case, the International Court of Justice clearly defined that that the immunity and protection of the diplomatic mission is the responsibility of the host and it is responsible for ensuring such full security.

Earlier this month and at the time of global war with COVID-19 pandemic, starting from 12 July 2020 we were witnessing a tragic escalation of the conflict between the two former Soviet republics.  Both countries have faced serious challenges and the negative coronavirus statistics is pretty stable for some months now.  Recently, the Armenian regular armed forces attacked Azerbaijani border territory in Tovuz region. Although the two countries have an unresolved conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan for decades, and Armenia still illegally occupies 20% of the Azerbaijani territory, at this time the clash provoked by Armenia takes place at Azerbaijani-Armenian border. Quite unusual, since for all these years any escalations between the rivals took place only in and around of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The latest events in the Tovuz region of the Republic of Azerbaijan can and should be qualified as military aggression against Azerbaijan. This is nothing more than a violation of the fundamental principles of international law enshrined in the UN Charter such as the principle of the non-use of force and the threat of force, the principle of inviolability of state frontiers, the principle of the territorial integrity of states and the principle of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is also necessary to recall the numerous conventions and regional agreements to which Armenia has joined within the framework of the Council of Europe, OSCE and other international organisations.

An attack on Azerbaijani border force positions in Tovuz is nothing more than an act of aggression against Azerbaijan. In this case, reference should be made to the position of the International Court of Justice in the Nicaragua v. United States of America (1986) (Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua case, where the Court expressly determined that military action of regular armed forces of one state in relation to the international borders of another state is an armed attack and aggression. Under international law the attack by the regular Armenian military forces on the border force positions of Azerbaijan in the Tovuz region shall be precisely qualified as an act of aggression against Azerbaijan.

To certain degree it could be argued that the Government of the Armenian Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan decided to distract attention from the disastrous outcome of COVID-19 pandemic and deepening economic crisis, and justify his personal failure by playing with patriotic feelings of the Armenian people.  However, a bigger picture of certain attempts of economic sabotage of major economic projects affecting the European energy security are seen in the background.

Tovuz is a critical geographical hub for Azerbaijan and transportation arteria for its hydrocarbons export to Europe through Georgia and Turkey. The three Azerbaijani strategic energy pipelines Baku-Supsa, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum were launched under the patronage of the West. All three pipelines pass through Tovuz region.  The importance of such oil and gas supply for Europe as a part of the latter’s supply diversification strategy contributing in reducing the energy dependence from Russia is undeniable.  Tovuz also lies within the new Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway link connecting pro-western Georgia and Azerbaijan with Europe through Turkey. 

Why now? Perhaps it is a part of the general strategy that there is no more reliable supply for Europe other than the Russian Nord Stream 2. Discrediting Azerbaijan as a reliable energy supplier due to the military clashes with Armenia is a strong argument to assert.

Armenia’s third-party orchestrated attempts to attack Azerbaijan is not just a threat to the regional peace and stability, but also to the Europe’s energy security.  We are currently witnessing a passive reaction from the West who has substantial economic interests in Azerbaijan and in the said energy projects.  Such position could contribute into further escalation and development of a scenario favourable to third parties having their own agenda for this region.

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The political inertia of the EU in the South Caucasus becoming a serious problem for the West

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The geopolitical panorama  in the South Caucasus, which has strategic importance for Europe, has changed dramatically in recent years. Different development indicators of the countries in the region, as well as innovations in the Caucasus policy of foreign states and organizations now create a new situation here.

Processes show that Azerbaijan and Georgia are again the main countries interested in integration into the Euro-Atlantic space. On the other hand, in the current situation, Azerbaijan’s importance and role in Europe’s energy supply and security is growing. Official Baku is interested in establishing closer relations with the European Union in the economic, political and juridical spheres.

At present, Azerbaijan is a decisive country in the South Caucasus, and 75% of the region’s GDP is formed in Azerbaijan. Transnational projects implemented by the country in partnership with Western countries show that Azerbaijan’s economic position will continue to grow. This point is becoming increasingly important for geopolitical players in the region to cooperate with Azerbaijan.

The European Union is an interested party in the development of relations with Azerbaijan also.  But this is more about economic relations.  However, the geopolitical role of the South Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, is unique in terms of its potential and geostrategic position. This region plays an important role both as an energy source and in the transportation of Caspian energy resources to Europe in general. The location between  of the Caspian and Black Seas, Russia, Iran and Turkey turns the South Caucasus region into an East-West and North-South corridor.  This factor shows that the Caspian region, especially the South Caucasus, has an important position on the geopolitical map of the world. However, the European Union is not as active in the South Caucasus as a geopolitical actor. This is one of the main factors making Russia as major geopolitical player in the region. This situation ultimately causes the Kremlin to treat Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia at different levels and in different statuses.  The countries of the region, with the exception of Armenia, have to take into account Russia’s position. The tradition of the Armenian authorities to act on instructions from Russia has not changed.

Currently, Azerbaijan and Georgia are trying to prevent Russia from acting as an outpost against them. On this purpose they hope to cooperation with the West, including the European Union. But to achieve this, they need the economic and political support of Europe and the United States.  That is, economic cooperation alone is not enough. It should be noted that the demand for oil and gas is growing not only in the West, but also in the rapidly developing countries of Asia. The Caspian Sea basin, comparable to the hydrocarbon reserves of Kuwait, Mexico and the North Sea, makes the Central Asian energy resource region a vital interest zone for the superpowers. The safe flow of this energy to the West depends on stability in the South Caucasus. Stability here lies in resolving existing conflicts in the region, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Because Russia, which wants to keep Europe in an energy monopoly, maintains its influence in the region through these conflicts. By taking an active part in resolving them, Europe can become a key player in a strategically important region and successfully secure its geoeconomic interests.

While Azerbaijan is the gateway to the region, Armenia, which remains under Russian influence, plays a divisive role in the policy pursued by the Western world to ensure its strategic interests in the South Caucasus. By maintaining Russian military bases in Armenia and relying on Russia’s political support, official Yerevan does not give up its policy of aggression and baseless territorial claims. These factors play a role in reviving the modern political landscape of the South Caucasus region.

The current geopolitical reality is that there is no unique security system in the Caucasus. First of all, the presence of conflicts in the South Caucasus, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in which Azerbaijan unjustly involved is a major obstacle to Caucasus regional security system. The security of Azerbaijan is very important for the security of the whole region. It is a stable and secure system for delivering the region’s energy resources to world markets. Participation in global economic projects can be attributed to Azerbaijan as one of the leading countries in the region. But Azerbaijan still does not receive any important support from the Western world.

Another point here is the European Union, the United States, which initiated the creation of a security system in the region, but despite concrete proposals and models, did not take serious steps in this direction. However, Azerbaijan is a favorable place for them both from a geostrategic and geopolitical point of view. Transnational projects in the South Caucasus are being implemented with the main participation of Azerbaijan. Along with the regional projects implemented so far, Azerbaijan is considered to be a country with sufficient potential and transit opportunities in the implementation of new transnational projects in the coming period. The irreplaceability of Azerbaijan is not only due to the fact its energy producer, but also as an energy transit corridor that transports the oil, gas products of the Central Asian republics to Europe as a transit country. So, by helping to ensure the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, the West would also guarantee its security.But they are still not politically active in the region.

During the new military clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in July of this year, Western countries did not take an active part in the subsequent course of events in the region. Instead, Russia is again active in the South Caucasus in terms of both the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and other political processes. Such situation is a serious obstacle to accelerating the integration of countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia into the Euro-Atlantic space. This is also unacceptable in the interests of Europe and the United States. Now it is important for the European Union, which is close to the region, to be more active in the South Caucasus, to contribute in settlement of conflicts, and for this there is a need for active political steps. Otherwise, the European Union will continue to lag behind Russia.

It should be noted that the European Union peacekeeping mission is very important, first of all, to accelerate the process of European integration. The European Union has great experience as both a conflict mediator and a participant in diplomatic negotiations. Over the past 20 years, the European Union has participated in about 30 peacekeeping operations. Its activities are regulated by the European Security Strategy, the Amsterdam Agreement, the Petersberg and Helsinki Declarations. Thus, the European Union has shown that it is one of the main centers of power in the settlement of regional conflicts and ensuring European and international security. In this case, the organization can have a stronger geopolitical position in the South Caucasus by playing an active role in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and helping to restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. The formation of a security system at the regional level and the expansion of multilateral relations with the European Union are of particular importance for Azerbaijan. It just needs to be European active role not only economically but also politically field  in the region. Otherwise, European Union will continue to lose geopolitically to Russia and, in the long run, to China in the region.

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The long-term threat of Armenian nationalism

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According to the paradigm of realpolitik, states have no permanent friends or enemies- only interests can be permanent. This thought has been dominant in the foreign policy-making of the last centuries and, though subject to various mutations, has in general remained a dominant principle of international relations. However, there have been, and there still are, some exceptions. And one of the most persistent and seemingly counter-intuitive cases thereof remains the foreign policy of Armenia, a small landlocked post-Soviet republic in South Caucasus. The week of furious skirmishes along the border with Azerbaijan, that started on July 12, and subsequent tensions arising between Azerbaijani and Armenian communities in various countries of the world, have reminded the world about the destructive potential of this special case and at the same time invite us to think why this conflict has become so intractable and thoroughly outgrown its initial causes and interests.

To begin with, let’s remember the beginnings of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which started to unfold in 1988, three years before the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. The demands of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians (constituting around 75% of the population of this area, which had a status of an autonomous region- “oblast” within the Azerbaijani SSR) for “reunification” (or “miatsum” in Armenian) with the mother-Armenia, were the trigger. The movement defined itself through the discourse of a national awakening and revival, and posed as an inalienable part of the process of democratization which was then beginning in Armenia, along with Azerbaijan and some other Soviet republics. Let’s for now remember this point- it is really important.

The “Karabakh committee”, as the leaders of the secession movement called themselves, of course put forward standard accusations of the violations of Armenians’ cultural rights in Azerbaijan. However, these accusations were, mildly speaking, ill-grounded, as the recently released documentary “Parts of a circle” may attest: the worst oppression cited by the region’s Armenians were the occassional inaccessibility of the TV and radio broadcasts from the Armenian SSR. Other than that, Nagorno-Karabakh had its high school education predominantly in Armenian, hosted an Armenian pedagogical college and a theatre. Moreover, Armenians constituted a significant and influential share of the population of Azerbaijan outside Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly in the country’s biggest cities- Baku, Ganja and Sumgayit, and were widely represented in the republic’s social and cultural elite. Up until now, you cannot find any document-based, hard evidence of systematic violations of the cultural autonomy enjoyed by the Armenian majority of the Oblast’. So, we cannot understand the motives of the Karabakh movement unless we put it into the context of the much wider, global revival of extreme form of nationalism among Armenians of the world.

In 1973, Kurken Oghanian, an elderly Armenian living in California and a refugee from the 1915 events in the Ottoman Empire, assassinated two LA-based Turkish diplomats, declaring revenge for the alleged genocide as the motive of his crime. This murder inspired a group of Armenian nationalists who in 1975 founded a group called ASALA (Armenian Secret Army of the Liberation of Armenia), whose goal was defined as forcing Turkey to recognize the 1915 events as genocide and make Ankara not only pay generous compensations to the Armenian victims and their families, but also to cede territories (!) of the Eastern Turkey, which, according to the never-ratified colonial Sevres treaty were supposed to become the homeland of would-be Armenian state. To achieve these goals, ASALA unfolded a campaign of full-fledged terror against Turkish diplomats, killing 46 of them in the period until 1990. After the particularly vicious attack at the Orly Airport in France, the group was recognized as terrorist by most major countries of the world, including U.S.

At the same time, nationalistic attitudes were slowly brewing among the Soviet Armenians, back then very loosely connected with the Diaspora. Since 1965, when the 50-year anniversary of the “genocide” was for the first time openly commemorated in Yerevan, these events started to be held every year on April 24, and in 1967 a massive memorial was unveiled at the site of the Tsitsernakaberd Hill, quickly becoming the symbol of Armenians’ anti-Turkish sentiment. The Soviet government tolerated these expressions of nationalism, which were in general all but prohibited by the official ideology of “friendship of peoples” partly because Ankara was considered a dangerous geopolitical adversary of the Soviets and a puppet of “American imperialism”. However, this produced shocking repercussions, when on January 8, 1977 three explosions took place in Moscow (including one at the underground station), claiming the lives of 7 people. Later that year, three Armenian nationalists were found guilty of these terror acts, the first ever to happen in the USSR. The court concluded them to be an isolated group, though claims about their links with ASALA, which was in the process of creation back then, were subsequently made.

Hence, the 1980’s witnessed the rise in exclusive Armenian nationalism driven by ressentiment and a sense of pending revenge against the Turks. The Karabakh movement, though it succeeded in portraying itself as the vanguard of the Soviet-wide wave of democratization, was heavily imbued with this ideology, which equated Azerbaijanis, ethnically close to the Turkish people, to perilous “Turks” considered perennial enemies of Armenia. That’s why the initially peaceful protests gave way to an interethnic strife in a matter of months, and in 1988 most Azerbaijanis (around 170,000 people back then) were expelled from Armenia by force.

As the both republics became independent in 1991, Karabakh started to attract “fidains”- mercenaries who had their training at the ASALA camps in the Middle East, many of whom participated in the acts of terror and served prison terms for that. The most famous of them, Monte Melkonyan from California, who was among the organisers of the Orly attack, is now a much-revered national hero in Armenia. The arrival of these people with their fierce anti-Turkic stance, brought the primordial discourse of “much-oppressed ancient nation”, “Armenia from the Caspian to the Mediterranean”, to the fore. Presence of the “fidains” significantly increased the intensity of atrocities, the most vicious of which happened in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly where on the night of 26 February 1992 613 unarmed people (including children and the elderly) were slaughtered. And although the negotiation process conducted by the Azerbaijani and Armenian governments, served to bring the conflict to the international level as a “classic” interstate one, it never lost, at least for the Armenian side, its zero-sum “either we or you” character. The words uttered by former Armenian President Kocharyan, who used to be the leader of Karabakh Armenians during the war, in an interview to the British researcher Tom de Waal, that “Armenians and Azerbaijanis are genetically incompatible”, sound as something from the racist playbook. Yet this black-and-white vision of the Armenian history and interests reflect the dominant, if not usually articulated, thinking which among others defines Armenian foreign policies as well.

The major feature of the Armenian strategy ever since its independence- the reluctant but inevitable affiliation with Russian interests- is one example. The Armenian democratic movement perceived Moscow as no friend as well. However, as the conflict intensified and Turkey in 1993 ultimately closed borders with Armenia, Yerevan had no other choice but to fully embrace Russia as security guarantor. Ultimately, the presence of the Russian military base in Gyumri as well as the frequent engagement of former Soviet army units in hostilities on the Armenian side, were among the major factors behind the ultimate Armenian victory. Later on, as the idea of preserving the “security” of the Nagorno-Karabakh (which proclaimed itself an independent republic, not yet recognized by any sovereign state), and the seven adjacent districts occupied by Armenian forces, got entrenched in both the national state of mind and political strategy, any attempts to re-orient Armenia towards Western integration would fail against the need to preserve Russia’s exclusive leverage in the country in exchange for its security guarantees. The failure of the “compliant Armenia” strategy preached by the first President Ter-Petrosyan, encapsulated this permanent deadlock of the Armenian foreign policy. This strategy envisaged gradual shift of Yerevan towards the Western-centered global institutions, including NATO and EU, and distancing from militant exclusive nationalism that characterized Armenia’s attitude towards Azerbaijan and Turkey. Ter-Petrosyan supported the maximally quick return of the 7 occupied regions (the “buffer zone” in the parlance of Karabakh separatists) to Baku and even reportedly contemplated an option of the “single state” for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. Such prospects were rejected by the majority of Armenians, and the President had to resign in 1998, being replaced by the war hero Kocharyan, who quickly turned to considerably more nationalist rhetoric.

Another exemplary U-turn happened in 2013, when the Sargsyan government, preparing the association agreement with the EU, refused from signing it in the most unexpected manner days before the planned agreement date and a few days later joined the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The evidence indicates that this decision was obtained by Moscow through pressing hard on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, pivotal for Armenian politics. The newest case is the current president Pashinyan, who swept to power with the agenda of a more transparent and reforming Armenia and prioritized improving ties with the West. In the first year of his presidency Pashinyan did a lot to relieve the tensions with Azerbaijan, making 2019 the calmest year on the frontline in at least a decade. However, domestic pressure exerted by nationalists, who manipulated public opinion into believing that the President prepares a “treason” on Karabakh, and growing bitterness with Moscow, triggered Pashinyan to gradually adopt the traditional intransigent mode, and the latest escalation has been the logical outcome of the mounting tensions. In the aftermath of the July hostilities, he made a number of unprecedentedly pro-Russian statements, reassuring Moscow that Yerevan will remain its firm ally. At the same time, the officials and expert community in Armenia are again pushing the idea that only Russian umbrella can save their country from the destruction by “enemy Turks”. However, violence against peaceful Azerbaijani protesters in Los Angeles, Brussels or London, as well as rioting in Moscow, came as a shock and was the first time the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict really spilled over the territory of third countries and involved thousands of people with no direct links to the armed forces or politics. Given that the Armenian leadership never bothered to denounce such behavior by their ethnic kin, it must be concluded that the conflict in the eyes of most Armenians, despite of their appellations to international law and the language of realpolitik, is clearly an ethnic one which justifies war by all means. Among the Armenians who came on the streets of Western cities to confront the Azerbaijani crowds, were scattered people bearing the insignia of “ASALA” on their t-shirts, which also indicates the merging of Azerbaijanis and Turks in the radical-nationalist perception.

However, the most dramatic consequence of the intransigent, zero-sum policy of Armenia are the numerous wasted opportunities for the dynamic development of the whole region. Even in the 1990’s, when all the three countries of South Caucasus experienced the economic collapse of more or less similar magnitude, Armenian President Ter-Petrosyan warned about long-term adverse outcomes of the uncompromised attitude to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue for the country’s economic development. Since then, Armenia found itself isolated from the major infrastructural projects of regional significance, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Jeyhan oil pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, as well as many more international initiatives promoted by the Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan triangle. The absence of the border with Russia, together with economic problems Moscow is experiencing since 2014, mean that this partnership is not nearly as lucrative for Yerevan as the hypothetical collaboration with the direct neighbours could have been, and in fact the only serious boon from it is Yerevan’s ability to obtain Russian weapons for lower-than-market prices from time to time- which only strengthens “the party of war” and perpetuates the mentality of a besieged fortress. The resulting dependence on communications with Iran puts severe limits on Armenia’s attempts to deepen cooperation with the West. As a result, in the last 15 years Armenia’s GDP per capita consistently lagged behind Azerbaijan, for some years even falling to the half its level, and in the recent years has also been considerably lower than the respective figure for Georgia. Moreover, Armenian economy, compared to Azerbaijan and Georgian ones, is much more dependent on the inflow of investment from rather limited sources (particularly the Armenian diaspora), which makes it more vulnerable to various shocks and further constrains the range of available policy options, as diaspora money is usually linked with Armenia’s uncompromised and vigorous promotion of the issues of genocide recognition and Nagorno-Karabakh “independence”.The vicious circle of stagnant economy and bellicose rhetoric serves to reward the politicians most radical on Nagorno-Karabakh, since its “defense” from Azerbaijan becomes the only success that can justify the government’s performance.

At the same time, Armenian policies have put significant obstacles to the whole region as well. Amid the growing weariness from the enormous Russian influence, the continuing presence of Russia’s 302ndmilitary base in Gyumri can now be justified only by the guarantee of the status-quo it provides for Yerevan. Unsurprisingly, after initial irritation at the CSTO and Moscow who didn’t rush to interfere into the border skirmishes with Azerbaijan, President Pashinyan had to change his stance and recognize the strategic importance of security partnership with Russia- a victory for Moscow but another blow to the sustainable peace in South Caucasus. The lack of such peace and the constant, if often understated threat of a new escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan causes skeptical assessment of the strategic importance and potential of the whole region in the West, which throughout his last decade has considerably diminished its presence here; since Obama’s presidency, South Caucasus has been downgraded in the list of U.S’s foreign policy priorities. The constant threat of war in South Caucasus was very clear to the whole world in the aftermath of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, but the fact that Armenia is, unlike Russia, a small, economically backward state has blinded many analysts from fully recognizing its destructive role and put the Karabakh conflict to the back row, relative to the conflicts in Abkhazia and Ossetia. Yerevan’s rejection of compromises and desperate attachment to the Russian security umbrella made a long-term time bomb from Nagorno-Karabakh. The fact that many Armenians abroad perceive Azerbaijani embassies and peaceful rallies as a target, attests to the flawed thinking which perpetuates Armenia’s conflict with “Turks”. At the same time, it made as clear as never before that it would be in the best interest of the international community to return, after many years, to a pro-active role, and take a harsh stance against war-mongering and ethnic radicalism in South Caucasus. It must be finally made clear that Yerevan cannot pretend to be a flagship of democracy in the region and continue its occupation, preaching the ideas of militant primordial nationalism and disregard for international law.

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