On the cusp of what appears a new era of unpredictability in international affairs, countries in the Caucasus, that sensitive borderland between East and West, are wondering what to expect from Donald Trump, the United States’ choice for president.
In what many see as schadenfreude, Moscow is the only place in the larger region where politicians unabashedly hail Trump. The State Duma, in fact, met the news of Trump’s victory with a standing ovation.
“Man to man, I don’t envy Bill Clinton because his old lady, for whom he trailed around all the states like a threadbare backpack, will be going through the roof over losing,” predicted Sergei Mironov, leader of the social-democratic Fair Russia.
“Our dear Trump, congratulations on your victory,” chimed in the Liberal Democratic Party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist known for his ebullient pre-election endorsement of Trump. “Babushka Hillary should go have a rest,” he advised.
Germany this week took its turn to appease and assure the South Caucasus about the European Union’s integration intentions by sending its top diplomat to the topsy-turvy region. Given Germany’s standing within the European Union and its structures, Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to the region not just as German foreign minister, but also as a key decision-maker for EU-South Caucasus ties.
As is par for the course with high-profile Western visitors to the region, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit was a triple-header. He zigzagged from Yerevan to Baku, and from Baku to Tbilisi on June 29, 30 and July 1, respectively. As also is usually the case with visiting Western diplomats, Steinmeier urged restraint on warring Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and patience on Euro-Atlantic-community hopeful Georgia.
On both of these counts, Germany holds a special role. Germany’s imprimatur is seen as decisive for granting Georgians much-desired visa-free access to the EU. Germany now holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent’s top security and democracy-assurance body involved in negotiations and the monitoring of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Steinmeier urged a greater role for the OSCE in the conflict-resolution effort, which Russia has pretty much dominated in the wake of April’s Four Day War, the deadliest flare-up of Armenian-Azerbaijani hostilities since the 1994 ceasefire.
“We have planned out concrete steps to boost the process of negotiations, and the presidents agreed on a trilateral statement, which reaffirms their commitment to normalization of the situation on the line of contact and also includes their consent to increasing the number of the OSCE monitors,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a small ceasefire monitoring mission in Karabakh. For years, the OSCE has arranged peace talks on Karabakh through its Minsk Group, a mediation mechanism led by Russia, the US and France.
Over protests from Turkey, Germany on June 2 passed a resolution recognizing the Ottoman Empire-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide.
The motion, backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc, also accepts a German share of the guilt in the 1915 mass murder. As Ottoman Turkey’s ally in World War I, the German Reich failed to prevent the destruction of ethnic Armenians, the resolution reads.
The vote in the Bundestag, the German parliament’s lower house, turned Berlin into a frontline for the ongoing feud between Armenia and Turkey over these events. Both Yerevan and Ankara have tried to sway the vote. Turkey, which denies that the 1915 massacre amounted to genocide, warned Germany against supporting the resolution. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan phoned Merkel on May 31 to warn that “diplomatic, economic, trade, political and military – we are both NATO members – will be damaged," Deutsche Welle reported.
In a setup indicative of the changing economic and, possibly, geopolitical dynamics in the South Caucasus, Armenia hopes China soon will agree to pay for a planned railway to Iran. At the same time, it also is lobbying for a free-trade agreement between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Economically and otherwise dependent on the big brother to the north, Russia, and sandwiched between hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey to the east and west, Armenia hopes that things can go south, to Iran. The planned railway could give Iran access to the Black Sea for large-scale shipments of exports and landlocked Armenia a significant role as a transit country.
The state of the railway link is not clear yet. Iranian officials said they are building their portion of it, while Armenia is looking for the means to construct its own. Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian hopes to scare up investment for the railroad from China during his upcoming September 23-25 visit. Yerevan and Beijing have already been in touch about the railway, according to Abrahamian.
As tensions again flare up between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow has agreed to lend Yerevan $200 million for weaponry purchases at reduced rates.
In a September 7 statement after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside of Moscow, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan claimed the preferential credit will facilitate “upgrading” the Armenian military’s stockpile of arms. Financial details were not available.
With a base in Armenia, Russia long has served as Armenia’s primary source of arms, even as it co-chairs peace talks between the two countries. The Kremlin has long used both hands to maintain influence in the South Caucasus, but the aid to Armenia left observers wondering what Putin's current game in the region is.
Moscow had been believed to be trying to pull Baku closer in, but the announcement of the gun deal will only chafe Baku. Media reports suggested that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dispatched to Baku last week with the goal of coaxing Azerbaijan into a closer alliance with Moscow amidst the chill with the West over Azerbaijan’s dismal human rights record.
“It is better to be under the Russian yoke,” reasoned MP Mher Sadrakian of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, echoing other lawmakers’ views that alliance with Russia is a necessary evil. “Our people always have been under a foreign yoke,” Sadrakian went on saying, RFE/RL reported. “We are used to someone standing above us… the Persians, the Turks, the Russians… “
Without Russia, Armenia would not have “conquered” predominantly ethnic-Armenian Nagorno Karabakh, claimed by Azerbaijan, he continued. “Without them [the Russians], they will devour us,” Sadrakian said in reference to Azerbaijan and its longtime ally, Turkey.
Another Republican, Seryan Saroian, offered more transcendental reasoning, though getting somewhat confused in the process.
“Why are you lamenting us joining the European Union… the Euronews… I don’t know, Eurasia…Let’s say you eat two more kilos of sausage, will it change anything?” Saroian was quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian service as saying.
When you think caviar, you don’t necessarily think of breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a remote South-Caucasus region over which Azerbaijan has been warring with separatists and Armenia for years. But that is about to change. Karabakh claims it has just entered into the caviar industry and, potentially, in a big way.
The region’s de-facto prime minister, Ara Arutiunian, believes that Karabakh is destined to become a global player in the caviar industry by dint of a new fishery business in the village of Magatis set up in part by Armenian Diaspora investments, Armenian and Russian news sites reported, citing a Karabakhi media outlet. The first batch of black caviar is expected to be produced as early as this December.
Aqua-farming may seem a peculiar economic-development choice for the landlocked region, but Arutiunian insists production levels will hit 30 tons annually in seven years — a level that appears to be a drop in the bucket compared with Azerbaijan or Russia, both caviar-majors.
How exactly Karabakh ("black garden" in Turkish and Persian) would get its caviar to outside markets is a larger question. The only way out of the region for ordinary vehicles is via Armenia, the region’s protector, but Armenia has just joined the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led trade club that, in theory, would require it to set up a customs post with Karabakh, as the internationally recognized property of Azerbaijan.
That little detail, though, was brushed to one side during Armenia’s October 10 signing of the Union treaty. To hear officials (de-jure or de-facto) in Armenia and Karabakh tell it, no customs post will be built.
There still might be room for a substantial partnership between the European Union and Armenia, says Brussels, but it will depend on how exclusive the Caucasus country’s relationship is going to be with the Eurasian Union, Russia’s planned alternative trade bloc.
But, ever the jealous lover, Russia wants exclusivity. If Armenia cold-shoulders the bloc, that could mean a Ukrainian-like upheaval, a Russian envoy warned this week.
In the year since it spurned the first EU's advances for those of the second EU, Armenia, putting its chess prowess into practice, has tried to keep its options still open. But things are getting confusing.
“For [a] broad and new definition or redefinition of our relations, we need to have a complete overview and idea from the Armenian side as to what they can do in the new circumstance created by Armenia’s membership in the Customs Union,” Peter Stano, spokesperson for the EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, told RFE/RL on September 24.
Armenia itself would like to know these details. It is not yet a member of the Customs Union, the core of the planned Eurasian Union. The specifics of Armenia’s likely terms of engagement with the bloc remain unclear and a subject of dispute among the current Customs-Union members, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Armenia also has some hesitation. For one, about what the Customs-Union deal will mean for ethnic Armenian, breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, which depends on Armenia to keep it de-facto apart from Azerbaijan. There is also a dose of homegrown backlash among pro-Western circles against Armenia alienating the European Union.
But Moscow does not want to be dumped. Particularly, not again.
The renewed ruckus between Armenia and Azerbaijan has prompted calls for rehashing the international approach to finding a peaceful resolution to the 26-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But, so far, it appears to be only Russian President Vladimir Putin who's planning to meet with the two countries' leaders.
The reasons for reviving the half-dormant ex-Soviet conflict remain moot. For years now, gusts of fighting have occasionally disrupted the 1994 ceasefire agreement, which ended a full-blown war over breakaway Karabakh. To quote Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, Karabakh ever since has been a place of “no war, no peace.”
But with a record number dead in recent weeks, a real threat of another ex-Soviet war is in the air.
With reports of casualties coming in daily, Azerbaijani military officials have claimed that volunteers have been stepping forward to help national forces with the “liberation of the occupied lands.”
In Armenia, Defense Minister Ohanian said on August 5 that, so far, there is no need for mobilization or the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. “Karabakh is the only conflict zone in the world where relative peace is maintained through a balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces,” Ohanian declared at an August-6 press-conference.