President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia and de facto president Baho Sahakyan of Nagorno Karabakh at a joint meeting in 2016. (photo: president.am)
On February 20, the de facto republic of Nagorno Karabakh will hold a referendum on a new constitution that would change the form of government from semi-presidential to a fully presidential. It would also, as a result, allow incumbent president Bako Sahakyan to retain his post beyond the current limit of two five-year terms.
There appears to be sufficient public support for the new constitution. Most local political groups have endorsed it, with 20 of 33 members of parliament voting in favor. Proponents of the change emphasize the security imperatives governing the transition, in particular after last April's heavy fighting with Azerbaijan. According to its advocates, a fully presidential system is better suited to managing the continuing military stand-off with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has taken similar steps in recent years, eliminating presidential term limits and, last year, extending each term from five to seven years, effectively reducing the frequency of electoral distractions.
The change in Karabakh also calls for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held concurrently every five years. Since the local parliament was last elected in 2015, that would mean a three-year transition period, during which the president would be chosen by the parliament, until the new system kicked in. Few doubt that the parliament would elect Sahakyan to the post or that he could seek re-election in 2020.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
The diplomatic brouhaha over a travel blogger has led to senior officials in Armenia calling for Belarus to be kicked out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the security alliance to which they both belong.
Alexander Lapshin, the now-notorious Russian-Israeli travel blogger, was extradited from Belarus to Azerbaijan on February 8. He is facing charges in Baku related to his visit to Nagorno Karabakh, a de jure part of Azerbaijan that is de facto controlled by Armenian forces. Azerbaijan considers a visit to Karabakh to be an illegal border crossing.
Demanding Lapshin's extradition was a dramatic step for the relatively minor crime of an illegal border crossing, especially given that both Russia and Israel are two of Azerbaijan's most important partners, and both have strongly objected to the extradition.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko to personally thank him for the extradition, calling it a "manifestation of the Azerbaijan-Belarus friendship and strategic partnership."
The episode, correspondingly, resulted in outrage in Armenia, including protests at the Belarusian embassy in Yerevan, and there were calls to retaliate against Minsk in various ways, including withdrawing its ambassador and suspending relations. But the most commonly proposed retaliation was to try to kick Belarus out of the CSTO.
Unusually frigid February weather aside, Armenia's politics is thawing out of its traditional winter slumber unseasonably early as it looks ahead to an April 2 election that now appears far less predictable than it had just a couple of months ago.
As in four preceding parliamentary elections, the ruling Republican Party (RPA) is the presumptive favorite. But a half dozen alliances and individual political parties are expected to offer some real competition for seats in the new National Assembly. Pre-election buzz is real, horse trading is in full swing, and even long-disappeared politicos are reemerging to seek out places for themselves in the electoral lists.
What makes this election different is the new constitutional framework that calls for transition of executive power from incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan – who completes his term a year from now – to a prime minister selected by parliamentary majority. That ups the stakes in these elections, and the buzz is all around three individual politicians.
First, is businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, 60, who heads the Prosperous Armenia Party, the country’s second largest since 2007. Tsarukyan has fairly strong support among less well-to-do Armenians due mostly to his philanthropic activities and his man-of-the-people appeal. He has been endorsed by Armenia’s “first oligarch” Khachatur Sukiasyan, who was a key financial backer of ex-president Levon Ter-Petrossian’s 2008 campaign, and Stepan Demirchian, the main opposition candidate in 2003 elections, son of former Soviet Armenian leader Karen Demirchian, and the main presidential challenger in 1998. Perhaps most importantly, Tsarukyan is likely to be backed by former prime minister and RPA election manager Hovik Abrahamyan, who happens to be Tsarukyan's relative through their children's marriage.
Pink protest hats were not the only piece of clothing to mark US President Donald Trump’s January 20 inauguration. He did, in fact, receive a chokha, a traditional wool coat from the Caucasus for men, usually worn with a dagger.
Little suggests that Trump will soon cut a dash in the bandoliered, cinched-at-the-waist costume from a Tbilisi apparel shop. But its offering symbolizes the regional hope that he will not overlook the Caucasus.
Even before Trump’s calls for “America First,” local analysts believe that American foreign policy had become introverted under Barack Obama, with the Caucasus fading fast on Washington’s radar.
So far, expectations are not high that Trump will reverse that trend. Aside from two defunct hotel projects, he has never shown a personal interest in this geostrategic crossroads.
Nonetheless, mulling the Trump future and the Obama past, the South Caucasus closely watched the new American leader’s swearing-in. Some in Tbilisi even opted to take part in a local Women’s March.
Yet Trump’s divisive flamboyance is not what counts in this part of the world. What does is Washington’s actual role in global and regional affairs.
In Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, some observers say that Obama was the least concerned with post-Soviet affairs of any US president in memory. And when the US takes a step back, it can only mean one thing in these parts: Russia steps in.
A brouhaha between Azerbaijan and Armenia is threatening to hamper the operations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in multiple member nations, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
OSCE country mandates are the responsibility of the organization’s permanent council, which deals with all the OSCE day-to-day business and is comprised of representatives of all 57 member states. But as the OSCE told EurasiaNet.org “participating states have not yet reached consensus on extension of mandates of a number of OSCE field operations.”
“The Chairmanship continues to lead negotiations on this with the aim of early agreement,” an OSCE press officer said in an email
A source familiar with the situation has said the holdup is down to a battle of wills between Azerbaijan and Armenia over budgets for certain security-related programs. The standoff between the two foes has precipitated a veto from Armenia on the normally automatic extension of field office mandates.
The OSCE has said that its field operations will, this impasse notwithstanding, remain open and continue administrative and non-mandate-related work pending agreement on this issue.
Meanwhile, Moscow-based news website ferghana.ru has cited its own sources as saying the existing situation has had a negative impact of moods within the staff and fostered much disillusionment about the organization’s inability to fulfill its stated missions.
“There is growing disappointment over the nature and purpose of the OSCE, which is supposed to prevent conflicts and yet is powerless when it comes to pursuing consensus, even in such basic matters as the extension of mandates,” the source told the website.
Heads of state of CSTO member countries meet at a summit in St. Petersburg. There was a bit more room at the table than planned as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko skipped the event. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Dissension among the nominal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc, continued to deepen at this week's summit, where Belarus was conspicuously absent and accusations were raised of a conspiracy against Armenia.
The CSTO summit was held in St. Petersburg on December 26, and the big news was that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was absent. Lukashenko gave no public explanation for his absence though Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitriy Peskov, played it down saying that "our Belarussian colleagues warned us that Lukashenko may not be able to take part in the summit."
There were two potential explanations for Lukashenko's move, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One was that it had to do with Russia-Belarus bilateral relations, and that this was just the latest expression of Lukashenko's discomfort with Russia's tight embrace. "This move seems to be yet another caprice by the Belarusian leader, demonstrating his attitude toward the integration projects that Russia is trying to create in the post-Soviet space," said Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy head of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian studies at Moscow State University. (The CSTO summit was held concurrently with one of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russia-led economic bloc; the rosters of the two organizations substantially overlap.)
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Collective Security Treaty Organization meets November 24 in St Petersburg. (photo: CSTO PA)
Armenia has blocked Pakistan from becoming an observer in the Collective Security Treaty Organization's parliamentary wing, the latest in a series of signs that Yerevan seeks to take a more assertive role in the Russia-led organization.
The CSTO Parliamentary Assembly is an association of mostly rubber-stamp parliaments to an organization that is mostly a shell of an alliance, so it doesn't often offer much drama.
But last week saw some rare conflict in the CSTO PA as it met for a session in St Petersburg. During the event, Armenia's representative submitted a formal letter opposing a proposal to allow Pakistan to join as an observer. As a result the question was removed from the agenda, the Armenian representative, Eduard Sharmazanov, told Sputnik Armenia.
Armenia and Pakistan have a long-standing dispute: Pakistan not only supports Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, but goes so far as refusing to recognize Armenia's existence until it gives Karabakh back to Azerbaijan. "This position contradicts the approach both of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as of the CSTO," Sharmazanov said.
The Iron Dome air defense system in action in Israel. (photo: Israeli Defense Forces)
Azerbaijani officials and several media sources have reported that Baku is working on a deal with Israel to buy the "Iron Dome" air defense system. The deal would be a blockbuster, as the legendary Iron Dome is a state-of-the-art system that has dramatically reduced the number of rocket attacks on Israel but has yet to be exported anywhere else.
In spite of the widespread reports, Azerbaijan is highly unlikely to actually purchase the Iron Dome, a very costly system that is technically incapable of meeting Azerbaijan's needs. The prevalance of the reports, however, seems to speak to a continuing concern within Azerbaijan that its foe, Armenia, may have gained a step on it in the arms race.
Last month, Azerbaijani member of parliament Yedva Abramov reported that the Iron Dome was "ready for delivery" to Azerbaijan. Abramov said that the system would render ineffective the Iskander missiles that Armenia recently acquired from Russia. "This system will not allow the Iskander rockets to hit the ground," Abramov said.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko speaks at the Yerevan summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization on October 14. (photo: president.gov.by)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc, has again failed to find a new leader during a summit that did nothing to combat the growing suspicion that the organization is dysfunctional.
The CSTO held its annual summit on October 14 in Yerevan, and the current secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, had said that the group would pick his replacement at the summit. But the summiteers, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, left the get-together without settling on a new leader and without explaining that failure. "We'll get back to the matter in late 2016," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said after the summit.
It's not clear how significant a role the secretary general of the CSTO plays and what might change with a new person in the role. Some Armenian officials tried to play down the succession issue. "It's not important which nationality or government the next secretary general represents," said Bagram Bagdasaryan, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia's parliamentary leader
But the fact that the new leader is slated to be an Armenian has added some intrigue to the leadership question. Armenia is probably the most loyal CSTO member, with the most to gain -- if a wider war were to break out with Azerbaijan, Armenia could in theory gain the support of its allies.