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Eastern Europe

The State of Civil Society in Belarus and Armenia: Challenges and Opportunities

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

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 A vibrant civil society has long been thought to be a crucial instrument for political change in countries in transition and a key component of a democratic society.

While civic activism was critical to the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia, and posesformidable challenges to Aleksander Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule in Belarus, a question remains as to whether or not civil societies have the capacities to evolve into powerful agents of democracy in the two post-Soviet countries. 

The two countries share much in come in terms of their communist past and close alliances with Russia, vividly manifested in their being members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO. Moreover, the post-Soviet transition of both countries has been marred by a series of authoritarian malpractices, ranging from centralization and personalization of power to extensive crackdown on civil liberties and political freedoms

In both countries civil society organizations have been characterized by their organizational weakness, and marginality in terms of their social base, financial assets and influence over policy making.

Controlling the mass media and civil society has been crucial for Europe’s ‘last dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko’s rule. As a result, freedom of association has been extremely limited in Belarus, where the registration of groups remains entirely arbitrary, while the foreign funding to NGOs is treated as interference in the country’s domestic affairs. Only a few human rights groups continue to operate, amid huge harassment by the government. Alarmingly, in 2018, the Criminal Code of Belarus introduced the prospect of large fines for unregistered or liquidated organizations, thus aiming to curbtheir activism.

Moreover, the lack of a vibrant civil society has led to a situation where Belarusians have huge misconceptions about civil society organizations and do not tend to use the available resources within civil society and human rights organizations to defend their rights

The situation in Belarus turned upside down in the wake of 2020 presidential elections, that unleashed a huge wave of civic activism: hundreds of thousands of Belarusians raising their voices and taking to the streets.

The anti-government protests following the 2020 presidential elections show that the Belarusian opposition and civil society have the potential to challenge the status quo meticulously preserved by Lukashenko.

Nevertheless, it would be misleading to treat the successful actions by protesters or even civil society representatives per se as s shift in a robust or “emerging” civil society. The question remains as to if protests are organized by well-established and institutionalized organizations, or do groups emerge spontaneously out of the protests themselves?

By contrast, the Armenian civil society organizations enjoy considerable freedom and face less harassment by the government. While civil society played a critical role in the “Velvet Revolution,” the absence of an umbrella organization or clearly reform-oriented movement in Armenia, seems to leave the fate of the societal coalition that brought Nikol Pashinyan to power uncertain. Not surprisingly, the societal coalition started to break into pieces as Armenia endured tremendous setbacks in the war against Azerbaijan in November 2020. Overall, the demonstrations leading the revolution showed the “Velvet Revolution was a one-time fairy tale, rather than a feature of a vibrant civil society. Meanwhile, civil society organizations and activists need to move beyond the victory in the street and pursue victory in town halls and elections, with the growing realization that the “Velvet Revolution” now needs to be in people’s minds and behavior rather than in downtown Yerevan .

Despite the growing number of civil society organizations (there are more than 4,000 registered civil society organizations, mainly non-governmental organizations (NGO), absolute majority of them are inactive with little to no potential to represent certain interest groups. NGOs are especially weak in terms of their social base, funding and heavily depend on foreign donors. 

Arguably, the Russian oversize influence over Belarus and Armenia has been one of the core challenges to a vibrant civil society advancement in both countries. Of all the Eastern Partnership countries, Armenia and Belarus is by far the most vulnerable to Russian influence. This reflects its structural dependence on Russia in the economic, energy, security, geopolitical, as well as socio-cultural spheres, particularly in case of Belarus.

Belarus displays a series of characteristics that allow Russia to have a strong impact on civil society. These include a weak national identity, issues around language, the prevalence of Russian information in the media, exposure to Russian information warfare, as well as the presence in Belarus of Russian government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Notably, within its strategy of promoting Eurasian integration within the Eurasian Economic Union and beyond, Russian propaganda would frequently target Armenian NGOs by framing those which are Western-funded ones as threats to Armenian-Russian relations. Such claims would be followed by the calls for ‘neutralizing’ them through information campaigns and other methods, including through the legislature. Not surprisingly, the 2017 amendments to existing NGO legislation in Armenia, with imposed restrictions on their activities, would be largely viewed as a direct result of the mounting pressure emanating from Russia.

Boosting CSOs Actorness

Studies show that the path to a vibrant and consolidated civil society has two main dimensions. The first dimension boils down to the changes in the nature of civil society relations with the state and society and its potential and ability to induce reform, or what is often referred to as “change on the outside”. This has much to do with increasing their impact on public policy and practice, not least through engaging more with their constituencies and improving their interaction with public institutions and actors. It has not been uncommon for post-Soviet societies to treat civic associations as threat to the power and stability of the state together with the conviction that the state bears the responsibility for the wellbeing of the society.

Moreover, the CSOs’ tendency to prioritize relations with Western donors over engagement with citizens would result in their treatment as donor-driven, rather than community-oriented organizations. Meanwhile, greater engagement and effective communication with various social groups is critical to breaking down the public misconceptions about CSOs and their activities.

Thus, the “change on the outside” is instrumental in dissolving the apathy of the wider public leading to their shift from spectators to actors.

A major impediment to civil society in both countries is prevailing post-Soviet “informality” in the form of behavioral practices, such as considerable tolerance towards informal governance, the use of informal networks and connections in exchanges of favors, phone justice, corruption, etc. The latter has long condemned both countries to a vicious circle of underdevelopment and bad governance. Even though it would be an oversimplification to contend that graft is a way of life it takes a long time for deep rooted behavioral practices to change. Therefore, both governments, as well as CSOs have a crucial role in eradicating the informality and culture of corruption in both societies, not least through promoting liberal values and good governance practices.

The second critical dimension is “change on the inside”, related to the nature of civil society per se: such as the way it is organized and operates. This in turn has a great deal to do with the development of adequate institutional and professional capacity in civil society organizations and networks as a vital tool for influencing policy making. The institutional development at the organizational level includes building organizational capacities for governance, decision-making, and conflict management, as well as clarifying organizational identity, values and strategy of impact.

The latter is of crucial relevance as a lot of CSOs in both countries were established in response to certain needs or funding priorities with no predefined mission, strategic plans and organization structure. That said, they were doomed to failure in terms of addressing the specific needs of their constituencies.

Overall, these changes and reforms are vital to the advancement of a vibrant civil society that can become an agent of democracy in both countries.

Aram Terzyan, PhD, is a visiting senior lecturer at UNESCO Chair of Human Rights, Democracy and European Studies of Brusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences and research fellow at Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, USA. E-mail: aramterzyan[at]gmail.com .

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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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Eastern Europe

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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