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Zangazur corridor will stimulate regional cooperation

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The trilateral declaration signed between the Presidents of the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia on 10 November of 2020 created substantial cooperation opportunities for all regional countries. The signing of the declaration ended “The Second Karabakh War,” which began on 27 September, continued for 44 days and led to the restoration of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Declaration envisions not only cessation of military operations but also restoration of all transport connections in the South Caucasus which had been restricted because of the occupational policy of Armenia for about three decades. For this purpose, the 9thclause was included in the agreement, which states that all economic and transport links in the region will be restored and Armenia guarantees the safety of the transport links between western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic through the Zangazur corridor.

After the signing of the declaration in November, the next meeting between the leaders of Azerbaijan Russia and Armenia took place in Moscow on January 11 within the framework of the Trilateral Summit. The unblocking of transport communications was the main discussion topic of the summit. Under the new statement signed by the participants of the summit, a trilateral working group co-chaired by the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian deputy prime ministers was established to implement provisions of the 9th clause of the November statement. In the subsequent meeting after the summit, the working group formulated the list of main activity directions arising from the implementation of the November statement, establishing railway and automobile communication as a priority, and also determining other directions agreed upon among the three leaders.

From the cooperation and transportation point of view, the creation of the Zangazur corridor is the most important element of the signed documents between Azerbaijan, Russia and Armenia and it serves the interests of all regional countries, including Armenia. Therefore, Azerbaijan is decisively committed to the creation of this corridor and restoration of transport links as it considers cooperation to be the main tool for creating durable peace in the region. Regarding this position, in the press conference with the local and foreign media representatives, held on February 26 in Baku and dedicated to the 29th anniversary of the Khojaly genocide committed by the Armenian forces, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said:“Today we are discussing the issue of permanent, sustainable peace and security in the region. The only way to do this is through collaboration.  Our goal is to restore communications already in a trilateral manner – together with Armenia and Russia, create the Zangazur corridor and remove all transport obstacles”.

The creation of the Zangazur corridor will add a new artery to the transportation network of Eurasia and positively affect the economic and trade relations between the regional countries. Using this corridor Turkey will get a direct land road to Azerbaijan, one of its main economic partners. This in turn will boost bilateral economic and tourism relations between them. On the other hand, the Zangazur corridor will also serve as a gateway to Central Asia for Turkey, enabling it to strengthen its economic relations with the Turkic World. Turkey is also working on a new project to connect Nakhchivan to Turkey through the Kars-Nakhchivan railway. In the next stage, the linkage of this railway to the Zangazur Corridor will give another impetus to the bilateral trade relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey.

For Russia, this corridor could become the main route for the transportation of goods to the South Caucasus and surrounding countries. Russian trains could reach the Zangazur corridor through the territory of Azerbaijan and then be directed to Armenia, Turkey, Iran and Southern Asian countries. Along with positively affecting the trade relations with Turkey, this corridor will also provide an alternative route for Russia to reach the markets of the Middle East through the territory of Turkey. Besides, this corridor has special importance for Russia in terms of getting a direct land route to Armenia, one of its main allies in the region. Because of the political problems with Georgia, Russia was not able to use the land routes of Georgia for transportation of goods to Armenia. Now it will be able to overcome transportation obstacles in the economic relations with Armenia.

The creation of the land link between Russia and Armenia will also facilitate the economic problems of Armenia in reaching the markets of Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. The absence of a land route to the main trade partner has negatively affected Armenia’s foreign economic relations and its economic security. Zangazur corridor also will create the opportunity for Armenia to get a railroad link to its other trade partner, Iran. Due to the lack of necessary financial resources and inability to attract foreign investments, Armenia was not able to build a railroad to Iran from its territory. Now, cargo transportation between Iran and Armenia could be implemented through the new corridor.

However, Armenia could benefit from the mentioned advantages of the Zangazur corridor only if it chooses to prefer regional cooperation over the aggressive policy against its neighbors that it has been implementing for almost three decades. If Armenia wants to end its economic blockade and obtain economic development opportunities, the only way is to join regional cooperation. Otherwise, the same economic situation accompanied by high unemployment, emigration and poverty will remain in Armenia, eliminating its long-term economic development perspectives.

The establishment of the Zangazur corridor and restoration of all economic communications will also increase the attractiveness of the region for foreign investors. Despite the implementation of several important energy and transport projects in the South-Caucasus for many years, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has negatively affected the business environment and left Armenia aside from the regional projects. Now, as the conflict ended, regional countries have the opportunity for the full use of the economic potential of the region, to attract additional investments to different project implementations, which was not possible due to the conflict.

All the opportunities that the Zangazur corridor offers for the regional countries show that the creation of this corridor will lead to the expansion of regional transport networks and will stimulate mutual economic relations between the regional countries. It will also increase the importance of the region within the international transport corridors such as the North-South International Corridor and Middle Corridor. Along with economic benefits, the expansion of economic relations because of the corridor will also substantially contribute to the maintenance of sustainable peace and security in the region. Sustainable economic development and peace, in turn, will prevent the spread of harmful nationalistic ideas and the creation of new conflicts in the future.

Orkhan Baghirov is a leading research fellow in Baku based think tank named Center of Analysis of International Relations. He is PHD candidate in Public finance and fiscal policy. His areas of research include regional and international economic relations.

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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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