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Eastern Europe

Nagorno-Karabakh, the small Thirty Years’ War in the Caucasus

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From 1618 to 1648 Europe was shattered by the violent and relentless conflict between Protestants and Catholics. After the end of the crusades cycle that had seen the first conflict between Christians and Arabs breaking out, what historians later called the “Thirty Years’ War” was the first and most severe armed conflict between the two great souls of Christianity, but it was certainly not the last religious war. The Thirty Years’ War ended with the Peace of Westphalia which led to the birth of European Nation-States and – as a paradoxical epilogue to a war unleashed for religious reasons – put an end to the control exercised by the Church over Christian kingdoms and nipped in the bud any attempt by the Protestant clergy to interfere in political affairs, by crushing it well before it could be openly manifested. Since then the centres of gravity of conflicts (also) on a religious basis have shifted towards the Islam-Jewish confrontation (the Arab-Israeli wars of the second half of the 20th century) and towards the confrontation-clash between Islam and Christianity.

Religious conflicts tend to be ferocious and bloody because none of the parties involved appears to be willing to mediate with a counterpart considered apostate or anyway “infidel”.

Faced with an international public distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic concerns, the still unresolved 30-year conflict for control over Nagorno Karabakh – a 30-year war on a small scale because it was confined to South Caucasus – broke out again violently on September 27 last. It sees the clash between Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia, which claims de iure control over a region, namely Nagorno, which it already de facto controls although its territory is totally enclosed within the Azerbaijani borders and without any geographical connection with the disputed Armenian motherland. As we will see later on, the conflict has ancient and deep roots, but is full of geostrategic implications that could cause damage and extra-regional tensions which are potentially very dangerous.

Ancient and deep roots which, in this case, can also be called the “roots of evil”. In the late 1920s, Stalin -who was determined to crush all the nationalist ambitions of the various souls that made up the huge Soviet empire – took drastic measures to prevent the different pan-Russian ethnic groups from creating political problems and, with the usual iron fist, decided to transfer entire populations thousands of kilometres away from their traditional settlements to eliminate their ethnic and cultural roots. Chechens, Cossacks and Germans were dispersed to the four corners of the empire while the Soviet dictator decided – under the banner of the more classic “divide and rule” principle – to assign the political and administrative jurisdiction of the autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh – inhabited by Armenian and Christian populations – to the Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, populated by Azeri Muslims, with a view to keeping any Armenian autonomist claims under control.

As also happened in the satellite countries (see the example of Tito’s Yugoslavia), the Communist regime in Russia managed to contain –  even with the unscrupulous use of terror and ethnic cleansing – every nationalist claim from all the different ethnic groups that made up the empire. This operation, however, lost its momentum when, in the second half of the 1980s, the cautious campaign of modernisation of the country and the start of timid liberal reforms by Mikhail Gorbachev with his Perestroika caused unexpected repercussions in the relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Never-ending hatred and revenge spirit re-emerged due to the decrease of oppressive and repressive measures that, until that moment, had contributed to keep the Soviet regime alive. The political and administrative cohesion that had turned the Union of Republics into a unitary body began to fail and the claims for autonomy became increasingly pressing.

Again this background, in 1988 the regional Parliament of Nagorno Karabakh voted on a resolution that marked the region’s return to the administrative jurisdiction of the Armenian Republic, the “Christian motherland”.

From that moment on, the tension between Armenians and Azerbaijanis mounted progressively, with isolated clashes and inter-ethnic violence that lead to open war in 1991 when, immediately after the USSR’s collapse and dissolution, the Armenians formally declared the annexation of the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh to the Republic of Armenia, thus triggering a bloody conflict against neighbouring Azerbaijan – a conflict that lasted until 1994 in which over 30,000 military and civilians died.

Faced with the inability of Boris Yeltsin’s government to bring the warring parties back to reason and to the negotiating table (which is always hard to do in ethnic-religious conflicts) and faced with the UN inability to resolve the Azeri-Armenian conflict, by any means necessary and whatever it takes, as enshrined in its Charter, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) intervened. Under its auspices, the “Minsk Group” – a permanent negotiating table managed by France, the Russian Federation and the United States – was established in 1992.

Despite the Minsk Group’s commitment, the war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis continued until 1994, when it ended – with no peace agreement signed – after the Armenians took military control of Nagorno Karabakh and over one million people were forced to leave their homes. A double exodus reminiscent of the one which followed the division between India and Pakistan, with the Azerbaijanis who, as the Muslims and Hindus, abandoned their lands to the Armenians and the Armenians who occupied back houses and territories which they believed had been unjustly taken away from them by Stalinist manoeuvres.

The fire of conflict was still smouldering, with clashes and armed aggression, for over a decade and later broke out again, with no apparent reason or triggering factor, in April 2016. International observers were puzzled by that resumption of hostilities: dozens and dozens of soldiers from both sides died for no apparent reason or triggering factor. According to some observers specialising in this strange and archaic conflict, the causes of the resumption of hostilities were to be found in the desire of the opposing States to “gain ground” and take control of strategic areas away from the enemy. According to other probably more reliable international observers, the reason for the resurgence of the conflict had to be sought within the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership. In the midst of an economic crisis due to the collapse of the crude oil international market (and prices), both governments gave a free hand to their respective “dogs of war”, in view of bringing together again their publics who were disoriented and dissatisfied with the collapse of the economy. Islam, oil and Christianity were the explosive ingredients of a dangerous and apparently unsolvable situation. In Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, crowds demonstrated for weeks, months or years under the banner of “Karabakh is Azerbaijan”.

In Yerevan, the capital of ”Armenia”, similar crowds – albeit of a different and enemy religion – asked for “Freedom for our Brothers of Karabakh”.

Meanwhile the fire was still smouldering: Armenia had de facto control of the disputed region, which was totally within the Azerbaijani borders, with no corridor connecting it to the Armenian “motherland”.

The inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict is further complicated by geopolitical factors.

Turkey is a traditional partner of Azerbaijan, inhabited by Muslims of Turkmen origin. Turkey was the first State to recognise the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1991 while, so far, it has not yet recognised the Armenian Republic, probably because it retains its name and the proud memory that links it to the Armenian genocide of 1916-1920, when the Turks – convinced of the Armenians’ infidelity and of their support for the Russian Tsar – quickly exterminated about a million of them.

Russia’s position towards the conflict and the belligerents is more ambiguous: on the one hand, Russia supports the legitimate aspirations of the Armenian people while, on the other hand – in order to avoiding entering into open conflict with Erdogan, with whom he plays a complicated game in Syria and Libya – Vladimir Putin avoids using threatening tones towards Azerbaijan – to which he continues to sell weapons – and tries to maintain equidistance and impartiality between the parties to the conflict. His attitude has not yet attracted Turkish criticism, but obviously leaves the Armenians perplexed.

As already said, the fire kept on smouldering until September 27 last when, without any apparent or evident triggering factor, Armenians and Azerbaijanis resumed hostilities using sophisticated weaponry, such as armed drones or long-range missiles, which killed dozens of soldiers and civilians on both sides.

As said above, the reasons for the resumption of hostilities are not clear: there is no direct provocation or triggering factor.

This time, however, many observers are directly pointing fingers at Turkey and its President, Tayyp Recep Erdogan.

He may have placed the Nagorno-Karabakh problem into the complex geopolitical chess game in which Turkey’s “new” and aggressive President is engaged. The latter, aware of the weight that his role in NATO has in the dialectic with the United States and Europe – which evidently do not feel like demanding a bit of fairness from such an undisciplined and cumbersome, but rather unscrupulous and aggressive partner – does not hesitate to have his own way and do the interests of his country in Syria, Libya, the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. From control of Eastern Syrian to the search for new energy sources, Erdogan is playing recklessly on several tables, without however openly challenging Russia, but not hesitating to mock the protests of his European and American partners.

An unscrupulous game that may have induced Erdogan to urge his Azerbaijani allies to resume hostilities against the Armenians on September 27 last, so as to later make the contenders accept the ceasefire of October 9: a move that would make him a mandatory and privileged counterpart for Russia, faced with the geopolitical irrelevance of Europe and the United States. The former is kept in check by the pandemic, while the latter is thinking only about the next elections. In this void of ideas and interventions, the situation in South Caucasus with its explosive possible implications in terms of production and export of energy sources remains in Russia’s and Turkey’s hands, free to seek agreements or mediations deemed favourable, obviously to the detriment of competition. In the past, at the time of Enrico Mattei, Italy would have tried to play its own role in a region as delicate as the Caucasus, not only to defend its economic and commercial interests, but also and above all to seek new development opportunities for its public and private companies. But Mattei’s Italy, however, is far away: we are currently unable to enter a hotbed of tension on our doorstep, such as Libya, and we are unable to bring home 18 fishermen from Mazara del Vallo illegally detained by the warlord of Tobruk, Khalifa Haftar.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Eastern Europe

An Impending Revolution

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Large crowds have demonstrated their anger at the results of the presidential election in Belarus. Photo: Kseniya Halubovich

Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.

The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.

The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.

On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.

European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.

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Eastern Europe

The 44-Day War: Democracy Has Been Defeated by Autocracy in Nagorno-Karabakh

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The people of Artsakh are seen as pro-Russian. Is this Pro-Moscow assessment of people of Artsakh accurate, and why Russian peacekeepers are welcomed in Nagorno-Karabakh?

***

The Republic of Artsakh and its people developed the nation’s democracy for approximately three decades. Back in 1991, Artsakh held a referendum on its independence, as well as democratic elections under a barrage of Azerbaijani rockets. The people of Artsakh accomplished this step by themselves, being convinced that without freedom of the individual, there is no freedom for the country. The Artsakh National Liberation Movement was nothing but a struggle for freedom and the right to decide one’s own destiny.

The development of democracy was not easy for a war-torn country with ade-facto status, limited resources, lack of institutions, combined with the threat of resumption of hostilities and the temptation of using elements of authoritarianism in governance as well as in the public mood. 

Nevertheless, during the last three decades, the people of Artsakh have managed to develop working democratic institutions, ensure political pluralism, and form effective human rights institutions. The vivid examples thereof are the 2020presidential elections held on a competitive basis, a 5-party Parliament, and the constitutional mechanisms for the separation of powers.

It is noteworthy that the full spectrum of democratization in Artsakh has been carried out by the country alone, without the direct support of international governmental and non-governmental organizations, and despite the numerous appeals by the civil society of Artsakh made to them.

However, Artsakh’s democracy has been highly regarded not only by parliamentarians, politicians and experts who have visited Artsakh, but also by the international organizations, such as Freedom House in its Freedom in the World annual reports. In these reports Artsakh is on the list of partly free countries, making progress in ensuring political and civil liberties each year, while Azerbaijan holds on to a not free status all the while making regressive steps in every aspect.

The people of Artsakh believed that the development of democracy would inevitably strengthen the position on unimaginability of any vertical relationship with dictatorial Azerbaijan. The people of Artsakh believed that they were keeping the eastern gate of the European civilization and its set of values. The people of Artsakh believed that those in West involved in the conflict settlement process, particularly France and the United States would view the Artsakh struggle with an understanding that it was created by their examples and ideals of freedom.

And what did the people of Artsakh receive as a result of believing in the West? They faced a new war and a new bloodshed unleashed by the same Azerbaijan. They also faced a harsh reality in the form of gross violations of human rights, war crimes and destruction of their cultural heritage. The principle of equality and self-determination of peoples in general, and the notions of freedom and human rights in particular completely collapsed before the eyes of the people of Artsakh.

One doesn’t have to be a military expert to understand that Artsakh, a small country with limited resources and capabilities, could not on its own resist Turkey-backed Azerbaijan for long, especially given the direct involvement of Turkish command staff and thousands of mercenaries from the Middle East terrorist organizations in the conflict, and the use of advanced military technology likethe banned weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

What did the people of Artsakh need to prevent this war? The answer would have been the de jure recognition of Artsakh that at least would have dampened the possibility of a new war, put an end to the century-old conflict, and establish long lasting peace and security in the region.

Instead of recognizing their unalienable right to self-determination, a new war was imposed on the people of Artsakh. As a result of this war, the people of Artsakh were left with a devastated country, thousands of dead and wounded compatriots, a new generation of refugees and IDPs, dependence on the peacekeeping mission for physical security, a “neither peace nor war” situation, as well as an uncertain future.

Russia wanted to come to Karabakh and so it did. Russia is in Artsakh not because the people of Artsakh were dreaming of weakened sovereignty while they continued to think of what West would do, but Russia came to Artsakh because Russia, unlike the West, acts rather than speaks. When on the one hand there are European and American concerns expressed in empty statements and on the other hand there are Russian peacekeepers and tanks, there is no room left for thinking long.

Let’s look at the values in which European Union, United States, Canada, and the rest of the so called “civilized world” believe in: the ideas of human rights and freedoms which they been advocating for years across the world. Now let’s try to see what is left from them all. Maybe once can find an inspiration for writing new books and sharing ideas about the future of humanity vis-à-vis the civilized world. Perhaps, in the European Union, in the United States, in Canada, and in the rest of the so called “civilized” world, their population may enjoy the ideals of human rights, but the people living in small and unimportant countries are often deprived of such rights. Perhaps the Western intellectuals and authors will write books on how the West left the faith of the people of Artsakh to the hands of the terrorists while empowering the Turkish-Azerbaijani dictators with their indifference and inaction. Indeed, for the West, the lives of the people of Artsakh are not valuable just because they are from a ‘gray’ zone, because they live in a country that doesn’t officially ‘exist’. These discriminatory phrases are definitions time and again used by the Western officials. It is what it is. The West, however, should not forget to celebrate Zero Discrimination Day and quote articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Later, when Turkish expansionism and terrorism will knock on the Western doors, the West will remember those unimportant people from an unrecognized country that absorbed the first blow. At that juncture, the West will also remember how it admired the people of Artsakh’s endurance and collective resistance, but at the same time left them alone in their fight against terrorism and modern military technology. Perhaps, for the West it is just like watching a fun action movie with popcorn and cola.

Having 193 or 194 member-countries in the United Nations (UN)as a result of recognition of Artsakh would not change the existing international legal order, however, it could serve a textbook example for rising democracies and a lesson for the dictatorships and international terrorism. By not recognizing the right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination, the West is burying the concepts of human rights, freedoms, and democracy, thereby paving a way for the next military-political adventures of dictators. The West should decide. The longer the West spends on thinking without any concrete action, the further the region will move away from it.

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Eastern Europe

NATO invented new threat in the Baltic States

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It seems as if NATO has changed its priorities in the Baltic States.

It is well known that NATO member states agreed at the 2016 Summit in Warsaw to enhance NATO’s military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.

So, the arrival of the multinational Allied battlegroup in Latvia in June 2017 concluded the deployment of forces under NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and Poland, thereby implementing the decisions made at the NATO’s Summits. Since than NATO has been actively enhancing its military capabilities in the Baltic States. It increased the number of troops and deployed heavy weapons including tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Canada is the framework nation for the battalion-size NATO battlegroup deployed to Latvia.

It was said that NATO’s enhanced forward presence is defensive, proportionate, and in line with international commitments.

Though it was absolutely evident that NATO pursues not only the stated goals, but some hidden ones. Among them are convincing of the need to increase defence budgets of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, political support at all levels, loyalty to all decisions made by leading NATO member states.

The more so, NATO invented new threat in the Baltic States. All of a sudden the Baltic States have been turned to the drone test site. In order to justify NATO new interests, it was said that unmanned aerial vehicles are an emerging threat to NATO soldiers deployed around the world, and especially in the Baltic region.

The leadership of the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia even held a symposium in Camp Adazi in November to talk about how to deal with the drone threat.

Latvia’s Battle Group Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Norton said that NATO recognized this threat as they prepared to deploy to Latvia, and made it a priority to come up with solutions.

“When I was looking at our adversaries and the way in which they have conducted recent operations around the world, it was obvious that they used UAS to great effect,” he said. “I determined that if we were to continue to be successful in deterring foreign aggression, we must demonstrate the ability to counter the threat of UAS. This is what led me to the idea of running a counter-UAS symposium and exercise.” In his turn Latvian Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks acknowledged that “the Latvian Defence Department has taken into account the lessons learned from the use of drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

It should be said that this conclusion looks more than odd. Does Pabriks consider Armenia and Azerbadzan as adversaries?

The symposium combined presentations by experts from the United Kingdom and Canada with open discussion between members of all nine nations of the Battle Group as well as members of the Latvian National Armed Forces about the capabilities they have in Adazi, and how they could use them to minimize the UAS threat. Finally, they tested some of their weapon systems in shooting down target drones at the Camp Adazi range. And, probably, this was the main goal.

Major Matt Bentley, the organizer of the symposium, stressed that this is a complex problem that will not be solved with one symposium. He said it was an important first step in the process of developing practices and capabilities that can defend Allied soldiers from drones while defending Latvia. Following the symposium, the Battle Group drafted a service paper to send to all sending nations for each ally to consider as they develop ways to defeat this threat.

According to LCol Norton, as Allied nations develop ways and means to combat the threat posed by UAS, the Battle Group will be in a good position to test them in a multinational context. In the meantime, the Battle Group will continue to build and refine tactics, techniques and procedures using the tools at hand to mitigate the threat. So, NATO invented new threat in the Baltic States to convince these countries in need to pay more and to deploy more foreign troops on their territory. And all this against the backdrop of a pandemic and an acute shortage of funds for medicine in Latvia.

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