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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

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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