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Ukraine crisis through the prism of Armenian political discourse

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Armenia’s perplexing decision to side with  Russia on the Crimean and broader Ukrainian crisis – related issues has subjected the country to public and political backlash in Ukraine and beyond. Notably, pro-Russian narratives have been a salient feature of Armenian political discourse during the Ukrainian crisis.  This reached a point, where the Armenian leadership hailed the annexation of Crimea as a model exercise of the right to self-determination. Yet, the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” engendered a glimmer of hope that along with other changes, the new Armenian government may revise its unequivocal support for Russia’s controversial foreign policy choices and actions.  This provokes an inquiry into dominant narratives about the Ukrainian crisis in Armenian political discourse.

 Essentially, the escalation of Ukrainian crisis has reinforced Armenian political  leadership’s fears about the possible resumption of “Cold War” with ensuing consequences for small and war-torn Armenia. Former president Sargsyan even invoked the Ukrainian crisis  as a justification for Armenia’s decision to join the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). By confirming its allegiance to Russia, Armenia would avoid angering the Kremlin and prompting into taking punitive measures against its possible “disobedience.” A closer look at Armenian discourse, shows a tendency to treat Ukraine’s “outright defiance” for Russia’s strategic interests as  the core rationale behind the devastating crisis. No wonder, the Armenian leadership would condemn  the EU’s “recklessness”  and  ‘interference’ in the sphere of Russia’s privileged interests, which  inevitably  fuelled instability in the EU-Russia volatile neighbourhood. Sargsyan even attributed the setbacks of the EU-backed Eastern Partnership to its anti-Russian nature. It follows that by joining the EAEU, Armenia did not support the EU’s destabilizing policy and thus refrained from adding fuel to the fire. 

Another major fear is that the escalating Russia-USA confrontation over the Ukrainian crisis would adversely affect the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement.  Both USA and Russia are the permanent Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. While their relations get steadily deteriorated, there is not much to ensure their all-out involvement in moving the needle on long-standing Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Rather, by putting all their weight behind the Ukrainian issue, both Washington and Moscow would not do much to challenge the status quo in Karabakh. Overall, there are concerns that all the negativity accumulated throughout the Ukrainian crisis between Russia and the USA would inevitably get projected onto their  relations over Karabakh, thus making matters more complex.

Furthermore, a huge source of fears and concerns about the Ukrainian crisis, is the crippling effect of Western sanctions against Russia on the Armenian economy. As a result of heavy economic dependence on Russia, the latter’s economic downturns significantly compound Armenia’s economic crisis. Notably, as a single country, Russia is the main external trade partner of Armenia, being the destination for around 20 per cent of Armenian exports and source of 70 per cent of remittances. Russia also maintains lead in the realm of foreign investments in Armenia. There are more than 1,400 enterprises with Russian capital, which is over one fourth of all economic entities with involvement of foreign capital .Moreover, Russia is home to more than 2.5 million Armenian migrants, whose  remittances account for around 10 percent of Armenia’s GDP. Meanwhile, the depreciation of Russian ruble means that the remittances sent from Russia have decreased in value .  Moreover,  the ruble’s devaluation,  has led to the price increases in Armenian exported products to Russia  thus affecting trade volumes.

According to various estimates, the sanctions against the Russian banking sector, which has profound involvement in the Armenian economy, have adversely affected the Armenian economy and even contributed to electricity price hikes in 2015.

Besides, the sanctions against Russia have resonated with Armenia, due to its heavy dependence on Russian military equipment. The Washington’s intention of pressuring the foreign governments into relinquishing Russian defense acquisitions would put conflict-stricken Armenia between a rock and a hard place: while the country seeks to keep good ties to the USA, it is too crippled to cope without  the Russian weaponry.

Beyond that, the Armenian political discourse has long revolved around the narrative of “Crimea precedent” –  given that the “self determination” of Crimea would positively affect the resolution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Strikingly,  former president Sargsyan went so far as to frame the referendum in Crimea  as an exercise of peoples’ right to self-determination via free expression of will. Clearly, Sargsyan’s treatment of the Crimean “referendum” as a “model of self-determination” was bound to upset Armenian-Ukrainian ties. The situation came to a head in March  2014, when Armenia voted against the UN General Assembly   resolution on the “territorial integrity of Ukraine” declaring Crimea’s recent secession vote invalid. Thus, Armenia endorsed the legitimacy of an illegal and thoroughly rigged referendum.

Ukraine was quick to recall  its ambassador to Armenia for consultation, and summoned the Armenian ambassador to Ukraine over Yerevan’s shocking position on the annexation of Crimea.

Given former opposition leader Pashinyan’s critical stances on Russian coercive policies, it would be easy to resort to speculations about possible foreign policy changes, including Armenia’s on stance on the Ukrainian crisis.  Yet from the outset of his prime minstership Pashinyan confirmed Armenia’s unequivocal and unwavering support for Russian policies. Notably, at  his very first meeting with Pashinyan,  Putin stressed the necessity of keeping up the cooperation in the international arena, focusing particularly on UN, where the two nations “have always supported each other.” No wonder, post-revolution Armenia voted against another UN resolution on the de-occupation of Crimea in December, 2018. The resolution expressed grave concerns  over the Russian military buildup in Crimea and called on Russia to end its “temporary occupation” of the Ukrainian region.

Overall, consistent with his predecessor, Pashinyan keeps supporting even the most controversial Russian foreign policy actions, ranging from  the Ukrainian crisis to that in Syria, etc.

There has been an ingrained belief  among the Armenian leadership that Armenia only benefits from Russia’s restoring greatness and its greater involvement in its “Near abroad.”  All these goes into Armenia’s inferiority complex of a weak and small state, bound by neighboring Turkish-Azerbaijani hostilities.  It is in this context that Russia is broadly perceived as a pivotal security ally in Armenian political thinking  and in public consciousness.  Overall, there is a broad consensus among the representatives of Armenian political elite that the acute threats posed to Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey prompt to put heavy reliance on Russia. Thus, despite some resentment that Russian policy may generate, Armenia has to abstain from ‘provoking’ Russia’. Otherwise, the latter would ‘hit where it hurts’, by arming Azerbaijan, increasing gas prices or even mistreating the Armenian community in Russia. That said, Armenia’s solidarity with Russia on Ukrainian crisis comes as an unsurprising consequence of the enormously asymmetric nature of Russian-Armenian relations.

Aram Terzyan, PhD, is a visiting senior lecturer at UNESCO Chair of Human Rights, Democracy and European Studies of Brusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences and research fellow at Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, USA. E-mail: aramterzyan[at]gmail.com .

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanians fight for silence

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The Ministry of Defence of Denmark has made an important decision supporting human rights of Danish citizens.

Thus, Denmark’s new fleet of F-35s, which are to replace the F-16s currently in use, will arrive at Skrydstrup air base in South Jutland starting in 2023. When the new air force is finally ready, far more neighbours will be bothered by the noise exceeding limit values, calculations by the Danish Defence Ministry show. The 100 worst-affected homes will have to suffer noise levels of over 100 decibels, which is comparable to a rock concert or a busy motorway.

The noise pollution from F-35s is projected to exceed that of the F-16s, though noise pollution from F-16 also bother locals. Discontent of citizens reduced their confidence not only in the Ministry of Defence but in their current government and NATO as well.

Thus decided to compensate the victims.This step has improved the image of the armed forces and showed the population the care that the Ministry of Defense shows to a residents of the country.

A similar situation has developed in Lithuania. Lithuanian citizens demand compensation from the Ministry of National Defense due to high noise level made by fighter flights from Šiauliai airbase as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.

Lithuania is a NATO member state and contribute to the collective defence of the Alliance. Thus, Šiauliai airbase hosts fighter jets that conduct missions of the NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.
Citizens also initiated on-line petitions in order to attract supporters and demonstrate their strong will to fight violation of human rights in Lithuania.

According to peticijos.lt, the petition was viewed more than 5 thousand times. This shows great interest of Lithuanian society in the subject.At the same time existing control over any political activity, as well as silence of current government and Ministry of National Defence don’t allow people openly support such idea. All websites with petitions demand the provision of personal data. Nobody wants to be punished and executed.

The lack of response is not a very good position of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence in case Lithuania wants to prove the existence of democracy. Denmark is a prime example of a democratic society caring for its people.

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Eastern Europe

Georgia Returns to the Old New Silk Road

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Georgia has historically been at the edge of empires. This has been both an asset and a hindrance to the development of the country. Hindrance because Georgia’s geography requires major investments to override its mountains, gorges and rivers. An asset because Georgia’s location allowed the country from time to time to position itself as a major transit territory between Europe and the Central Asia, and China further away.

This geographic paradigm has been well in play in shaping Georgia’s geopolitical position even since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of modern technologies. Thereafter, Georgia has been playing a rebalancing game by turning to other regional powers to counter the resurgent Russia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran (partly) and bigger players such as the EU and the US are those which have their own interest in the South Caucasus. However, over the past several years yet another power, China, with its still evolving Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been slowly emerging in the South Caucasus.

This how a new Silk Road concept gradually emerged at the borders of Georgia. In fact, a closer look at historical sources from the ancient, medieval or even 15th-19th cc. history of Georgia shows an unchanged pattern of major trade routes running to the south, west, east and north of Georgia. Those routes were usually connected to outer Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian hinterland.

Only rarely did the routes include parts of the Georgian land and, when it happened, it lasted for merely a short period of time as geography precluded transit through Georgia: the Caucasus Mountains and seas constrained movement, while general geographic knowledge for centuries remained limited.

It was only in the 11th-12th cc. that Georgian kings, David IV, Giorgi III and Queen Tamar, spent decades of their rule trying to gain control over neighboring territories with the goal to control the famous Silk Roads. Since, foreign invasions (Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, Russians) have largely prevented Georgia from playing a major transit role for transcontinental trade.

This lasted until the break-up of the Soviet Union. After 1991, Georgia has returned to its positioning between the Black and Caspian seas, between Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Major roads, pipelines and railway lines go through Georgian territory. Moreover, major works are being done to expand and build existing and new Georgian ports on the Black Sea with the potential to transform Georgia into a sea trade hub.

A good representation of Georgia’s rising position on the Silk Road was a major event held in Tbilisi on October 22-23 when up to 2000 politicians, potential investors from all over the world, visited the Georgian capital. The event was held for the third time since 2015 and attracted due attention. In total, 300 different meetings were held during the event.

The hosting of the event underscores how Georgia has recently upped its historical role as a regional hub connecting Europe and Asia. On the map, it is in fact the shortest route between China and Europe. There is a revitalization of the ancient Silk Road taking place in Georgia. This could in turn make the country an increasingly attractive destination for foreign investment. Indeed, the regional context also helps Tbilisi to position itself, as Georgia has Free Trade Agreements with Turkey, the CIS countries, the EFTA and China and a DCFTA with the European Union, comprising a 2.3 billion consumer market.

Thus, from a historical perspective, the modern Silk Road concept emanating from China arguably represents the biggest opportunity Georgia has had since the dissolution of the unified Georgian monarchy in 1490 when major roads criss-crossed the Georgian territory. In the future, when/if successive Georgian governments continue to carry out large infrastructural projects (roads, railways, sea ports), Tbilisi will be able to use those modern ‘Silk Roads’ to its geopolitical benefit, namely, gain bigger security guarantees from various global and regional powers to uphold its territorial integrity.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Eastern Europe

Strategic Black Sea falls by the wayside in impeachment controversy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Presidents Donald J. Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a plateful of thorny issues on their agenda when they met in the White House this week.

None of the issues, including Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria, its acquisition of a Russian anti-missile system and its close ties to Russia and Iran, appear to have been resolved during the meeting between the two men in which five Republican senators critical of Turkey participated.

The failure to narrow differences didn’t stop Mr. Trump from declaring that “we’ve been friends for a long time, almost from day-one. We understand each other’s country. We understand where we are coming from.”

Mr. Trump’s display of empathy for an illiberal leader was however not the only tell-tale sign of the president’s instincts. So was what was not on the two men’s agenda: security in the Black Sea that lies at the crossroads of Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and NATO member Turkey.

The Black Sea is a flashpoint in multiple disputes involving Russia and its civilizationalist definition of a Russian world that stretches far beyond the country’s internationally recognized borders and justifies its interventions in Black Sea littoral states like Ukraine and Georgia.

The significance of the absence of the Black Sea on the White House agenda is magnified by the disclosure days earlier that Mr. Trump had initially cancelled a US freedom of navigation naval mission in the Black Sea after CNN had portrayed it as American pushback in the region.

The disclosure came in a transcript of closed-door testimony in the US House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump’s policy towards Ukraine by Christopher Anderson, a former advisor to Kurt Volker, the US special representative to Ukraine until he resigned in September.

Mr. Anderson testified that Mr. Trump phoned his then national security advisor, John Bolton, at home to complain about the CNN story. He said the story prompted the president to cancel the routine operation of which Turkey had already been notified.

The cancellation occurred at a moment that reports were circulating in the State Department about an effort to review US assistance to Ukraine.

“We met with Ambassador Bolton and discussed this, and he made it clear that the president had called him to complain about that news report… I can’t speculate as to why…but that…operation was cancelled, but then we were able to get a second one for later in February. And we had an Arleigh-class destroyer arrive in Odessa on the fifth anniversary of the Crimea invasion,” Mr. Anderson said.

The operation was cancelled weeks after the Russian coast guard fired on Ukrainian vessels transiting the Strait of Kerch that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and separates Russian-annexed Crimea from Russian mainland. ‘This was a dramatic escalation,” Mr. Anderson said.

Mr. Trump at the time put a temporary hold on a condemnatory statement similar to ones that had been issued by America’s European allies. Ultimately, statements were issued by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley but not by the White House.

The Black Sea’s absence in Mr. Trump’s talks with the Turkish leader coupled with the initial cancellation of the freedom of navigation operation, the initially meek US response to the Strait of Kerch incident, and the fallout of the impeachment inquiry do little to inspire confidence in US policy in key Black Sea countries that include not only Turkey, Ukraine and Georgia, a strategic gateway to Central Asia, but also NATO members Bulgaria and Romania.

In Georgia, protesters gathered this week outside of parliament after lawmakers failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would have introduced a proportional election system in advance of elections scheduled for next year.

The amendment was one demand of protesters that have taken to the streets in Georgia since June in demonstrations that at times included anti-Russian slogans.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russia has since recognized the self-declared independence of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Some 1500 US troops participated in June in annual joint exercises with the Georgian military that were originally initiated to prepare Georgian units for service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The absence of the Black Sea in Mr. Trump’s talks with Mr. Erdogan raises the spectre that the region could become a victim of the partisan divide in Washington and/or Mr. Trump’s political priorities.

The Republican-dominated US Senate has yet to consider a bipartisan Georgia Support Act that was last month passed by the House of Representatives. The act would significantly strengthen US defense, economic, and cyber security ties with Georgia.

A Chinese delegation that included representatives of several Chinese-led business associations as well as mobile operator China Unicom visited the breakaway republic of Abkhazia this week to discuss the creation of a special trade zone to manufacture cell phones as well as electric cars.

The Black Sea is one region where the United States cannot afford to sow doubt. The damage, however, may already have been done.

Warned Black Sea security scholar Iulia-Sabina Joja in a recent study: “The region is (already) inhospitable for Western countries as they struggle to provide security… The primary cause of this insecurity is the Russian Federation… Today, Russia uses its enhanced Black Sea capabilities not only to destabilize the region militarily, politically, and economically, but also to move borders, acquire territory, and project power into the Mediterranean.”

Ms. Joja went on to suggest that “a common threat assessment of NATO members and partners is the key to a stable Black Sea. Only by exploring common ground and working towards shared deterrence can they enhance regional security.”

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