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The Trans-Caucasus in 2019 Is Not a Monolithic Region

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In late 2016, the Russian International Affairs Council published The Evolution of the Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future, a major anthology attempting to conceptualise development trends in both domestic and foreign policies in the newly independent states that emerged after the collapse of the once-single state, the USSR. The Trans-Caucasus featured prominently in that collection, and for good reason.

The Trans-Caucasus as a region accounts for two-thirds of the armed conflicts that have followed the collapse of the USSR. It was a region of self-proclaimed republics; some of them became stable enough over time so that, even though they have not achieved broad international recognition, they could be categorised not just as separatist entities but as de facto states with their own governance bodies, ideological and political symbols.

When the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was recognised in August 2008, it was the Caucasus that saw the precedent of changed borders between the former Soviet republics.

It was in the Caucasus that Georgia, in its bid for NATO membership, held a referendum on acceding to the alliance and over two-thirds of Georgians voted for accession. Consequently, strategic cooperation with NATO was, in addition to rhetoric, bolstered by a popular vote.

The Trans-Caucasus is the only region in the post-Soviet space where presidential power has been transferred from father to son. Azerbaijan was the trailblazer in this mode of power transfer. For nearly two decades, Georgia has not been able to resolve the problem of a legitimate and legal transfer of supreme state power. Armenia’s gift to the post-Soviet space was also a curious precedent: for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, a former president, upon leaving office, attempted a return to politics as a die-hard opposition member. In 2008, Levon Ter-Petrosyan even came close to returning to the state’s Olympus after ten years of being an ex-head of state.

The Caucasus: An Independently Important Region

Currently, the Caucasus is seldom the focus of topical political discussions. As a rule, it is mentioned within a broader context, such as Black Sea region security or the state of affairs in the Greater Middle East.

In the first instance, settling the armed conflict in the south-east of Ukraine and minimising the costs of the West–Russia confrontation are priorities. In this context, the Caucasus is seen, particularly by European and American experts, as a potential recipient of the “Crimean case.” Initiatives intended to bolster integration ties between Moscow, Sukhum and Tskhinval periodically heat up this discussion. Such was the case when South Ossetian politicians debated a referendum on uniting with North Ossetia under the auspices of the Russian Federation. In his Letter of Instruction of 22 September 2016, Russian President Putin gave instructions to sign an agreement on financing modernisation of Abkhazia’s military, which spurred more heated discussions.

Regarding the Middle East, the focus is on the Iran–US escalation, since the Islamic Republic of Iran borders on Armenia and Azerbaijan and considers the Trans-Caucasus as a tool for building cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union. Syria is another equally important area. Armenia views Turkey’s involvement in Syrian affairs as a dangerous precedent while specifically emphasising that Azerbaijan supports Turkey’s operations, such as the Source of Peace.

Russia’s military participation in the Syrian conflict is of equal importance: for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has used its military power outside the territory of the single state. One should keep in mind that going beyond the post-Soviet political geography was primarily determined by the situation in the Caucasus: among radical Jihadis fighting in the Middle East were quite a few natives of the Russian North Caucasus republics, of Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Whatever international security problems are put at the forefront today, thereby overshadowing the Caucasus challenges, this region retains its independent significance. The armed conflicts that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union have been significantly transformed and have partly lost their relevance (especially compared to the Donbass conflict). Yet, they remain unresolved, and the problem of de facto states is still relevant. Unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have achieved partial international recognition, but it is still disputed by Georgia and its western allies.

Moreover, disagreement with the new status quo that emerged after Russia recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia is not confined to the rhetoric of public officials. What is far more critical is that Georgia is building up its military and political cooperation with NATO, the US and the EU, and even without Georgia’s official accession to NATO, this cooperation creates additional security risks in the region.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh has, for many years, been swinging like a pendulum. Armed incidents alternate with rounds of talks between just Erevan and Baku, or talks with the participation of international intermediaries. The result is the same: the focus is on managing the conflict by minimising the costs of the “neither peace nor war” state of affairs, rather than on settling it.

A deficit of regional integration still characterises the Caucasus. The three Trans-Caucasus states steer different foreign political courses. The absence of diplomatic relations and the unsettled Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict make Tbilisi an insufficient partner for both Erevan and Baku. Georgia does not want to make a “final choice” between its neighbours. At the same time, Tbilisi has no diplomatic relations with Russia and, since Armenia became independent, it has not established diplomatic relations with Turkey. Currently, the prospects for normalising Erevan–Ankara relations seem remote, and it is not only a matter of unresolved problems from the past, but also of the diametrically opposing views of a Karabakh settlement.

At the same time, the Caucasus agenda is changing. It has never been possible to paint it in just two colours, merely as a Big Game between the West and Russia, both using the Trans-Caucasus countries. Today, however, we are seeing new actors being pulled into regional processes; previously, these actors had either insignificant or no influence in the region. China is the starkest example. As Asian Studies specialist Stanislav Tarasov aptly said, China has launched “diplomatic probing” in the Caucasus. In May 2019, Wang Yi, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and State Councillor, visited all three Trans-Caucasus states, his visit being called “historic.” Beijing offers the region respect for its territorial integrity, non-interference in its domestic affairs and pragmatic economic cooperation. Naturally, China incurs no losses, its primary objective being to implement its strategic “One Belt — One Road” project.

Past and Current Forecasts

Azerbaijan: Effective Ties and Pragmatics

In his article “Azerbaijan in 2021: Reasserting Sovereignty”, Murad Gassanly stated that the Karabakh issue was the key one on Baku’s political agenda. And this issue remains such today. Azerbaijan’s principal decisions, such as participating in integration projects and handling its bilateral relations with the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel are dictated precisely by the prospects of resolving this issue in favour of Azerbaijan. Baku has little interest in the fact that Tehran and Tel-Aviv, Moscow and Washington are locked in harsh confrontations.

Azerbaijan’s approaches to all areas are primarily pragmatic. Consequently, Gassanly (and many other experts) justly notes that Baku distances itself from alliances, complex mutual commitments, from seeking effective bilateral ties. “There will be no place for abstract ideological notions and sentimental concerns”, Gassanly states. I believe this course will remain relevant for the near future.

Azerbaijan will strive to avoid getting involved in a large-scale military conflict. The “four-day war” of 2016 showed clearly that the chances of a blitzkrieg under current circumstances are slim. Yet Azerbaijan will continue to build up its economic potential, strive to attract various investments (from both the West and China), and to diversify its economy. This started in 2018–2019 with a large-scale personnel replacement. Such political heavyweights as Ramiz Mekhtiev, Artur Rasaidze, Novruz Mamedov, Gadjibula Abutalybov, and Ali Gasanov have already left their offices. Comrades-in-arms of Geidar Aliev and mentors of his son Ilham are being replaced by those who owe their career and achievements in politics and business to the current President.

The new staffers should, on the one hand, give a new impetus to the “non-alignment” policy while, on the other hand, ensuring new blood in the authorities without “maidans” and major social upheavals. In the medium-term and particularly the long-term, the threat to Azerbaijan from the non-systemic opposition, including radical Islamists, remains. Azerbaijani authorities have experience of countering this threat and they have developed certain skills for containing it. Even so, it is much easier to influence weak and disjointed secular opposition than extremists.

Armenia: Course toward Moscow Continues

In his article “Armenia after Twenty-Five Years of Independence: Maintaining Stability in an Unpredictable Neighbourhood”, Hovhannes Nikoghosyan lists the following principal domestic policy trends in Armenia: the succession of generations and evolution of a parliamentary republic. The “velvet revolution” symbolically emphasised both tendencies. The generation now in power had no political careers in the USSR. It is also symbolic that, for Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s new Prime Minister, Russian is the second language he learned, not a second native language.

At the same time, Serzh Sargsyan had been building a parliamentary republic to prolong his own political tenure, not finally to separate the branches of power, and such a republic has already encountered functional difficulties. So far, the ratings and standing of Nikol Pashinyan, recent idol of the street protests, are high, and no significant problems await the authorities. Yet the moment the situation changes, the prospects of endless elections, talks about coalitions and the reshuffling of political combinations will materialise. Whether this development will boost the stability of a country involved in an unresolved ethnic political conflict is a purely a rhetorical question. This is the context for understanding the Prime Minister’s statement that he does not rule out the possibility of Armenia returning to a presidential state. Most likely, such attempts will be undertaken in the future. Pashinyan intends to stay in power for a long time and, during his first year on the republic’s Olympus, he has already faced social discontent and political opposition. In the near outlook, he will most likely face the task of staying in power by using administrative and bureaucratic methods, rather than a tide of revolution.

Nikoghosyan rightly noted the development of allied relations with Moscow as determining Armenia’s foreign policy. Even though Russia reacts very painfully to the revolutionary transfer of power in post-Soviet states, the Kremlin perceived Pashinyan in a positive light. The reason is that he steered Armenia’s traditional post-Soviet course of a state conducting a diversified foreign policy while clearly emphasising the usefulness of its ties with Russia.

This approach allowed a conflict between Moscow and Erevan to be avoided even after such sensational events as “the Kocharyan case” and “the second stage of the revolution” intended to break Armenia’s old judicial system. In some areas (such as participation in the pacification of Syria), Nikol Pashinyan’s Armenia went even further in consolidating ties with Russia than Armenia under Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency. Most likely, Moscow will be able to forgive Armenia’s Prime Minister any eccentric steps and populist revolutionary rhetoric as long as it does not break down the Russo-centrism of Armenia’s foreign policy.

Georgia: The Bonds of Post-Sovietness

In his article “Georgia: A Time of Anticipation”, Nikolay Silaev focused his attention on the country’s flight from both Soviet and post-Soviet affiliation. In the meantime, both such kinds of affiliation are holding Georgia back, in the form of conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and unresolved territorial disputes (both with Russia and Azerbaijan).

Tbilisi is attempting to break these bonds by stepping up its contacts with the West (NATO, the EU, the US). In and of itself, this cooperation pursued by all de facto and de jure Georgian leaders from Zviad Gamsakhurdia to Bidzina Ivanishvili has not helped Georgia resolve any of its problems, be it efficient economic development, democracy (why is a kind of “democratic beacon” governed by a successful oligarch?), security or territorial integrity.

“NATO is hesitant in its relations with Georgia. Brussels, Washington and major Western European capitals likely view it as too dangerous for NATO to give Georgia security guarantees when Russian troops are located in Abkhazia and South Ossetia”, Silaev states.

Taking this assessment made in 2016 even further, one might say that these hesitations have only grown and will continue to do so in the near future. In this context, it is quite logical that Luke Coffey from The Heritage Foundation or Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s former Secretary-General, publicly discuss “the price tag” attached to the issue, such as Article 5 on the collective defence in the Washington Treaty not extending to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is certainly not official discourse yet; it is only an invitation to a discussion. Even so, these invitations will multiply over the years, and they will be made against the background of two crucial domestic political developments in Georgia itself.

The first one is disputing the dominance of the “Georgian Dream” and the leadership regime built by Bidzina Ivanishvili to serve his own interests. Mass protests in June and November 2019 are unlikely to bring down the current authorities. Yet they will create a powerful charge of discontent and a bizarre coalition of Atlanticists, Eurosceptics and pragmatists founded on the negative agenda of forcing Ivanishvili’s withdrawal from politics. This process might take a while, but it has already been launched.

The second development is the bolstering of a foreign political alternative against the background of disappointment in NATO and the West in general. The key problem here is politicians’ personal ambitions and ideological fogginess. What is proposed in place of a strategic alliance with the West? Movement toward a compromise with Russia concerning Abkhazia and South Ossetia is restricted; without significant changes to the international and regional agenda, Moscow will not change its mind regarding the status of the two former autonomous republics of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

As a consequence, the demand may strengthen for diversification, for equal relations with Iran, China and Moscow’s Eurasian partners (Belarus and Central Asia states). There will also be the question of making relations with Russia more pragmatic, although there will be no quick solutions here even if Georgia proclaims its non-aligned status. The differences between Moscow and Tbilisi run too deep today.

Forecast: The Region Will Remain Divided

In the long and medium-term, the Trans-Caucasus will remain a divided region. The “three countries — three different strategies” principle will remain. Armenia will attempt to remain an ally of Russia, while Georgia will try to stay an ally of the “collective West in general” without forgetting to diversify its foreign political ties. Both Erevan and Tbilisi will have internal and external restrictions. Moscow will hardly welcome Erevan expanding its cooperation with NATO and the EU, while Washington will hardly welcome Georgia improving its relations with Russia and China. Azerbaijan will have no alternative to the “non-alignment” policy both within the so-named movement Baku joined back in 2011 and owing to its national interests. All these factors make pan-Caucasus projects, unions or alliances virtually impossible.

As regards external actors, the Caucasus will not lose its significance even if it is overshadowed by other political conundrums, such as the south-east of Ukraine, the “Kurdish issue”, Iran or Syria. It is hard to expect a common approach to the region. The US and Russia will continue to interact selectively on the Karabakh settlement, but will still be locked in a bitter confrontation over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Iran and Turkey will play their own parts without joining either the Russian or the Western sides, although Ankara will formally remain a NATO member. China will step up its economic presence, although, in the near future, the Caucasus will not become Beijing’s political priority comparable to Central Asia.

From our partner RIAC

PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Regional Studies and Foreign Policy, Russian State University for the Humanities, RIAC Expert

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Turkey to Seek Larger Role in the Black Sea and the South Caucasus

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As Turkey-Russia disagreements intensify in northern Syria, another theater – the Black Sea and the South Caucasus – is starting to play a bigger role in Turkey’s thinking in the coming years. Ankara is likely to increase its military and economic cooperation with Georgia and try to shore up Tbilisi’s NATO membership aspirations.

Turkey’s significance in the regional geopolitics is dictated by the country’s geography and the fact that it borders regions of different geopolitical importance. Whether it is the Black Sea, South Caucasus or Syria, all these regions experience crises of alternating magnitude, which directly impacts Turkey’s borders. Though over the past decade Ankara has remained perceptive of various military and economic developments along its borders, nevertheless, it could be argued that it is the Syrian crisis that has largely consumed Turkey’s entire foreign policy attention. It is in Syria that Ankara has faced its major competitors, Russia and Iran, which, both, against Turkish interests, pursue their strategic goals of securing the sovereignty of Syria under the current president, Bashar al-Assad.

However, as Moscow’s pressure on Ankara in Syria grows, Turkey might turn its attention to other regions to offset Russian influence. Two such regions are the Black Sea region and the South Caucasus where the security situation has worsened significantly. Over the past decade there have been consistent efforts from Russia to increase its military and economic influence in the region. The annexation of Crimea in 2014, ensuing military efforts to limit maritime traffic across the Kerch Strait, exponential growth of the Russian military personnel in Georgia’s Abkhazia, Tskhinvali Region, etc. all these measures complicate any viable western countermeasures in the region. Therefore, due to its geographic proximity and geopolitical interests in the Black Sea and South Caucasus regions, Ankara, in light of heightened competition with Russia in Syria, is likely to play a more active role in these theaters.

Indeed, Turkey is quite worried over the recent decade’s developments to its north and north-east. Though Ankara and Moscow have shown that both could successfully cooperate in different theaters, they, however, remain geopolitical competitors with diverging visions over the Black Sea and the South Caucasus. Russia’s annexation of Crimea leaves little chance for two powers to find a lasting compromise. In fact, Ankara has already started addressing this problem through helping Ukraine build a powerful military which could serve as a certain limit on Russia’s ambitions in the Black Sea area. 

This geopolitical thinking was underscored in February when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Ukraine and announced $36 million in Turkish military aid for Ukraine. During the visit a framework agreement on cooperation in the defense sector was signed, which aims to facilitate cooperation between the countries in the defense sphere on the basis of reciprocity. This Turkish policy builds upon its recent consistent efforts to shore up Ukraine’s military capabilities through intense cooperation meetings. Moreover, in 2019 Baykar Makina, a privately owned Turkish drone maker, has won a $69 million contract to sell six Bayraktar TB2 UAVs to Ukraine. Indeed, on February 12 Turkish and Ukrainian military delegations openly discussed the possibility of enhancing bilateral security cooperation in the Black Sea region. This also involved potential participation in joint exercises and intensification of dialogue between Turkish and Ukrainian naval forces.

Thus, based on this trend, it is likely that in the coming years we could witness a further growth in military cooperation between Kyiv and Ankara. The latter would specifically work on expanding Ukraine’s defense capabilities both, maritime and land, vital to limit Russia’s military operations in eastern Ukraine or at sea along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

In the South Caucasus

That Turkey’s evolving thinking towards the Black Sea region is not an isolated case is also clear in Ankara’s recent growing attention paid to Georgia. For example, in December 2019 Turkey announced it would allocate 100 million Turkish liras (about $17 million) to the Georgian Ministry of Defense to carry out a reform in the sphere of the military logistics. This follows a significant growth in the transfer of Turkish defense capabilities to Georgia throughout 2019. In the first 11 months of 2019, exports of Turkish defense products to Georgia amounted to $3.9 million, which is approximately 37.8% more than what was during the same period of 2018. These measures also link up with a deep military cooperation that both states enjoy within Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan trilateral format (extended for 2022) when in mid-2019 the parties agreed to cooperate in creating military forces and defense systems in line with NATO standards.

This region has always been a space of intense Turkish-Russian competition and it is a crucial component of the country’s strategy of foreign policy diversification Ankara has pursued since early 1990s. Turkey has actively worked on connecting the South Caucasus region to its growing energy market consumption by initiating/facilitating various east-west energy and infrastructure projects. The TANAP, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan etc. have served as a powerful tool for Ankara to secure/strengthen its vital geopolitical interests. This thinking was clearly reflected during the latest meeting between the Turkish President and Georgian PM, Giorgi Gakharia in October 2019. For example, Erdogan stressed that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway represents not only “a step of historic importance,” but it also “introduces a new means [of transportation infrastructure] that interconnects the three friendly countries [Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan].” Thus, it is in Turkey’s vital interest to keep the corridor to Azerbaijan and the wider Caspian basin as free and secure as possible primarily from Russian military and economic ambitions.

To pursue this agenda would be possible through an increase of military cooperation with Tbilisi. However, though significant in numbers, just Turkish military aid (provided to Georgia in 2019 and in previous years) might not be enough to extensively increase Georgia’s military capabilities. Indeed, over the past decade or so, while Syria dominated Ankara’s agenda, Russia’s intensive militarization of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region changed a balance of power in the South Caucasus.

This geopolitical thinking could have been behind an interesting reappraisal of Turkish foreign policy. This January, during the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu unexpectedly called for Georgia’s accession into NATO: “I don’t understand why we have not invited Georgia, or [that] we haven’t activated the action plan for Georgia to become a member.” He also added “We are criticized for having relatively better relations with Russia as a neighbor, but our western friends are not agreeing to invite Georgia because they don’t want to provoke Russia. But Georgia needs us, and we need an ally like Georgia. So, we need enlargement and Georgia should be made a member.”

This represents a novelty in Turkey’s approach. Growth in military cooperation with Georgia as well as an open support for its NATO aspirations could well signal the beginning of a new strategic approach within Turkey’s neighborhood. Considering the military pressure emanating from Moscow in the Black Sea and Syria, Ankara could start pressuring the Kremlin by propping up those very borderland states which share difficult relations with Russia.

This is still far from a clear proxy competition, which takes place between the US and Russia. Moreover, Turkey and Russia will be striving to avoid confronting each other militarily. Even if the Syrian conflict ends in the near future, Turkey will still have to address a changing military, thence geopolitical, balance of power to its north and north-east, to limit a predominant Russia. 

For Tbilisi, on the other hand, an evolving perspective in Turkey’s foreign policy could provide a significant geopolitical boost in its quest to link up with NATO. Turkey using its vital position as a NATO member could offer a much deeper military cooperation beyond what is already seen within the Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan trilateral cooperation.

Author’s note: first published in Caucasus Watch

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Russia aids Italy in fight against COVID-19: Why we should be aware

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You’ve probably heard this week that Russia ­- with such ceremony, might I add – sent planes with its military medics to Italy to help in the fight against the coronavirus. This charity event was nothing more than a PR stunt by the Russian army, the sole purpose of which was to spread Moscow’s propaganda narratives and influence the Italian public, as well as politicians.  

It seems that some Italians are aware of this as well. The newspaper La Stampa cited high-ranking officials and reported that 80% of the aid sent by Russia turned out to be “completely useless”, adding that it is being used as a cover by Vladimir Putin to further his own political and economic ends. Right from the beginning, there was no humanitarian element to this charade.

Moscow, as one would expect, denied this, stressing the “good” nature of its intentions. Sadly, such sentiments are shared also by Italian politicians. As reported by La Stampa, the Italian prime minister agreed to receive aid from Russia to please Moscow and improve bilateral relations.

Currently, an increase in Russian disinformation can be observed in Italian social media – fake accounts are thanking Russia for the support, some are continuously slandering the EU and NATO about their inability and individual useful idiots are even tearing off EU flags and replacing them with Russian ones. And all of this is eagerly reported by the pro-Kremlin and anti-EU media outlets.

Unfortunately, a large part of Italians, crippled by the crisis, will believe the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign, and we can soon expect increased criticism of the EU and NATO coming from Rome along with improved relations between Italy and Russia. I think this will most likely begin by Rome attempting to cancel the sanctions imposed against Moscow.

The coronavirus is a global issue, but it seems that Moscow for quite some time has been lying about the spread of the virus in Russia in order to paint itself to the rest of the world as civilization’s last refuge. Rumors are spreading among Russian social media users about the special genes and formidable immune systems of the Russian nation, and this has resulted in many, including the elite, believing that COVID-19 will not affect them. At the same time, an unprecedented outbreak of “pneumonia” continues in Russia.

Despite Putin ordering to implement emergency measures to combat the coronavirus (the constitutional vote has been postponed and everyone in Russia received a paid week off from work), it is clear that the Kremlin’s primary objective is to exploit the new crisis to gain diplomatic advantage over the West.

This means that not long from now other EU and NATO member states could receive offers of “aid”, and this also includes Latvia. Let’s hope that our politicians, unlike the Italians, will have enough mental clarity to resist the Kremlin’s lies and refuse any ambiguous offers before it’s too late.

Imagine such a scenario: the crisis caused by COVID-19 in Europe continues to worsen: the US, the UK and other partners of Latvia are too busy with their internal problems and are no longer able to support Europe’s eastern flank against Russia. The response capabilities of NATO are paralyzed, and the West is unable to guarantee even diplomatic support for Latvia. Moscow understands this, and the Kremlin decides to act by turning to the Baltic states with an act of “goodwill” in the form of 10 military aircraft containing “humanitarian” aid.

Looking back at history, I clearly remember how “humanitarian aid” trucks from Moscow helped during the Ukraine crisis when Russia occupied Crimea. Kremlin-hired trolls worked even more vigorously by glorifying the Kremlin, which had no issues of using the pretext of humanitarian aid to occupy the Crimean Peninsula.

Italy saw this scenario and clearly lost. What would our own government do in such a situation?

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Defeating Systemic Corruption? Anti-Corruption Measures in Post-Revolution Ukraine and Armenia

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Ukraine and Armenia offer case studies on the challenges of recovering from post-Soviet authoritarian legacy, fraught with rampant corruption. As a matter of fact, systemic corruption has long condemned the two post-Soviet countries to a vicious circle of underdevelopment, bad governance and inability to implement fundamental economic and political reforms. Not surprisingly, the anti-corruption reforms have been put at the heart of post-revolution state-building in both countries.

Notably, Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko’s government significantly reduced the corruption, particularly in the gas, banking, and government procurement sectors. As a sign of moving the fight against corruption to the highest possible policy agenda, the Ukrainian government introduced the National Anti-Corruption Bureau  and the Specialized AntiCorruption Prosecutor’s Office NABU as well as Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO)  established in 2015 with the participation of civil society and donor countries. Yet, the effectiveness of these institutions has been questioned by several observers, pointing to insufficiency of anti-corruption measures amidst unrelenting efforts by power  groups to retain their outsized influence over law enforcement and justice. In essence, Poroshenko’s steady decline as a political powerhouse significantly owed  to his failure to eradicate corruption.

Meanwhile,  VolodymyrZelensky’s promises of defeating rampant corruption resonated with Ukrainians, who placed a great deal of faith in his ‘game-changing’ agenda.

The Rada’s first day was marked with the adoption of important pieces of anti-corruption legislation, including the removal immunity from prosecution for MPs and the proposal to provide the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) with the right to undertake autonomous surveillance.

Moreover, Zelensky’s anti-corruption efforts resulted in investigations and subsequent arrests of  some of President Poroshenko’s associates, including Oleg Hladkovsky, a top Defense official; a People’s Front party MP and the former head of the Rada’s defense committee SerhiiPashinsky; ex-deputy minister for the occupied territories Yuri Hrymchak; and Poroshenko Bloc MP YaroslavDubnevych, etc. Furthermore, Zelensky put the High Anti-Corruption Court into action,  that passed a bill   reinstating criminal liability for the illicit  enrichment of officials.

Similarly, the post-revolution government in Armenia criminalized  illicit enrichment and intensified its anti-corruption campaigns. The government pushed for a series of high-profile trials against former senior officials, most notably ex-president  Robert Kocharyan, former high-ranking officials Manvel Grigoryan,  Aram Harutyunyan, Seyran Ohanyan and others. This extended to former defense minister and outstanding former ruling Republican Party member, Vigen Sargsyan, who was charged with “abuse of power,”  as well as to former  Chief of Police Alik Sargsyan  –  charged   with   covering up  illegal post-election crackdown on opposition protesters in Yerevan in 2008 and with  destroying evidence of the “overthrow of the constitutional order” led by then President Kocharyan. However, these arrests and investigations have not yet led to court rulings. Essentially, both Pashinyan’s and Zelensky’s fight against corruption has so far focused on punishing former governments’ members or associates. The question remains if the anti-corruption measures will move beyond selective prosecution of former officials to the unequivocal application of “zero tolerance for corruption” principle.

This, in turn comes down to the furtherance of democratic reforms , leading to the advancement of good governance  practices and eradication of the systemic corruption in both countries.Some  critics have been skeptical about the effectiveness of anti-corruption reforms in these countries, positing that while governments   embark on “crowd-pleasing affairs,” much needs to be done to address the more systemic problems that the new governments inherited.

Both Zelensky and Pashinyan have placed a special emphasis on defeating judicial corruption. While former Ukrainian President Poroshenko hailed the  judicial reform  as “the mother of all reforms,” there was not much to reinforce government’s pledges of fundamental reforms.

In an effort to rectify this, in autumn 2019, President Zelensky embarked on judicial reforms. More specifically, he dismissed the High Qualification Council of Judges (the body responsible for attestation and selection of judges), announced plans to reload the Higher Council of Judges (the highest self-governance body of judges) and halved the number of Supreme Court judges.   Remarkably, while the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe,  praisedZelensky’s government’s judicial reform, it expressed concern over certain aspects of the reform, pertaining to “important issues of the rule of law” in Ukraine. The Commission criticised the situation, where the politicians are seen to get too much power to determine whether the sitting judges remain in their position or not. Similarly, the judicial corruption is one of the most harrowing challenges facing Pashinyan’s government. Following the controversial release of second President Robert Kocharyan in May 2019, Pashinyan contended that the judiciary is a remnant of the former corrupt system which would cook up conspiracies against the Armenian people.  As a result, he called for a mandatory “vetting” of all judges to the all the courts in the country because of their ties to the previous regime. The tension between Pashinyan’s government and the “remnants” of the former regime reached a point, where the Armenian parliament adopted a bill on holding a referendum on suspending the powers of a majority members of the Constitutional Court. Pashinyan would largely treat the current Constitutional Court as an impediment to completing the revolution in Armenia. More specifically, it was regarded as an instrument that prevented the people from exercising their right to form a government in the country in the 1996, 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 presidential elections. Notably, PACE co-rapporteurs for the monitoring of Armenia, called on Armenian political players to refrain from actions and statements that could be perceived as exerting pressure on the judiciary.  Essentially, Pashinyan threw his weight behind changing the Constitutional Court, contending that the latter represents the corrupt regime of Serzh Sargsyan, rather than the people of Armenia. Furthermore, he regarded the opponents of the referendum as “anti-state” forces.

Overall, the judicial reform remains as big challenge in both countries, as its success is critical to breaking with the authoritarian legacies.

 Based on the comparative analysis of anti-corruption strategies in developing countries, there are three main  observations to make regarding  Ukraine’s and Armenia’s trajectories.

First, in both countries corruption has been deeply entrenched and a result of the post-soviet authoritarian legacy. Essentially corruption has permeated every section of society and become a way of life in both countries . A major impediment to democratic state building, including fight against corruption in Armenia  and Ukraine is related to prevailing post-Soviet “informality”. The use of informal networks and connections in exchanges of favours, gift-giving along with other informal activities have been been deeply ingrained in both Ukrainian and Armenian societies. Therefore, the state apparatus, as well as education, healthcare, judiciary and law enforcement have long been dominated by informality.Thus, quite often the  institutions that have been set up to fight corruption  run up against deeply entrenched habits of graft in society and politics. Even though it would be an oversimplification to contend that Armenian and Ukrainian societies are congenitally hooked on graft as a way of life, the “culture of corruption” will not disappear overnight. Studies show that Ukrainian citizens tend to  “condemn” high-level corruption”  yet “regard petty corruption as a justifiable evil”. As a matter of fact, countries with long histories of informal illiberal practices and corruption often face tremendous challenges in eradicating these blights .Therefore eradicating the culture of corruption and informality should be an urgent priority on the reform agendas of new Ukrainian and Armenian governments.

 Second, one of the biggest challenges of anti-corruption reforms in developing and particularly transitional countries is the persistence and prevalence of corrupt practices by political and economic elites. More specifically, the residual influence of oligarchy presents a threats to the fight against systemiccorruption. Clearly, the political elite’s robust commitment to eradicating systemic corruption is indispensable. Meanwhile, inconsistencies and the weakness of a commitment lead to a situation, under the banner of “zero tolerance for corruption” governments keep playing a “tolerant corruption” game. Although political will may not be sufficient, it is a necessary condition to defeat corruption. The case of Romania demonstrates that the political will to defeat corruption may well make up the absence of a tradition of the rule of law and democracy. More specifically, the European Union pressure, along with the electoral pressure and the political will of the domestic political elite combined to ensure the establishment of the rule of law and defeating corruption in the Romanian judiciary .

Third, external factors including the anti-corruption programs of international donors have proved conducive to the fight against corruption.  While Ukraine’s choice for Europe and fervent desire to irreversibly depart from the orbit of the Russian influence is a crucial impetus to defeat corruption, Armenia’s centrality in the Russia-led socio-political order has remained intact. Nevertheless, Pashinyan’s government’s anti-corruption efforts prompt to posit that international efforts may well resonate with prevalent social norms in Armenia. A question remains if the legitimacy of the anti-corruption norms promoted particularly by the European Union will lead to their smooth implementations in Ukraine and Armenia.

Last but not least, the lessons from the successful anticorruption crusades of Singapore and Hong Kong show the need for anticorruption reform initiatives to be participatory and inclusive of all stakeholders including public and private sectors as well as civil society. Thus, it is absolutely essential for Armenian and Ukrainian civil society organizations to further develop institutional and professional capacity to contribute to anti-corruption reforms and influence their implementation.

Overall, the grounds for cautious optimism need to get reinforced to ensure that systemic corruption will no longer undermine democratic state-building in both countries.

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