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Street clashes in Belarus

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Despite everything, Belarus is still the most stable of the former Soviet Union.

 Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has never divided economic power among “oligarchs” – as also happened with Putin – but has transferred the entire State economic apparatus into the new political system led by him.

 This is the real divide between Belarus and the Russian Federation, where also Putin has his “oligarchs” of reference, to whom he must somehow report and refer his policy line.

 Still today, for example, BelAZ, the company that produces transport and excavation equipment in Belarus, controls about 30% of the entire world market. It also has many openings in Western markets. It is not at all true that Belarus has a “post-Soviet relic” economy.

In October 2019 Belarus also obtained a 500 million dollar loan from the China Development Bank, which was alternative to equivalent financing from Russia that never arrived.

 The primary geopolitical fact is that the Ukrainian crisis was interpreted – even correctly – by Lukashenko himself as a real “Russian failure” and, since then, Belarus has progressively reduced its economic and hence political dependence on Russia.

 Meanwhile China was considering a new route, outside Ukraine, for its Belt & Road Initiative to Europe. Two coinciding interests, including the desire to reduce the Russian power in the region.

 Since then Belarus has been using its special relations with China to deal with the EU and, in some respects, with Russia itself.

 In 2018 alone, bilateral Belarus-China trade increased by 17.1% to a total of 3-5 billion U.S. dollars.

 In April 2019, during Lukashenko’s visit to Beijing, Belarus accepted a 100 million euro loan from China (again with the China Development Bank) to support its Central Bank’s reserves.

The Chinese Eximportbank also granted 67.5 million Euros to Belarusian railways.

 President Xi Jinping called Belarus “the pearl of the Belt & Road Initiative”. It is a great miraculous substitute for Ukraine, now unusable for Chinese projects.

 Furthermore, Lukashenko’s regime offers significant tax breaks to investors from both Europe and the “Eurasian Economic Union”, i.e. the small “Belt & Road Initiative” led by the Russian Federation.

 Before 2014 China bet all its cards on Ukraine. Now, after the Western Russian “masterpieces” on the territory of that country, China is easily turning towards Belarus.

 In the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, the Belarusian ruling class also thought that Russia was threatening its territory with military exercises and was strongly suspicious of Russia’s demand to open a military base on its territory.

 Hence the simple and peaceful relationship between Belarus and Russia exists only in mainstream Western newspapers.

 Russia prefers to have China in Belarus rather than any other ally, so it has a wait-and-see attitude, at least for the time being.

 Moreover, thanks to its role in the Belt&Road Initiative, Belarus has now every interest in strengthening all ties also with the EU – which, however, is not in Russia’s interest.

 On the military level, during the series of mass demonstrations, Lukashenko announced some operations on the Polish and Lithuanian borders. He also announced that Belarus would “never become a sanitary zone between East and West” and therefore not even a buffer zone between Europe and the Russian Federation.

 A very clear signal for NATO, but also for Putin.  

 The revolt against Lukashenko is based on sound reasons: a) the severe inefficacy of the regime in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic; b) the social media’s efficacy in organizing demonstrations, which is a very clear sign of some Western “interference”; c) the regime’s attacks against opponents and the police’s harshness during the election campaign and afterwards, which inevitably catalysed the response; d) the regime’s prohibition to make ex-post electoral statistics; e) the arrests of bloggers, candidates, influencers and “militants” – another factor that triggered people’s anger.

 The protesters used not the Internet, which had been blocked by Lukashenko, but NEXTA, a Telegram service that has 1.5 million subscribers in Belarus and was able to bypass the web blocks imposed by the regime.

 NEXTA operates from a very small office in Warsaw – which is a clearly significant sign. It uses anonymous material and strangely – but not too much – it has no advertising, but is well financed by “anonymous” entities.

 On August 17, NEXTA also “ordered” the demonstrators to march to a prison in Minsk and then told the doctors and journalists participating in the revolt to interview and provide first aid and care to prisoners. In search of torture evidence, above all.

 It seems that the connection between Lukashenko’s intelligence services and the media against the regime is very close. Confidential information is quickly circulating on the web networks of the uprising.

 Again on August 17, Belarus and the Russian Federation announced the start of joint military exercises at various locations.

 The Russian forces were supposed to be stationed near Vitebsk, while Belarusian ones in Grodno on the Polish border.

 Clearly all this is happening with China’s tacit support and probably with some economic support from China, which certainly does not want a confrontation with the EU, but not even Belarus’ autonomy from both Europe and, in other ways, from Russia.

 Lukashenko could ask for Russia’s help within the CSCE, but he would certainly avoid also a direct confrontation with NATO at any cost.

 There is also the issue of fertilizers, which is no small matter. Belarus exports large quantities of potash it extracts mainly from the Soligorsk mine, which are worth approximately 3 billion U.S. dollars per year. The ownership of the mine, however, is public and, according to Western investors, this “blocks” a market of 29 billion U.S. dollars per year.  

 The great Yeltsin-style “liberalization” looms large over Belarus and, in some sectors, it could be the deal of the century. This is one of the reasons for the ambiguity of the local intelligence services.

 Too much not to create political and economic disturbance.

 The Belarusian KGB has also estimated that about 1.8 billion U.S. dollars have been “donated” to Belarusian bureaucrats and journalists to “liberalize” the Belarusian economy.

 With the inevitable and subsequent spreading of corruption, which is endemic in all countries with centralized economies. But the same holds true also for the liberal ones having a “free-trade ” economy.

 This is the reason why Russia is trying to send to power Viktor Lukashenko, the son of the leader and man of “Gorbatchevian” background.

 The British Embassy in Warsaw is supposed to lead and orient the opposition’s operations on the ground in Belarus, while Germany, Austria and even Poland are more attentive to the autonomy of Belarus which could also serve NATO in the future and just as a buffer towards the Russian Federation.

 Other important bloggers are Siarhei Tsikhaunoski, who organized a Youtube channel called Strana dlya zhizhni, (“Country for Life”) and many others, such as RB Golovnogo Mozga, Maja Krajna Belarus, Narodny Reportor – all small-scale homespun structures, with dark funding, which, however, have become the primary and most reliable information source for most Belarusians.

 An important role was also played by Radio Free Europe/Belarus and BelSat, both operating from Warsaw.

 It should be recalled, however, that in early August 2020 – hence just before elections – Lukashenko accused Russia of coup plotting, although without ever clearly pronouncing its name.

 Again in early August, Belarus asked to have exercises made for reservists on the Russian border, starting on August 11.

 During the election campaign for his sixth term, Lukashenko also accused “external forces” that “go beyond colour revolutions”. He could not have been clearer.

 Moreover, Lukashenko will most likely remain in power despite demonstrations.

 A colour non-revolution against a country that has no particular inclination towards Russia – despite the recent requests for help and the relocation of Russian “hybrid warfare” operators on the borders between Russia and Belarus – has no history. Not even in Westerners’ hyper-simplified minds.

 Furthermore, in case of a Western invasion of Belarus, China could move its divisions, which are not military but economic, and would all be against the EU.

 Lukashenko won with 80.23% of votes. No rigged election can go that far and reach such a result. The Belarusian security forces have so far imprisoned as many as 3,000 protest leaders.

 Apart from the vote rigging, which is very likely, the Belarusian intelligence services estimate that support for Lukashenko is around 48% of the population, while the rest are said to be positioning themselves between the current uprising and a veiled opposition to the regime.

 The rebellion against the Belarusian regime is a mix of demonstrations against Lukashenko’s mild response to the Covid-19 pandemic and people’s response against his repression of the anti-regime candidates.

 Nevertheless – and this could be a real game-changer – Lukashenko noted that many members of his security services actively and sympathetically followed the riots on social media, while many Belarusian military took part in demonstrations in favour of Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate, in Brest on August 2.

 Since then Lukashenko has engaged in propaganda against “external influences”, especially the Russian ones (reading between the lines).  

 In fact, on July 29 last, the Belarusian intelligence services arrested as many as 33 operators of the Russian military contractor company Wagner, which Belarus said had arrived on site to “investigate into the protests”.

 The United States, Russia and Ukraine are currently the bêtes noires of Lukashenko’s propaganda and they are the three powers that, in his opinion, would like to “eliminate him before the election”.

 Hence there are two possible options for Russia, which wants to control the rebellious Belarus: supporting Lukashenko while weakening him, by penetrating the security structures and the economy, or setting up a new regime.

 Putin prefers the first option, i.e. support for Lukashenko, because this could stop the military mechanism of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or create dangerous repercussions on the Kremlin’s “hybrid” operations in Belarus.

 If Russia takes Belarus, its pressure on the EU will be sensitive and very dangerous, and if Russia freezes Lukashenko’s regime, this will be a very strong foot on Poland and Lithuania, capable of counterbalancing the U.S. autonomous military operations in those countries, all against Russia.

 The economy is another factor to be considered. Russia sells oil to Belarus 20% less than the market price, and cyclically Russia threatens to “adjust” tariffs.

 As currently, when Russia has refused to continue oil negotiations until 2021.

 Belarus, however, has bought 80,000 tons of Arabian Light from Saudi Arabia, after previously buying oil also from the United States and Norway.

 With specific reference to natural gas, GAZPROM said it will renegotiate the price with Belarus only after it pays its 165 million dollar debt for the gas already supplied.

 Nevertheless, Lukashenko has also accused Russia and Poland of “interfering in the upcoming presidential election” and this is likely to be true for both countries. This is the “pro-independence” key to Belarus’ current geopolitics.

 Poland does not want combined threats from Belarus in relation to Russia, and indeed it does not want Belarus to become the corridor for a hybrid or non-hybrid invasion of the Polish territory by Russia. The latter, however, does not want Belarus to play its cards with the EU and become a NATO’s potential instrument of penetration of the post-Soviet space.

 It is also likely that opposition candidates such as Babariko, a Gazprombank man, have been sponsored by Russia. A first taste for next elections.

 Putin, however, does not want to intervene in Belarus.

 So far protests have posed no geopolitical danger to Russia and the leaders of the uprising have not asked to join NATO or the EU.  

 Putin has therefore two options: a) he can strongly support Lukashenko, but Russia does not want to enter another point of crisis since it already has enough of them.

 Moreover, Russia has never hidden its coldness towards Lukashenko’s regime and there are countless contrasts and small annoyances and nuisances between the two countries.

 With a Belarusian KGB divided between the new oligarchs, to whom the regime has never allowed to expand their power, and a pro-Western modernization of the system, in view of future affairs, i.e. the dismantling of the Belarusian public system.

 Or (b) Putin can enter into the Belarusian chaos, but he will do so if and only if he seriously perceives a heavy Western involvement.

 Another option for Putin may be c) to replace Lukashenko with someone else, his son or a homo novus.

 There is also the option of a possible cooperation between Russia and the EU to solve the Belarusian issue. For the time being this is supposed to be the option preferred by Vladimir Putin, although rumours are rife of Russian forces entering Belarus.

 With new elections, but also without a new Constitution – as Lukashenko wishes – and possibly with pro-Russian candidates capable of winning and, above all, gaining the votes of the mass opposition to the current regime in Belarus.

This is therefore China’s “protection” for Belarus, as well as Lukashenko’s game between Russia and the EU to avoid being incorporated into the Russian system, for which, however, Belarus’ geostrategic role is essential.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Eastern Europe

Western Influence Wanes in South Caucasus

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Over the course of past year, Georgia’s relations with its Western partners have notably cooled. Under the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party which came to power in 2012, ties with the West had strengthened. But recently, as the popularity of the party declined and the political landscape in Georgia altered, distrust has grown, accusations have flown, and questions regarding the sustainability of Georgia’s pro-Western path are loudly discussed. 

A primary driver is an internal political crisis which followed the 2020 parliamentary elections. That worsened following a July 28 decision by GD to walk back a deal it reached with the political opposition to end a month-long internal political crisis. The process was supervised by EU diplomats along with the U.S. ambassador. A six-point plan was produced that envisaged long-sought electoral and judicial reforms, and power-sharing in parliament. It also involved stipulations on the possibility of new elections and the issue of political prisoners (though the government says there are none.) 

The decision to withdraw from the deal might be also linked to the upcoming local government elections and troubles faced by the ruling party. IRI-produced polls showed that GD is backed by only 28% of the population, with the United National Movement, traditionally the biggest opposition party, coming second with 15%. Other polls showed only slightly higher support for the ruling party. 

Georgian Dream also faces serious dissent within its own ranks. Former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s active political campaigning and growing popularity (9% according to the IRI polls) have taken significant support from Georgia Dream to his new party, called For Georgia. The proliferation of parties as well as the steady process of generational change is breaking the political status quo. Gradually, older parties are losing popularity, while newer groups manage to attract support in the 5-10% range. Diffusion of political power among multiple parties is thus a significant development which breaks with traditional Georgian politics of single party dominance of the entire political landscape. 

Although pro-EU sentiment within the Georgian public remains fairly high, for the political elites it has become increasingly clear that membership prospects are bleaker than ever before. Reasons range from troubles in the liberal world order, to the rise of illiberalism and the divisions within the EU on expanding onto Russia’s doorstep. 

America’s failures should not be magnified, but its prestige has been shaken by the Afghan withdrawal, meaning U.S. authority is being diluted. President Joe Biden’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region has provided an opportunity for Georgia’s government to consider a more balanced approach to the Black Sea neighborhood. This involves the establishment of more equidistant external ties, both to regional and global powers. Ukraine, another long-time EU-hopeful, did something similar when the country was essentially shunned from EU and NATO membership. The country turned to China, and signed a large investment deal to improve railway and ports infrastructure. Reaching out to Turkey is another option. 

In Georgia’s case, its fixation with the West no longer provides the expected results. However, this does not mean Georgia will abandon its pro-Western stance. Ideally, constructing closer foreign ties with other actors would allow the country to partially compensate for its inability to win EU/NATO membership. A multi-vector foreign policy is already visible in Turkey, Iran, Russia and other neighboring states. Even Armenia, much constrained by asymmetric dependence on Russia, is actively looking at diversifying its foreign policy options by actively seeking a rapprochement with Turkey.  

One possibility is that Georgia seeks an improvement of relations with Russia — badly marred by the 2008 war — as part of a more agile and balanced foreign policy. As ties between Georgia and the West deteriorate, Russia seems to want an understanding. A series of offers on normalizing bilateral relations was suggested by the Kremlin, aiming to exploit the rising disagreements between Georgia and its Western partners. 

In the end, the shift from fixation on the West to a policy of criticism as part of a broader foreign policy reflects changes in the balance of power. The West is no longer seen in the wider Black Sea region as a decisive power. The rise of an illiberal alternative to the Western liberal democratic model allows countries to take another path. That of course ultimately harms the U.S. and its friends, reduces their credibility, and may reverse liberty’s advances, achieved over several decades, both in Georgia and Ukraine. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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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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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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