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Shifting Geography of the South Caucasus

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One year since the end of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war allows us to wrap up major changes in and around the South Caucasus. Most of the changes discussed in the scholarly works so far focused on the role of Turkey and Russia. The shifting geography of the South Caucasus, however, has been disregarded.

In many ways, the war accelerated the pre-existing trends, but also initiated new developments. The first and foremost change concerns geography. The South Caucasus has been historically dominated by neighboring states. Whether it is the Sasanian and Byzantine empires in late antiquity or later Ottoman and Persian states, the region was exclusively subject to one or two powers. The idea is that the region was mostly closed to the outside, non-regional influence. The trend continued in 19th-20th centuries when the South Caucasus was exclusively dominated by Russian power. The end of the Soviet Union changed this geopolitical reality when several powers were able to penetrate the region. Yet the pace of the change was relatively slow – Russia was still able to minimize the extent to which the neighboring or non-regional countries were able to act in the South Caucasus: Turkey, Iran, US, EU, and to a certain extent, China have been influencing the region to a limited degree.

But the second Nagorno-Karabakh war accelerated this process. The South Caucasus’ borders are increasingly shifting. No single power or even a duo of countries can dominate the region. It reflects geopolitical changes in the world where the emerging multi-polar world ushers in a different set of rules. Exclusive geopolitical control is no longer viable and the 2020 war showed exactly this.

There is also yet another dimension of the unfolding geographic change. The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East. Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the powers around it. In a way, this re-emergence of close contacts between the South Caucasus and the Middle East is a return to normalcy which was disrupted in the early 19th century by Russian annexation of the South Caucasus. Indeed, in pure geographic terms the region is better connected to Turkey and Iran than to Russia, with which it shares the impassable Caucasus Mountain range.

This also means that the role of the South Caucasus in the thinking of Iran and Turkey, and by extension Russia, has grown. Considered if not as a complete backwater region in the calculus of large powers, the South Caucasus has nevertheless experienced a lack of attention. This was especially true for Iran, which now struggles to retain its weakening position in the region.

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. Tehran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Ankara or Moscow. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence for Iran, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts various Persian empires had with the South Caucasus.

The 2020 war changed Iran’s calculus in the region as the Islamic Republic’s interests were largely unheeded. Iran has now to adjust to the changed geopolitical landscape and it can be even argued that the recent escalation it had with Azerbaijan over the detained trucks, drills, and alleged Israeli influence, was an effort to wedge itself back into the geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

Yet there is little Iran can realistically do to boost its position in the region. The South Caucasus will certainly feature higher in Tehran’s foreign policy agenda than before. But Tehran does not have an ally in the region, nor does it have financial means to strengthen its soft power. Iran can support Armenia in its efforts to balance the triumphant Azerbaijan.

The lifting of US-imposed sanctions could augment Iran’s projection of financial and diplomatic power in the South Caucasus. Still, a more realistic approach for Tehran would be to build closer cooperation with Russia. Both loath growing Turkish influence and the Islamic Republic does not object to growing Russian influence as much as it does resent the West’s and Turkey’s presence. Surely, interests with Russia do not align always, but for Tehran, Moscow is a traditional power in the South Caucasus which is about maintaining a status quo. Turkey, on the other hand, disrupts it seeking greater influence.

There has been a certain retrenchment of the Western influence in the South Caucasus. While it does not signify a definitive decline in West’s fortunes, it is nevertheless important for Washington and Brussels to formulate a more robust approach toward the region. Decreasing the tensions with the Turkey could be one of the steps. Increasing economic engagement with the region would be another. Delay could be damaging. Georgia, which serves as a door for the West to the Caspian basin and on to Central Asia, could be the biggest loser if Washington shifts its foreign policy away from the region. An alternative could be a Russian model of peacebuilding and regional order where Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan will face a lack of foreign policy options if the West’s unwillingness to commit to the region continues to grow. 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

China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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Lithuanian society is left shaken by plans to raise retirement age

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This month Lithuanian society is left shaken after spreading the news about the increasing of the retirement age. In Lithuania, the retirement age has increased every year since 2012 and by 2026 it will be 65 years. Previously, discussion surfaced on whether raising the retirement age to 72 would help offset Lithuania’s ageing population issues.

As Lithuania’s demographic situation continues to worsen, the European Commission estimates that the number of working-age people capable of supporting pensioners will go down in the future. Brussels says that increasing the retirement age could be a solution.

The existing average in Lithuania is now 57.5 years. It should be said that Lithuania expects to reach a life expectancy of 65 years only in 2030.

In some years there will be 50 retirees per 100 working people and it will have crucial implications for public finances and may require raising taxes. At the moment, 35% of the country’s population are aged over 55.

Before prolonging its working age, Lithuania should address the relatively poor health and low life expectancy of its population. Before they even reach retirement age, many people in Lithuania are unable to work due to high prevalence of chronic, non-infectious conditions.

It’s necessary to focus on increasing healthy life expectancy in Lithuania, instead of weighing up the idea of increasing the retirement age, Irena Segalovičienė, presidential adviser has said.

Taking into account the fact that men in Lithuania live an average of 14 more years from the age of 65, and women an 18 more years, Vilnius residents are not impressed with such an idea.

The officials are afraid of possible protests which could lead even to the government resignation.

Thus, late Thursday afternoon millions of French workers were still on the streets protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned pension reforms.

Lithuanian officials were quick to announce that it’s inadequate to consider a 7-year increase in the retirement age at this stage. Most likely, the news was deliberately disseminated in order to study public opinion on this issue.

Discussion is most toxic now, and will continue in Lithuania because wasting money on defence, government puts aging population at risk of poverty and death.

At the same time, the government calls for more defense spending. Together with Poland and the UK, Lithuania is leading a push within the NATO to agree to higher spending goals. In 2023, the country’s national defense budget will reach 2.52% of its gross domestic product (GDP). According to Zilvinas Tomkus, Lithuania’s vice minister of defence, Lithuania is ready to spend even more on the modernization of its armed forces and military infrastructure. The more so, spending money on defence procurement today will not improve Lithuania defence today. The modernized weapons, vehicles and equipment will be available only in some years while old Lithuanians need money right now just to survive.

Thus, chosen political priorities do not reflect the current social and economic situation in the country and even worsen it.

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