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Opportunism and July’s Armenian-Azerbaijani Flareup

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By mid-July, within days of the latest flareup in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a flurry of articles written by Azerbaijani think tank members appeared on Modern Diplomacy (MD). Azerbaijani think tanks may have erroneously assumed that MD was a media battlefield between Armenians and Azerbaijanis after a Geopolitical Handbook on Armenian issues was published a month earlier.

On August 2, 2020, MD published an article entitled The Treasure Map to the Forgotten Epoch of the Iravan Khanate, by Irina Tsukerman. The article uncritically adopts the most vulgar of Azerbaijani historical falsifications claiming that most of Armenia and its capital, Yerevan, have little or no Armenian lineage – and are instead Azerbaijani. The rambling nature of this four-thousand word article, and its spectacular disregard for the accepted historical record, seemed designed for the express purpose of appealing to Azerbaijanis and offending Armenians, for example by pointedly referring to the 2800-year-old Armenian capital city as Iravan, instead of Yerevan.

The thesis of Tsukerman’s article on MD dates back well over a generation. It parrots nationalist screeds, penned by Azerbaijani and sometimes Turkish propagandists, usually intended for local consumption. In recent years, many such works have been translated into reasonable English and evidently distributed for posting by western authors under their names. A common characteristic of these articles is their lack of hard references – a relic from the Soviet days. Tsukerman’s MD article appears to have been post-annotated with reference links before it was submitted to MD. Most of these links are of low quality and/or have little to do with the associated text. Forty-five of the fifty-three reference links were Wikipedia articles, gratuitously including general Wikipedia articles on Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, The Republic of Azerbaijan, Tehran, etc. Another reference points to a Turkish-language text that originally appeared in an anti-Armenian publication, Yeni Turkiye 62, which includes articles claiming Armenians committed genocide on Turks and Azerbaijanis – a claim widely known to be untrue, and similar in form, tactics and intent to Holocaust denial.

Within weeks of the apparent success of post-annotating an article in MD with useless reference links, Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) published another anti-Armenian article of dubious integrity by Tsukerman, entitled “Russia and Iran’s Dangerous Energy Gambit in the Caucasus“. Due to a reader complaint noting the lack of any references and the article’s clear anti-Armenian bias, BESA initially took down the article, but then restored it the very next day, replete with ill-considered, low-quality references, not unlike those in Tsukerman’s MD article.

In my perhaps old-fashioned view, the provision of valid high-quality citations is a responsibility that every author should take seriously, and the verification of the quality of those citations is a responsibility that every editor should take seriously. Padding an article with useless and unhelpful citations pro forma, simply to be able to say that the article has citations, is the tactic of a college freshman – not one that I would expect to see in a scholarly publication. Evidently BESA operates according to a different set of standards.

This brings us to the larger question: Why do so many poorly referenced, factually inaccurate, anti-Armenian propaganda pieces appear in the world press? A short-term answer is that both the ruling family dictatorship in Azerbaijan, and the country’s supporting interests in the west need to bolster Azerbaijan’s image at home and abroad, especially after its significant military loss in the latest border flareup.

In the medium-term, one might note that the amount of western investment in Azerbaijani hydrocarbon extraction and transport is probably well over $100B, with British Petroleum accounting for $75B of that figure. Azerbaijan is also one of the few countries bordering Iran that is compliant enough to be used as a base for intelligence gathering and covert operations targeting Iran. Moreover, forty percent of Israel’s crude oil is supplied by Azerbaijan, and in return Israel has sold Azerbaijan at least $5B in high tech weaponry over the past decade. By contrast, Armenia has no viable petroleum reserves, and comparatively little with which to counter materially. Hence a much lower standard is set for the publication of Azerbaijani propaganda in the western press, and Azerbaijan is propped-up as a reliable partner to the Israeli public – this in spite of the fact that Azerbaijan is a Shia Muslim-majority country that refuses to open an embassy in Israel.

A rare glimpse at the longer-term answer can found in a September 2015 event where Israeli Knesset Members Oren Hazan and advisor Mendi Safadi visited Baku, Azerbaijan, for high-level meetings. During this visit, Safadi commented, “I’ve always been on the side of Azerbaijan, and we are ready to provide assistance and patronage to the Azerbaijani side to neutralize the influence of the Armenian lobby in the US Congress, the EU institutions, and international organizations.”

To this observer in Yerevan, it is manifest that Azerbaijan has enlisted help from certain actors in Israel and the Jewish diaspora in generating and promulgating pro-Azerbaijani propaganda, including anti-Armenian propaganda that falsifies the historical record and that is sometimes overtly racist in nature. Of course, with such an arrangement between two countries comes the opportunity for authors of a mercenary bent who are willing to lend their names to such falsifications. Since 2015, a large number of articles of this sort have appeared, for the most part in the Jewish press. Some writers have focused on the semi-frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Others have attempted to characterize Armenia’s normal relations with Iran as in opposition to western-imposed sanctions, while neglecting to note that well over twice as much trade goes on between Azerbaijan and Iran. Still others characterize certain Armenian historical figures as fascist supporters of the Nazis during WWII, conveniently neglecting the fact that well over a quarter million Armenian soldiers never returned from fighting the Nazis, and that fact that Armenia was awarded twenty-four Israeli “Righteous Among Nation Awards, while Azerbaijan was awarded none.

Truth and open debate have little to do with this kind of industrial production of anti-Armenian propaganda. Opportunist writers posting such articles know very well the nature of the endeavor in which they are participating, yet they seem to feel that they can persist without regard to any cost to their reputations, as long as their hate speech is directed only against Armenians.

It is ironic that Jewish writers, many the progeny of Holocaust survivors, blindly support Azerbaijan’s government and its anti-Armenian policies, many of which are designed to create an external enemy in order to redirect popular anger away from a corrupt family dictatorship. The former mayor of Baku, who served between 2001 and 2018, Hajibala Abutalybov, in a 2005 meeting with a municipal delegation from Bavaria, Germany, stated,

“Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and 40s, right? You should be able to understand us.”

Israelis and Jews everywhere certainly ought to be able to understand these words better than most, and they should be asking themselves if this is really an alignment for which they wish to be remembered in the fullness of the historical record.

David Davidian is a Lecturer at the American University of Armenia. He has spent over a decade in technical intelligence analysis at major high technology firms.

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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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Eastern Europe

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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Eastern Europe

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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