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South-Caucasus Geopolitical Watch – From February 5 to February 11, 2022

02/05-11/2022: Armenian-Azerbaijani controversy over the cultural heritage of Karabakh amid border skirmishes.

Following the Feb. 3 announcement by Azerbaijani Culture Minister Anar Karimov of the formation of a working group that was reportedly tasked with “removing fictitious traces written by Armenians on Albanian religious temples“, a new statement was issued on February 7, which he explained by “false information issued by biased foreign media in recent days“, and which clarifies the project of the Azerbaijani state by speaking of a “working group to study this heritage” and arguing that “if falsifications are identified, they will be documented with the participation of international experts and presented to the international community“. The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly reacted on February 8 through the voice of its spokesperson Vahan Hounanian who declared: “This once again demonstrates the fact that the cases of vandalism and destruction of the Armenian historical, cultural and religious heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh during the 44-day war and the following period are deliberate and pre-planned, and are part of the policy of annihilating the indigenous Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh” while many Armenian NGOs have called to the authorities to notify the measures taken by Azerbaijan to the International Court of Justice of the United Nations and to contact the competent bodies of the United Nations, including UNESCO, to organize a visit in “Artsakh”. Similarly, the de facto Foreign Ministry of “Artsakh” issued a statement on February 8 condemning the Azerbaijani decision and asserting that “Azerbaijan’s falsification of history and cultural genocide are part of a policy broader anti-Armenianism that has been steadily implemented for decades […] the machinations of history and culture served as excuses for the forced expulsion of the Armenian population from the former Azerbaijan SSR, they are now aimed at legitimizing the consequences of Azerbaijan’s illegal use of military force against Artsakh”.
On February 11, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry also reacted by denouncing Armenian attempts to circumvent the agreement reached on February 4 regarding the visits planned and accepted by the two parts of UNESCO missions, stressing that the Azerbaijan had been requesting UNESCO for 20 years for such a mission prevented by Armenia and that it was waiting for this body to also investigate the Azeri cultural heritage in Armenia.
At the same time, numerous exchanges of gunfire were recorded on both sides, accompanied by the usual denials by both parties, Armenia denouncing shots fired at factory workers in Askeran on February 5, or at several houses in Karmir-Shuka and Taghavard in the region of Martouni on February 11, and Azerbaijan denouncing the bombardments on the village of Gapanli, in the region of Terter on the night of February 6 to 7, or on the village of Zeylik in the region of Kelbajar on February 11th.

02/06-08/2022: Russian support for Anatoli Bibilov’s candidacy for re-election in South Ossetia.

On February 06, Anatoly Bibilov, the de facto president of South Ossetia declared on the Russian television channel Russia 24 that the unity of the Ossetian people was more important than independence, explaining that the Ossetians of the south and the north was “one people with traditions, customs and a common language” and that the integration of South Ossetia into Russia had been “the will of our nation since the 1920s“. He recalled the measures taken within the framework of the “Five Steps to Russia” program, mentioning the salary increases for civil servants and the military, and the reforms of the customs service. He also expressed the wish for “friendly and good neighbourly relations with Georgia” marked by “reciprocity between equals” and underlined the obstacle linked to the Georgian refusal to sign a “non-use of force” agreement. On February 8, the tactical military exercises of a long series to continue for 3 weeks in the southern military district (Abkhazia, Volgograd Oblast, Stravopol Krai, Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Karatcheïvo-Cherkessie, North Ossetia and Ingushetia ) were organized by Russia in the de facto republic. On the same day, the secretary general of the “United Russia” party, Andrei Turchak, went to Tskhinvali to support the candidacy of Anatoly Bibilov of the “United Ossetia” party for his re-election on April 10, and notably declared that the latter had “experience and knowledge necessary for state-building, good personal potential for the active development of Russian-South Ossetian relations and the implementation of the socio-economic development program“. Among the personalities who came to support him were the head of the Republic of North Ossetia, Sergei Menyailo, as well as the presidents of the de facto “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the de facto “Lugansk People’s Republic”, Denis Pushilin and Denis Kolesnikov.

As a reminder, the South Ossetian authorities put forward the figure of 48,000 Ossetians living in South Ossetia (compared to 460,000 in North Ossetia – Alania) and 30,000 Georgians had to leave the territory following the armed conflict of 1991-1992 and the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.

02/07/2022: Release of 8 Armenian prisoners of war without compensation for Azerbaijan on the location of the mass graves of the first war.

Following the discussion on February 4 by videoconference which brought together the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the president of the European Council Charles Michel, 8 Armenian prisoners of war, including the 6 prisoners remaining in captivity since the 16 November 2021, were released and repatriated on February 7 on board a French plane, which was welcomed in particular by Javier Colomina, Special Representative of the NATO Secretary General for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, by the French Ambassadors to Armenia and Azerbaijan, Anne Louyot and Zacharie Gross, by the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Toivo Klaar, and by the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova who supported the principle of “all against all” and underlined the results of the search for bodies since the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh, i.e. 146 people found including 127 Armenians and 19 Azerbaijanis. This meeting, which is a continuation of that of December 14 in Brussels and which addressed humanitarian issues, confidence-building measures, the problem of landmines, the opening of communications, the delimitation and demarcation of borders and the start of talks on a peace treaty, was the subject of a joint statement by Emmanuel Macron and Charles Michel who together reaffirmed their “full commitment to support efforts aimed at reducing tensions“.
President Ilham Aliyev particularly insisted during this meeting on the fate of the 3890 Azerbaijani citizens reported missing during the first war including 71 children, 267 women and 326 elderly people and on the need to locate the mass graves. The parties also agreed to send a UNESCO mission to the two countries. If Emmanuel Macron declared via Twitter “release of the detainees, shared efforts in the search for the missing, work to come for the rehabilitation of the railways: since our December meetings in Brussels with Armenia and Azerbaijan, the progress is there. Towards appeasement and confidence, we continue”, the criticisms were heard from February 8 by the Azerbaijani side in front of the absence of Armenian communication concerning the fate of the disappeared Azerbaijani. The statement issued by the Azerbaijani MFA calls on the international community to put pressure on Armenia to “take responsibility for clarifying the fate of missing Azerbaijani citizens, a bloody legacy of the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war”. The Azerbaijani Foreign Minister, Djeyhun Bayramov, notably declared the following day during a joint press conference with his Moldovan counterpart, “the Prime Minister of Armenia promised to cooperate in this field. Then we saw the illogical statement of the Armenian Foreign Minister. It was an absurd statement, incompatible with any morality, humanity or international law. It was stated that Armenia made no promises in this regard. Azerbaijan will continue to insist on this issue. We believe it is time to increase international pressure on Armenia in this direction” or “Armenia’s compliance with its obligations in this area can be assessed at zero percent“. This question comes as Azerbaijan prepares to commemorate on February 26 the Khojaly massacre by the Armenian armed forces in 1992.

02/07/2022: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s statements in the direction of the South Caucasus give rise to varied interpretations.

During an interview with Russian journalist Vladimir Solovyov on February 7, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made several controversial statements regarding the South Caucasus. In particular, he declared that there should be an extension of the Union State between Russia and Belarus to all the former Soviet socialist republics and referred to Armenia in these terms: “Armenia has not nowhere to go…what? do you think someone needs them? They have already seen it, Nikol Voyevich [Pachinian] has already seen it”. Moreover, he is said to have declared that he would not rule out recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, following the example of Russia, by answering the question in these terms: “Is there need this? [recognition of the republics] As soon as I understand and President [Vladimir Putin] tells me that there is a need for this…”.

The next day, the Belarusian ambassador to Armenia, Alexander Konyuk, visited the Armenian Foreign Ministry, and his spokesperson, Vahan Hounanian, responded to these remarks in these terms: “It is certain that the geopolitical analyzes of the Belarusian president are above all aimed at serving his national political agenda and have nothing to do with Armenia and its foreign policy” while pro-government MPs delivered strong criticism of these remarks in Parliament , emphasizing the Armenian participation in the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan last month or asking the question of who needed Alexander Lukashenko, MP Rustam Bakoyan stating “I think this rhetorical question was put to him by his people”.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry replied through its spokesperson, Mari Narchemashvili, explaining that given the bilateral relations between the two countries, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia “were not on the agenda” and that “Belarus in this respect remains faithful to the fundamental principles of international law” also claiming manipulation of the Russian media. The day before, the de facto foreign ministry of Abkhazia said it positively assessed the statements of the Belarusian president and said it was open “to a large-scale dialogue with states friendly to Russia” and interested in establishing official contacts with Belarus. Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for the President of the Russian Federation, said afterwards that the Kremlin would not send any signals in this direction and that their “ally and partner will decide alone when he deems it appropriate”.

As a reminder, Minsk planned in 2009 to recognize the two secessionist republics following Russia after the 2008 war before changing its mind, which was explained by Russia’s refusal to share the negative consequences of this gesture, in terms of international sanctions. On February 9, Mikheil Saakashvili spoke about this during a hearing at the Tbilisi City Court, explaining that the lack of recognition of the independence of the two de facto republics by Belarus was the result of a ” secret diplomacy” that he would have carried out through several meetings with his Belarusian counterpart in London.

02/08/2022: Ratification of the new law “On Media” in Azerbaijan.

On February 8, Ilham Aliyev ratified the new law “On the Media” adopted by Parliament on December 30, which had been the subject of numerous demonstrations of opposition from Azerbaijani civil society and numerous international criticisms. renewed at the end of the week by the voice of the European Commissioner for Human Rights, of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists in New York, by the Embassy of the United States in Azerbaijan, or even the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. This law provides for the establishment of a media register, the replacement of the National Television and Radio Council by an Audiovisual Council, the accreditation of foreign journalists by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a modification of the Charter of the Media Development Agency now empowered to issue warnings to online media for violation of this law, to suspend their activities and the distribution of their newspapers, and to issue certificates of registration in the registers of the organs of press following a “test” whose content has not been revealed. In addition, this law provides for significant restrictions on the activity of media located outside the country and whose target audience is in Azerbaijan, since it imposes on the owners of media broadcasting in this country to reside there and to have Azerbaijani nationality. It will also be mandatory to publish more than 20 articles per day to be legally recognized as a media. Azerbaijan is ranked 167th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom according to Reporters Without Borders. This law has been under consideration by the Venice Commission since February 2.

02/08/2022: The European Court of Human Rights begins to examine the individual complaints of Georgians against Russia following the 2008 war.

On February 8, the ECHR began to examine 59 individual complaints filed by Georgian citizens against Russia concerning the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which concern more than 350 victims of forced displacement and which relate to violations of human rights in matter of protection of private and family life, property rights, freedom of movement and prohibition of discrimination. The questions addressed to Russia await an answer by May 12. In 2021, a separate verdict was issued by the ECHR in a case between the two states, resulting in Russia claiming payment of 10 million euros from its adversary for the moral damage suffered by 1,500 Georgian nationals as a result of the violation of 6 different articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. 408 Georgian citizens died during this conflict which also left 26,000 internally displaced.

02/08-10/2022: Visit of the Deputy Prime Minister of Moldova to Azerbaijan.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Moldova, Nicu Popescu, arrived in Baku on February 8 at the invitation of his Azerbaijani counterpart Djeihoun Bayramov, with the aim of “strengthening cooperation between the two countries in the areas of trade, economy, investment and energy in the context of the strategic importance of the Southern Gas Corridor”. The question of opening direct flights between the two countries was discussed. Nicu Popescu thanked his counterpart for the help provided to Moldovan hospitals during the pandemic and expressed his wish to help Azerbaijan in the process of demining Karabakh. He also met on February 10 with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

02/09/2022: Abkhazia sends its request for observer status to the UN.

On February 9, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the de facto Republic of Abkhazia, Inal Ardzinba, traveled to Moscow where he met Alexei Borisov, Vice-President of the Russian Association for the United Nations, in order to convey to him an appeal to Antonio Guttierez, Secretary General of the UN, for Abkhazia to obtain observer status at the UN like Palestine and the Holy See, which would allow it to participate in the discussions of the UN General Assembly. This call was described as a “propaganda gesture” by Mari Narchemashvili, spokesperson for the Georgian Foreign Ministry.

02/09/2022: Ranking of South Caucasus countries according to the democracy index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The Democracy Index 2021 released on February 10 by the Economist Intelligence Unit reported Azerbaijan’s ranking as an “authoritarian regime” at 141st place out of 167 countries and a ranking of Armenia and Georgia as a “hybrid regime” in 89th and 91st place respectively. Armenia is the only one of the three countries to register progress in pursuing its program of democratic reform.

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