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Eastern Europe

Georgian Way of Combatting the Coronavirus

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Despite its small size and unstable economy, Georgia was one of the first countries to start taking active measures to counter the spread of the pandemic. This included closing schools and conducting widespread diagnostic tests. As will be argued below, Georgian response to the pandemic was a mixture of East Asian and West European models.

The single most decisive factor why Georgia stands out as a successful example in combatting the pandemic is a swift political action by the central government, which acted as soon as the country’s first case of coronavirus – a Georgian citizen who returned from Iran – was diagnosed, on February 26. The same day an inter-departmental task force was formed to coordinate the fight against coronavirus, made up of representatives of every major government agency, to manage the situation. Banning flights to/from Iran was announced. In the following days, flights to Italy, another hard-hit state, were also suspended.

All ministries drafted an action plan against the coronavirus. As the number of cases rose, schools and other educational institutions across the country were closed. Lockdown measures such as night time curfew and the suspension of public transport services (bus and metro) followed. On March 20th Georgia halted all passenger air traffic, including banning all non-resident foreign citizens from entering the country. Closure of restaurants, bars and shops apart from grocery stores, banks, petrol stations, pharmacies and post offices followed. Vehicles transporting essential goods were allowed to operate.

Moreover, inbound passengers were checked for high temperatures and were asked to provide exact information and contact details necessary in case they started experiencing symptoms at home. Those were essential measures as they allowed the government to track potential patients right from the state borders and airports. The government also set up a website with all the necessary information which reflected international scientific opinion and World Health Organization recommendations.

Though the above measures are standard in preventing a wide spread of any epidemic or infection, the swiftness of those actions was a decisive factor for success. Two additional instruments at the disposal of the Georgian government played a further stabilizing role. First is the role of the Richard Lugar Public Health Research Centre, part of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). The laboratory has allowed Georgia to get test results in a very short time and trace the roots of the virus. The research center was constructed with funds from the US government and is a subject of widespread disinformation campaign emanating from Russia as to the laboratory’s role.

In Between the Asian and European Methods

Many features of the Georgian government’s handling of the pandemic are similar to the East Asian coronavirus management style. East Asian countries contained the spread of the virus below the vulnerable threshold by relying on preparedness, technology, and transparency. Evidence from Asia (Taiwan, Singapore and others) suggests an effective means to ensure the compliance of citizens to follow restrictive measures was to use modern AI technologies. Surely, Georgia lags well behind many Asian states in terms of technological advancements, but the country’s correct mobilization of available medical resources as well as an aggressive contact tracing strategy prevented the state from falling into the pandemic-related chaos similar to what has taken place in most European states.

Similar to some Asian states, Georgia also did not follow all the WHO guidelines. Quite often the WHO gave controversial recommendations such as not to limit international traffic or assumptions about face masks not being effective. Georgian scientists also changed one crucial WHO guideline by removing high fever from the list of suspicious symptoms. This allowed them to detect many more infection cases compared to strictly following the WHO guidelines.

There is also Georgia’s mindset in play. As in many Asian states, the country is used to crises, whether civil wars and the Russian invasion in 2008 or a difficult economic situation. These made it easier for the Georgian population to withstand limits on movement and endure a near total shutdown of economy with the ensuing economic hardship.

Surprisingly, draconian measures introduced by the Georgian authorities were in place much earlier than in most in of European states. The timing was crucial and since the European states did not introduce restrictive measures early enough, congestion of the healthcare system followed with thousands of patients entering the system daily in western Europe alone.

Take for example the Netherlands, which introduced almost no restrictive measures at the time when the spread of the pandemic became evident. Only flights from Wuhan (epicenter of the pandemic) were stopped. As a result, countries like the Netherlands and Belgium, far exceeding Georgia’s economic and medical potential, experienced thousands of deaths.

As in west European states, the Georgian authorities faced a challenge of putting the state on a complete lockdown and concerns as to how compliant citizens would be. The Georgian authorities decided to balance the individual responsibility every citizen shares with stricter central enforcement mechanisms – an effective mixture of European and East Asian models. Moderate use of surveillance technology plus transparent, comprehensive testing, quick quarantining and isolation of suspected cases, made the difference.

Even in its own region, the South Caucasus, which is characterized by near identical level of economic development, Georgia stands out as a good example of pandemic crisis management. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey and Iran all have much higher number cases of infections and fatalities. The reasons for those differences should be found not so much in the size of economies of those states, but rather in the timing of restrictive measures and how far they were effectively implemented.

Georgia’s success story proves, as many analysts argued, that smaller states (with small population) could be less vulnerable to the pandemic. But it also shows that the timing of introduction of restrictive measures is more important and that relatively poor states could perform in a much effective way than larger, developed economies. Many argued that no concrete way of combatting the pandemic exists and that each state should adjust to its specific economic and medical needs as well as geography and other factors. However, as the Georgian case demonstrated, an effective application of East Asia and West European models serves as a good starting point for preventing the pandemic from hitting large population groups in the state. So far, this strategy proves to be effective as the government in Tbilisi has started to lift economic restrictions and the number of infections has not grown.

Author’s note: first published in Caucasus Watch

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

Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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