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South-Caucasus Geopolitical Watch – from May 14 to May 20, 2022

05/13/2022: Signing of a decree by former South Ossetian President Anatoli Bibilov on a referendum on the unification of the “Republic” with Russia and ratification by the Duma of the agreement on dual citizenship.

Former South Ossetian President Anatoli Bibilov, defeated in the presidential elections on May 8, signed a decree on May 13 on a referendum on the question “Do you support the unification of the Republic of South Ossetia and Russia?“which should take place on July 17th.

Newly elected “president” Alan Gagloev, who is due to take office on May 24, said the following day: “As a son of my homeland and the popularly elected president of the Republic of South Ossetia, I fully support the idea to reunite the divided Ossetian people within a united Russia. Another question is whether the historic moment has now come when it is necessary to issue a decree on the calling of a referendum and to speed up its holding
[…] For those who have forgotten, let me remind you that in 2014, without the agreement with Russia, referendums on reunification were held in the People’s Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk. 8 years have passed and we see that they have not yet reached their goal. […] I do not understand how it was possible not to agree on the date of the referendum with the elected president of South Ossetia, knowing that he should implement all the measures for the referendum, and, moreover, during a period of personnel change. […] Did Anatoli Bibilov think about the quality of the preparation of the referendum and its results in such a situation? For my part, I want to assure the people of South Ossetia – the state of Alania, that my actions related to the announcement of the referendum will be aimed at respecting international legal standards, holding consultations and implementing agreements with the Russian Federation“.

He thus tried to moderate the haste of his predecessor by recalling the role and the necessary will of the Russian partner: “as a reliable strategic partner of the Russian Federation and an adequate party to contractual relations, the Republic of South Ossetia is bound to respect article 1 of the treaty of alliance and integration with the Russian Federation. It says that “the contracting parties shall pursue a co-ordinated foreign policy, which involves mutual examination of the interests of the contracting parties in various fields of cooperation, informing each other of actions taken in this regard“.

On May 16, the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate said that Russian Patriarch Kirill’s message of congratulations to the new “president” of South Ossetia on May 13 “[raised] misunderstandings” and that “it [was] regrettable that today, when any attempt to strengthen relations between the Orthodox Churches [proved] to be crucial, such measures are being taken which negatively affect the current state of affairs and complicate the situation”.

On May 18, Dimitri Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, said on this subject that it was “a reflection of the general mood and attitude of the inhabitants of the republic, and of the former head of this republic” but that “at the moment, however, as far as Russia is concerned, no action [was] taken in this matter“. On May 19, Andreï Rudenko, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared, when the Duma had just ratified the agreement on dual nationality between South Ossetia and Russia signed on September 20, that the decision to Including the “republic” required taking into account several factors including “the current geopolitical situation“. On the same day, Grigori Karasin, director of the International Affairs Committee of the Council of the Russian Federation and interlocutor of the special representative of the Georgian Prime Minister for Russia, Zurab Abashidze, informed that he had discussed this issue with the Georgian side. Konstantin Zatulin, First Deputy Chairman of the Duma Committee for CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots said, “I respect Anatoly Ilyich [Bibilov], but his actions current ones are not entirely correct: since you lost the election, the newly elected president should be the one calling the referendum. And if you do it because you want to do something last minute, it’s not pleasant. This referendum is not appropriate for Russia now.

05/14/2022: Georgia’s participation in joint military exercises “Trojan Footprint” with the United States.

For the second consecutive year, Georgia participated between May 3 and May 14 in the joint military exercises “Trojan Footprint” with the United States Special Operations Command in Europe (SOCEUR) which aims to improve the capabilities of the forces of special operations, increasing integration with task forces and enhancing interoperability with NATO members. These exercises were conducted in Georgia alongside units from the United States, United Kingdom, Romania and Spain.

05/14/2022: Arrests of journalists and human rights activists in Baku.

On May 14, a demonstration in Fountains Square in Baku with the slogan “we don’t want a criminal state” resulted in the arrest of around 30 activists before the event and several dozen people the same day. This protest follows the stabbing of Azerbaijani journalist Ayten Mammadova.

05/16/2022: Armenian PM’s Critical Statements at CSTO Summit.

The CSTO summit in Moscow on May 16 brought together President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, President of Kazakhstan Kassim Jomart Tokayev, President of the Kyrgyz Republic Sadyr Japarov, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon, and CSTO General Secretary Stanislav Zas, for the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Collective Security Treaty and the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the organization.

On this occasion, Vladimir Putin particularly insisted on “the question of the guarantee of biological security” by declaring “it has already been a long time that we are ringing the alarm bell on the American military-biological activity in the post- Soviet. As you know, the Pentagon has established dozens of bio-laboratories and specialized centres in our common region, and they are in no way engaged in providing practical medical assistance to the population of the countries where they have deployed their activities. Their main task is to collect biological material and study for their own purposes the specifics of the spread of dangerous viruses and diseases” and demanding “the rapid implementation of the Russian initiative to launch the work of specialized advice within the framework of the CSTO”. While asking CSTO members to “intensify cooperation with [the] natural partners of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States“, he suggested “granting the CIS observer status within the CSTO“.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, for his part, reaffirmed that he considers the organization a “key factor in ensuring the security of the Republic of Armenia as well as security and stability in the Eurasian region”. Nevertheless he insisted on “the need to continue work to ensure the coordination of positions” between its members. Indeed, he said: “As you know, last year, these days, Azerbaijani troops invaded the sovereign territory of Armenia to initiate the mechanisms provided by the provision on CSTO Response to situations. This document was approved by the Collective Security Council, but, unfortunately, we cannot say that the organization reacted as the Republic of Armenia expected. For a long time, we have been raising the issue of arms sales by CSTO member states to countries not friendly to Armenia. As a result, these weapons were used against the Armenian people of Armenia. This is also a problem, to be honest, the reaction of CSTO member states during the 44-day war in 2020, after the war, did not bother the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian people. But I would like to highlight the special role of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, and Vladimir Putin in ending the Nagorno-Karabakh war, at the trilateral announcements of January 11, 2021 and November 26, 2021”.

16/05/2022: The imprisonment of the director of the opposition channel Mtavari Arkhi TV raises opposition from civil society to the Georgian government.

The Tbilisi City Court on May 16 sentenced the director of the opposition Mtavari Arkhi TV channel, Nika Gvaramia, to three and a half years in prison for abuse of power over management decisions and for embezzlement. This director would have concluded an agreement with the Porsche centre in Tbilisi to obtain a vehicle in exchange for reduced prices for advertising on his current channel as on Rustavi 2 in 2015. Nika Gvaramia had previously requested the recusance of the judge in charge of the case, Lasha Ckhivadze, for having been a childhood friend of a witness to the investigation and an employee of a holding company holding shares in the Rustavi 2 channel, Zaza Gvelesiani. Moreover, the complaint dates from the time when Kibar Khalvashi took over the management of this channel and fired Nika Gvaramia who then created Mtavari Arkhi TV.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch denounced this imprisonment. Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia said the next day, “Nika Gvaramia’s conviction is a blatant act of politically motivated prosecution in retaliation for her dissenting views and criticisms. of the authorities […] the growing concerns about the decline of media freedom in Georgia and exposes the government’s growing influence on the courts in a number of cases aimed at muzzling their critics and opponents” while calling for his immediate release. Giorgi Gogia, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of HRW denounced “false accusations of abuse of power” and declared that this imprisonment was “a blow to media freedom and to the state. of law in Georgia“. The “Georgia Young Lawyers Association” (GYLA) said the sentencing was “unlawful and politically motivated“. 42 civil society organizations said in a joint statement on May 17 that the sentence was “a warning and a threat to other independent media to stop critical coverage of government performance, cease monitoring activities and refrain from disclosing facts undesirable to the government“. Similarly independent online media Publika, Netgazeti and the Georgian Regional Broadcasters Alliance of 45 regional media denounced the condemnation as “a politically motivated movement“. Mtavari Arkhi, Formula, Pirveli and Kavkazia TV channels issued a statement saying: “The arrest of Nika Gvaramia is a direct signal to the West that Georgia is a country hostage to Russian oligarchs and that it is controlled by Putin’s methods. Gvaramia’s arrest signifies Georgia’s rejection of Europe and NATO. This is particularly evident in light of Georgia’s application for EU membership. Moreover, the position of the “Georgian Dream” regime regarding the ongoing war in Ukraine indicates that the authorities have distanced themselves from the civilized world, and further proof of this is the arrest of Nika Gvaramia“.

A critical statement by several MEPs called this judgment “unfounded“, which was criticized by MP Nikoloz Salkharadze in these terms: “I doubt that the documents will be fully translated into English and that these gentlemen and ladies had enough time to read it. Therefore, it’s all based on perceptions.” Ned Price, spokesman for the US State Department, spoke on the subject in response to questions from reporters and said, “We’ve been pretty clear, pretty candid with our Georgian partners about the continued need to strengthen the pillars of democracy that we want to see strengthened in Georgia“.

On May 19, several hundred demonstrators gathered in Tbilisi to protest against this decision and demanding the immediate release of Nika Gvaramia considering him a political prisoner. From the Republic Square to the Parliament and then to the headquarters of the television channel, the demonstrators marched with banners with slogans such as “Georgia’s European choice is in danger“, “the government fights the media” or “solidarity with Mtavari“.

05/16-18/2022: Meeting of Georgian leaders with European Union and NATO officials.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili met on May 17 in Brussels, together with Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili, European Council President Charles Michel and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola as part of Georgia’s application for EU membership. Charles Michel thus declared that “the EU [was] committed to further strengthening the partnership with Georgia” but that “reforms on the democratization process and the rule of law [were] more necessary than ever“. Robertsa Metsola also pointed to “reforms to the judiciary, rule of law, media freedom, LGBTIQ+ and human rights” which “remain crucial for the country’s European path” while reaffirming that “Georgia [belonged] to the European family“. The following day, he also met Jens Soltenberg, Secretary General of NATO who reiterated his full support for “sovereignty, territorial integrity and the right of each nation to choose its own path” as well as the High Representative of NATO Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell who underlined “the importance of cross-party cooperation and unity between national political forces, which are essential to achieve concrete and rapid progress on the priorities crucial reform initiatives in strengthening democracy in Georgia” while saying the EU stands ready to help Georgia “to counter domestic political polarization; put on track an inclusive and credible judicial reform agenda; and implement agreed constitutional reforms in this regard” and European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, who stated that “the EU [continues] to provide support to help Georgia facing the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine“.

At the same time, Ilia Darchiashvili also met his French and Bulgarian counterparts in Brussels, Jean-Yves le Drian and Teodora Genchovska, on May 18, to discuss with the former the next steps in the country’s accession to the EU and with the latter strengthening economic ties and transit routes across the Black Sea.

On May 18, it was the head of the Georgian defence forces, Giorgi Matiashvili, who met Admiral Rob Bauer, chairman of the NATO military committee in Brussels, to inform him of the transformations taking place within the Georgian Defence Forces as well as initiatives within the framework of the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNPG). He also attended the meeting of the EU military committee which also met delegations from North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Moldova. The EU Chiefs of Staff discussed the implications of the war in Ukraine, the strategic compass and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) military missions and operations.

05/17/2022: Organization of the “Day of the Holiness of the Family” by the Georgian Orthodox Church in response to the “International Day against Homophobia”.

On May 17, the Georgian Orthodox Church held its “Family Holiness Day” bringing together several thousand people in down town Tbilisi, some of whom attended the church service in Kashveti before going in procession at Sion Cathedral with handmade icons. The main traffic artery of the capital, Rustaveli Avenue, was closed for the occasion. This day has been chosen since 2014 in response to the “International Day Against Homophobia” which notably gave rise to a round table organized by “Tbilisi Pride” and opened by Public Defender Nino Lomjaria who spoke about the repressions against journalists covering the July 5 LGBTQ Pride March and criticizing the government for its record on gay assembly rights in the country. She said, “For several years, the Public Defender has called on senior officials to make statements in favour of certain groups. Now we live in a reality where we must ask senior officials to refrain from making statements that incite the violation of community rights.

05/17/2022: 3rd general conference of the ECO Parliamentary Assembly in Baku.

The 3rd General Conference of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) brought together on May 17 in Baku several parliamentary delegations led by Mustafa Sentop, Speaker of the National Assembly of Turkey, Raja Pervez Ashraf, Speaker of the Pakistani National Assembly, Ali Nikzad, Deputy Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Balaim Kessebayeva, Deputy Speaker of the Majlis of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nourdinjon Ismoilov, Speaker of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis of Uzbekistan, Ulan Primov, Deputy Speaker of Jogorku Kenesh of the Kyrgyz Republic, and members of the House of Representatives of Tajikistan. This conference was chaired by the Speaker of the Azerbaijani Parliament, Sahiba Gafarova, and resulted in the signing of the Baku Declaration welcomed by the Secretary General of the ECO Parliamentary Assembly, Tahir Hussain.

05/18-19/2022: Visit of the Lithuanian President to Baku and Yerevan and statements on the process of resolving the conflict with Armenia.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on May 18 to discuss prospects for expanding bilateral cooperation, particularly in the field of energy. The Lithuanian President thus declared “We consider Azerbaijan a reliable partner in the energy sector […] Lithuania could offer solutions to Azerbaijan in the field of renewable energies, in particular solar energy “. The Azerbaijani President addressed the issue of resolving the conflict with Armenia, saying he wants to “see the South Caucasus as a region of peace, cooperation and interaction” and stating “I think that after the second war of Karabakh, there is an opportunity to create this format of cooperation. We also exchanged views on this with our Georgian colleagues who also view this option very positively, but unfortunately Armenia is so far unwilling to give a start, a first start to a trilateral format of interaction in the South Caucasus […] At a meeting initiated by the President of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel, in Brussels on April 6, it was agreed that the two parties would establish a working group of here the end of April […] However, on the last day, April 29, Armenia cancelled the agreed meeting. It’s very disappointing. […] In other words, even if we have some optimism, such rather strange manoeuvrers and moves by the Armenian government actually undermine some confidence.

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the same day that the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides had “informed that they [were] about to complete the process of forming national delegations“, that “the Russia [had] already formed its team of experts” and that it hoped “that it [would] be possible to start practical work on the delimitation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in the near future“.

For its part, the Armenian Foreign Ministry responded to the Azerbaijani statements on May 19 by stating that “the Armenian side [remains] committed to the implementation of the agreements” and that “the Armenian side [did not] cancel or rejected any meeting” following his remarks the day before: “You are right, the [first] meeting [on border issues] did not take place [on May 16-17] but I can assure you that we will continue our discussions on the organization of this meeting. There are some technical details to be agreed between the parties. And I hope that in the days and weeks to come, we finally get that meeting.” On May 19, Armenian Security Council Secretary Armen Grigorian also said that the first meeting of the boundary demarcation commission “could not yet take place due to unresolved technical issues.”

On May 19, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister said, “We always declare that Armenia must now respond to these well-meaning approaches and we encourage them. We see that the Armenian administration is under pressure from radicals inside the country as well as from the diaspora outside.” Indeed, during the week, 131 demonstrators opposed to the government of Nikol Pashinian were arrested in the streets of Yerevan, which would bring to 286 the total number of people detained since the beginning of the popular uprisings.

Gitanas Nausèda, the Lithuanian President visited Armenia on May 19 after his stay in Bakina, where he met the Armenian President, Vahagn Khachaturian, and the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to whom he praised “the commitment of the Armenian government towards democratic reforms and regional peace efforts”. Nikol Pashinian presented on this occasion the Armenian position on the demarcation of the borders and the two parties would have underlined “the need to ensure a comprehensive settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict under the auspices of the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group“. while addressing “issues related to the preservation of Armenian religious and cultural heritage“.

Numerous Azerbaijani accusations of Armenian violations of the ceasefire systematically denied and qualified as “disinformation” followed one another all week long from May 14 for shootings in the direction of Zaylik in the district of Kelbajar and Yukhari Shorzha in the district from Bazarkechar, on May 15 and 16 for fire in the direction of Yellija and Barmagbina in Kelbajar district and Zarkand and Ashaghi Shorzha in Bazarkechar district, then on May 19 at similar positions.

A meeting may take place in Brussels on May 22 between Charles Michel, President of the European Council, Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian Prime Minister and Ilham Aliev, Azerbaijani President.

05/18619/2022: Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister’s visit to Iran: ongoing road and rail projects.

On May 18 and 19, Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev traveled to Tehran to meet President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Roads and Urban Development Minister Rostam Qasemi, and Chief of Staff of the Islamic Republic of Iran Armed Forces Mohammad Bagheri. The discussions mainly concerned the regional communication routes, including the connections of the Astara River Bridge, the Astara Railway and Nakhchivan Highway, and the Parsabad-Imishli Railway. An agreement has reportedly been reached regarding the construction and commissioning of “new highway bridges between the Eastern Zangezur Economic Region of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan across Iran within one year“.

05/19-20/2022: 132nd session of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in the presence of the Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers.

On the occasion of the 132nd session of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, meeting in Turin and chaired by the Italian MFA Luigi di Maio, “in the context of the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine“, Armenian Foreign Ministry, Ararat Mirzoyan, gave a speech declaring, “Today we are witnessing the near demise of the security architecture which certainly has not started recently in the last two months. We felt the shattering of multilateralism, the cracking of international institutions and the disrespect of fundamental rules less than two years ago when Azerbaijan, violating the principle of non-use of force, launched a war against Nagorno-Karabakh and its people […] why are we fighting to make Azerbaijan understand that Nagorno-Karabakh is not just a territory, it is a people, whose dignity must be respected? The Armenian government is committed to efforts to bring peace and prosperity to the region and has repeatedly reiterated its readiness to immediately begin genuine and constructive negotiations on the normalization of relations with Azerbaijan. And in this regard, the co-chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group has a key role to play in advancing the peace process. But we strongly believe that the Council of Europe, within its mandate, should also actively support this process”.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Djeyhun Bayramov also delivered a speech on the matter stressing “Azerbaijan’s respect for the norms and principles of international law, including sovereignty and territorial integrity within the internationally recognized borders of the States“, noting that “these principles are the basis of international peace, security and stability” and informing “of the steps taken to normalize relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia” facilitated by the meeting of the 6 April in Brussels with the President of the European Council Charles Michel. According to the Azerbaijani side “as a result of the meeting, the foreign ministers of the two countries [would] have been instructed to start drafting a peace agreement between the two countries and [would] have agreed to establish a joint border commission on the delimitation and demarcation of the border between the two countries“. The Azerbaijani MFA reportedly noted “that the Council of Europe could play a particular role in contributing to the implementation of confidence-building measures“.

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