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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

Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus

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The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.

The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.

It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.

The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.

The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.

In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.

Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.

Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.

With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.

The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.

The Western stance

The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.

Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.

Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.

The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.

The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.

Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.

Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.

Georgia’s position

Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.

Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.

The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”

The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.

Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.

But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.

The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.

Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.

After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.

Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

Author’s note: first published in dailysabah

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An Impending Revolution

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

Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.

The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.

The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.

On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.

European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.

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The 44-Day War: Democracy Has Been Defeated by Autocracy in Nagorno-Karabakh

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The people of Artsakh are seen as pro-Russian. Is this Pro-Moscow assessment of people of Artsakh accurate, and why Russian peacekeepers are welcomed in Nagorno-Karabakh?

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The Republic of Artsakh and its people developed the nation’s democracy for approximately three decades. Back in 1991, Artsakh held a referendum on its independence, as well as democratic elections under a barrage of Azerbaijani rockets. The people of Artsakh accomplished this step by themselves, being convinced that without freedom of the individual, there is no freedom for the country. The Artsakh National Liberation Movement was nothing but a struggle for freedom and the right to decide one’s own destiny.

The development of democracy was not easy for a war-torn country with ade-facto status, limited resources, lack of institutions, combined with the threat of resumption of hostilities and the temptation of using elements of authoritarianism in governance as well as in the public mood. 

Nevertheless, during the last three decades, the people of Artsakh have managed to develop working democratic institutions, ensure political pluralism, and form effective human rights institutions. The vivid examples thereof are the 2020presidential elections held on a competitive basis, a 5-party Parliament, and the constitutional mechanisms for the separation of powers.

It is noteworthy that the full spectrum of democratization in Artsakh has been carried out by the country alone, without the direct support of international governmental and non-governmental organizations, and despite the numerous appeals by the civil society of Artsakh made to them.

However, Artsakh’s democracy has been highly regarded not only by parliamentarians, politicians and experts who have visited Artsakh, but also by the international organizations, such as Freedom House in its Freedom in the World annual reports. In these reports Artsakh is on the list of partly free countries, making progress in ensuring political and civil liberties each year, while Azerbaijan holds on to a not free status all the while making regressive steps in every aspect.

The people of Artsakh believed that the development of democracy would inevitably strengthen the position on unimaginability of any vertical relationship with dictatorial Azerbaijan. The people of Artsakh believed that they were keeping the eastern gate of the European civilization and its set of values. The people of Artsakh believed that those in West involved in the conflict settlement process, particularly France and the United States would view the Artsakh struggle with an understanding that it was created by their examples and ideals of freedom.

And what did the people of Artsakh receive as a result of believing in the West? They faced a new war and a new bloodshed unleashed by the same Azerbaijan. They also faced a harsh reality in the form of gross violations of human rights, war crimes and destruction of their cultural heritage. The principle of equality and self-determination of peoples in general, and the notions of freedom and human rights in particular completely collapsed before the eyes of the people of Artsakh.

One doesn’t have to be a military expert to understand that Artsakh, a small country with limited resources and capabilities, could not on its own resist Turkey-backed Azerbaijan for long, especially given the direct involvement of Turkish command staff and thousands of mercenaries from the Middle East terrorist organizations in the conflict, and the use of advanced military technology likethe banned weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

What did the people of Artsakh need to prevent this war? The answer would have been the de jure recognition of Artsakh that at least would have dampened the possibility of a new war, put an end to the century-old conflict, and establish long lasting peace and security in the region.

Instead of recognizing their unalienable right to self-determination, a new war was imposed on the people of Artsakh. As a result of this war, the people of Artsakh were left with a devastated country, thousands of dead and wounded compatriots, a new generation of refugees and IDPs, dependence on the peacekeeping mission for physical security, a “neither peace nor war” situation, as well as an uncertain future.

Russia wanted to come to Karabakh and so it did. Russia is in Artsakh not because the people of Artsakh were dreaming of weakened sovereignty while they continued to think of what West would do, but Russia came to Artsakh because Russia, unlike the West, acts rather than speaks. When on the one hand there are European and American concerns expressed in empty statements and on the other hand there are Russian peacekeepers and tanks, there is no room left for thinking long.

Let’s look at the values in which European Union, United States, Canada, and the rest of the so called “civilized world” believe in: the ideas of human rights and freedoms which they been advocating for years across the world. Now let’s try to see what is left from them all. Maybe once can find an inspiration for writing new books and sharing ideas about the future of humanity vis-à-vis the civilized world. Perhaps, in the European Union, in the United States, in Canada, and in the rest of the so called “civilized” world, their population may enjoy the ideals of human rights, but the people living in small and unimportant countries are often deprived of such rights. Perhaps the Western intellectuals and authors will write books on how the West left the faith of the people of Artsakh to the hands of the terrorists while empowering the Turkish-Azerbaijani dictators with their indifference and inaction. Indeed, for the West, the lives of the people of Artsakh are not valuable just because they are from a ‘gray’ zone, because they live in a country that doesn’t officially ‘exist’. These discriminatory phrases are definitions time and again used by the Western officials. It is what it is. The West, however, should not forget to celebrate Zero Discrimination Day and quote articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Later, when Turkish expansionism and terrorism will knock on the Western doors, the West will remember those unimportant people from an unrecognized country that absorbed the first blow. At that juncture, the West will also remember how it admired the people of Artsakh’s endurance and collective resistance, but at the same time left them alone in their fight against terrorism and modern military technology. Perhaps, for the West it is just like watching a fun action movie with popcorn and cola.

Having 193 or 194 member-countries in the United Nations (UN)as a result of recognition of Artsakh would not change the existing international legal order, however, it could serve a textbook example for rising democracies and a lesson for the dictatorships and international terrorism. By not recognizing the right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination, the West is burying the concepts of human rights, freedoms, and democracy, thereby paving a way for the next military-political adventures of dictators. The West should decide. The longer the West spends on thinking without any concrete action, the further the region will move away from it.

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