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Ten reasons why joining the EAEU could be beneficial for Azerbaijan

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Azerbaijan joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) could reduce the costs of imported intermediate goods for the Azerbaijani industry, increase exports of the agricultural and non-oil sectors of the republic by USD 280 million, improve the working and living conditions of Azerbaijani labor migrants and create favorable conditions for attracting foreign direct investment . As a result, Azerbaijan’s GDP could be 0.6% higher than it is now.The Eurasian Economic Union is primarily a customs union and the desire to create common markets for the free movement of goods, services, labor, capital and digital data. In addition, the EAEU is in the process of forming an extensive network of free trade areas around the world. Accordingly, it would be necessary to analyze the possible difficulties and likely benefits of closer cooperation between Azerbaijan and the EAEU in all of these areas.According to a survey conducted by the Analytical Center under the Government of the Russian Federation in the summer of 2018, almost 40% of the business community in Azerbaijan would welcome closer trade and economic relations between the republic and the Eurasian Union.

Commodity Market

In the beginning, it must be recognized that in foreign trade the republic does not depend on the EAEU as a buyer of Azerbaijani products. Only 2% of its exports go to the countries of the Eurasian Union. However, the point is not that the voluminous Eurasian market of 184 million people is not interesting for Azerbaijani entrepreneurs, but in Azerbaijan’s overwhelming focus on the sale of mineral products, which make up almost 95% of the republic’s export. With such an export structure, it certainly competes with the EAEU, where oil and gas also make up almost 63% of supplies to foreign markets. It is not surprising that the composition of Azerbaijani exports corresponds to the structure of the EAEU import by only 7%. For comparison, in Uzbekistan and the EAEU, the index of trade complementarity is 36%.But this is not so bad either. Firstly, large flows of mutual trade are desirable for regional economic integration, but not necessary. In such integration associations as MERCOSUR and USMECA, the share of mutual trade in the entire trade of the bloc is only 14-16%. The EAEU falls into this category. At the same time, creating one’s own regional market for the sale of non-commodity goods is an important step towards getting rid of the “oil curse”.

This was one of the important reasons that led Russia and Kazakhstan to integration. What can really become a regional market for potential sales of non-raw materials for Baku? The Middle East, on the one hand, and the post-Soviet space, on the other. This is the first argument in favor of the EAEU.By the way, since October 2019, the EAEU has a free trade area with Iran. Now, Armenia as well has a preferential access to the Iranian market. And due to the combined weight of the “Eurasian” market, the conditions that were agreed upon during the negotiations between the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) and Tehran are much more beneficial for Armenia than if Yerevan would have held negotiations in a bilateral format. This is the second argument why participation in the EAEU could be interesting for Baku – to improve its negotiating position with respect to third parties. In the near future, the EEC plans to sign FTA agreements with Egypt and India. And this is only southward.Secondly, 20% of all imports to Azerbaijan come from the EAEU countries. This is a significant amount. Many people think that participation in integration associations is necessary only so that their country can export better and more to such an enlarged market. But this is actually only half the question.

Trade liberalization within the framework of a regional integration bloc also helps to improve the quality of imported goods and make them cheaper. After all, producing everything by oneself is simply ineffective. As a result, both households and national businesses benefit from better and cheaper imports.The EAEU’ export structure corresponds to the Azerbaijani import structure by 38%, which is quite a lot. In 2018, the three main goods imported from the EAEU into the republic were: metal products for USD 325 million (14.5% of all imports from the EAEU), timber for USD 268 (12%), and grain for USD 225 million (10%). The first two are semi-finished products, the third is a raw material. That is, with a hypothetical entry into the EAEU, Azerbaijan in principle would abolish its import duties on these goods. Consequently, this import will become cheaper for the further processing by Azerbaijani enterprises, which means an increase in the profit of the national businesses, and, possibly, cheaper products for the final consumer. This is the third argument in favor of the EAEU.The fourth argument in favor of Eurasian integration is that it would open up significant opportunities for increasing Azerbaijani exports to the Eurasian market. Using a gravity model to assess export potential (Decreux et al. 2016), we can estimate that, upon joining the EAEU, Azerbaijan’s exports to the Union’s common market could increase by USD 251 million, which is equivalent to an increase in Azerbaijan’s GDP by 0.5%. In this case, the total exports to the EAEU member countries would be almost 4% of the republic’s world exports. Conventionally, from the entry of the republic into the EAEU, every Azerbaijani would become richer by USD 25 thousand.

Compared to the scenario without integration, Azerbaijan’s exports to Armenia could increase on average by 107%, to Belarus by 154%, to Kazakhstan by 161%, to Kyrgyzstan by 121%, to Russia by 44% and to the EAEU as a whole by half.Azerbaijani tomatoes and fruits have the greatest export potential. Becoming member of the Union, additional deliveries of only tomatoes from Azerbaijan to the markets and supermarkets of the EAEU may amount to USD 101 million.But this is not all. As already mentioned, the EAEU has free trade agreements with Serbia, Iran, Vietnam and Singapore. By 2025 (most likely much earlier), FTAs with India, Israel and Egypt will be concluded. Upon joining the EAEU, Azerbaijan would gain free access to these markets, which could lead to an increase in exports to them by USD 28 million additionally. Thus is the fifth argument for the EAEU.Thus, in total, upon joining the Eurasian Economic Union, Azerbaijan’s GDP could be 0.6% higher and every Azerbaijanian could be USD 28 thousand richer than without joining. To be correct, it should be noted that the above estimates are quite preliminary and do not take into account possible negative effects due to a possible increase in the average tariff protection of the republic in relation to third parties by 2.2% to the customs union level. At the same time, the final positive effects may be even higher, because this model does not take into account the multiplicative intersectoral effect in the economy, i.e., how the above-mentioned increase in exports can lead to an increase in demand for goods and services of indirect sectors.

Transit

The largest and well-known transport and infrastructure project, which is of interest to Baku, is the North-South International Transit Corridor (“Spice Way”) project. This railway freight corridor should connect the northwestern part of the EAEU with India, with which the EEC plans to sign an agreement on a free trade area, through Iran, with which the Union already has a free trade agreement. Geographically, Azerbaijan would be ideally located in order to become the central link on this route. The volume of potential cargo flows within the North-South corridor is estimated at 20 million tons per year. However, non-participation of the republic in the CIS free trade area and non-membership in the EAEU have so far been one of the main factors restraining the break-even feasibility of such a corridor.Along with this, work is underway within the EAEU to create a single transport space. In fact this means that domestic tariffs for the railway transportation of goods have already been unified. Concurrently, the EAEU member states are also negotiating the introduction of a unified transit tariff. The effects are already evident: for the period from 2014 to 2018, railway freight turnover (measured in ton-kilometers) inside the EAEU grew by almost 3% on average annually, while in Azerbaijan it fell by 11.5% on average every year. This is the sixth argument: Azerbaijan could significantly benefit from its geographical position by becoming a member of the EAEU’s unified transport space.

Labor market

The success of the EAEU was most pronounced in creating the single labor market. All citizens of member states are free to move and work throughout the territory of the Eurasian Economic Union. Everyone enjoys the same labor and social rights, including: hiring in most professions without additional documents and permits; mutual recognition of most educational certificates; tax and pension residency; free basic health insurance – including all family members; free education (from kindergarten to university) – including all family members. Therefore, the seventh argument is: as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, Azerbaijani citizens who come to work in the other member states of the Union will receive the same preferences as the citizens from all the other member states.The effect of creating a single labor market is noticeable: the annual growth rates of money transfers of individuals from Russia to the EAEU countries in 2015-2018 were on average one and a half times higher than such transfers to Azerbaijan. Over the past five years, about 25 thousand Azerbaijani citizens arrived annually in Russia. Most came for work. Their remittances amounted to USD 800 million on average annually.

Direct investments

Foreign direct investment regulation is not directly assigned to the supranational level of the EAEU and is not within the powers of the EEC. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that regional economic integration within the Union created relatively more favorable conditions in this area. So, due to the economic crisis as a whole, direct investments from Russia to the countries of the post-Soviet space fell in 2015-2018. However, they fell to the EAEU member states on average 15 times less than the annual average than Russian FDI to other CIS countries. Over this period, Russian FDI in Azerbaijan amounted to USD 27.5 million on average annually. Thus, the eighth argument is: joining the Eurasian Economic Union can create more favorable conditions for attracting Eurasian investments to the republic.By the way, Azerbaijan could also consider becoming a member of the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) and the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development (EFSD). The terms of participation, most likely, could be similar to the terms of participation of Belarus, which has a similar level of GDP by PPP as Azerbaijan: USD 189 billion and USD 179 billion, respectively. Having contributed 1% (USD 70 million) to the bank’s charter capital (USD 7 billion), Belarus receives almost 14% of funds (USD 1.2 billion) from the total investment portfolio of the bank (USD 8.9 billion). And having contributed 0.1% (USD 10 million) to the fund’s total funds (total USD 8.5 billion), Minsk can claim 21% (USD 1.8 billion) of these funds in the form of loans and grants. The portfolio volume, taking into account the implemented and ongoing EFSD projects in the Republic of Belarus, amounted to USD 4.6 billion by the beginning of 2020. The EDB provides investments at preferential rates for infrastructure projects mainly in the fields of energy, transport, industry and agrobusiness. The EFSD aims to support macroeconomic stability and long-term economic development. The main “donors” in both development institutions are Russia and Kazakhstan (EDB: 66% and 33%; EFSD 88% and 11%). Profitable investment and financial support from the EDB and the EFSD is the ninth argument in favor of Baku’s potential Eurasian orientation.

National sovereignty

Upon joining the Union, Azerbaijan’s GDP would be 4% of the total economy of the EAEU, and its population – 5% of the total population of the integration bloc. In such an enlarged Union the Russian Federation would still make up 81% of its GDP and 76% of the population of the Union. At the same time, the combined economic and demographic weight of other member states would expand to 19% and 24%, respectively. Thus, in 2018 terms, GDP at purchasing power parity of such an expanded EAEU would ammount to USD 4.9 trillion, its population – to 194 million people.But this is actually not so important. Unlike what populist propaganda insists on, the EAEU’s bodies and decision-making mechanism are built on a democratic basis. All decisions between the member states must be made by consensus, and each member state has one vote, regardless of economic weight or population size.Not Vladimir Putin, but Nursultan Nazarbayev as the first of the post-Soviet statesmen proposed in 1994 to create the Eurasian Union. In his opinion, the new Union should be based on new principles: the priority of economic benefits over political considerations, the preservation of national sovereignty, voluntary and gradual integration, non-interference in the internal political system of member states. That is the wording which is now enshrined in the Treaty on the EAEU.

Unlike the EU, the EAEU integration agenda and the powers of its Eurasian Economic Commission are limited exclusively to economic issues. The Eurasian Economic Union does not pursue a “value policy” and does not intervene in the internal political system of its member states. David Lane, a researcher at Cambridge University, wrote the following about this: “The Eurasian Economic Union creates horizontal democratic conditions between its member states, while the European Union, at its discretion, prescribes” democratization “within states.”Based on WTO rules and the European integration experience, the EAEU seeks to create greater legitimacy, better conditions for a liberal market economy and strict multilateral “rules of the game”, which all member states, including Moscow, must adhere to. And despite periodic exceptions and barriers, in terms of institutional integration and the formation of common markets, the EAEU is now in second place after the European Union, ahead of such associations as MERCOSUR and ASEAN.By the way, the headquarters of the EEC does not resemble an old-fashioned Soviet ministry, but a modern office of some international consulting firm. In such an atmosphere, the EEC is constantly trying to implement best practices and standards from around the globe. In addition, the EAEU Court, which is located in Minsk, works pretty well and has already made a number of important cases against Russian actors and in favor of supranational law, for example, according to which EAEU sportsmen cannot be considered as foreign legionnaires. For the first time in the history of Eurasia, the Eurasian integration project is the first fully peaceful, voluntary, formally democratic, equal and market-oriented association of countries and peoples of the region. The goals, structure and decision-making mechanism in the EAEU are the tenth argument why Azerbaijan should consider joining the Eurasian Economic Union.

From our partner RIAC

Jurij C. Kofner is a junior economist with a research focus on Eurasian economic integration. He is a research assistant with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, Austria, where he participates in a research project on the challenges and opportunities of an EU-EAEU common economic space. He is also the editor-in-chief of the analytical media "Eurasian Studies" based in Munich, Germany. From 2017 to 2019 he was the founder and head of the Eurasian sector of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University "Higher School of Economics" in Moscow, Russia and continues to be an expert with the sector. Currently Mr. Kofner attends advanced studies programs from various German institutions such as the German Bundesbank and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

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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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Eastern Europe

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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Eastern Europe

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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“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de...

Arts & Culture15 hours ago

“Kharibulbul” festival represents a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional and multicultural Azerbaijan

As a country of multiculturalism, Azerbaijan promotes the cross-cultural dialogue inside the country, but also at the regional level. The...

Europe17 hours ago

A leaderless ship: The Bulgaria’s political crisis and the storm to come

Internal and international tensions Politics tends to develop in a complex conundrum in all Balkan countries. Thus, never can observers...

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