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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

New opportunities in the South Caucasus after the 44-day war and China’s BRI

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Authors: Araz Aslanlı and Yunis Sharifli

The entry of the South Caucasus into the modern system of international relations coincided with the transformation of China into one of the major participants in the international economy.The process of disintegration of the USSR, which accelerated in the second half of the 1980s, and the independence of the countries of the South Caucasus in 1991, meant both certain opportunities and certain problems/risks for China. Primarily, the independence of the region’s states meant at least new opportunities for China, which wanted to have new markets and corridors on the way to becoming a global economic power. China wanted to diversify its resources using the region’s energy resources.For China, the South Caucasus was also an important part of the East-West corridor. On the other hand, certain states could pursue policies that would concern China over the South Caucasus and Central Asia. For example, through these two regions, they could create problems with Iran, one of China’s alternative energy sources, and so on.

At this stage, the war situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia enabled China, like any other external force,  to increase maneuver capability and influence over the two countries. On the other hand, like any outside power, China was faced with certain choices (expressing its position on issues of interest to Azerbaijan and Armenia, especially during the voting in international organizations, etc.). At the same time, it caused certain problems in the East-West corridor, to which China attaches great importance. It was about the closure of the Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey line, which is a shorter route, as well as the fact that Armenia and the Armenian lobby regularly create problems for the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey alternative projects.

In the first stage, it is possible to see traces of all this in China’s policy towards the region. The fact that China is one of the countries most committed to the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs in international relations has had a positive impact on Sino-Azerbaijani relations.Azerbaijan is one of the few countries whose almost all high-ranking officials have regularly expressed full support for the “one China” principle.Certain public attitudes towards the East Turkestan issue in Azerbaijan, although not at the official level, Azerbaijan’s energy relations with the West and China’s sale of Typhoon missiles to Armenia, which is occupying Azerbaijani territories, were among the notable events.

Although China was one of the first countries to recognize Georgia, relations between the two countries are not very close. However, China and Georgia (Azerbaijan can be included in this list) continue their common policy, especially in terms of the Silk Road project and the importance they attach to territorial integrity.In this context, it was interesting that after the events of August 2008, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which China is the leading country, did not make a decision in support of Russia’s position, despite its efforts.China, which shares all its concerns about its territorial integrity, has either voted in favor of Azerbaijan’s proposals or abstained at the UN.

Belt and Road Initiative and the South Caucasus

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 in Astana, Kazakhstan (now Nur-Sultan), has aroused interest in the countries of South Caucasus from the first day.In particular, the presence of various transport projects within the initiative and plans to intensify interstate trade by promoting infrastructure development between the countries attracted the attention of the countries of the region.Each of the South Caucasus countries has signed various agreements with China to join the BRI and take advantage of this initiative.All three countries signed agreements related to the initiative in 2015.During the visit of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev to China in 2015, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries on the joint promotion of the establishment of the Silk Road Economic Belt. (E-qanun, 2016). Georgia was also one of the countries that signed a memorandum on the development of the BRI in March 2015 (Agenda. Ge, 2019).Finally, in 2015, Armenia signed a Memorandum of Understanding to promote cooperation in the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt (President, 2015).

The countries of the South Caucasus are located in the “China-Central and West Asia Corridor”, one of the six main economic corridors of the BRI, also known as the Middle Corridor (Guliyev, 2021).Covering 4,256 km of railways and 508 km of sea routes, this corridor stretches from the China-Kazakhstan border to Azerbaijan (via the Caspian Sea) and from there to Georgia and Turkey(Middle East Institute, 2019).In particular, after the re-independence of both Azerbaijan and Georgia, they focused on infrastructure development to take advantage of their geopolitical and geostrategic positions.Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) and Baku International Sea Trade Port (BISTP), two of Azerbaijan’s leading infrastructure projects, have played a key role in the active functioning of the Middle Corridor and the growing strategic importance of the region to China.

The Middle Corridor has various advantages over other corridors. First, the shipment of Chinese goods to Europe via the Middle Corridor is faster than the Northern Corridor through Russia.Goods traveling on the Trans-Siberian route reach Europe in 20 days, while goods moving through the Middle Corridor reach the same destination in 12 days. Besides, the non-compliance of roads and railways in the Northern Corridor with modern standards, while the roads and railways of the Central Corridor countries in line with modern standards, make the Middle Corridor more strategic and profitable than the Northern Corridor.Finally, the instability of US-Russia and US-Europe relations calls into question the political security of the Northern corridor.Second, the Middle Corridorhas also many advantages over the Southern Corridor through Iran.First, goods shipped from China to Europe via the Southern Corridor reach the same destination in 14 days, while goods shipped from the Middle Corridor reach the same destination in 12 days (Kamel, 2018).As in the Northern Corridor, the Southern Corridor’s infrastructure problems, strained US-Iranian relations, sanctions on Iran and instability in the country call into question the security of this corridor.Finally, the Middle Corridor has advantages over sea routes. For example, goods shipped from China to Europe by sea reach their destination in 36 days(Humbatov, 2018; CSIS, 2018). In general, the Middle Corridor can reduce China’s dependence on Russia for transport routes, and in the Southern Corridor, it can safely ship its products to Europe without the use of sanctioned Iran’s geography (The Information Corridor, 2020).

During the pandemic, the importance of air and sea routes decreased (International Finance Corporation, 2020). In contrast, during the pandemic, railroads emerged as the most reliable means of transportation.Railways are cheaper than air, shorter than sea, and safer than goods shipped by highway (Eurasianet, 2021).In this regard, the strategic value of the Middle Corridor, especially the BTK, has increased during the pandemic.During the pandemic, a container transfer system was installed at the Canbaz station on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Georgian border to increase the capacity of the railway line to 3,500 tons due to increased demand for BTK freight(RayHaber, 2020).The increase in the freight capacity of the BTK railway and the growing demand for freight on this railway have further increased the strategic importance of Azerbaijan and Georgia against the background of the BRI.The active participation of Azerbaijan and Georgia in the Middle Corridor has strengthened their strategic positions within the East-West trade corridor. However, Armenia, which is under siege due to the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, has not been able to take advantage of this corridor, and in addition, due to the blockade, relations with China have developed weaker compared to other countries in the region.However, the Zangazur railways, which are expected to resume operations based on the tripartite agreement signed as a result of the Second Karabakh War, may change Armenia’s position in a positive direction in the future.

Zangazur railway and its impact on China’s relations with the countries of the South Caucasus

After the 44-day war, which resulted in the liberation of Azerbaijani territories from Armenian occupation, one of the most notable factors in the declaration signed between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia was the revitalization of the Zangazur corridor (both railway and highway).The launch of the Zangazur railway will allow Armenia, which has been under blockade for years, to join the regional projects and utilize the full potential of the Middle Corridor.The reconstruction of the Zangazur railway is in line with China’s plans within the BRI and increases the strategic value of the South Caucasus region and its comparative advantage over other corridors from China’s point of view.

The Zangazur Corridor creates new opportunities for China in the region in the context of political, economic, and security aspects.First of all, the launch of an alternative and shorter railway in the region, along with BTK railways, is in line with China’s plans to diversify its export and import routes to ensure economic security (The Jamestown Foundation, 2021). In addition, the launch of the alternative railway will further increase the carrying capacity of the Middle Corridor by rail and highway, which will further increase the strategic importance of the Middle Corridor compared to other corridors and contribute to China-Europe trade through the land.

The resumption of the Zangazur railway can bring Armenia back to the region, contribute to the strengthening of stability in the region, and intensify the further development of Sino-Azerbaijani and Sino-Armenian relations.At present, goods sent from China to Armenia are shipped by sea and enter Armenia from Georgia (Vinokurov and Tsukarev, 2017).However, in the case of the relaunch of the railway, goods from China can be sent to Armeniamore shortly and profitably, which can contribute to the further development of relations between the two countries.From Azerbaijan’s point of view, the opening of the Zangazur railway could further strengthen Azerbaijan’s strategic position in the region as a transit country along the East-West and North-South corridors, and increase Azerbaijan’s strategic value from China’s point of view.Finally, the new railway could contribute to the development of China’s relations not only with the countries of the region but also with Turkey, a regional power.In particular, it can contribute to the development of relations, both politically and economically, by intensifying the flow of goods from both China to Turkey and from Turkey to China, strengtheningthe level of weak interdependence between the two countries. Additionally, to the BTK and BISTP, the launch of Marmaray in Turkey has further intensified trade relations between China and Turkey (Habertürk, 2019). In the future, the opening of the Zangazur railway can further strengthen relations between the two countries from an economic point of view.

As a result, the recent short-lived crisis in the Suez Canal, which has once again highlighted the negative aspects of sea routes, has further increased the value of railways for China.In addition, in the first quarter of 2021, freight traffic along the BTK and the Middle Corridor increased by 104% compared to 2019 to 396,778 tons, indicating that the demand for the Middle Corridor is growing every year (Azernews, 2021). In the future, the launch of the Zangazur railway will further increase the strategic value of the Middle Corridor compared to other corridors, passing through more stable countries amid existing US-Russia, EU-Russia, and US-Iran tensions.This situation could lead to an increase in China’s economic and political presence in the South Caucasus.Reducing transit costs and resolving bureaucratic problems between countries can lead to regional countries benefiting from Chinese investment, promote Sino-European trade, and develop win-win cooperation between the countries of the region and China.

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A Counter-Enlightenment Creeps Through Eurasia

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We live in the age of counter-Enlightenment. What seemed like a collection of dispersed autocratic and simply illiberal states, has now coalesced into a fully blown ideological movement premised on not only resisting liberal internationalism on an ad hoc basis but exporting authoritarian models of governance.

Illiberalism’s flag-bearers in China and Russia have also shown they can harness modernity. What was deemed an asset peculiar to the West — because progress was considered a direct result of liberal norms and vice versa — is now being fitfully mastered by its enemies.

Yet the bad news comes with a good news rider. If the United States wants to maintain global influence, it cannot simply seek to maintain the old world order. The appearance of serious rivals with a hostile ideology will stiffen America’s resolve, as happened in the Second World War and in the Cold War. For the past decade or more, this ideological motivation has been lacking because China’s competition was mostly still viewed as fitting within the framework of the liberal world order. China, the West wrongly believed, could be lured into better behavior by the self-evident benefits of cooperation.

Westerners expected poor economic conditions to liberalize or even bring down the Chinese and Russian regimes, but the reality is quite different. China gathered strength after the 2008 financial crisis and raised its profile through vaccine diplomacy during the covid-19 pandemic. Russia, despite suffering extensive sanctions, is growing more assertive in the South Caucasus, Black Sea, and parts of the Middle East. Even in the case of Iran, its most active foreign involvement coincided with Western sanctions.

Illiberalism has been wrongly described as unstable and as a transitory stage in the evolution towards the liberal-democratic model. But armed with modern technology, it is resilient and resourceful, and is a much longer-term challenge than the crude communism of the past. Failure to deliver on its promises ultimately killed the communist dream, but failure to deliver in quasi-capitalist illiberal states will not bring down the order as quickly as some would think.

China and Russia’s example makes illiberalism fashionable among the struggling states of Europe and Asia. In Georgia, yet another far-right movement — Unity, Essence, Hope — was just created which repudiates the tenets of liberalism and advocates the reversal of the entire political system and what is more important, seeks closer ties with Russia. Their arguments are more nuanced though. Fearing a backlash, they explain the need to work with Russia from geopolitical necessity.

In Armenia, upcoming parliamentary elections will usher in closer ties with Moscow, regardless of which side wins. This will mean greater dependence on illiberal Russia which will likely include considerable backsliding in democratic reforms. After all, Russia has been uncomfortable with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s overtly pro-democracy government since 2018.

In Ukraine, internal reforms have stalled, and corruption is still a country-wide challenge, while neighboring Moldova is notoriously divided.

All these problems are abetted by Russia’s military presence on their sovereign territory and by troubled economies which create space for China’s strings-attached cash infusions. The governments in these post-Soviet states are manifesting the ability to appropriate the liberal concepts on state and economy to advance their illiberal agenda. Take Georgia or Armenia. Both hold elections, and are democracies to varying extents. But instead of ushering in political plurality and peaceful changes of government, these provide fertile ground for ruling governments to employ state power to entrench their positions. Both see accusations of alleged vote-rigging or the use of state finances to intimidate the opposition, a classic case of creeping illiberal practices under the guise of democracy. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán boasted as early as 2014 that, “the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.”

The West has to look at this challenge from a wider historical perspective. Hopes for the eventual abandonment of the illiberal governing model are not self-fulfilling. Bolstering the liberal order by strengthening rules-based policies is one approach. Another is to show that liberalism is more attuned to economic and governance progress. The means to shore up state institutions in those fragile countries should be sought.

The West should support fragile the fragile states of Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Armenia because there is still some hope they can take a better path. Recently Georgia’s politicians resolved a major political crisis by re-entering the legislature after months of boycotts. In Armenia, the decision to call snap parliamentary elections lowered political tensions. Illiberalism in the region — all Armenia’s and Georgia’s neighbors are less-than-liberal states — could easily engulf these tiny islands of liberal democracy.

Illiberalism is essentially a counter-Enlightenment and is seen by autocrats as a return to normalcy in human and state relations. They hail the primacy of state and strongman rule, or clique rule, and create something eerily reminiscent of illiberal governments between the two world wars, when smaller and newer European democratic systems were unable to survive pressures from within and without.

President Joe Biden’s insistence on upholding democratic and liberal ideals suggests the U.S. is willing to battle illiberalism. Whichever model prevails will ultimately define our world and will be decisive for smaller states bordering illiberal powers. Military power matters, but the battle for hearts and minds is just as important.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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Baltic States are the territories of geopolitical games

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nato baltics

The large scope of military exercises which NATO conducts today is not only a signal to its opponent, Russia, but also the attempts of the Alliance to keep interest of its member states and justify its existence. Such political and military organization like NATO cannot work without reforms and transformations. So, NATO finds new territories to train its new initiatives and gain a foothold in new places.

Thus, on 7 June 2018, Allies agreed a NATO Readiness Initiative. Allies have committed, by 2020, to having 30 battalions; 30 air squadrons; and 30 naval combat vessels ready to use within 30 days.

The initiative aims to enhance the readiness of existing national forces, and their ability to move within Europe and across the Atlantic — in response to a more unpredictable security environment. It is said that this is not about new forces but about increasing the readiness of forces Allies already have — forces that could be made available for collective defence and crisis response operations.

The initiative builds on a series of steps taken to increase the readiness of Allied forces. Over the past few years, the Alliance has tripled the size of the NATO Response Force to around 40,000 troops, with a new 5,000-strong Spearhead Force at its core. NATO has also deployed four multinational battlegroups to the Baltic States and Poland, increased its presence in the Black Sea region, and set up a number of small headquarters to link national and NATO forces.

The Baltic States which are close to Russia were chosen for the purpose to deploy foreign troops as long as possible. Though permanent military presence is not stipulated by international treaties.

NATO tries to turn rotational basis of military presence to permanent one, constantly conducting military exercises. The scope of such Alliance’s military activity in the region is so huge, that foreign soldiers become regular visitors to bars, restaurants and shops in the Baltic countries. When this facts became common for the locals, it was too late. The more so, under the cover of military exercises, old military equipment was delivered to the Baltic States, where it remains for an unspecified period of time. Military contingents present on the territory permanently, rotating each other. The more so, these countries are used as transit states for foreign heavy armored vehicles, harming the environment.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia don’t belong to themselves anymore. They are just territories of others’ geopolitical games and military preparations. The status of a host nation, where foreign troops are based, by the way, turns them to the main target of potential aggressor.

Probably, it is time to think about the population of the Baltic States, and not about foreign geopolitical interests?

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