The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The New “Great Game” Chessboard?

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“By giving certain Karabakh territories to Azerbaijan, the Karabakh conflict would have been resolved in 1997, a peace agreement would have been concluded and a status for Nagorno-Karabakh would have been determined”

(Levon Ter-Petrosian, former President of Armenia, in an interview with BBC, 2011)

Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

Welcome to the last part of this discussion on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict,

Exactly as said for the question of Belarus, this does not mean that we will stop writing about it, but only that we have reached the present day and have analyzed past events as much as possible, so to be able to better understand what is happening today.

It was a long journey, which started at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was essential: in our time the public is generally “gorged” with news of which they understand little or nothing, it is up to us to take back the Time of History and look with others eyes what happens. Nagorno-Karabakh is no different, potentially, from hundreds of other situations, which are not just lines on a map, a bulletin of deaths, or something to put a bet on, but instead they are the flesh and blood of those who have lived, and are still living, in a scenario of perpetual war. Moreover, knowing the context, we can move better in understanding the real geopolitical situation, the one beyond the handshakes and warlike declarations of politicians.

The last time we left at the end of what is historically referred to as the Nagorno-Karabakh War, although, as we have seen, the conflict in the region dates back to the Armenian-Azerbaijani War of 1918 – 1922, and remained in the background throughout the Soviet period, since 1988. We also talked about the “Frozen Conflict“, and with good reason: the years from 1996 onwards saw a succession of peace treaties, UN resolutions and skirmishes between the two countries.

During the following years several United Nations resolutions (in particular 62/243, but also UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884) asked Armenia to withdraw from the occupied Azerbaijani territories, while others, such as that of the European Council , tried to find a mediation so that the displaced could return to their land in peaceful conditions, criticizing the “large-scale ethnic expulsion and the creation of mono-ethnic areas”. In 2008, the “Moscow Defense Brief” published an analysis in which it reported an arms race by Azerbaijan, paid for with oil revenues, and a possible resumption of hostilities. Which happened on March 4th of that same year.

Since February, the Republic of Armenia was experiencing a profound political turmoil, which pitted the supporters of the President of the time Robert Sedrak Kocharyan against those of the former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan; meanwhile, following the Kosovo Declaration of Independence, which according to President Ilham Alyev (son of Heydar Aliyev, and, like him, accused of taking power by electoral fraud) “encouraged the Armenian separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh”, Azerbaijan withdrew its armed contingents from the Peacekeeping mission and put them on the armenian border.

The clashes in Mardakert, as will be recalled, from the name of the place on the Contact Line where the clashes took place, will be the most serious violation of the ceasefire since ’96, with the two sides accusing each other of having started hostilities first: these clashes left the situation at the border essentially unchanged.

NKR, Mardakert, and the line of contact

The second, and most important, violation of the ceasefire occurs 8 years later, in 2016. Azerbaijan had long been building an army to prepare for this confrontation, and President Alyev (still in office) had often made statements regarding the recovery. hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, with the specific intention of recovering the region and rejecting the international mediation envisaged by the Madrid Principles.

The so-called “April War” or “Four Day War” broke out in the night between the 1st and 2nd of April, and the clashes focused mainly around the cities of Aghdara, Tartar, Agdam, Khojavend, and Fuzuli. As usual, the reconstructions accuse the other side of having started the hostilities first. The war rekindled xenophobic sentiments on both sides: Armenian President Kocharian said that Azerbaijanis and Armenians were “ethnically incompatible”, and even in Azerbaijan the discrimination against the Armenian population exceeded the warning levels. The clashes did not lead to any change in the state of things. Independent Armenian journalist Tatul Hakobyan, who visited the fighting scene during the clashes, remarked that the death of scores of soldiers of both sides was “senseless” as no real change occurred. He stated: “Azerbaijan did not win and Armenia did not lose”. Several observers noted how the hostilities had been de facto calculated to not fully escalate, in particular from Azerbaijan, and that they had no long-term goal, but only to put the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict back on the international agenda, putting pressure on Armenia.

Territorial changes after 2016 Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes.

Thus, after thirty years of more or less great violations of the ceasefire, UN resolutions and confrontations between the great international powers, we come to the present day. Hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh resumed on 27 September 2020, apparently started from Azerbaijan (as it probably was in the previous cases: after all, Armenia would have less motivation to start a conflict, being in possession of Nagorno-Karabakh from ’94 -96), the clash was fought mainly through use of air forces (drones in particular) and mutual bombing towards the cities of Stepanakert and Ganja. Moscow attempted to negotiate a ceasefire, failing twice on October 17 and the following 26.

So what is there to expect this time?

Stepanakert, the capital city of the Republic of Artsakh, has been heavily damaged by shelling during the conflict.

“War is always the main desire of a powerful government, which wants to become even more powerful. I don’t need to tell you that it is precisely during the war that … the government covers its thievery and mistakes with an impenetrable veil. Instead, I will talk to you about what most directly affects our interests. It is during the war that the executive power displays its terrible energy and exercises a kind of dictatorship, which terrifies freedom. It is during the war that the people forget the deliberations concerning their civil and political rights.”

(Maximilien De Robespierre, December 18, 1791 from “Oevres de Maximilien Robespierre“, Phénix Éditions, Ivry, 2000.)

When the news began to appear in the Western media, the reaction of those who had more or less the notion of what was happening was to evoke a “Syrian” scenario even in the Caucasus, when not directly a Russo-Turkish war. Unfortunately it is the poisoned fruit of the last few decades: every news must be seasoned with suppositions, “ifs”, “buts”, and provided with apocalyptic predictions made on unknown basis. For now, we do not know how the situation will evolve, and, as I have often reiterated, I gladly leave the predictions of the future to the astrologers.

But we can use what we know to get a clearer picture: for example, examining post-1996 conflicts, including the current one, and finding commonalities could be a good starting point. To this, we can add a look at the international and internal situation of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

First of all, all those conflict were uselessness. It is not a rhetorical statement about the futility of war (even if the whole story could well represent a metaphor) but an objective observation: the clashes have never led to a decisive change in the region, but have generally been limited to a series of targeted aggressions, skirmishes and small portions of territory that pass from one side to the other. Nothing that could barely be compared with the 1988-94 war.

But if “War is the continuation of politics by other Means”, then we can begin to see its usefulness. In particular, Azerbaijan, transformed into a petro-state after the Nagorno-Karabakh War, is continuously subject to fluctuating economic crises (just happened in 2008, 2016 and 2020) and also has a monolithic and consolidated political system around the Alyev family, which is accused by many of being at the center of the country’s political and economic corruption. In the country there are continuous and systematic violations of human rights, indiscriminate arrests and systematic application of torture. The perpetual military mobilization around the unresolved issue of Nagorno-Karabakh has certainly proved to be an excellent way to keep political and economic power safe from internal crises during the last decades.

Although Armenia is a country in some respects in better condition, the same argument can be valid. The continuing political crises, including the “Velvet Revolution” of 2018, reveal a “hybrid” political system (moreover not “blessed” by Moscow): very fragile and prey to the internal struggles of different power groups. Furthermore, the Armenian economy largely depends on Diaspora Organizations around the world and also suffers from continuosly ups and downs. The constant threat of Azerbaijan has certainly helped some of the Armenian power circles to remain intact without excessive effort.

Secondly, there is obviously the geopolitical question, in which the clash is used to “prove” one’s own strength and political relations. Although both countries have had good relations with both NATO and the CIS, the main confrontation has been between Russia and Turkey (as a NATO member), since the time of the collapse of their respective empires. This is an established fact, as we have seen in the previous article, since the early days of the fighting, with threats from the former Soviet countries regarding a possible intervention by Turkey in the conflict. Once again we have a proxy war of this type, even though Turkey is essentially acting unilaterally, without the formal support of NATO. As we know, the main battleground with Russia is now in Syria, but also with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh, both factions support their respective proteges: Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia, Armenia.

This time, however, there is an unexpected element. The same countries that are fighting each other by proxy are in turn in severe crisis: both Turkey and Russia have isolated themselves internationally and are suffering deep crises, at an economic and social level. It is therefore they this time who find themselves with a precarious internal position, to be stabilized “on the outside”.

This could lead to two completely opposite scenarios: a rapid escalation followed, however, by an equally rapid collapse (Turkey does not have NATO behind it, and does not have the economic means it boasts to support so-called Neo-Ottoman ambitions, and Russia at the same time. way barely manages to support the Syrian war effort, as well as being hit very hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, although officially denying problems of this type), or to a scenario that deflates very quickly, also taking into account that much of the war is fought on the propaganda front, as previously said to “put the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict back on the international agenda” with belligerant proclamations, which in the West generally have a certain hold on the news.

Unfortunately, now the attention of Western Countries is now focused on a much more serious threat for their own stability, with the citizens of the European countries and those of the United States having far more serious problems on their agenda than Nagorno-Karabakh and the hypotesis of an escalating conflict (we no longer even talk about Libya or Syria, a sign of how, as long as this health emergency is not mitigated, we will have no serious developments in addition to Presidents who insult each other).

The third issue concerns precisely the global pandemic that afflicts all the countries of the world: Armenia has been hit quite hard, not a good start for the government of Nikol Vovayi Pashinyan, leader of the aforementioned protests in 2018; while Azerbaijan was striken less, “thanks” to the possibility of implementing draconian measures (and to the lack of media transparency) , but it has certainly suffered from the lower demand for fuel due to the cessation of industrial activities which lasted several months, and considering that its survival is based on those revenues, it is not difficult to imagine a certain discontent.

Could this umpteenth clash be the way to shift problems that instead concern the internal situation of the two countries into Foreign Policies?

is there a possibility that the confrontation has become so endemic that it has become a stabilizing factor in the region, rather than the other way around? At the beginning of the writing, a quote from the former Armenian president Lev-Petrosian leads us to reflect: what is the reason why a possible resolution of the conflict is a priori discarded? Perhaps the main reason is to be found within the dynamics between the two countries, rather than outside, and in their political, social and economic dynamics, which seem to be the dominant factor in the outbreak of what have been micro-conflicts. occurred since ’96.

Maybe this “inverted view” can be taken as a starting point for new research on the subject. In the meantime, i will thank you all for reading these lines and those that preceded them, help me by letting me know what you think where you prefer.

That’s it for this time, see you next week.

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