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Eastern Europe

Russia Sees an Opportunity in the Troubled Georgian Politics



As Georgia plunges into yet another phase of internal political instability, ties with Western partners deteriorate, and America is increasingly looking away from the wider Black Sea region, Moscow sees an opportunity for rapprochement with Tbilisi.

Since the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit Georgia’s NATO/EU membership prospects have never been high. The limits were significant ranging from internal to foreign pressures. Russia’s pushback was decisive. Its military footprint in Abkhazia and South Ossetia effectively precluded Tbilisi from forging full-scale institutional ties with the Western alliances as a militarily congested South Caucasus made it highly unlikely that NATO would enter the fractured region.

Thus, Russia primarily benefited from its military preponderance. Presently, however, beyond the increased military footprint in the region following the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, the Kremlin has other advantages. The growing troubles in America-led world order, decreasing momentum of liberal internationalism, and US’s shift from western Asia to the wider Indo-Pacific region create favorable conditions for Russia to project its power more effectively along its borders. The Black Sea region and the South Caucasus are likely to experience firsthand the effects of the shift in America’s foreign policy.

This wider perspective helps us understand that Russia plays a long game. The West’s power in the lands what once constituted the Soviet space could not have been sustained continuously. Geography hampered greater engagement. Russia must have waited the Western dominance out. In the third decade of the 21st century it is obvious Moscow’s vision is partially realized. To be sure, this does not mean the collective West is altogether withdrawing from the wider Black Sea region and the South Caucasus. Security cooperation will continue as will the economic ties. The vision of the South Caucasus and Georgia as a corridor linking the Caspian basin to the Black Sea and eastern Europe will persist. Nevertheless, the willingness and readiness to engage the region to prevent potential security threats and Russia’s geopolitical moves will considerably decline.

Russia is also closely watching the developments in Georgia where over the past several months ties with the Western partners have notably soured. All point to the long-term process i.e., irrespective which party wins the elections the official Tbilisi is likely to reconsider some aspects of its foreign policy. As against the argument, feverishly upheld by the political opposition in Georgia that the ruling party Georgian Dream is reversing the country’s pro-Western path, the unfolding changes might be much subtler.

We might be dealing with the pursuit of a more balanced foreign policy approach. This involves building more equidistant external ties with both regional actors and global powers. For Georgia the fixation on the West increasingly no longer provides expected results –EU/NATO membership. This however does not mean Georgia will be abandoning its pro-Western stance. A multi-vector foreign policy would allow Tbilisi to have more space for maneuvering. A pro-Western stance will be complementary with greater ties with Turkey – a power that is seeking greater influence in the South Caucasus. China might be yet another natural option for Tbilisi. Beijing can invest billions in strategic places. Georgia is one such area and the case of Anaklia deep sea port showed that Black Sea ports are on Chinese radar. Deeper cooperation with the Persian Gulf countries, India, Japan, and Iran could provide significant economic stimulus for Georgia’s small and fragile economy.

In the age of the multi-polar world order building as diversified foreign ties portfolio as possible is a natural development for many countries, small and big. Indeed, Moscow sees that the pursuit of more balanced foreign policy is not only characteristic to Georgia but is an increasingly common foreign policy approach for many countries. Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, and Russia view balancing as a necessity and the requirement of the present age.

Therefore, the negative trend in the ties between Georgia and its Western partners creates favorable geopolitical situation for potential improvement of Georgian-Russian relations. Some initial signals were already sent by Moscow in July when Russia publicly made an offer of possibly restoring flights between Russian and Georgian cities. Then in early August the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow was ready to restore relations with Tbilisi “to the extent to which the Georgian side is ready for.” Though Tbilisi has not been particularly enthusiastic about Russian proposals, Moscow’s moves show there is a widening space for Russian diplomacy trying to leverage the growing contention between Tbilisi and its Western partners and the mounting internal pressure on the GD-led government.

It remains to be seen how far Moscow will go with its efforts. The timing of the proposed rapprochements shows that the Kremlin is closely watching the development in Georgia as the country is faltering from one crisis to another. Efforts to normalize ties follow the moment of intense infighting among the Georgian parties, which makes it highly likely that similar diplomatic moves will be made in the future especially as Georgia is bracing for the internal elections.

The Limits for Improvement

Whatever the level of rapprochement Tbilisi and Moscow will be able to reach, the limits both countries face will remain in place. The increase in construction of various military outposts along the demarcation line around the Tskhinvali Region (South Ossetia) by Russian troops results in tens of kidnappings and a generally highly insecure environment where Russian and Georgian forces face each other in close proximity. As Russia’s military moves in the South Caucasus show (for instance, peacekeeping force stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh), the military build-up (drills, opening of outposts, bases etc.) will continue in coming years. The growing emphasis on military tools transforms the South Caucasus into a militarily congested region, which fits into Russian long term plans of creating a strong disincentive for the West to offer NATO/EU membership to Georgia. This serves as a reminder for the Georgian public regarding the constrains potential rapprochement with Moscow holds.

Georgia’s NATO/EU aspirations will remain a major stumbling block to potential improvement of bilateral ties as the prevention of Georgia’s NATO/EU aspirations remains at heart of Russia’s long-term outlook for the South Caucasus. Another reason for limited improvement is Russia’s continuous recognition of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region as independent entities. Reversing the 2008 decision will damage Russia’s standing in the region, while for Georgia an extensive rapprochement will mean glossing over Moscow’s territorial aggression and effective control over the two territories.

With this in mind, politicians in Tbilisi and Moscow could only hope for a limited bilateral progress in the future. Local elections in Georgia are unlikely to change the dominate societal attitude toward Russia. Constrains and mutual distrust will continue to dominate the relations.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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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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