Armenia-Azerbaijan: The Karabakh fault line


First published at Posle.

It’s been six weeks since the most significant flare-up of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict that started after the second Nagorno-Karabakh war (the 44-day war) in autumn 2020. Against the backdrop of Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Yerevan, public opinion and the assessments of the conflict among Western politicians have split. James Jay Carafano, a leading expert in the US national security known to have had a “stabilizing influence” on US foreign policy under Trump, has accused Armenia of turning Nagorno-Karabakh into “the remnants of Carthage” and called on the US leadership to bolster its support of Azerbaijan. Adam Schiff, Member of the House of Representatives from California, has leveled accusations against Azerbaijan and come up with a resolution on the subject. UK Tory MP Bob Blackman has denounced “Armenia’s attack against Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory.” The EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus wrote alternately about war crimes committed by the Armenian Armed Forces against Azerbaijani prisoners of war and the crimes the Azerbaijani army perpetrated against Armenian prisoners of war. Meanwhile, the information warfare flaring up between Russia and Iran on the one side and Azerbaijan on the other has caused great astonishment to Francis Fukuyama. That’s definitely not how this former optimist imagined the end of history.

For some years the coverage of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue in the West has been characterized by a wide array of divergent, sometimes incompatible, views. The Russian understanding of the conflict, however, has always been a black-and-white affair with sympathies firmly with Armenia. One can barely think of any other post-Soviet conflict that for thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union has enjoyed such unanimity among public figures of entirely different political views — from ultranationalist Alexander Potkin (Belov) and Igor Girkin (Strelkov) to Putin’s propagandist Vladimir Solovyov to the late Vladimir Zhirinovsky to Galina Starovoitova to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (how the views of individual liberals like Alexei Venediktov have evolved is a subject for a separate article). Dmitri Furman says such an attitude has led to a feeling of “not being heard” among the Azerbaijanis since the dominating narrative has been portraying them as “wild Muslims matched against a small Christian nation.” One will encounter a similar black-and-white view, but with sympathies on the Azerbaijani side, if one turns to the media of countries at odds with Russia. One need only recall the way the Ukrainian media responded to Baku’s reports of the liberation of Shusha or how Oleksiy Arestovych and other Ukrainian commentators admiringly compared the Shusha operation to Israelis reaching the Wailing Wall.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has long had a violent narrative and what is considered as its starting point reveals both the ideological principles and intentions of the party in question. In Russia, for instance, the perestroika and post-Soviet stage of the conflict is traditionally “traced back” to the Sumgait pogroms while overlooking the prior ethnic cleansing in Armenia or the influx of Azeri refugees to Sumgait and the village of Saray ten kilometers away, whereas official Azerbaijani propaganda finds the origins of the conflict in the ethnic cleansing in Armenia starting from November 1987 without mentioning the ethnic conflict in the Armenian-populated Çardaqlı that happened in September and October of the same year.

The roots of the conflict go back to the Russian Revolution of 1905-1907 when the Tsarist regime failed to find a better option than to pit two peoples against one another in the industrialized Baku with the workers’ movement steadily on the rise (this clash was brilliantly portrayed in the 1957 Soviet film Personally Known by Stepan Kevorkov). British-American sociologist Michael Mann posits that when nation-building and the building of political institutions go in parallel, the situation can become dangerously explosive. This point is well illustrated by the history of national republics created in 1918-1920. During these two years the ethnic patchwork of the Caucasus saw such conflicts take on new independent dynamics. Among other things, Armenia and Azerbaijan were busy slaughtering one another and fighting for control over Nakhichevan, Zangezur (now Armenia’s Syunik Province) and Nagorno-Karabakh. Back then the Bolsheviks did manage to quell the inter-ethnic conflict though both sides were left unsatisfied. Azerbaijan “lost” Zangezur while the Azerbaijanis residing in the region were not granted a similar autonomous status. In the meantime, Nagorno-Karabakh was kept as part of Azerbaijan. It’s worth noting that given the pro-Azerbaijani stance taken by the British and Azerbaijan’s effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh even prior to the arrival of the Bolsheviks, Baku took this outcome as a matter of course. Armenia wasn’t satisfied with the decision either: Moscow received regular requests to transfer the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to the Armenian SSR up until the late 1980s, till a new spiral of mutual violence turned into a fully-fledged war in the 1990s, which resulted in Azerbaijan’s defeat in 1994.

As a result, in addition to the five districts of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia ended up in control of another seven districts of Lowland Karabakh that Azerbaijan got back in the course of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. After establishing control over Shusha the Azerbaijani army was essentially one step away from taking Stepanakert/Khankendi. But the murky affair with the Russian helicopter and the shelling of Azerbaijan’s territory with the use of Russian Iskanders sent Baku a clear message that Russia was willing to intervene directly if the offensive were to continue. The historic trap Russia has got itself into in Ukraine is playing into Azerbaijan’s hands in the light of its leadership’s desire to ensure definitive control over “the Russian peacekeepers’ area of responsibility” in Nagorno-Karabakh, which it failed to achieve back in autumn 2020 owing to Russia’s interference in the conflict.

What happened?

On August 31 Brussels hosted another meeting of Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders mediated by EU Council President Charles Michel, who later optimistically stated that the two sides had agreed to work on the draft of a definitive treaty, while Ilham Aliyev announced a soon-to-be-signed final peace agreement. Armenia’s response to these developments was far more restrained. Speaking in Vladivostok on September 7 Nikol Pashinyan said no agreement had been reached in Brussels. Unsurprisingly, Baku went on to accuse Pashinyan of wrecking the talks, and at the same time claimed there were provocations in the border territories.

On the night of September 13 Armenia’s own territories came under heavy fire and Pashinyan announced that ten square kilometers of Armenian territories had been seized by the Azerbaijani army. Azerbaijan formally denied these allegations, however the official media and military experts asserted Azerbaijan didn’t have to recognize Armenia’s border, as it didn’t recognize the former’s border. Ten days later this statement was basically confirmed by Ilham Aliyev himself: “Until the border delimitation no one can say where it goes exactly.” It’s an open secret Azerbaijan has taken advantage of Russia’s failures in Ukraine. That said, the occupation of Zangezur/Syunik in this case could hardly have been Baku’s true goal. Already on September 15 Pashinyan himself commented on the developments in the following way: “We want to sign a paper as a result of which many of us will be scolded, called traitors; the people may even decide to remove us from power but as a result of this Armenia will enjoy lasting peace. I don’t care what happens to me, I care what happens to Armenia.” His words sparked mass protests in front of the Parliament in Yerevan. Pashinyan seemed to signal to both Baku and the international community that he was in a spot where he was likely to make unpopular decisions. At the same time, Azerbaijani-occupied territories automatically turned into a bargaining chip in talks with Azerbaijan, gradually supplanting the Nagorno-Karabakh issue in Pashinyan’s rhetoric. The opposition in Armenia threatened to accuse the government of surrendering Karabakh if Pashinyan recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Following a round of talks in Prague on October 6 Pashinyan and Aliyev recognized the territorial integrity of the two states on the basis of the UN Charter and the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration.

New geopolitical and internal political reality

To understand Aliyev’s decision-making process (resorting to force is at present entirely his initiative) it is imperative to keep in mind the configuration of interests of both Western and regional powers.

The US sees Azerbaijan as its key strategic partner in the region and its interests go beyond the energy sector. As the sole state to have borders with both Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan is geopolitically important both to the US and the EU countries. As an example it’s worth mentioning the TRACECA programme and similar projects aimed at pulling Central Asia away from Russia by building a Trans-Caspian route to Europe. Only a month ago US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu was persuading Kazakhstan to join the world market through the territory of Azerbaijan and Georgia whereas Aliyev’s and Erdogan’s recent trips to post-Soviet Asian countries seek to shape a new interregional transport and energy configuration with US support and without Russia as soon as possible. The EU is demonstrating an identical interest, especially given the significance it attaches to the corridor from China via Central Asia and the Caucasus (the so-called Middle Corridor of the new Silk Road). The EU and Azerbaijan are engaged across a wide range of issues, including military (although it’s Israel that turns out to be Azerbaijan’s primary partner in this field). Significantly, France acts as an important partner to Baku, supporting the Azerbaijani space programme that played a prominent role in the 44-day war with Armenia. Meanwhile, Russia’s overwhelming presence across almost all Armenian economic sectors, together with Azerbaijan’s policy of economic isolation of the country, leaves Yerevan with increasingly little freedom of action to change its foreign policy vector. The US sanctions against certain Armenian companies are yet another sign that the costs and consequences of Armenia’s pro-Russian stance will only become more severe.

Turkey’s interests are similar to those of the West; since this summer Turkey has been in talks with Pashinyan’s government to reopen Armenia’s borders, including the land borders and re-establishing direct passenger and cargo flights, which is fully in line with Ankara’s ambition of building a corridor between China and Europe and creating a single energy space with Central Asian countries, with Russia left out.

In this context, it’s necessary to notice the anger of Iran that perceives the geopolitical shifts in the region as a threat to its own security and economic interests, and with good reason. To Iran, Armenia serves both as a northern “window” to the markets of the EAEU Customs Union and an important link to the Black Sea. Since its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed and it’s vulnerable in case relations between Russia and Georgia sour, out of all the neighboring countries Armenia seems to be most predictable and dependent on Iran, given that the two countries have forged close ties over the recent decades. As the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is closed, Iran acts as a transit hub for the supplies going from “mainland” Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan’s exclave bordering Armenia, Turkey and Iran (the alternative route via Georgia and Turkey would mean an enormous detour through the north). The prospects of re-establishing transport links between the conflicting parties are also threatening Iran as they would diversify trade corridors from China to Europe and from Turkey to Central Asia thanks to the shortest (and for the West, most politically convenient) route. Consequently, Iran is definitely not interested in a conflict resolution that doesn’t take its interests into account. In this regard, it comes as no surprise that it was Iran that threatened Baku in September when the conflict escalated (you can read more on the economic aspects of the conflict between Baku and Tehran here).

One most certainly cannot forget Russia, whose obvious weakening is often interpreted in Armenia as ignoring, if not betraying, its alliance. This is absolutely not the case. Grave mistakes and miscalculations with regards to Ukraine have turned Russia into a paper tiger not just in the eyes of Azerbaijan, but also Kazakhstan and other countries of the region. Painted into a corner, Russia has no choice but to follow the rapid shifts in the region it’ll be pushed away from. Unsurprisingly, we are seeing a new bout of advocacy on Western platforms for Armenian-Azerbaijani talks as opposed to “the Russian peacekeeping mission.” On October 7 Emmanuel Macron, later followed by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, noted that the two sides had officially recognized one another’s territorial integrity, which was hailed as a diplomatic victory in Baku. To the West it seems that for the first time in 220 years Russia is essentially on the brink of fully losing the South Caucasus. Should a final peace treaty be brokered with Azerbaijan and borders with Turkey be reopened, it’ll automatically render Russia’s military base in Armenia redundant. The EU has already announced a two-month civilian monitoring mission on the border with Azerbaijan. In two months’ time Armenia and Azerbaijan are expected to sign a final peace agreement facilitated by the Western powers. Hence the stirring on the Russian side accusing Pashinyan’s government of “surrendering Karabakh” which was also hinted at by Putin himself when he spoke at the Valdai Discussion Club plenary:

We aren’t going to dictate anything to Armenia. Should the Armenian people and leadership decide to go for the Washington option of the treaty, which as far as I understand implies recognizing Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh, then so be it.

In contrast to the Washington option, Russia is apparently proposing that the status quo should be preserved under Russia’s control and outside Baku’s jurisdiction. Putin went on to say that Russia had proposed giving five Karabakh districts back to Azerbaijan (as mentioned above, only in four Karabakh districts out of twelve Armenians constituted a majority whereas in the rest absolute majority belonged to Azerbaijanis who were chased away during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s). Two days later, addressing his party’s congress, Nikol Pashinyan reacted

…the international community, all states without exception, consider Karabakh a part of Azerbaijan. If there is a country in the world that doesn’t consider Karabakh a part of Azerbaijan, let them express this publicly. Let no one create an impression that the situation is different.

Before Nikol Pashinyan’s arrival in power in Armenia the so-called “Karabakh clan” made sure the Karabakh issue had a confusing effect on the situation. Internationally, the Kocharyan-Sargsyan regime signed agreements that to an extent aligned with views of the international community, expressing willingness to return previously occupied Azerbaijani-populated areas of Karabakh (seven districts at the very least) to Azerbaijan and determine the future of Armenian-populated districts (four out of five) later through a popular vote once the refugees and internally displaced people had been reintegrated. Meanwhile, the domestic rhetoric was predictably intransigent: “not an inch to be yielded to the enemy.”

Virtually ousted from his post (owing to his willingness to compromise with Azerbaijan for the sake of securing the best possible terms for the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh) Armenia’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan called for a speedy resolution of the conflict. He was right when he said back in 1997 that the Armenian nationalists’ maximalist stance would cost them an advantageous negotiating position because of international pressure and Azerbaijan’s economic ascendancy. Ter-Petrosyan’s words turned out to be prophetic.

At first sight, the evolution of Pashinyan’s views and his harsher stance, even though in the past he was known as Ter-Petrosyan’s “disciple” and a supporter of compromise, might seem as nothing but a concession to populist demands. However, one would do well to remember the circumstances under which Pashinyan entered into talks on Nagorno-Karabakh. Perfectly aware of his “teacher’s” political career, Pashinyan became hostage to a set of circumstances which to a large extent had come about because of the gap between the negotiating tactics of the previous regime that used to deliberately cultivate the above-mentioned confusion and the actual perception of the situation among a public that was largely ignorant of the terms of the negotiating process amid the officially expressed self-congratulatory and conceited sentiments. In these conditions Pashinyan went for the most dangerous, albeit the easy, option: he decided to put all the blame on the war and unilaterally withdraw from the talks.

By no means does all of this justify Azerbaijan’s view that this logic was most beneficial to Baku, because just like Russia in the case with Ukraine, for years Armenia has been underestimating the defeated party’s capability to draw lessons from its failure. Thanks to the war, Azerbaijan has managed to fully dismiss any claims of the 120-thousand-strong Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh to at least some degree of autonomy. Leaving aside for a moment the violent context of the current conflict, the issue of self-governance is still very much relevant. I have a friend in Baku (we’ve got strong ideological differences because of his ultraliberal economic views) that wrote a year ago to the democratic opposition to Aliyev’s regime that had given its support to the war. This letter stated that even in the case of peaceful integration of the Karabakh Armenian minority into Azerbaijani society there was a high chance that the rights of ethnic Armenians, say in Stepanakert/Khankendi, would be violated for social, economic, or political reasons. The letter went on to ask, “Based on the resources and instruments available to you, what are you going to do if the rights of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians are violated?”

There is hardly any need to explain that one will find no tools to protect the Armenian minority in a society where an imprisoned member of the opposition supports Aliyev’s regime in the war effort by suspending the hunger strike he announced in protest against this very regime’s abuse of power. Any civilized solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (even on the basis of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity) is a threat to the regime because it implies the need to establish democratic institutions on the ground, which is at cross purposes with the political foundations of Aliyev’s regime. In this context it comes as no surprise that those who are close to the president’s office are strongly hinting at a chance of integration through the Azerbaijani “elite” with Armenian oligarch Ruben Vardanyan seen as its head. As there are barely more than 120 thousand Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev is likely to go for a Chechen scenario similar to Kadyrov’s regime in Russia, i.e. he’ll try to buy the loyalties of some part of the population as well as the local “elite.” Such an “integration” model will no doubt be based on the strength of the regime itself: this scenario is certainly practical and should it be implemented, it’ll only reinforce the basis for Aliyev’s dictatorship.

On the other hand, unlike in the course of the 44-day war, during this round of the conflict escalation some of the former champions of war in Azerbaijan, quite vehement to boot, were outraged by the military action. Although mostly there was talk of meaningless new losses, there were also such slogans as “Zangezur is Armenia and that’s that” and “Not an inch beyond Azerbaijan’s borders” etc. This demonstrates that even Azerbaijani nationalists are appalled by Aliyev’s militarism and belligerent rhetoric.

All these complicated developments will certainly require an in-depth investigation and study but at present as far as society’s concerned there’s little chance of positive solutions or a breakthrough in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations. And it’s not that Aliyev is a fanatical nationalist. Quite the contrary, one can hardly call him a man of principle. It’s just his regime stands to benefit more from the ongoing inter-ethnic tensions. This complex, controversial context is how the old Karabakh fault line presently reveals itself.