The massive street protests that have taken place in Belarus recently are only the tip of the iceberg of what we can expect to see in the coming months and years. Although, of course, the situation in the country bears little resemblance to the endless crises in Belgium and Italy, which are capable of existing perfectly well without a central government for decades. Belarus is slowly sinking under the weight of a political crisis that is affecting the very foundations of the social system and which may take some time to resolve, since the political establishment essentially controls all spheres of society. If the political system crumbles, governance in the country will effectively grind to a halt, and it will be a long and painful process to get the motor running once again.
Some have called the events in Belarus a colour revolution, likening it to the Euromaidan protests that took place in Ukraine in 2013–2014. And while there are clearly parallels between the two, it would perhaps be more accurate to say, as some commentators have, that the crisis more closely resembles a kind of “belated” perestroika. The ideas that have formed the cornerstone of Belarus’ foreign policy since 2014 — that it is a “security donor” in Eastern Europe and a “neutral state” — have come back to haunt the country’s leadership. Right now, the only thing stopping Belarus from becoming an “instability donor” is the continued political and economic support of Russia.
The Origins of the Crisis
At first glance, it would appear that the political crisis is a consequence of the supposedly botched presidential elections in August. But the elections only served as a trigger for the next phase of a crisis that had been unfolding for years, which involved people taking to the streets in their thousands. On the surface, there is an economic component to what is happening: the national economy is dominated by state enterprises, but their equipment is outdated and the country does not have the money for modernization.
In the 1990s, Belarus was able to avoid the most painful consequences of perestroika by buddying up to Russia. It set about building state capitalism with a “human face” (social benefits and guarantees) while at the same time relying on the Soviet industrial potential, the Russian market and economic support.
The Belarusian economy was effectively rebuilt from the ground up as a part of a single economic space with Russia. For example, Belarus has enjoyed a massive discount on Russian oil and gas over the past ten years compared to other importers, to the tune of approximately $70 billion, or 55 per cent of the state budget for that period . Belarus has exported over $110 billion worth of industrial and agricultural products to the Russian market over the past decade [2. ]Russia accounts for between one half and two-thirds of all foreign direct investment into the Belarusian economy.
The system as it is currently set up can survive another year, and some elements may even develop if it continues to have free access to Russian investment and the Russian market. But there is a deep contradiction at the heart of this model — while the Russian and Belarusian economies are de facto the same, their management systems are not, and their regulatory bases are drifting further and further apart.
This problem has proved to be a sticking point, with intensive negotiations on possible “road maps” for the Union State bringing little to no progress over the past two years. And where integration fails, disintegration gathers steam, which is exactly what we have been witnessing in recent years. At the same time, the industrial facilities of most Belarusian enterprises are becoming obsolete. Belarusian industry is in a race against time, and it is losing, with hundreds of thousands of workers set to lose their jobs. Soon it will be no more, to be followed by the social and educational infrastructure, and then the schools of engineering and mathematics (which have been “feeding” the fledgeling Belarusian IT cluster “for free”). The belief of some business leaders that Belarus will rise like a phoenix from the ashes to become an IT leader, abandoning ties with Russia and thus leaving the outmoded industrial sector in the past, is based on nothing but ideology.
The root of the crisis that is unfolding in Belarus lies in the fact that the government is becoming increasingly out of touch with society. The political institutions in the country have proved unable to internalize public activity, engage in a meaningful two-way conversation with the people and respond to the requests of a significant part of society. Hence the numerous “mistakes” of the authorities in recent years — symptoms of systemic failures. Actions that in certain conditions were seen as the norm and brought results are in others seen as mistakes and turn out to be counterproductive.
It is not enough to simply replace the people in charge. It will take years of hard work for Belarus to emerge from the crisis, and there is an extremely high risk that the political system could break down completely, which would have a devastating effect on the country’s economy — far worse than the economic troubles experienced by Ukraine since 2014.
Components of the Crisis
Let us try to reconstruct the main phases of the Belarus crisis (some of the events overlap).
Economic. The obsolescence of the country’s backbone industries and the lack of money to modernize them became a serious issue back in the 2000s. This forced the authorities to quietly dismantle the post-Soviet social safety net, which had always been a source of pride within the country. Few even batted an eyelid when the retirement age was increased. But it was a different story with the new tax on the officially unemployed (the so-called “decree on parasites”), which was met with a flurry of protests in 2017.
Social. The structure of Belarusian society has changed. The number of self-employed persons and small businesses in the country has increased, and urban culture and international contacts have developed — all at a far quicker pace than the state management systems in the public and social spheres have been able to adapt. The government still uses the same mass command and obedience methods in its youth policy and social mobilization that were developed some 20–30 years ago, or even during the Soviet period, despite their shortcomings. Assistant to the President of Belarus Nikolai Latyshonok has said that “about 20 to 30 per cent” of the population is dissatisfied with the Belarusian authorities. Considering that this is 20 to 30 per cent of registered voters, it translates into 1.5 to 2 million people, which is a huge number for Belarus.
Generational. Sociologists have noted a real transformation over the past ten years in the dominant attitudes and values of the “post-Soviet generation” as its representatives move into adulthood. The younger generations are far less supportive of the authorities and do not share their style or aesthetics. The generational gap in Belarus in 2014–2015 was almost identical to that of Moldova and Ukraine, and there is no reason to believe that the situation has improved since then.
Ideological. The economic backwardness of the country, coupled with the reduction in social guarantees and the change of generations has led to a crisis of ideology in Belarus. To fill the growing ideological vacuum, the Belarusian authorities have placed increasing importance on so-called “soft Belarusization”, attempting to supplement the ideological matrix of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic with new symbols and meanings, from the Belarusian People’s Republic and “millennial statehood” to traditional Belarusian embroidered shirts and the restyling of the national emblem. But this did not have the desired effect of consolidating the country. Instead, it led to the erosion of guidelines within society and the state apparatus. The attempt to present the question of “Minsk or Mensk” (Belarusian versus Russian), which is irrelevant for the majority of Belarusian citizens as the main “nerve” of the election campaign, turned out to be a failure, causing mistrust among the government’s supporters. The nationalists, with the support of the ramified structure of Western NGOs that had been growing in the country over the course of the last 20 years and had penetrated the government bodies, seized the ideological initiative.
Foreign Policy. The Belarusian leadership tried to mitigate the growing systemic problems inside the country by pursuing an active foreign policy, but this tactic backfired. The balanced diplomacy of the Belarusian government between 2014 and 2016 allowed it to extract certain diplomatic and economic dividends from the Ukrainian crisis. But there would soon be a price to pay, with the contradictions inside the country starting to worsen and the goal of the state apparatus to pursue multi-vector development turning into an exercise in distancing itself from Russia and flirting with the “Russian threat.” All of this served to disorient and destroy the electoral base within the country. And the only thing that the Belarusian authorities have to show from this policy of the past four to five years is growing isolation from the country’s only ally — Russia.
These trends intertwine and reinforce one another, showing that the crisis in Belarus is much more than “just” a colour revolution, which is merely a symptom of a much more serious illness.
Perestroika does not mean that the existing system is wrong, completely bankrupt and without hope — it is by no means destined to collapse. Despite the crisis, the Belarusian system has a number of undeniable advantages, including the relatively low level of social stratification, well-developed social services, a quality education system and industrial expertise. The Belarusian “model” developed back in the 2000s and the politics we see today are not the same thing. Similar to the Soviet perestroika era, the way in which the authorities have handled the crisis is the main reason it is getting worse.
The Economic Dimension of the Crisis
The economic crisis is a result of the failure of the post-Soviet model of the Belarusian economy. The only thing left is either Balticization (but without access to the sea), in which case the country would lose its heavy industry and suffer the mass emigration of its “surplus” population, or optimization and modernization with the help of outside investors.
The European Union is Belarus’ second-largest foreign trade partner and, according to EU statistics, purchases 4 billion Euros’ worth of goods from the country per year. Belarus’ main exports are timber, mineral products (oil and oil products made using Russian oil purchased at heavily discounted prices) and base metals. Raw materials and semi-finished products make up over 80 per cent of Belarus’ exports to the European Union. Strikes at large Belarusian enterprises may lead to a drop in the supply of metals, oil products and potash fertilizers to the European Union.
These losses will hardly make a dent in the European economy and can be replaced using other suppliers. Belarus, however, will suffer, although the damage will not be critical, as the European Union accounted for approximately 20 per cent of the country’s foreign trade in 2019. The potash markets are now growing, which is primarily thanks to Asia.
Belarus could suffer greatly if the European Union refuses to import oil products, but this is unlikely to happen. Belarusian oil refineries will probably become unprofitable if the high cost of European logistics forces them to purchase oil elsewhere, at global prices.
Losing the Russian market, which accounts for half of Belarus’ trade turnover, would be an unmitigated disaster for the country’s economy. What is more, Russia’s imports include machinery with high added value. If the political crisis in Belarus results in forces coming to power that want to withdraw from the political and economic integration agreements that the country has with Russia, then this will lead to the destruction of Belarusian industry, and hundreds of thousands of highly qualified specialists will lose their jobs.
Many large state-owned enterprises in Belarus perform social functions — excessive hiring prevents unemployment from skyrocketing and alleviates social tensions. A similar situation exists in many industrialized countries. What complicates the issue in Belarus is the lack of a safety buffer, as well as sufficient internal resources, to maintain and develop such a system. Any radical market reform will invariably lead to an explosion of public anger.
Multi-Vectorality and Belarusization
Belarus officially set a course for a multi-vector approach in the 2000s, writing it into key legislative and regulatory acts 15 years ago. Experts and officials in Belarus have repeatedly stated that small countries must naturally pursue a balanced foreign policy, even though all of its Western neighbours have chosen the opposite strategy of “joining together” and bloc discipline.
The Ukrainian crisis only intensified this trend, with the Belarusian authorities trying to draw attention away from its domestic problems by pursuing a multi-vectored and largely symbolic policy. This was motivated first of all by the desire to gain economic bonuses by playing on the contradictions between Russia and the West, and secondly by the need to distract the Belarusian people from the social problems in the country and bolster the legitimacy of the authorities, adopting the nationalist agenda and framing it as “soft Belarusization.”
The increased pace of multi-vectorality had the opposite effect. Belarusian exports to the European Union fell by 9.4 per cent as of year-end 2019 to below the 2010–2011 figures. Russia still accounts for approximately half of Belarus’ foreign trade, but it has begun to move gradually towards import substitution amid troubles in the integration process.
Competitive growth on the Russian domestic market is both an objective and natural process. The only way to restrain this process or further boost advantages enjoyed by Belarusian producers is through specific political action and inter-state economic projects. But this has become impossible due to the gradual nullification of geopolitical guarantees that has taken place as Minsk’s multi-vectored policies have developed.
The idea of Belarus as a “security donor” in Eastern Europe was designed to help the country build its foreign policy around being a mediator between Russia and the West, without taking sides. But it turned out that the building had been built on sand, and now the Chancellor of Austria (a neutral country) has called for negotiations on the Ukrainian crisis to be moved from Minsk to Vienna.
Most have come to the conclusion in recent months that the Belarusian authorities have “lost the information space” — a consequence of new media and the appearance of various messenger services. However, it would seem that ideology is responsible for this loss, rather than a poor grasp of modern technology. And the “informational neutrality” declared in the 2019 Concept of Information Security of Belarus was the icing on the cake of this long-term trend. The document effectively tied the government’s hands in terms of putting up resistance to opposition forces and foreign NGOs inside the country.
The void that had appeared was slowly being filled with the concept of “sacrifice” taking root in the country (Belarus has taken part in the wars of others and suffered as a result of its neighbours “in both the West and the East). A big part in this process was played by Western funds, supported by a part of the Belarusian state apparatus. This directly contradicted the ideological foundations of the victory in World War II. Belarus’ Independence Day continues to be celebrated on July 3 — the same day that Minsk was liberated from the Nazis in 1944. For most millennials, however, Victory Day is nothing more than a national holiday that does not conjure up any particular feelings of patriotism. This is because there is a lack of modern meaning that young people can identify with, a dearth of ways to get them involved.
The obsession during the election campaign with the virtual “Russian threat” — something that even the nationalists did not believe — was thus no accident. Rather, it was a logical development of the government’s multi-vector strategy. This is the same path that the Baltic states have already travelled, moving from a “bridge between East and West” to “neutral countries,” then “frontline states” and, finally, “bastions against Russia.”
There are many layers to the crisis that is currently unfolding in Belarus, and political or economic instruments alone are not up to the task of dragging the country out of the mess it now finds itself in — public institutions and governance methods need to be brought into the present day. Even if Russia decides to prop up the Belarusian economy, which it is doing right now, this will not resolve all the differences that have built up over the years. All the more so because nothing is being done to revise the country’s multi-vectoral doctrine. At the same time that President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko is accusing the United States of interfering in its domestic affairs, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei can be heard thanking the Department of State for “supporting the sovereignty of Belarus.”
If the Belarusian leadership cannot manoeuvre itself out of the situation by making qualitative changes, then the situation will become hopeless sooner rather than later. Continuing the policy of recent years will only make things worse, and will inevitably result in the current authorities losing their grip on power.
The main question now is how Belarus will emerge from the crisis — through gradual and deliberate transformations or by scrapping the system altogether and dealing with the severe consequences that that would entail. In any case, it will be very different from what happened with Ukraine, as we are not talking about access to fertile soil and sea routes; the domestic market and the demographic resources are far smaller.
The only viable way to make the reform as painless as possible is to remove the obstacles to the development of the Belarusian economy through its large industrial and economic complex, which would provide a safety net for the most vulnerable social groups, as well as investments for big business. However, the only country that would even entertain the idea of such an agreement is Russia.
Meaningful constitutional reform is taking shape, a political transition that aims to adapt the system of governance to modern realities. But it is not enough. The mass demonstrations that we see today are reminiscent of the “singing revolutions” that took place in the Baltic states in 1990–1991. Just like the popular fronts in these countries broke out of the control of the communist party and the KGB, the opposition forces in Belarus today, inspired by the official Belarusization, are turning against the authorities. The second step in these revolutions involved a change of leadership, the strengthening of the nationalists, reorientation to the West, the introduction of the concept of “non-citizens” for ethnic Russians living in the Baltics, etc.
This does not mean that Belarus is doomed to follow the same path, as its ties with Russia run far deeper. The Russian side is doing everything in its power to preserve stability in Belarus, keep external influence at bay, and hold on to the special relationship it has with its Belarusian friends. But the risks are exceptionally high. The situation in Belarus is not static and could take a turn for the worse at any moment. Alexander Lukashenko still has time to make the most important decision of his life.
Author’s calculations based on data from the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus, the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation and Gazprom.
Author’s calculations based on data from the Federal Customs Service of Russia.
From our partner RIAC
The Solution to Ending the War in Ukraine Lies in the Ability to Get the Other Side’s Point of View
This is so simple, so obvious, that anyone ought to see the truth of it at a glance, yet we ignore it. The key to solving the conflict lies in the ability to see things from a person or nation’s angle as well as from your own. If there is any chance to end this bloody and devastating war where billions of treasures are spent to bend the arc of history and new military alliances are evolving and responsible to prolong the loss of life, then one ought to think in terms of the opposing side’s point of view.
So, the only way on earth to influence the opposing nations is to determine what each leader seeks and show them how to get it. Instead of the never-ending condemnation of each other, let’s try to understand and figure out why they do what they do. That is more beneficial and intriguing than criticism that only breeds resentment and pride rather than tolerance and perhaps a level of sympathy. Simply put, God himself does not propose to judge man until the end of his days. Why should you and me?
Taking a tip from Benjamin Franklin where his success in diplomacy was to speak ill of no man and to speak all the good, I know of everybody. Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain -and most fools do. It takes character and self-control to be understanding.
First, it is important to understand the recently annexed Donbas regions in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea are just as much the historical homelands to both Russia as Ukraine over centuries of war, political upheaval, and shifting control. Fast forward to 1918, troops loyal to the Ukrainian People’s Republic took control of parts of the Donbas with the help of its German ally. Then in 1932, millions of Ukrainians died of starvation when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin confiscated their land.
WW II witnessed further upheaval when Germany occupied the region for resources and forced labor until the Red Army offensive in 1943 returned the Donbas to the Soviet Union. By 1959, there was 2.5 million Russians living in the Donbas; resulting in educational reforms and attempts to eliminate the Ukrainian language. More recently the economy collapsed through the 1990’s where divisions have since escalated with Ukrainians seeking closer ties to the West and Russian separatists taking over key government buildings and declaring a republic.
Furthermore, the history behind the annexation of Crimea by Russia is not short of its own upheavals. With NATO threatening to expand into Ukraine following missile systems set up in Poland and Romania within striking distance of Russian cities, President Putin made a national security decision to annex Crimea. Sevastopol, the Crimean port city where the Russian Black Sea Fleet calls home is a strategic harbor patrolling the shipping routes from Russia and the Don River to Turkey and Southeastern Europe. Russia reclaimed Crimea from Germany in 1944; and a decade afterwards in 1954; the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev handed over Crimea to Ukraine on the 300-year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. Understandably, Putin reclaimed Crimea and its Russian speaking population; and could not permit the Sevastopol Naval base to fall into the control of NATO.
This current war in Ukraine is yet another pivotal moment in a lengthy and tumultuous history that will be added to a long list of regional conflicts that now has the added global component of NATO-creep with the American-led West injecting itself into the conflict followed by Iran, North Korea, and China bolstering the Russians.
So, what does Ukraine and President Zelensky want? Russia to pull its military from Ukrainian territory, they seek to join NATO, and assurances that Russia will not invade in the future. What does Russia and Putin want? No American offensive weapon systems in eastern NATO countries threatening Russia -not dissimilar to Soviet missiles staged in Cuba and minutes away from taking out major American cities. No NATO expansion to include Ukraine where the alliance would be knocking on the door of Moscow. Addressing the wellbeing and future of the ethnic Russians throughout the Donbass and maintaining sovereignty over Crimea which has been in Russian control for nearly a decade and was not a major point of contention prior to the war in Ukraine. Lastly, the lifting of sanctions against Russia.
What does Europe want at this time in the conflict. The ending of this war and a return to greater peace and security on the continent that includes the ongoing fear of nuclear weapons being used in region. The free flow of energy from Russia to provide for their needs, and assurances that Russia has no further intentions to escalate the war into neighboring EU countries. What does the United States and President Biden want? NATO expansion to include Ukraine, Putin put on trial, removed, and Russian forces decimated, and willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the continuation of fighting to the last Ukrainian standing.
Perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to provide solutions to what each party seeks. Here’s what a framework might look like.
- No NATO membership for Ukraine in the near future and to be reviewed in ten years, however immediate enrollment if Russia decides to re-invade. Membership is not off the table and Russia can breathe.
- A total Russian military withdraws from eastern Ukrainian territory in the Donbas. A UN security force is inserted and has oversight of a regional referendum in three years to determine if the inhabitants in the Donbas want to remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia. Western leaders speak highly of preserving democracy, and self-determination upholds this claim.
- Energy needs of Europe to be addressed with a percentage of Russian oil and gas revenues being allocated as reparations to rebuild Ukraine’s destroyed infrastructure.
- The removal of offensive missile systems in Romania and Poland facing Russian cities in staged timelines to coincide with Russian alignment on the total package.
- An international effort to rebuild Ukraine under the lead of France, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Turkey with the priority on grain and food shipments from Ukrainian ports; including oversight on the reduction of sanctions to coincide with Russia’s alignment and behavior. This would include the removal of arrest warrants for Putin.
- Crimea remains in Russian territory.
Each party should gain from the negotiations. We must demonstrate what can be accomplished and what can be avoided. Zelensky and Putin can both walk away with wins. Rest assured, the leaders in this conflict will all walk away lonely and perhaps despised in history if they cannot agree on a path forward. Scolding, threatening, shaming, and reiterating your final position without understanding the perspective from the opposite point of view will not stop this war.
The world’s leaders failed when they allowed this conflict to escalate out of control. We still have the opportunity to act before this crisis becomes wildly out of control and spreads further under the threat of nuclear war. Stay on the same path and we will only be fools in history and a great failure to the next generation over the pain and wasted treasure that could have been allocated to solutions on poverty, famine, and those truly in need in the most unfortunate circumstances such as the Moroccan earthquake and the victims clinging to life following the Libyan flood.
We can choose to continue to weaponize our scathing words, inundate the theatre of war with mass destruction, and witness young men and boys soaking the soil in their blood on our perches from afar or step forward to see things through the other side’s lenses and understand what each side wants. It would not seem sensible that people are afraid to say something sensible before the whole of humanity collapses.
How is Iran’s growing paranoia affect its relations with Azerbaijan?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics tried to search for their place in the new global structure. It was necessary to discover new neighbours who had been separated for many decades by the “Iron Curtain.” Hence, since regaining independence, Azerbaijan’s relations with nearly all regional states have undergone a tumultuous period. Although the diplomatic relations of Azerbaijan with other regional actors gradually stabilized, the dialogue with Shi’a Iran remained uneasy.
For Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not just an ordinary country. First, Iran is one of the biggest neighbours in the south, with about 618 kilometres of land borders. Tehran’s long-standing destructive hybrid warfare strategy toward its immediate neighbourhood and beyond for many years has had a negative impact on relations with Baku and irritated the latter.
Nevertheless, Baku and Tehran established a pragmatic partnership entailing various regional infrastructure projects, particularly transit links. However, 2020-2023 marked the most heightened tensions in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, with deadly consequences for both sides.
Azerbaijan’s Threat balancing
Azerbaijani-Iranian relations have been strained since Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war with Armenia, with both sides accusing each other of engaging in terrorism and espionage. The deteriorating relations between Iran and Azerbaijan garner significant attention, raising concerns about the potential impact on the South Caucasus region. The possible consequences of escalating tensions include economic disruptions and border clashes with the involvement of regional and non-regional actors like Turkey, Russia, Israel and possibly the West.
From the Iranian point of view, several important catalysts led to the deterioration of relations with Azerbaijan, such as the claims of Baku harbouring Israeli intelligence on its soil and the strengthening of the Baku-Ankara axis at its doorstep. As such, in an attempt by Tehran to flex its muscles and intimidate Azerbaijan, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted large-scale military drills on the border with Azerbaijan in October 2022. Unlike previous years, the exercises provoked an uneasy reaction within Azerbaijan and triggered anti-Iranian sentiments throughout the country. During the military drills in October, codenamed Mighty Iran, Iranian forces practised setting up pontoon bridges and crossing the Aras River, part of which forms a section of the border between the two countries. It marked the first time that Iranian forces had conducted such exercises. Moreover, the tensions reached a critical level when the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran came under attack by an armed man, leaving one dead and others injured. As a result, Azerbaijan put diplomatic relations on halt and shut down its embassy, and shortly after, expelled several Iranian diplomats from the country, citing their “undiplomatic activities” in the country.
Although Iran’s MFA denied that it bore responsibility for these incidents, Azerbaijan demonstrated that it would no longer buy Iran’s excuses and took action both rhetorically through official statements and with arrests. While Iran deemed the attack merely an individual acting on a personal vendetta, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev rejected Iran’s explanation and called it a “terrorist attack.” With denials of involvement in all of these provocations from the Iranian government being flimsy at best, Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it will no longer give Iran the benefit of the doubt, and with this, has ushered in a new chapter of open tension between the two countries.
Notably, Iran’s main criticism of Azerbaijan can be attributed to its concerns regarding the potential border shifts in the South Caucasus, thus diminishing Iran’s already weakened soft power influence. In addition, Iranian aggression toward Azerbaijan is undoubtedly a symptom of a reshuffling of alliances in the region and a shifting of global dynamics, resulting in new partnership blocs.
Despite Tehran’s claims that it maintains the leading regional power, its influence over Azerbaijan and the region gradually declined even before the 2020 events. Moreover, Iran appeared to be comfortable with the long-term status quo on Azerbaijani borders and uncontrolled territories in Karabakh for three decades, as it actively used the war-torn region as a major corridor for drug trafficking, oil smuggling and other sanctions-busting activities that helped alleviate economic pressure on the Islamic Republic. It was also apparently used to send Russian weapons to Armenia via Iran.
Tehran is cautious that in the post-war period, the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Israel trio will do everything to fence off Iran from the region, thus establishing new red lines. As Baku and Ankara fill the void in the South Caucasus that Russia is leaving behind, Iran is left with Armenia as its key regional partner. For instance, in October 2022, Israel’s then-defence minister, Benny Gantz, visited Azerbaijan, and the two countries signed several military and security agreements, which angered Iran and caused a flood of criticism toward Baku in the Iranian state-run media.
The situation further ignited when Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, ahead of a trip to Turkmenistan, visited Azerbaijan in April 2023 to open Israel’s first embassy in the country, located just 20 km from the Iranian border. Cohen’s remarks regarding the “close partnership between Tel Aviv and Baku against Iran” inevitably triggered harsh rhetoric in Tehran. However, this time, official Baku largely ignored all threats from Iran. Baku’s attempt to reinvigorate regional alliances with the Turkic world in Central Asia and establish new transit routes bypassing Iran reinforced the latter’s preexistence fears about the potential irredentist minority groups. While Iran has many minorities, of greatest importance to regime stability are Azeris, Turkmens and Kurds. The ethnic Kurds are in a latent rebellion against the regime, while the Azeris and Turkmens have remained relatively pacified.
On the other hand, the potential shifting borders in the South Caucasus would come with a cost for Iran, as it may lose its leverage over Azerbaijan as the only land route linking it with Turkey. In the post-war period, Azerbaijan proposed establishing a land corridor with Nakhchivan via Armenia’s Syunik province, thus circumventing Iran. Undoubtedly, such perspectives angered isolated and politically unstable Iran.
Consequently, Iran gained very little from the deliberate escalation of diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan, as the latter is an important trade partner of Tehran and a key country in terms of connectivity and infrastructure projects, particularly within the North-South Transit Route.
Iran – Azerbaijan partnership: Trade amid war of words
The diplomatic standoff between Tehran and Baku came in light of the unprecedented violent riots against the Islamic regime after the security forces tortured and killed Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurd. The violent uprising reached nearly all Iranian provinces and still has not fully died down. Iran’s population comprises many ethnic minorities, and these protests have demonstrated the discontentment of many of these communities.
The political and economic instability ignited dramatically when conservative president Ebrahim Raisi assumed office in 2020. The absence of a pragmatic visionary and long-term strategy of Raisi’s hardliner government led to the deterioration of political relations with the immediate neighbourhood, including Azerbaijan. However, despite diplomatic escalation with the neighbourhood, Iran increased trade volumes with several countries in the region, highlighting the long-established IR system control that economic and political ties are developing separately. Thus, despite existing turmoil with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Iran traded 58.25 million tons of goods worth $35.11 billion with the Persian Gulf’s six littoral states, namely Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, registering a 10.05% rise in value compared with the previous year’s corresponding period.
As in the case of Azerbaijan, Baku has long been standing as Tehran’s leading trade partner amid its struggle with harsh inflation and mounting unemployment rates. According to the Azerbaijani media, the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Iran in January-May 2023 amounted to $212,612,000, up 7.6 per cent from the same period in 2022. During the reported period, the exports from Azerbaijan to Iran made up $7,558,000, and from Iran to Azerbaijan – $205,053,000, respectively.
Consequently, trade is not the only determinant factor in Azerbaijan-Iran relations, as both countries were intensively engaged in several regional infrastructure projects, particularly railway links and new highways at the border areas. In this vein, Azerbaijan played a crucial role in linking Iran to Russia within the INSTC framework. In May 2023, Russia and Iran agreed to complete a railroad that would link Russia with ports on the Persian Gulf, providing a transportation lifeline – via Azerbaijan as a critical link – for the two sanctions-hit countries. Due to insufficient funds, Russia is set to be the project’s main sponsor. However, in the wake of diplomatic tensions, the response from Azerbaijan has been quiet. The local governmental bodies preferred not to comment much on this deal, thus signalling that the INSTC-related projects are not a priority for Baku anymore, which instead touting its growing role on another key transit route – the Middle Corridor, shipping goods between Europe and Asia while bypassing Russia and Iran.
Indeed, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a vital part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), Iran’s main route for transit and trade with the densely populated western regions of Russia, Georgia, and Belarus. The Astara border crossing is the main transit route between Iran, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Russia; on average, a truck crosses the border at Astara every seven minutes. The Azerbaijan-Iran transit route has become even more important recently as a result of the Ukraine war, the extensive Western sanctions against Russia, and the preferential trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that is being upgraded to a free trade agreement.
As this paper discussed, trade and communication occupied a central place in Iran – Azerbaijan partnership in recent years. Therefore, even at the beginning of diplomatic escalation in 2022, Baku and Tehran signed another important agreement that envisioned establishing a new transport and electricity supply link connecting mainland Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan via Iran. According to the memorandum, the two countries planned to establish a new railway, highway, communication, and energy supply lines connecting Azerbaijan’s East Zangazur economic region and the Nakhchivan region through the territory of Iran. In addition, four bridges will be built over the Araz River, including two motorways and two railway lines on them.
Despite the significance of the agreement’s scope, the further deterioration of relations halted this agreement. Consequently, Tehran’s staunch anti-Azerbaijani rhetoric that became more vocal since 2021 caused costly delays and setbacks in terms of economic partnership and regional connectivity, while Baku established new interregional partnership formats to diversify its portfolio.
Hence, Iran decided to take a step back and return to the diplomacy track as a part of the broader strategy of reconciliation with the immediate neighbourhood. Thus, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Baku on July 5, 2023, to attend the high-level meeting of the Non-Align Movement (NAM), where he managed to hold a vis-à-vis meeting with President Ilham Aliyev at the sidelines of the event. While the meeting was concluded with positive remarks, it became a good start for Baku and Tehran to rekindle the bilateral relations after months of confrontation.
Shortly after Abdollahian visited Baku, the Deputy of the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan, Shahin Mustafayev and Minister of Roads and Urban Development of Iran, Mehrdad Bazrpash, reached a new agreement to complete the construction of a road bridge across the Astarachay River and put into operation within the next four months. The foundation of a new bridge across the Astarachay River was laid on the border of Azerbaijan and Iran on January 25, 2022.
Moreover, on September 14, 2023, Prosecutor general of Iran paid an official visit to Baku and his Azerbaijani counterpart Kamran Aliyev to discuss the investigation into the armed attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. The visit of a high ranking Iranian governmental official was also a positive signal in terms diplomatic thaw.
In this spite, the aide of President of Azerbaijan Hikmat Hajiyev acknowledged that Baku is receiving positive signals from Tehran, thus confirming the news of the ongoing diplomatic normalization.
Domestic turmoil in Iran, mounting international pressure and isolation, and the shifting geopolitical landscape in the South Caucasus have added further complexity to the tense relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran in the last three years. Although minor de-escalation recently occurred in Baku-Tehran relations, a smooth intraregional partnership based on mutual trust is yet to be achieved. As such, factors like economic and trade partnerships could be game-changer factors for re-establishing regional dialogue and restoring the pragmatic partnership.
However, if not successful, Iran’s bellicose rhetoric against Azerbaijan could force the latter to take additional strict measures in order to protect its borders and regional stability, which in turn could prompt a military response from Iran with the aim of securing its borderline with Armenia, as this is the only crucial leverage of Tehran over Baku.
Azerbaijan Takes Advantage of Armenia’s Strategic Isolation to Resume Hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh
It was only a matter of time before hostilities would resume in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region contested by Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians. A war was last fought just three years ago between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the breakaway Armenian state of Artsakh resulting in an Azeri victory and a Russian-brokered ceasefire. However, due to Yerevan’s strategic isolation, it seemed inevitable that Baku would reinitiate military operations to take advantage of Armenia’s relative weakness.
Despite the implementation of a ceasefire in November 2020, Azerbaijan used ‘hybrid’ tactics to weaken the self-declared Republic of Artsakh. Most significantly, the Azeris blockaded Artsakh in December 2022, cutting it off from the outside world, making it difficult for residents to obtain electricity, fuel, and water reserves. By restricting access to the Lachin corridor, Azerbaijan was able to cut off Artsakh from Armenia and create better leverage to exact concessions. The routes were only reopened this month.
However, on 19 September, the Azeri Presidential Administration declared that it would carry out an ‘anti-terror’ operation in the region. Baku demanded that ‘the illegal Armenian military formations must raise the white flag, all the weapons must be handed over, and the illegal regime must be dissolved.’ The Azeri government statement coincided with reports from local Armenian media sources and state news that there had been artillery, missile, and drone strikes conducted by Azerbaijan. Five people have reportedly been killed and about 80 injured.
So, why is this happening now? In short, Armenia is isolated and weak without realistic prospects for substantial foreign assistance. Thus, Azerbaijan has made the realpolitik calculation that it should press its current advantage and assert its control over Nagorno-Karabakh sooner rather than later.
Armenia’s ally, Russia, does have a military presence in the region. In fact, about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are deployed along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor. Historically, Armenia has viewed Russia as its security guarantor, but the Russian response to the most recent bouts of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been tepid as far as Yerevan is concerned. Other members of the CSTO – the Russian-led alliance to which Armenia is a member – were even less resolved to assist Armenia during the previous Nagoro-Karabakh War in 2020.
With Russia currently embroiled in the war in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that Moscow will divert resources to assist Yerevan, nor does it seem likely that the Kremlin would perceive much strategic value in doing so anyway. In recent years, Russia has maintained a complicated relationship with Azerbaijan and its staunch ally, Turkey. Russia does not stand to gain much strategically by assisting Armenia at this time and it can ill afford to further antagonise Turkey, which despite being a NATO member, has been fairly ambivalent towards the war in Ukraine.
Policymakers in Yerevan are aware that Russia is not a dependable ally and have made diplomatic overtures towards other potential security guarantors. Some political figures in Washington are sympathetic to Yerevan and Armenia does possess an outspoken and visible diaspora in the United States that it can leverage for soft power gains. Last year, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi overtly blamed Azerbaijan for hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh and in 2023 Armenian and American troops conducted joint military drills.
Closer ties with the Untied States may have buoyed hopes in Yerevan that the Americans might provide some form of assistance in the event of renewed hostilities. However, the United States has relatively limited strategic interests in the region. Military assistance is virtually out of the question but even the imposition of sanctions or diplomatic condemnations of Azerbaijan are unlikely.
There is an argument to be made that the United States could undermine Russian influence in the region by creating closer ties with Armenia, thus releasing Yerevan from dependency on Moscow. However, similar arguments have been made for enhancing American influence in the region vis a vis Azerbaijan. Moreover, Azerbaijan enjoys the advantages of being a major energy provider, with oil and natural gas reserves. It is unlikely that Washington will do anything much to damage relations with Baku at this time, given that the latter has the potential to become a major Eurasian energy hub.
The same can be said for the European Union, whose members are currently facing an energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and the decision to eschew Russian oil and gas. Brussels has already demonstrated its appetite for Azeri energy and will not act in a way to jeopardize its access.
To make matters worse for Armenia, Azerbaijan enjoys a quantitative military advantage, with greater manpower and resources at its disposal. Whilst its true that the Azeri and Armenian militaries are roughly peer competitors, with Armenia having won the First Nagoro-Karabakh War between 1988 and 1994; Azerbaijan demonstrated greater prowess in the most recent conflict. Moreover, Azerbaijan will likely again have the support of its close ally Turkey, in the form of weapon systems and equipment from its significant defence sector.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen how another conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh will play out. Armenia is not so outmatched at the tactical and operational levels that the result of another war is a foregone conclusion. Although a great deal of fuss was made over the Azeri military’s usage of drones in the previous round of fighting, they were not so decisive that the war was a cakewalk for Azerbaijan.
As explained by Eado Hecht of the Israel Defence Forces Tactical Command College, ‘The war was won by Azeri perseverance in the face of heavy casualties and many small defeats while gradually wearing-down Armenian forces no-less determined than the Azeris.’ What is potentially shaping up to be the Third Nagoro-Karabakh War may play out similarly – or it may not.
At the strategic level, however, Yerevan is playing with a bad hand. Armenia has few friends to call on for significant aid and will likely be forced to face this conflict largely alone.
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