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Who’s Who in Nagorno-Karabakh

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The return of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory that has been disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia for several centuries, raises the fundamental question of what the belligerents’ expectations are and what diplomatic and military means they have at their disposal to impose themselves on the ground.

In Soviet times, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous oblast with a mixed population — Armenians and Azeris — within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. This affiliation, far from being the outcome of consultation between Yerevan and Baku, was imposed by Moscow in order to divide the peoples of the South Caucasus to rule them better.

Baku, for fear of losing control over the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast, was ready to grant many concessions to the Kremlin. Similarly, Yerevan did not fail to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards Moscow during the Cold War in the hope of one day regaining control over this territory. As for the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, identity affiliation to one country or another depended essentially on ethnicity, which led to sporadic and recurrent tensions in the region.

With the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the 1980s, Armenians and Azerbaijanis began to express themselves more freely and to oppose each other over the legitimacy of governing this area. As mentioned in a 1988 CIA report “Unrest in the Caucasus and the Challenge of Nationalist” (declassified in 1999), Moscow was unable to reach an agreement between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, and had no alternative but to send troops to the region to stop the violence.

After 1991, as the USSR disintegrated, Armenians and Azerbaijanis clashed and the troops of Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh managed to dominate Nagorno-Karabakh and expelled the Azeri populations who found refuge in the rest of Azerbaijan.

Diplomatic Strategy of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh

Since the 1994 victory, Armenia has been trying to have Nagorno-Karabakh recognised as an autonomous country under the Montevideo Convention, without success to date, except for territories that are themselves partially recognised, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Armenian diplomacy is active with the diaspora, particularly in the United States and Australia, and to date, it is more than 10 American states — California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, Colorado and Minnesota — which have recognised Artsakh (another name given to Nagorno-Karabakh), although for Washington the region remains de jure in Azerbaijan.

Yerevan’s strategy is to achieve recognition of the territory as an independent country in order to hold a referendum on the incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. Therefore, for Nagorno-Karabakh, it is a question of surviving the time of a diplomatic recognition which will ultimately lead to its reattachment.

Because of financial difficulties and poor relations with Turkey since the events of 1915, Yerevan is strengthening its partnerships with Moscow, which is the only power capable of imposing itself against Turkey (a member of NATO). Yerevan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union, and as such relies on Moscow’s support to preserve its territorial integrity. However, Russia made it clear that its agreements did not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenian Armed Forces

With 51 500 men and an annual budget of $634 million, the Armenian forces depend largely on Soviet equipment, good knowledge of the terrain and mastery of guerrilla techniques. The land forces consist of T-80, T-72, T-54/55 tanks and armoured personnel carriers dating back to the Soviet era, including BTR-60s. The AK-74 rifle is a standard in the armed forces. The air force has a mobile multi-channel ground-to-air missile system S-300, 9K33 Osa, S-75 Dvina, 2K11 Krug, Strela10, 2K12 Kub and ZSU-23-4.

In addition, Sukhoi Su-30, Su-25, Mil Mi-8 and Mil Mi-24 helicopters are available with Ilyushin Il-76 for troop transport and Czechoslovak Aero L-39 for training. The other pieces of equipment present, such as the Mi-2, are of little relevance.

Armed Forces of Nagorno-Karabakh

20 000 men, interoperability with Armenian forces and a guerrilla strategy similar to that of the Afghans against American and Soviet troops. Although they have few resources, they have T-72 and T-55 tanks, a large number of armoured personnel carriers such as the BTR-80, and above all affordable artillery and rocket launchers that can hold out against Azerbaijan in the event of an attack. Some reports also mention the presence of Chinese-designed WM-80 MRLs.

The importance of snipers and good knowledge of the terrain, the psychological motivation of the troops and the pragmatism of the soldiers should be highlighted. It is thus customary to take over the opponent’s equipment, repair it and then use it against them afterwards.

Azerbaijan’s Politico-Military Approach

Azerbaijan wishes to regain control over its territory in accordance with international law. According to Baku, a debate on the autonomy of the region is conceivable provided that the Azerbaijani refugees can also vote in the referendum. This rhetoric is combined with the strengthening of the armed forces which aims to allow the territory to be regained by force, which seems to be the most realistic prospect for Baku because Yerevan and Stepanakert are refusing to accept any possibility of the return of the land within Azerbaijan to date. The sale of hydrocarbons gives a considerable financial advantage to the Azeris who can upgrade their military equipment with drones from Israel, Russian fighter planes and various equipment from several countries.

Baku can count on the diplomatic and military support of Turkey since the fall of the USSR. The objective for Ankara is to support an allied country in the region but also to show solidarity with the Muslim world. In this respect, Nagorno-Karabagh has the appearance of a holy war and it is customary to note the presence of Chechen and Syrian mercenaries, and members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin alongside the Azeris. As a member of NATO, Turkey’s approach which favours Azerbaijan is badly perceived because it could lead to a conflict between NATO and Russia, a threat already mentioned by the CIA in its 1988 report and which worries the White House.

Azerbaijani Armed Forces

With 66,000 men for $2.2 billion of the annual budget, the Azerbaijanis have at their disposal modern equipment with the ambition to carry out a military intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This includes land forces with T-90s, T-72 and T-55 tanks, as well as troop transport with BMP-3, BMP-2, BMP-1, BTR80A, 82A, BTR-70, BTR0-60, BTR-3. A long list of armoured cars from Israel, such as the AIL Abir, South Africa, such as the Matador, Germany (Mercedes), Great Britain (Land Rover) and the United States are also in that list.

It can be seen that the upgrading brings together a set of equipment from various sources which attests to a strategy that aims to establish diplomatic relations with the purchase of military equipment. Baku seems to favour the rapid movement of troops, which seems logical insofar as Azeri strategy is to advance in the territory rather than occupy a stationary position. Several missiles and launchers from Israel such as LORA, Lynx, EXTRA but also from the USSR and Czechoslovakia, including the RM-70 are deployed. Anti-tank systems are numerous with France’s MILAN and South Korea’s LIG Nex1 AT-1K. Presence of American FIM-92 Stinger.

As for the air force (with more than 12 000 men), fighter aircraft are all from Russia and the USSR, with MiG-29, Sukhoi Su-25 and MiG-21. In addition, there are Russian helicopters — Mil Mi-24, Mil Mi-17 and Kamov Ka-27 — as well as American Bell 412s. Italian Aermacchi M-346s and Czechoslovakian Aero L-29s and L-39s are used for training.

The air force is not Baku’s strong point — with the exception of the drones — which is banking above all on the physical occupation of the ground with the reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh. As such, the objective is to locate, monitor and destroy ground equipment in order to advance more rapidly. There are drones, all from Israel — Hermes 450 and 900, IAI Heron, IAI Searcher, Orbiter, Aerostar — which are less expensive than fighter aircraft and more relevant insofar as the Azerbaijan air force will meet little resistance from the Armenian air force. In addition, there are Russian defence systems, including the S-300PMU2, 9K37 Buk-1M, Pechora-2TM, and Igla-S/SA-24 (more than 1000).

Because of its access to the Caspian Sea, the Azerbaijani Navy is developed with ships from the USSR including the Polnochny Class, the Svetlyak Class and the Osa Class, from Turkey such as the Kılıç class (German design), and some small submarines as well as European-designed helicopters such as the Airbus Helicopters H215 and the Sud-Aviation SA.365 Dauphin. Unlike Russia, which has ships in the Caspian Sea capable of sending missiles to the Middle East, as was the case during the conflict in Syria, Azerbaijan is limited to ensuring a military presence in the Caspian Sea without the equipment being able to be used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The Approach of the Members of the OSCE Minsk Group (Russia, USA, France)

Russia sells arms to the two protagonists and has the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) with Yerevan that ensures military intervention by Moscow in the event of an attack on Armenian territory. Trade agreements, participation in the Eurasian Economic Union, the CSTO does not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh and Moscow is absent and has no diplomatic or military representation. Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria, the Kremlin does not take a position and remains neutral without proposing any concrete solution other than the application of a ceasefire.

The United States has an ambiguous attitude, even going so far as to avoid referring to international law in its statements to the OSCE. To date, it is more than 10 American states that recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country, making the debate difficult for Washington, which prefers to avoid pronouncing itself on the question so as not to offend Turkey within NATO and the Armenian diaspora in the United States.

France, like the European Union, mentions international law and recalls the membership of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. However, Paris does not fail to take into account the reality on the ground and the need to find a solution between the protagonists and above all, without violence.

The recent events of September 2020 make the members of the Minsk Group fear possible interference from Turkey, which is problematic for both the West and Russia. Indeed, Russia does not want a military confrontation with Turkey, which is a member of NATO, and the United States and France do not support Ankara in its pro-Azeri stance.

Turkey and the Muslim World

Ankara recalls its closeness to Azerbaijan and the principle of ‘one nation, two countries’ which drives bilateral relations. Turkey is more assertive than it was during the Cold War and supports Baku, even going so far as to propose military interference, which was already the case in 1991-1994 with Turkish officers sent to train and support Azerbaijani troops.

For Turkey, it is a question of supporting an allied country, of showing solidarity with a Muslim country, and of confirming Turkish regional ambitions in the Middle East and the Black Sea. If Turkey intervenes militarily, the only two possible options will be to leave Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azeris or else a military intervention by Russia to support Armenia in its actions in Nagorno-Karabakh, as the Westerners do not want to risk interfering.

Azerbaijan can count on the sporadic presence of Chechens, often mercenaries, who are used to taking part in this type of conflict, as has been the case in Abkhazia and Syria. Mercenaries from Syria also join the conflict for similar reasons to the Chechens. The presence of Grey Wolves from Turkey, belonging to the extreme right affiliated to the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) and members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (حزب اسلامی گلبدین) from Afghanistan has been noted. While Turkey positions itself on the conflict for geopolitical and strategic reasons, the mercenaries do so mainly for ideological, pecuniary and religious reasons.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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Eastern Europe

Thorny path towards peace and reconciliation in Karabakh

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On January 11 the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a deal to develop cross-border transportation routes and boost economic growth to benefit the South Caucasus and the Wider Region. This meeting took place two months after the Moscow-brokered armistice between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

This ethno-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has drawn dividing lines between Armenia and Azerbaijan for almost 30 years. Some estimates put the number of deaths on both sides at 30,000 after the First Karabakh war before a ceasefire was reached in May 1994. As a result of this war, one fifth of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan was occupied and the entire Azerbaijani population of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and seven adjacent districts (Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam, Fizuly, Jabrail, Gubatli and Zangilan) was forcibly expelled by the Armenian armed forces. Incidentally, due to sporadic frontline skirmishes and clashes, both military personnel and civilians have been killed along the Line of Contact, devoid of any peacekeeping force, since 1994.

Over the years, Armenia and the separatist regime that emerged in the occupied Azerbaijani territories refused any final status short of independence for Nagorno-Karabakh and tried to preserve this status quo and achieve international security guarantees on the non-resumption of hostilities while avoiding the withdrawal of its armed forces from the occupied territories and preventing the safe return of expelled Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence. However, such a policy, in its turn, polarized the region and reduced to naught any meaningful regional cooperation between the three South Caucasus states.

The Second Karabakh war, which took place from September 27 to November 9, 2020, and the subsequent Russia-brokered peace deal on November 10, significantly changed the facts on the ground and created a new political reality that replaced the “no war, no peace” situation that had been hanging over the region for almost 30 years. As a result of this war, more than 6,000 soldiers died on both sides in fighting.

This war came to an end because of a clear victory for Azerbaijan, which has restored its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Owing to the humiliating defeat of Armenia,the myth of the invincibility of the Armenian armed forces has been shattered and the Prime Minister of this country has been under continuous pressure from the opposition to step down.

Thus, after the Second Karabakh war, the pendulum has swung from devastating war towards actual peace. The question, is, however, whether the conflicting parties will be able to achieve lasting peace in the coming years: How can a relationship that has been completely destroyed owing to this protracted armed conflict and previous wars be restored?

The fate of all inhabitants of both the highlands and lowlands of Karabakh, irrespective of their ethnic origin, is crucial in this context. Security arrangements for the Armenian minority residing in this area are currently organized through the deployment of 1,960 Russian peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the implementation of the trilateral statement signed by the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Russian Federation on November 10 (hereafter, the trilateral statement). At the same time, the return of the former Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence previously occupied by the Armenian armed forces is envisaged by the trilateral statement and the UNHCR has been assigned to oversee this task.

It is paramount that Azerbaijan has to demonstrate a policy of “strategic patience” in the coming years to entice the Armenians of Karabakh region into closer incorporation through attractive political, economic, social, and other development.

On the other hand, Armenia has to concentrate on its own internationally recognized sovereign territory. Today, it is important that this country changes its external minority policy and withdraws its territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a next step, both Armenia and Azerbaijan can recognize the territorial integrity of one other.

Such rapprochement can lead to the opening of the borders between Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan, which would increase economic opportunities for landlocked Armenia. It can thereby contribute to regional stability, development, and trans-regional cooperation among the three South Caucasian states. At the same time, it would create an enabling environment that could be more conducive for future dialogue and interactions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

We must face the fact that a stable equilibrium between these two nations has never previously been achieved. However, despite ups and downs, there was peaceful coexistence between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Karabakh as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective minorities in Azerbaijan and Armenia. This protracted conflict has, however, led Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live in parallel realities for almost 30 years.

In light of the recent past, we cannot soon reconcile our different narratives. It is a long process; however, reconciliation is not only an outcome, it is also a process. Although the gestation period might be long, the process of reconciliation itself can be extremely rewarding.

In fact, the Armenian and Azerbaijani inhabitants of Karabakh have lived together in this region in the past. However, for almost 30 years this was impossible. Will and determination should be put to good use in order to arrive at such a peaceful coexistence once again.

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Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus

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The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.

The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.

It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.

The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.

The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.

In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.

Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.

Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.

With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.

The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.

The Western stance

The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.

Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.

Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.

The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.

The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.

Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.

Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.

Georgia’s position

Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.

Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.

The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”

The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.

Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.

But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.

The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.

Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.

After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.

Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

Author’s note: first published in dailysabah

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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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