Japan’s Precarious Position in the Asia

Japanese destroyers in column formation


Over the last few years, Japan’s foreign policy gained a coherence rarely seen in decades.  No doubt pressure from Japan’s natural rivals in Asia—a rising China and a recalcitrant Russia—have helped to focus the minds of Japanese policymakers.  Certainly those closest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seemed convinced that Japan needed to improve its security situation.  By the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though Japan had done just that.


A Firmer Footing

While President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved disappointing, Japanese policymakers saw value in Obama’s support for a “rules-based international order.”  In practical terms, what that meant was that Japan could at least count on the United States to remain engaged in Asia and underpin its security.  For much of 2016, that seemed likely to continue.  After all, Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, led in the U.S. presidential election polls.  Though Clinton had renounced her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that Japan hoped would be the basis of Asia’s future economic architecture, most observers expected her to reverse herself again if she became president.


Hence, Abe had every reason to believe that his efforts to improve Japan’s security would be built on a reasonably solid foundation.  He tirelessly traveled throughout Asia cultivating new friendships, especially with the countries in Southeast Asia.  He encouraged Japanese companies to invest in them; he forged security relationships with them; and he even gave some of them Japanese-built patrol boats to monitor their maritime borders.  He also stepped in when Washington stumbled.  After relations between the United States and its long-time allies, Thailand and the Philippines, soured over their internal affairs, Abe quickly moved to strengthen Japan’s bilateral ties with both countries.


Japan also took more direct steps to strengthen its defense posture.  It modestly increased its defense budget.  It also laid the groundwork for new military installations in the Ryukyu Islands to watch over its East China Sea claims.  But possibly Japan’s biggest step was its new interpretation of its self-defense law.  Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to aid allies who come under attack.  While that may seem wholly non-controversial in most countries, it was anything but in pacifist Japan.  Some feared that Japan could be more easily drawn into future conflicts.  But the new guidelines would also enable Japan to form stronger security alliances that could prevent such conflicts from happening at all.


The string of good news for Japan’s security reached its zenith last July.  Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a boost to the “rules-based international order” when it judged that China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea to be invalid.  With the judgment an international court at its back, a heartened Tokyo even considered filing its own case against China over their competing territorial claims in the East China Sea.


Shifting Sands

However, just then the ground beneath Japan’s feet shifted.  Rodrigo Duterte’s election as the president of the Philippines abruptly ended what some saw as Southeast Asia’s growing willingness to back an international order based on rules (or at least on ASEAN’s norms).  Having a personal animosity towards Obama and a general suspicion of American meddling, Duterte steadily moved the Philippines away from the United States.  Instead, he leaned toward China.  Abe’s meeting with Duterte in Tokyo failed to arrest that tilt.  Soon after, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his own reasons, began to lean the same way.  He even agreed to buy Chinese ships for the Malaysian navy.  On the other hand, Japan missed a golden opportunity to solidify its security relationship with Australia when a Japanese consortium lost a bid to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.


To top it all off, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.  Throughout his campaign, he bashed not only the TPP, but also Japan for what he viewed as its inadequate support for the U.S. security presence in Asia.  Soon after his election, Trump confirmed that he would shelve the TPP when he became president.  Doubtlessly concerned, Abe hastily flew to New York to impress upon Trump the importance of a strong alliance between Japan and the United States.  But Abe received no public assurances.  The best news that Abe received from Trump probably came a month later when he announced his aim to expand the U.S. Navy.  If fully realized, that would at least put more substance behind America’s commitments to Asia (and to Japan), however strong they may be.


Troublesome Neighbors

China quickly capitalized on Japan’s reverses.  Given the likely demise of the TPP, China pushed harder for a Chinese-led free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, at the APEC summit last November.  Many believe the pact, if successful, would draw Asia’s economies closer into China’s orbit.


Russia also sensed Japan’s weakened position.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abe a month later, he offered Abe nothing new when they discussed how to settle their dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories in Japan).  Putin simply reiterated Russia’s historic positions and insisted that any joint economic development on the islands must take place under Russian rules, an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands.  Unsurprisingly, the meeting yielded little progress.


The Going Remains Tough

To make matters worse, Japan has yet to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.  Unless that changes, Japan will be hard pressed to devote substantially more resources to its security.  Through the TPP, Abe probably hoped to not only give Japan an economic boost, but also bind the United States more closely to Asia.  Unfortunately for Abe, the TPP’s negotiations dragged on for too long.  By the time they ended, it was politically impossible for the U.S. Senate to ratify it.  Even so, Abe has vowed to push TPP legislation through the Japanese Diet.


None of this is to say that Japanese policymakers have lost their way.  Abe is still focused on improving Japan’s security situation.  But for the moment, how much more he can do about it is not altogether clear.

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Turkey: From “NATO’s Anchor” to What?

On Monday, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Gazetesi published the backstory to President Recep Erdoğan’s meeting in St. Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 9 August.[1] The report credited two persons for acting as go-betweens in the eventual “rapprochement,” Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar. A number of Russian[2] and regional[3] media outlets published accounts of the Hürriyet Gazetesi report.

Welcoming Turkey’s “restoration of legitimate and constitutional order,” Mr. Putin said in St. Petersburg, “We have always opposed anti-constitutional actions.”[4] The Kremlin used that same term—anti-constitutional actions (antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy)— in its official statement after Mr. Putin spoke to Mr. Erdoğan on 17 July in the aftermath of the attempted coup (a conversation, the Kremlin hastened to point out, Russia initiated):

“Vladimir Putin…stressed the principled position of Russia regarding the categorical inadmissibility in the conduct of public affairs of anti-constitutional actions and violence.”[5]  

Turkish press reports emphasized Mr. Putin’s “decisive opposition to unconstitutional actions”[6] against Mr. Erdoğan’s government, some repeating Mr. Putin’s phrase verbatim.[7] That phrase is also the same one Mr. Putin used after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.[8] It was echoed then by other members of his government—for example, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s condemnation of “radical unconstitutional actions of Ukrainian oppositionists.”[9]

The Hürriyet Gazetesi account of events leading up to the meeting in St. Petersburg is worthy of a spy novel, and Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar are among its central characters. Mr. Abdulatipov is said to have taken his directions from Yury Ushakov, a long-time Russian diplomat and aide to Mr. Putin. In September 2013, Mr. Putin appointed Mr. Abdulatipov to his second four-year term as Head of the Republic of Dagestan, a Russian federal republic located in the North Caucasus.

Mr. Abdulatipov ‘s counterpart, Cavit Çağlar, is said to have taken his directions from General Hulsi Akar, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff since April 2015. Mr. Çağlar’s usual description as “a Turkish businessman” does not do him justice. In 1999, he was a central figure[10] in a covert operation in Kenya conducted by the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı (Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, aka “MIT”) to interdict and capture Abdullah Öcalan, a founding member of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party known as the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎). Mr. Çağlar’s private aircraft was used to spirit Mr. Öcalan from Nairobi to Turkey. In late April 2001, he was arrested by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation in a parking garage at New York’s JFK Airport and extradited to Turkey, which had issued an Interpol Red Notice pursuant to his conviction in the collapse of Turkey’s Interbank. 

The precursor to the St. Petersburg meeting was President Erdoğan’s letter to President Putin. In it, Turkey apologized for the 24 November 2015 downing of a Russian warplane in Turkish airspace that was taking part in a combat mission in Syria.[11] Hürriyet Gazetesi reported a 30 April meeting in Istanbul, during which President Erdoğan authorized General Akar and Mr. Çağlar to open discussions with Russia about “normalizing” relations. Messrs. Abdulatipov and Çağlar then spent several weeks shuttling successive drafts of the letter (written by prior agreement in Turkish and Russian, not English) back and forth, with the support of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This led to a 24 June meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where President Putin was scheduled to meet President Nazarbayev at the conclusion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. The Kazakh ambassador to Turkey contacted an aide to President Erdoğan, Ibrahim Kalyn, to set the meeting in Tashkent. After several last minute hitches—there were problems reconciling the Turkish and Russian versions of the letter, and Uzbekistan had closed its airspace due to the SCO summit so Kazakh President Nazarbayev had to ask Uzbek President Islam Karimov for permission to fly “his friends from Turkey” (whose aircraft, low of fuel, had landed in Shymkent) to Tashkent—President Putin and President Erdoğan agreed to the final wording. The timing was uncanny, coming a fortnight before the attempted coup in Turkey. As the Hürriyet Gazetesi report points out, the first leader to phone President Erdoğan with a message of support was President Putin.

The St. Petersburg meeting, write Gallia Lindenstrauss and Zvi Magen,[12] “is likely to be a beginning of a new phase in Turkish-Russian relations.” It may very well mark the beginning of something wider, given the pivotal Kazakh and Uzbek roles in brokering the rapprochement between their neighbors. There is another, less noticed factor as well: as Mr. Erdoğan met with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declared his country would suspend its migration agreement[13] with the European Commission unless the Commission established a definitive date to abolish visa requirements for Turkish citizens.[14] Where that goes is anyone’s guess. What is certain, however, is that Turkey’s traditional role as NATO’s “anchor” on the Black Sea is indeed ripe for revision, exactly how much and to what extent nobody today can know.


The translation of all source material is by the author.

[1] ” Türk-Rus krizini bitiren gizli diplomasinin öyküsü.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 8 August 2016].

[2] See for example: “Ramazan Abdulatipov yakoby okazal sodeystviye v vosstanovlenii otnosheniy mezhdu liderami Rossii i Turtsii.” Seryy zhurnal [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://kopomko.ru/ramazan-abdulatipov-yakobyi-okazal-sodeystvie-v-vosstanovlenii-otnosheniy-mezhdu-liderami-rossii-i-turtsii/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[3] “Negocieri secrete. Cum au reuşit Turcia şi Rusia să-şi restabilească relaţiile.” Publika.md [published online in Romanian 9 August 2016]. http://www.publika.md/negocieri-secrete-cum-au-reusit-turcia-si-rusia-sa-si-restabileasca-relatiile_2708501.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[4] “Putin: Rossiya i Turtsiya vystupayut za vozobnovleniye dvustoronnikh otnosheniy.” Novaya Gazeta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/1705969.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[5] ” Putin v razgovore s Erdoganom zayavil o nedopustimosti antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy.” TASS [published online in Russian 17 July 2016]. http://tass.ru/politika/3462009. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[6] ” Putin’den Erdoğan’a telefon.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/putinden-erdogana-telefon-40150943. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[7] See for example: “Putin’den Erdoğan’a: Anayasaya aykırı hiçbir eylem kabul edilemez.” İleri Haber [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. http://ilerihaber.org/icerik/putinden-erdogana-anayasaya-aykiri-hicbir-eylem-kabul-edilemez-56902.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[8] For example see: “Putin po telefonu obsudil s Merkel’ i Netan’yakhu ukrainskiye sobytiya.” Vesti.ru [published online in Russian 16 April 2014]. http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1483262. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[9] “Ukraina na krayu. Vozmozhnyye stsenarii razvitiya sobytiy.” Vechernyaya Moskva [published online in Russian 24 January 2014]. http://vm.ru/news/2014/01/24/ukraina-na-krayu-232373.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[10] One of the best descriptions of the events surrounding Mr. Öcalan’s flight and capture was published in the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Studies in Intelligence series. See: Miron Varouhakis (2009). “Fiasco in Nairobi: Greek Intelligence and the Capture of PKK Leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.” Studies in Intelligence. 53:1. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/fiasco-in-nairobi.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[11] A Russian language report about the Hürriyet Gazetesi article stated that the language of President Erdoğan’s letter in Russian used words that were ” stronger than ‘sorry’ but not as strong as ‘apology’.” Mr. Putin, it wrote, “approved the text, despite the fact that he found it a little closer to the Turkish position, because he read it as a request for forgiveness.” See: “Ramazan Abdulatipov vsplyl v istorii s izvineniyami Redzhepa Erdogana pered Vladimirom Putinym.” On Kavkaz [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://onkavkaz.com/articles/2781-ramazan-abdulatipov-vsplyl-v-istorii-s-izvinenijami-redzhepa-erdogana-pered-vladimirom-putinym.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[12] Gallia Lindenstrauss & Zvi Magen (2016). “The Russian-Turkish Reset.” FPRI E-Note 8 August 2016. http://www.fpri.org/article/2016/08/russian-turkish-reset/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[13] According to the European Commission Fact Sheet dated 4 April 2016, “On 18 March 2016, EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey agreed to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and replace it instead with legal channels of resettlement of refugees to the European Union. The aim is to replace disorganised, chaotic, irregular and dangerous migratory flows by organised, safe and legal pathways to Europe for those entitled to international protection in line with EU and international law. The agreement took effect as of 20 March 2016.” It provides for unauthorized migrants to be returned to Turkey and for Turkey to block “nee sea or land routes for irregular migration.” In exchange, Turkey received a payment in the amount of EU payment of €3bn (USD3.3bn). http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-1221_en.htm. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[14] “Turtsiya postavila EC ul’timatum po bezhentsam.” Lenta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. https://lenta.ru/news/2016/08/09/stop_implementing_agreement/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

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Let (Clean) Russian Runners Run: The Wrongheaded Collective Punishment of Russian Athletes

“I support the fight against banned substances in sports. It is an evil that needs to be eradicated. Athletes found guilty of using it should be barred from competing…However, I am concerned and deeply saddened by the possibility that, in the event Russian athletes are banned from participating in the Olympics, persons not culpable would be punished as well as those who are guilty. I regard the principle of collective punishment as unacceptable.”

Mikhail Gorbachev



The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)—the world governing body for the sport of Athletics, better known to Americans as “track & field”—decided in mid June to prohibit all Russian athletes from competing at the Rio Olympic Games next month. The basis for the IAAF decision is its finding of systematic corruption by the Russian agency responsible for mandatory testing of athletes to detect the use of prohibited performance enhancing drugs. Those tests are based on what are commonly called “anti-doping rules” adopted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”)—an international organization responsible for the rules and regulations contained in the World Anti Doping Code.

Technically, what the IAAF did on 17 June was to determine that the sport’s governing body in Russia, the All-Russia Athletic Federation (RUSAF, sometimes appearing as “ARAF”), did not meet the conditions for reinstatement earlier set down by the IAAF. Those conditions were threefold:

  1. RUSAF “complies in full with the World Anti-Doping Code and IAAF Anti-Doping Rules.”
  2. The IAAF and the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA “are able to conduct their anti-doping programmes [sic] in Russia (in particular, drug-testing) effectively and without interference.”
  3. “[T]hat as a result, the reintegration of Russian athletes into international competitions will not jeopardise [sic] the integrity of those competitions.”

“In short,” an IAAF taskforce concluded:

RUSAF must show that there is now a culture of zero tolerance towards doping in Russian athletics, and that RUSAF, RUSADA, and the public authorities in Russia, working in cooperation, have created an anti-doping infrastructure that is effective in detecting and deterring cheats, and therefore provides reasonable assurance and protection to clean athletes both inside and outside of Russia.[1]

Despite some noted improvements, the IAAF task force concluded “there remains a clear lack of respect for the anti-doping rules.” The report concluded, “The deep-seated culture of tolerance (or worse) for doping that got RUSAF suspended in the first place appears not to have changed materially to date” [finding 5.1] and “There are detailed allegations, which are already partly substantiated, that the [Russian] Ministry of Sport, far from supporting the anti-doping effort, has in fact orchestrated systematic doping and the covering up of adverse analytical findings” [finding 5.3].[2]

Fair enough. There is no basis on which to dispute the IAAF’s findings regarding the manifold deficiencies of RUSAF and RUSADA, nor its conclusion that the Russian Ministry of Sport was fully complicit in the systematic evasion of international anti-doping rules. In other words, all of the responsible Russian organizations and governmental agencies cheated, and did so systematically, repeatedly, and shamelessly. These acts are doubly despicable for involving shakedowns of Russian athletes—one Russian athlete, the marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova, said she gave €450,000 (about $495,000) to senior Russian officials in exchange for covering up violations—and for the alleged involvement of the IAAF’s president at the time, Lamine Diack. He reportedly admitted to French investigators accepting some €1,000,000 in bribes to cover up Russian cheating. His son is also implicated.

The effect of the IAAF action is to change RUSAF’s earlier temporary suspension as an IAAF member into a full one. What it means is that “athletes, and athlete support personnel from Russia may not compete in International Competitions including…the Olympic Games.”[3] In other words, “the decision not to reinstate RUSAF means that Russian athletes remain ineligible under IAAF Rules to compete in International Competitions including…the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.”[4]

The IAAF concluded that some number of Russian athletes evaded anti-doping rules. Those athletes cheated, systematically, repeatedly, and shamelessly. They have dishonored themselves and their country. The author’s view is that they should be identified publicly and suspended for life from competing in any sport, no exceptions. 

That being said, there is no basis for suspending every Russian athlete, including women and men who are determined pursuant to WADA-approved procedures not to have violated anti-doping rules. It is here the faint odor of hypocrisy creeps into the story.

Does every athlete found to have cheated by taking some performance enhancing substance receive a lifetime suspension? No, they do not. The United States’ top male sprinter—he has qualified to compete in the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes and the 4×100 relay in Rio—has twice been suspended for violating anti-doping rules, once in 2001 for two years (he was reinstated early by the IAAF) and a second time in 2006, when he was suspended for eight years (avoiding a lifetime suspension only by cooperating with authorities). So, too, the United States’ top qualifier in the 400 meter dash, who also is expected to compete in the 4×400 relay. He received a two-year suspension in 2010 that was eventually reduced by three months.

There are many, many more athletes who will compete in Rio after serving suspensions for violating WADA drug rules. And there are Russian athletes who will not be allowed to compete in Rio who have not done so. And that is the fundamental unfairness about the IAAFs action. Nor are the IAAF’s hands clean. Former WADA head Dick Pound said “It is not credible that elected officials were unaware of the situation affecting athletics in Russia. If, therefore, the circle of knowledge was so extensive, why was nothing done?”[5]

The prohibition against collective punishment—where all members of a group are punished irrespective of whether a given individual is guilty or innocent—is enshrined in international law. In the matter of Russian track & field athletes, however, that principle has taken a back seat to expediency.

I am no apologist for the Russian government. Nor am I unaware how deeply rooted corruption is in many Russian sports governing bodies. That being said, I am of the generation of American athletes who saw their Olympic chances disappear with the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Games. Whether President Carter was right to prohibit American athletes from competing in Moscow that year has been debated ad nauseum. But that was a decision by our President, marking our nation’s principled opposition to the Soviet invasion of a sovereign country. It was not a decision by some international organization that for many years looked the other way and now seeks to redeem itself, unfortunately on the back of athletes who get no say in the matter.   

In late July the International Olympic Committee decided against banning all Russian athletes from Rio regardless of their sport. The head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, criticized that decision, saying “the IOC has refused to take decisive leadership. The decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes.”[6] Mr. Tygart is an honorable man who has worked tirelessly to eradicate illegal drugs from sports. But it is worth pondering how those clean athletes will feel about competing against the confessed drug cheaters who will be in Rio. I suspect they would rather see a clean Russian athlete who isn’t given a first chance than a dirty athlete from somewhere else who got an undeserved second chance.



[1] IAAF Taskforce: Interim Reports to IAAF Council (17 June 2016) 1. The full report is posted on the IAAF.org website.

[2] Ibid., 7

[3] http://www.iaaf.org/news/press-release/iaaf-araf-suspended. Last accessed 25 July 2016.

[4] https://www.iaaf.org/news/press-release/iaaf-council-meeting-vienna. Last accessed 25 July 2016.

[5] http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2016/01/14/iaaf-officials-under-fire-russian-doping-scandal/78783828/. Last accessed 27 July 2016.

[6] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-sport-doping-russia-idUSKCN1040N7. Last accessed 27 July 2016.



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Nagorno-Karabakh: A Conflict Entrenched in Nationalistic Propaganda

Armenia-Azerbaijan relations are all but stellar.  In fact, for those familiar with the region, this is a relationship known for its enmity, aggression, and hostility via a dangerous game of propaganda and nationalistic rhetoric. The two became enemies shortly after 1988, when the region of Nagorno-Karabakh – inhabited by a majority of ethnic Armenians – voted to secede from then Soviet Azerbaijan and unite with Armenia.

What are the implications of the tragic drifting apart of the Armenian and Azerbaijani societies caused by years of relentless nationalistic propaganda carried out by both governments? Could the arms race the countries have embarked on destabilize the entire Eurasian region if it transforms into a full-scale war? Is there a path towards reconciliation?

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Context

The bloody war in Nagorno-Karabakh that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union ended in the loss of more than 35,000 lives. About 1.5 million people were forced into becoming refugees and internally displaced persons: Armenians living in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia, Azerbaijanis in Armenia fled to Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other surrounding districts were displaced to other regions of Azerbaijan because of the conflict. The conflict also caused the occupation of about 20% of Azerbaijani territory by Armenian forces (see map below). As a matter of comparison, if the United States lost 20% of its sovereign territory, the loss would be equivalent to its entire Northeast region. The 1.5 million displaced individuals represented about 15% of the combined population of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1990 (which stood at approximately 3.4 and 6.8 million people, respectively, according to World Bank figures).

NKMap 1

A ceasefire signed in 1994 halted the combat, albeit only temporarily. To this day, the two countries continue fighting across the line of contact. And, since 2012, reports of incidents including the downing of helicopters and the use of heavy artillery in and around civilian areas have increased. There is little sign of progress in the ongoing fragile peace negotiation.

Intensified fighting has occasionally coincided with Western high official visits to the region. For instance, an episode of increased violence broke out during the visit of then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to the South Caucasus in 2012. These flair ups also tend to coincide with high level international meetings in which both Armenia and Azerbaijan participate. This was the case with the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. earlier this April, at the end of which occurred the latest and most worrying escalation of the conflict since the 1994 ceasefire.

A Peculiar Conflict for Today’s World

Even today, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a war of trenches – a classical confrontation between conventional forces composed of tanks and heavy artillery. By their physical appearance the Armenian and Azerbaijani trenches of today can best be compared with the trenches of the First World War. 


Trenches of Nagorno-Karabakh 


Trenches of WWI

What does Nagorno-Karabakh stand for? It certainly is a scenic region at the foot of the smaller Caucasus chain. Some observers might be reminded of Switzerland, or the German Black Forest when seeing pictures of it. But beyond its rugged foothills, the Nagorno-Karabakh region does not possess major natural resources and is, because of its geography, neither an essential causeway for pipelines nor any other type of strategic route. It is also a region only half the size of New Jersey, with a population of about 200,000 before the outbreak of the conflict in the late 1980s. It then was composed of about 76.9% ethnic Armenians and 21.5% ethnic Azeris. Today, its population has shrunk to around 100,000. While accurate figures are hard to obtain, the vast majority of the region’s population is Armenian.

However, Nagorno-Karabakh has great emotional value for both the Armenian and Azerbaijani national identities. The region serves as a historical center for their respective cultures, a site where both nations continuously thrived in the face of Russian, Persian, and eventually Soviet domination.

All the above renders the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a very singular case and one of Eurasia’s worst protracted conflicts with very meager hopes for resolution at this point.

A Nationalistic War of Propaganda

Perhaps the worst outcome of this conflict is, as Thomas De Waal  wrote in the New York Times on the onset of the recent escalation, “the bitter truth that leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan have become trapped by their own rhetoric, promising their publics total victory that can never be achieved. They have employed the status quo as a weapon to shrink hard questions about their own legitimacy or to divert people’s attention from socioeconomic problems.” 

Fighting the nationalist propaganda has been almost impossible for peace-seeking civil society organizations. In Azerbaijan, many initiatives, organizations, and individuals advocating for a peaceful settlement have recently been shamed for their reconciliation work. Peace seekers are often portrayed as enemies of the state — traitors who have betrayed their country’s values for the sake of international grants and fallen victim to Armenia’s influence.

In Armenia too, supporters of rapprochement between Armenian and Azerbaijani civil societies are rare and going against the official state position on the conflict is not well received. As Artur Sakunts, head of the non-governmental Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in the northern Armenian town of Vanadzor described in a recent interview with Eurasianet, “the lack of direct contacts between Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society members has only added to the animosity prevalent now.”

Online social media now carry their own share in this propaganda war. Twitter and Facebook are often used as weapons of Azerbaijani and Armenian online war and propaganda campaigns: “The Armenians or Azerbaijanis who befriend one another publicly on social networking sites such as Facebook or its Russian version, Odnoklassniki.ru, are often attacked, insulted, and called traitors online by their ‘offline’ friends and peers from their own societies. Pro-democracy or pro-peace bloggers are also similarly attacked. Any public expression of alternative views, criticism of one’s own side, or simple public discussions of critical topics — all necessary components of a successful peace process and sustainable co-existence with other groups — are actively discouraged. Anything but repeating the silently agreed upon lines dictated by government propaganda becomes taboo, and progress within each society is held hostage,” wrote Philip Gamaghelyan, longtime supporter of track two diplomacy initiatives between the two countries and founder of the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation.

Moreover, little has changed since Gamaghelyan expressed these words in 2011. Contemporarily, a dialogue is almost non-existent, appeasing discourse is heavily criticized, and younger generations have little interest in challenging the deeply embedded attitudes groomed by this nationalist rhetoric.

A Relentless Arms Race

Another profoundly worrying aspect of this conflict is the arms race between the two countries. In 2014, President Ilham Aliyev boasted about Azerbaijan’s defense budget being twice the size of Armenia’s overall state budget. This is, however, widely due to the important gap between both countries’ Gross Domestic Products. In 2014, Armenia’s GDP was $11.64 billion while oil-rich Azerbaijan’s GDP reached $75.20 billion. While oil-money does fuel Azerbaijan’s military spending, it is important to understand that it does not actually outsize Armenia’s military spending to GDP ratio.

In reality, both countries have similar military expenditures in terms of GDP. In 2015, Azerbaijan’s military expenditures represented 4.6% of the country’s GDP, while Armenia’s spending amounted for 4.5% of its GDP. Both percentages are fairly large: the same year, Germany spent 1.2% on its military and the United States 3.3% according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has demonstrated the use of modernized warfare on both sides, particularly by the Azerbaijani military, thus increasing the chances of casualties and suggesting that both countries are eager to ensure their unequivocal military success should the war break out again.

The fact that both governments inflate military expenditures and divert resources from more fundamental societal concerns is the result of very successful propaganda machines working their way into the minds of Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens from as early as primary school – presenting the other as a major existential threat.

However, in reality, most visitors to Armenia and Azerbaijan would probably agree that these nations share much more than they are currently willing to appreciate. This is true in terms of both cultural and societal dynamics.

Moreover, rare are the places in this world where religious differences – Armenians being predominantly Christians and Azerbaijanis being Shia Muslims – matter so little, in fact, not at all. This is not a conflict based on religious differences.

This is a territorial conflict firmly rooted in the quest for national identity and international statehood recognition on both sides.

While the Armenian and Azerbaijani nations are strikingly unique, their shared traditions and legacies, shaped by centuries of multi-ethnic and multicultural dynamics in the South Caucasus, are just as striking. However, if nothing changes, it is most likely that the societies of both countries will continue to drift away from each other by continuing on the path of hatred, promotion of negative stereotypes, and engaging in an aggressive arms race.

Russian Military Presence in Armenia

Another concern that some external observers have had over time is the presence of Russian troops on Armenian territory and how this might influence the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This presence – composed of about 3000 soldiers, air defense missiles, and fighter jets – is part of a bilateral agreement between the two countries within the broader context of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of which Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are members.

With the Russian 102nd Military Base located in the town of Gyumri – 75 miles north of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and close to the Turkish border which is also one of the physical border between the CSTO and NATO – the Russian Federation is supposed to provide for the security of Armenia. With regards to external borders, Russian troops, however, patrol primarily the border with Turkey and Iran but not the ones with Azerbaijan – both mainland and the exclave of Nakhichevan to Armenia’s south (see map below).  


But after the events of this April, Russian official reactions suggest that Russian troops would not actually decide to intervene in favor of the Armenian side, should the conflict scale-up to a fully-fledged war yet again. In fact, the latest escalation has, instead, reactivated Russia’s motivation to serve as a mediator between the two parties. In addition, other CSTO countries, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, have distanced themselves from Armenia once the April events unfolded, while Azerbaijan’s strategic relevance for Russia has continued to grow.

Need for Political Reform, Education, and International Community Support

The resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict must start with profound political reforms towards democracy in both countries. Moreover, it must be strengthened with an actual will of elites on both sides to improve their citizens’ quality of life by making the region a secure place, free of conflict, through continued efforts towards reconciliation. Finally, a resolution of the conflict must be ensured by an effort to educate younger generations in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In this context, the international community has a great responsibility in helping to consolidate a very fragile thread of existing peace negotiations with the distant hope that perhaps, one day, the two nations can live in peace.

On Thursday May 5, 2016, the Armenian government has approved a draft bill recognizing the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh on which the Armenian parliament will vote next week (the week of May 9th, 2016). This move from the Armenian side, will most likely trigger reactions in Azerbaijan and from the international community. This renders the outcome of this conflict – towards either peace or war – even more uncertain.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was updated after publication. The final sentence originally read: “Otherwise, clashes of this magnitude cannot only become a norm but have the potential to morph into a broader regional conflict inevitably involving Turkey and Russia as the two countries are important regional powers in close alliance with Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively.”]

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A Maelstrom in Moldova

On March 27, 2016 thousands of Moldovans marched through the streets of Chisinau demanding reunification with Romania on the 98th anniversary of Bessarabia and Romania’s political union. Some observers view this demonstration as yet another iteration of Moldova’s protest movement – “a simple, binary conflict between the ‘pro-EU’ camp… and the ‘pro-Russian’ camp.” However, such a statement would be a gross misrepresentation of the complicated political dynamics that make up Moldova’s ongoing struggle with democracy. Instead, the protests that have swept Moldova for much of the past year are “a manifestation of frustration and distrust of the authorities in general, as well as a nascent civic fight against domination by corrupt elites  […]  against state capture, corruption, selective justice, and restrictions of the people’s access to free media” in the words of former education minister Maia Sandu. The protests in the capital of Chisinau and across the country are anything but uniform, representing pro-European and pro-Russian factions with their own distinct visions of Moldova inspired by opposition leaders with diverse backgrounds and agendas. The only fact Moldovans can generally agree upon is that the current government’s corruption-ridden regime is crippling the future of the country. The rest of the debate is being played out over the small patch of grass separating the Moldovan Parliament from the protesters’ tent cities in Chisinau’s Grand National Assembly Square.

Moldova grunge flag

A dangerous maelstrom threatens the fabric of Moldova’s political landscape. In April 2015, an information leak publicized that one billion dollars (almost 20% of the country’s GDP) went missing from three Moldovan banks under the watch of the ruling Pro-European Coalition (May 2013 – February 2015). While the guilty pro-Western government has maintained control over the Moldovan Parliament via the Political Alliance for a European Moldova (February 2015 – July 2015) and the Alliance for European Integration III (July 2015 – Present), anti-government dissent has escalated in the form of popular demonstrations over the past twelve months, reaching 100,000 people in September. On October 15, former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and arrested on suspicion of participating in the one billion dollar theft (pocketing a quarter of the sum) from the Moldovan banking system. Days later on October 29, acting Prime Minister Valeriu Streleț succumbed to a vote of no-confidence that collapsed the ruling government for the third time in 2015 after just three months in office. Mr. Streleț, also implicated in the corruption charges, has since become discredited for failing to respond to the demonstrators’ demands to sort out the banking scandal that still looms large in the Moldovan political imagination. Moldovan politics remain corrupt and in general disarray.

The ongoing waves of public protests, largely defined as anti-corruption and anti-oligarchic, have two distinct strains: 1) pro-European voters frustrated by the lack of transparency and corruptions scandals that have shaken the country to its core; and 2) communists, socialists, and pro-Russian demonstrators eager to end the six year rule of pro-European minority governments in the name of a distinctively pro-Moldovan agenda. However, these two general groups are subdivided between a number of different opposition leaders with their own followers and resources. These factions of protesters are currently camped out, side by side, in front of the Moldovan Parliament in Chisinau’s Grand National Assembly Square, each group behind their own pickets with banners calling for a similar goal: changing the status quo in Moldova.

By the end of October, members of both the pro-European and the pro-Russian opposition groups were arrested by the Chisinau authorities, and both factions continue to struggle with government ministries to officially acknowledge the status of their opposition parties. The leader of Moldova’s most popular opposition faction Our Party, Renato Usatîi, was taken into custody from October 23-25 for sharing via social media incriminating recorded conversations of former Prime Minister Vlad Filat and corrupt Moldovan banker Ilan Shor. Our Party is a populist pro-Russian party financed by Mr. Usatîi’s millionaire fortune (mysteriously accrued in Russia) that has built a strong following at the local level (particularly in northern Moldova) since 2014. Days after his arrest, Usatîi was released on false charges, but Mr. Filat accused the Our Party leader of “being a front for Russian secret services and criminal gangs.” Usatîi’s history is undeniably shrouded in Russian business interests and foreign investments. His last political organization, the Patria (Motherland) party, was struck from the ballot during the November 2014 parliamentary elections due to alleged illegal campaign financing raised abroad (almost certainly in Russia). Nonetheless, Usatîi remains one of the most popular opposition figures on the Moldovan left.

On the opposite side of the protestors’ tent cities stands the Moldovan telecommunications oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. Mr. Plahotniuc is suspected of pulling the strings behind the corruption-laden Pro-European Coalition, using the manipulation of the media, threats of violence, trumped-up charges, and false arrests to constrain the opposition movement. The political polarization between the corrupt pro-European incumbents (backed by Mr. Plahotniuc), the anti-government but pro-European Dignity and Truth advocates, and the pro-Russian opposition – led by the charismatic oligarch Renato Usatîi and the Party of Socialists leader Igor Dodon – leaves Moldovan public opinion rudderless. Between September 9 and October 21, the International Republican Institute asked the people of Moldova a series of poll questions, finding that nearly four out of five Moldovans feel that the country is moving in the wrong direction. While opposition sentiment remains divided between Usatîi (41%), Dodon  (37%), and the pro-European former minister of education Maia Sandu (37%), the only consistently held opinion is that most of the country finds Mr. Plahotniuc guilty. He polls as the most disliked public figure in Moldova (85%) accompanied by Mr. Filat (83%). Across the country, a third of the citizens support early parliamentary elections. In Chisinau, residents in the capital support Sandu (49%) over Usatîi (30%) who draws substantial support from the pro-Russian provinces. In another poll measuring spontaneous trust, Renato Usatîi (26%) barely edges out Igor Dodon (24%) nationwide and the two remain tied alongside Maia Sandu (17%) in the capital. But the most telling opinion is that more people said they trust “None” (22%) of the three opposition candidates. Political legitimacy in Moldova is currently hard to find.

The new year added a twist in the ongoing political crisis. On January 15, 2016 Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti nominated a new Prime Minister – the forty-nine year old Technology Minister Pavel Filip – a member of the Democratic Party associated with the allegedly corrupt oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. The technocratic government of Mr. Filip still enjoys the support of the United States, the European Union, and Romania, but his association with the Moldovan elite tarnishes the legitimacy of his calls for a national anti-corruption strategy. The decision once again brought thousands of Moldovans to the streets. Demonstrators frustrated with lack of progress unleashed their anger in front of the Parliament as both pro-Russian parties and the anti-corruption civic organization Dignity and Truth held formal rallies. To the demonstrators, Mr. Filip is no departure from the status quo. Nicu Popescu, an analyst for EUISS, spoke to the New York Times noting, “it doesn’t matter if it is Filip or another politician – the real power in Moldovan politics is Plahotniuc… the least popular figure in Moldova right now.” As the specter of another financial crisis, impending budget payments, and the need to keep Moldovan foreign relations afloat bears down on the small county, Mr. Filip’s calls for compromise and reform are generally unheeded. The Prime Minister has tried to shift the blame for the political crisis onto the Moldovan elite, adding that his newly formed government offers the “last chance to restore Moldovans’ and our international partners’ trust,” but Filip’s protestations have done little to win him mainstream support.

Following the confirmation of Filip’s appointment in the Moldovan legislature –via a rushed extraordinary session of Parliament lasting less than 40 minutes – another 40,000 Moldovans took to the streets to protest the new government and once again demand early parliamentary elections. One group of demonstrators broke through the police cordon and occupied the ground floor of the Parliament building, forcing the Chisinau police to use tear gas on the crowds. Of the hundreds of tents that have been erected on Great National Assembly Square, Dignity and Truth activists now stand in solidarity with the Party of Socialists and Our Party supporters in their calls for anti-corruption reforms, the end of oligarchic influence on Moldovan politics, and early elections (albeit framed in much different rhetorical styles).

However, another twist came on March 4 of this year when Moldova’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country will shift to direct presidential elections – instituting a new electoral system for the first time in sixteen years that will take the presidential selection out of the hands of the Moldovan parliament and will place it into the hands of the public in a two-round run-off system. With the new law in effect, President Nicolae Timofti is expected to stay on as acting president until Parliament sets the date for the direct presidential elections expected sometime this fall. The constitutional court’s opinion is replete with political consequences. The decision for direct presidential elections also included raising the minimum age of eligible presidential candidates to forty, excluding the popular Our Party candidate Renato Usatîi from the presidential race for the second time in two years on technical grounds, thereby placing the Party of Socialists leader Igor Dodon at the center of the pro-Russian opposition. Understandably, these events have created a rift between the pro-Russian factions. Usatîi has attacked Dodon for conspiring with the Moldovan elite to wield the constitutional court against him. Dodon on the other hand has attempted to distance himself from the court’s decision and has criticized Usatîi for collaborating with “oligarchs, Americans and [Romanian] unionists.” Usatîi claims he will name his own candidate for an Our Party run, a decision that could potentially situate him behind the scenes in a position ironically similar to that of Plahotniuc on the other side of the protesters’ pickets.

The pro-European opposition also faces a split decision. Popular former minister of education Maia Sandu offers a clean political image but is seen by some as too pro-European. Meanwhile, Dignity and Truth organizer Andrei Năstase has built up considerable momentum as a protest politician with the courage to act, but is also linked to the Ţopa brothers, another set of oligarchs who move behind the Moldovan political scene. Nonetheless, a consensus on a single pro-European candidate will be necessary if the opposition hopes to make it past the first round of presidential elections. But opposition politics could become even more contentious if, as Piotr Olesky speculates, Usatîi sided with the pro-European faction against Dodon if an agreeable opposition candidate could be found to run against the next pro-government incumbent.

Whatever the circumstance, the direct presidential elections could serve to decrease the legitimacy of a sustained opposition movement by promising the façade of electoral change. In fact, the new election law was created in tandem with a decision to ameliorate the official powers of the presidency. Therefore, seeing the presidential elections as a panacea to Moldovan ills is all the more dangerous if it distracts and disrupts opposition calls for anti-corruption reforms. But even as the direct presidential elections will create real tensions between the opposition factions and divert public demands away from early parliamentary elections, Moldovans may be able to rid some of their frustrations at the polls – bringing relief to the simmering political crisis that has remained in limbo for years. The forthcoming elections also give Prime Minister Filip a fixed timeframe in which to implement substantial reforms to win back the trust of the Moldovan people, but Moldova’s shaky economy threatens any new reforms the Prime Minister might hope to achieve.

Meanwhile, Romanian Prime Minister Dacian Ciolo has reopened the prospects for the 150 million euro loan offered to Moldova in October 2015 upon the condition of implementing real reforms. A first delivery of 60 million euros could come reasonably soon, granted that the Moldovan government meets a set of seven conditions including banking sector reforms (and audits), new anti-corruption laws, and a more transparent judiciary and financial sector. However, given the current circumstances in the country, a decisive leap towards these reforms seems unlikely. The crisis in Moldova could therefore be coming to another head as Filip’s new government races to deliver meaningful reforms to a disenchanted populace, the opposition factions bicker over a common candidate for the direct presidential elections, and the Moldovan economy suffers under the strain of a growing budget gap. Support from Romania, the European Union, or Russia could potentially tip the political landscape one way or another, but Moldova’s political maelstrom is largely indigenous.

The mixed field of opposition parties and candidates does have a single point of ideological consensus: the status quo is severely debilitating the country’s prospects for growth and reform. But the question remains if the next stage of Moldovan politics will bring any real relief, reform, or revolution to the struggling country. At the end of February, Party of Socialists leader Igor Dodon called for a new wave of mass protests, stating, “I hope that 2016 will be the year of the political solution in the Republic of Moldova.” To reach that conclusion, Moldovans will have to build some sort of consensus over the future of their country in a political environment that remains fragmented by the antagonistic rhetoric on all sides. The early elections demanded by the protestors and half-fulfilled in the form of direct presidential elections could make or break this struggle for change.

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