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.
The dilemma of China’s role as Mediator in the case of Ukraine
Since the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war unfolding after 24 February 2022, China has maintained so-called neutral stance on the conflict, passively calling for a peaceful resolution. But on the anniversary of Russian invasion, Beijing popped up with concrete suggestions on how to end the war: China claimed its readiness to participate in peaceful adjustment.
Beijing’s peacemaking attitude and Xi Jinping’s legitimacy as Mediator were acknowledged by Putin during Xi’s visit to Moscow and the rumors about the following soon phone call between Xi and Zelensky spread, however, it is arguable whether Kyiv is truly ready to welcome China as the broker. The US, in turn, treated Beijing’s position skeptically.
This piece elaborates on how China became Global Mediator of the 21st century and why now Ukraine is reluctant to accept Beijing’s brokering.
For starters, China is a realist actor across the domain of international relations. Kissinger states that Chinese leaders are making profound foreign policy decisions only when they do not lack the means to achieve the goals [Kissinger, 2010], hereby Xi knew that Beijing’s possible mediation between Moscow and Kyiv during first months of the war would not be realizable. The sides were not sincerely ready for a truce, neither Russia, occupied territories and continued advancements in Donbas, nor preparing counteroffensive Ukraine, backed by vast Western support.
Moreover, from realism perspective, peace achievement lies in accepting and adapting to the irresistible existence of powers involved in security competition [Mearsheimer, 2001] and peacemaking is most likely when there is no hegemon [Morgenthau, 1946].
China adhered tenaciously to aforementioned realist position by declaring that “the security of the country should not be pursued at the expense of others”, obviously referring to NATO’s strengthening and Russian lament about bloc’s eastward expansion. But such Xi’s mediation ceasefire proposition in the heat of the war would be found senseless by Ukraine and the USA, which were publicly committed to peace restoration by beating Russia on the battlefield and reestablishing liberal world order led by predominant power – the U.S.
Beijing had to prepare before ascending as Mediator between Kyiv and Moscow.
Firstly, China gained legitimacy as a global security provider. Ukraine fights for its land, but Washington made a geostrategic mistake by being directly involved in a confrontation with Russia: by imposing enormous economic sanctions on Moscow, tolerating Nord Stream pipeline sabotage and trying to end the Russo-Ukrainian war only by military means, not diplomacy.
While China proposes negotiations, the U.S. is only committed to the war continuation.
As a result, the USA lost worldwide recognized status as the sole provider of economic prosperity and global security; the unipolar liberal world order ideology became an American tool for maintaining the U.S. leadership and Western dominance at any price, despite the economic losses of others.
Therefore, some states, especially from the Global South, did not support American efforts to isolate Russia, perceiving Washington’s strategy as destabilizing. Instead, they opted for cooperation with China as an alternative planetary center within the uprising multipolar world order model; Beijing met the demand by launching Global Security Initiative, posing itself as a stabilizing Mediator.
Secondly, Beijing successfully proved its new status. China became broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia, helping two longstanding Middle East rivals to achieve reconciliation as well as détente, giving them solid security guarantees. Tehran and Riyadh restored relations without Washington’s participation and pleasingly deepened economic interaction with China.
Thirdly, concerning the Russo-Ukrainian war, Xi Jinping can become Mediator and repeat the historical brokering successes of pacification Russia achieved by such famous statesmen like Otto Bismarck and Theodore Roosevelt.
German “iron” chancellor, apologist of realpolitik, frequently played role of mediator among leading European nations in the 19th century, balancing their interests within spheres of influence. Balkans became one of such great states’ competition arenas, where Austria and Russia struggled to gain control over newborn Bulgaria and influence in the region. The war between them was prevented because Bismarck sagaciously established “League of Three Emperors”, through which mediated disputes between two empires, therefore he was known as “honest broker”.
American president contributed to halting the war between Russia and Japan in 1905. His wise brokering helped states to sign the Treaty of Portsmouth. Serving as mediator for combatants, Roosevelt induced two countries to make concessions on the most intense issues regarding reparations and territorial disputes, thereby sides reached peace.
But while Putin acknowledges Xi as broker, Zelensky probably does not, due to Ukrainian survival dilemma – if Kyiv accepts China as a Mediator, it loses Western vital support.
Thus, there are three reasons why Ukraine is not enthusiastic about Beijing’s brokering, at least publicly.
First, Zelensky has his own, approved by the West, peace plan. He wants Xi to take part in Kyiv’s “peace formula.” It assumes restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Russian troops withdrawal from occupied territories. Chinese “peace position”, on the contrary, suggests the immediate ceasefire and peace talks launch: frozen conflict, not total Ukrainian victory. Moreover, it does not stipulate the matter of Ukraine’s territorial restoration.
Secondly, Ukraine is diplomatically, politically, militarily and economically dependent on the West, i.e. the USA. China, successfully mediating between Moscow and Kyiv, is the worst-case scenario for America, because intensifies Beijing’s global influence at the expanse of the U.S., which has different from Chinese stance on Russo-Ukraine war ending issue. The USA wants to preserve its worldwide leadership. Consequently, Washington will reduce its vital aid to Ukraine if China is chosen as broker. Kyiv needs to consider the stabilization puzzle, given the significantly suffered from the war economy.
Thirdly, Ukrainian ruling elite, opinion leaders and society are ideologically inclined as well as biased to accept West as only one party, which can help Ukraine to stop the war. NATO is seen as the sole security guarantees provider. Besides, there are many West-funded organizations and media outlets in Kyiv, influencing public narratives within Ukrainian society. So, even if Zelensky accepts mediation, economic support and post-war restoration plan from China, elites in Kyiv and Ukrainian society will oppose him, challenging his legitimacy. Zelensky risks repeating former president Yanukovych fate.
To sum up, it should be stated that China’s role as global security provider is inevitable, Beijing will continue to use its economic leverage to reconcile many conflicting rivals in the world. Thus, Beijing mediation option may be considered by Ukraine in the near future, but not today.
Erosion of Russia’s Hegemonic Stability in the South Caucasus and Transition to Risky Instability
In early nineteenth century, following the wars with Persian and Ottoman empires, Russia completed the invasion of the South Caucasus. The region that hosts present day Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia remained under the control of Moscow until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, though the three countries were independent for a brief period after the World War I. Suppressing the independence movements in these countries along with the other parts of Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Moscow also acted as security provider in the region. In this role, Russia subdued conflicts between the subjects of the empire and also countered the intervention of external powers into “its” territories. This created a stability in the South Caucasus, as in other parts of the empire, dubbed by the theories of international relations as “hegemonic stability”.
In early 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and, subsequently, most of the newly independent states in the territories of the former empire ushered into inter- and intra-state conflicts. In the South Caucasus, Russia sought to manipulate and ultimately benefit from these flashpoints in order to preserve its influence over the region. Moscow’s support to Abkhaz separatists in Georgia and Armenia’s occupation of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in early 1990s helped the Kremlin recover its control over three countries of the South Caucasus. This translated into resurgence of Russia-dominated security order in the region in the post-soviet period but with more assertive independent states that sought to boost their sovereignty while minimizing Russia’s hegemony.
Armenia joined the Russia-led security and economic integration with a full membership at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Azerbaijan, on the other hand, managed to build neutral and multilateral foreign policy and succeeded to resist Russia’s pressure thanks to economic independence of the country. The only country of the region, Georgia, that sought to escape Russian orbit and join the Eura-Atlantic political and military structures faced insurmountable obstacles on this path and remained in-between. Russia’s occupation of two regions of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) in 2008 has served for the Kremlin as the Sword of Damocles over Tbilisi’s foreign policy.
The post-Soviet hegemonic stability in the South Caucasus has been, therefore, more volatile compared to earlier periods. The occasional military escalations between Baku and Yerevan along with the war in Georgia (2008) manifested such sporadic disruptions of the regional security order. However, in both cases, Russia succeeded to act as hegemon by recovering ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan and putting a de-fact veto on Georgia’s foreign policy.
Even during the full-scale military operations between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, known as the Second Karabakh War, Russia appeared as the only mediator with enough authority to bring the sides to ceasefire. Deploying its troops to the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan under the name of peacekeepers, Russia managed to complete its mission of deploying its troops on the soil of each of the three countries of the region.
Hence, in the post-Soviet period, Moscow managed mostly to preserve the security order in the region under hegemony of Russia. The Kremlin, however, has had to swallow growing security ties between Azerbaijan and Turkiye, but reacted more calmly to these ties as Baku demonstrated deference to Russia’s core national interests and concerns in the region.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow’s dominance established over the South Caucasus in early nineteenth century came under jeopardy for the third time after the post-WWI and early years of the post-Soviet periods. Facing an unexpected military debacle in Ukraine and massive economic troubles at home, Russia encounters challenges against its dominance in the South Caucasus, the region that has overarching geopolitical significance for Moscow.
This time the challenge to Russian power originates in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as Georgia avoids provoking Moscow and seemingly drifts away from its pro-Western aspirations. On the one hand, Azerbaijan criticizes Russia’s support to the separatist regime in the Karabakh region, tries to end the mission of the peacekeeping contingent, deepens its strategic alliance with Turkiye, increases its contributions to the energy security of Europe, and relies more on the EU’s mediation in the peace process with Armenia. On the other hand, Armenia defies Russia’s authority by distancing itself from Russia’s military bloc, builds closer relations with the European countries and the United States and invited a mission of the EU to monitor the security situation along Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. The Kremlin reacted rather furiously to these developments and blamed the West on attempts to squeeze Russia out of the South Caucasus.
To the disappointment of Moscow, this signifies a decline in Russia’s dominance over the region, although it is now premature to say how this process will go on and whether this will end up with Russia’s withdrawal from the South Caucasus. The decline of Russian influence over the region creates a period which can be seen through the lens of the power-transition theory of international relations. According to this conceptual framework, the decline of the dominant power might lead to a conflict or war with the rising power as the latter becomes more assertive seeking to challenge the dominance of the declining power. This can be observed also as the emergence of a power vacuum in the respective region which other powerful state(s) might try to fill in which again leads to a conflict or war between the dominant power and rising power(s).
The present situation in the South Caucasus, thus, resembles the period described by the power transition theory. Other external powers, including Iran, Turkiye, the EU and United States try to benefit from Russia’s diminishing influence over the region and increases their power. Particularly, for Iran, the “encroachment” of the external players into the South Caucasus is inadmissible. The Russia-Ukraine war complicated the regional geopolitics for Iran as the European Union (EU) and United States have increased their influence in the South Caucasus by boosting their mediating role in the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process, effectively sidelining Russia therein and deploying a monitoring mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the aftermath of Prague summit (October 6). Against this background, increasingly closer relations between Israel and Azerbaijan and the emerging possibility of the formation of Israel-Turkiye-Azerbaijan trilateral cooperation platform further enrage the Iranian authorities.
Tehran is determined to use military and other instruments to fill in the power vacuum emerges in the region in the wake of Russia’s decline. In this endeavor Iran effectively enjoys the support of Armenia whose leaders try to use the Iranian card against their common enemies of Azerbaijan and Turkiye. The recently growing ties between Armenia and Iran have provided Tehran a useful chance to get into the South Caucasus more assertively and form a de-facto alliance against the two Turkic states. Towards this end, Yerevan and Tehran are clearly building up their cooperation in various spheres, including military and economy. Apart from aiming to boost bilateral trade turnover from $700 million to $3 billion, Iran is also discussing supplying combat drones to Armenia.
That said, the hegemony Russia acquired over the South Caucasus in early nineteenth century is fading and with it the security order it built in the region is rapidly eroding. This process might be accompanied by violent conflicts and wars amongst different regional and external actors. For now, the major security threat to the regional stability is Iran and the alliance it builds with Armenia.
Untouchable U.S. troops in Lithuania
This month the Pentagon has been accused of blocking the sharing of U.S. intelligence with the international criminal court (ICC).
Located in The Hague, Netherlands, and created by a treaty called the Rome Statute first brought before the United Nations, the International Criminal Court operates independently.
Most countries on Earth – 123 of them – are parties to the treaty, but there are very large and notable exceptions, including Russia and the U.S.
It is interesting, that the Biden White House and State Department have been a proponent of cooperation with the Hague-based ICC, as a means of holding Russian forces accountable for war crimes, but the Defense Department is firmly opposed on the grounds that the precedent could eventually be turned against U.S. soldiers.
U.S. opponents of the court argued that it could be used to prosecute U.S. soldiers fighting in foreign wars, despite safeguards written into the statute stating that the international court would only have jurisdiction if the courts in a suspect’s home country were unwilling or unable to prosecute.
Anyone accused of a crime in the jurisdiction of the court, which includes countries that are members of the ICC, can be tried. Though the court tries people, not countries, and focuses on those who hold the most responsibility: leaders and officials.
And the Pentagon has really something to fear.
The U.S. has sent some 20,000 additional troops to Europe as part of an effort to bolster NATO’s defenses, assist Ukraine’s war efforts and deter Russia. This includes additional deployments to Poland, the Baltic countries and to Romania, bringing current total to more than 100,000 service members across Europe.
According to David Vine, professor at the American University in Washington, DC, the U.S. had around 750 bases in at least 80 countries as of July 2021. The actual number may be even higher as not all data is published by the Pentagon.
The U.S. government attracts people to the Armed Forces by introducing a large number of various benefits and preferences to military personnel.
Since the support for military is very popular in the United States, congressmen and senators, gaining political benefits, actively vote for further expanding the aid package and legal guarantees.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, “We recognize the service and sacrifice of our military and their families, and dedicate resources, services, policies and programs to support the more than 2 million uniformed service members and 2.6 million family members across the globe.”
Thus, the law on civil assistance for military personnel protects them from prosecution during military service and for a year after its completion, as a result of which a soldier cannot be evicted from his home or bankrupt. The law also limits the interest rate for the military – its size when buying a home, a car or using a credit card cannot exceed 6%.
The authorities also provide tax incentives to organizations that employ the wives of military personnel, and oblige them to provide them with a 30-day free vacation once a year. In addition, for family members of military personnel there is a discount in grocery stores, as well as preferential travel on public transport, on trains and on airplanes. In addition, active military personnel and veterans are entitled to lifelong medical insurance, through which they can pay for any medical care.
As for those U.S. troops who serve abroad, there are agreement on status of U.S. troops and their families. Such documents make American soldiers just untouchable. Thus, Lithuania and the U.S. signed agreement on status of US troops and their families in 2017. The agreement gives the U.S. jurisdiction over crimes committed by its military personnel. The document also gives the U.S. the right to use certain military facilities.
Though all these deployments raise separate questions about the nature of the various missions. American troops are often accused of serious human rights abuses.
These cases very often are hidden from the society and known only among those who are close to the Armed Forces. Nobody in the U.S. cares of Baltic States’ local population which expresses dissatisfaction or even scared of foreign soldiers in their territories. The U.S. authorities made their best to protect its military personnel. The Lithuanian authorities in their turn do nothing to protect population from foreign soldiers’ criminal behaviour.
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