The Raucous Caucasus

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Deep within the mountainous South Caucasus, there is a regional powder keg. For the last 20 years, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been trapped in a struggle over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), an originally Azerbaijani-controlled, but ethnically Armenian region that, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, declared independence. Sandwiched between oil pipelines and competing interests from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United States, this overlooked province and the conflict surrounding it have global implications.

The conflict began with the Russian Revolution, when the Soviets conquered both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and turned them into Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). They decided to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, then roughly 94% Armenian, within Azerbaijan, and with a limited degree of autonomy. Throughout the Cold War, one of the main grievances of Armenians living in the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was the perception of a systematic attempt by the Azerbaijani SSR to oppress ethnic Armenians socially and economically.

The discrimination experienced by ethnic Armenians fomented serious mistrust of the Azerbaijani SSR. Mikhail Gorbacchev’s glasnost policy gave Armenians in the NKAO a perfect opportunity to push for redress. Following a successful petition by over 80,000 Armenians, a special session of the NKAO Soviet was held. In July 1988, it overwhelmingly supported a resolution demanding the transfer of the NKAO to Armenia, and interethnic fighting quickly broke out. In the town of Askeran, thousands of Azeris, incensed by rumors that an Azerbaijani was killed in Nagorno-Karabakh, clashed with roughly 1,000 police. Two Azerbaijanis were killed. News of this in turn sparked two days of pogroms against Armenian residents.

More Armenians died through the course of the year as the pogroms continued, likely encouraged by the Azerbaijani government. Baku went so far as to send police commandos into the Armenian enclave to suppress secessionist militants. In December 1991, a referendum boycotted by local Azerbaijanis called for the creation of an independent state. Soon after, Armenian separatists declared control of NK and parts of Azerbaijan.

By this point, Armenia and Azerbaijan were in open war. As the Soviet Union broke up, many garrisoned Soviet troops, left without pay and no way to return home, sold off their equipment to both sides. During the course of the war, Armenian and NK forces pushed the Azerbaijani Army out of territory west and south of the enclave. Later Azerbaijani counteroffensives took some of the territory back, but by the 1994 ceasefire, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh had and still have a relatively continuous border with Azerbaijan.

Today, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is unrecognized, but maintains its own defense forces, holds elections, and provides utilities and other basic services to its residents Armenia provides much of the Republic’s economic and military support, especially in the form of agricultural subsidies. Despite its local governance and broadly supported army, the independent republic is in many ways a province of Armenia. The Armenian currency is universally accepted. The president of NK was handpicked by the President of Armenia. Indeed, as tenacious as the Karabakhis were during their war of independence, they could not have prevailed without the military support of Armenia.

Even today, the security of the republic is guaranteed by Armenia. The relationship between Nagorno-Karabakh’s government and Armenia remains nebulous, however. Polls in Armenia show an overwhelming majority favoring the absorption of NK, and there is broad popular support for continued Armenian settlement of occupied areas. Nevertheless, the Armenian government has not made any major progress towards that end, and it has not recognized the enclave as a sovereign entity. The Armenians within NK insist on a right to participate in negotiations, which currently take place only between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The NK leadership is, at least, not afraid of disputing Armenian positions on the status of the republic.

On both sides of the line, conscripts too young to remember the war are ready to fight and die against an enemy they have never met. According to Al Jazeera, teenage Armenian conscripts say they are “ready to destroy the Azerbaijanis” and “defend the borders of our homeland, protect families, and stop our enemies moving forward.” Across no-man’s land, an Azerbaijani conscript told the BBC, “…every day, every hour, I want the war to start, so that we can liberate our homeland from the Armenian aggressor.” Even Azerbaijan’s “number one” pop star, Aygun Kasimova, who fought in the war herself in 1993, regularly sings about Karabakh. One of her songs features the lyrics, “We will never give even a handful / of our land to anyone.” Recently, after being extradited back to his home country, Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani Army officer who murdered an Armenian Army officer during a NATO-sponsored training seminar, was pardoned by the Azerbaijani government despite its previous assurances it would not do so.

This mutual hatred has made the conflict a zero-sum game. No cooperation, let alone resolution, can exist in this system, especially when populations on both sides of the border hold conspiracy theories that the negotiations are some sort of plot designed by the international order to impose an unfavorable settlement on unsuspecting Armenians or Azerbaijanis.

Since the ceasefire, and without a permanent settlement to mutual claims over the territory, the conflict has remained frozen in what has been called “no peace, no war.” Frozen is, perhaps, a misnomer: Border firefights and a “sniper war” along the Line of Contact claim roughly 30 lives annually on both sides, and have been on the rise since 2009.

Worryingly, both sides are arming themselves in preparation for a war both populations feel is inevitable. The flow of petro-dollars into Azerbaijan has allowed it to increase its military spending by a factor of 25 over the last ten years. This year it is set to reach almost $4 billion, larger than Armenia’s entire state budget. Armenia, lacking the economic resources of Azerbaijan, nonetheless regularly obtains arms from Russia. Nagorno-Karabakh, itself with a declared population of only 140,000, has become heavily militarized: In fact, it surpasses all other countries in proportion of population in the military. Between the sniper war, threats of war, and arms buildup, the potential for uncontrolled escalation is high. With Azerbaijan’s oil and gas export routes only 30 km from the Line of Contact, a war would threaten global energy stability.

For now, both sides have been unwilling to solve the conflict, each believing that its prolongation is in its best interests. The only international organization directly involved in the conflict resolution since the start has been the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France, and the United States. Between 2005 and 2007, the OSCE was able to bring both Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree on a set of basic principles for further negotiations. The so-called Madrid principles are based on a gradual withdrawal of Armenian forces, the right of return of Azeri refugees, an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh with security and self-governance guarantees, and a future legally binding public referendum in Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status.

Russia has consistently tried to prolong the conflict, and its efforts go beyond simply supporting Armenia with weapons. Russia introduces issues to the agenda that one of the parties will certainly reject (e.g. allowing the right of return for Azeri refuges). In prolonging the conflict, Moscow’s goal is to prevent European countries from diversifying gas supply routes, thus making them reliant on Russian ones. Still, its two-sided strategy also seems designed to avoid a renewal of conflict by keeping dialogue open. Between 2008 and 2010, former President Medvedev held six trilateral meetings with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, which nonetheless failed to bring any agreement based on the Madrid Principles.

Turkey, meanwhile, has positioned itself as Azerbaijan’s ally in the conflict, and not just because of tensions from Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide. As noted, Russia does not want a challenge to its energy exports to come from Azerbaijan, hence their recent offer to buy all of Azerbaijan’s natural gas at European-level prices. Azerbaijan, via a pipeline passing through Georgia, has started exporting oil and natural gas to Turkey, which provides Ankara an alternative source of energy to Iran or Russia. Thus, where Russia sees Azerbaijan as a threat, Turkey sees it as a key ally to buffer against the Russia-Armenia axis. As a sign of his commitment to this relationship, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan willingly let the then-burgeoning Armenian-Turkish normalization falter by declaring, in a speech to the Azerbaijani parliament, that it would not happen until Azerbaijan and Armenia came to an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh.

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Although Iran continues to offer its services as a mediator in the NK conflict, Baku will continue to see this as a threat rather than an opportunity for peacemaking. For Iran, despite Azerbaijan’s status as a majority Shiite nation, and the Ayatollah’s own Azeri background, relations with Baku are cold. Tehran perceives Azerbaijan’s strong military ties with the United States and, more importantly, Israel as threats. A recent $1.6 billion purchase of Israeli weapons has raised the fear, despite both countries’ denials, that Israel might have been given access to Azerbaijan’s airfields. Iran has claimed that Baku is flying drones close to Iran’s border to carry out spy missions, implicitly on Israel’s behalf. Of course, Iran’s support for Armenia has not helped tensions, nor have Azerbaijan’s recent arrests of alleged Iranian-backed terrorists plotting to murder US and Israeli ambassadors in March of 2012.

Meanwhile, the OSCE’s efforts at conflict management and resolution are largely useless. A primary function of the OSCE is to monitor the ceasefire along the border. To monitor a 175-km line of fortifications, manned by more than 20,000 troops on either side, the OSCE employs an underwhelming six observers. While their presence does provide a means of communication between Armenian and Azerbaijani military commanders and some degree of monitoring of the frontline for the OSCE, it is not an effective mechanism for war-prevention. Notably, the diplomats involved have largely ironed out the technical details of a settlement through the Madrid Agreement, but they have failed to allay popular frustrations and anger on both sides. Unfortunately, as E. Wayne Merry notes, “Mediators do not negotiate; mediators mediate.” It falls onto Armenia and Azerbaijan to negotiate.

This, of course, will not happen. The leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan exercise almost total control over the substance of the peace process and how it is perceived by their domestic audiences. Russia, despite its military alliance with Armenia, continues to portray itself as a disinterested mediator. Moscow’s goal is neither renewed conflict nor conflict resolution: It wants to preserve the status quo in order to maintain a high degree of regional influence. Lacking an external motivator to push them, leadership at both sides see no reason to address inter-ethnic hatreds in their populations. When negotiations go badly, they blame the co-chairs for not doing enough. Meanwhile, state-controlled television reinforces nationalistic beliefs of either an Armenian victory waiting to be confirmed or an illegal occupation waiting to be reversed.

Between the interethnic hatred and maximalist aspirations, competing geopolitical interests, irredentist rhetoric, a growing security dilemma, and largely ineffective means of either conflict prevention or resolution, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is decidedly grave. Simply put, a final resolution on the conflict, at the minimum, requires the political will and, in fact, trust in both Baku and Yerevan. However much those leaders may personally want to end the war, they will only do so when there is broad social support in their own country for it. Unless that exists, they will not move unilaterally for fear of losing their seats if not their heads. Of course, that cannot exist until the toxic prejudice and hatred on both sides disappears, which will not happen for a very long time. In the end, both sides are psychologically irreconcilable. No one, not their leadership, not the Russians or Iranians, nor the OSCE, can sell them the idea of negotiating over Karabakh. Neither war nor peace may exist for now, but two well-armed ethnic groups with deep mutual enmity seldom put down their guns, especially not at the polite requests of a worried international community.