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Defying Geography: The Israel-Azerbaijan Partnership

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Fighting in July between Armenia and Azerbaijan caused many casualties along the border, and the governments of the region fear an escalation to the scale of the four-day war between the two states in 2016. I will not delve into the details of the recent flare-up as that has been done elsewhere (and much remains in dispute in any case), but will focus instead on one interesting aspect of the tension in the South Caucasus: the role of Israel.

Jerusalem is confronted with a dilemma in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (which is officially within Azerbaijan’s borders). Israel is not a direct participant, but it enjoys close relations with both combatants (for instance, Armenia recently sent its first ambassador to Israel). Jerusalem has stayed completely out of the evolving conflict so far, which is the logical approach. One of the latest statements from Israel’s foreign ministry about the recent violence is an anodyne expression of concern and a hope for a swift ceasefire.

Though small and far from the conflict area, Israel nevertheless has vital strategic interests in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan stands out, as its relations with Israel dwarf the latter’s relations with Armenia.

Israel and Azerbaijan established diplomatic relations in April 1992, and in 1993, Israel opened an embassy in Baku. Ever since then, relations have broadened and deepened. The relationship is predicated on a number of geo-strategic factors. The first is Azerbaijan’s loss of political control over Nagorno-Karabakh and growing need to correct that situation via an expansive military program, which has caused it to become a major importer of Israeli defense technologies. Israeli defense companies have trained Azerbaijani special forces and bodyguards, built security systems for the Baku airport, and upgraded Soviet-era military equipment (tanks).

The scale of the transactions between the two is immense. In 2012, reports emerged about a $1.6 billion purchase by Azerbaijan of weapons manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries. In 2016, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said Azerbaijan had bought $5 billion worth of weapons from Israel (unmanned aerial vehicles and satellite systems). In 2017, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that Baku had purchased $127 million worth of military technology from Jerusalem.

This does not mean that all has gone smoothly so far. Halts in cooperation between the two have occurred. In 2017, claims emerged that an Israeli drone manufacturer had attempted to bomb the Armenian military on the Azeris’ behalf during a demonstration of one of its “suicide” unmanned aerial vehicles. In a rare move, the Israeli Defense Ministry suspended the export license.

Thus it comes as no surprise that on July 21, after the recent border flare-up with Azerbaijan, Armenia showcased alleged Israeli-made drones that it presumably shot down during the fighting. No specifics were given, but the Israeli firm Aeronautics Defense Systems does indeed manufacture several types of Orbiter UAVs, including lightweight systems for reconnaissance and others for aerial attack.

Overall, however, the bilateral military cooperation has been burgeoning ever since Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Israel has been willing to provide Baku with high tech at a level that Yerevan and even Moscow do not possess.

But business alone is insufficient grounds for a long-term geopolitical relationship. Azerbaijan and Israel share other fundamental interests, of which the Iran issue is arguably the most crucial.

Iran, located to Azerbaijan’s south, is Israel’s arch nemesis, while Baku and Tehran have mixed relations. Diplomatic relations exist and bilateral economic contacts are extensive (primarily via the newly introduced North-South economic corridor through Azerbaijan, though much more can yet be achieved there). Baku is nevertheless apprehensive about Iranian moves that could complicate its position in the South Caucasus and Caspian Sea.

All of this is heightened by Tehran’s concerns about the allegedly political aspirations of the Azeris in Iran. Tehran thinks that at an opportune moment, secession talks could occur, at which a “Greater Azerbaijan” idea might emerge. This is all hypothetical, but there is a high level of distrust between the two states. Consider, for example, Azerbaijan’s recent claim that Iran was sending trucks to Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku summoned Iranian diplomats and accused Tehran of stoking the conflict over the land.

This state of affairs naturally makes Israel a comfortable partner for Azerbaijan. Moreover, from Jerusalem’s perspective, Azerbaijan’s geographic position on Iran’s border makes it an ideal site for the gathering of strategic intelligence. Media sources claim that Israel helped Baku build electronic intelligence-gathering stations along the Azerbaijani border with Iran in the 1990s.

Claims are occasionally made that the two countries are engaged in tactical cooperation against Iran. For instance, in 2012, Foreign Policy reported that Israel had an arrangement with Azerbaijan allowing it to potentially fly sorties out of the country. Cooperation regarding the war on terror also exists.

The close relations between Israel and Azerbaijan also fit into the larger perspective the US has for the region. In the early 1990s, Washington encouraged a triangular relationship between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Israel. Georgia was added later, though the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 shattered Tbilisi’s prospects as did the crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations.

Despite that setback, the geopolitical model has worked. Azerbaijan and Israel continue to regard their geopolitical interests as vital for regional security, and Georgia plays a transit role. Baku supplies up to 40% of Israel’s oil needs, which is imported through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.

There are also weaknesses to their bilateral relations. Azerbaijan experiences geopolitical pressure from Russia and Iran, and the cold-to-hot war with Armenia is a persistent problem. In these difficult geopolitical circumstances, Baku has to balance its relations with Israel carefully to avoid drawing heavy pressure from Tehran, Moscow, and even Ankara.

Author’s note: first published in BESA Center

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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