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The Liberal Project and Its Relevance for Armenia

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Photo: Levon Vardanyan/Unsplash

The relatively recent (2017) Hollywood blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok has a memorable scene of the heavenly kingdom of Asgard collapsing. A happenstance witness to and participant in Ragnarok, the last battle between the good and the evil, King of Asgard and God Thor, finds himself unable to avert this disaster. Suddenly, when everything seems hopelessly lost, he has a revelation: “Asgard’s not a place, it’s a people.” And he sets about evacuating his people from the collapsing city.

At this point, Thor recasts himself from an aloof autocratic deity into a dynamic liberal leader. Certainly, he is no neoliberal postmodernist of the early 21st century, but rather a classical liberal of the late 18th century. He realizes that the main value of his kingdom is not the land, the state, property or mystical artifacts, but its people. Men and women. Old and young. All of them together and each of them individually. If the people remain, a new Asgard could be built, even at the other rim of the universe.

The latest events in Armenia are certainly not a Ragnarok yet, nor a trump of doom or the harbinger of a collapsing Armenian state. But amid the recent military defeat aggravated by a calcifying divide in the Armenian society coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and an economic recession, the situation in the country is extremely precarious. It is no longer merely a question of whether Nikol Pashinyan will stay in power, or what the relations between the civil authorities and the military leadership will look like, or in what terms the status of Nagorno-Karabakh will be ultimately defined. The question now concerns the future of the Armenian statehood, it being more serious than ever before in the 30 years of Armenia’s post-Soviet history.

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the prospects of Armenia embarking on a path of liberal democracy have lost much of their lustre over the last couple of years. Many hopes had been pinned on Nikol Pashinyan’s tenure, but it brought Armenia neither the promised prosperity nor stability. Pessimism, social apathy and cynicism, as well as disillusionment with democratic institutions and the path of democratic development, are therefore on the rise. It is no accident that calls for transferring power to a technical “government of national accord” are increasingly heard in Yerevan. Some even go on to suggest it would be a good idea to bring the military into power for a while.

Yet, is there a viable alternative to the liberal project in Armenia? From the traditional Realpolitik perspective, Armenia is doomed. The country, with a population of about three million and a territory smaller than the Moscow Region, has no significant oil and gas reserves like the neighbouring Azerbaijan, nor does it have fertile lands like Georgia, Armenia’s another neighbours. The geopolitical situation is dispiriting for Armenia: the country does not even share a common border with Russia, its ally, and is surrounded by an openly hostile alliance of Turkey and Azerbaijan as well as two rather ‘backhanded’ partners, Iran and Georgia. Going back to the “pre-Pashinyan” era would mean Armenia having to get used to the role of a humble petitioner camping on the doorsteps of the faraway Kremlin offices year in and year out.

The liberal democratic paradigm is Armenia’s best chance for a future. The first, most urgent and most important task is not to merely reform the political system but to design a new national idea that would lead society away from the pernicious temptations of endless irredentism. Obsessive ideas of continuing the confrontation with Azerbaijan and taking back the lands lost last year must become a thing of the past.

Like Asgard, Armenia is not a place, it is a people. Apart from the three million Armenians living within their nation-state, the notion also includes some seven or eight million that live beyond its borders, yet do, in some manner, feel that they belong to the “Armenian world.”

Armenia’s main comparative advantage has always been its diaspora, something unique its neighbours do not have. Until now, the diaspora has treated Armenia much in the same way that successful young urbanites tend to treat their aging parents who live out the rest of their days in a ramshackle village somewhere far away: Money transfers (sometimes quite generous), trips home to soak up the nostalgia, traditional “kebab and cognac” get-togethers, declarative support for the “Armenian cause”—little else ties the diaspora with its historical homeland of global “Armenian-ness.”

If Armenia reverts to the “pre-Pashinyan” era, even this level of support will be very hard to sustain. And transforming the country into an attractive investment hub for the diaspora’s substantial funds will be nigh on impossible. Radically new development priorities are required to transform Armenia from the eternal “relation in need” into a country of opportunity. A country that lives not only by its past, but also by its future. Public discussions should focus on the continued search for such development priorities, rather than on some chimeric scenarios of “taking Artsakh back.”

Today, Armenia’s technocrats speak of the prospects of developing the country as a transportation and logistics corridor for the South Caucasus. However, here the country will face tough competition in the form of alternative transit projects, including those that involve the trans-Caspian route. There are plans to transform Armenia into a giant Caucasus mining farm, but Georgia has already beaten it to the punch. Armenia could still become a regional leader in developing the “green energy” sector, especially since there are many areas that abound in sun and wind and are short on rain and snow, areas with high mountains and unpopulated plateaus.

In any case, Armenia is now facing the task of reviving its scientific and technological potential, dramatically improving the quality of its “human capital” and warding off the emerging provincialism. All this requires the public spirit to be radically “demilitarized,” while preserving democratic institutions and procedures as a sine qua non.

The liberal project for Armenia by no means demands that Yerevan turn away from Moscow and pin all its hopes on the West. However, Russia–Armenia relations should be built as relations between two equal partners rather than on the basis of patron-client ties. Being a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Armenia may just become the principal venue for Russia to promote its multilateral developmental projects in the Caucasus, involving Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Given its unique geopolitical situation, Armenia could also claim the role of a bridge between Russia and Europe, between the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union.

Armenia’s potential role in long-term “Greater Caucasus” integration projects is no less important. Given the region’s ethnic and religious diversity, lasting peace and development in the Caucasus are only possible if it is gradually and steadily transformed from a set of states into a community of regions (which, historically, the Caucasus has nearly always been). This single ecosystem could also include Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and other historically shaped areas with their unique identities.

Such models do exist in today’s world. For example, the Swiss Confederation, where individual cantons are not united into a Swiss Germany, a Swiss France and a Swiss Italy, while enjoying considerable autonomy within a single ecosystem. Clearly, conservative groups among the national elites will be against such a “Caucasus of the regions,” being mostly interested in exerting as much control as possible over their states, both recognized and unrecognized. They are in no way interested in delegating even some of their powers to the regional level. Therefore, a stable and harmonious ecosystem in the Caucasus will hardly emerge in the near future. The Swiss Confederation did take a few centuries to emerge, though.

From our partner RIAC

Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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

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

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

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

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

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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