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The Caspian Sea as Battleground

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Populated at the time by fluent Hebrew speakers, the Israel desk of Armenia’s foreign ministry waited back in 1991— in the immediate wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union—for a phone call that never came. The ministry was convinced that Israel, with whom Armenia shared an experience of genocide, were natural allies. The ministry waited in vain. Israel never made the call. That shared experience could not compete with Armenia’s Turkic nemesis, Azerbaijan, with which it was at war over Nagorno Karabakh, a majority ethnic Armenian enclave on Azerbaijani territory.

“The calculation was simple. Azerbaijan has three strategic assets that Israel is interested in: Muslims, oil, and several thousand Jews. All Armenia has to offer is at best sev¬eral hundred Jews,” said an Israeli official at the time.

Azerbaijan had one more asset: close political, security, and energy ties to Turkey, which was supporting it in its hostilities with Armenia. As a result, the pro Israel lobby and American Jewish organizations with longstanding ties to Turkey for years helped Ankara defeat proposals in the U.S. Congress to commemorate the 1915 mass murder of Armenians. That has changed in recent years with strains between Turkey and Israel becoming more strident over issues such as the status of East Jerusalem, held by Israeli since 1967’s Six Day War, the Palestinian question, Iran, political Islam, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s touting of implicitly antisemitic conspiracy theories.

What has not changed is Israel’s close ties to Azerbaijan that puts it on the same side as Turkey in renewed animosity between Armenia and Azerbaijan following the former’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War. This is a reflection of the Caspian basin’s inextricable links to the greater Middle East’s myriad conflicts and the fluid and fragile nature of regional alliances, partnerships, and animosities across the Eurasian landmass. Writing in the previous issue of Baku Dialogues, Svante Cornell emphasized this important point, noting the “gradual merger of the geopolitics of the South Caucasus and the Middle East” and going so far as to say that Azerbaijan, in particular, is “more closely connected to Middle Eastern dynamics than it has been in two centuries.”

Turkey, which has opportunistic partnerships with Russia and Iran, both littoral Caspian states that pushed for a ceasefire but were seen as empathetic to Armenia, and Israel, with its close ties to Moscow, rank among Azerbaijan’s top arms suppliers. (A top aide to President Ilham Aliyev confirmed that the Azerbaijani military was using Israeli and Turkish‑made killer drones in the Second Karabakh War that began in late September.)

Straddling Divides

If Israel and Turkey seem strange bedfellows, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates appear to be in a bind. The two Gulf states have invested in Azerbaijan to counter Iranian influence in the Caspian but seem inclined to favour Armenia because of their animosity towards Turkey, which they accuse of interfering in internal Arab af­fairs. Saudi Arabia signalled where it stood by backing Armenian calls for a ceasefire within the first two days of the re­newal of hostilities and giving voice to Armenia rather than Azerbaijan’s side of the story in state‑controlled media.

By the same token, Israeli ties to Azerbaijan, which has worked hard to deepen its ties to Iran, potentially put it at opposite ends with the UAE and Bahrain with which it recently established diplomatic relations in order to strengthen their alliance against Iran and Turkey. Nonethe­less, this may be one instance in which finding Gulf states and Israel on different sides of a divide may work in the Jewish State’s favour. Is­raeli sources suggest that the Second Karabakh War potentially creates an opportunity for backchannelling in which Israel could try to drive a wedge between Turkey and Iran.

“The arms shipments to Azerbaijan and the flare‑up in Nagorno‑Karabakh is a reminder that the periphery alliance may not be entirely dead,” said prominent Israeli commentator Anshel Pfeffer in early October 2020. Pfeffer was referring to the Israeli policy prior to the opening of relations with Arab states to maintain close rela­tions with its neighbours’ non‑Arab neighbours in the absence of official Israeli ties to its Arab neighbours.

With ethnic‑Azerbaijanis, who account for up to a quarter of Iran’s population and are influential in the country’s power structure, Tehran, often perceived as empa­thetic to Armenia, walked a fine line calling for a ceasefire in the Second Karabakh War and offering to me­diate an end to the fighting. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is of ethnic‑Azerbaijani decent. Iranians in nearby border areas stood on hilltops to watch the fighting in the distance. Security forces clashed with demonstrators in various cities chanting “Karabakh is ours. It will remain ours.” Iran, in line with international law, has long recognized Nagorno‑Kara­bakh as being a part of Azerbaijan. Yet, the demonstrations serve as a reminder of environmental pro­tests in the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan at the time of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that often turned into manifestations of ethnic‑ Azerbaijani nationalism.

Naval Posturing

Even before the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted on the north­western inlands of the Caspian, Iran had stepped up its naval pos­turing on the basin’s southern coast. Analysts like Jamestown’s Paul Goble and Russian conservative writer Konstantin Dushenov, as well as Iranian naval commanders, raised the specter of enhanced U.S. sanctions‑busting military cooper­ation between Moscow and Tehran in the Caspian and beyond.

These and other analysts—in what appeared to be a repeat of unconfirmed reports of closer Chinese‑Iranian cooperation that stretched credulity but circulated for an extended period and were discussed widely in policy circles— suggested that Russia and Iran were planning extended military collab­oration, including naval exercises in the Caspian as well as in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

The analysts, including the afore­mentioned Dushenov, who was reportedly jailed a decade ago on charges of antisemitic incitement, claimed further that Iran had of­fered Russia naval facilities at three ports—Chabahar, Bander‑Abbas, and Bander‑Busher—on the Is­lamic Republic’s Gulf coast, a move that would violate its foundational principle of no foreign presence on its soil. It would also contra­dict Iran’s proposal for a regional Middle Eastern security architec­ture that would exclude involve­ment of non‑regional powers.

Nevertheless, raising the spectre of a more asser­tive attitude, senior Iranian com­manders stepped up visits to naval facilities and a shipyard on Iran’s Caspian coast where a destroyer is being repaired and modernized. The officials, including Iranian navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, his deputy, Admiral Habibullah Sayari, and Admiral Amir Rastegari (who re­portedly oversees naval construc­tion), stressed the importance to Iranian national security of the Cas­pian on tours of facilities on the coast.

They also urged closer coopera­tion and joint naval exercises with other littoral states like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. “The Caspian Sea is the sea of peace and friend­ship and we can share our military tactics with our neighbours in this region. We are fully ready to expand ties with neighbouring and friendly countries,” Khanzadi said.

The Iranian moves are about more than only strengthening the country’s military presence in a basin that it shares with Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. A 2018 agreement among the littoral states, made necessary by the collapse of the Soviet Union, barred entry to the basin by military vessels of non- littoral states but failed to regulate the divvying up of the sea’s abundant resources.

Closer naval ties with Caspian Sea states would allow Iran to leverage its position at a time that Central Asians worry about greater Chinese se­curity engagement in their part of the world. The engage­ment threatens a tacit under­standing in which Russia shouldered responsibility for regional security while China fo­cused on economic development. Increased Chinese engagement raises the spectre of the export of aspects of the People’s Republic’s vision of the twenty‑first century: an Orwellian surveillance state amid widespread anti‑Chinese sentiment in countries like Kyrgyz­stan and Kazakhstan as a result of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north‑western province of Xinjiang.

Hard hit by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, Cen­tral Asians are torn between wanting to benefit from Chinese willingness to reinvigorate projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative and their concerns about the way that enhanced Chinese influence could impact their lives. Popular senti­ment forced Kyrgyzstan early on in the pandemic to cancel a $275 million Chinese logistics project. The Kazakh foreign ministry sum­moned the Chinese ambassador to explain an ar­ticle published on a Chinese website that asserted that the Central Asian country wanted to return to Chinese rule. Kazakh media called for China and the United States to leave Kazakhstan alone after the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that the coronavirus had originated in U.S.‑funded laborato­ries in the country.

Iranian efforts, boosted by the Indian‑funded deep sea port of Chabahar that serves as a con­duit for Indian exports to Central Asia, benefit in the margin from big Asian power rivalry, has opened the region, including the Caspian basin, to greater competition with the Islamic Republic’s chief Gulf opponents, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Iran hopes that geography and Central Asian distrust of past Saudi promotion of its ultra‑conservative strand of Islam will work to its advantage. That hope may not be in vain. Tajik foreign minister Sirodjidin Muhriddin, despite past troubled relations with the Islamic Republic, opted a year ago to ig­nore a Saudi invitation to attend an Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference in the kingdom and visit Iran instead.

Iran has since agreed to in­vest $4 billion in the completion of a five‑kilometer‑long tunnel that will link the Tajik capital of Dushanbe with the country’s sec­ond‑largest city, Khujand. That, however, has not put a halt to recurring strains. In September 2020, Iran summoned the Tajik ambassador in Tehran in protest against the broadcast of an an­ti‑Iranian documentary on the Central Asian’s state’s state televi­sion channel.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have fared somewhat better in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Saudi utility developer ACWA Power, in which China’s state owned Silk Road Fund has a 49 percent stake, and the UAE’s Masdar or Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company agreed to invest in Azerbaijani renewable energy projects. ACWA Power also signed agreements in Uzbekistan worth $ 2.5 billion for the construction of a power plant and a wind farm.

Perhaps Iran’s strongest trump card is that by linking the Caspian to the Arabian Sea it can provide what the Gulf states cannot: cheap and short access to the Indo‑Pacific. Already, Iran is written all over Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s transporta­tion infrastructure plans. A decree issued in late 2017 identified var­ious corridors as key to his plans, including the extension of a rail line that connects Uzbekistan’s Termez to Afghanistan’s Mazar‑i‑Sharif to the Afghan city of Herat from where it would branch out to Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, Chabahar; and Bazargan on the Iranian‑Turkish border.

“As Tashkent seeks to diversify its economic relations, Iran con­tinues to loom large in these calcu­lations. For Uzbekistan, not only do Iranian ports offer the shortest and cheapest route to the sea, but sev­eral future rail projects cannot be accomplished without Tehran’s ac­tive participation,” wrote Central Asia analyst Umida Hashimova in Jan­uary 2020.

Iran, together with Russia and India, has been touting a sea and rail hook‑up involving Iranian, Russian, and Indian ports that would link South Asia to northern Europe as a vi­able alternative to Egypt’s Suez Canal and constitute an addition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In July 2020, Iranian and Indian officials suggested the route would significantly cut shipping time and costs from India to Europe. About a month earlier, Senior Indian Commerce Ministry official B.B. Swain said the hook up would re­duce travel distance by 40 percent and costs by 30 percent.

The Iranian‑Indian‑Russian push is based on a two‑decades old agreement with Russia and India to establish an International North‑South Transport Corridor (INSTC) as well as more recent free trade agreements concluded by the Russia‑dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with Iran and Singapore.

The agreements have fuelled Central, South, and Southeast Asian interest in the corridor even if the EAEU itself groups only a handful of countries: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, another Caspian Sea state. Exploiting the mo­mentum, Russia has been nudging India to sign its own free trade agreement with the EAEU while the grouping is discussing an ac­cord with ASEAN, which, as it hap­pens, has just signed a Regional Comprehensive Economic Part­nership with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

If successful, the Iranian push, backed by Russia and India, would anchor attempts by Iran to project itself—as opposed to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates— as the key Middle Eastern player in Russian and Chinese ploys for regional dominance. Leveraging geography and Central Asian dis­trust of past Saudi promotion of its ultra‑conservative strand of Islam, Iran expects that kick­starting INSTC will give it a signif­icant boost in its competition with Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the region’s hearts and minds. INSTC would also strengthen Iran’s po­sition as a key node in BRI on the back of a two‑year old rail link be­tween western China and Tehran that runs across Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

The INSTC would link Jawaharlal Nehru Port, India’s largest container port east of Mumbai, through the Iranian deep‑sea port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, which is funded by India to bypass Pakistan, and the Islamic Repub­lic’s Caspian Sea port of Bandar‑e‑Anzali to Russia’s Caspian harbour of Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga and onwards by rail to Europe. The Iranian push was boosted in by an agreement in March 2020 be­tween Russia and India that would enable the shipment of goods through the cor­ridor on a single invoice, a requisite for shippers to persuade banks to issue letters of credit.

History Repeats Itself

Invoices and letters of credits may not make the difference as long as Iran asserts itself, and Russia seeks to fend off a Turkish challenge in the South Caucasus, its Chechen Muslim soft un­derbelly, and potentially among Russia’s Turkic Muslim minorities, as well as Central Asia’s former So­viet republics, territories Moscow has long considered as its preserve.

“If it turns out that […] we just hum and dither and do not force our southern neighbour to swallow his insolence along with his own teeth […]; and if [it turns out that] we take sixteenth place in Azerbaijan, while Erdogan is number one; then what is our posi­tion in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, in […] Ukraine (con­sidering Crimean Tatars and mil­itary supplies)? And what will our position be in Tatarstan, in Bashkiria, in Yakutia and Altai, where Turks also live? This is not theory, it is reality,” said in October 2020 prominent Russian commentator and head of the Moscow‑based Middle East Institute Yevgeny Satanovsky.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have fared somewhat better in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Saudi utility developer ACWA Power, in which China’s state owned Silk Road Fund has a 49 percent stake, and the UAE’s Masdar or Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company agreed to invest in Azerbaijani renewable energy projects. ACWA Power also signed agreements in Uzbekistan worth $ 2.5 billion for the construction of a power plant and a wind farm.

Armenia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of an emboldened, Ankara‑backed Azerbaijan is likely to turn the Caspian basin into one more battlefield in multiple power struggles across the greater Middle East aimed at shaping a new regional order.

The Azerbaijani and Turkish sense of moral and military victory, coupled with Erdogan’s assertive re­gional policies, bodes ill for the need for Azerbaijan to balance its success with gestures and magnanimity that will rebuild confidence in Azerbaijani assurances that the safety, security, and rights of the Armenian population in Nagorno‑Karabakh will be safeguarded amid their fears of re­newed displacement or even ethnic cleansing. It also throws into doubt longer‑term relations between Russia and Armenia, where many feel betrayed by Moscow’s refusal to come to Armenia’s aid under a defense pact between the two coun­tries. (Russia maintains a couple of military bases in Armenia under the pact.)

Turkey’s inevitable role in any ne­gotiations to resolve the Armenian‑ Azerbaijani conflict adds to the bal­ancing act that Russia and Turkey are performing to ensure that their alliance is not undermined by mul­tiple regional conflicts in which the two countries back opposing sides.

Russia is likely to worry about pan‑Turkish and nationalist voices demanding that Turkey capitalize on Azerbaijan’s success to increase its influence in Central Asia, a re­gion of former Soviet republics with ethnic, cultural, and linguistic links to Turkey.

The pan‑Turkic daily Türkiye—a newspaper with the fourth largest circulation in Turkey—urged the government to leverage the Azerbaijani victory to create a military alliance of Turkic states: “The success in Karabakh has brought once again to the agenda one of the West’s greatest fears: the Turan Army. Azerbaijan, which has become stronger with the military training, joint drills, and support with armed drones that Turkey has provided, has broken Armenia’s back. This picture of success that has appeared has once again brought to life the hopes concerning a Turan Army, that would be the joint mili­tary power of the Turkic states,” Türkiye said. (“Turan” is the term used by pan‑Turkists to describe Turkic Central Asia.)

So far, Turkey’s bet that history would repeat itself appears to be paying off. The South Caucasus is the latest former Soviet region, after political crises in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan and the electoral defeat of pro‑Russian forces in Moldova, in which Moscow’s ability to main­tain stability is being challenged.

For now, Erdogan has strength­ened his position in what will lead inevitably to a rejiggering of the balance of power in the Caucasus between not only Russia and Turkey, but also Iran, at a time that the trade‑off for Israeli support of Azerbaijan is believed to be the Jewish state’s ability to operate sur­veillance of the Islamic republic. “The message sent from Tel Aviv to Tehran is very clear: ‘Syria is my backyard, and I will be in Azerbaijan, your backyard,’” said Sadik Öncü, a Turkey‑based in­ternational relations analyst, refer­ring to Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al‑Assad.

Author’s note: The story was first published in Baku Dialogues

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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