Friday 22 June 2012

Nagorno-Karabakh: Slowly thawing a frozen conflict

Joanna Christou

The Nagorno-Karabakh borders with Azerbaijan are now heavily militarised and prone to outbreaks of violence. Pictured here, Karabakh soldiers. Photo from Asbarez.
As far as places go, Nagorno-Karabakh is likely unknown to most people outside of the former Soviet territories. However, this little piece of mountainous land has been the cause of a serious and unsolved dispute between Azerbaijan – in whose territory it officially lies – and the majority ethnic Armenian population which resides there, backed by the neighbouring state of Armenia.  
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this conflict is in fact the lack of attention it has garnered. This is mostly due to its current status, which commentators, journalists and politicians alike have dubbed as a ‘frozen conflict’. This term applies to a number of other disputes in the post-Soviet space and tends to characterize ethnic or territorial conflicts which coincided with the demise of the Soviet Union. Following a period of violence, such conflicts were taken off the boiler with a Russian-led truce which halted hostilities, but failed to resolve the cause of the fighting in most cases. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, this unrecognised territory was left in Armenian hands by the settlement, much to the disgust of Azerbaijan.  The results of this frozen status have been heavily militarized borders and an unworkable status-quo for both sides which continues to express itself through border violations.

The disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan, declared its independence in 1991 following the fall of the Soviet Union. Photo from Euronews.
Recently however, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has started to heat-up again. While hostilities have been kept to a minimum in previous years, there is now a growth in tensions accompanied with occasional outbursts of violence. Just last week ago a shoot-out between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers resulted in three deaths, the second such incident in recent months to result in the loss of life. The best indication of the seriousness of the situation is the growth in interest from international observers, media and politicians. Just last week, US secretary of State visited the region, holding talks with both sides. Meanwhile, informal discussions on the situation have taken place at the United Nations, while Irish Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore has stated that resolution of this conflict will be a prime aim during Ireland’s Presidency of the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE).
Such international attention can only be a good thing. For one, it could provide an incentive for the two sides to talk. This will obviously be a challenge, with some commentators suggesting that violence has only been spurred on by the attention, particularly as tensions seem to have flared in the lead-up to Hillary Clinton’s highly publicised visit, with many seeing this an opportunity for both sides to seek a resolution favouring them. Arguably, Clinton’s visit also suggests that the more major powers have finally understood the importance of seeking to resolve this situation.
Having done little during the last 24 years to help bring stability, the US for its part is hopefully realising that its humanitarian assistance to the region, amounting to approximately US$32 million, probably represents a bottomless pit if efforts are not made to promote a long-term solution and lasting peace. Such thinking can only be encouraged by events in the last year where long-term recipients of US aid such as Egypt have descended into instability, threatening the entire region. This is no doubt thanks to the US’s willingness to accept questionable governance in return for another ally in the Middle East.
Obviously, any attempt at a solution will have to involve Russia, Armenia’s largest patron, and will as a result have to take into account the wider context of US-Russia relationship, as well as the fact that the two regimes involved suffer from a deficit of democratic standards and practices, with Armenia classified as ‘partly free’ by freedom house and Azerbaijan as ‘not free’.
For its part, Russia brokered the ceasefire agreement in 1994, and former president Dmitry Medvedev sought to mediate between the two sides without success. Arguably this is more hands-on involvement that the US has managed to muster across the last two administrations, and, despite Clinton’s visit, the Obama administration’s interest here seems rather lacking. 
If the last year has proven anything, it is that instability in one area can cause the dynamics of an entire region to change. The Middle East is case in point. As such, the heating up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should come as a warning and an opportunity for everyone involved. It is a warning that Armenia and Azerbaijan are still miles apart on the issue, while it is also an opportunity for the major powers involved to take the initiative and work towards peace on the ground, which could in turn translate into overall stability in what has always been a volatile region. Furthermore, it represents an opportunity for both the US and Russia to work together on an issue where peace and a solution could ultimately favour both, possibly resulting in better relations not just between the Armenians and Azeris but also between the Americans and the Russians. What now waits to be seen is if the thaw of Nagorno-Karabakh will be peaceful or violent. This will very much depend on whether the Obama administration decides to proactively build on Clinton’s visit and if the Putin administration finally accepts that the 1994 cease-fire is both unsustainable and a threat to the region overall and Russia itself. 

Monday 11 June 2012

Ukraine and Euro 2012: disjointed responses from short-sighted EU leaders

Adam Lenton

Euro 2012 can help foster closer ties between Ukraine and the EU, and in turn encourage necessary reform. UEFA.
Spectators may lament the cacophonous jeering and put-downs that so often resonate in the Commons, but seldom have issues provoked such passions that result in physical violence.  So it’s extraordinary to see that in the Ukrainian Rada a brawl managed to break out over language policy- not least of all because such an issue is relatively unimportant in the UK. 
Yet in Ukraine language is at the heart of politics. Simply depending on the speaker’s preferred language of either Russian or Ukrainian, you can make a reasonable assumption as to which kinds of political parties they vote for and what their opinions are even on thorny issues of nationalism, independence and relations with Russia and the West. So it should come as no surprise that the debate on whether to make Russian a co-official language in certain parts of the country caused a fury. 
This couldn’t contrast more with the bouts of jubilant flag-waving that have infected the mood in the UK. At a time when the future of the Union is increasingly uncertain, the very flag which could cease to exist is experiencing an uncharacteristic surge in popularity- an Indian summer of sorts represented in a shared feeling of national pride. As Ukraine prepares to host its own major international event in the form of Euro 2012, the contrasting fractures could not be more apparent in what is proving to be a rather sad year for Ukrainian politics- at a time when things should be at their most jubilant.
Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko showing bruises during her imprisonment. Photo: AP. 
Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, now serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office in what has been described as "justice being applied selectively under political motivation", has attracted the most attention from outside. A vociferous critic of the current pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, Tymoshenko’s imprisonment has heralded a new willingness from the Yanukovich adminstration to push the limits on what is acceptable conduct. 
EU leaders have responded in kind by making it clear that the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine will not progress without the implementation of the rule of law. Germany, taking a leading stance with Angela Merkel spearheading a campaign to boycott the games, seems to have succeeded in coaxing other governments- including the French- to not attend matches in Ukraine unless Tymoshenko is released. This garbled attempt to force pressure has so far not had the desired effect, for the simple reason that the Yanukovich administration is unlikely to make a humiliating about turn, and even less likely to go so far as to overturn what they believe to be a perfectly legitimate conviction. 
So far the UK has been reticent to join the political stalemate, and a lack of any unified EU policy regarding the tournament has enabled the UK to keep its distance. In addition to this, England’s fixtures are all in Ukraine. And unlike France and Germany, the UK is careful not to politicise a major sporting event just weeks before the Olympic Games begin in London. Whilst in other EU countries the focus has been on politics of whether to boycott or not, in the UK the focus has been more on football hooliganism and racial hatred, with ex-England captain Sol Campbell decrying scenes of racist abuse shown on a BBC Panorama documentary.  Some of the sensationalist articles about extreme right-wing hooliganism display a contemptuous level of hypocrisy that seems to forget England’s appalling contribution to the history of football violence, with former captain John Terry facing a racism trail after the tournament. Similarly, European leaders cannot both denounce racism in Ukraine, yet be blind to the kind of racism that haunts black footballers such as Mario Balotelli in EU states like Italy (which incidentally hopes to secure the 2016 tournament).  
However, both the UK’s and other European nations’ policies have been disjointed, ineffective, and worst of all, incredibly hypocritical. The UK needs to develop a response to the situation. Simply allowing a discrediting media campaign to ferment does not constitute a well-reasoned response to the political issues at stake, nor does it help strengthen ties between both countries. It is worth remembering that a reinvigorated Putin is in an advantageous position to further draw pro-Russian Yanukovich closer to Moscow should European governments act too belligerently. 
Ukraine may not host such an important tournament for decades to come, and boycotting the games, or by remaining silent in the face of media discouragement will hurt ordinary Ukrainians more than it will the administration. If the EU wants political and legal reform it must realise that Yanukovich will need far more encouragement to do so than his pro-EU predecessors did. In turn, that means choosing which battles to fight and coming to the conclusion that in the long run, Ukraine will stand a far better chance of becoming an EU member if sport is not tainted by politics, and that EU citizens give Ukraine a chance and develop stronger ties with each other. 

Wednesday 6 June 2012

‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ – the Hypocrisy of Ignoring Alexander Lukashenko

Jack Barton

Police suppress protests after the rigged election in December 2010. AP Photo/Sergei Grits.
In a recent survey, only 1 in 50 people in Britain could locate Belarus on a map, perhaps this is why we ignore it.
With that statistic in mind it is small wonder that so few people are well-informed about the situation in Belarus.  Here are some of the highlights: President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 18 years; the last elections in December 2010 were accompanied by mass violence, election fraud and the arrest of hundreds of political activists and demonstrators, some of whom are still in jail; speaking out against the regime is a crime, at least two people are currently in jail for unfurling the pre-soviet flag.  The regime is propped up by a ‘secret’ police force which terrorises, tortures and arrests at its whim – having failed to change their name after 1991 they call themselves the KGB, presumably they wanted the Belarusian people to know who they were dealing with.
Condolezza Rice once called Belarus ‘the last true dictatorship in Europe’.  Lukashenko is a real old school autocrat – earlier this year he responded to a similar accusation by the German foreign minister by saying that it was ‘better to be a dictator than be gay’.
This spat was part of a recent trend of anti-Lukashenko rhetoric within Europe.  Earlier this year the EU withdrew its ambassadors from Belarus on the grounds of human rights abuses, including the torture and illegal detention of prisoners of conscience.  After much posturing, Lukashenko released two political prisoners – 2010 Presidential favourite Andrei Sannikov (who had been in prison ever since despite signing a plea for release after being tortured and receiving threats to the lives of his children) and his campaign manager Dmitry Bandarenka.  EU ambassadors are in the process of returning.
It is unclear what spurred this act of protest by the EU – certainly awareness about human rights abuses in Belarus has been rising over the past year with the release of the film Europe’s Last Dictator, which just won Best Documentary at the London Independent Film Festival, and the work of the UK-based Free Belarus Now campaign set us by Sannikov’s sister Irina Bogdonova.  This type of work however, is currently left entirely on the shoulders of individuals such as Bogdonova and director Matthew Charles.  The law is on their side, but they have no defence from the Belarusian authorities.  Though Free Belarus Now focuses mainly on the release of political prisoners, it currently has a pending law suit waiting in the hands of law firms all over the world which means that no senior member of Lukashenko’s government can visit certain counties without being charged with being complicit in illegal detention and torture.  This is backed-up by an EU travel ban – the head of the KGB recently had to travel to Rome in secret to avoid this.  At the same time however, watching Europe’s Last Dictator in Belarus will get you arrested while the ‘Free Belarus Now’ website and their staff emails get hacked by the KGB every few days.
On 24th May Lukashenko made a statement which summarises diplomatic relations with Belarus: ‘I hear more and more statements that European diplomats wait for an amnesty, again raising the question of political prisoners ... We expect specific steps from the West and from the European Union.  The ball is in their court.’  Lukashenko can blackmail the EU by holding political prisoners hostage – he knows he can because he has been doing it since his first rigged election, and because it works.  The EU has placed a number of sanctions on the Belarusian government but the withdrawal of its ambassadors was the strongest step it had taken in a long time, the fact that they started returning as soon as Sannikov and Bandarenka were released showed that there was no subtle underlying politics to this trade-off and it showed that they have given up trying to make other sanctions hurt.
Undermining Lukashenko is not a lost cause.  Even if publicly denouncing him counts as little more than a symbolic gesture, it would be one in tune with all of the principles Western leaders are desperate to stand by yet the fail to do so.  The failure of Western leaders must in part be due to lack of awareness in the public.  When the prisoners were released it was a huge story for Eastern European news outlets while in Britain only The Independent covered it – despite the urging of Free Belarus Now to many others.  Angela Merkel rebuked Lukashenko over the gay jibe but that is the most there has been for some time.  Russia alone has made its stance perfectly clear by announcing tighter border checks to stop the escape of political refugees and with Putin planning to make the first state visit of his new term to Minsk.
European leaders do not support Lukashenko, unlike mad dictators elsewhere in the world there is not enough distance to be completely disassociated with him, so they ignore him.  It is clear to anyone that he is a deluded tyrant of the type which (unfortunately for Sacha Baron Cohen) are too absurd to make up.  But if you read the news coming out of Belarus every day this neutrality is shameful.  The Belarusian people have never escaped Soviet-style dictatorship yet dictatorship in Europe is ignored while those of the Middle East occupy our headlines and our politicians’ speeches.  European leaders do not want another problem country to deal with but they are in a position to give the EU sanctions some teeth, as long as they preach a devotion to freedom and democracy they are surely under an obligation to do so.