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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

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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