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Eastern Europe

South Caucasus in Flux and Russia’s Increased Influence in the Region

Emil Avdaliani

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As the US and EU experience major internal problems and China, Russia, Turkey and Iran become more cooperative on crucial Eurasian affairs, geopolitical reshuffle would result in a larger Russian economic and military influence in the South Caucasus region.

The geopolitical situation in and around the South Caucasus is in flux. This fits well into the global disorder we have been seeing over the past several years across the Eurasian landmass where the US has reversed its decades-long policy of specific alliances which in turn gave rise to various partnerships, namely between Russia and Turkey, Russia and China, Russia and Iran. Since the South Caucasus borders on most of this Eurasian powers, the changing geopolitical landscape has a direct influence on internal as well as foreign policy development of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Perhaps the most serious problem for the three countries is the nascent rapprochement between the West and Russia. Political statements as well as various practical moves show that there is a serious discussion going on in the EU on reinstating at least some parts of erstwhile relations with Moscow. Though Armenia and Azerbaijan are not openly seeking western integration, Yerevan and and Baku have always been interested in balancing Russian influence with more of the EU in the region. In the long run, Europe’s changed rhetoric towards Moscow would likely mean increased Russian influence in the South Caucasus and diminution of the three countries’ ability to navigate Russia’s actions.

This geopolitical change has already been visible in the rhetoric and practical steps of the South Caucasian countries. In Georgia, the government, very sensitive to reverberations among its western allies, has already initiated a political novelty. The first ever high level meeting between Georgian and Russian officials since Russian invasion in 2008 took place several weeks ago.

While many castigated the ruling party for re-establishing a high-level contact with the Russians, a larger geopolitical perspective has been missed: the need to secure its positions in an increasingly destabilized region drove Tbilisi to act at this specific moment. In Armenia and Azerbaijan there is a growing consensus among the political elites that EU/NATO expansion to the South Caucasus is effectively stalled and to hedge their positions it would rather be expedient to build more amicable relations with Moscow.

This trend in the South Caucasus also fits into a wider Eurasian context where various states now seek closer cooperation with Moscow or at least have lowered their anti-Russian sentiment. For example, in Ukraine the Ukrainian President’s made significant efforts to reach even partial progress in eastern Ukraine agreeing to holding elections in the eastern Ukraine. In Moldova western powers have cooperated with Moscow on removing the corrupt government of Vladimir Plahotniuc. In Central Asia, Uzbekistan is likely to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) thus reversing the odds of the integration project. Moreover, in Belarus Moscow, it seems, has reached a considerable progress over financial and juridical merger with Minsk by 2022. Thus there is a clear trend of Europe trying to stabilize its strained relations with Russia.

There are large destabilizers too. The war in Syria too would serve as a primary example as it can potentially affect the region’s three countries. Potential spread of terrorist fighters from Syrian prisons to the wider Eurasia is especially troubling for Georgia as many from its region, Pankisi Gorge, travelled to Syria-Iraq throughout the Syrian conflict. Similar fears exist in Azerbaijan, while in Armenia an influx of refugees of Armenian descent is expected.

Thus a long-term perspective for the South Caucasus is not positive. The region would be surrounded by geopolitically expansive Iran, Turkey and Russia. Moreover, Western stance would be diminished. Surely, Georgia would continue its pro-western path and economic, cultural and military cooperation with Europe and the US will increase, though the country will stay short of NATO/EU membership. In fact, a look at the map of the South Caucasus shows that it would be difficult for the West to get Georgia into NATO/EU in the current geopolitical context. Tbilisi is almost surrounded by Russian troops. Military bases in Abkhazia, Tskhinvali region and in Gyumri, Armenia, would serve as a strong disincentive for the West. Making a move in a militarily highly-congested region would require a much stronger and stable leadership in the West, similar to what we saw in the post-World War II period when US troops were facing the Soviet in various parts of the world, risking global warfare. From the Russian perspective militarization of the South Caucasus thus creates an insecure region that precludes an already hesitant West from active political and military involvement.

Considering major geopolitical trends in Russia-Turkey, Russia-West relations, it is likely that Azerbaijan will drift closer to Moscow. This might materialize into Baku actively seeking CSTO or EEU membership, which will constitute a major shift in the regional geopolitics as the country serves as a gateway to East-West economic corridor which connects the Caspian and Black Seas. Georgia is important strategically, but without Azerbaijan, western influence in the region would be diminished. Armenia as well will increase its strategic partnership with Russia both in military, security and economic spheres. Differences which surfaced between Yerevan and Moscow after the Velvet Revolution would mostly be minimized.

Thus in the coming years we are likely to see the South Caucasus with a much larger Russian influence and a decreased western role in economic, military and security issues.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch.de

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Eastern Europe

Special Session of the UNGA related to COVID-19 to be convened at the initiative of Azerbaijan

Dr. Esmira Jafarova

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When dystopian scenarios became our everyday reality with COVID-19 reigning over our lives and divesting large numbers of world population of their normal routines, little did everyone know that very soon we would also be experiencing a pent-up disenchantment with the role played by global institutions that are tasked with the protection of international peace and security. While the magnitude of the contagion has turned great geographic areas into quarantines zones, with concomitant physical and mental health challenges brought to millions of people, the message sent out by the United Nations –the largest global multilateral organization – is rather mixed and definitely not reassuring. Despite the fact that the UN General Assembly adopted its first ever resolution on the COVID-19 on April 2, 2020, calling for “global, solidarity, multilateralism and international cooperation” to cope with the pandemics, the voice of the UN Security Council is still missing as it has failed on numerous occasions to adopt a resolution that would finally categorize the COVID-19 as a threat to international peace and security. While the World Health Origination (WHO) was and still remains the frontrunner of the international response to this unprecedented health crisis, some governments, however, did not unfortunately demonstrate a unified and solid support to these global efforts, having thus occasionally yielded to their own national agendas and opted for criticisms and recriminations instead of forging global unity and cooperation in these difficult times.

The conceptual debate as to when and how the pandemics will be defeated, impending surge of the second wave, as well as about the contours of the post-COVID-19 world is ongoing in parallel to practical efforts on the part of medical community, scholars, pundits and politicians to ease the sufferings of millions of people worldwide, save and repair whatever vestige of normalcy we may still have. Azerbaijan was among the countries that having assessed the dangers of the pandemics took very swift measures upon the news about the first infection case on 28 February as the government put the country into quarantine and enhanced it as the situation so demanded. The special Coronavirus Support Fund was established with 19 March 2020 Presidential Decree and the government prepared 9 programs worth about 3,5 billion manats- 3 % of the GDP to support the economy and extend social benefits. Many new hospitals were built for COVID-19 patients and local production of medical masks was introduced right from the beginning. Like many other countries around the world, Azerbaijan is also still battling the COVID-19 induced challenges, however, it has been doing so in a well-prepared and consistent manner that oozes confidence that one day we will beat this global health crisis and return to normalcy, whatever that might mean in a post-COVID-19 world.

Azerbaijan as an emerging and ambitious “middle power” did not obviously suffice with its domestic achievements, as the dynamics of the pandemics shows that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. As the incumbent Chair of the Turkic Council and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the country initiated two online summit meetings of these two institutions on 10 April and on 4 May, respectively, in the midst of strict lockdowns in many parts of the world. Being an ardent believer in the value of international cooperation and multilateralism, it was only natural to expect Azerbaijan to initiate a discussion within these institutions in order to foster unity of purpose through effective multilateralism, and seek for common solutions that would attenuate and eventually overcome challenges imposed by this global contagion. Azerbaijan’s once again assuming a leadership role especially in such difficult times to promote the norms and values it believes in, therefore gibes with its image as a norm entrepreneur and a “middle power”.

NAM- the largest international body after the United Nations, opts for not aligning with or against any major powers and promotes “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries”. In line with its broader foreign policy objectives Azerbaijan vowed to promote multilateralism, international cooperation and solidarity also within the NAM group during its chairmanship in 2019-2022.Among the important outcomes of the above online NAM summit on 4 May, the idea proposed by President Ilham Aliyev that NAM countries could initiate convening the special online session of the UN General Assembly on COVID-19 on the level of Heads of States and Governments gained particular traction. This initiative voiced an innate belief by many that more should be done on the part of international organizations to stave off the repercussions of the COVID-19 and unite global efforts through fostering more cooperation and multilateralism as opposed to pursuance of isolationist and national agendas in the face of this calamity.

It was this confidence and trust in Azerbaijan’s initiative by NAM countries and the greater UN community that the proposal of convening of the special session of the UN General Assembly in response to COVID-19 was supported by more than 130 UN Member States, which makes 2/3 of the UN states. The only country that rejected the initiative was Armenia, however, the decision was adopted through the “silence  procedure” by the majority of the UN Member States. So far only 30 UN General Assembly special sessions have happened as they are different from regular sessions. It has also been quite a while since the UN General Assembly adopted its second resolution on COVID-19 on 20 April 2020, calling for “International cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19”. However, it is not enough. This health crisis is a moving target and continues to pose unseen and so far untrammeled challenge to our existence in the habitual system of international relations. Discussions within the UN on the issue should not cease, quite the contrary, they should carry a particular importance and provide a sense of direction in the absence of the UN Security Council resolution on COVID-19 threat.

When seeing the current international response to the crisis in such a disarray, with shambolic UN Security Council and mostly low profile demonstrated by other international institutions, neorealists would cheer, as their central thesis of an “anarchic and self-helping international system” seems to once again prevail. However, the humanity has not suffered so many wars, deprivations and sufferings throughout this century alone to turn a blind eye to the lessons learned. The World War II became an inflection point making states realize that they cannot exists in isolation, and cooperation is the best strategy to stand against common threats and enemies. Many international institutions were therefore created afterwards, setting the stage for the never ending debate between neorealists and neoliberalists (institutionalists) as to the relevance and influence of these organizations in interstate relations and in shaping the world order. Many would agree that humanity’s battle against COVID-19 also resembles a war, this time against an invisible enemy. We may as well dub it the World War III given its proportions and uncertainty that it brings to all of us.It is therefore incumbent upon each and every member of the international system to contribute to the global efforts to fight this scourge. Azerbaijan, once again, as an ardent believer in the power of international institutions, cooperation and solidarity, stood up to its role as a norm entrepreneur by having initiated and achieved the summoning of the special session of the UN General Assembly in response to COVID-19. Every effort matters, but one is not enough to cope with such a crisis if it is not multiplied by the like-minded. Azerbaijan’s efforts to achieve global solidarity was supported first within the NAM, and later, by the rest of the UN community, and our expectations from this special UN General Assembly session are first and foremost related to the message of solace that we are not all alone in this war.

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Eastern Europe

Armenian geopolitics: Threats and claims

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A couple of days ago I encountered a publication from Modern Diplomacy`s Geopolitical Handbooks series. I was thrilled to learn something interesting when its catchy title drew my attention: Armenia`s existential threats and strategic issues.

Authored by David Davidian, this handbook is designed to introduce an (uninformed) audience to Armenia by touching upon and not thoroughly discussing the basic geopolitical and strategic issues for the country. A nuclear engineer by profession, Davidian teaches technology and programming at a Yerevan-based university, occasionally penning anti-Turkish and anti-Azerbaijani articles

While I became quite disappointed about the overall quality of the publication, several moments, nevertheless, caught my attention and are worth being discussed: demographics as an advantage, nuclear annihilation as a policy of deterrence and territorial claims.

Several times throughout the text, Davidian analyzes a possibility of ethnic or religious insurgencies through domestic demographics. Demographically, the author rightfully points out, Armenia is largely mono-ethnic with an insignificant number of ethnic minorities. That ethnic Armenians came to comprise 98% of the country`s population is explained with the exodus of non-Armenians in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but this exodus is tied to economic reasons. We may understand why the author deliberately skips the forceful deportation of the Azerbaijanis, which obviously happened not because of economic reasons.

The Azerbaijanis pushed out of the country between 1988-1991 used to be the largest ethnic minority in the present-day Armenia and the absolute majority in some provinces for several centuries. Up until the early 20th century, ethnic Azerbaijanis constituted at least 50% (or more than 50%, according to some sources), of the city of Erivan (modern-day Yerevan).

Figure 1. Distribution of Azerbaijanis in the present-day Armenia in the 19-20th centuries

Although several waves of deportation (well-planned and effectively implemented by Armenian authorities) during the Soviet time significantly shrank the Azerbaijani community in Armenia, at least 250,000 Azerbaijanis were still inhabiting the country by the mid-1980s. The last episode of the ethnic cleansing took place in the late 1980s, wiping Azerbaijanis off the Armenian map and turning Armenia into a mono-ethnic country.

While many countries led by developed states work for decades to celebrate ethnic and racial diversity, teach tolerance and co-existence and prevent any xenophobia, this Armenian professor, who lectures at American-Armenian University, affords to write the following lines: “This [mono-ethnic nature] puts Armenia in the same condition as states such as Japan. Many developing states work for decades or more to achieve the homogeneous demographic status of Armenia.”

The means Armenia has achieved its homogenous society with would be called “ethnic cleansing” elsewhere in the world, but obviously not in Armenia itself. And while the Armenians, who themselves spread across the globe to flourish in many (usually multi-ethnic) societies, the homogenous demographics at home, in Armenia, is considered by Davidian “a strategic asset.”

Nuclear deterrence, Armenian style, is also explained by Davidian. According to him, a possible attack by Turkey will be responded with “a controlled core breach of the Armenian Nuclear Power station (ANP) at Metsamor. In parallel with a full power core breach, the planned burning of ANP spent fuel storage facility would add to the radioactive contamination. Geographically, this act would be much worse than the radiation poisoning effect of conventional nuclear weapons. This last act of desperation would not only make much of eastern Turkey and Armenia uninhabitable for many decades but parts of Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia as well.”

In other words, detonating Armenia’s operating nuclear power plant and spent fuel storage is called a “strong Armenian deterrent.” This “scorched earth” tactics offered by Davidian would be able to contaminate for decades and even centuries the lands of not only Armenia, but also other regional countries.

Noteworthy is the author`s (and/or Armenia`s) territorial claims against its neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey. While Azerbaijan`s provinces, Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhchivan, are repeatedly called Armenian, this territorial appetite extends to vast Turkish lands as well. It is important for the author to “secure a sovereign landmass from Armenia’s current western border to the Black Sea… to release Armenia from its landlocked condition, removing the dependence on Georgia, Russia or Iran.” Davidian justifies this territory as an award Armenia should get as “genocide” reparations and presents his map of the claimed landmass.

While fearing Turkey`s possible attack at Armenia, Davidian nevertheless reflects Armenia’s expansionist ambitions. The Armenian irredentism, Davidian seems adherent to, should in fact be no surprise. The Armenian government has avoided “an explicit and formal recognition of the existing Turkish-Armenian border” since 1991, when Armenia proclaimed its independence; interestingly, the 1991 Declaration of Independence contains reference to Eastern Turkey usually considered as Armenia`s territorial claims.

Most recently, in 2011, Serzh Sargsyan, then Armenian President, made a statement that sparked an outrage in Turkey. When answering  if Turkey “will return Western Armenia” in the future, Sargsyan put this responsibility on the shoulder of the next generation(s) of Armenians.

While the discussed publication provides shallow information on the basic geopolitical and strategic issues Armenia faces, some of the author`s ideas are either close to nonsense or distort the truth or put forth aggressive claims, by celebrating his country`s mono-ethnicity and keeping silent about the reason of this mono-ethnicity, voicing territoral ambitions against Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh, Nakhchivan) and Eastern Turkey (to get access to the Black Sea) and threatening the neighboring countries with a nuclear doomsday.

Although not an official doctrine, this paper, nevertheless, echoes the main domestic discourse and presents Armenia herself as the main threat to the neighboring countries and the whole region.

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Eastern Europe

Western Heraldry in Modern Georgia

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Authors: Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua, Dr. Emil Avdaliani

For millennia flags have served as national symbols. They also serve as a form of communication. But most of all they serve as a form of identification as the colors and symbols of each flag convey a certain idea or ambitions. It also says a lot about values of a country.

Georgia has had several flags throughout its history, and it is interesting how each flag reflected the country’s geopolitical ambitions (preferences in alliances etc.).

For instance, the national flag of the first republic of Georgia in 1918-1921 was a tricolor resembling the colors of the German Empire. The resemblance was not accidental – Georgia was pro-German at the time and hoped for Berlin’s victory in the World War I.

Georgia’s current flag also reflects the national values and geopolitical aspirations. It features Crusading states’ “Cross of Jerusalem”, derived from “Cross Potent”, which was an important heraldic feature of the Byzantine Empire.

“Cross Potent” is often shown in the Byzantine numismatics since Emperor Tiberius II (578-582) (David R. Sear. Byzantine Coins and Their Values. London. 1996, p. 14). “Cross Potent” was widespread in the entire Christian world, even being used by various seigniors in the Western Europe. “Cross Potent” also features on the silver money of the Georgian seignior David III Kuropalates (+1001)

Quite often in the quarters of the cross the Byzantines put the following religious legend: IC-XP NI-KA.

Later on, occasionally, instead of legends, stars were put in quarters of “Cross Potent”. A star was one of the attributes of Constantinople’s heraldry.

In the age of Crusades the Western Europe gave a different interpretation to the “Cross Potent” by adding four crosses in quarters. This is already “Cross of Jerusalem. The identical combination is seen even on the 18th c. coat of arms of the Kingdom of Sardinia (X. Фенглер, Г. Гироу, В. Унгер. Словарь нумизмата. Берлин-Москва. 1982. Article «Иерусалимский крест», p. 98.).

“Cross of Jerusalem” was the symbol of integration of the Western Europe, created in the era of Crusades.

As in most cases, Georgia’s flags, whether historical or modern one, reflect the country’s foreign policy preferences and its national aspirations. The five-cross flag thus shows how Georgia sees herself – increasingly as a part of Europe.

Authors note: first published in Georgia Today

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