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Political and Economic interests of Japan in South Caucasus: Perspectives of Cooperation

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Though Japan was among the first to recognize the independence of three South Caucasus states, relations with Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku remained limited in the 1990s. It is only in the 2010s that we saw an increased effort from Tokyo to build deeper economic cooperation. Another feature of those relations is Tokyo’s efforts to improve the South Caucasus transport corridor running through Georgia and Azerbaijan and connecting the Caspian and the Black Seas.

Japan’s position in the South Caucasus has been evolving over the past two decades. Japan traditional geopolitical expansion has historically been in the Asia-Pacific region. Very little, if at any attempts were made by Japan to penetrate economically and culturally into the South Caucasus. Surely geography played an important role. Distance between Japan and the South Caucasus precluded the two from cooperation. However, as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia gained independence in 1991 and a rapid rise of globalization, there has been growing Japanese interest in the South Caucasus. 

First, Japan views the region beyond a purely geopolitical dimension as compared to China. For Tokyo, due to its military constrains it was important to build a platform of cooperation upon which it would later base numerous initiatives for deepening bilateral relations with Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan. 

Such a platform was Japan’s Official Development Assistance program. The programs its priorities include disaster reduction; raising security; assistance regarding software; mobilization of Japan’s experience, expertise, and technology etc. As is seen here very little is of direct geopolitical importance. Surely Russia, Turkey, China, and the European Union (EU) work in similar areas and help the South Caucasus states, but their moves are more geopolitical than that of Japan. Perhaps Tokyo’s moves are more similar to the US’ involvement in the South Caucasus. Here too are several caveats: the US is interested in ensuring that the region does not fall back into the Russian sphere of influence, whereas Japan cannot compete with Russia. However, Tokyo and Washington, being distant powers share one similarity: the pouring of money to improve security, infrastructure and social conditions of those living in the region.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Japan’s economic initiatives among the South Caucasus states has been Armenia. In fact, this is based on history of Armenian-Japanese ties. Tokyo was one of the first to recognize the independence of Armenia in 1919.

Bolshevik invasion of Armenia stopped the first contacts, but they nevertheless revived even before the collapse of the Soviet Union when Armenia was hit by an earthquake. Since 1998, Japan provided technical and expert support for the reform of Armenia’s poor energy sector. Moreover, a 40 million USD credit was used for the construction and modernization of various infrastructure in Armenia’s energy sector. This cooperation still continues as Japan now helps Armenia to reconnect the far-flung territories with modern roads and other infrastructure capabilities.

Another dimension of the cooperation is the provision of technical support for the implementation of ODA projects in the agricultural sector. There is also the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) where Armenia is actively involved as a major recipient. 

Armenia currently has a dynamically developing IT market and is especially interested in Japan as a major source high technology. This could serve as a solid basis for deeper cooperation between the two states.

However, when we talk about various spheres of Japan-Armenia cooperation, it should be remembered that there are no immediate economic benefits for the local communities. Unlike the EU’s China’s, Russia’s investments which bring a certain economic gain, there is little local development to be seen in case of Japan’s moves. Nevertheless, those initiatives are not entirely without merit, but are rather long-term, paving way for new initiatives. Only the projects such as educational grants and grants for agricultural producers, had an immediate economic impact for local communities.

Another state, albeit to a lesser degree, enjoying Japan’s economic aid is Georgia. There was a significant development in Japanese-Georgian relations over the past couple of years.

In 2018 ‘Japan’s Caucasus Initiative’ was announced, which involved two policy components: providing assistance in human resource development state building and supporting infrastructure development and business environment improvement. In both cases, Tbilisi became a benefactor.

All of Japan’s moves and initiatives are to support Georgia’s self-sustained development. This includes helping to improve the country’s connectivity and transportation infrastructure; developing renewable energy through the provision of hybrid cars and electric cars etc. Indeed, Japan has already allocated $343 million to finance construction of the 14km long Shorapani-Argveti section of the East-West Highway, which runs through Georgia and connects Azerbaijan with Turkey and Georgia’s Black Sea ports.

Another important initiative from the Japanese side has been to lessen the travel burden for South Caucasus nationals. In 2018, Tokyo voiced its decision to ease visa requirements for Georgian citizens to promote people to people connections and deepen relations between the two countries.

Moreover, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili this January 2020 said Tbilisi aims at boosting economic cooperation with Japan with an eye to sign a free trade agreement.

If for Armenia cooperation with Japan is about geopolitics, for Tbilisi closer relations with Tokyo could produce some points of cooperation. Indeed, both states have territorial troubles with Russia and both regard Moscow’s ambitions as a certain geopolitical threat. Surely, Japan is hesitant to position itself openly in such a context, but for Tbilisi to have deeper cooperation with Tokyo is all about Georgia’s strategy of diversifying its foreign policy, finding new players able to balance Russia’s resurgent position in the South Caucasus.

Japan has been developing closer cooperation with Azerbaijan. Development of the country’s basic infrastructures and living environment has been a priority for Tokyo. For example, Shimal Gas Combined Cycle Power Plant Project (US$261million); Provincial Cities Water Supply and Sewerage Project (US$293million); Maintenance of Water Supply and Sewerage facilities at major cities in provincial areas etc.

As a starting point in the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor, Azerbaijan’s strategic position is clearly appreciated by the Japanese. This is reflected in bilateral negotiations when Japanese officials hail Azerbaijan’s strategic location and the progress made by the development of non-oil sector. 

Both countries often hold sessions of the Japanese-Azerbaijani Economic Committee in Baku and work on increasing trade turnover which is currently growing but remains far lower than what is hoped for. For instance, in 2018 Japanese imports to Azerbaijan constituted approximately $400 million. Japan mainly imports Azerbaijan’s oil and agricultural products, while Azerbaijan is interested in increasing the import of Japanese technological novelties.

Here again, as in the case of Armenia and Georgia, Tokyo is hesitant to openly position itself in regional geopolitical conflicts such as the one over Nagorno-Karabakh. Japan limits itself to diplomatic statements on the need to resolve the issues peacefully.

Overall, it could be argued that in comparison with the 1990s, Japan’s interests in the South Caucasus grew in 2010s. It is true that Tokyo does not have a definite geopolitical agenda for the region, but it clearly sees long-term geopolitical implications of helping the South Caucasus states. For Japan, the region is an interconnector of Central Asia with the Black Sea and the Eastern Europe. In that sense, Japan’s covert geopolitical agenda could be to help Georgia and Azerbaijan develop their transit capabilities. In fact, the above-mentioned initiatives implemented by Tokyo reflect this thinking. Armenia might the biggest benefactor in terms of amount of money, but in long-term geopolitical sense, the aid to develop Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s road infrastructure would a much bigger purpose of strengthening these countries’ ability to circumvent Russian territory. Thus, considering previous Japanese moves in the South Caucasus, it is likely that we will see continuous attempts by Tokyo to pour in money in the South Caucasus, lessen visa requirements, increase trade and develop deeper educational cooperation with the three states.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch.de

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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