Strategic Analysis Caucasus Brief
Bi-weekly review (17.- 31. 5. 2021)
Tomáš Baranec and Marina Avram
Vardenis mountain range, Gegharkunik region, Armenia. Photo: Avetis Keshishyan/ Shutterstock.com
Dangerous escalation on Armenian-Azerbaijani borders
On May 25, the Armenian Ministry of Defence (MoD) reported the death of a 32-year-old contract soldier at the border near the village of Verin Shorzha in the Gegharkunik District of Armenia as a result of a shootout with Azerbaijani military servicemen. It has been the first victim of the recent spike of violence on the Armenian-Azerbaijani borders.
The border conflict between the two hostile states, which had only recently fought in the war for Nagorno-Karabakh, flared up on May 12. Azerbaijani troops then crossed the border and entered the territory of Armenia in the strategically important area of Lake Sev in the Armenian province of Syunik, claims Yerevan. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, on the other hand, said on May 17. that the Armenian side “demonstrates an inadequate reaction” to the process of border clarifying, the press service of the Azeri leader has reported. According to Aliev, there were no clashes on the border; the situation was stable.
A further escalation of the conflict occurred on May 20, when a skirmish broke out between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces near Lake Sev. According to the Armenian ministry officials, the incident was caused by videos posted on social media sites and in the media. In one of the videos, Azerbaijani soldiers push their Armenian counterparts from the territories occupied by the Azerbaijanis, while the second video depicts the contrary situation when Armenians drive Azerbaijanis out.
Earlier, Azerbaijani YouTube channels, including A.R.X.E, posted a video in which dozens of armed soldiers were brutally rushing at least two unarmed men in military uniform. The unarmed people were pushed, kicked, insulted with obscene words, and they were asked to flee. The video depicts how Armenian soldiers are “driven away from the border with Azerbaijan”.
A day later, Armenian General Prosecutor’s Office reported that the Armenian armed forces threw back the Azerbaijani army near the village of Khoznavar, adding that after the fight, 11 soldiers had to be hospitalised. Some Armenian media also reported injured on the Azerbaijani side.
On May 27, the Armenian Ministry of Defence has reported that six servicemen were captured on the border of the Gegharkunik Region. The Azerbaijani side has confirmed the capture of Armenian military men. According to the Azerbaijani MoD, they tried to break into the country in the direction of the village of Yukhary Airym, Kelbadjar District. The Armenian side strongly dismissed these claims, providing maps, that the capture of its soldiers actually took place 800 m inside of the internationally recognised territory of the Republic of Armenia.
On the following day, the Azerbaijani Defence ministry stated that at least one soldier was wounded in the night attack of the Armenian military on the positions of the Azerbaijani army in Nakhchivan.
- AVETISYAN Ani, OC Media, “Armenia reports Azerbaijani troops crossed the border”, https://oc-media.org/armenia-reports-azerbaijani-troops-crossed-border/
- Caucasian Knot, “Armenian MoD reports about conflict with Azerbaijani soldiers on the border”, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/55602/
- Caucasian Knot, “Analysts in Yerevan claim capture of strategic heights by Azerbaijan”, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/55645/
- Caucasian Knot, “Azeri President reacts to Armenia’s appeal to CSTO”, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/55559/
- Caucasian Knot, “Eleven Armenian soldiers, injured in a fight with Azerbaijani soldiers”, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/55605/
- Caucasian Knot, “Six Armenian militaries taken prisoners on Azerbaijani border”, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/55656/
- mehrnews.com, “One soldier wounded in Nakhchivan”, https://en.mehrnews.com/news/174052/One-Azeri-soldier-wounded-in-Nakhchivan
For additional information, see:
- KUCERA Joshua, Eurasianet.org, “Border issues multiplying between Armenia and Azerbaijan”, https://eurasianet.org/border-issues-multiplying-between-armenia-and-azerbaijan
Pashinyan announced a possible new agreement with Azerbaijan
On May 20, Armenia’s acting prime minister confirmed the information that Yerevan and Baku are close to a border treaty.
As Eurasianet informed, a heavily redacted image of a document, to be signed by Pashinyan, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin was released earlier by Mikayel Minasyan, a son-in-law of former president Serzh Sargsyan and a leading critic of Pashinyan.
Under the draft, until May 31, Armenia and Azerbaijan should field national delegates to take part in the border demarcation commission, while Russia should form a delegation to provide them with advisory assistance.
However, Minasyan also claimed that as a part of the agreement, Pashinyan was also discussing the handover of six villages in Armenia’s Tavush and Ararat regions, which contain three small enclaves of Azerbaijani territory that Armenia has controlled since the early 1990s. The leaks sparked outrage and two protests, one on May 19 and the second on May 20, with the latter being dispersed by police who detained several protesters. Prime Minister denied Minasyan’s claim of the document being “Anti-Armenian”, stating that it “100% fits Armenia’s interests” and accused Minasyan of serving Azerbaijani interests.
On May 26, following a spike of the violence on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, Pashinyan declared that Armenia has two conditions for embarking on the demarcation of its border with Azerbaijan. “Azerbaijani army units must pull back beyond our borders. No other option is discussed and can be discussed,” he insisted. Speaking in the Armenian parliament, he also revealed that Yerevan wants Baku to release more than 100 Armenian prisoners remaining in Azerbaijani captivity over six months after Moscow helped to stop the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani side has not accepted these conditions so far, he said.
- MEJLUMYAN Ani, Eurasianet.org, “Armenia close to a new agreement with Azerbaijan”, https://eurasianet.org/armenia-close-to-new-agreement-with-azerbaijan
- AVETISYAN Ani, OC Media, “Proposed agreement on Armenia-Azerbaijan borders sparks protest in Armenia”, https://oc-media.org/proposed-agreement-on-armenia-azerbaijan-borders-sparks-protest-in-armenia/.
- KHULIAN Artak, www.azatutyun.am, “Armenia Insists On Conditions For Border Deal With Azerbaijan”, https://www.azatutyun.am/a/31275154.html
- TASS, “Armenia will not sign border agreement until Azerbaijan withdraws troops, says Pashinyan”, https://tass.com/world/1294449
Armenia’s Foreign Minister resigned
Ara Ayvazian, acting foreign minister of Armenia, stepped down on May 27, after only six months in office.
As azatutyun.am informed, Ayvazian gave no reasons for his resignation confirmed by Anna Naghdalian, the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. Naghdalian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that the ministry will not comment on the move for now.
Ayvazian appeared to have tendered his resignation immediately after taking part in an emergency meeting of Armenia’s Security Council, which discussed mounting tensions on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
Speaking at the meeting, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called for the deployment of international observers along contested portions of the frontier where Armenian and Azerbaijani troops have been facing off against each other for the last two weeks. It was not immediately clear if Ayvazian agreed with Pashinyan’s proposal.
Ara Aivazian was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs on November 18, 2020, succeeding Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, who resigned on November 16 due to disagreements with PM Pashinyan over the signing of the Karabakh ceasefire agreement.
- azatutyun.am, “Armenian Foreign Minister Resigns”, https://www.azatutyun.am/a/31277188.html
- Hetq.am, “Armenian Foreign Minister Resigns, Says Ministry Spokesperson, Armenian Foreign Minister Resigns”, Says Ministry Spokesperson
European Parliament calls on Baku to release Armenian POWs
On May 19, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the Azerbaijani government to release all Armenian prisoners of war and civilian captives.
In total 607 of 688 MEPs, voted in support of the resolution, which referred to “worrying reports” that “approximately 200 Armenians” are being held in Azerbaijani captivity. “The release of all Armenian detainees is essential for building confidence and trust and would be an important political gesture”, noted High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, in a speech that was delivered on his behalf during the proceedings. Besides, MEPs condemned the opening of a trophy park in Baku, as it “promotes hostile sentiments and undermines the trust between the nations”.
Azerbaijan has only acknowledged that it has 72 Armenians in captivity, which officials claim are not POWs but terror suspects. Earlier lawyers representing a group of Armenian prisoners of war and other captives claimed on May 3 that 19 of them had been killed while in Azerbaijani captivity, sending complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
- AVETISYAN Ani, OC-Media, “European Parliament calls for ‘immediate’ and ‘unconditional’ release of Armenian prisoners”, https://oc-media.org/european-parliament-calls-for-immediate-and-unconditional-release-of-armenian-prisoners/
- Caucasian Knot, “European Parliament calls on Baku to release Armenian POWs”, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/55606/
For additional information, see:
- europarl.europa.eu, “Joint motion for a resolution on prisoners of war in the aftermath of the most recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan”, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/RC-9-2021-0277_EN.html
- Caucasian Knot, “Armenian human rights defenders, mention names of 19 people killed in captivity”, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/55433/
ECHR has ruled that Baku should pay compensation to Lapshin. He opened an account in Artsakhbank
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled on May 20 that the Azerbaijani authorities were guilty of attempted murder of well-known Russian-Israeli travel blogger and journalist Alexander Lapshin. Baku is obliged to pay 30.000 EUR as compensation.
The journalist decided to open an account in Artsakhbank for the transfer of 30,000 EUR compensation from Azerbaijan by the decision of the ECHR. “By the decision of the European Court in Strasbourg, I opened a bank account to transfer 30,000 EUR from Azerbaijan,” the blogger wrote on his Facebook page, attaching a photo of Artsakhbank’s credit card.
A citizen of Israel, Russia and Ukraine, Lapshin, was detained in 2016 in Belarus after Azerbaijan’s inquiry. Later he was transferred to Baku and sentenced to three years of prison for entering Nagorno-Karabakh without permission from the Azerbaijani authorities. On the night of September 11, 2017, Lapshin was attacked in a solitary confinement cell of a Baku pre-trial detention centre. Azerbaijan authorities claimed Lapshin attempted suicide, and soon after that, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree to pardon him.
After arriving in Israel, Lapshin made a statement to the press that he had not committed suicide and that he had been attacked in Baku with the aim of murder. Medical examinations conducted in Israel confirmed the blogger’s version of the attempted murder, which contradicted the official position of the Baku authorities. Independent experts in Russia and the Netherlands also confirmed the assassination version, which became the basis for filing a complaint against Azerbaijan to the ECHR in Strasbourg.
- JAM News, “ECHR fines Azerbaijan 118,000 euros in several cases”, https://jam-news.net/echr-fines-azerbaijan-118000-euros-in-several-cases/
- Newswep.com, “Lapshin opens an account in Artsakhbank to receive 30 thousand euros from Baku according to ECHR decision”, https://newswep.com/lapshin-opens-account-in-artsakhbank-to-receive-30-thousand-euros-from-baku-according-to-echr-decision/
- Iravaban.net, “ECHR has ruled that the Azerbaijani authorities were guilty: Alexander Lapshin’s victory”, https://iravaban.net/en/332296.html
- 1lurer.am, “Lapshin wants to receive compensation from Azerbaijan on an account opened in an Armenian bank”,https://www.1lurer.am/en/2021/05/22/Lapshin-wants-to-receive-compensation-from-Azerbaijan-on-an-account-opened-in-an-Armenian-bank/480113
- AVANESOV Alexandr, Arminfo.info, “Alexander Lapshin: I accuse Azerbaijan of attempted murder”, https://arminfo.info/full_news.php?
Violent clashes hit Dmanisi
Clashes have erupted between groups of ethnic Georgians and ethnic Azerbaijanis on May 17 in the southeast Georgian town of Dmanisi. Georgian opposition groups have criticised government authorities over police inactivity.
Two groups of locals of ethnically mixed town reportedly hit the streets in the morning following the previous night’s physical violence at a local shop, when the refusal by local vendors to give away alcoholic drinks on credit reportedly led to repeated incidents of violence, involving dozens. Plenty of locals were seen confronting each other with sticks and stones. Despite the intervention of the security forces, locals managed to break the police chain multiple times.
Several Georgian opposition groups, including the United National Movement (UNM), Lelo, and the European Georgia party, as well as Ombudsperson Nino Lomjaria, condemned what they described as the police’s failure to stop the violence. The UNM’s Roman Gotsiridze called on Minister of Internal Affairs Vakhtang Gomelauri to resign for not sending enough police forces to the region.
The Interior Ministry appealed to the opposing sides “to obey the lawful demands of the police and remain calm, and not to contribute to artificially escalating a conflict that started with a mundane reason into an ethnic one”, the statement reads.
Local government, police, as well as locals who witnessed the initial shop violence on May 16 rule out ethnic tensions as the primary cause of the violence. But incidentally, media reports say, the shop is owned by an ethnic Azeri family, while the dissatisfied customers have ethnic Georgian background.
Dmanisi Municipality Mayor Giorgi Tatuashvili told Rustavi 2 TV that local authorities were working towards settling the situation and slammed “speculations”, including in the media, about ethnic triggers.
Violence initially erupted in Dmanisi on May 16, during a shop incident between two groups of locals. The situation escalated the next day, with police attempts to defuse the tensions proving largely unsuccessful. Some two-day-long disturbance ended in a handshake on May 17 between ethnic Georgian and Azeri seniors of the town, following a negotiation at the Municipality Assembly facilitated by government representatives.
- Civil.ge, “Massive Disturbances in Dmanisi after Local Shop Incident”, https://civil.ge/archives/419991
- KINCHA Shota, OC Media, “Georgian government denies ‘ethnic conflict’ amidst clashes in Dmanisi”,https://oc-media.org/georgian-government-denies-ethnic-conflict-amidst-clashes-in-dmanisi/
- Caucasian Knot, “Rioters in Georgian Dmanisi, announce parties’ reconciliation”, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/55567/
- Civil.ge, “Dmanisi Events: Public Defender Calls for ‘Active’ Civic Integration Policy”, https://civil.ge/archives/420873
Georgia’s soldiers coming home from Afghanistan
One hundred Georgian soldiers from the third infantry brigade have left Afghanistan and returned to Georgia as the US and NATO have begun withdrawing their troops from the country after two decades of war.
NATO Allies decided in April 2021 to withdraw from the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) in Afghanistan starting May 1. The complete drawdown is expected in the following months.
The unit was stationed under the German command at the Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of northern Balkh province, as part of RSM. Upon homecoming, the returnees were given a welcome ceremony at the Vaziani Military Base near the capital Tbilisi.
Georgian Defence Minister Juansher Burchuladze, Defense Forces Chief Major General Giorgi Matiashvili and Ambassador Hubert Knirsch attended the event. Defense Minister Burchuladze said: “We are proud that Georgia significantly contributed to ensuring world peace in international missions.”
Georgia has been part of NATO-led missions to Afghanistan since 2004, first participating in the International Security Assistance Force and then the RSM. The Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan was launched in 2015 and involved more than 16,000 personnel from nearly 40 NATO member and partner countries. Georgia was the largest non-NATO member contributor to the mission, with 860 soldiers. Overall, more than 20,000 Georgian troops have participated in multiple rotations since 2004.
- Agenda.ge, “Georgian soldiers leaving Afghanistan along with NATO, US forces”, https://agenda.ge/en/news/2021/1360
- Civil.ge, “Georgia Begins Afghanistan Troop Withdrawal”, https://civil.ge/archives/421539
- Outlookafghanistan.net, “Georgian Troops Start Returning from Afghanistan”, http://www.outlookafghanistan.net/national_detail.php?post_id=29397
For additional information, see:
- thedeaddistrict.blogspot.com, “Georgian troops in Afghanistan”, https://thedeaddistrict.blogspot.com/2013/01/georgian-troops-in-afganistan.html
Protests against the construction of hydroelectric power station in Western Georgia moved to Tbilisi
Thousands of people from all across Georgia gathered at the capital city’s First Republic Square to voice their discontent with the controversial project of the Namakhvani hydroelectric power station on May 23.
While the authorities argue that there is no danger to construct the Namakhvani hydroelectric power station, and it will be a decisive step in ensuring the country’s energy independence; activists, supported by many environmentalists, claim the area faces environmental disaster and economic loss as a result of the construction of a dam for the hydropower plant on the Rioni River.
Rati Gabidauri, a consultant to governments and private companies on issues of energy policy and economic development, stated that the Georgian government does meet many failures along with the construction of the Namakhvani Hydropower Plant project. He claims the government is doing a very poor job on the technical part. On the demand side, it both tries to grow and does not regulate the very electricity-hungry cryptocurrency mining industry in ways that are really difficult to explain: the government is allowing large miners to run in free industrial zones in which they consume electricity VAT-free, employ almost no people, pay no taxes on their profits, and drive up the country’s demand by up to 18%.
The consultant also believes that Tbilisi agreed to pay way too much for the electricity that these plants will produce and promised the people who own them to pay for risks that it shouldn’t be paying for (things like rivers having less water than everybody thought they would). “The expensive electricity will cost $2.6 billion over the next twenty years; the other risks could add billions more,” he writes. Then there is the fact that the government did not control how these HPPs actually get built, which means that people who live close to them will be risking their lives. The tunnels of Shuakhevi HPP collapsed in 2017, just after the plant opened, and it took three years to repair it. Landslides at Dariali HPP killed ten workers in 2014.
The third failing that Gabidauri mentions is that there is a lack of discourse between the government and Georgia’s people. ”It is the job of any democratic government to explain what it is doing and why- in public policy documents and technical studies. On this, the government fails, too: its electricity policy consists of one low-quality document after another — the sort that one writes to show that one has written something and make some donors happy,” he writes.
In a show of solidarity, leaders of other ongoing protests and strikes across Georgian towns arrived at the rally to voice support for the Save Rioni Gorge movement and called for unity in resolving pressing social issues facing the protesters in the regions.
The group of activists has other requirements besides the termination of work on the construction of the HPP cascade: 1. Cancel the agreement with the Turkish company ENKA, which is the main contractor in the construction of the hydropower plant, as well as all other agreements and documents related to this project. 2. ENKA must leave the gorge of the Rioni River. 3. Declare a moratorium on new projects in the energy sector. 4. Economy Minister Natia Turnava should resign. 5.Raise the issue of the responsibility of all participants in this project: initiate a criminal case not only against Minister Turnava but also against everyone who signed specific documents for the power station.
The Namakhvani HPP project encompasses two separate HPPs of 333 MW and 100 MW on the Rioni River. 90% of the Enka Renewables’ shares belong to the Turkish ENKA Insaat ve Sanayi A.S and 10% to the Norwegian Clean Energy Group.
- PIPIA David, Jam News, “Protests against the construction of new hydro plant grow in Georgia”, https://jam-news.net/protests-against-construction-of-new-hydro-plant-grow-in-georgia-video-analysis/
- Civil.ge, “Leaked Justice Ministry Report Critical of Namakhvani HPP Accord”, https://civil.ge/archives/422472/amp?__twitter_impression=true&fbclid=IwAR2wIInf5J7KS1L5jCmU1YC4EiTEE0uoGIeGuPNH9BuZnOI1yXICzssjpSc
- Civil.ge, “Op-Ed | Namakhvani Is Just a Small Part of a Much Bigger Problem”, https://civil.ge/archives/421000
- Civil.ge, “Massive Protest Against Namakhvani HPP Underway in Tbilisi”https://civil.ge/archives/421830
- Civil.ge, “LGBT Groups Back Namakhvani Protest, Ask Leaders to Condemn Homophobic Violence”, https://civil.ge/archives/422381
For additional information, see:
- NIKURADZE, Mariam, OC-Media, “In Pictures | Anti-dam protesters gather in Kutaisi”, https://oc-media.org/in_pictures/in-pictures-anti-dam-protesters-gather-in-kutaisi/
- International Monetary Fund, “IMF Georgia Fiscal Transparency Evaluation”, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2017/09/27/Georgia-Fiscal-Transparency-Evaluation-45274
- Greenalt.org, “Assessment of Fiscal Costs and Tariff Impacts of Power Purchase Agreements Final Note The World Bank”, http://greenalt.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Assessment_of_HPP_Cost_2018.pdf
Associated Trio established by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine
Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani, on a working visit to Kyiv since May 16, signed on May 17 with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba and his Moldovan colleague Aureliu Ciocoi a memorandum on establishing the Associated Trio format between the three countries.
The Associated Trio will work together on common interests for European integration, including the implementation of Association Agreements with the EU and the further development of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova will work together to strengthen political and economic dialogue and sectoral integration with the EU,” the Georgian Foreign Ministry has reported.
With the format, the signatory countries hope to promote full integration into the EU single market and to continue holding joint discussions with the European Commission on issues of transport, energy, digital transformation, green economy, strategic communications, security, and defence. The memorandum also says that the three countries will move forward to ensure the EU’s greater involvement in the peaceful settlement of conflicts.
- Agenda.ge, “Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova boost partnership for EU integration” https://agenda.ge/en/news/2021/1307
- Civil.ge, “In Kyiv, Georgian, Ukrainian, Moldovan FMs Establish ‘Associated Trio’ Format”, https://civil.ge/archives/420005
For additional information, see:
- Civil.ge, “Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova FMs Call for ‘New Opportunities’ from the EU”, https://civil.ge/archives/394976
The establishment of a new political party, „For People” by Anna Dolidze
Anna Dolidze, a former non-judge member of the High Council of Justice (HCoJ), held a congress at Arto Park in Tbilisi on May 22, inaugurating a new political party “For People”.
At the congress, Dolidze stated that her team aims to be the alternative force between the ruling Georgian Dream and opposition United National Movement (UNM) parties. “By uniting only around the UNM candidate might again end up with the Georgian Dream’s victory”, she added. She stated that social justice will be a cornerstone of the new political party. “We choose a way of governance where social equality is the main driving idea of the state,” said Dolidze.
Previously Dolidze ran as an independent candidate for Tbilisi’s Didube-Chugureti majoritarian district in October 2020 parliamentary elections. She received 17.95% of votes in the first round, coming in third after Georgian Dream’s Gia Volski with 42.64% and joint opposition candidate Zurab Japaridze of Girchi party with 21.06%.
Dolidze, who quit the HCoJ – an independent body that is responsible for various legal issues, including the appointment of judges – last year, has chaired the civic movement For People since then.
- Agenda.ge, “Anna Dolidze establishes new political party For People”, https://agenda.ge/en/news/2021/1367
- Agenda.ge, “Anna Dolidze Inaugurates New Political Party”, https://civil.ge/archives/421735