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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

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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Eastern Europe

No borders to struggle against COVİD-19: Solidarity of humanity can help the situation

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Just as COVID-19 does not recognize borders, it is necessary to build the struggle against it on the basis of organization, solidarity, mutual assistance, the use of positive experience, and it should not recognize borders.

2021 was a year of continued struggle against the pandemic and of the emergence of new variants of the virus. The South Caucasus also was not away from COVID-19 and its variants. Azerbaijan continued its effective fight against COVID-19, making the most of the lessons of previous years and the opportunities for rapid response. The vaccination campaign, which was conducted as well as in highly developed countries, is a real sign of performance in this sector. During the year Azerbaijan gave humanitarian and financial aid to more than 30 countries in order to fight the pandemic, made a voluntary financial contribution of 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization and freely donated 150,000 doses of vaccine to four countries.

The newly appointed head of the EU delegation to Azerbaijan, Petr Michako, also stressed the high level of vaccination in Azerbaijan. The capital – Baku is working closely with The European Union in this direction. The European Union and the World Health Organization have supported the fight against COVID-19 in Azerbaijan with the necessary medical equipment. Medical personnel in Azerbaijan have been repeatedly provided with respirators, goggles, transparent masks and overalls for this purpose. All equipment sent for the safety of medical personnel fighting the virus on the front lines was tested for compliance with quality and safety standards. Kestutis Jankauskas, Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, said that his organization, as a “Team Europe”, is helping to prevent, detect and combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Healthcare workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which increases their risk of contracting the virus,” he said. -They are our heroes and they need protection. “As part of the Team Europe initiative, the EU has launched an individual COVID-19 package with a budget of around € 32 million to support urgent needs and socio-economic recovery.

In 2021, Azerbaijan achieved major progress in combating the pandemic and the global economic crisis and in mutual cooperation. As a chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Azerbaijan put forward an initiative to establish a UN High-Level Panel on global restoration after COVID-19. The member states of the Non-Aligned Movement took a unanimous decision to extend Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the movement for another year, until the end of 2023.

Azerbaijan proposed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement on equal and universal access to vaccines for all countries and the resolution was passed unanimously in March 2021. This resolution showed Azerbaijan’s stance on the increasing vaccine nationalism in the world and became an international success.

As a result of all measurements now the number of people receiving the second,third and further doses of the vaccine in Azerbaijan has exceeded 40 percent. Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the continent where the number of virus infections is rapidly declining. Azerbaijan is doing its best to observe this trend around the world. Solidarity can help the situation.

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Eastern Europe

2021: the year of political bankruptcy of Lithuanian government

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Ramūnas Karbauskis, Lithuanian businessman and politician, Chairman of the Farmers and Greens Union severely criticized  Lithuanian authorities’ actions.

The Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (Lithuanian: LVŽS) is a green-conservative and agrarian political party in Lithuania. Following the 2020 parliamentary election, the LVŽS has been in opposition to the Šimonytė Cabinet.

Ramūnas Karbauskis did not even try to find softer words to describe on Facebook the results of the past year. He noted that “2021 Lithuanians will remember as the year of bankruptcy of government, the reluctance and inability to speak, which caused and deepened health and illegal migration crises.” According to him, 2021 is marked as “a scaling and segregation of society, demolition of diplomatic roads, cutting not only with one of the biggest economies in the world – China, but even with allies and neighbors.”

He paid attention to the fact, that current negative economic tendencies were the direct results of shortsighted government actions.

To his mind, “2021 will also be remembered as the year of emptying the state budget, gold government purchases, including golden houses for illegal migrants. The government actively pushed the decriminalization of drugs, the measures to promote the trade of alcohol. He also said, that the end of the year was crowned by the Belarusian fertilizer transit scandal, but Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis and Transport Minister Marius Skuodis responsible for it remained in their posts.

Thus, he is absolutely sure, that overall, this year has only strengthened the impression that “the government is not working for the Nation, not for its benefit.”

Ex-Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkas has also criticized the permission to open a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius, saying that the conflict with China has led to huge loses. In his words, “that recognition should have, first, been done by the world, the major countries that have influence and their decision should provide results, not a small Lithuania.”

Today, when these loses have become more and more destructive for the Lithuanian economy, Ausrine Armonaite, the Economy and Innovation Minister says that “the European Union should be more united in its response to China’s pressure on Lithuania.” It turned out, that the mistake was made by Lithuania, but the EU for some reason should solve this problem. Once again Lithuanian authorities shift responsibility to others.

It seems as if Lithuanian officials have chosen the way of confrontation not only with China, but with neighbouring Russia and Belarus. Thus, they continue to increase defence budget of the country instead of allocating additional funds to economically fragile spheres. 2021 defence budget initially amounted to 1.028 billion euros. However, the government allocated additional 20.7 million euros during a budgetary review. 2022 defence budget will be increased to 1.298 billion euros.

The government has not learned how to place political accents correctly. Thus, the lack of coordination and common understanding in the ruling circles lead to political mistakes and the loss of the country’s image in the international arena. Lithuania’s behaviour has led to the shaping of ridiculous image as a country that takes on much more powers than it can afford.

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