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Special Session of the UNGA related to COVID-19 to be convened at the initiative of Azerbaijan

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When dystopian scenarios became our everyday reality with COVID-19 reigning over our lives and divesting large numbers of world population of their normal routines, little did everyone know that very soon we would also be experiencing a pent-up disenchantment with the role played by global institutions that are tasked with the protection of international peace and security. While the magnitude of the contagion has turned great geographic areas into quarantines zones, with concomitant physical and mental health challenges brought to millions of people, the message sent out by the United Nations –the largest global multilateral organization – is rather mixed and definitely not reassuring. Despite the fact that the UN General Assembly adopted its first ever resolution on the COVID-19 on April 2, 2020, calling for “global, solidarity, multilateralism and international cooperation” to cope with the pandemics, the voice of the UN Security Council is still missing as it has failed on numerous occasions to adopt a resolution that would finally categorize the COVID-19 as a threat to international peace and security. While the World Health Origination (WHO) was and still remains the frontrunner of the international response to this unprecedented health crisis, some governments, however, did not unfortunately demonstrate a unified and solid support to these global efforts, having thus occasionally yielded to their own national agendas and opted for criticisms and recriminations instead of forging global unity and cooperation in these difficult times.

The conceptual debate as to when and how the pandemics will be defeated, impending surge of the second wave, as well as about the contours of the post-COVID-19 world is ongoing in parallel to practical efforts on the part of medical community, scholars, pundits and politicians to ease the sufferings of millions of people worldwide, save and repair whatever vestige of normalcy we may still have. Azerbaijan was among the countries that having assessed the dangers of the pandemics took very swift measures upon the news about the first infection case on 28 February as the government put the country into quarantine and enhanced it as the situation so demanded. The special Coronavirus Support Fund was established with 19 March 2020 Presidential Decree and the government prepared 9 programs worth about 3,5 billion manats- 3 % of the GDP to support the economy and extend social benefits. Many new hospitals were built for COVID-19 patients and local production of medical masks was introduced right from the beginning. Like many other countries around the world, Azerbaijan is also still battling the COVID-19 induced challenges, however, it has been doing so in a well-prepared and consistent manner that oozes confidence that one day we will beat this global health crisis and return to normalcy, whatever that might mean in a post-COVID-19 world.

Azerbaijan as an emerging and ambitious “middle power” did not obviously suffice with its domestic achievements, as the dynamics of the pandemics shows that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. As the incumbent Chair of the Turkic Council and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the country initiated two online summit meetings of these two institutions on 10 April and on 4 May, respectively, in the midst of strict lockdowns in many parts of the world. Being an ardent believer in the value of international cooperation and multilateralism, it was only natural to expect Azerbaijan to initiate a discussion within these institutions in order to foster unity of purpose through effective multilateralism, and seek for common solutions that would attenuate and eventually overcome challenges imposed by this global contagion. Azerbaijan’s once again assuming a leadership role especially in such difficult times to promote the norms and values it believes in, therefore gibes with its image as a norm entrepreneur and a “middle power”.

NAM- the largest international body after the United Nations, opts for not aligning with or against any major powers and promotes “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries”. In line with its broader foreign policy objectives Azerbaijan vowed to promote multilateralism, international cooperation and solidarity also within the NAM group during its chairmanship in 2019-2022.Among the important outcomes of the above online NAM summit on 4 May, the idea proposed by President Ilham Aliyev that NAM countries could initiate convening the special online session of the UN General Assembly on COVID-19 on the level of Heads of States and Governments gained particular traction. This initiative voiced an innate belief by many that more should be done on the part of international organizations to stave off the repercussions of the COVID-19 and unite global efforts through fostering more cooperation and multilateralism as opposed to pursuance of isolationist and national agendas in the face of this calamity.

It was this confidence and trust in Azerbaijan’s initiative by NAM countries and the greater UN community that the proposal of convening of the special session of the UN General Assembly in response to COVID-19 was supported by more than 130 UN Member States, which makes 2/3 of the UN states. The only country that rejected the initiative was Armenia, however, the decision was adopted through the “silence  procedure” by the majority of the UN Member States. So far only 30 UN General Assembly special sessions have happened as they are different from regular sessions. It has also been quite a while since the UN General Assembly adopted its second resolution on COVID-19 on 20 April 2020, calling for “International cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19”. However, it is not enough. This health crisis is a moving target and continues to pose unseen and so far untrammeled challenge to our existence in the habitual system of international relations. Discussions within the UN on the issue should not cease, quite the contrary, they should carry a particular importance and provide a sense of direction in the absence of the UN Security Council resolution on COVID-19 threat.

When seeing the current international response to the crisis in such a disarray, with shambolic UN Security Council and mostly low profile demonstrated by other international institutions, neorealists would cheer, as their central thesis of an “anarchic and self-helping international system” seems to once again prevail. However, the humanity has not suffered so many wars, deprivations and sufferings throughout this century alone to turn a blind eye to the lessons learned. The World War II became an inflection point making states realize that they cannot exists in isolation, and cooperation is the best strategy to stand against common threats and enemies. Many international institutions were therefore created afterwards, setting the stage for the never ending debate between neorealists and neoliberalists (institutionalists) as to the relevance and influence of these organizations in interstate relations and in shaping the world order. Many would agree that humanity’s battle against COVID-19 also resembles a war, this time against an invisible enemy. We may as well dub it the World War III given its proportions and uncertainty that it brings to all of us.It is therefore incumbent upon each and every member of the international system to contribute to the global efforts to fight this scourge. Azerbaijan, once again, as an ardent believer in the power of international institutions, cooperation and solidarity, stood up to its role as a norm entrepreneur by having initiated and achieved the summoning of the special session of the UN General Assembly in response to COVID-19. Every effort matters, but one is not enough to cope with such a crisis if it is not multiplied by the like-minded. Azerbaijan’s efforts to achieve global solidarity was supported first within the NAM, and later, by the rest of the UN community, and our expectations from this special UN General Assembly session are first and foremost related to the message of solace that we are not all alone in this war.

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

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Eastern Europe

China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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Lithuanian society is left shaken by plans to raise retirement age

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This month Lithuanian society is left shaken after spreading the news about the increasing of the retirement age. In Lithuania, the retirement age has increased every year since 2012 and by 2026 it will be 65 years. Previously, discussion surfaced on whether raising the retirement age to 72 would help offset Lithuania’s ageing population issues.

As Lithuania’s demographic situation continues to worsen, the European Commission estimates that the number of working-age people capable of supporting pensioners will go down in the future. Brussels says that increasing the retirement age could be a solution.

The existing average in Lithuania is now 57.5 years. It should be said that Lithuania expects to reach a life expectancy of 65 years only in 2030.

In some years there will be 50 retirees per 100 working people and it will have crucial implications for public finances and may require raising taxes. At the moment, 35% of the country’s population are aged over 55.

Before prolonging its working age, Lithuania should address the relatively poor health and low life expectancy of its population. Before they even reach retirement age, many people in Lithuania are unable to work due to high prevalence of chronic, non-infectious conditions.

It’s necessary to focus on increasing healthy life expectancy in Lithuania, instead of weighing up the idea of increasing the retirement age, Irena Segalovičienė, presidential adviser has said.

Taking into account the fact that men in Lithuania live an average of 14 more years from the age of 65, and women an 18 more years, Vilnius residents are not impressed with such an idea.

The officials are afraid of possible protests which could lead even to the government resignation.

Thus, late Thursday afternoon millions of French workers were still on the streets protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned pension reforms.

Lithuanian officials were quick to announce that it’s inadequate to consider a 7-year increase in the retirement age at this stage. Most likely, the news was deliberately disseminated in order to study public opinion on this issue.

Discussion is most toxic now, and will continue in Lithuania because wasting money on defence, government puts aging population at risk of poverty and death.

At the same time, the government calls for more defense spending. Together with Poland and the UK, Lithuania is leading a push within the NATO to agree to higher spending goals. In 2023, the country’s national defense budget will reach 2.52% of its gross domestic product (GDP). According to Zilvinas Tomkus, Lithuania’s vice minister of defence, Lithuania is ready to spend even more on the modernization of its armed forces and military infrastructure. The more so, spending money on defence procurement today will not improve Lithuania defence today. The modernized weapons, vehicles and equipment will be available only in some years while old Lithuanians need money right now just to survive.

Thus, chosen political priorities do not reflect the current social and economic situation in the country and even worsen it.

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