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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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Eastern Europe

Azerbaijan’s Inclusive Diplomacy Amidst COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic represents an unprecedented disruption to the global supply chain, as production and consumption are on a downward trend across the world. While the outbreak weakened considerably the global value chain by disrupting the balance between supply and demand, the economic repercussions are having a profound adverse impact on evry sphere of life. Against this backdrop, some countries tried to turn the coronavirus pandemic into a propaganda tool, whilst the others were suffering from the outbreak.TheCovid-19 pandemichas subsequently become a test for international community and also an ideal momentum for certain great powers to extend their influence globally.

While the world is in the throes of the COVID-19, under the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan has taken important initiatives to strengthen international solidarity and cooperation in the fight against coronavirus at the regional and global levels.The holding of an extraordinary Summit of the Turkic Council and anonline Summit-level Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement Contact Group in response to the COVID-19 initiatedby Ilham Aliyev, the current Chairman of of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States and the NAM, President of Republic of Azerbaijanis an example of this.The heads of state participating in the summits, as well as the heads of the UN and the World Health Organization praised the initiatives of the President of Azerbaijan to curb the pandemic.At these summits, extensive discussions were held on the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, and various ideas and proposals were put forward. Azerbaijan has proposed convening a special session of the United Nations General Assembly (UN GA) to strengthen the global efforts to combat the new coronavirus (COVID-19). The proposal has been already supported by more than 130 UN Member States which demonstrates confidence and trust in Azerbaijan.When the world is facing a global disaster and all countries need international solidarity and cooperation, though it may seem improbable Armenia is the only country protested against the initiative which is in the interests of the international community.

While the COVID-19 wrecking the world, unfortunately the international community has demostrated limited solidarity. However, as mentioned by António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations that we are in an unprecedented situation and the normal rules no longer apply and this is, above all, a human crisis that calls for solidarity. In this sense, hopefully Azerbaijan’s above-mentioned initiative will invigorate global ambition to find a solution to the global disaster by breaking the silence of the UN and it will once again become a platform for global discussions and this special session will lay the potential groundwork for greater engagement in response to this humanitarian crisis.

Azerbaijan always attaches great importance to mutually beneficial cooperation with all countries. This principle is clearly reflected in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy during pandemic, as well.Assistance to a number of countries suffering from the pandemic is a clear example of Azerbaijan’s inclusive aid-oriented foreign policy.Azerbaijan, amidst the pandemic, once again repeatedly supports international solidarity and provides assistance to most needy countries.So far, Azerbaijan has extended a helping hand to many countries suffering from the pandemic.Azerbaijan has sent medical aid to about 30 countries, including the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.It included financial assistance and support in the form of medical equipments and supplies to strengthen the health, social and economic resilience of the most pandemic-hit countries. At the same time, it has provided $ 10 million in assistance to the World Health Organization, which will help countries in the world that are suffering from the pandemic and financially struggling to fight the pandemic. The donation has been distributed to most vulnerable Non-Aligned Movement member countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Additionally, in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, Azerbaijan even donated $5 million of financial aid to the Islamic Republic of Iran devastated under the US sanctions which made it impossible for the country to swiftly take the necessary medical, economic and social measures to protect its citizens from the coronavirus.The main criteria here are the countries in need the most.All this, of course, is a clear example of the humanity and generosity of the people of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan never turns away those who ask for help. Therefore, the sympathy and respect for Azerbaijan, who pursues the right and dignified policy both domestically and internationally, is growing day by day.That once again attests Azerbaijan is always at the forefront of fight against the global challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a public health crisis for the whole of humanity.Understanding the significance of the problem, therefore Azerbaijan shoulders a tremendous responsibility as a middle power to uphold the vision of strengthening the solidarity and the promotion of multilateral diplomacy. Azerbaijan conducts a diplomacy focused on the practical mesaures to deal with a global disaster of this dimension, at multiple levels, in coordination with each other and international community. Some experts consider the recent developments in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy as “the rise of Azerbaijan’s diplomacy”.

To conclude, at a time when the global crisis and uncertainty are deepening, Azerbaijan is taking responsibility and making a real contribution to multilaterialism.As a responsible and reliable member of the world community, Azerbaijan has supported calls for global solidarity from the earliest days of the coronavirus threat.Azerbaijan’s foreign policy stance on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is that the international community can only tackle the current crisis through a multilateral rules-based order and there is no way to protectionism and isolationism.More specifically, Azerbaijan prefers the inclusive diplomacy as a possible framework for addressing the current critical situation.

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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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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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