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Eastern Europe

Azerbaijan and Turkey’s genocidal assault against Armenians

Image source: Azerbaijan Ministry of Defence

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From September 27 to November 10, the Armenian Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) in the South Caucasus was exposed to a genocidal assault at the hands of Azerbaijan and Turkey. The entire world watched while the aggressors committed many crimes and indiscriminately shelled the indigenous lands of Armenians.

Turkey also sent Azerbaijan mercenaries from Syria with known affiliations to Islamic radical groups. This was confirmed by a recent United Nations report, as well as by the testimonies of many Syrian mercenaries and reports by international media outlets.

Together with Azerbaijani military forces, they perpetrated war crimes against Armenians. They murdered civilians, injured journalists and targeted homes, forests, hospitals, churches and cultural centers, among other non-military targets. They used white phosphorus and cluster munitions in violation of international law. At least 90,000 Armenians were forced to abandon their ancestral lands in Artsakh as a result.

The war finally halted after 45 days as a result of the Russia-brokered agreement imposed on Armenia.

According to the agreement, there would be “an exchange of prisoners of war and other detained persons and bodies of the dead.” However, even after the signing of the agreement, multiple videos emerged showing Azeri military members and their partners beheading, mutilating and dismembering captured Armenian civilians and prisoners of war. These gruesome crimes were filmed and proudly posted on social media by Azerbaijani soldiers themselves.

On December 7, for example, Azerbaijanis uploaded yet another video of a beheading on one of their many Telegram channels. In the video, a soldier of the Azerbaijani special forces is seen beheading an elderly Armenian civilian while his fellow soldiers videotaped the war crime. The elderly Armenian man was begging for his life.

As these ISIS-like crimes were being committed against Armenians, Turkish and Azerbaijani soldiers participated in a military victory parade in Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku on December 10. The parade, organized to celebrate the countries’ joint “military victory” over Artsakh, was attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

During the “victory parade,” Erdogan delivered a speech in which he praised Enver Pasha, one of the planners of Ottoman Turkey’s 1914-1923 Christian genocide, which cost the lives of around 1.5 million Armenians and at least one million Greeks and Assyrians. The Ottoman military march was also played during the event.

Erdogan referred to the 1918 Islamic Army of the Caucasus created by Enver Pasha and led by the Ottoman commander, Nuri Pasha. The Islamic Army of the Caucasus was responsible for the massacres to eliminate the non-Muslim population of Baku, mainly Armenians. Erdogan said:

“Today is the day when the souls of Nuri Pasha, Enver Pasha and the brave soldiers of the Islamic Army of the Caucasus are blessed.”

Erdogan also confirmed Turkey’s support for the recent Azeri assault against Armenians. According to the official website of Turkey’s Presidency, “Turkey, with all its institutions and organizations, supported Azerbaijan’s fight from the very beginning, underlined President Erdoğan, further stressing that it will continue to stand by the brotherly Azerbaijan with all its capabilities.”

During his speech Aliyev claimed that the Armenian capital of Yerevan, Armenia’s Lake Sevan and the Syunik (Zangezur) region in southern Armenia are “historic lands of Azerbaijan.”

This was not the first time Aliyev referred not only to Artsakh but also to the Republic of Armenia as “Azerbaijani lands.” In 2018, for instance, Aliyev referred to the same Armenian regions as “historic lands of Azerbaijan.” “Azerbaijanis’ return to those territories,” he added, “is our political and strategic goal, and we need to work step-by-step to get closer to it.”

Meanwhile, the Russia-brokered agreement appears not to provide security for Artsakh. On December 11, Azerbaijan violated the agreement by launching an attack against Artsakh’s Hadrut district. Aliyev, however, blamed Armenia for the attacks, threatening to “break its head with an iron fist” and added, “This time, we will destroy them completely.”

Dr. Anahit Khosroeva, a genocide scholar and historian based in Yerevan, said:

“The recent Azeri attack against the villages in Hadrut breaks my trust in the agreement. Russian troops did not immediately stop the attack. People in Artsakh’s capital, Stepanakert, think that the safety of their city is at risk, as well. There is massive diplomatic uncertainty concerning the agreement. How effective it will be and how committed Russian troops will be to protecting the security of Artsakh remains to be seen.”

Khosroeva also criticized the dominant media narrative concerning the war against Artsakh:

“The international media adopted this incredibly misleading narrative which tries to put equal blame on ‘both sides’. Can they not see the difference between the perpetrator and the victim? Who started the war and who committed an ethnic cleansing campaign is obvious: Azerbaijan and Turkey. Yet, much of the international media stuck to this unethical and false narrative and whitewashed Azerbaijani crimes, which misinformed the world community and has cost so many innocent lives.

“For 45 days during the war, our cities were bombed incessantly. But the international community did not care. They just watched as Azerbaijan, Turkey and jihadists massacred our people. At the very least they should now try the perpetrators in international courts for their crimes.”

Khosroeva noted that the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect is clear about the definition and punishment of war crimes:

“The UN says that lists of war crimes can be found in both international humanitarian law and international criminal law treaties, as well as in international customary law.

“According to the 8th article of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, several acts constitute war crimes such as ‘willful killing; torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments; willfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health; extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly; compelling a prisoner of war or other protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile power; willfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial; unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement; and taking of hostages.’ Azerbaijan and Turkey committed all these and more against Armenians during and after the war.

“Given Erdogan’s statements about Enver Pasha, it seems that Erdogan pursues an annihilationist policy that aims at completing the Armenian Genocide which his Ottoman ancestors started.”

Journalist Lika Zakaryan was in Stepanakert during the war and reported on it daily. “During the 45-day war,” she said, “people in Artsakh expected the world to do something to stop Azerbaijan and Turkey – to take concrete actions but not to stay silent, and stop calling on ‘both sides to de-escalate.’ They waited for the world to make the perpetrator and aggressor, Azerbaijan, stop its attacks. But it never happened.”

Zakaryan is also concerned about the agreement:

“I do not think it can provide full security for Artsakh,” she said. “No peacekeepers can provide it when in some places there are only 30 meters between Artsakh and Azerbaijan. I think the biggest risk concerning the agreement is the giving of Karvachar and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan, which turns Artsakh into an enclave.

“Azerbaijan remains a major threat to us. People here are scared of a second Armenian genocide, an even more suffocating blockade, and a new war. And until Azerbaijan is brought to account for its war crimes, these possibilities will remain.”

Turkey and Azerbaijan’s genocidal assault against Armenians are mainly propelled by two reasons:

1) The traditional Turkish/Azeri genocidal hatred against Armenians and Christianity, and

2) Turkey’s goal of pan-Turkist expansionism, which Turkey also calls the “Red Apple” doctrine.

One month before Azerbaijan and Turkey attacked Artsakh, the Director of Communications of the Turkish presidency, FahrettinAltun, shared a video of what he called the “Red Apple” anthem on his Twitter account on August 24. He wrote:

“For us, the Red Apple means great and strong Turkey. It is the sacred march of our nation that made history from Manzikert to July 15. The Red Apple is a great plane tree that provides shade for the downtrodden to refresh. The Red Apple is what the entire humanity has longed for from Gibraltar to Hedjaz and from the Balkans to Asia.”

The video presents the Turkish military and Erdogan as heirs to the medieval Turkic Seljuk dynasty, as well as to the Ottoman Empire.

According to the pro-government newspaper Hürriyet:

“The Red Apple image, one of the most important symbols of Turkish nationalism, symbolizes a goal and purpose for Turkish states. It refers to a place to be reached, or a town to be conquered. It sometimes expresses the ideal of establishing a state, sometimes the ideal of world domination, and sometimes the ideal of Turkish unity…. Red apple is a symbol of jihad carried out especially towards Western countries during the Ottoman period.”

The “Red Apple” image is believed to have first emerged among the Central Asian Turks. According to the anti-government newspaper Sözcü

“As a trait of the Turkish state tradition, Red Apple represents the idea that the Turkish state should rule over other states and nations across the world. After oral literature, it [i.e., the Red Apple doctrine] was first passed to written sources through the Oğuzname [the name of several documents about the myths of the Turks]. According to a Turkish tradition, which is also mentioned in the Oghuz and Göktürk [Turkic tribes in the Central Asia] inscriptions, it is believed that the Turkish khan [ruler] is the khan of not only the Turks but of the whole world and that conquests were made in accordance with this principle.

“They [Turks] believed that God entrusted the world sovereignty to the Turks. It is seen as a very effective motif in the state tradition of the Huns, Göktürks and Seljuks [Turkic tribes from Central Asia]. According to Oğuzhan [the king of the Turkic people in Central Asia], the sky is the tent of the state and the sun is the flag. This idea included not only Turks’ thoughts of state administration, but also the very old principles of the Turkish religion.”

Turkic peoples are not natives of Asia Minor or the South Caucasus. They are originally from Central Asia and invaded the region starting in the eleventh century. Armenians, however, are an indigenous people of the land and have resided there for millennia. Throughout the centuries, however, Armenians have been assaulted by Turkic peoples several times. Among the greatest of these assaults were the 1071 Seljuk Turkic invasion of the Armenian town of Manzikert in the Greek Byzantine Empire and the 1914-23 Christian genocide by Ottoman Turkey.

According to “Red Apple” ideology, the presence of Armenians in Artsakh and Armenia is viewed as a barrier preventing a Turkic Islamic corridor among Azerbaijan, Turkey and other Turkic Muslim countries.  Hence, Turkey and Azerbaijan appear to aim at erasing Armenia from the map. To this end, they commemorate the perpetrators of the Christian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey and claim the historically Armenian lands, including Yerevan. The Turkish government remains proud of its history, filled with many crimes against Armenians and other Christians, and thus continues committing further crimes against the descendants of the genocide survivors.  

However, Erdogan’s regime will not stop at Artsakh, as Turkey’s imperialist agenda does not only target Armenians. Erdogan has publicly announced his regime’s neo-Ottomanist goals for years. If Turkey and Azerbaijan achieve their expansionist goals in the South Caucasus, they will continue targeting and trying to expand their influence and even territories through parts of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, which the Ottoman Empire occupied for centuries. Turkey already occupies northern Cyprus and northeast Syria, which the international community ignores. And reports have recently surfaced that Turkey is allegedly preparing to send jihadist fighters from eastern Syria to Jammu and Kashmir to help Pakistan.

The unprovoked aggression by the Turkish-Azeri armies against Armenians once again demonstrates that the Turkish state sees the Armenian Genocide as “unfinished business.” Enver Pasha, whom Erdogan praised in Baku, was one of the leaders of the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress, also known as the “Unionists,” who planned and perpetrated the Armenian Genocide.

Prominent sociologist OhannesKılıçdağı noted in an article he recently penned that for both the pan-Turkist ideology represented by the Unionists and the Kemalist ideology that established Turkey, wiping out Armenia remains a goal. Kılıçdağıwrote:

“For both the Unionists before Kemalism and the Unionists continuing their existence under the name of Kemalism, Armenia is a ‘road accident’ or a ‘historical accident’ that should have never happened. It was the result of an unexpected ‘last minute’ resistance of the exhausted Armenians after the genocide. I think that eliminating this road accident is still alive as a target for Turkey’s military and civilian government mechanisms.”

Given Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s hostile statements and murderous aggression against Armenians, it is not an overstatement to say that the security of the rest of Artsakh and Armenia is at risk. A full century after the Armenian Genocide, Armenians are still exposed to a genocidal assault by Turkey and its ally, Azerbaijan. And sadly, the world is still standing idly by.

About the author: Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Conservative, The Christian Post, The Jerusalem Post, and Al-Ahram Weekly. Her work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Conservative, The Christian Post, The Jerusalem Post, and Al-Ahram Weekly. Her work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism.

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Eastern Europe

Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement

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Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.

Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”

On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”

So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.

Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.

Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.

As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.

Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.

Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

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Eastern Europe

Tighter Ties with China Signal Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ukraine is eager to cut deals with China as it confronts the West’s moves to allay Russian concerns. Whether Kyiv’s moves are a sign of a larger foreign policy adjustment or just a bluff aimed to mitigate faltering ties with the EU and the US, they could beget big consequences.

‘Chinese Card’

On June 30, Ukraine touted an agreement with China, which proposes revamping the country’s decrepit infrastructure. The decision comes following a US-German resolution to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite longstanding concerns of Kyiv and other CEE nations. Yet, perhaps the biggest motivation was the growing unwillingness in the West to advance Ukraine’s NATO/EU aspirations.

The current state of affairs pushes Ukraine to find alternatives in foreign policy. China, with plenty of cash and political clout, comes as an obvious choice resulting in the signing of the bilateral agreement in June. The document outlines China’s willingness to invest in railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure across Ukraine. But otherwise, the agreement details few specifics.

The available details from the deal fit comfortably into the pattern China has been following across Eurasia. For example, China signed similar deals with Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others, demonstrating its willingness to penetrate those states’ vital infrastructure. Still, the documents can be also characterized as an umbrella agreement that serves as a roadmap rather than an accord listing concrete details and commitments.

The China-Ukraine agreement is all the more surprising as Kyiv rebuffed earlier this year a Chinese proposal to buy a Ukrainian aerospace company, Motor Sich.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons behind the rapprochement. First and foremost, it is about Ukraine adjusting its foreign policy stance to the state of economic relations. China is now Ukraine’s biggest single-country trade partner outstripping Russia and having a 14.4 percent share of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Perhaps fearful of possible Chinese countermeasures over the Motor Sich decision, Kyiv has been open to mending ties with Beijing with the June agreement.

Secondly, it paves the way for a more active role in China’s near-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims at connecting China with the European market across the heart of Eurasia. Ukraine was among the first to endorse the initiative but has avoided signing memorandums on cooperation similar to what China has done with many others.

More immediately, the tilt toward China follows Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang. While Ukraine initially joined the initiative, together with 40 other states, Kyiv abruptly changed its mind on June 24. It has been confirmed that the withdrawal followed Chinese threats to limit trade and deny access to COVID-19 vaccines for which Ukraine had already paid.

Multi-Vector Policy

Some larger geopolitical dynamics are also at play, such as Kyiv’s attempt to acclimate to the changing world order and the growing global competition between Beijing and Washington. In this environment, Ukraine might want to carve out an equidistant place between the two powers so as to avoid possible backlash from siding clearly with either of them.

As such, Ukraine appears to be embarking on a multi-vector foreign policy. It would allow Kyiv to alleviate its dependence on the West and seek lucrative economic and political ties with large Eurasian states. Put simply, relations with the West did not deliver on the expected benefits. The country was not offered NATO or EU accession, while the collective West’s consistent concessions to Russia undermine Ukraine’s interests. Ukraine has also often tended to look at China and other Eurasian powers from the ‘Western perspective’, which limited its options.

In Kyiv’s understanding, elimination of this obstructive dependence would enable it to find new partners able to bring in investments and ideally political support in multilateral organizations. China undoubtedly can be such a partner.

Kyiv’s calculations are more understandable when taken in view of its larger diplomatic readjustment in the region. For example, Ukraine recently began building closer relations with another Eurasian power in Turkey. When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul in April 2021, nascent bilateral military ties were seen as a new chapter in the countries’ relations. Most indicative of this shift, a memorandum was signed on the creation of joint defense-industrial projects, which includes joint development of unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine.

The story of Turkey could serve as a microcosm, whereby Kyiv displayed that it is more interested in balancing the pressure from Russia and mitigating the failures in its pro-Western foreign policy course. Ukraine thus foreshadowed its increasingly multi-vector foreign policy as a solution to its geopolitical problems. In Kyiv’s understanding, rapprochement with China and Turkey could mitigate threats emanating from Russia as both Beijing and Ankara enjoy closer ties with Moscow, but nonetheless consider it a competitor.

The multi-vector foreign policy for Ukraine however does not mean abandoning its pro-Western cause. It rather involves seeing its NATO/EU aspirations as complementary with the closer economic ties with China and others. It will require an agile foreign policy and leveraging the country’s geopolitical assets.

New Type of Bilateral Relations 

Ukraine’s behavior might herald the birth of what could be characterized as a Eurasian model of bilateral relations. Across the continent, the notion of traditional alliances is being gradually replaced by partnerships. Devoid of formal obligations, China, Iran, Turkey and Russia find more space for interaction and see a larger pool of opportunities across the vastness of the supercontinent. Bigger maneuverability makes their foreign policy more agile in finding a common ground for cooperation.

The Eurasian model is a byproduct of an evolving global order in which each state with geopolitical influence recalibrates its foreign ties to fit into the post-unipolar world. Russia and China officially refuse to have an alliance – indeed, they claim an alliance would undermine their purportedly benevolent intentions toward one another. More specifically, the concept relates to how China sees the future world order. It opposes alliances – the ‘relic’ from the Cold War era.

Thus, the shift in Kyiv’s foreign policy could be part of this Eurasian trend where Ukraine seeks to construct its Asia policy which would better correspond to the unfolding China-US competition, Asia’s economic rise, and most of all, the failure to become a NATO or EU member state.

Reality Check

However, closer ties with China and most of all the dependence on Beijing’s investments also involves risks. China’s infrastructure projects are mostly financed through loans, which poorer and weaker countries are unable to repay. Often, ownership of the sites ends up in Chinese hands.

Chinese involvement in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure could also risk giving control over strategic technologies to Beijing, which would be channeled to China and successfully used to advance Chinese interests.

For Kyiv, dependence on Beijing also involves risks because of China’s close partnership with Russia. Dangers could be manifested in a concerted pressure on Ukraine in international organizations, or even China heeding Russian fears and abandoning infrastructure projects which would harm Russian interests.

The June agreement is an umbrella deal that lays out the foundation for deeper cooperation, but in no way guarantees its fulfillment. This could mean that Ukraine only sought to restore worsening bilateral relations with China following the Motor Sich saga. Alternatively, Kyiv might merely be trying to raise stakes in its stagnated relations with the West and hold Washington to account, signaling that it can successfully navigate between geopolitical poles if need be. One way or another, China looks set to play a bigger role in Ukraine‘s foreign policy.

Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

Ukraine’s independence: Shaping new political narratives through art

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Ukraine’s 30th Independence Anniversary brings forth a discussion on forming a modern cultural identity in the wake of political instability.  

Despite gaining independence 30 years ago, Ukraine is still facing consistent attacks on its sovereignty, both political and cultural. From the ongoing war with Russia in Eastern Ukraine, where 10,000 people have lost their lives since 2014, down to the root of oversimplification of Ukrainian issues in the media, Ukraine’s story is often being told by opponents attempting to distort the modern Ukrainian cultural identity.

My first-hand experience working with kids at the Ukrainian warzone has taught me a deep appreciation for cultural independence. For five years together with youngsters I wrote, directed and staged a performance piece titled ‘Contact Line’ about life at the warzone and personally witnessed the huge impact of arts and culture on the kids’ lives. This experience demonstrated that for too long Ukraine has let someone else present its identity to its youth, citizens and the world.

Shaking away the Soviet legacy

There’s no denying that the Soviet Union left a lasting legacy on Ukraine. The culture of Ukraine is to this day tainted by lingering ghosts of the Soviet past. Soviet authorities vigorously supressed the development of independent cultural identities in all the member states. In Ukraine’s case, simplistic rural folklore was imposed on society as a primary culture and was a means of suppressing creative or progressive thought. National collectives and one-dimensional traditional themes were presented as the essence of Ukrainian culture throughout the 20th century. Anyone who didn’t fit the Soviet mould was eliminated. A specific term, Executed Renaissance, is used to define a generation of Ukrainian artists who were repressed by the Soviet regime for their artistic non-conformism.

It has taken decades for Ukraine to regain its cultural voice and iron out its Soviet imprint. A key concept of postcolonial theory examines the creative resistance to the colonizers’ culture and the fraught slow development of a postcolonial identity. Ukraine has been struggling through this process for 30 years. However, since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity the country has been reimagining its culture, exploring its history and reconnecting with its identity. Ukraine is now striving to be on par with Western culture by ridding itself of remaining Soviet influences. Cultural institutions previously under government control or censorship are finding an independent voice and the population is discovering that authentic artistic expression is providing hope in difficult times. 

Looking at the future

Over the past 10 years, Ukraine has witnessed a robust change in the arts sector. The cultural scene has made a significant move away from a conservative ethos to a more contemporary one. Visual arts are the most progressive form of expression in Ukraine, with cinema rapidly catching up. Ukrainian filmmakers are winning awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Ukrainian artists are receiving praise at La Biennale di Venezia. The expectation is that this trend will not only magnify in the coming years, but also position Ukrainian artists as global creative trailblazers. 

Despite ballet being an extremely politicised art form during the Soviet period, it is now going through a revival and modernisation. The Ukrainain school of ballet is gaining recognition as one of the world’s best and Ukrainian ballet dancers are headlining the top ballet companies across the globe, showcasing their immense talent and training. British audiences will have an opportunity to watch the best Ukrainian ballet dancers from the world’s top theatres come together for a one-off unique performance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on September 7th.

Georgian-American ballet choreographer George Balanchine famously said, “Ballet will speak for itself,” and the artform remains a true demonstration of the universal language of dance. The Ukrainian Ballet Gala will be a showcase of the innovation and traditions of the contemporary Ukrainian ballet school.

Global cultural promotion

In a globalised world it’s the wish of every country to promote and engage in cultural exchanges, and Ukraine is very much part of this movement. Ukraine wants to be an active player on the world stage, both politically and culturally, and to be a dynamic culture creator, particularly in Europe. Trust in soft diplomacy is growing and Ukraine’s international relations and diplomacy are benefiting from this trend. 

As a Ukrainian-born and British-educated theatre producer and director I appreciate the importance of bringing the best of Ukrainian culture to the world not just for Ukraine’s benefit, but to enrich global culture and share experiences through creative means. It is the job of people like me and my colleagues to tell Ukraine’s story through art and, thus, shape new political narratives about Ukraine internationally. We want to share our rich culture with the world and events, such as the Ukrainian Ballet Gala, are key to achieving this.

Ukrainians are now left with no choice but to stride forward – no outside force should ever again control the vibrant culture of Ukraine.

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