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

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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

International organizations in the Armenian-Azerbaijani war must demonstrate a constructive position

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Recent events in the Caucasus are in the spotlight of the whole world. For 30 years, the policy of aggression of Armenia against Azerbaijan has further exacerbated the situation in the region. In the ongoing negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, official Yerevan has always taken a non-constructive position and repeatedly tried to disrupt the peace talks.

In this regard, the conditions of the President of Azerbaijan based on international law have always been  very simple and concrete: Armenia must withdraw from the occupied territories, Azerbaijan must restore its territorial integrity, Azerbaijanis must return to their native lands. The Armenian side, which refused to negotiate, violated the basic principles of the process, the Helsinki Final Act and UN Security Council resolutions, and the Armenian Prime Minister quelled the peace talks, saying “Karabakh belongs to Armenia.”

On September 27, the Armenian armed forces launched another military aggression against Azerbaijan, intensively firing on Azerbaijani settlements, civilians and military positions from various directions using large-calibre artillery and missiles. The Azerbaijani armed forces had to carry out counter-offensive and retaliatory measures in full compliance with the right to self-defense and international humanitarian law in order to prevent a new military aggression by Armenia and to ensure the security of the civilian population. The attitude of the international community to this war was ambiguous. Many international organizations and states have called on the parties to suspend military operations and start peace talks. At Armenia’s insistence, Russia took the initiative to ensure a humanitarian ceasefire, and a meeting with the foreign ministers of the three countries was held in Moscow on October 11.However, on the very first day of the ceasefire agreement, the Armenian armed forces fired a ballistic missile at night at Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan, 80 kilometres from the war zone and without any military facilities. As a result of this terrorist act, civilians were killed, dozens of people were injured and hundreds of civilian objects were destroyed. The targeting of densely populated areas hundreds of kilometres away from the conflict zone shows that the enemy is still pursuing its nefarious plans by taking steps contrary to international law. In so doing, the enemy grossly violates the norms and principles of international law, in particular international humanitarian law and the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.

The war crimes of the Armenian armed forces do not end there. Armed groups have repeatedly targeted power plants in Azerbaijan’s industrial city of Mingechaur, trying to sabotage energy and environmental security in the region. In July, an armed attack was carried out on a region far from the conflict zone to strike the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which transports Azerbaijani oil to Europe.

Today, Azerbaijan is fighting for justice for its territories, both on the military field and on the information front. Nevertheless, some states and international organizations are silent on the crimes committed, as well as the mass media, based on false, unsubstantiated information spread by Armenia, demonstrate a wrong position and thus support terrorism.

As a member of the Club of Rectors of European Universities, as an intellectual and scientist, I appeal to all international organizations, especially the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is responsible for the peaceful settlement of the conflict. I am confident that Italy is a member of the Minsk Group, as well as a responsible member of the European Union and can play a very important role in this direction as a strategic partner of Azerbaijan. Senator Stefano Lucidi and chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Association with Azerbaijan in the Italian Parliament, a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, strongly condemned the ceasefire violation by the Armenian armed forces, rocket attacks on Ganja and civilians.  He emphasized  that ensuring stability in the region is very important both for the security of the population and for the interests of Italy. All of these were met with great sympathy by our people.

I believe that international organizations will demonstrate a constructive position in the Armenian-Azerbaijani war. Speaking about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, first of all, it should be noted that the current fighting is taking place in the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan. According to four UN Security Council resolutions adopted in 1993, the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan must be demanded. Armenia’s policy of aggression against Azerbaijan must be stopped, terrorist acts against the civilian population must be halted.

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Eastern Europe

The Destruction of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Cultural Heritage

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Nagorno-Karabakh has been in the news for the renewed hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This enclave in the Caucasus has a distinctive culture, with a rich heritage in music, poetry and architecture. It is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but the territory has been occupied by Armenia for the past 30 years, along with seven adjoining provinces of Azerbaijan.

Concerns have been raised that Nagorno-Karabakh’s heritage has been systematically destroyed under Armenia’s occupation, as part of its attempt to strengthen its control by wiping out traces of the existing culture.

In Zangilan, for instance, when the district was retaken by Azerbaijan on October 20th, they could not recognise it after 30 years of Armenian occupation. The historical mosque of Zangilan had been turned into a swine shelter and the 13th century Gtich church, belonging to the ancient Christian state of Caucasian Albania, was found vandalised and smeared with graffiti.

The destruction of cultural and religious monuments in the occupied territory is regarded as a war crime under international law. The Hague Convention of 1954 obliges occupying forces not only to respect and preserve cultural property, but to prevent the theft of property in the event of armed conflict.

With Armenia occupying 20% of Azerbaijan, the onus is on Armenia to protect the cultural heritage of this region, particularly Nagorno-Karabakh. But after nearly one million Azerbaijanis were forced to flee their homes during the conflict in the 1990s, Armenia has systematically removed traces of Azerbaijani culture from the land they left behind.

George Mitchell, a British travel writer who visited the occupied territories in November 2014, found Aghdam “a ghost town” and the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus”, and reported on the devastation he witnessed.

Azerbaijan has called for a comprehensive international fact-finding mission for the preservation of cultural heritage in the occupied territories. But Armenia has declined to allow this mission to carry out its work.

In 2001, the Council of Europe listed “500 historical architectural and more than 100 archaeological monuments, 22 museums, 4 art galleries, 927 libraries, 85 musical schools, 4 state theatres” in the Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenia, and raised serious concerns about their destruction by Armenian forces.

The report called for the protection of several castles, cloisters, temples, tombs, caravanserais, mosques and bridges, which are all part of the world’s cultural heritage, including Sardar and Naji Novurazili Bey Mosques, as well as the Amir Saad Tomb in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

A more recent report of 2019 used satellite imagery to highlight Armenia’s “purposeful destruction and looting of the cultural heritage in the occupied territories” with the aim of “removing any signs of their Azerbaijani cultural and historical roots”. The images revealed the ruins of the Juma Mosque in Aghdam and Saatly, and the Mardinly and Ashaghy Govhar Agha mosques in Shusha.

The cultural city of Shusha was an important centre of Azerbaijani poetry and traditional mugham music, which was added to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2008. Thanks to its centuries-old mugham school, also known as one of the first conservatories of the Caucasus, Shusha was home to famous Azerbaijani mugham masters, suchas Haji Husi, Abdulbagi Zulalov and Jabbar Garyagdi. Uzeyir Hajibeyov, who wrote the national anthem of Azerbaijan as well as countless opera plays, including the first Azerbaijani mugham opera ‘Layla and Majnun’, also came from Shusha.

In contrast to Armenia’s attempt to “Armenianise” the Azerbaijani territory that it occupies, Azerbaijan is seen as a secular and multicultural state. It has restored dozens of churches, including Caucasian Albanian churches and the Armenian church in Baku, and numerous synagogues within Azerbaijan, while also providing support for the restoration of churches in France, the Vatican, and elsewhere.

This template is the need of the hour to preserve the cultural heritage of the Caucasus. The International Council of Museums has strongly condemned the targeting of cultural heritage as a weapon of war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia should therefore stop the cultural destruction in Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding districts, in line with international law. Otherwise, the damage already inflicted on the different religions and cultures in the occupied territories would soon be irreversible.

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Eastern Europe

Armenia: Lies and realities

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The OSCE Minsk Group was established to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which arose as a result of Armenia’s brutal interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs and military aggression. However, the activities of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have been fruitless for almost 30 years. Armenia did not comply with the UN Security Council Resolutions No. 822, 853, 874 and 884 on the unconditional, prompt and complete withdrawal of the Armenian occupying forces from the territories of Azerbaijan. Armenian was trying to impose occupation fact and to bring it to a “fait accompli.” At the same time, Armenia was preparing to occupy new territories of Azerbaijan and commit provocations. Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan confessed: “We will not return an inch of land to Azerbaijan and will occupy new territories.”

In July 2020, the Armenian leadership committed another provocation in the direction of the Tovuz region of the Azerbaijani state border. There were several purposes in this provocation. First, to occupy the territories, where the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main export oil pipeline, which plays a vital role in Europe’s energy supply, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, TAP and TANAP lines pass, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway connects Europe and Asia. Furthermore, as a result, to obstruct the access of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Europe. Second, to divert attention from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and involve the CSTO, especially Russia, in the war. However, the Armenian occupying forces were repulsed and failed to achieve any of the above purposes. Armenia’s intentions against European countries and peoples have failed.

Later, Armenia committed provocations again, in response, when Azerbaijan took action, the Armenian leadership began to spread slander and false news in order to deceive European public opinion. Let us look at just two of them. First, the Armenian side tried to cover up their aggression policy and abuse the religious feelings of Christians around the world by spreading false information about the alleged attack of the Azerbaijani army on the church in Shusha. Even those unfamiliar with military science know that if the church had been hit by a rocket, it would have collapsed. However, the church was in place. On the other hand, mosques, churches and synagogues have coexisted in Azerbaijan for many centuries. Even the Armenian church, which is located in the centre of Baku, including its library, is protected by the Azerbaijani state and its guard also is Armenian. It can be questioned that what did Armenia do in return for Azerbaijan’s care for the church, the house of God? Armenians intentionally kept pigs in mosques in the occupied Aghdam and Zangilan regions of Azerbaijan. Their photos and videos are available on the Internet. The church, the mosque and the synagogue are the houses of God. By treating mosques as an object for insults, Armenia is tarnishing Christians, and Christianity, which is a religion of peace and coexistence. Russians, Jews, Georgians, Ukrainians and others, who are Azerbaijani citizens in the ranks of the Azerbaijani army, are fighting for the liberation of Azerbaijani lands from occupiers. Prayers for the Azerbaijani soldier are being held in all churches and synagogues in Azerbaijan. His Holiness Pope Francis, who visited Baku a few years ago, praised the policy of Azerbaijan in terms of inter-religious and inter-civilizational dialogue as an example.

Secondly, Armenia is lying about Azerbaijan’s alleged “genocide” of Armenians, which is nonsense. Because currently, more than 30000 Armenians live in Azerbaijan peacefully. If there was any discrimination policy against Armenians, how could so many Armenians live in Azerbaijan? However, the situation is different in Armenia. Since 1988, over 250000 Azerbaijanis have been savagely expelled from Armenia. Today there is no single Azerbaijani in Armenia and Armenia is a mono-ethnic state. At the same time, more than 750000 Azerbaijanis were expelled from the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories of Azerbaijan and became internally displaced persons.

Thus, on the one hand, the Armenian leaders pose a direct threat to Europe’s energy supply, and on the other hand, they try to use the religious feelings of the European people for their own interests by spreading false news and figments. However, they forget that the world is very small now, and everyone sees everything well. So, the question is: what is the name of Armenia’s policy? The answer is clear!

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