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Biden and the US policy towards the South Caucasus

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Joe Biden’s administration will face multiple foreign policy issues which diminished America’s global position in the last four years. Among them will be a radically changed geopolitical landscape in the South Caucasus as a result of Russia’s growing military presence. Georgia, as the only pro-Western state, will be a focus for US policy, but it will also require reinvigoration of bilateral ties.

Considering Joe Biden’s political background and his recent statements, the US’ foreign policy will likely be based on pursuit of global leadership, defense and promotion of the liberal international order and promotion of democracy.

On a geopolitical level, prevention of balance of power across the Eurasian landmass will be key. The 2017 national security strategy (NSS) document and the 2018 national defense strategy (NDS) document will remain a cornerstone of Washington’s foreign policy. This would involve a greater focus on the great power competition with China, Iran and Russia.

It would also mean that unlike the Trump administration, under Biden the support for American military alliances and partnerships across the globe will increase, which includes support for NATO. Indeed, in contrast to Trump, who called NATO “obsolete”, Biden will try to amend the situation by emphasizing the role of the alliance in global affairs.

The support for NATO will also mean there will be more tools for deterring Russia in Eastern Europe (potentially including the South Caucasus). This would fit into Biden’s intention to build a tougher stance on Russia. He has been calling Russia an “opponent” and a “threat”. In early 2020, Biden wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs that “to counter Russian aggression, we must keep the alliance’s military capabilities sharp, while also expanding its capacity to take on nontraditional threats, such as weaponized corruption, disinformation, and cybertheft.” Related to the support for NATO Biden will also differ from the Trump government in his determination to improve faltering transatlantic ties damaged under Trump.

On South Caucasus

Though the role of the South Caucasus has never been high on agenda of the US administrations, a radically changed geopolitical landscape, namely, Russia’s new military presence in Azerbaijan as a result of the second Karabakh War, could warrant a bigger American trade and security involvement in the region.

The US’ general foreign policy approach will see little change as continuity in America’s approach toward the South Caucasus has been manifested since the 1990s. The question will be about whether the US could increase its projection of power through reconsideration of aspects of its policy established over the past several years.

The overall geopolitical context might not be entirely congenial for the South Caucasus as the US is decreasing its military presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan and has been inward-looking in the past several years. It could take some time for the US to rewind its active involvement in Georgia and the South Caucasus at large. Moreover, China’s economic and military growth will continue to attract much of Washington’s attention. Greater competition between China and the US will follow, which will require attention from US policy-makers and national resources to be dedicated to the Indo-Pacific region.

Though Georgia fears that in the long term, the recalibration of US foreign policy could spell difficulties, since Tbilisi’s aspirations for NATO membership and therefore national security, have traditionally hinged on close relations with Washington, for the next four years, some basic US interests in Georgia will persist. 

One of the imperatives of the US policy since 1990s was to empower successive Georgian governments to use the country’s geographic position as a nodal point in the nascent South Caucasus energy and transport corridor. The effectiveness of the Georgian corridor also underpins a bigger vision, i.e., the Trans-Caspian Corridor, which, under improved circumstances, could turn into a geopolitical reality with Turkmen gas reaching the European market.

In the next four years, we could also see Georgia having to choose between two techno-economic blocks which are being created across Eurasia: one associated with the US, another increasingly with China. Georgian politicians will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope, keen not to draw ire from China, while preserving ties to the West. But as America’s stance on China hardens, it will be more difficult to maintain this balance. Thus, for the Biden administration and its foreign policy, another crucial issue will be to navigate Georgia so as to ensure it avoids entanglements with China and sticking to Western standards and trade practices.

Recommendations

Beyond these basic US foreign policy approaches towards the region and Georgia in particular, a number of improvements could be made. It is in America’s national interest to establish trade and investment initiatives as the forefront of US policy toward Georgia and perhaps even the wider Black Sea region. This could involve Washington enhancing trade ties, encouraging foreign direct investment, and fostering domestic reforms in Georgia. As an example, several days ago, the US embassy in Tbilisi announced that “To help Georgia’s private sector recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Government will fund foreign investment advisory firm OCO Global to identify and promote high-value investment opportunities in the Georgian economy and raise awareness about the country’s economic potential among major international investors.” In a longer run this could lead towards a prosperous regional network of market-based economies that can serve as an antidote to the practices often associated with non-democratic states.

To be successful the policy needs to reflect a deeper change in the US trade approach as Washington’s protectionist trade policies in the recent years have hurt the Black Sea and South Caucasus regional economic ties.

But perhaps the biggest change the Biden administration could unveil is a free trade agreement (FTA) with Georgia. As a country with vital ports, roads and railway infrastructure, FTA with Georgia would give American businesses greater access to the otherwise geographically closed region. And this does not only involve the three South Caucasus states, but Central Asia too as trans-Caspian shipping increases and deeper contacts between the two regions is being established.

Thus, there is a set of policies which will remain unchanged under the new US president, but there is also a wide range of issues where Washington could work on to improve its position, which has been rather static over the past several years. Bigger issues such as growing Russian military presence and Chinese economic activity could serve as a necessary motivator, but there also needs to be a reassessment of some aspects of US approach to Georgia and the region overall.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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