Hello, and welcome to the Armenian News Network, Groong, Week in Review. This Week we’re going to talk about the following major topics:
● Lebanon in Crisis
● Taliban Takes Over Afghanistan
● 8th Convocation of the Parliament
● Developments around Artsakh
To talk about these issues, we have with us:
Asbed Kotchikian, who is an Associate Professor of political science and international relations at the American University of Armenia.
Benyamin Poghosyan, who is the chairman of the Center For Political and Economic Strategic Studies, a Yerevan based think tank. He was deputy director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the Ministry of Defense in 2010-2016 and the Vice President for Research, at the National Defense Research University from 2016 to 2019.
Katia Peltekian, who has been teaching at the American University of Beirut since 1988. She has published two books which compile newspaper articles and reports from the Genocide years published in the Canadian and British press. Katia has been compiling news for the Armenian News Network Groong since 1999.
Hello and welcome everyone!
Even before the disastrous Beirut port explosion in August 2020, Lebanon was in a political and economic crisis. After PM Hassan Diab’s resignation following the explosion, the country’s currency went into free-fall. The official exchange rate used by the central bank is 3900 Lebanese pounds to 1 USD, meanwhile on the black market the exchange rate is about 5 times as much.
While fuel, gas, flour, medication and food were subsidized until recently, the Central Bank is removing many of these subsidies meaning that people cannot afford these basic necessities. While until recently there was gas, and electricity was rationed to 2-3 hours per day, after the Central Bank stopped the subsidies, distributors are hoarding the resources and there are reports of complete electricity blackouts.
What is the cause for this continuing crisis? The explosion obviously must have taken a tragic toll on the economy, but at least publicly we’ve seen Europe pledge large amounts of aid to Lebanon. Many people are blaming Lebanese leadership for the crisis, but what is specifically broken politically? And most importantly, what is the way out?
There is a tremendous amount of apathy among the population, including the sizable Armenian community in Lebanon. We understand that even basic utilities such as electricity and the internet are not functioning. Is most of Lebanon nowadays frequently under complete blackout? What is it like to live in Beirut today?
What can Armenia do to help the Armenian community there?
Before the 2020 war, some Armenian regional analysts were warning that Armenian policy makers have a blind spot when it comes to the Middle East and Central Asia and what happens in Baghdad or Aleppo is much more consequential to Armenia than what takes place in Paris or Brussels.
So today, we’d like to spend some time discussing a major tectonic shift occurring less than a thousand miles from Armenia’s borders: the conflict in Afghanistan.
Following nearly 20 years of occupation, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which officially commenced with a peace agreement signed between US and Taliban on Feb. 29, 2020, is drawing to an end. To date, more than 240,000 people have been killed in that conflict including more than 71,000 civilians.
The official deadline set by the Biden administration was August 31, 2021, but this weekend we learned that the Taliban has taken full control of Afghanistan, and that they’re already at the gates of the capital Kabul, amid reports that Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan has relinquished power and fled the country.
Despite Biden’s claim that Taliban’s control over Afghanistan was not a predetermined conclusion, their advance happened at such a lightning pace, that western powers were forced to evacuate their embassies under emergency conditions. The Afghan armed forces of the central government, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands and which the US spent years training and equipping to act as a bulwark against Taliban, disappeared in an instant.
They are expected to declare the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” from Kabul in the coming days.
Let’s take a quick background on who the Taliban are.
● How did they come to power and where do they draw their support from today?
● What's the relationship between Taliban and Al Qaeda?
Whether it is the threat of narco-trafficking, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, the potential security and humanitarian threats to the region and beyond are multi-dimensional and complex. The changes in Afghanistan concern all regional and global powers, from China, Pakistan, and India to Iran, Russia and the wider Middle East and Europe.
Why did the US and NATO decide to withdraw from Afghanistan and were they not able to accurately calculate the consequences of their decision?
● Why were the Taliban so successful, despite hundreds of billions of dollars by the US to counter them?
● With so many regional interests clashing in Afghanistan, is it possible for regional powers to agree to cooperate for the sake of regional stability? Or are we going to see a re-ignition of the centuries old “Great Game” there, where each power seeks to promote its own interests there, often at the expense of competing world powers?
Turning to Iran. While the Pashtun are the predominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising more than 40% of the population, there is a significant number of Persian speaking and mostly Shiite communities, such as the Tajik and Hazara tribes, which together also make up another 40% which serve as a conduit of Iranian influence in Afghanistan. But as we also know that Afghanistan serves as a major source of worldwide drug cultivation and trade, a significant part of which occurs over Iranian territory.
● What are Iran’s interests in Afghanistan? Which do you think is a bigger concern for Iran, Taliban’s policy of instituting sharia law based on radical Sunni islam or drug trade?
To the North, Afghanistan has a border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, the latter two being members of the Russian-led CSTO, which Armenia is also a member of. Naturally, Russia is also very concerned with instability in Afghanistan, as they’re also not immune to the narcotrafficking threat.
Just like the US, the USSR’s past interventionist strategy in Afghanistan also failed. What is Russia’s geopolitical and regional security calculus with regards to changes in Afghanistan?
Over the past decades we’ve seen a regionally expansionist Turkish foreign policy and Turkey today also acts as a significant player in the region. We know that NATO has outsourced the security of the airport in Kabul to Ankara. We also know that Turkey has made room for a contingent of more than 100 Azerbaijani soldiers to be part of this force.
● What are Turkey’s aspirations in Afghanistan?
Coming back to our region, we know that Azerbaijan started the 2020 war with Artsakh and Armenia taking advantage of global distractions, such as elections in the US, the pandemic, and so forth.
● Is there a risk of a similar situation now and over the long term what could be the impact to Armenia stemming from these developments?
The parliament just finished a tumultuous two-week session during which they finally approved the chairs of the twelve standing parliamentary committees:
Three chairmen,, Narek Zeynalyan, Arman Yeghoyan, Vahe Ghalumyan, headed the same commissions in the parliament of the 7th convocation. There are only two women in the group.
Contrary to expectations, Arsen Torosyan (former Minister of Health), and Zaruhi Batoyan (former Minister of Labor and Social Affairs) were not nominated by the ruling majority to chair the main commissions.
● Thoughts on these appointments?
● Thoughts on the level of dialog, and expectations of achievements by the 8th Convocation of the NA.
The 8th convocation of the National Assembly of Armenia got under way on August 2. This week the discussions in the parliament have been acrimonious. Opposition MPs have been calling the prime minister by his first name “Nikol” and calling him “Capitulator Nikol” (Kapitulyant). Speaker Alen Simonyan has been reprimanding and evicting opposition MPs for such behavior. Finally, he had to call in security to avoid a potential brawl in the parliament.
● The last time we recorded our podcast the parliament session was just getting started. Yet we saw the verbal battles continue all through the end of the session when the committee chairs were finally elected.
● Some in the opposition are claiming that this is not what the opposition was sent to the parliament for. However, with a limited set of tools at the disposal of the opposition, do they have alternatives to using the pulpit of the National Assembly to express their frustration with the ruling party?
Late in July and before he was appointed defense minister, Deputy DM Arshak Karapetyan was in Moscow for talks with the Russian brass. This past week, right after CSTO secretary general Stanislav Zas’s visit to Armenia, DM Karapetyan again visited Moscow and met with Russian DM Shoigu.
When Zas visited Armenia, Karapetyan gave him a strong public “dressing down”, indicating that his visit was expected as early as May and that the CSTO activities don’t correspond to “operational needs” on the ground. Karapetyan also said that Armenia reserves the right to use force if Azerbaijani violations of Armenian territory go unaddressed by CSTO.
The frequency, statements and ceremonies indicate an understanding on the part of Russia that the Armenian armed forces must be reformed, replenished, and modernized, probably to the level of Russian armed forces. Russia’s proactive commitment to these reforms may also indicate an implicit agreement among superpowers that Armenia will remain within the sphere and influence of Russia in the foreseeable future.
Karapetyan’s statement, especially coming after the war where Armenia’s ability to act independently and assertively is much more reduced.
● Was this messaging sanctioned, or implicitly agreed to by Russia? If so, what are Russia’s and Armenia’s objectives?
There are many references to the “ongoing” reform of the Armenian armed forces. Shoigu’s dagger gifting ceremony symbolically noted this as well. There were also reports this week that Armenia’s OSA-AK air defense systems have been upgraded.
● What are the priorities of this reform? What qualitative and quantitative reforms are envisioned?
● What is the time frame for these reforms, especially compared, or contrasted to the 4.5-year horizon of Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh?
● Can these reforms help Armenia compete with Azerbaijan’s still increasing defense expenditures?
● Is Arshak Karapetyan the right man at the right time as Armenia’s DM?
In the background of all developments, there seem to be constant ceasefire violations. We just had the death of another Armenian serviceman in Yeraskh on Sunday.
What is unique about the last two weeks is that violations using heavy weaponry (including attack drones) in the last two week also took place in Artsakh. It’s notable also that for the first time Russia confirmed that Azerbaijan violated the ceasefire in Artsakh.
The acknowledgement from Russia was followed up by accusatory rhetoric from Azerbaijan claiming that Armenia has violated the Nov 9 trilateral statement and demanding from Russia that Armenians in Artsakh must be disarmed.
● Is all this aggravated rhetoric simply posturing or negotiation or is there a threat to the November ceasefire? Is there anything hidden behind these public statements?
● While in the past months we’ve heard statements from Russia and France to restart the OSCE Minsk group, we’ve seen no action on that front. Why not? Is Azerbaijan rejecting the OSCE MG, or is there a lack of interest by some or even all of the co-chairs to put adequate pressure on Azerbaijan?
Benyamin, as we near the end of the show, you were recently in Artsakh and you penned an article in Civilnet titled “How to increase visitors to Artsakh”.
● Can you tell us what you saw in Artsakh?
● How is the overall atmosphere there?
● We’ve heard some reports that at least some non-Armenian citizens’ entry was rejected by Russian peacekeepers. Are foreign visitors allowed?
● Why isn’t the Armenian government talking about Artsakh?
● Water shortages in Stepanakert.
That concludes our program for This Week in Review episode. We hope it has helped your understanding of some of the issues from the previous week. We look forward to your feedback, and your suggestions for issues to cover in greater depth. Contact us on our website, at groong.org, or on our Facebook Page “ANN - Groong”, or in our Facebook Group “Groong - Armenian News Network”.
Special thanks to Laura Osborn for providing the music for our podcast. On behalf of everyone in this episode, we wish you a good week. Don’t forget to subscribe to our channels, Like our pages and follow us on social media. Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you next week.
Benyamin Poghosyan, Asbed Kotchikian, Katia Peltekian, Lebanon, Hassan Diab, Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, Iran, China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Artsakh, Nikol Pashinyan, Arshak Karapetyan, Defense Minister, Azerbaijan, Borders, Border Instability, Russia, Moscow, Baku, Yerevan, Stepanakert, Parliament, Convocation, Parliament, Parliamentary Committees, Civil Contract, Armenia Alliance, Hayastan Alliance, Pativ Unem, I have Honor