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The Liberal Project and Its Relevance for Armenia



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

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Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus



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



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



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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