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External Implications of Domestic Reforms in Azerbaijan

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The restructuring of the governance system, the appointment of Western-educated young professionals to the leading positions, and more decisive fight against corruption in energy-rich Azerbaijan promise a quicker betterment of the internal socio-political situation and allows the country to overcome the challenges posed by volatile energy prices in the global market. These developments in the South Caucasian country have, however, some implications for the wider region in general, for its immediate neighborhood in particular.

Azerbaijan’s political system has gone through a remarkably stable period since 1993 when Heydar Aliyev was elected the President of the then just two-years old republic in gravely troubled times for the country amidst the war with Armenia and tensed domestic situation. In a short period of time, President Aliyev managed to reach ceasefire with Armenia, quell separatist movement in the south, sign important contracts with Western oil companies, and navigate the country through troubled geopolitical waters. There have been few changes to the political system established at that time as it, supported by lucrative revenues from oil and gas exports, provided necessary conditions to implement the overall priorities of the country. As an American expert aptly observed, “There was simply enough money to keep almost everyone happy”.

The latest political and economic challenges the country confronted due to new realities in the international relations, however, revealed some shortcomings of this system and necessitated comprehensive reforms. Important to note that, this process had started even before the start of sharp fluctuations in oil prices since 2014. The optimization of the public services at an unprecedent pace exemplified by the establishment of the Azerbaijani Service and Assessment (ASAN) in 2012 strictly reduced the Soviet-style bureaucratic procedures marred by unbridled corruption. These measures were back then lauded by many international observers primarily for “eliminating the conditions that [were] conducive to corruption”.

The existence of strong centralized government has allowed the authorities to initiate and implement such amendments with immediate effect at all levels of the political establishment. The past year of 2019 marked the zenith of these changes in Azerbaijan. The replacement of the old cadres, some of whom held their positions at the highest posts in the government since 1990s,with younger and mostly Western-educated people, the dissolution of the unpopular parliament on the ground of its failure to catch up with the reform process and calling for snap parliamentary elections were some of the changes made in 2019. In the course of this process, in December, for the first time in the history of post-Soviet Azerbaijan, a regional executive head was arrested on charges of corruption and theft committed during his service.

The reforms have been, however, not confined to the political branch of the government. Over the last few years, the country has made immense efforts to diversify economy and reduce the dependency on oil and gas reserves that still supply major segment of national revenues. The government targets a quick development of the so-called non-oil sector which primarily includes tourism, agriculture, national industry, transport, logistics and communications. President Ilham Aliyev repeatedly highlighted in the recent year that the reforms would be expanded, and they are inevitable and irreversible.

 The provision of the favorable business environment and independent judicial system has been on the top of the agenda. The achievements reached have also reflected in the Economic Freedom report by the Heritage Foundation where Azerbaijan’s ranking progressed from 91stto 60th in 2019. According to the report, Azerbaijan’s “overall score has increased…, led by a dramatic rise in judicial effectiveness and higher scores for property rights and government integrity that offset declines in labor freedom and fiscal health.”The new situation makes it possible for the country to recover from the economic shocks of 2015 when it went through devaluation twice in a year.

These developments in Azerbaijan have, however, some implications for the wider region in general, for the country’s immediate neighborhood in particular.

First and foremost, as the reforms promise that the country will maintain its leading role in the economic map of the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan will likely continue to have necessary financial resources to invest in large-scale transportation and economic projects. The new generation of technocrats, transparency in financial management, and fair judiciary are other factors that bode well for the future of Azerbaijan’s economy. This is highly important for the South Caucasus as most of the monumental projects in the region would have not been possible without the financial backing of Azerbaijan.

 For example, the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which connects Azerbaijan with Georgia and Turkey and boosts the region’s appeal as a hub on the transportation route between Europe and China, has been financed solely by the Azerbaijani side. Likewise, the ongoing construction of a new Baku International Sea Trade Port (Alat), which targets to be the biggest multi-purpose port in the Caspian Sea, with a potential capacity to handle 25 million tons of cargo per year, will be completed thanks to economic recovery of the country.

In the meantime, Baku continued to expand its relations in the neighborhood with major partners like Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine, embarking in 2019 on ambitious transportation and energy projects, starting from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and to launching TANAP gas pipeline on November 30, 2019, targeting the European market. These projects have a regional significance and are as hugely important for the economy of the participating countries from the region as for that of Azerbaijan.

The internal political and economic situation in Azerbaijan has also a very critical link with the regional security in the South Caucasus. The country’s multi-faceted relationship with its north-western neighbor, Georgia, has proved itself utmost important for the latter in the most troubled periods. Azerbaijan provided Georgia with crucial support in 2008 which helped its neighbor to overcome the challenges posed by sudden disruption of the trade with the country’s major partner Russia. Azerbaijan, with its oil and gas exports and investments, have often played an indispensable role for the Georgian economy. In 2019, Azerbaijanis ranked first in the number of foreigners visiting Georgia which provide an important contribution to its tourism revenues. The political stability and economic well-being in Azerbaijan aimed to be maintained by the recent reforms will boost the existing dynamics between the two countries which are vital for their national security in general.

The domestic reforms in Azerbaijan provides also a useful opportunity to revitalize the country’s relationship with its Western partners. The optimization of the public services, the rejuvenation of the government and the new political atmosphere built by the recent changes are all in line with the targets declared by the Eastern Partnership program of the EU and need to be supported. The new situation also promises a push for Azerbaijan’s relations with the United States as Svante Cornell, Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, suggested in October 2019: “The reform effort in Azerbaijan provides an opportunity for the U.S.-Azerbaijan political dialogue to be centered on positive cooperation, and thus to strengthen rather than weaken the bilateral strategic dialogue.”

Dr. Vasif Huseynov is a senior fellow at the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center) in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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Eastern Europe

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

Dr. Esmira Jafarova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eastern Europe

Armenian geopolitics: Threats and claims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eastern Europe

Western Heraldry in Modern Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authors note: first published in Georgia Today

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