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How Armenia’s Historical Connections with Islam can Shape its Diplomacy Today



The Blue Mosque is situated in the old city, flanked by a towering minaret and adorned with a large blue dome that sits above its central prayer hall. However, this Blue Mosque isn’t in Turkey. In fact, it isn’t even in a Muslim country. Unlike its more famous namesake in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque in Yerevan receives little attention. Despite this, the building stands as a testament to Armenia’s complex relationship with the Muslim world. Built in the 18th century by the Iranian Huseyin Ali Khan, it reminds us of the profound cultural connections between Armenia and the Muslim world. This fact is often forgotten and less than 1% of Armenian’s today identify as Muslim. Only by making sense of the wider historical connections between Armenia and Islam, can we begin to understand Armenia’s diplomatic relationship with the wider Muslim world today.

One of the earliest accounts of the Muslim prophet Muhammad was written by the Armenian historian Sebeos in the 7th century. In his chronicle, he mentions a ‘son of Ishmael’ ‘whose name was Mahmet. ’Furthermore, many notable Armenian’s occupied positions of power in early Islamic Empires, including Badr al-Jamali, a prominent Statesman and Vizier (the equivalent of a Prime Minister) in the powerful Shi’ite Fatamid Caliphate (who ruled much of modern-day Egypt and North Africa). Moreover, the territory of modern-day Armenia, situated in the heart of the Caucuses, was conquered by a number of Muslim empires, dynasties and polities, including the Iranian Safavid, Turkish Ottoman and Central Asian Timurid’s. These past experiences illustrate not only the depth, but also the geographical breadth of Armenia’s relationship with Islam.

Despite this, Armenia’s ties with Muslim countries in the 20th century has been characterised by frequent conflicts, disputes and distrust. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Armenia became embroiled in a long-standing conflict with its Muslim majority neighbour, Azerbaijan, over the disputed territory of Nargono-Karabkh. Armenia also makes frequent references to Mount Ararat (currently in Turkey), seeing it as a symbolic monument for the Armenian people. While Armenia hasn’t officially laid claim to mountain, believed by some to be the site of the biblical Noah’s ark, its romantic view of Ararat as a homeland for the Armenian people does little to improve its relationship with Ankara. In addition, aside from Syria, very few Muslim countries have recognised the Armenian genocide, which remains a significant bone of contention between Armenia and the Muslim world. Given these recent events, it would be tempting to view Armenia’s relationship with Muslim states negatively. However, the truth may be slightly more complex, just like Armenia’s own history with Islam.

This week, Iranian officials spoke about the ‘positive diplomatic relationship’ between Tehran and Yerevan. These comments follow Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Armenia last year, where he attended a meeting of the Eurasian Union, an economic block whose members include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The block is seen by some as a Russian attempt to curtail Chinese economic influence in Central and Western Asia. Iran and the Union signed a free trade agreement late last year, bolstering Iran’s trade with member states, including Armenia.It is estimated Iran’s trading volume with the block has exceeded $1.39 billion since the agreement was implemented. Furthermore, Iran’s relationship with Russia is well documented and Tehran’s close ties to Armenia continues to strengthen the Iran-Armenia-Russia axis.

Whilst Iran remains one of Armenia’s closest allies in the Muslim world, there are also other Muslim majority states Armenia can turn to. Late last year, the Libyan Provisional Government (who control much of the Libya’s territory outside the coastal cities of Tripoli and Misrata) recognised the Armenian Genocide.

Nonetheless, it would be over simplistic to use Iran’s relationship with Armenia and Turkey’s recent tentative steps as a blueprint for Yerevan’s ties with the wider Islamic world. For one, even the Iran-Armenia relationship faces a number of hurdles. Last year, Armenia announced it was opening an embassy in Israel and this is unlikely to please President Rouhani or the religious leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei. The Iran-Armenia relationship also hampers Iran’s standing in the Muslim world. Whilst Iran has significant influence in states with a significant Shi’ite population (including Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon), its close relationship with Armenia, a country that is embroiled in a two-decade conflict with Shi’ite majority Azerbaijan, does little to boost Iran’s image amongst its co-religionists.

No discussion of Armenia’s relationship with Muslim countries would be complete without further comment on Nagorno Karabakh. Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry announced it is entitled to use force to reclaim the disputed region. Last month, both countries were also involved in another diplomatic spat, with each accusing the other of collaborating with the Nazi’s during World War Two. Moreover, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s continued visits to the disputed territory are doing little to alleviate tensions between Baku and Yerevan.

It would be tempting to discount Armenia’s historic relationship with the Muslim world, which dates back to the 7th century, particularly given Armenia’s fraught relationship with Muslim majority Azerbaijan. However, Armenia’s centuries old relationship with Iran has been deeply influenced by its cultural, geographic and historical ties to numerous Iranian and Islamic dynasties. Perhaps both Armenia and muslim majority states should do more to recall this past and use it to shape their future. If they do, the Blue Mosque in Yerevan will no longer remain a relic to a bygone era of co-operation between Armenia and Islam.

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers



Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?



Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia



Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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