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The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route in the face of New Danger

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The recent skirmishes along the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan pose significant threats to the development of East-West trade and transport corridor.

On July 12, another military confrontation sparked between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This time, the parties of the three-decades-old conflict over occupied territories of Azerbaijan by Armenian Armed Forces fought along international state border on the site of Tovuz region and Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, not the “Line of Contact” around the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Fitful skirmishes involved artillery fire and aerial drones which is sufficient enough to characterize it as the most severe incident since the “April War” in 2016. According to the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, 12 Azerbaijani servicemen and 1 civilian died including a major-general and a colonel while the Armenian Ministry of Defense reported that their number of deaths constituted for 5, which is surprisingly low considering the tense of confrontation.

The both sides immediately accused each other of initiating the fire. However, taking into consideration potential drawbacks of the armed clashes to international projects due to close proximity of strategic facilities to the border area, it is crystal-clear that escalation of military engagement fails to represent any interests of Azerbaijan, unlike Armenia which does not carry much responsibility as it is out of main regional connectivity projects in South Caucasus. More particularly, in accordance with goals embodied on “Strategic Road Map for the development of logistics and trade” approved in 2016, stability and security around the respective state border is of vital importance for Azerbaijan which, on the other hand, fills a gap of Armenia’s leading motive in choosing this place for new skirmishes. Namely, the last stop of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway in Azerbaijan before it arrives at Rustavi station in Georgia is the Aghstafa station that is situated within approximately 33-45 km away from Dondar Qushchu and Kokhanabi villages of Tovuz region where Armenian Armed Forces were shelling along the border. In addition, the distance between the Baku-Alat-Qazakh-Georgia Highway and another suffering villages such as Ashagi Qushchu and Aghdam is more or less 4-5 km.

The recent developments in the East-West trade as a driving factor behind the clashes.

It is essential to lay an emphasis on the coincidence of clashes with the latest events occurred on the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) in order to draw correlation. Azerbaijan, as one of originators of the TITR along with Kazakhstan and Georgia, gradually advances its connectivity role thanks to the efficient use of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway as well as Baku Alat Port. Recently, the TITR achieved a new freight transportation record in compliance with its2020 development plan on cargo tariffs, delivery time and volume of container traffic according to the report of Azernews. Citing to the press service of Trans-Caspian International Transport Consortium on July 15, Azernews informs that shuttle trains consisting of 47 containers arrivedin Istanbul from Xi’anin 16 days, 3 days earlier than the relevant time of the last year due to further harmonization and electrification of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line.

In addition, the Azerbaijan Railways CJSC confirmed to Trend News Agency on July 16 that between January and May 2020, there were 149,137 tons of cargo delivered via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which was 3.9 times higher compared to the same period of 2019.Such improvement was also noticeable on the Global Competitiveness Report 2019 of the World Bank Group where Azerbaijan was ranked the 11th among 141 countries in the category of “Efficiency of train services”. It is important to note that the BTK has yet reached its maximum operational capacity as it is expected to carry 3-5 tons by the end of 2020 and up to 17 tons of cargo and 3 million passengers by 2023.

Furthermore, in early July, there was a meeting held among presidents of three countries– Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to discuss cooperation on the integration of Lapis-Lazuli Transport Corridor to the TITR which connects landlocked Afghanistan with Europe. As soon as the BTK railway was linked to the Lapis-Lazuli route in 2018, products from Afghanistan began to flow through Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and further to the west. In particular regards to the volume of containers throughout the first half of 2020, President Aliyev stated that 55,500 tons of cargo were shipped through Azerbaijan towards Afghanistan and back during the specified time.

A frequent use of pro-war rhetoric entails a direct threat to Azerbaijan’s strategic facilities onthe TITR.

It is no secret that positive resonance of Azerbaijan’s participation in transnational projects makes Armenian government concerned about the change of balance of power in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Such anxiety was also explicitly stated by the former leader of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan on his interview to Armenia TV when he noted that Armenia had to purchase Russian-made 9K720 Iskander-M ballistic missile with nuclear warheads with a caliber of striking any facilities within 300 miles (500 km) in order to balance the situation with Azerbaijan. Commenting on the demonstration of ballistic missiles during a military parade in Yerevan, Head of the Operational Department at the Armenian army’s General Staff, Major-General Artak Davtian revealed that Armenia’s missile systems were in the capability of targeting “all strategic facilities in Azerbaijan”.

On one hand, it is reasonable to have such a concern. Because in marked contrast to Armenia where political and economic unrest sprawled all around the country and a real “game of thrones” arises for the current government, Azerbaijan seems to be more equipped with opportunities for fast recovery during the post-pandemic period owing to a potential rise of the volume of international trade and transportation. According  to president of Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ), Askar Mamin, Azerbaijan can gain a net profit of US$600-700 million from transit route alone, while net profit of all member states is worth US$1 billion. The corridor also improves trade turnover of Azerbaijan with several countries along the route, especially China. Shahin Mustafayev, Minister of Economy of Azerbaijan confirmed on his interview to Global Times that the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and China reached US$1.7 billion from January to September in 2019, a rise of 96 percent compared to the same period of 2018.

In conjunction with such hostilities being conducted at regular intervals along the “Line of Contact” and state border, Armenian leadership also actively takes advantage of the pro-war rhetoric in a bid to discredit Azerbaijan’s competitiveness and create a notion of its insecurity. During the flare up along the border, Davit Tonoyan, Defense Minister of Armenia confirmed to Shushan Stepanyan, spokesperson of the relevant ministry “personal and command of the Armenian Army are instructed to be restrained for time to seize new advantageous positions in case of provocations received by the enemy on the borders of the Republic of Armenia.” Another aggressive and provocative statement of Minister was received in the gathering of Armenian community members in last March in New York. At the meeting, Tonoyan announced his dream for “new territories in the event of a new war” and promised that the option of return of “territories for peace” (regarding the occupied territories of Azerbaijan) would no longer be on the table.

Furthermore, some threats of Armenian leadership with a risk of more catastrophic consequences also targets to destabilize the region. In this regard, the statement of the “Defense Minister” of self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Levon Mnatsakanyan may serve an example. On 24 July 2018, Mnatsakanyan noted in a press conference that oil and gas installations as well as Mingachevir hydroelectric station of Azerbaijan, the largest dam in South Caucasus was included in tactical plans of the “Defense Army” of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Besides, some direct threats have already been put into force too. For example, when MP Hrant Bagratyan, ex-Prime Minister of Armenia said in his press conference on 29 April 2016that Armenia had to create its atomic weapons to fight against Azerbaijan and Turkey, very few people would believe that his words had actually incapsulated the partial truth until an unexploded 122-millimeter ordnance consisting of chemical code of white phosphorus was used against civilian population of Askipara village of Tartar region of Azerbaijan on 27 July 2016.

Conclusion

All aspects stated above lead us to some inferences regarding correlation between recent skirmishes and regional development and security in South Caucasus. Firstly, it reveals an obvious clarification that Azerbaijan as a promising contributor to the East-West transport corridor cannot be an interested party in escalation of military confrontation along the border as it constitutes an impediment to Azerbaijan’s strategic goal to become a logistics and trade hub not to mention further political and legal repercussions for the country. This fact generates the second deduction that Armenia, by undermining Azerbaijan’s connectivity role between Asia and Europe tries to keep the power dynamics of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict balanced which ultimately aims at maintaining the status-quo. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it still requires another investigation to uncover additional motives of the Armenian government in conducting such provocations, especially from the perspective of aggravated domestic situation and its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The third and the most important takeaway note of this article is that Armenian provocations not only attempt to distract international and domestic community from the ground of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict by opening another hot zone, but also pose significant risks to the development of regional connectivity projects as well as threaten economic incentives of all countries involved along the TITR due to any attacks on infrastructure facilities of Azerbaijan.

It is no doubt that such clashes stick all efforts of negotiation process of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict; similarly, keep alive a risk of waging into a full-scale war in such an important region. Therefore, the time has come for international community not only to react Armenian aggression in the same way with other cases of violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty around the world, but also to immediately ensure the peaceful settlement of the conflict based on principles and norms of international law.

Javid Alyarli (@javidalyarli) received an M.A. in China Studies from Zhejiang University in 2019. His current research interests include Belt and Road Initiative, Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, "Digital Silk Road" and Chinese investments in South Caucasus.

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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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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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