Between 1987 and 1988, democratic movements in the Soviet region had already started, covering mainly the Baltic States, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. These demonstrations of independence were followed by almost all of the Soviet Republics in the following years, including Azerbaijan.
Like the other oil states created in the ruins of the Soviet Union, post-Communist Azerbaijan faced a complex legacy in the 1990s, which was formed as an outcome of the Soviet inherited trends of economic and political development. These difficulties were intensified not only by the military conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, but also by the harsh actions of the political and economic elites of post-Soviet states.
One point specific to the case of Azerbaijan was the difficulties of transporting oil in order to achieve economic growth. During his research about Azerbaijan in the 19th century, Russian geographer Pyotr Chikhachev noted the “isolation of Baku from European markets”. In order to provide democratic consolidation to the newly independent Azerbaijan, diversification of transport routes was needed, because that would lead to gain profit and to implement further projects in the country.
This essay will demonstrate that the geopolitical situation of Azerbaijan has had a negative effect on democratization and nation-building processes. A brief history of the first years of independent Azerbaijan will be analyzed in the first section, while the second section will cover post-war period and the projects and reforms implemented on the behalf of democratization. The conclusion will give a brief review of the essay and offer future implications.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF INDEPENDENCE: THE NAGORNO KARABAKH WAR PERIOD
Black January: the enlightenment
On 9 January 1990, neighboring Armenian SSR took advantage of the unrest and voted to include Azerbaijani autonomous oblast of Nagorno Karabakh in its budget and allowed its inhabitants to vote in Armenian elections. This action caused rage throughout Azerbaijan, thus disregarding Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Demonstrations started against this decision throughout the country – mainly in Baku – led by the newly formed Popular Front of Azerbaijan. On 19 January 1990, a decree issued by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and signed by M. Gorbachev introduced a state of emergency in Baku and some other places in Azerbaijan SSR. Following the curfew, on the night of January 19th, some 26000 Soviet troops entered Baku from several directions, destroyed the central television station as well as radio and phone lines in order to maintain the information blockade. It was already 20 January when the Soviet troops moved inside of city and crushed the civilian population. The death toll was between 131-137, while up to 800 civilians were wounded and 5 people were missing. These actions didn’t stop the people: almost the whole population of Baku flowed to the streets to bury the dead on 22 January.
The violent authoritarian break-down on 20 January 1990 made the re-democratization process stronger – the earlier democratic failure was between 1918-1920, before Soviet troops invaded Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. On 18 October 1991, the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan finally adopted the Declaration of Independence, followed by a nation-wide referendum in December of the same year. Prior to that, Ayaz Mutallibov was elected as the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
The Nagorno Karabakh War
The Declaration of Independence did not create a base for democratic consolidation. The clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan that started in 1988 intensified in 1991. On 6 January 1992, a referendum was held in Nagorno Karabakh – which was boycotted by the Azerbaijani community – resulted in the declaration of independence of Nagorno Karabakh from Azerbaijan. Thus, escalated the conflict and eliminated the ability of Azerbaijan to withstand shocks. The war itself roughly lasted 6 years, between 1988-1994, and costed for Azerbaijan 12000 dead, 50000 wounded and 4210 missing soldiers, as well as 167-763 civilian death only in 1992 and 724000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). But the war had other consequences that obstructed the democratization process. This includes fractures within the government itself and a possible military coup.
The political instability and its outcomes
The years 1992-1993 were memorable years in the political history of Azerbaijan because of the power struggle. As a result of Khojaly Massacre – according to official records, 613 civilians murdered by Armenian forces and 366th CIS regiment – in Nagorno Karabakh, Mutallibov had to resign on March 6, 1992. Yagub Mammadov replaced him as executive of presidential powers until Mutallibov regained the power on May 14. But this presidency did not last long either, thus Popular Front of Azerbaijan took control of Parliament of Azerbaijan, thereby deposing Mutallibov, who left for Moscow on May 15, 1992. Moreover, Isa Gambar elected as the chairman of the National Assembly of Azerbaijan and took the duty of acting president until the national elections. Finally, on 7th of June, Popular Front member Abulfaz Elchibay won the national elections and became the President of Azerbaijan Republic.
As mentioned before, war itself brought other troubles. The retreat of Soviet troops from the region created a weapons vacuum, thus former soldiers traded their weapons for cash to either sides, sometimes even sold tanks and armored personnel carriers. Taking the advantage of situation, a commander named Surat Huseynov created his own military brigade, purchased many weapons and vehicles, opposed against the Popular Front of Azerbaijan. He was a successful commander in the war since the beginning of 1992. As a result of conflict between him and Popular front, Huseynov orders to disarm the 709th military base in Ganja, which is commanded by himself, then marches towards Baku, the capital on June 1993.
The increasing political tensions in the country and a possible military coup made Elchibay to invite Heydar Aliyev – the head of Supreme Assembly of Nakhchivan during that time – to Baku in order to solve the internal conflict. On June 15, 1993 Elchibay appointed Heydar Aliyev as the chairman of the National Assembly of the Azerbaijani Republic. After this event, Elchibay retreated to his hometown and this action deepened the political crisis in the country. Heydar Aliyev proposed Surat Huseynov as prime minister and after the approval of the National Assembly to the requested office, his supporters backed up. After another coup d’état attempt against Aliyev by Huseynov’s units on 5 October 1994, which was immediately suppressed, Huseynov fled to Russia. On 1997 Russia extradited Huseynov to Azerbaijan, where he was charged with treason and attempted coup, among other crimes. On 1997 Russia extradited Huseynov to Azerbaijan, where he charged with treason and attempted coup, among other crimes.
After Elchibay’s retreat and Aliyev’s assignment by the National Assembly as acting president, he became 3rd elected president of the Republic of Azerbaijan by a nation-wide presidential election on 3 October 1993. Up until this time Armenian forces already occupied the whole Nagorno Karabakh and 11 surrounding districts. Finally, after long discussions in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a provisional ceasefire agreement was signed by representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan, unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and as a mediator, Russia on 5 May 1994. On the one hand Bishkek Protocol, still in effect, ended Nagorno Karabakh War, on the other hand did not solve the conflict once for all. But the ceasefire was a necessary action for a country that gained independence recently, in order to stabilize the government and strengthen democratic roots.
The first years of democratic Azerbaijan were too fragile. There was almost no democratic consolidation to enforce the regime transformation. Several events prevented democratic consolidation, including the war, internal conflicts and absence of democratic roots. Although Burnell and Rakner explain that “just as there can be political transition without transition to democracy, so there can be democratic transition without democratic consolidation”; this scenario was impossible for the case of Azerbaijan because of the above-mentioned issues. Azerbaijan needed strong democratic consolidation in order to withstand shocks, both internal and external, so that the transition period could be completed. A democratic country cannot arise just by declaring independence, it needs stronger motives and hard work.
POST-WAR PERIOD: REFORMS AND ENERGY PROJECTS UNDER THE TWO PRESIDENTS
Azerbaijan and Heydar Aliyev
Finally, in 1994, the war ended and the government was stabilized. But this was not the end, there were further challenges for Azerbaijan. As Nikolay Dobronravin mentioned, Azerbaijan also encountered issues with the transport curse, mainly because of the war with Armenia, that closed the route to Europe by dividing the country in two parts. Azerbaijan also suffered from the ongoing instability in neighboring Georgia and the conflict in Chechnya.
Azerbaijan was a natural resource rich country and during its first years of independence, there was not so much technology and investment for the allocation of resources. War was costly and the country needed investment, so the best option was involving foreign companies for oil extraction.
As a result of this, Aliyev’s government implemented 20 production sharing agreements, which concluded Azerbaijan oil strategy’s integral part. This International Contract was signed by the president and other participants on 20 September 1994 and ratified by the National Assembly on 2 December. In 1995, Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC) – a consortium that included BP, Amoco, Lukoil, Pennzoil, UNOCAL, Statoil, McDermott, Ramco, TPAO, Delta Nimir and SOCAR (Azerbaijan) – was formed. Because of the volume and strategic importance for Azerbaijan, this contract was labeled the “Contract of the Century”.
Pipeline diversity was a further strategic objective for Azerbaijan. Firstly, northern route was used for delivering oil to Europe through Novorossiisk, Russia. The oil transport diversion started in 1999, when Baku-Supsa pipeline opened. In 2005 another pipeline – Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan (BTC) – was constructed for delivering Azerbaijani oil to Europe and the world. in 2007 Azerbaijan became one of the Europe’s gas exporters by building Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline.
These projects developed Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon reserves and also brought lots of ‘unearned state income’. In order to manage this money flow and overcome the resource curse, a national resource fund – State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOFAZ) – was founded in 1999. The main objective of SOFAZ was to save financial assets earned from natural resource for current and future generations.
In order to provide democratic consolidation, Aliyev held several reforms, mainly on the agrarian sector, with the privatization of the sector as the primary goal. Several laws and reforms were adopted: “the Basis of Agrarian Reform law” (18 February 1995); “Reform of state and collective farms” (18 February 1995); “Land Reform” (16 July 1996); “State land cadaster, land monitoring and structure law” (22 December 1998), “Land rent decree” (12 March 1999), “land market law” (7 May 1999). Moreover, The Land Code of the Azerbaijani Republic was adopted on 25 June 1999.
The successor: Ilham Aliyev
In 2003, after the death of Heydar Aliyev, his son, Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father. He also continued to develop the economy through energy projects, as economic development is considered one of the best guarantors of durable democracy. He reportedly stressed the importance of the Southern Gas Corridor – consists of several projects, including South Caucasus Pipeline extension (SCPx), Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) – because of the importance of this project for Azerbaijan to transport natural gas to Europe. At the time, SCPx was already completed and ran alongside BTC oil pipeline. In addition to this, presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey inaugurated TANAP on 12 June 2018. The country’s GDP increased 5 times between 2003-2016, reaching 37.848 billion USD from 7.276 billion USD.
Aliyev, since the start of his presidency in 2003, has adopted 5 anti-corruption plans, including State Programme on Fight Against Corruption (2004-2006), National Strategy on Strengthening Transparency and Fight Against Corruption (2007-2011), National Action Plan on Fight Against Corruption and Promotion of Open Government (2012-2015) and National Action Plan on Promotion of Open Government (2016-2018). On top of these actions, the Law on Fight against corruption came into force and the Anti-Corruption Directorate under General Prosecutor Office was formed on 3 March 2004. According to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2013, 69% of respondents say that government’s efforts are effective to fight corruption.
In general, during Heydar Aliyev’s mandate, the political stability recovered in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan became a part of the GUAM bloc (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova), which presented a counterbalance to Russia in the region. Under the conditions of political stability, several reforms and privatization were implemented and economic growth was observed during this time.
As a result of these democratization efforts, Azerbaijan was elected as a non-permanent member of United Nations Security Council in 2012, thus being the first country in South Caucasus and Central Asia region to take this function. In order to strengthen democratic consolidation, Aliyev implemented several reforms in the recent months, which resulted in the replacement of old ministers and government officials, who were holding office for 20-25 years, by a younger generation. Public opinion towards the president’s actions also seems to be positive as well. According to a survey conducted by Opinionway, a French research center, 85% of the people appreciate President Aliyev’s actions as positive, while 80% of those perceive that stability in the country is due to Aliyev’s positive moves.
Furthermore, one expected outcome is the creation of more democratic institutions. On 5 December 2019, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree on the dissolution of the parliament and a new parliamentary election. The latter will be held on 9 February 2020 and results are expected to be positive as well.
One negative issue remains: Nagorno Karabakh. Despite more than 20 years of mediations through the OSCE Minsk Group, no political result to this conflict has been found yet. Sometimes escalation can be observed at the border, leading to death for both sides.
Azerbaijan’s way to democratization has been tough and even bloody at times. But lots of progress was made, especially on democratic consolidation, while Azerbaijan continues on the path of nation-building with new reforms and policy perspectives. Democratic widening has been achieved under the corporation of democratic principles in public and private areas. Under the roof of new executive and future legislative bodies, the country will show a more positive image on the basis of democratic consolidation.
New opportunities in the South Caucasus after the 44-day war and China’s BRI
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.
A Counter-Enlightenment Creeps Through Eurasia
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
Baltic States are the territories of geopolitical games
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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