Leading expert Ariel Cohen about elections in Georgia, Iranian and Middle East issues, Azerbaijani-US relations and Caspian energy projects (VIDEO)

Leading expert Ariel Cohen about elections in Georgia, Iranian and Middle East issues, Azerbaijani-US relations and Caspian energy projects (VIDEO)

Azerbaijan, Baku, Oct. 3 / Trend A. Badalova /

Pretty transparent elections give Georgia a higher level of functioning democracy, leading expert of the Heritage Foundation for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy and member of Trend Expert Council, Ariel Cohen told Trend in an interview.

"The fact that the elections had so many observers and were managed in a pretty transparent way gives Georgia a much higher level of functioning democracy, than for example Russian Duma elections in December, when there was a lot of criticism from Russian and foreign observers," Cohen said.

Parliamentary elections were held in Georgia on October 1. Around 14 parties and two political blocs participated in the elections.

Parliament will receive more authority in 2013 after amendments to the Constitution take force resulting in the president's power being reduced.

The opposition coalition "Georgian Dream" Party leads after counting almost 20 percent of votes in the CEC.

The ruling "United National Movement - more good to the people" Party ranks second with 42.08 percent.

According to Cohen, very few people predicted this outcome. "I must say the polling by Georgian dream that indicated their victory for a while was good quality," he said.

Cohen believes that now it is a real test for Georgia because there is no certainty of a smooth transition.

"It is a first democratic transition, it a test and it is up to Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili and their people to work together to be able to enact that transition without violence, without bloodshed. So it's a very difficult, very sensitive very precarious time for Georgia," Cohen said.

Airport in occupied territories of Azerbaijan

According to Cohen, Armenia does not have the right to open airport in Khankendi in the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"According to the international laws these are occupied territories. The occupying power does not have the right to open such an airport," he said.

This week Armenia has stated about launching the airport in Khankendi in the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was previously reported that it is planned to start the Yerevan-Khankendi-Yerevan flights soon.

According to Cohen, the launching of an airport is a step that violates international law. He also mentioned that according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) this step is illegal.

Cohen also believes that this Armenia's step is not a constructive one, and this is an issue that the Azerbaijani government has to communicate in a clear way both to the international authorities and to Armenia itself.

The expert said that it is in the interest of both countries and it is in the interest of peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia to have peace, to have economic development, and to have Armenia a part of East-West corridor that Azerbaijan and Georgia are successfully implementing.

According to Cohen, insisting on an intransigent position is backfiring, "is a boomerang against Armenian people", resulting in emigration from Armenia and the low living standard.

The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan. Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.

Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group - Russia, France and the U.S. - are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.

Azerbaijan-US relations

Cohen believes Azerbaijan is a key country for the development of market economy and democracy in the Caucasus and the Caspian region, and the US should develop relationship with this country.

"I think both parties - the republicans and democrats are interested in the development of democracy, market economy and energy in the Caucasus and in the Caspian. Azerbaijan is a key country for that," Cohen said.

Cohen stressed that the geopolitical location of Azerbaijan in the crossroads of East-West and North-South is very important.

"The development of Caspian resources, including energy is important as an alternative to the unstable Middle East where there is a lot of violence and extremism," Cohen said.

Azerbaijan, according to an expert, is a different model - model of a tolerant society.

"And I think for that the US should develop our relationship," Cohen said.

Cohen mentioned that Azerbaijan is just opening a new railroad that will connect the Caspian with Turkey and Europe.

"That is also important. And in that respect I hope that our relationship will continue," Cohen added.

The 183 kilometre long railway section of the Akhalkalaki Marabda Tbilisi rail road has to be reconstructed in the framework of Baku Tbilisi Kars project in order to increase the capacity up to 15 million tons of freight a year. A centre on the carriage transition from Georgian track to European is going to be constructed in Akhalkalaki.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway will increase the flow of container, bulk and other types of cargo from Asia to Europe. The Marmaris project envisaging the construction of a tunnel under the Bosporus will be implemented during this period. This will open a railway communication to Europe.

Iran's nuclear program

Speaking of issues related to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ariel Cohen said that when Iranian regime not compromising, it leaves no choice for U.S. but to impose sanctions on the country.

"When the Iranian regime is not compromising, is not meeting the international community and its demands even half way they are leaving no choice to the US and to others but to impose sanctions," the expert noted.

Cohen also stressed that whoever is the president after the elections in the U.S., he will have to make a decision what has to happen if the sanctions against Iran fail.

He stressed that the U.S. and the Obama administration were doing everything possible to prevent a military solution to the issue, however the Iranian leadership makes things more difficult by not suspending their nuclear program.

"I think the Iranian leadership is making it almost impossible by insisting on continuation of their nuclear program that the Europeans, the U.S., and even Russia and China when devoted for the sanctions understand how dangerous it is not just for the Middle East but for the whole world," Cohen said.

"We cannot afford to have another nuclear armed state that has an extremism regime that was extremely critical of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani model, Azerbaijani people but also is in confrontation with other countries with Sunni Arab countries, Israel, Europe and the U.S.," he added.

The United States imposed sanctions on Iran after 1979 Islamic revolution, while more recent rounds of sanctions by the US and EU were imposed on Tehran on the pretext of its peaceful nuclear program. The European Union has imposed restrictions on cooperation with Iran in foreign trade, financial services, energy sectors and technologies, and banned the provision of insurance and reinsurance by insurers in member-states to Iran and Iranian-owned companies.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, and warned that it will retaliate if attacked.

Unrests in Syria

There is a great confrontation in Syria now, Cohen said, speaking of the current unrests in Syria, that have been going on for more than a year and a half.

"It is essentially a battlefield between extremist Shia elements coming from Hezbollah in Lebanon and from Iran... and some of the radical Islamist Sunni forces, such as al-Qaeda Salafists, who trickle in to Syria from Iraq, from the Gulf, from Egypt and etc.," Cohen told Trend.

"So it is a battle ground between the extremists on both sides. And it is a tragedy, because a lot of people get killed as a result," he added.

Cohen said that the majority of population of Syria are Sunni, which feel that they were discriminated, and they are fighting the Assad regime now.

"The regime is using heavy weapons including airplanes, including artillery against their own people. I just do not see how that regime can win militarily against their own people," Cohen said.

According to Cohen, there is also even a greater confrontation in Syria between China and Russia on one hand and the US and Western Europe on the other hand.

Cohen believes that in the end unfortunately this bloodshed will lead to more and more radicalization.

According to UN, the total number of victims of the conflict in Syria is nearing 20,000. More than 230,000 have become refugees with around three million in need of humanitarian assistance. The Syrian authorities say they oppose the well-armed militants.

Trans Anatolian Gas Pipeline

Regarding the Trans Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP), Cohen said its construction will be a great step forward for Azerbaijan.

"I am sure that sooner or later it (TANAP) is going to be constructed and that it will be a great step forward for Azerbaijan because it will provide another whole stream of money for Azerbaijan and economic development and improvement of living standard," the expert said.

The construction of TANAP will be also good for Turkey because it makes Turkey even more serious transit country for energy, Cohen believes.

"And it will be good for Europe because it gives Europe an additional and alternative source of pipe gas not from Russia but from stable Caspian region," Cohen said.

TANAP project envisages construction of the pipeline from the eastern border of Turkey to the country's western border to supply gas from Azerbaijani Shah Deniz gas field to Europe through Turkey. On June, 26 Azerbaijan and Turkey signed an intergovernmental agreement on TANAP implementation.

At present, a 20 per cent share in TANAP belongs to Turkish BOTAS, 80 per cent and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR). The initial capacity of the pipeline is expected to reach 16 billion cubic meters a year. About six billion cubic meters will be delivered to Turkey, and the rest - to Europe.

Trans Caspian Pipeline

Trans Caspian Pipeline, which is proposed to be laid from the Turkmen coast of the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijani, should be a reality, Cohen said.

"But in order to have that reality you have to have a commitment by Turkmenistan to connect its gas system to Azerbaijan and then take it through TANAP (Trans Anatolian Pipeline) to Turkey and Europe," Cohen said.

Cohen believes that for whatever reason Turkmenistan felt more comfortable dealing with China, which is now willing to get pretty much all of the supply of Turkmen gas.

Moreover, according to Cohen, Russia is very interested in Turkmen gas.

However the expert believes that an additional direction for Turkmen gas via Azerbaijan to Europe would be "a terrific idea".

Among the possible competitors to Trans Caspian Pipeline, Cohen mentioned TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) project, however the expert believes that the security issues in Pakistan and Afghanistan are serious problems for realization of this project.

According to Cohen, Trans Caspian Pipeline could be technologically feasible to connect Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, however unresolved status of the Caspian Sea is an obstacle on the way of its implementation.

Negotiations between Turkmenistan and the EU and other countries on the construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline have been on-going since the late 90s.

In September, 2011 the EU Council gave a mandate for negotiations between the EU, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to build the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline.

However, later, Iran and Russia expressed negative attitude toward this project. Tehran and Moscow think that the pipeline construction will damage the Caspian Sea environment.

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