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Post-war Armenia: New remedies for old maladies

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՛՛The Republic of Armenia is the guarantor of the security of Artsakh՛՛,- is stated in the National Security Strategy of the Republic of Armenia updated last year. The current political realities which emerged after the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh destroyed Armenia’s security system which has lasted for more than two and half decades,thuscreating absolute uncertainty.  The current situation not only causes existentialmeances for the Armenianness of Artsakh, but also create new threats for the actornessof the Republic of Armenia for the long run. The problematic demarcation issues with the Republic of Azerbaijan, the reopenning of the regional communication routes and also the assymetric dependence on Russia create real threats for Armenia’s sovereignty. The ongoing concerns around these problems pave necessary ground for the spread of frustration in the society which is reflected in the statementscalling for deepenening integration with Russia, even worse to become a part of Russia.

Unfortunately, it is now really difficult for the Armenian side to acknowledge that the status quo had been succesfullty kept due to the fragile geopolitical equilibrium. But the reality dramatically changed in 2014-2015 when the USA started withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Middle East andshifting its attention towards the East Asia.  Moreover, the downing of the Russian fighting jet by Turkey resulted in new state of affairsin the region. This new period was symbolized for the Armenian side by the April war back in April, 2016 and then reached its peak in the recent war of 2020.  Several important traits of this new era have been either misinterpreted or ignored by the Armenian side.  The most important one is the new nature of the Russo-Turkish relations which are product of the above-mentioned events starting since 2014, which are aimed at filling the power vacuum gap in the Middle East by the Russo-Turkish tandem.

The state of the art of the Russo-Turkish bilateral relations is excellently described by th MFA of Russia S. Lavrov as ‘sui generis cooperation and competition’. Ignoring this fact and presuming that the possible war could have the repetition of the April War by its scale, and the Russian side should have been interested in the maintance of the status quo albeit deviated, speaks about the Armenian side’s underestimation of the current realities around Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider region in general. The existing consensus between Turkey and Russia over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, is obviously shaped by their attempts of redistributing the spheres of influence in the entire region thus trying to keep all extraregional actors and first of all the West out. Unfortunately, it led to devastating consequences for the Armenian side.  The geopolitcal myopia of the Armenian side resulted in the unprecedented destruction, seen last time a century ago again by the performance of the same Russo-Turkish pair, which then led to the partition and sovietization of Armenia. The claims stemming from  the Armenian side, including the ruling elite,  that the war prepration rests only with the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance and for the Russian side it was undesirable and unexpectable, causes doubt based upon the bellow-suggested explanations.

First of all, it’s necessacry to recall that the post-elections demostrations which started in Belarus, a OSCT/EAEU member state and a close neighbor of Russia, should have been worrying, if of course there were directed against the Kremlin and were sponsored by the West. And in light of these events, the opening of  so-called ”second frontier” against Russia in the South Caucasus  should have induced Russia to keep the balance in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict at any cost, at least by supporting the weaker party – Armenia- by solving the problem of supplies in advance, avoiding possible blockades of Armenia.Another  nuance which deepens the concern that the war wasn’t surprise for Russia, was the post-election revolutionary situation in Kyrgyzstan, another Russian sphere of influence, which happened in the beginning of October, when the war in Nagorno-Karabakh was at its height. Though the Kremlin-backed Russian media channels and prominent analysts were doing everything to show that there was a Western conspiracy working against Russia at the same time in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan, however in reality this anti-western paranoia doesn’t find reasonable ground as in all three dimensions Russia’s stance has strengthened in the result.

Finally, the last fragment which attracts attention, is the timing of the war. The period of presidential elections campaign of the USA, when both the ruling administration and Biden’s team were fully busy with the election preparations, and France alone couldn’t counterbalance Russia and restrain Turkey at the same time. The preelection timing was an ideally calculated as the polls of the previous period showed that Trump didn’t have chances for reelection. This fact wasn’t the most desirbale option for Russia and Turkey given the isolationist nature of Trump’s foreign policy, on the one hand, and Biden’s tough stance against Russia and Turkey on the other hand. Overall, the aforementioned developments have shaped the current state of affairs in the South Caucasus having devastating effects for Armenia. It’s out of question that Russia, possessing huge amount of resources and tools at its disposal,could react to this conflict properly in order not to harm its ally’s – Armenia’s interests,  if, of course, it was stemming from its intersts and agenda in the region. 

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian-Russian relations have evolved in a wrong way, making Armenia’s position more vulnerable and causing assymetric dependence on Russia. This has been conditioned because of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide, which have kept borders of Armenia with these counties closed. The fact of being landlocked and having 2 out of 4 borders closed, staying out of the regional economic projects and also having tensions between Iran and the West, which makes the southern border unreliable, have created favorable conditions for Russia to establish total control over Armenia, shaping that vary mindset of the Kremlin towards Armenia:Where can  they escape? (Акудаониденутся?).Moreover, after the second Karabakh war, domestic excitements, alarms and worrying in Armenia, pave the ground for the expansion of the thoughts ranging from joining the Union State of Belarus and Russia up to joining Russian Federation as one of its entities like Tatarstan or Chechnya.  This delusive and apathetic discourse, which is being encouragedboth by the Russian media channels and some pro-Kremlin politicians and parties, needs to be neutralised only by increasingArmenia’s substantiveness as a fully functional subject of Internationa law. Certainly, the economic, military and political security state should have been totally different, if Armenia’s leadership lacking legality and legitimacy, didn’t aleinate the strategically important facilities to Russia back in the beginning of 2000s.The so-called program ‘property for debt’and later deals passedalmost all major and important facilities of the Armenian economy under control of Russia. Two strategically important facilities could and today also can change Armenia’s economic, political and security environment mostly reducing its isolation and increasing prospects of economic prosperity. These are Iran-Armenia railway and Iran-Armenia-Georgia gas pipeline.

Railway

Armenia’s assymetric dependence on Russia can be solved solely based on diversification and due to involvement of other actors as well, which will expand Yerevan’s area of maneuver.  But this diversification shouldn’t be fragile as the one back in 2000s labelled as ‘assymetic complementarity’, which again emphasized the iportant role of Russia. In that concept Russia wasn’t regarded as ‘primus inter pares – first among equals’, but it can be deescribed as ‘Russia and the rest’. Given the existing complicated relations with Turkey, in the role of primary actors involved in the Armenia’s foreign policy spectrum are Iran, China and the EU. The construction of Iran-Armenia railway has huge potential to solve a few real problems. Firstly, Armenia gains stable access to the Iranian market. Then, with th already existing railway web in Iran, Armenia gains access not only to the Central Asia but also to China. On the other hand, joining the Iranian railway, Armenia reaches the Persian Gulf and Indian ocean. In the result, Armenia becomes an important connecting ring in this whole chain between the Georgian and Iranian ports securing links between the Eastern Europe and East Asia. Iran and Armenia solve their isolation problem in some extent, while China gets an opportunity to join the Eastern Europe by sea avoinding dependence on Russia. As a result, this project and its geoeconomical influence allow Armenia to increase the role of Iran and China in the regional affairs thus creating leverage for her benefit. The fact that the existing Armenian-Georgian railway works, there is a need to build up Tabriz-Yerevan section. Doubtless, this project should be substantiated economically, which will will increase Armenia’s economic attractiveness. Last year, China and Iran signed a strategic partnership agreement, which envisages 400 bln USD Chinese investment in the development of Iran’s infrastructures over the next 25 years. The railway and roads systems compose important part of this infrastructure complex. The upgrade of Iranian facilities are aimed at solving Iran’s isolation and openinng new opportunities for China. Iran’s MFA J. Zarif announced during his last visit to Armenia, that the territorial integrity of the Republic of Armenia is a red light for Iran, thus highliting the vital importance of border with Armenia. It is’ot secret that if Armenia loses its southern border with Iran, then Azerbaijan and Turkey establish land contact, which isolates Iran from the North and puts an end to the existence of the Armenian statehood in general. Therefore, taking into account security importance of railway for Iran and Armenia, as well as economic attraction for Eastern Europe and China, the question of this project should receivea majorpriority for Armenia.

Gas pipeline

The next project of strategic importance, which will change the regional politics, economy and security, is the Iran-Armenia-Georgia gas pipeline. In 2005, when the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline was in the process of negotiation, Alexander Ryazanov, a vice-president of  Gazprom, declared that if Gazprom wasn’t involved in that project, it’s uncertain where this gas would flow. Certainly, this idea should have scared Armenia’s that time administration, which not only didn’t have domestic support due to corruption and authoritarian levels, but also it [the administration] had many fears that the Nagorno-Karabakh  status quo could have been changed in favor of Azerbaijan by Russian intervention. As a result, the operation of the Iraian-Armenian pipeline alongside with other facilities, including the railway of Armenia, were passed to Russia thus trying to accomodate Russia in all possible ways. In the following years, Russian Gazprom also obtained the right to operate the whole gas system of Armenia. Moreover, in December 2013, then president Serzh Sargsyan signed an agreement with his Russian counterpart, according to which, Armenia was obliged to buy gas from Gazprom until 2043. It’s worthless to mention about legality and nonsense nature of this agreement. It’s worth reminding, that a similar gas deal with Russia cost Ukraine’s former Prime-Minster Yulia Tymoshenko 7 years in prison.

Thus, the Armenian side did everything to deprive itself of having diversified gas sources. The Iranian gas pipeline has huge potential not only to liberalize Armenian domestic market, establishing fair competition, but also to provide Armenia with transit fees increasing economic attractivenessof Armenia. The Iranian gas pipeline has great potential to change the energy market of Georgia as well as reducing its dependence on Azerbaijan. Moreover, given the EU depdendence on Russian gas, it’s logical to have the Iranian gas pieplines reached to Europe crossing the Black Sea. Initial destination can be Romania. First of all, given its geographical proximity with Ukraine and Moldova, these countries may solve their gas dependence problem on Russia.On the other hand, the end destination of the pipeline can be France, which can regain its balance vis-a-vis Germany. In addition, this project may attract Turkmenistan’s attention as well, as it receives an alternative channel for the TransCaspian pipeline.

Overall, this ambitious project will solve Armenia’s and Georgia’s energy, economic, political security issues, reducing their  vulnerable  position in the region. It will change Russia’s stance in the region, thus changing also its foreign policy behavior, perception of Armenia and Georgia as well.  Armenia will solve the asymmetric devastatingdependence problem and also will have a chance to break Turkis-Azerbaijani isolation. With this project, Islamic Republic will recieve a chance to connect with Europe and to break thr isolation, which is ncessary for for the EU an Iran.  Finally, the European Union can get a free hand vis-a-vis Russia.

I am a Brussels-based independent analyst covering the South Caucasus, EU-Russia, EU-Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Eastern Partnership. I am also a policy advisor with strong interest in European Public Affairs in the areas of Tech adn start-ups, Large-scale infrastructures, energy and associations. I am holding MA in EU Studies from the College of Europe, Belgium.

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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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