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Eastern Europe

Nagorno-Karabakh: The Interplay of Community, Ambition and Strategy

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Death toll has risen to thousands since the two ex-Soviet republics battle over the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) region. The war over the Caucasus region of NK has invited the global attention over its myriad dimensions and colossal possibility of breaking into a global conflict or World War III. What is startling about the development is the fact that the community and commitment factors are at interplay with an unpredictable alignments in the way. While Islamic world sees the conflict drawn on community lines between the Christian Armenia and the Muslim Azerbaijan, the states like Iran and Israel have moved beyond community shells. Most of the Islamic states have shown sympathy with Azerbaijan on community grounds with Turkey, Pakistan taking the lead. What is strange is that Iran supports Armenia and Israel has chosen to support Azerbaijan ideologically and militarily thus surprising the western camp and Russia. 

Armenians Lament Stalin’s Legacy

In the South Caucasus (mountains) of the former USSR is located the contentious territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK). The current tension could be traced to the ethnic composition of the NG (also called Karabakh) which is a Christian dominated area surrounded by Muslim dominated Azerbaijanis. The row owes to the developments when Bolsheviks settled issues with Turkey and Armenians and Joseph Stalin, acting Commissar of Nationalities for the Soviet Union, made a controversial decision of handing over  the Armenian dominated territory of NK to Azerbaijan.  Bolsheviks following a ‘dual pacification policy’ towards Azerbaijanis and Turkey on the one hand and Armenians on the other, in April 1920 occupied Azerbaijan.  It was followed by the annexation of Armenia and Georgia in 1921. Bolsheviks in order to earn legitimacy and popular support promised NK to Armenia. However, to appease Turkey, which had deep ethnic and cultural ties with Azerbaijanis like common Turkish descent, they agreed to a division under which NK would be under the control of Azerbaijan. Since Soviet Union gained more and more control over the people and territories over the years the discontent remained under thumb until the genie was let loose in 1991. The decision was never accepted by Armenians emotionally and legally. A fire of discontent simmered till the dissolution of the USSR and emergence of new political map of the post-Soviet Union states.

Even before the disintegration, in August 1987 NG Armenians sent a petition signed by tens of thousands of signatures to Moscow asking to join Armenia. However, the petition failed to garner any consequence. Therefore, immediately after the disintegration NG declared independence, and the two entered into a conflict in 1991 which ended in 1993 claiming about 30 thousands lives. “At that stage, for the first time during the conflict, the Azerbaijani government recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a third party in the war, and started direct negotiations with the Karabakh authorities”. As a result, a cease-fire was reached on May 12, 1994 through Russian negotiations. Unfortunately, tensions heated up yet again in April 2016 when Azerbaijan claimed to have killed and wounded more than 100 Armenian soldiers (ADST). The clashes in 2016 and in July 2020 lasted only for a few days, but currently, it is difficult to say whether or not these clashes would escalate into a full-blown war.

The Teaming of the States and South Asia

South Asia has its own stakes in the conflict keeping in view the Galwan development and LOC tension where India is faced on two fronts. In case of the spreading of the conflict the interests of the South Asian states are also seriously engaged over oil and energy sources with the actors like Turkey, Russia, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. NK is equated with Kashmir too, but the difference lies in history, geography and ethnic compositions too. Turkey has annoyed India by playing double as it asks for liberation of NK from Armenia although it’s a Christian dominated area and people want to join Armenia. But it backs Pakistan and Kashmir’s demand for self-determination. It has been joined by Azerbaijan too over the issue and it forces India lean towards Armenia which supports Indian position on Kashmir. While Turkey, an open ally of Pakistan registers its support for Azerbaijan, India has poses neutral, though it has secured a defence deal with Armenia and forward sympathy to it also. Indo-Armenian relations are quite old and the Indo-Russian friendship has also strengthened their ties. The volume of trade between India and Azerbaijan has also increased from 50 million dollars (2005) to 250 million (2015). India’s main import from Azerbaijan is crude oil (Korybko).

Pakistan stands with Azerbaijan, especially because of its warm relations with Turkey and supports its right of self-defence.  Pakistan’s support has the colour of community but it also meets its ever hated state Israel in the club. Israel has longstanding relationship with Azerbaijan on account of its supply of arms and Azerbaijan’s extension of recognition to it in 1992 against the wishes of whole of the Muslim world. Azeri president Ilham Aliyev once compared his country’s relationship with Israel to an iceberg saying “nine-tenths of it is below the surface (Perry, 2012). The recent conflict is witness to the use of Israeli arms and Kamikez drones by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan–Turkey relations have always been strong with the two often being described as “one nation with two states” by the ex-president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev due to both being Turkic countries and having strong cultural and ethnic ties (Joint press statements). Against it, surprisingly Iran decides to support Armenia because of different reasons like economic interests, nationalism, and race for dominance in Islamic world. Armenia’s largest trading partner is Iran. Although Iran recognises several UN resolutions on NK that expects Armenia to evacuate the occupied Azeri lands controlled by ethnic Armenians backed by Armenia.

On the other side, Armenia is backed by its long time security partner Russia. Apart from providing Yerevan with ballistic missiles and new SU-30 SM fighter jets last year, Moscow has been lending its support through military aid as well. Additionally, Armenia is part of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) akin to NATO which is a Russia-led military alliance of seven former Soviet states and Azerbaijan is not a part of the group. The CSTO’s mission is to secure the collective defence of any member that faces external threat and if tensions escalate, Armenia can always invoke the CSTO (The Eurasian Times).

One important development is India’s expansion as an arms trade rival in Central and South East Asia. India secured a $40 million defence deal with Armenia over the supplying of Radar systems (four SWATHI weapon locating radars) dipping Poland and Russia as competent to sign a deal with Armenia. The Indian move appears to be intriguing for Russia but India has its own peripheries of trade and technology that world has to digest now. India’s entrance in the region is to counter the influence of China and Azerbaijan-Pakistan-Turkey strategic triangle that goes against Indian position on Kashmir. Against it Armenia defends Indian position on Kashmir. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan remarked that “on Kashmir issue, we fully defend India’s position, and it is our firm position. We hope that in this case we will be able to create international cooperation for solving this issue peacefully” (WION).

The Dominance in Islamic World

The Iranian support to Armenia is based on its territorial balances with Azerbaijan and to check the growing influence of the nationalism among Azeri Turks. Somewhere behind lies its desire to bridle the Turkish wish of reviving the Ottoman time and lead the Islamic world. Under the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey has witnessed a shift from moderate Turkish Sufi Islam, based on teachings of Rumi towards a Salafi Islam – the political Islam that aims at encompassing the Islamic world and revive the traditional Turkish position very much like the rise of the cultural India that seeks influence in west, central and south-east Asia. The Azerbaijan’s obsession with Israel and arms deals irks Iran too.  Iranian backing to Armenia pays dividend too as Russia has now announced that it would sell its anti-missile system S-400 to Iran after the UN embargo on Iran ends on October 18, 2020. Therefore, the NK crisis omens not so good.

The conflict over NK has multilayered dimensions that carries the community association at the one end and the political aspirations at the other to make the issue more fragile. The truce on NK is short-lived and forecasts a larger escalation in the coming days keeping in view the new alignments and the mappings filtering out. So, Stalin’s mistake is what A. V. Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev are paying for.

References

“Joint press statements of Presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey”. Retrieved 8 December 2012.

“India calls for restraint over Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes”. WION.https://www.wionews.com/india-news/india-calls-for-restraint-over-armenia-azerbaijan-clashes-331791

ADST. “Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training”. https://adst.org/2013/08/stalins-legacy-the-nagorno-karabakh-conflict/

Korybko, Andrew. “India’s Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis Conundrum”. The Express Tribune, October 12, 2020.

Perry, Mark, “Israel’s Secret Staging Ground”.  Foreign Policy.  March 28, 2012.

The Eurasian Times, September 29, 2020.

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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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