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Azerbaijan: Energy, reforms, COVID-19 and optimism

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When Azerbaijan became the elected member of the United Nations Security Council in 2012-2013 for the first time in its independent history the achievement may have seemed surreal for this small country in the South Caucasus region. However, it was a long road for Azerbaijan to having overcome many imponderables along its way to make it to the top. Today Azerbaijan has managed to establish itself as an energy state, but not only the mere exporter of the crude, but also as the exporter of energy security. Azerbaijan is active on many international fronts and its trust on multilateralism, balanced and pragmatist foreign policy has earned it many friends and strengthened its partnerships.This piece aims to explore some important aspects of Azerbaijan’s current development, focusing first and foremost on energy and navigating from there to touching upon the reforms, then covering the country’s battle with COVID-19, alongside offering optimism from the bleak picture created by the pandemics.

Energy

Since the inception of its independence Azerbaijan has built reliable partnerships not only within its neighbourhood, but also with the EU, the U.S. and other countries in the West as well as East. Azerbaijan’s multi-vectored and pragmatic foreign policy, which is also very well aligned with its national (including economic) interests enabled it to build equally strong, well-thought and balanced relations with all partners. The only exception from this list is the neighboring Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan has no relations due to the existence of unresolved conflict over Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan’ s successful model of collaboration with its western partners has begot its ever-evolving energy cooperation with Europe. Together with some large multinational corporations that are its international partners in the West, Azerbaijan has established a successful model of energy cooperation through the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum oil and gas pipelines—both of which transport hydrocarbons extracted from the Caspian Sea to international markets. It is on the cusp of commencement of the multimillion megaproject – the Southern Gas Corridor that stands as a valuable contribution to Europe’s energy security by not only being a mere provider of crude energy, but also by ensuring diversification of sources and routes. Azerbaijan’s energy strategy thus, during the last 25 years aimed at contributing to stability, cooperation and mutually beneficial partnerships in its neighborhood and beyond.The revenues acquired from Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon resources have been channeled to the socio-economic development of the country; as a result, every aspect of Azerbaijan’s statehood has flourished.

Azerbaijan’s trajectory of becoming an “energy state” could be considered to be rather natural and therefore linear. The country became the motherland of the first industrially drilled oil well in the world in 1846. In 1899Azerbaijanwas the world frontrunner in oil production and refining and provided the half of oil production volume. It provided 75% of all fuel for the tanks, aircrafts and all sorts of artillery of the Soviet Army during the World War II in the fight against fascism. Azerbaijan has managed to become self-sufficient and economically independent state by virtue of its oil and gas projects upon the signature of the “Contract of Century” in 1994, despite the fact that it also had to deal with the occupation of its territories and bear the socio-economic burden of large army of refugee and IDP population created in the consequence of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Its reliance on oil should therefore come as natural escape to deal with variety of challenges to its statehood.

Beyond oil, the weight of natural gas, which is a low carbon energy source is lately increasing, including in Azerbaijan, in the overall global energy balance. The growing role of natural gas in the 21st century has increased the importance of issues related to diversification of sources and routes as well as energy security. Azerbaijan, which has made its name largely as an oil country, has been working intensively to build international partnerships towards exploration of the country’s gas resources.

The estimated gas reserves of the country are 2,6 trillion cubic meters. The existing Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline did not suffice for the exploration of these fields and transportation of large production volumes. The necessity to explore these reserves and turn them into a strategic commodity for energy security of a broader region begot the strategic project such as the Southern Gas Corridor.

Thus, the Southern Gas Corridor project, initiated in 2013 and inaugurated in May, 2018, has become an important chain of energy security, economic development and global partnership. This Corridor of 3500 km length consists of four integral parts – “Shah Deniz-2” project, Southern Caucasus Pipeline Extension (SCPX), Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). The significance of this project is also enhanced due to fact that it is the first tangible megaproject existing in Europe that unites all components of energy security. It involves close cooperation of seven nations – Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Italy, participation of numbers of international oil and gas companies as well as the support of major financial institutions, like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and Asian Development Bank (ADB).Together with its partners and through the Southern Gas Corridor, Azerbaijan is working towards the creation of European gas market that envisages competitiveness and diversification of sources and routes. This project requires solid partnership, continuous political and donor support.

In the spirit of this cooperation and respect for its commitments, Azerbaijan’s priority is to deliver first gas to Europe in 2020. Strategic importance of the Southern Gas Corridor is not only confined to Azerbaijan and the countries involved. This megaproject has the potential to expand to Balkans, Central and Western Europe as well, to attract new supplier, transit and consumer countries. BRUA project (Bulgaria-Romania-Hungary-Austria gas pipeline), IGB (Interconnector Greece Bulgaria) and IAP pipeline (Ionian Adriatic Pipeline) are the potential interconnecting pipelines that could deliver Shah Deniz gas to other destinations through the Southern Gas Corridor. The completion of the TAP as expected in 2020, will enable the import of about 8,8 billion cubic meters of Azerbaijani gas to Italy, with potential growth capacity of more than 10 billion cubic meters per year.

The works on all four segments of the Southern Gas Corridor project are successfully implemented. The inauguration of TANAP became the bedrock of the Southern Gas Corridor. Turkey is already receiving volumes of gas since the formal inauguration of the Southern Gas Corridor and as the completion of the project as this fall as expected, Europe will also start receiving 10 billion cubic meters of Azerbaijani gas per year. As of June 2020 Turkey is set to receive 6 billion cubic meters of gas. With the onset of the final implementation stage of the Southern Gas Corridor, successful completion of works on TAP become ever more important, since it is an essential element to deliver gas to Europe. With the completion of TAP, Azerbaijan will contribute to the energy security of Italy as well as of the countries in South Eastern Europe and will ensure the diversification of routes and sources and contribute to the de-carbonization efforts of the continent.

The Corridor was built with the real vision so that the future opportunities can also be explored. This is an expandable diversification network with the capacity to expand up to 31 billion cubic meters in SCPX and TANAP and doubling up to 20 billion cubic meters for TAP. It is stated that market demand tests for the Corridor’s possible extension are already being carried out and if conditions are suitable additional gas volumes could reach the EU and South-East Europe already within this decade. Such plans could though be challenged by virtue of the fact that the EU’s energy policies maybe changing in a long-term future with the adoption of the “Green Deal” which sets the stage for Europe’s becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. With EBRD becoming a “climate bank” and mostly focusing on public and private “green” investments, it will therefore not invest in any future fossil fuel projects, including gas, starting from 2022. However, it is stated that the situation with already functional projects like the Southern Gas Corridor could be assessed differently. As was voiced by the EU officials themselves, becoming carbon-neutral in fact does not mean that the EU will no longer need natural gas. Natural gas is also said to be a significant back up commodity for the renewables for some time.

The Southern Gas Corridor project also brings social benefits, such as new employment opportunities in the countries through which the Corridor passes, which doubtlessly, has positive impact on the economy of these countries.

The latest, 6th meeting of the Advisory Council on the Southern Gas Corridor that took place on 28 February, 2020 in Baku, offered another valuable opportunity to review the achievements in this field. It was reported that works were progressing at a steady pace and TAP is almost complete (93,5%as of March 2020). Growing number of countries joining the Advisory Council each year also testifies to the increasing interest to the project. Azerbaijan is about to complete this megaproject, which is a great stride towards strengthening Azerbaijan’s regional and global stance as an energy exporter. However, Azerbaijan acts not only as a mere exporter of crude energy, but also as an exporter of energy security by providing alternatives and diversification of routes and sources of energy.As President Ilham Aliyev said during the opening ceremony of the Southern Gas Corridor on May 29, 2018: “We are implementing such giant projects together with our partners and redrawing the energy map of the world”.

Looking beyond oil and Reforms unleashed

Beyond energy, Azerbaijan’s economy has also been witnessing major transformations since 2014. They say global trends are called “global” because of their global ramifications. Azerbaijan had to suffer two currency devaluations in 2015, nevertheless, it was not something that happened only to Azerbaijan. It was the period of economic perturbations in many countries brought by fluctuating oil prices in global oil markets since 2014. However, the country adapted fast by undertaking necessary measures to adjust to the associated challenges. Putting more premium on the development of non-oil sector of the economy and embarking on the development of its renewable energy sector in order to increase the share of renewable energy in overall energy balance of the country are some, however very direct examples of how Azerbaijan manages the challenges associated with fluctuating oil prices.

Before the onset of COVID-19 pandemics and the worldwide lockdowns that negatively affected everyday and economic life, including in Azerbaijan, forecasts on Azerbaijan’s economy was very optimistic and positive. For instance, in October 2019 the then Minister of Economy Shahin Mustafayev declared that “In 2020, real growth in Azerbaijan’s GDP will be three percent, including 1.6. percent for the oil sector and 3.8 percent for the non-oil sector. The growth of the non-oil industry is projected at 8.8. percent, and agriculture – at 4.8 percent”. His successor, a young and western educated former Minister of Taxes Michael Jabbarov later also reiterated this objective with a new and steady commitment to achieve more. Azerbaijan’s unemployment rate has dwindled from 5,02 percent in 2018 to 4,99 percent in 2019 and was projected to further decrease in the years to come. On another front, Azerbaijan aims to increase the share of renewable energy resources in the overall energy consumption balance of the country by 30% till 2030, while currently this number is 18-19%, including hydropower stations. It aims to hold auctions in 2020 in order to attract the best business partners for the development of renewable energy projects (mostly solar and wind) at specifically allocated sites of the country. In January 2020 it has signed implementation agreements of pilot projects on renewable energy with two leading companies of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Amirates – “ACWA Power” and “Masdar”, respectively, and more such undertakings could come in future.

Azerbaijan’s relations with the European Union – one of the biggest economic actors – is also developing dynamically. EU-Azerbaijan Strategic Partnership Agreement, unlike the Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements envisaged by the Eastern Partnership (EaP) is based on more equal conditions for partnerships that capitalizes on mutually beneficial partnership for both sides, having thus, eliminated the need for Azerbaijan to one-sidedly comply with EU standards and expectations. The successful conduct of the second round of EU-Azerbaijan Security Dialogue in Baku on 19 December 2019 once again underscored common positions on political, economic, security and energy related issues, while also stressing the importance of continuing to work towards the finalization of EU-Azerbaijan Strategic Partnership Agreement. The open chapters within the Agreement are currently being negotiated and there is a genuine interest on both sides to find a common denominator soon.

Moreover, the country is undergoing a comprehensive reform process in all areas of its statehood and the very nature of the current reforms in all political, economic, administrative strata of Azerbaijan implies the peaceful transition of state management to younger generation that carry more zest and energy alongside also being competent for such a leadership. This does not, however, obviate the fact that older generation are also given their due respect and recognition for their service and their experience are valued and kept at hand’s reach if needed. This evolutionary example of “rejuvenation” of state management while maintaining the synergy of “institutional memory and experience” with “youthfulness and energy” is thought to deliver the needed results in the overall scheme of things.

The reforms have brought number of palpable changes in the state administration, the results of which are already showing in terms of concrete achievements and progress attained in various areas. The leadership of the country has chosen the path of “evolution” in its efforts to adapt the country to ever changing nature of international relations and boost the country’s resilience in the face of evolving global political, socio-economic and other challenges. The snap parliamentary elections held on 9 February was therefore also an important achievement that reshaped the composition of the Parliament and attracted many young parliamentarians. 1314 candidates (independents and representatives of 19 parties) were registered in the race for 125 seats in the Azerbaijani Milli Maclis and 50 per cent of the candidates were under 40 years old. For the first time in the history of independent Azerbaijan a female speaker of the Parliament, Sahiba Gafarova was elected.

COVID-19 and Azerbaijan’s response

Despite the positive picture above, when the scales of global pandemics acquired bigger proportions, Azerbaijan did not also remain immune to the contagion. The news about the first infection case broke on 28 February and the government was swift to close down country’s borders, restrict international and domestic transportation, schools in early March, and all the shopping malls restaurants, etc. gradually. The entire country was put into the lockdown and quarantine was enhanced incrementally as the situation so demanded. From 5 April onwards, people are only allowed to leave their houses for basic needs, like grocery shopping, pharmacy needs, attending the funeral of the closest family member via the SMS permission system. As of this writing there were 1197 coronavirus patients in the country with 351 cured, 13 dead and 833 active patients.

The special Coronavirus Support Fund was established with 19 March 2020 Presidential Decree and the government, and other type of organizations, entrepreneurs were very swift to extend financial support to the Fund. Moreover, the government prepared 9 programs worth 2,5 billion manats – 3 % of the GDP to support the economy and the entrepreneurship as well as social benefits containing compensations for unemployed population as well as educational fee rescue package for socially vulnerable parts of the population in the aftermath of the total lockdown of the economy. The idea is to put the economy back on track as soon as possible and weather the COVID-19 storm with minimum losses.

Obviously, pandemics has affected not only global health but also global economy. Some even compare its magnitude and potential effects to those of the Second World War, while others predict severe economic crisis unseen since 1929-1930. Azerbaijan obviously is not immune to the consequences of the pandemic. Granted, the acute slump in oil prices as a consequence of worldwide lockdowns and therefore suppressed demand for crude, and the failed OPEC+ endeavor to find a common denominator on 6 March, put further strain on the economy, which otherwise was on an upswing before the COVID-19. Azerbaijan’s 2020 budget has envisaged 55 USD per barrel of oil. However, with oil prices in the first two months of the year being above 60 USD and budget proceeds surpassing the expenditures for about 400 million manats in January alone, plus the proceeds from tax and customs services testifies to the increasing income to the state budget. Azerbaijan’s strategic currency reserves are estimated to be over 50 billion USD, which provides extra fiscal security. The overview of the extra financial reserves acquired since beginning of the year in fact enables to compensate for the losses incurred due to the coronavirus induced decline in oil prices.

This is more so, in the light of the recent OPEC+ deal, which pledged to reduce oil production by 9,7 million barrels per day (bpd) in May and June of 2020 (plus 300 thousand barrels the US will cut instead of Mexico’s proposed share), plus voluntary reductions up of 2,7 million bpd by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Amirates planned for April. The US, Canada, Indonesia, Norway and Brazil are thought to also cut their output by 4-5 million bpd, while oil production in Iran, Venezuela and Libya is expected to drop by 2,8 million bpd. as well. In total, 20 million bpd. oil is expected to be withdrawn from the markets, which should help to stabilize the market and maintain balance between supply and demand. Further cuts will be 7,7, million bpd. from July till end 2020 and 5,8 million bpd from January 2021 till April 2022.It is yet to be seen how the deal will operate under the current conditions and in future, but early market reactions have been rather positive.

The ramifications of COVID-19 and its impact on world economy and everyday lives of citizens are yet to be seen as the debate is still ongoing. However, one thing is clear that there will be no winners and losers of this global calamity as everyone is affected. So is Azerbaijan. However, Azerbaijan’s strong standing before the outbreak as an energy and reformer state and swift measures to contain the virus as well as operationalization of state support mechanisms can offer the cause for optimism that the country could quickly return back to normal and continue the works interrupted with greater rigor. There definitely is a political will and hopefully the way will be unhindered soon too.

Dr. Esmira Jafarova is the Board Member of the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center), Baku, Azerbaijan.

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Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement

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Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.

Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”

On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”

So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.

Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.

Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.

As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.

Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.

Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

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Tighter Ties with China Signal Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ukraine is eager to cut deals with China as it confronts the West’s moves to allay Russian concerns. Whether Kyiv’s moves are a sign of a larger foreign policy adjustment or just a bluff aimed to mitigate faltering ties with the EU and the US, they could beget big consequences.

‘Chinese Card’

On June 30, Ukraine touted an agreement with China, which proposes revamping the country’s decrepit infrastructure. The decision comes following a US-German resolution to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite longstanding concerns of Kyiv and other CEE nations. Yet, perhaps the biggest motivation was the growing unwillingness in the West to advance Ukraine’s NATO/EU aspirations.

The current state of affairs pushes Ukraine to find alternatives in foreign policy. China, with plenty of cash and political clout, comes as an obvious choice resulting in the signing of the bilateral agreement in June. The document outlines China’s willingness to invest in railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure across Ukraine. But otherwise, the agreement details few specifics.

The available details from the deal fit comfortably into the pattern China has been following across Eurasia. For example, China signed similar deals with Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others, demonstrating its willingness to penetrate those states’ vital infrastructure. Still, the documents can be also characterized as an umbrella agreement that serves as a roadmap rather than an accord listing concrete details and commitments.

The China-Ukraine agreement is all the more surprising as Kyiv rebuffed earlier this year a Chinese proposal to buy a Ukrainian aerospace company, Motor Sich.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons behind the rapprochement. First and foremost, it is about Ukraine adjusting its foreign policy stance to the state of economic relations. China is now Ukraine’s biggest single-country trade partner outstripping Russia and having a 14.4 percent share of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Perhaps fearful of possible Chinese countermeasures over the Motor Sich decision, Kyiv has been open to mending ties with Beijing with the June agreement.

Secondly, it paves the way for a more active role in China’s near-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims at connecting China with the European market across the heart of Eurasia. Ukraine was among the first to endorse the initiative but has avoided signing memorandums on cooperation similar to what China has done with many others.

More immediately, the tilt toward China follows Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang. While Ukraine initially joined the initiative, together with 40 other states, Kyiv abruptly changed its mind on June 24. It has been confirmed that the withdrawal followed Chinese threats to limit trade and deny access to COVID-19 vaccines for which Ukraine had already paid.

Multi-Vector Policy

Some larger geopolitical dynamics are also at play, such as Kyiv’s attempt to acclimate to the changing world order and the growing global competition between Beijing and Washington. In this environment, Ukraine might want to carve out an equidistant place between the two powers so as to avoid possible backlash from siding clearly with either of them.

As such, Ukraine appears to be embarking on a multi-vector foreign policy. It would allow Kyiv to alleviate its dependence on the West and seek lucrative economic and political ties with large Eurasian states. Put simply, relations with the West did not deliver on the expected benefits. The country was not offered NATO or EU accession, while the collective West’s consistent concessions to Russia undermine Ukraine’s interests. Ukraine has also often tended to look at China and other Eurasian powers from the ‘Western perspective’, which limited its options.

In Kyiv’s understanding, elimination of this obstructive dependence would enable it to find new partners able to bring in investments and ideally political support in multilateral organizations. China undoubtedly can be such a partner.

Kyiv’s calculations are more understandable when taken in view of its larger diplomatic readjustment in the region. For example, Ukraine recently began building closer relations with another Eurasian power in Turkey. When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul in April 2021, nascent bilateral military ties were seen as a new chapter in the countries’ relations. Most indicative of this shift, a memorandum was signed on the creation of joint defense-industrial projects, which includes joint development of unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine.

The story of Turkey could serve as a microcosm, whereby Kyiv displayed that it is more interested in balancing the pressure from Russia and mitigating the failures in its pro-Western foreign policy course. Ukraine thus foreshadowed its increasingly multi-vector foreign policy as a solution to its geopolitical problems. In Kyiv’s understanding, rapprochement with China and Turkey could mitigate threats emanating from Russia as both Beijing and Ankara enjoy closer ties with Moscow, but nonetheless consider it a competitor.

The multi-vector foreign policy for Ukraine however does not mean abandoning its pro-Western cause. It rather involves seeing its NATO/EU aspirations as complementary with the closer economic ties with China and others. It will require an agile foreign policy and leveraging the country’s geopolitical assets.

New Type of Bilateral Relations 

Ukraine’s behavior might herald the birth of what could be characterized as a Eurasian model of bilateral relations. Across the continent, the notion of traditional alliances is being gradually replaced by partnerships. Devoid of formal obligations, China, Iran, Turkey and Russia find more space for interaction and see a larger pool of opportunities across the vastness of the supercontinent. Bigger maneuverability makes their foreign policy more agile in finding a common ground for cooperation.

The Eurasian model is a byproduct of an evolving global order in which each state with geopolitical influence recalibrates its foreign ties to fit into the post-unipolar world. Russia and China officially refuse to have an alliance – indeed, they claim an alliance would undermine their purportedly benevolent intentions toward one another. More specifically, the concept relates to how China sees the future world order. It opposes alliances – the ‘relic’ from the Cold War era.

Thus, the shift in Kyiv’s foreign policy could be part of this Eurasian trend where Ukraine seeks to construct its Asia policy which would better correspond to the unfolding China-US competition, Asia’s economic rise, and most of all, the failure to become a NATO or EU member state.

Reality Check

However, closer ties with China and most of all the dependence on Beijing’s investments also involves risks. China’s infrastructure projects are mostly financed through loans, which poorer and weaker countries are unable to repay. Often, ownership of the sites ends up in Chinese hands.

Chinese involvement in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure could also risk giving control over strategic technologies to Beijing, which would be channeled to China and successfully used to advance Chinese interests.

For Kyiv, dependence on Beijing also involves risks because of China’s close partnership with Russia. Dangers could be manifested in a concerted pressure on Ukraine in international organizations, or even China heeding Russian fears and abandoning infrastructure projects which would harm Russian interests.

The June agreement is an umbrella deal that lays out the foundation for deeper cooperation, but in no way guarantees its fulfillment. This could mean that Ukraine only sought to restore worsening bilateral relations with China following the Motor Sich saga. Alternatively, Kyiv might merely be trying to raise stakes in its stagnated relations with the West and hold Washington to account, signaling that it can successfully navigate between geopolitical poles if need be. One way or another, China looks set to play a bigger role in Ukraine‘s foreign policy.

Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers

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Ukraine’s independence: Shaping new political narratives through art

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Ukraine’s 30th Independence Anniversary brings forth a discussion on forming a modern cultural identity in the wake of political instability.  

Despite gaining independence 30 years ago, Ukraine is still facing consistent attacks on its sovereignty, both political and cultural. From the ongoing war with Russia in Eastern Ukraine, where 10,000 people have lost their lives since 2014, down to the root of oversimplification of Ukrainian issues in the media, Ukraine’s story is often being told by opponents attempting to distort the modern Ukrainian cultural identity.

My first-hand experience working with kids at the Ukrainian warzone has taught me a deep appreciation for cultural independence. For five years together with youngsters I wrote, directed and staged a performance piece titled ‘Contact Line’ about life at the warzone and personally witnessed the huge impact of arts and culture on the kids’ lives. This experience demonstrated that for too long Ukraine has let someone else present its identity to its youth, citizens and the world.

Shaking away the Soviet legacy

There’s no denying that the Soviet Union left a lasting legacy on Ukraine. The culture of Ukraine is to this day tainted by lingering ghosts of the Soviet past. Soviet authorities vigorously supressed the development of independent cultural identities in all the member states. In Ukraine’s case, simplistic rural folklore was imposed on society as a primary culture and was a means of suppressing creative or progressive thought. National collectives and one-dimensional traditional themes were presented as the essence of Ukrainian culture throughout the 20th century. Anyone who didn’t fit the Soviet mould was eliminated. A specific term, Executed Renaissance, is used to define a generation of Ukrainian artists who were repressed by the Soviet regime for their artistic non-conformism.

It has taken decades for Ukraine to regain its cultural voice and iron out its Soviet imprint. A key concept of postcolonial theory examines the creative resistance to the colonizers’ culture and the fraught slow development of a postcolonial identity. Ukraine has been struggling through this process for 30 years. However, since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity the country has been reimagining its culture, exploring its history and reconnecting with its identity. Ukraine is now striving to be on par with Western culture by ridding itself of remaining Soviet influences. Cultural institutions previously under government control or censorship are finding an independent voice and the population is discovering that authentic artistic expression is providing hope in difficult times. 

Looking at the future

Over the past 10 years, Ukraine has witnessed a robust change in the arts sector. The cultural scene has made a significant move away from a conservative ethos to a more contemporary one. Visual arts are the most progressive form of expression in Ukraine, with cinema rapidly catching up. Ukrainian filmmakers are winning awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Ukrainian artists are receiving praise at La Biennale di Venezia. The expectation is that this trend will not only magnify in the coming years, but also position Ukrainian artists as global creative trailblazers. 

Despite ballet being an extremely politicised art form during the Soviet period, it is now going through a revival and modernisation. The Ukrainain school of ballet is gaining recognition as one of the world’s best and Ukrainian ballet dancers are headlining the top ballet companies across the globe, showcasing their immense talent and training. British audiences will have an opportunity to watch the best Ukrainian ballet dancers from the world’s top theatres come together for a one-off unique performance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on September 7th.

Georgian-American ballet choreographer George Balanchine famously said, “Ballet will speak for itself,” and the artform remains a true demonstration of the universal language of dance. The Ukrainian Ballet Gala will be a showcase of the innovation and traditions of the contemporary Ukrainian ballet school.

Global cultural promotion

In a globalised world it’s the wish of every country to promote and engage in cultural exchanges, and Ukraine is very much part of this movement. Ukraine wants to be an active player on the world stage, both politically and culturally, and to be a dynamic culture creator, particularly in Europe. Trust in soft diplomacy is growing and Ukraine’s international relations and diplomacy are benefiting from this trend. 

As a Ukrainian-born and British-educated theatre producer and director I appreciate the importance of bringing the best of Ukrainian culture to the world not just for Ukraine’s benefit, but to enrich global culture and share experiences through creative means. It is the job of people like me and my colleagues to tell Ukraine’s story through art and, thus, shape new political narratives about Ukraine internationally. We want to share our rich culture with the world and events, such as the Ukrainian Ballet Gala, are key to achieving this.

Ukrainians are now left with no choice but to stride forward – no outside force should ever again control the vibrant culture of Ukraine.

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