Monday, October 26, 2015

Armenia and Iran After the Nuclear Deal: The Quest for Broader Cooperation

By Erik Davtyan

The agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran reached with the P5+1 powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany) on July 14, has provided new perspectives for Iran’s wider engagement in the South Caucasus—especially with Armenia, the only state in the region that actively promotes a close partnership with the Islamic Republic.

In August 2015, Iran and Armenia had already signed an agreement on the construction of the third high-voltage electricity transmission line connecting the two countries. This new planned electricity link will cost an estimated $120 million (Azatutyun.am, August 13). The Iranian nuclear agreement and the promised gradual lifting of sanctions apparently increased mutual interest in maintaining a more active political dialogue and reinforcing economic cooperation between Iran and Armenia. These issues were discussed during last month’s (September 17) meeting between Armenian Ambassador to Tehran Artashes Tumanyan and Iranian Minister of Industry, Mines and Trade Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh (Armenpress.am, September 18). The energy aspect of bilateral relations was discussed on October 3–5, when the Armenian delegation, headed by Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Ervand Zakharyan, visited Iran and held talks with the co-chair of the Armenian-Iranian Intergovernmental Commission, Hamid Chitchian, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zangane, and the chairman of Iran’s Export Development Bank, Ali Salehabadi (Minenergy.am, October 5).

The next and, in fact, the most important recent event (after the nuclear deal) for bilateral Iranian-Armenian relations was the official visit to Yerevan of the First Vice President of Iran Eshaq Jahangiri (October 14–15). After Iranian then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit in 2011, this is the highest-level visit to Armenia by an Iranian official. At the airport, Jahangiri was welcomed by Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, along with the ministers of energy and natural resources, culture, and transport and communications, as well as the deputy minister of foreign affairs. Clearly, the Armenian authorities attached great importance to this official visit and expect positive developments in bilateral relations (Armenpress.am, October 14).

On October 15, Jahangiri and Abrahamyan took part in the Armenia-Iran Business Forum, which was attended by nearly 300 Armenian and 80 Iranian businessmen. Commenting on the importance of boosting trade relations, the Iranian vice president stated that “it is important for us to sign a number of memorandums of understanding, including a preferential tariff agreement” (Gov.am, October 15). As to Armenia’s transit role in Iran’s foreign policy, he underlined that “Armenia is the only country to provide a gateway for exporting Iranian goods toward the Eurasian Economic Union. Besides, Armenia has an important role to play as a transit zone. We have the North–South Transport Corridor; we should settle the railroad issue, which is of regional significance”. Vice Presdent Jahangiri also held meetings with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and the president of the Armenian National Assembly (parliament), Galust Sahakyan.

Certainly, the realization of joint economic plans highly depends on completing large-scale transport projects to more fully connect the two states. The North–South Road Corridor is already under construction; but the Iran-Armenia railway project faces financial challenges. In his interview to Azatutyun, Iranian Minister of Transport Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi said that Iran is ready to start the construction of the Iranian part of the railroad as soon as Armenia covers at least one third of the estimated cost of $3 billion for this project (Azatutyun.am, October 15). Indeed, the railway may have regional and even interregional importance; therefore, Armenia aims to attract large investments from abroad. Back in June 2015, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) had expressed interest in this project. During the Armenian prime minister’s recent visit to China (in September), the issue of the possible engagement of Chinese companies was discussed with the premier of China’s State Council, Li Keqiang, and the chairman of the CCECC, Wu Wanliang (Panarmenian.net, September 22).


So far, no practical agreement has been reached on the Iran-Armenia railway project. Yet, following the breakthrough of the Iranian nuclear program accord, the chances of realizing this project have increased, at least in the political realm. Thus, the appeal of large-scale investments in bilateral projects will continue to grow over the coming months for both Armenia and Iran.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Estonia to Help Crimean Tatars Tell the World About the Occupation

By Paul Goble

The victims of almost 50 years of Soviet occupation themselves, Estonians are now preparing to help the Crimean Tatars, who have again come under Russian occupation. At a press conference in Kyiv, Mart Nutt, a member of the Estonian parliament, and Oliver Loode, the Estonian vice president of the United Nations forum on indigenous peoples, outline what they hope to do in cooperation with Mustafa Cemilev, the longtime leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, Serhi Kostinsky, a Verkhovna Rada deputy who oversees television and radio policy, and the project’s Crimean Tatar producer Emine Dzheppar (Qha.com.ua, October 6).

The Estonians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars said that the project was being launched because the international community is too little informed about the problems of the Crimean Tatars under occupation and is not focused on the important reality that the Crimean Tatars are the indigenous population of the Ukrainian peninsula, a status which under international law gives them certain exclusive rights. They added that the three sides had agreed over the course of the next several months to develop a media strategy, one that will involve both several members of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (de facto representative body of the Crimean Tatars), representatives of the media, and Estonian experts.

Emine Dzheppar said that “the goal of this group is the formulation of a strategy on the basis of which the project will be carried out over the next two years, one that will become a so-called road map for its realization.” The project will organize photographic exhibits in various countries around the world and at the United Nations. In addition, it will produce video materials, including both films and clips, about key problems that the Crimean Tatars now face.

The Estonians have one key advantage over the Crimean Tatars, and it may prove to be something from which the Crimean Tatars can profit from. Estonia was an independent state at the time of the beginning of the Soviet occupation, and the West, led by the United States, came up with its non-recognition policy based on the Stimson Doctrine that the international community cannot recognize any border changes achieved by force alone. As a result, the Estonians, like their two Baltic neighbors, have insisted that their states continued de jure throughout the occupation and that in 1991, they recovered their independence de facto rather than creating new states.

Unfortunately, the international community has not articulated the same policy with regard to Russian-occupied Crimea. While Western governments have said they will not end sanctions until Russia gives Crimea back, the reality is that at some point the sanctions regime will be lifted and Crimea will not have any legal support. Western non-recognition policy by articulating a principle allowed for variations in Western relations with Moscow but did not allow for any change concerning the West’s view of the continuing legal status of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.


It is extremely likely that the Estonian involvement in this joint project will lead the Crimean Tatars to appreciate the importance of a Western declaration of non-recognition of the Russian occupation of Crimea and press their friends and supporters to take a step equal in its legal standing to the 1940 declaration by Sumner Welles. If that happens, this small joint project will have a profound impact on international relations for years to come.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Estonia’s Proposed Border Improvements Could Derail Estonia-Russia Border Agreement

By Alden Wahlstrom

Last week, on the sidelines of the 70th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Estonian counterpart, Marina Kaljurand, at her request. Among other topics, the two discussed the outlook for Russia and Estonia reaching a political settlement on a border dispute that has persisted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia has, thus far, been unable to settle an official border agreement with Russia since gaining its independence in 1991.

During their meeting, Kaljurand told Lavrov that the Estonian Parliament is prepared to review and ratify an agreement officially recognizing the borders that has de facto been used since Estonian independence. Lavrov, in turn, said that the Russian State Duma is prepared to consider the agreement for ratification (Postimees.ee, September 28). The resolution of this border dispute would no doubt be welcomed by Estonians, who, like the citizens of many of Russia’s neighboring states, have been anxious about preserving their territorial integrity since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 (see Jamestownfoundation.blogspot.com, February 26).

However, what are the chances that this dispute will be resolved in the near future? While Estonia may be keen on formalizing its borders with Russia vis-√†-vis a bilateral agreement, Estonia’s other efforts to secure its borders could actually serve as an excuse for Moscow to stymie this process.

In late August, Estonia announced a plan to completely seal off its land border with Russia using fencing, high-tech surveillance systems and aerial drones (Kommersant, September 1). This project, estimated to cost €71 million ($80 million) and set to begin construction in 2018 (Vz.ru, August 25), has largely been interpreted as a response to the fear of Russian incursions into Estonian territory. Estonians’ territorial insecurities were accentuated last year by the highly publicized case of Estonian security officer Eston Kohver. According to Estonian officials, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) abducted Kohver on September 5, 2014, while on Estonian territory, and imprisoned him in Russia on false charges. Kohver was convicted of espionage in early September 2015, and Estonian officials were able to secure his return home in a spy swap with the Russians by the end of the month.

Russian officials have been vocal in their responses to Estonia’s announced border strengthening plan. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement labeling Estonia’s plan as “politicized” and declared that unilateral action to enforce the border between Estonia and Russia is legally unfounded, as Russia and Estonia have yet to ratify an agreement defining their shared border (Kommersant, September 1). Meanwhile, Irina Yarovaya, Chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee for Security and Anti-Corruption, has mocked the plan, stating that it looked as though Estonia was trying to build an “Indian reservation” for its citizens (Gazeta.ru, August 25).

Of most concern, however, are comments by Alexei Pushkov, the head of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs. Pushkov claimed that poor bilateral relations with Estonia, undoubtedly shaken by Estonia’s announced plan to fence off its border with Russia, promise to slow the Russian ratification process of any border agreement (Vz.ru, September 1). In an effort to quell the Russian reaction, Estonian Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand gave a statement emphasizing that the Estonian government is only discussing possible future options for securing its border (Kommersant, September 6).

The effectiveness of Estonian efforts to assuage Russian officials’ stated anxiety about Estonia’s proposed border security plan will be seen when the Russian Duma formally discusses the ratification of the proposed border agreement. Although Foreign Minister Lavrov indicated that the Duma is prepared do discuss and ratify the agreement, Pushkov’s statements raise doubts concerning the likelihood of this happening.

Beyond poor bilateral relations, it is conceivable that Russian officials may not view ratifying a border agreement with Estonia as in their strategic interest. Estonia is not the only EU member state with concerns about its border with Russia. Latvian officials have echoed their Estonian neighbors, saying that Latvia may also need to consider erecting a fence along its shared border with Russia (Baltic Course, August 28); and Finland’s Defense Minister Jussi Niinist√∂ has publicly considered laying new landmines along the Finnish-Russian frontier (EER, September 3).

Whether or not these statements result in concrete actions, they are obviously an expression of the tense security situation across the region. Meanwhile, judging by their vocal criticism, Russian officials may fear that Russia will be unable to easily defeat these increased security measures taken by all of the countries on its border. Therefore it is entirely probable that Moscow will view not ratifying a border agreement with Estonia as strategically advantageous: giving it the grounds to further oppose Estonian border reinforcements and maintaining a legal gray area in which Russia prefers to operate.