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The Treasure Map to the Forgotten Epoch of the Iravan Khanate

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In an exclusive interview, the scholar of the “lost” Iravani Khanate, Amir Ali SardariIravani, reveals a rich history of a society marked by a peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims which has been all but erased from the understanding of the region by the subsequent and victorious governments.

History

According to the researcher, Iravan Khanat was an independent state in the South Caucasus, which emerged around 1748.  The official end of this state was in 1828 after the defeat of Qajars against Russia.  The period between its creation in 1748 and 1805 is called the real life of the independent Khanate of Iravan, whereas between 1805 and 1828 the Khanate was under the rule of the Qajar dynasty. It means that in this time the Khan of Iravan was appointed by the Qajar state.

The Qajar dynasty was a Persian royal dynasty of Turkic origin which ruled over Iran from 1789 through 1925 when it was displaced by the Pahlavis.

The development of the city Iravan as a center goes back to the Chukhur-Sa’adbeylerbeyli period in the beginning of the Safavid dynasty in 16th century, which followed by the independent Iravan Khanate in 18thcentury. As a result of the wars between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, the city of Iravan passed 14 times from Safavids to Ottomans and vice versa. Each time the city exposed to certain destruction and was reconstructed again. After the collapse of the Safavids, the city wasoccupied by the Turks in 1723. In 1733 Nadir Shah conquered Iravan city from the Ottomans again. Nader Shah was an Iranian who belonged to the Turkmen Afshar tribe of Khorasan in northeastern Iran, which had supplied military power to the Safavid dynasty since the time of Shah Ismail Independent khanates were created after the deathof Nadir Shah Afshar in 1748. The city of Irevan became the capital of the Iravan khanate.

Iravan khanate covered the area between Mount Agri (Ararat) and MountAlagoz (Alayaz) and located on both banks of the Araz River.  The Iravan khanate was bordered on the north by Pambak river and Ganja khanates, on the east by Karabakh and Nakhchivan khanates, on the south by Khoy and Maku and Bayazid khanates,; on the west by Kars and on the north west by Shorayel sultanates. The territory of Iravan khanate was about 24 thousand square kilometers.

The Irevan fortress locating in a strategic position between the Ottoman Empire, Georgia and Safavid and later Afsharid empire has great importance for all neighboring states. It was built in 1582 by the Ottomans. The causes of political and military interference of neighboring governments in the internal affairs of Khanate of Iravan had emerged due to the commercial and strategic characteristics of Iravan and its unique geopolitical situation in the commercial routes and crossways of south Caucasus region. Located at the cross section between Europe, Asia, Russia, and the Middle East, and is known for the gamut of climates, and landscapes, and in those days, an international trade hub, which brought about a great deal of intercultural exchange, and contributed to the cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity in the region, as described in Thomas de Waal’s ” A Brief Guide to Understanding the Countries of the South Caucasus.”.

After the death of Nadir shah Afshar Mir Mehdi khan was the first khan of independent khanate of Iravan in 1747 but short time after that Azad khan, Afghan who was a general of Nadir shah, conquered Iravan and appointed Khalil khan uzbak as his representative and Khan of Iravan. In his timeIravan was being often attacked by Lezgins of Daghistan and Khalil khanuzbak was unable to protect Iravan.

Lezgins are a Northeast Caucasian ethnic group native predominantly to southern Dagestan, Russia and what is now northeastern Azerbaijan. In the 4th century BC, the numerous tribes speaking Lezgic languages united in a union of 26 tribes, formed in the Eastern Caucasus state of Caucasian Albania (which has nothing to do with the Balkan state), which itself was incorporated in the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 513 BC. Descendants of these tribes are now part of the rich makeup of the region, and retain distinctive cultural traditions.

The Lak Kazi Kumukh Khanate controlled a part of the Lezgins for a time in the 18th century after the disintegration of the Safavid Empire. In the first half of the 18th century, Persia was able to restore its full authority throughout the entire Caucasus under Nader Shah. Some Lezgins were part of the Kuba Khanate in what is now Azerbaijan, while others fell under the jurisdiction of the Derbent Khanate.In 1755 Hasanali khan who was a native Iravani and gained support of people of Iravan, replaced Khalil khan Uzbak.From this time on Iravan was an independent state under the rule of native khans for approximately 50 years until 1805. Hasanali khan gave his position to his brother Husseinali khan 4 years later. Under the rule of Husseinali khan and his son Mahammad khan, Iravan khanate experienced its most prosperous time. Husseinali khan and his son Mahammad khan were real politicians. Thepolitical life of Iravan Khanate  was always under the threat of neighboring powers.

This situation forced Husseinali Khan and later his son Mahammad khan towards the third power so that their political independence can be maintained. In fact, the formation of relations between Khanate of Iravan and neighboring powers  was due to political considerations and mutual interests. However, relations of Khan of Iravan with neighboring governments were not always stable, since the only objective for the Khanate of Iravan was to preserve its domain and governance over a localized region through utilization of any measures or means.

In the reign of Husseinali khan he benefited from support of Ottomans and also sometimes of Karim khan Zand (from Iran) to encounter Irakli (Erekle II) of Georgia. He used the conflict between Russia and Ottoman Empire on black sea as a political opportunity.

Later his son Mohammad khan played the similar political role with Russia and Agha Mohammad khan Qajar to maintain Iravan khanate, essentially playing one off the other, and receiving a level of protection from each – without ever being fully (or really) subservient to either. Agha Mohammad khan Qajar defeated Zand dynasty in Iran and came to power

in 1796. The Zand dynasty was an Iranian dynasty, a branch of Lurs or Kurds, origin founded by Karim Khan Zand that initially ruled southern and central Iran in the 18th century. It later quickly came to expand to include much of the rest of contemporary Iran, as well as what is modern day Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and parts of Iraq and Armenia. Mohammed Khan Qajar expected from the Khanates of Caucasus to obey him. The Khanates were ruled by the khans of Turkic Oghuz descents. Especially the khanates of Iravan, Ganja and Karabakh were ruled by the khans of Qajartribe. The Khan of Iravan did not trust him as a newcomer. It was the reason for the invasion of Agha Mohammad khan Qajar of Caucasus. The khan of Iravan was arrested by Agha Mohammad khan Qajar and sent to Tehran. But shortly after that Agha Mohammad khan Qajar was killed in Karabakh and the Iravan khan was returned to his home. Mahammad khan of Iravan continued the policy of gaining the balance of power between Russia and the Qajar state to maintain the independent Iravan khanate. In 1805 Mahammad khan was finally arrested and sent to exile by Fathali shah Qajar, the successor of AghaMohammad khan Qajar. Mahammad khan Iravani was treated by Fathali shahwith respect in exile. There were many cross marriages between his children and Fathali shah’s children in order to strengthen the ties between their dynasties. This was a strategy of rulers in those times to stabilize their power and reduce the risks of invasion or intervention by their rivals. After the death of Fathali shah Mahammad khanIravani got the highest military rank under Mohammad shah Qajar, the successor of Fathali shah, and married the daughter of Fathali shah. Hisson, Mahammad hasan khan, also married the daughter of Abbas mirza, the crown prince. This daughter was the full sister of Mohammad shah Qajar. I myself am a descendant of this line, explained the scholar. The descendants of Mahammad khanIravani have had a very good career among Qajars.  They were mostly very influential personalities who at times had ruled up to 75% of Iran as local governors.  They were very closely related to the royal family.

Even under Pahlavis, the family members had reached very high official posts.In 1807 Husseinqulu khan from Qazvin was appointed by Fathali shah to khanof Iravan. He and his brother Hasan khan were not native from Iravan. Manyhistorians have mistaken written that their father with Mahammad khan unfortunately.The political reform of Husseinqulu khan, driven by Fathali shah Qajar,changed the situation in Iravan khanate and led finally to heavy losses and Gulistan and Turkamanchay treaties. Khanate of Iravan was annexed to Russia in 1827.

The Treaty of Gulistan was a peace treaty concluded between Imperial Russia and Persia (modern day Iran) on 24 October 1813 in the village of Gulistan (in modern-day Goranboy Rayon of Azerbaijan) as a result of the first full-scale Russo-Persian War, lasting from 1804 to 1813. The peace negotiations were precipitated by Lankaran’s fall to Gen. PyotrKotlyarevsky on 1 January 1813.The treaty confirmed the ceding and inclusion of what is today Daghestan, eastern Georgia, most of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and parts of northern Armenia from Iran into the Russian Empire. The text was prepared by the British diplomat Sir Gore Ouseley who served as the mediator and wielded great influence at the Persian court. It was signed by Nikolai Rtischev from the Russian side[1] and Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi from the Persian side.

The Treaty of Turkamanchay was an agreement between Persia(Iran) and the Russian Empire, which concluded the Russo-Persian War (1826–28). It was signed on 10 February 1828 in Torkamanchay, Iran. By the treaty, Persia ceded to Russia control of several areas in the South Caucasus: the Erivan Khanate, the Nakhchivan Khanate, and the remainder of the Talysh Khanate. The boundary between Russian and Persia was set at the Aras River. These territories comprise modern-day Armenia, the southern parts of the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan, as well as Iğdır Province (now part of Turkey).

The treaty was signed for Persia by Crown Prince Abbas Mirza and Allah-Yar Khan Asaf al-Daula, chancellor to Shah Fath Ali (of the Qajar Dynasty), and for Russia by General Ivan Paskievich. Like the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan, this treaty was imposed by Russia, following military victory over Persia. Paskievich threatened to occupy Tehran in five days unless the treaty was signed.

Culture

Discussing the culture of the Iravan Khanate and the region, the researcher explained that at the beginning of 16th century and during the rise of Safavid empire, Iravan was an important strategic location for Safavids against Ottomans. It wasthe reason why Safavid rulers appointed their most capable and intelligent allies and generals to protect the fortifications in Iravan. In additionto the military importance, Iravan was a very strategic trade center. As a crossroad between east and west Iravan gained from economic and cultural interactions between different nations. This unique opportunity madeIravan into a cultural hub and a place for open minded people from different religions and backgrounds. Neighboring states were always very eager totake control over this area to gain from taxes and security advantages. These interests caused Iravan to be subjected to conflicts and extensive damages in Iravan from time to time.

The rulers of Iravan were close to Safavid dynasty. The first officialrepresentatives of the Safavid state, who were sent to Europe, were from Iravan. Safavid rulers finally declared Isfahan to be their capital, because it wasa safe location and far from borders but they were still very well connected with their high ranking officials and people from “Chokhur Sa’ad” (the name of Iravan state at that time). Safavi kings offered special conditions like tax relief for Armenians and tried to discourage them from treason. From time to time Christian rival states like Georgiaand Russia were inciting Armenians to conspire against Safavids.

In Safavi and Afshar periods Iravan was a battle field between Iran and Ottomans. The major powers looked to it as a potential proxy against one another and sought its allegiance, both through outreach and through force. After death of Nader shah Afshar, the Iravan Khanate era was the most peaceful period which lasted about 50 years. In this time the rulers of Iravan tried to secure their independent state through unique political position, maneuvering among the larger powers, but also utilizing the unique location to develop a business friendly climate favorable to merchants and to friendly diplomacy with neighboring states.

They could concentrate on their internal affairs and promote the quality of life and development inside their own society without interference or disturbance. Among cities with a large Christian minority, Iravan was much more tolerant than the very religious Muslim Isfahan. Many Western travelers who visited Iravan witnessed the religious freedom and tolerance in this country. It is obvious that some European travelers had sympathy for people who shared their faith and intended to reflect their complaints. It was In the 18th. century and even today we are struggling with the same conflict between ideologies, which at times portrayed conflicts as clashes between religions themselves, rather than between their practitioners. The period of Iravan khanate was the most prosperous time of this country. Trade was improved and the custom taxes were not paid to neighboring supporters but invested internally. Based on the very rare sources remaining from that period it wasthe golden age of Iravan. Mosques and churches, facilities for travelers like Bazars, Hamams and Caravansara is with eastern architecture were built or renovated. In the 18th. century, mosques were still the most important centers for education. A lesser known fact is that the first modern school and the new education system in Caucasus and Iran was initiated in Iravan some decades later, and the most appropriate conditions for this revolutionary initiative was prepared in Iravan khanate period. The tolerance for different perspectives and the openness due to the inherent diversity laid the foundation for this innovative approach.

Still, the peaceful period eventually came to an end. In 1796 and with the rise of the Qajar dynasty in Tehran, Agha Mohammad khan Qajar targeted Caucasus and the time of peace and prosperity was breached. Mahammad Khan Iravani was captured and forced to leave Iravan to Tehran. Although the Iravani khan was treated respectfully in Tehran, the conqueror Qajar state did not allow him to intervene in internal affairs of Iravan anymore. Instead, another loyal Qajar general was appointed to khan of Iravan “Hossein qulukhan”. From this time on, the history of the Khanate was written by the victors, by Qajar historians. The last Khan of Iravan started the so-called political reforms under control of Qajar state. In my opinion, continued the researcher, hedid not manage to accomplish anything of value, and only provoked Russia and the Armenian minority of Iravan. In his reign and in 1813 the entire Caucasus except Iravan andNakhchivan was annexed to Russia through the Gulistan treaty. Politicalmismanagement of Qajars led to huge territorial and other losses, and Iravan and Nakhchivan were entirely lost to Russia in 1827.

The last khan of Iravan in his reign was living in the Iravan Sardar palace,whose patron was the former khan “Mohammad khan Iravani”. Beside thepalace, Husseinqulu khan built a new mosque and named it the “Sardar mosque”.The contemporary German professor Markus Ritter, a specialist in the history of Islamic art, published a paper “thelost mosque in citadel of Yerevan” in 2009. He contacted me for some clarifications, added the scholar. Another German historian “Friedrich Sarre” had traveled to Iravanin 1897 and took some remaining tiles of this mosque to Berlin. Hedescribed in his book the very bad condition of the historical heritage of Khanate and those taken tiles are today displayed in the Berlin museum. Other European travelers who had visited Irevan at different times, described the Sardar’s Palace, its Mirror Hall, mosques, pools and baths in the castle and the city in their writings, as well as the underground marble stairedway passing down to the Zangi River.

There are eyewitness accounts of the marble Fountain once located in the middle of the hall of mirrors.As the result of the earthquake in 1853 the Iravan castle walls were damaged. Since 1868 Iravan City Police Office had been located in Khan Palace, Sardar Hall. The Caucasian viceroyalty allocated resources for there construction of Sardar hall (Mirror Hall) on the basis of petition of Iravan governor in 1867, 1871, 1874, 1880 years. From other recollections, we learn that an Armenian merchant by name of Nerse Tahiryan purchased a part of Iravan castle in 1865 and he built a winery (present cognac/brandy plant). Eventually Serdar Palace was completely demolished and the walls of the Iravan citadel were pulled down. The old districts are by also in ruins. In 1906-1911 years, B.Mehrabov, the engineer of Iravan city, mapped out the city plan and the existence of 8 mosques (Tepebashi, Zal khan, Sartib khan, Blue Mosque (Huseynali khan), Haji Novruzali bey, Gala mosque (Abbas Mirze mosque ), Demirbulag, Haji Jafar) were marked there. The Blue Mosque at Iravan was commissioned in 1765–1766 by Husseinali Khan, the Sardar of the IravanKhanate as the city’s main Friday mosque. It is today the only remaining monument from the Iravan Khanate. The reason why it survived is, the mosque was used as the city museum. There were a number of caravanserais in Iravan city as well: Afshar, Sardar, Sheykholislam, Taghli, Haji Ali, Komurchu, Gurju, Julfa, Haji Ilyas, etc. All these caravanserais had been obliterated. By the decision dated on May 29, 1918, Azerbaijan National Council (Milli Shura), as a result of a political compromise, ceded the city of Iravan to the Armenians as a capital city after three independent countries –Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia had been established in the Caucasus. The re-construction of the city Iravan after the first world war was started in 1924 but in fact, it was serving the agenda of erasing the historical heritage there. The Iravan City History Museum was located in Blue Mosque, Zal khan (the City) mosque turned to the art gallery, but all the other mosques except Demirbulag Mosque in the city had been razed to the ground. Demirbulag Mosque was set on fire in 1988.The history of the Iravan Khanate was written by the victors, first by Qajar conquerors and later by Russians, Armenians and finally by Pahlavis who removed Qajars from power. The Iravan Khanate was forgotten and its history was systematically erased.

Why was the history of the Iravan Khanate suppressed?

At the beginning of the Qajar dynasty there were only few trusted historians in Qajar court, explained Amir Ali SardariIravani . They described all events from the perspective of their master Agha Mohammad khan Qajar or Fathali shah Qajar. As said before, Iravan Khans tried to stabilize their country by switching from one neighboring supporter (Iran, Ottomans, Russia) to the other one based on their common interests. Agha Mohammad khan Qajar was actually an intelligent commander. He believed that all territories in Near and Middle East and Central Asia, even India, belong to Turkic tribes and must be ruled by them. I read a statement from him, added the scholar, that Turkic rulers of those countries should respect each other and should be peaceful to each other. But in case of Khanates he wanted to restore the Safavid territories under his flag. The Khanates could not trust him as a young newcomer.

So, despite of being from the same roots “Qajar”, the Iravan Khan refused to follow Agha Mohammad khan and Fathali Shah. It was the reason why the Qajar historians mentioned him as an unfaithful and incapable khan. After he was sent to exile and was replaced by loyal Husseinqulu Khan from Qazvin, the new Khan as a non-native governor needed a lot of publicity. He carried out some tax reforms. In the first Russian war Qajars lost a great part of Caucasus. Unfortunately Husseinqulu khan overestimated his military power. He provoked Russia and started the 2nd war, which ended in loss of Iravan. Qajar historians documented only one side of the story.

Fathali Shah Qajar and his successors respected Mahammad khan Iravani and his children. It was a respect combined with fear. The Iravani Khan was rich and influential. After death of Fathali Shah, the old Iravani Khan who was a middle ranked general made career again and got to the highest level in the army under Mohammad Shah Qajar. He married the daughter of Fathali Shah and his son married the sister of Mohammad Shah Qajar. Even the new chancellor of Iran „Mirza Aghasi“ was his old servant in Iravan. So it is obvious why the Qajar kings felt like being threatened by this family. Professor Abbas Amanat and some other historians mentioned the huge influence of Mohammad Hasan Khan Sardar Iravani (son of Mahammad khan Iravani) in Nasser-eddin Shah Qajar‘s era. The Pahlavis then systematically erased this history for political reasons.

The Implications for Further Research

This page of our history has been disregarded by censorship, continued the researcher. Through objective research the true history will be revealed. The history which goes beyond our current understanding of political borders remains in the archives for now. It will open us a horizon to find out the integrity of Christians and Muslims in a traditional society in 18th century, he underscored. It will teach us lessons about tolerance in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society and also how such civilized community could be abused for imperialistic purposes, posited the scholar.

Researchers in this area must understand several languages. The documents obtained from this period are partly in Persian, partly in Turkish, partly in Russian and partly in Armenian.

Several archives in Iravan, Nakhichevan, Russia, Iran, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan contain many correspondents and documents from that time. Due to conflicts and political issues, such objective, comprehensive research does not currently seem to be possible unfortunately. I am pretty sure that such steps could uncover the mistreatments regarding the history of Iravan khanate.

According to Amir Ali SardariIravani, the most interested audience and supporters live in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Most of them are refugees from Iravan or neighboring regions who have been displaced from their homeland. They try to keep their traditions and culture. Both governments support historical research, but extensive work requires an international network of researchers who can access archives anywhere without restrictions. Such a network could be orchestrated by a cultural organization in Europe, for example. Anur Ali SardariIravani proposed to start such an initiative in Germany but it’s on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This fascinating interview leaves the reader with at least as many questions as answers, to which the lodestar of research access has not yet waxed. But it also offers a treasure map with clues that can bring the scholars following the footsteps of Amir Ali SardariIravani, closer to unraveling the enigmas presented in this story, and to reaching the buried wealth of previously unknown history.

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a variety of domestic and international issues and her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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Eastern Europe

Ukraine’s EU-integration plan is not good for Europe

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Late this summer, Estonia, in the person of its president, Kersti Kaljulaid, became the first EU country to declare that Ukraine remains as far away from EU membership as it was after the “Revolution of Dignity” – the events of 2013-14 in Kiev, which toppled Ukraine’s vacillating pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after, the ambassador of Estonia’s neighbor, Latvia, in Ukraine, echoed Kaljulaid’s statement, although in a slightly softer form. This came as unpleasant news for the current authorities of Kiev, especially amid the celebration of Ukraine’s 30th independence anniversary and the “Crimean Forum,” which, according to President Zelensky’s plan, was supposed to rally international support for the country in its confrontation with Russia. However, during the past seven years, Ukraine has been a serious problem for the EU, which is becoming increasingly hard to solve.

Back in 2014, the Kremlin’s response to the overthrow of its ally, Yanukovych, was just as harsh as to the coming to power in Kiev of pro-Western elites. Without firing a single shot, Russia annexed Crimea, a major base for the Russian Black Fleet, and populated by a Russian-speaking majority, many of whom sincerely welcomed the region’s reunification with Russia. Meanwhile, a civil war broke out in Ukraine’s also Russian-speaking southeast where the local separatists were actively supported by Moscow. Europe then realized that it was now necessary to ramp up pressure on Russia and support the budding democratic transformations in Ukraine. However, the country’s successive pro-Western presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, who shared European values, have since failed to achieve any significant results in European integration. Moreover, they became enmeshed in US electoral scandals and the war of compromising evidence, and they do not create the impression of being independent figures. Moreover, they were consistently making one mistake after another. In two major battles with separatists near Debaltsevo and Ilovaisk in 2014-15, the Ukrainian Armed Forces suffered a crushing defeat, despite the upsurge of patriotism backed by US and European support. The closure of the borders with Russia has divided families and left tens of thousands of people without jobs. An inept language policy and rabid nationalism split the Ukrainian nation, which had just begun to shape up, with wholesale corruption plunging the country into poverty.

In their clumsy effort to prove their adherence to European values, Petro Poroshenko, and after him Volodymyr Zelensky, both made clumsy attempts to prove their adherence to Western values, starting to prioritize the interests of the country’s LGBT community. As a result, gay people were given prominent positions in the country’s leadership, and the square outside the presidential palace became the venue of almost weekly gay pride parades. This open disregard for the conservative values ​​of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians led to an even greater split between the ruling elites and the nationalists, who are now at loggerheads with the Zelensky administration on many issues – another gigantic problem hindering Ukraine’s European integration.

The fact is that Ukrainian nationalism has old and very controversial roots. Starting out as fighters for independence, the Ukrainian right-wingers quickly joined the camp of Hitler’s admirers and committed a number of serious war crimes not only in Ukraine proper, but on the territory of neighboring Poland as well. Their heirs now honor Hitler and Ukrainian collaborationists, deny many crimes of Nazism and espouse anti-Semitic views that are unacceptable for Europe. Moreover, they do not see Russia as their only enemy, actively provoking conflicts with the Poles and accusing them of the “genocide of the Ukrainians” during the 1930s in the territories that until 1939 were part of the Polish state.

In the course of the seven years of Ukraine’s “pro-Western turn” the local right-wingers, who already represented an organized force, were reinforced by veterans of the Donbass war, members of the country’s military and security forces. They were long regarded by the Washington as important allies in the fight against Russia, failing to see real neo-Nazis hiding under patriotic slogans. Now it is exactly these people, who are breaking up gay parades in Kiev and crippling LGBT activists. They feel no need for European values because they take much closer to heart the legacy of the Third Reich. Thanks to visa-free travel to Europe, they have become regulars, and often the striking force of neo-Nazi gatherings from Germany to Spain. They are ready to kill refugees from the Middle East and burn synagogues. Moreover, some of them have retained ties with their Russian neo-Nazi brethren, who, although in deep opposition to Vladimir Putin, continue to propagate the idea of superiority of the Slavic race.

President Zelensky and his administration are smart enough to distance themselves from the local right-wingers. Moreover, they are detained, and sometimes their rallies are broken up by police (albeit without any consequences for the leaders). Even though the ultra-nationalist Right Sector lost their seats in parliament in the last elections, they retained their hard-core base and influence. De facto neo-Nazi leaders maintain good contacts with the outwardly liberal presidential administration and are thus immune from prosecution. They also go to Europe, where right-wing sentiments are very popular.

Meanwhile, President Zelensky continues to pointlessly lose soldiers along the “contact line” with separatists, unable to “be strong with his weakness” and establish a full-fledged truce in a war he does not yet want to win. As a result, more and more illegal arms are seeping into the country’s central regions from the frontlines and many soldiers, fed up with the war, are now joining the ranks of right-wing militants! These are by no means pro-European activists. They will be just as happy to beat up LGBT members and destroy a refugee camp as the Russian embassy. The authorities simply cannot fight them in earnest because the ultranationalists have too many supporters in the state apparatus and too many activists capable of plunging Kiev into chaos in a matter of hours. Small wonder that such post-Soviet countries as Estonia and Latvia, which themselves had problems with both nationalism and the justification of local collaborationists, were the first to raise their voices criticizing Kiev.

Well, Ukraine could and should be viewed as a potential new EU member. However, it must be forced to root out Nazism, instead of holding staged gay prides in downtown Kiev just for show to demonstrate the elites’ adherence to European values! Otherwise, we would have a faction of real neo-Nazis in the European Parliament, compared to whom any members of the European Far Right would look like moderate conservatives. In addition to stamping out corruption, President Zelensky needs to eradicate neo-fascism, which threatens Europe just as it does his own country. Only then can we talk about European integration. Meanwhile, we have to admit that, just as the Estonian president said, seven years of “European democracy” have not brought Ukraine one step closer to the United Europe…

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Eastern Europe

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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Eastern Europe

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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