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The political inertia of the EU in the South Caucasus becoming a serious problem for the West

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The geopolitical panorama  in the South Caucasus, which has strategic importance for Europe, has changed dramatically in recent years. Different development indicators of the countries in the region, as well as innovations in the Caucasus policy of foreign states and organizations now create a new situation here.

Processes show that Azerbaijan and Georgia are again the main countries interested in integration into the Euro-Atlantic space. On the other hand, in the current situation, Azerbaijan’s importance and role in Europe’s energy supply and security is growing. Official Baku is interested in establishing closer relations with the European Union in the economic, political and juridical spheres.

At present, Azerbaijan is a decisive country in the South Caucasus, and 75% of the region’s GDP is formed in Azerbaijan. Transnational projects implemented by the country in partnership with Western countries show that Azerbaijan’s economic position will continue to grow. This point is becoming increasingly important for geopolitical players in the region to cooperate with Azerbaijan.

The European Union is an interested party in the development of relations with Azerbaijan also.  But this is more about economic relations.  However, the geopolitical role of the South Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, is unique in terms of its potential and geostrategic position. This region plays an important role both as an energy source and in the transportation of Caspian energy resources to Europe in general. The location between  of the Caspian and Black Seas, Russia, Iran and Turkey turns the South Caucasus region into an East-West and North-South corridor.  This factor shows that the Caspian region, especially the South Caucasus, has an important position on the geopolitical map of the world. However, the European Union is not as active in the South Caucasus as a geopolitical actor. This is one of the main factors making Russia as major geopolitical player in the region. This situation ultimately causes the Kremlin to treat Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia at different levels and in different statuses.  The countries of the region, with the exception of Armenia, have to take into account Russia’s position. The tradition of the Armenian authorities to act on instructions from Russia has not changed.

Currently, Azerbaijan and Georgia are trying to prevent Russia from acting as an outpost against them. On this purpose they hope to cooperation with the West, including the European Union. But to achieve this, they need the economic and political support of Europe and the United States.  That is, economic cooperation alone is not enough. It should be noted that the demand for oil and gas is growing not only in the West, but also in the rapidly developing countries of Asia. The Caspian Sea basin, comparable to the hydrocarbon reserves of Kuwait, Mexico and the North Sea, makes the Central Asian energy resource region a vital interest zone for the superpowers. The safe flow of this energy to the West depends on stability in the South Caucasus. Stability here lies in resolving existing conflicts in the region, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Because Russia, which wants to keep Europe in an energy monopoly, maintains its influence in the region through these conflicts. By taking an active part in resolving them, Europe can become a key player in a strategically important region and successfully secure its geoeconomic interests.

While Azerbaijan is the gateway to the region, Armenia, which remains under Russian influence, plays a divisive role in the policy pursued by the Western world to ensure its strategic interests in the South Caucasus. By maintaining Russian military bases in Armenia and relying on Russia’s political support, official Yerevan does not give up its policy of aggression and baseless territorial claims. These factors play a role in reviving the modern political landscape of the South Caucasus region.

The current geopolitical reality is that there is no unique security system in the Caucasus. First of all, the presence of conflicts in the South Caucasus, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in which Azerbaijan unjustly involved is a major obstacle to Caucasus regional security system. The security of Azerbaijan is very important for the security of the whole region. It is a stable and secure system for delivering the region’s energy resources to world markets. Participation in global economic projects can be attributed to Azerbaijan as one of the leading countries in the region. But Azerbaijan still does not receive any important support from the Western world.

Another point here is the European Union, the United States, which initiated the creation of a security system in the region, but despite concrete proposals and models, did not take serious steps in this direction. However, Azerbaijan is a favorable place for them both from a geostrategic and geopolitical point of view. Transnational projects in the South Caucasus are being implemented with the main participation of Azerbaijan. Along with the regional projects implemented so far, Azerbaijan is considered to be a country with sufficient potential and transit opportunities in the implementation of new transnational projects in the coming period. The irreplaceability of Azerbaijan is not only due to the fact its energy producer, but also as an energy transit corridor that transports the oil, gas products of the Central Asian republics to Europe as a transit country. So, by helping to ensure the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, the West would also guarantee its security.But they are still not politically active in the region.

During the new military clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in July of this year, Western countries did not take an active part in the subsequent course of events in the region. Instead, Russia is again active in the South Caucasus in terms of both the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and other political processes. Such situation is a serious obstacle to accelerating the integration of countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia into the Euro-Atlantic space. This is also unacceptable in the interests of Europe and the United States. Now it is important for the European Union, which is close to the region, to be more active in the South Caucasus, to contribute in settlement of conflicts, and for this there is a need for active political steps. Otherwise, the European Union will continue to lag behind Russia.

It should be noted that the European Union peacekeeping mission is very important, first of all, to accelerate the process of European integration. The European Union has great experience as both a conflict mediator and a participant in diplomatic negotiations. Over the past 20 years, the European Union has participated in about 30 peacekeeping operations. Its activities are regulated by the European Security Strategy, the Amsterdam Agreement, the Petersberg and Helsinki Declarations. Thus, the European Union has shown that it is one of the main centers of power in the settlement of regional conflicts and ensuring European and international security. In this case, the organization can have a stronger geopolitical position in the South Caucasus by playing an active role in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and helping to restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. The formation of a security system at the regional level and the expansion of multilateral relations with the European Union are of particular importance for Azerbaijan. It just needs to be European active role not only economically but also politically field  in the region. Otherwise, European Union will continue to lose geopolitically to Russia and, in the long run, to China in the region.

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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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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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