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Karabakh: A Delicate Matter

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nagorno karabakh

On November 9, Russia signed a peace statement with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, ending the most recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Overall, Moscow emerged as the clear winner by ending hostilities, introducing peacekeepers, and maintaining its central role in the vital Caucasus region. However, Russia’s direct intervention in the Karabakh conflict with the November peace statement also bears echoes of much earlier history.

Echoes of the Past

On July 24 (August 4) 1783, at the southern Russian fortress of Georgiyevsk, representatives of Russian Empress Catherine the Great and Georgian King Erekle II concluded a historic agreement. The Treaty of Georgiyevsk established the eastern Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti as a Russian protectorate, signaling the beginning of Russia’s southward expansion into Transcaucasia.

The move infuriated neighboring Persia, which had long seen Kartli-Kakheti as its dependency. Moreover, Russian commitment to the Georgian kingdom proved inconsistent. In September 1795, Persian Shah Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, seeking to re-subjugate the recalcitrant Georgians, marched on Tiflis (Tbilisi) and ruthlessly plundered and destroyed the city, massacring its inhabitants.

By the time the Russians had received word of what had transpired, it was too late. Catherine was furious and belatedly launched a campaign against Persia. However, her death in 1796 precluded her from taking further action. Meanwhile, Agha Mohammad, who was scheming to remove the Christian Georgian and Armenian inhabitants from the Caucasus, was assassinated by two servants in Shushi (Shusha), in Karabakh, in 1797.

Amid these developments, it became apparent to St. Petersburg that in order to adequately defend Kartli-Kakheti and guarantee the safety of its inhabitants, it needed to establish a firm foothold in the kingdom. In 1800, Russian Tsar Paul I annexed Kartli-Kakheti and, in 1801, Tsar Alexander I incorporated it directly into the Russian Empire. At the time, the eastern Georgian kingdom’s connection to Russia was tenuous. Only a single road—the Georgian Military Road—connected Russia to its new Caucasian acquisition.

Over the next several decades, Russian military action in the Caucasus would focus on working to secure Kartli-Kakheti. To the west, it expanded into Imereti, Abkhazia, Mingrelia, and Guria. To the east, it marched on Ganja (later known as Elizavetpol) and Baku. To the south, it snatched up Karabakh and, at the end of the 1820s, Yerevan, Etchmiadzin, Nakhichevan, and the Talysh region. To the north, in a long-running campaign that lasted throughout the 19th century, Russia absorbed the North Caucasus.

The Path Forward

Like Kartli-Kakheti over 200 years ago, Karabakh provides Russia with a platform to solidify its position as the ultimate power broker in the Caucasus. It also presents Moscow with both new opportunities and dilemmas. Now that it has established a firm foothold in Karabakh with its peacekeepers, its next step will be to focus on enhancing the security of the area. In this regard, Russia’s greatest assets are the Armenian inhabitants of Karabakh. Without these inhabitants, the presence of the Russian peacekeeping force and by extension, Russian control over Karabakh, becomes less tenable. Therefore, Moscow aims to ensure that Karabakh Armenian refugees who fled during the war return to their homes, in order for the peacekeeping mandate to be a success. The Karabakh Armenian authorities have already begun to work with Russia in this regard by providing incentives for refugees to return.

However, in order to make the refugees feel safe and to ensure a steady return, Moscow may have to consider the option of expanding its zone of control to encompass parts of Karabakh that are now either controlled by Azerbaijan or will soon be under Azerbaijani control. These would include the district of Hadrut and the city of Shushi (Shusha), as well as two districts located outside the boundaries of the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast—Kelbajar and Lachin. The latter two mountainous districts are bounded by the high Mrav mountains to the north, Armenia to the west, Russian-guarded Karabakh to the east, and the Lachin corridor to the south.

The addition of these areas to the Russian zone of control would firmly ensure the safety of the Karabakh Armenian refugees, encouraging many more to return. It would also strengthen Russia’s diplomatic position as a neutral arbiter and further enhance its physical position in the region, securing key supply and communication lines. After all, as the historical lessons of Kartli-Kakheti demonstrate, it is extremely difficult to maintain control of a region through a single road, whether it be the Georgian Military Road, or the Lachin Corridor. Moreover, Russian control over Kelbajar would effectively resolve the new border dispute over the Sotk gold mine.

Finally, rather than concede the “Caucasian Jerusalem” of Shushi (Shusha) to either Armenian or Azerbaijani control, Russia may consider maintaining it as a “neutral city.” Similarly, in the ideal Russian scenario, the final status of Karabakh itself would be determined in a neutral manner. If the Kremlin genuinely seeks a just and lasting solution to this protracted problem, then it may leave Karabakh outside of both Armenian and Azerbaijani control. Instead, it could maintain it as an independent entity controlled by Russian peacekeepers, allowing Armenians and Azerbaijanis to co-exist and live together again. Historical and cultural monuments—both Christian Armenian and Islamic—would be restored and preserved under Russian protection. These would include the Dadivank and Amaras monasteries.

The road to such a peace is certainly not easy, but Moscow understands that decisive steps must be taken to ensure (1) that any peace is lasting peace, (2) that its position as a regional arbiter is preserved, and (3) that a balance of power and parity between the sides is restored. If the current statement is left without significant revisions, then it will ultimately serve to undermine both the peace and Russia’s position in the region. In order to maintain its viability, major revisions and enhancements to the pre-existing November statement in the interests of the Russian state are necessary, for the sake of the long-term peace and stability of Transcaucasia, as well as the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples.

Serious compromise on the part of both Yerevan and Baku is essential for the peace over Karabakh to be a genuine and durable one. Haughty declarations of “total victory” from the Azerbaijani side, accompanied by provocations, cannot be considered a blueprint for a lasting solution. At this moment, it is absolutely critical for Moscow to establish stability and parity between the sides.

After over 200 years, Russia’s commitment to the Caucasus remains firm. The region is a natural fortress protecting Russia’s southern flank, and thus, it falls squarely into the category of “vital interests.” Therefore, from Moscow’s point of view, peace in Karabakh also means peace in Dagestan, Stavropol, Krasnodar, and other neighboring republics and territories of the Russian state. To quote Comrade Sukhov’s line from a famous Soviet film, “the East is a delicate matter”. More specifically, in today’s context, Karabakh is a delicate matter, especially for the Kremlin. It is now up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to keep the peace in this strategically vital part of the former USSR.

From our partner RIAC

PhD candidate in History at The Ohio State University in Columbus, focusing on Russia, Eurasia and Caucasus, MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

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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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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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