As one of the four ‘’frozen-conflicts’’ in the post-Soviet space entered its fourth decade, an unprecedented eruption of violence threatens the status quo of the last decades, confirming the belief that Nagorno-Karabakh is actually nowhere near as ‘’frozen’’. More specifically, on September 27, the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan once again broke out around the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijan declared state of war and Armenia martial law. This time, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, named Armenia’s withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh as the only precondition for terminating the offensive. According to reports, more than 230 people have already lost their lives from both sides during the first week of the fighting. As of now, the presence of drones, missile strikes and the shot down of an Armenian helicopter have been reported. Unlike usual violations of the ceasefires, the situation has yet to be shifted back towards diplomatic means, and the fighting has been prolonged.
A strained atmosphere
The status quo-imposed by the Russian brokered cease-fire in 1994, favored Armenia, since Yerevan managed to keep the disputed area and its surrounding districts under its control. All these years there were a plethora of ceasefire violations, and over the last decade at an increasing rate. The highlight of these violations was in 2016, when more than 120 people lost their lives from both sides, at an incident that reminded the volatility of the current status quo. In what is known today as the ‘’Four-day war’’, Azerbaijan managed to seize small yet strategically valuable land, and up to 200 people on both sides were killed.
For years, the momentum has been increasingly favorable for Baku, due to its rapidly rising economy. Despite its economic overdependence on oil and gas exports, accounting for more than 90 % of its total exports and 75% of government’s revenues, and the rapid decline of oil prices in the last decade, its GDP growth averaged 8.54% since 2000. This has been reflected on its massive military expenditure. Indicatively, in 2015 Azerbaijan become the 2nd highest arms importer in Europe. As a result, the balance has fundamentally shifted since 1994, with Azerbaijan enjoying the upper hand both in military and economic means. Moreover, Baku remains the least isolated actor, given its multidimensional foreign policy. On the contrary, landlocked Armenia suffers from economic exclusion from regional projects due to Azerbaijan’s blockade. Diplomatically, remains relatively isolated and defensively relied on Russia, thanks to the presence of 5,000 Russian military personnel in its territory.
Overall, the rapid militarisation, the rise of war rhetoric by both sides and increasing fire violations have not only stalled the resolution process but also led into a toxic and increasingly volatile atmosphere.
An unprecedented situation
Nevertheless, the current conflict should be considered as the gravest event since the implementation of the ceasefire in 1994, having two fundamental qualitative differences that should not be omitted, compared to the ‘’four-day war’’ of 2016.
First, even though Azerbaijan’s previous offenses, including the one in 2016, appeared to serve mostly political goals, attempting to press Armenia towards a more flexible approach in the negotiations, the ongoing clash seems to serve primarily military goals. It demonstrated an active attempt to terminate the deadlock, following the refutation of early hopes brought by Pashinyan’s rise in power as the prime minister of Armenia. Indeed, the large scale of the current operation and the accelerating pace of the fighting indicate the prioritisation of military over political goals, and the most possible goal is the recapture of the two territories surrounding the disputed area that have witnessed the heaviest fighting, the districts of Fuzuli and Jabrayil.
Second, Turkey has stepped up with a direct involvement in the conflict, departing from its previous restrained stance as a political and diplomatic backer of Azerbaijan. Armenia announced that a Turkish F16 shot down an Armenian SU-25 last Tuesday. Despite Ankara’s denial, President Macron himself has vocally condemned Turkey’s role, explicitly stating that Syrian rebel fighters have been deployed by private Turkish security companies in support of Azerbaijan’s forces, confirming the early reports of the Syrian observatory for human rights . Turkey’s active role in South Caucasus should not be examined in a vacuum. Instead it should be analysed under the broader prism of its current ongoing military presence in three other regional theaters: Iraq, Libya and Syria. Likewise, Libya and Syria, Turkey finds itself supporting opposite sides with Russia. Nagorno-Karabakh is expected to be added as another bargaining chip in its transactional foreign policy vis-a-vis both EU and Russia.
The way forward
The current international context and the lack of serious and credible US involvement has emboldened Erdogan’s ambitious leadership. Meanwhile, the EU or OSCE, through its intergovernmental Minsk group, have yet to achieve any tangible steps towards a lasting resolution. The EU has avoided applying any conflict-related conditionality, when dealing with Azerbaijan and Armenia through its ENP. While Russia remains the primary mediator, in an area long considered part of its near abroad doctrine, Turkey will continue exploring ways of increasing its leverage and its regional influence, in line with AKP’s ambitious pro-Islamic doctrine. However, its leadership is aware of Russia’s primacy in south Caucasus and will avoid risking any direct confrontation. Instead, Ankara will keep relying mostly on hybrid warfare tactics, seeking concrete trade-offs in other open fronts by either EU or Russia in exchange of a more constructive role toward conciliation.
As the fighting continues, the absence of talks creates an unprecedented situation. Therefore, it is necessary for the international community, the major mediators (France, Russia, USA) but also the EU to step up and move beyond verbal condemnation, presenting both leaderships with the concrete incentives that will force them back to the negotiating table. Long omitted by the West, despite its strategic interest in terms of energy, migration and counter-terrorism, the situation in the South Caucasus presents the EU with a unique opportunity for ad-hoc coordination and selective re-engagement with Russia, on the grounds of common interest and in line with EU’s newest doctrine of ‘’principled pragmatism’’ and without downplaying its unresolved issues with the Kremlin.
Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021
The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.
During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.
The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.
The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.
Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.
In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.
Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.
Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.
The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.
All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.
No borders to struggle against COVİD-19: Solidarity of humanity can help the situation
Just as COVID-19 does not recognize borders, it is necessary to build the struggle against it on the basis of organization, solidarity, mutual assistance, the use of positive experience, and it should not recognize borders.
2021 was a year of continued struggle against the pandemic and of the emergence of new variants of the virus. The South Caucasus also was not away from COVID-19 and its variants. Azerbaijan continued its effective fight against COVID-19, making the most of the lessons of previous years and the opportunities for rapid response. The vaccination campaign, which was conducted as well as in highly developed countries, is a real sign of performance in this sector. During the year Azerbaijan gave humanitarian and financial aid to more than 30 countries in order to fight the pandemic, made a voluntary financial contribution of 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization and freely donated 150,000 doses of vaccine to four countries.
The newly appointed head of the EU delegation to Azerbaijan, Petr Michako, also stressed the high level of vaccination in Azerbaijan. The capital – Baku is working closely with The European Union in this direction. The European Union and the World Health Organization have supported the fight against COVID-19 in Azerbaijan with the necessary medical equipment. Medical personnel in Azerbaijan have been repeatedly provided with respirators, goggles, transparent masks and overalls for this purpose. All equipment sent for the safety of medical personnel fighting the virus on the front lines was tested for compliance with quality and safety standards. Kestutis Jankauskas, Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, said that his organization, as a “Team Europe”, is helping to prevent, detect and combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Healthcare workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which increases their risk of contracting the virus,” he said. -They are our heroes and they need protection. “As part of the Team Europe initiative, the EU has launched an individual COVID-19 package with a budget of around € 32 million to support urgent needs and socio-economic recovery.
In 2021, Azerbaijan achieved major progress in combating the pandemic and the global economic crisis and in mutual cooperation. As a chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Azerbaijan put forward an initiative to establish a UN High-Level Panel on global restoration after COVID-19. The member states of the Non-Aligned Movement took a unanimous decision to extend Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the movement for another year, until the end of 2023.
Azerbaijan proposed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement on equal and universal access to vaccines for all countries and the resolution was passed unanimously in March 2021. This resolution showed Azerbaijan’s stance on the increasing vaccine nationalism in the world and became an international success.
As a result of all measurements now the number of people receiving the second,third and further doses of the vaccine in Azerbaijan has exceeded 40 percent. Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the continent where the number of virus infections is rapidly declining. Azerbaijan is doing its best to observe this trend around the world. Solidarity can help the situation.
2021: the year of political bankruptcy of Lithuanian government
Ramūnas Karbauskis, Lithuanian businessman and politician, Chairman of the Farmers and Greens Union severely criticized Lithuanian authorities’ actions.
The Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (Lithuanian: LVŽS) is a green-conservative and agrarian political party in Lithuania. Following the 2020 parliamentary election, the LVŽS has been in opposition to the Šimonytė Cabinet.
Ramūnas Karbauskis did not even try to find softer words to describe on Facebook the results of the past year. He noted that “2021 Lithuanians will remember as the year of bankruptcy of government, the reluctance and inability to speak, which caused and deepened health and illegal migration crises.” According to him, 2021 is marked as “a scaling and segregation of society, demolition of diplomatic roads, cutting not only with one of the biggest economies in the world – China, but even with allies and neighbors.”
He paid attention to the fact, that current negative economic tendencies were the direct results of shortsighted government actions.
To his mind, “2021 will also be remembered as the year of emptying the state budget, gold government purchases, including golden houses for illegal migrants. The government actively pushed the decriminalization of drugs, the measures to promote the trade of alcohol. He also said, that the end of the year was crowned by the Belarusian fertilizer transit scandal, but Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis and Transport Minister Marius Skuodis responsible for it remained in their posts.
Thus, he is absolutely sure, that overall, this year has only strengthened the impression that “the government is not working for the Nation, not for its benefit.”
Ex-Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkas has also criticized the permission to open a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius, saying that the conflict with China has led to huge loses. In his words, “that recognition should have, first, been done by the world, the major countries that have influence and their decision should provide results, not a small Lithuania.”
Today, when these loses have become more and more destructive for the Lithuanian economy, Ausrine Armonaite, the Economy and Innovation Minister says that “the European Union should be more united in its response to China’s pressure on Lithuania.” It turned out, that the mistake was made by Lithuania, but the EU for some reason should solve this problem. Once again Lithuanian authorities shift responsibility to others.
It seems as if Lithuanian officials have chosen the way of confrontation not only with China, but with neighbouring Russia and Belarus. Thus, they continue to increase defence budget of the country instead of allocating additional funds to economically fragile spheres. 2021 defence budget initially amounted to 1.028 billion euros. However, the government allocated additional 20.7 million euros during a budgetary review. 2022 defence budget will be increased to 1.298 billion euros.
The government has not learned how to place political accents correctly. Thus, the lack of coordination and common understanding in the ruling circles lead to political mistakes and the loss of the country’s image in the international arena. Lithuania’s behaviour has led to the shaping of ridiculous image as a country that takes on much more powers than it can afford.
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