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Nagorno-Karabakh: A Frozen Conflict Rethawed

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On the morning of September 27, 2020, along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, the armed forces of Azerbaijan launched an attack on the Republic of Artsakh. The clashes, and with them military and civilian victims on both sides, are ongoing at the time of writing. Yet another escalation of the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Republic of Artsakh and neighbouring Armenia have introduced martial law and total mobilization, while Azerbaijan introduced martial law and a curfew, with partial mobilization being declared on September 28. International entities such as the United Nations, the European Union, as well as countries including but not limited to the United States of America, Russia and Germany have strongly condemned the ongoing clash and called on both sides to deescalate tensions and immediately resume negotiations.

What are some of the root causes of the ongoing conflict? Is there any hope on an immediate ceasefire? What are the interests of outside parties?

Frozen 3: Conflict

“The end of history” did bring about an end to the Cold War between the world’s superpowers, but it didn’t ensure an end to history in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some conflicts that arose in the 90s had already been there, suppressed by the Soviet behemoth, and went from “cold” to “superhot” and then to “frozen,” as in unresolved. From the Mediterranean to the Balkans to Central Asia, these frozen conflicts remain, with the habit of resurging violence every now and then.

The increasing tension between Turkey and Greece, both NATO members, served as a heads-up to what is now happening in the South Caucasus. The ongoing tension between Georgia and Russia also stems from the frozen conflict unsolved in the last decade of the last millennia. Heading to the neighbours in the region brings us to Nagorno-Karabakh, and the ongoing armed conflict with Azerbaijan. Since Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, the political issue surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh has remained. The territory itself is mostly controlled by the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. While de jure a part of Azerbaijan, de facto it is independent, as Azerbaijan hasn’t exerted control over the region since 1991. After the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, there have been peace talks in place headed by the OSCE Minsk Group. To no avail, a compromise hasn’t been reached until today, and with the resurging attacks from both sides, a peaceful solution has moved far into the distance.

Divide et Impera: Soviet Edition

Moscow, as the third Rome, understood how to apply the old rules of ancient Empires. To practice control over a region, one should create smaller groups within, the interests (and treatment) of whom run diametral to one another. The Soviet Union continued this tradition of the Russian Empire, so that in the early stages of sovietization of the entire South Caucasus, the final status of the disputed areas between Armenians and Azerbaijanis was settled by Moscow. Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan became parts of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (AzSSR). The Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party took it upon itself to resolve the dispute for (or against) the local populace. Nagorno-Karabakh was to be given extensive autonomy rights within the AzSSR.

The Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Nakhichevan ASSR), the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and, for a limited time only, the Kurdistan Uyezd (aka “Red Kurdistan,” 1923-1929) were incorporated into the AzSSR. Splitting up the Armenian populace amongst different administrative units was thus in lieu with Stalin’s nationality policy, which advocated the concept of dovetailing the non-Russian nationalities into the same republics. This would force them to cooperate across their ethnic boundaries and overcome ethnic rivalries. From a historical viewpoint, the way Soviet leadership handled the Karabakh issue marks a prime example of “divide et impera.”

Propaganda, Propaganda Everywhere

Internet trolls are not a new invention. What is notable, however, is how strongly both sides appear to be using all rosters of information warfare, ranging from trolls spamming social media with false information (or just involving users in pointless rants), posting gore or even state authorities posting information that is, from their perspective, truthful and correct. Mainstream media from all countries are playing along, picking a side they support and willfully spreading fake news narratives. The utilization of the internet, to gain favour for either side can take place in the form of appeals to the public audience by affected (or affectionate) users, appealing to emotion to take action. It can also result in strife and uncivil behaviour, even amongst social media groups for academic scholars. Celebrities are also engaging in #activism by sharing and posting their opinions and viewpoints. Surely, it appears neither side has a strategic approach to control the story, yet by pushing certain narratives (“Another genocide” vs “it’s our rightful clay”), both sides are pushing for an acceleration neither side could desire.

He who controls the flow of information controls the conflict. Multiple reports have indicated that Azerbaijan has severely restricted access to social media following the deadly clashes with Armenia since the end of September 2020. The Ministry of Transport, Communications and Technology announced these restrictions as “security measures” against Armenian digital aggression. As both countries have mobilized their ground forces, so too have they mobilized their “digital” forces, if one will. Only Twitter seems to work in Azerbaijan. Government-loyal accounts and bots run large-scale propaganda campaigns, dehumanizing the other side.

The hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the digital battlefield will, just like in real life, only increase as a viable solution to the conflict is not found. Already in the past have partisan groups hacked each other governments websites. Ongoing cyber-attacks of this nature are a fundamental part of any modern-day battle plan. However, they are liable to be just as damaging as conventional weapons.

What Can EU Do For You?

It is clear that a solution in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is inconceivable without Russia. With Turkey deliberately instigating the Azerbaijan government, Russia sees itself as a mediator to both, Armenia and Azerbaijan. While there is a Russian military base located in Armenia, and is considered Armenia’s protector, Russian neutrality goes so far that Moscow supplies weapons to both sides of the conflict. While Russia’s military strength is enough to keep the conflict from escalating severely, without Russian intervention, there will be no de-escalation and no ceasefire. Turkey, on the other hand, is very eager to extend its sphere of influence deeper into the Caucasus.

What can the European Union do to ameliorate the situation and promote the pursuit of open-ended, peaceful negotiations? French President Macron, as a co-chair of the Minsk Group, is taking the lead, and pushing for a ceasefire together with President Trump and President Putin. German Chancellor Merkel has reached out to both the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev and the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Paschinjan. So, while there are attempts at mediating and heartfelt appeals, the EU has little else but to communicate on a diplomatic level. The toothless tiger plays no decisive role in the region and therefore only as an extremely limited means of applying (diplomatic) pressure. Azerbaijan is fed up with unfruitful negotiations in the framework of the Minsk group. Armenia doesn’t feel its interests appreciated by the EU. The United States is more occupied with the impact of an excessive, elephantine and paternalistic government and a radically self-absorbed, nearly anarchic private market (based on Benjamin Barber), or the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic and the upcoming 2020 Presidential election on November 3.

From an international law standpoint, the EU stands on Baku’s side, as they recognize Nagorno-Karabach as an integral part of Azerbaijan and haven’t recognized the past elections in Nagorno-Karabach. On the other hand, the idea of Armenian-Karabachian self-determination finds widespread approval in European Capitals, albeit without any meaningful impact. Even the mainstream media is having a hard time rallying for either side, most media mention the ongoing conflict as a side note in their reporting.

The outcome of this clash, and therefore the entire conflict, will shape the regional power structure for the next century and affect global interactions as well. Maintaining the status quo, just like in Ukraine, benefits no one and leads only to resentment and further strife. The EU can’t fix this, and with the United States disinterested, the task of creating long-lasting peace in the region falls upon Russia.

From our partner RIAC

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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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