Tag Archives: history

The “Mariupol Standoff”, or the developement of new relashionship between East and West

“You can say things which cannot be done. This is elementary. The trick is to keep attention focused on what is said and not on what can be done.”

(Frank Herbert, from “Whippinng Star”, 1969)

A map of the situation in the eastern region of Ukraine, by Business Insider Intelligence

Welcome back to Unpredictable Past,

some time has passed since the last writing, but, as it is natural that it is, and as I often repeat, some events need the right time to be looked at and analyzed: and this is what I intend to do in this writing, whose processing time went into looking at things as they are, minimizing guesswork and finding as many facts as possible to support my claim.

In this paper I would like to start from the latest episodes that took place on the eastern border of Ukraine and then get to analyze with you the new course that the global geopolitical situation seems to have taken since the beginning of 2021. The event I am talking about has been defined as “Maripol Crisis”, from the city in the Donetsk Oblast, on the shores of the Black Sea, close to the borders of the Occupied Territories (or Separatists, depending on the point of view), which is generally referred to by the acronym ORDLO (Okremi Raioni Donetchkoi ta Lughanskoi Oblastei) and which has recently been the subject of clashes between separatists forces (ie the Russian army) and loyalists of the Ukrainian army, causing fear of a new escalation of violence in the region in the near future.

The “frozen” conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for eight years, and dates the last escalation of this importance back to 2015, when, following the Ukrainian Revolution of the previous year and the beginning of the internal conflict with the separatists in the southeast of the country (in the regions of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and Donbass), the Russian armed forces “disguised” as civilian personnel carrying humanitarian aid invaded the country, occupying, in whole or in part, the aforementioned territories. On March 26 of this year, the tension begins to rise again: four soldiers of the Ukrainian Army were killed in Shumy, a village in the Mariupol area, very close to the border of the Occupied Territories, in which, in the meantime, as pointed out by Kirill Budanov, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the troops of the Russian Federation have massed for a total of about 110,000 effectives. Budanov asserted that these movements of the armed forces have a specific purpose: “[Its] goal is to keep Ukraine in the sphere of [Russia’s] geopolitical influence, force it to abandon Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and resolve the issue of the occupied territories [in the Donbass] on Moscow’s terms“.

On April 12, the Russian government takes a further step, and through the spokesman of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Peskov declares that: “[Moscow] will not remain indifferent to the fate of Russian speakers who live in the southeastern regions of Ukraine“. A clear reference (typical of the rhetoric of recent years, which used the term “Russophone” instead of “Russian” to pursue territorial claims without bringing up ethnic issues that could sound like the “reasons” adducted by Adolf Hitler during the Anschluss of the territories with a population of German origin into the Third Reich), to the policy begun two years ago by the Russian Federation regarding the granting of a “facilitated” passport to residents of the Occupied Territories who had requested it (to date there are about 400,000, out of 3 million of residents) for “humanitarian reasons”, behind which obviously lies the veiled threat of being able to have an easy casus belli should an armed intervention needs to be justified.

In response to this veiled threat, the following day April 13 at a meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba confirmed the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries. Both Ukrainian and American diplomats agreed that they needed to take action in order to “demotivate Moscow from further escalation“; the same day, US President Biden called his counterpart Putin to propose a meeting in which to discuss the issue in its entirety, but , when Moscow seemed to have achieved a “normalization” of the situation, the expulsions of diplomats and the implementation of new economic sanctions on the Sovereign Funds of the Russian Federation began in the US (officially relating to the case of Alexey Navaly and his treatment in detention), but which in my opinion had more the flavor of an appropriate response: “you-are-not-the-only-ones-able-to-use-humanitarian-pretexts-for-other-purposes“.

A declaration of intent absolutely not misunderstood, which has aroused a series of diplomatic reactions on both sides, as well as, obviously, within the European Union. The question arose spontaneously: “is it really a new line or is it just a way of pointing out a heavy question of internal politics?“. As we know, the four years of the Trump presidency were characterized by suspicion of interference by Moscow into the internal politics of the United States, a suspicion fueled by the “benevolent” attitude held by the former president regarding the relations between the two countries. I have often said it, but it is good to reiterate it: the Russian elites, out of conviction or opportunism, continue to feed the mythology of the Cold War, in the hope of being able to return to the table of the Great Powers and at the same time preserve their position of power, showing themselves to the eyes of the public opinion in their country as the only way to avoid falling prey to alleged “Western conspiracies”.

But let’s start from the beginning, since this situation is one of the results of other events that have occurred in recent months. The first and foremost is certainly the change of administration in the United States, with the beginning of Joe Biden’s mandate at the White House: shortly after taking office, the President, and his entourage, overturned the line of laxity towards the Russia: in February, at the Munich Security Conference, the American President peremptorily stated: “America is back“, making it clear that Russian interference (from propaganda to cyberwarfare) in the West would no longer be tolerated, reiterating then the concept in an interview with ABC, calling his counterpart Vladimir Putin “a killer”. Following that, the combined efforts of the Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Secretary of the National Security Council Oleksiy Danilov, leads to Ukraine’s “new approach” towards Russia, and managed to “give a shake” to the President Volodimir Zelensky, who, due to inexperience and lack of external support, left Russians do essentially what they wanted, using the Minsk Agreements as a lever to move Ukraine’s internal politics at will.

Here, in the West, if the global pandemic hadn’t made us deaf and blind, we’d be talking about front page stuff. Despite those facts, fortunately, a military escalation seems unlikely at present, for several reasons.

At first glance, disparity of forces in the field is evident, clearly in favor of Russia, and this fact alone could immediately make one think of the worst. But, as several military analysts have rightly pointed out, this deployment of forces does not necessarily have to be the prelude to a large-scale offensive. It could be configured, for example, as a “response” by the Russian Federation (together with Belarus) to the large military exercise carried out by NATO since the beginning of March, under the evocative name of “Defender-Europe 2021“, in which 27 Countries took part, including Ukraine, representing the largest coordination maneuver in 25 years, with a similar maneuver named “Zapad-2021” scheduled for September. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister, stated the following: “a sudden check of the combat readiness of the troops of the Western and Southern military districts was carried out as part of [Russia’s] control measures and exercises during the winter period of training.

Second, an attempt at normalization has been carried out both in Europe, which began on April 16th, with France, Germany and Ukraine on the one hand and Russia (not represented at the summit, but nevertheless present) on the other, and, of course, by the United States, with Biden’s proposal to Putin of a meeting aimed at discussing the Ukrainian situation “on a broad spectrum“. Although these negotiations are currently at a standstill, the very fact that they exist implies that the military option is considered, even in the Kremlin, as something to be used as a threat but to be avoided at all costs. Further proof of this attitude, especially on the Russian side, is an apparently banal but interesting episode: in an interview with Rossiya24, a “government” broadcaster, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Russia was ready to “break relations with the European Union “on the Ukraine question. These statements were immediately followed by a quick denial by Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, who denied the Minister and backtracked very quickly, citing justifications of circumstance. Taking into account that Lavrov is certainly not a minor character or just any politician, the fact that he was so abruptly denied from above is indicative.

Is it all a matter of “flexing muscles” then? Not exactly, in my opinion.

A map of the Northern Crimean Canal as reported by BBC.com

Indeed, there is a goal that a possible offensive could aim at: the Northern Crimean Canal, recently closed by the Ukrainian government and source of supply of 80% of the country’s drinking water, which has caused many problems for the regions under control. Russian. The question is whether the Kremlin is ready to take this risk: if on the one hand the superiority of means could make a “blitzkrieg” conceivable, on the other hand this could turn out to be a move with decidedly catastrophic consequences, compared to a possible “gain” in territorial and resource terms. In fact, it would be necessary to fight on Ukrainian territory, where now there are about 300,000 veterans of the Donbass, motivated, benefited by the knowledge of the territory but who above all would be immediately supported by the West. Making the decision to attack to “send a signal” could prove to be the most counterproductive the Russian government has done in recent years.

Two problems face the Kremlin. First of all, as I have explained several times, the image is everything for the elite of the Russian Federation: how would the regime be able to explain the enormous cost in human lives, or a possible military failure (the army is still one of the few institutions in which the population trusts) in the context of that confrontation / clash that propaganda has been carrying out for years? The second problem concerns the economic repercussions that the decision to force the hand would have on the country: if on the one hand Europe must limit itself to warnings, the United States is planning a series of very heavy economic sanctions, for now stopped in Congress because the result of a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats whose internal tensions have not yet subsided after the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, but which in the eventuality of armed aggression would immediately come into being (who would risk, after the scandals of the previous four years, to support the soft line with Russia?), and that would be a very hard blow for the whole country. Also in this case, maintaining the image of “prosperity” would be very complex, and probably it will not be enough to “pull out nationalism when you run out of money” to get out of it, also because this would seriously risk triggering a further chain reaction. from which it would be impossible for the central power to escape unscathed.

At that point, the possible scenarios would be two: withdrawing and losing face, trying not to arouse excessive media hype and finding a way to justify the “setback” with public opinion (changing the game and reporting external problems within the country , downloading them, for example, on the non-organic political opposition to the system, such as that of Navalny for example), or to go straight and decide to tighten even more clearly the relations with the only other ally of weight on which Russia can count: the People’s Republic of China. This last hypothesis, in spite of those who have spoken for years of a common front between the two countries with an anti-Western function, is actually the result of a reasoning that was firm at the time of the Cold War, which seeks to replicate patterns known, making up for the inability to explain reality.

In fact, as I happened to underline on other occasions, the most concrete (but never manifested) danger that the Russian elites absolutely want to avoid running into is precisely an increasingly close relationship with China. The reason is obvious: if it is true that the export of raw materials to Chinese factories is among the most important components of the Russian economy, on the other hand, those in charge are clear that the more the country moves to the East, the more it risks becoming an appendage of Chinese power. With the exception of the military sector (of reduced size only by Beijing’s choice) all the cards are in favor of the Asian giant, which in recent years has extended its influence even on those countries that Russia normally considers “its own” (yes think of Central Asia, or, lately, some Balkan countries that have opened up to the Chinese vaccine market, but that’s another story), without anyone in Moscow being able to do anything about it or daring to risk criticism of any kind.

This time the situation seems to be decidedly more serious, even if some other events, apparently distant, can offer the explanation of the escalation.

And it is at this point that it is necessary to take a step back, and take a closer look at the foreign policy undertaken by the new American administration: as mentioned, if on the one hand it has all the appearance of a provocation against Russia, a retaliation for the precedents years of interference in American politics, it is not necessary to forget that the objective of the United States has long been another one. In fact, further east, precisely in the Pacific, a game is being played that the United States considers much more important than any confrontation with Russia, namely to contain the influence of the People’s Republic of China on the region. For years, the overwelming US military supremacy has kept the Asian giant’s ambitions in what it considers “rightfully” its own zone of influence at bay, but lately things have changed and Chinese naval forces have begun to accompany the economic expansion of the country in the Indo-Pacific area. It is no coincidence that one of Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to preside over the first meeting of QUAD, an alliance of the four democratic countries that have interests in the Pacific Ocean (India, Australia, Japan and United States) and who do not look favorably on China’s expansion to their detriment, that, as already reported on this site, could sign the beginning of significant changes in the area.

All those facts leads me to ask: what if these maneuvers, apparently aimed at striking Russia, were instead a way to put the country’s leadership in front of a choice between West and East?

That Joe Biden’s “provocative” statements serve this purpose? And that the “outstretched hand” of Europe, specifically of French President Emmanuel Macron, is not a simple sign of surrender, but rather a counterweight in a “carrot and stick” strategy, intended to go and see the bluff carried out. for decades now from the upper echelons of the Kremlin? In this situation, two key points of the ideology of the facade of the Russian Federation seem to begin to fail, namely that of its “peculiar identity”, neither Western nor Eastern, together with that of the Cold War which sees the country as the main pole of anti-atlantist, an idea that loses credibility even in the eyes of the Russians themselves with each passing year. That somewhere in Washington they have understood that the program of responding to Russian propaganda with other propaganda, the one centered on embezzlement by members of Putin’s “inner circle” is a fallacious and useless strategy, as demonstrated by the Navalny affair , and that perhaps the real breaking point will be to confront Russian public opinion with something far more significant? Such as “what shall we do with our lives?”

In a possible future confrontation (whose lines have already been “drawn”) to balance the relationship between West and East, there is no doubt that the side on which Russia will take sides will be fundamental, not only for geopolitical issues, but also for the future of Russian citizens themselves: to let autocratic power preserve itself, becoming more and more enveloped in a decadent spiral that will inevitably lead to a sort of vassalage condition with respect to China, or to deny itself, its image and all the propaganda rhetoric put in place to hold together the “pieces” of the country and gradually groped a rapprochement with the much-maligned West?

As Andrei Piontkovsky stated in an interview with Olga Khvostunovna on the Institute for Modern Russia website: “To ensure that Russian changes its foreign policy, the battle for the minds of Russian citizens has to be won“. And perhaps, I think as a European, it is not the only battle that must be fought and won, if we really want the future of all of us to be different, but that’s another story.

The “Eternal Gulag”, a look inside Post-Soviet Countries resistance to changes

“Speaking in London with Mikhail Khodorkovskij we said to ourselves that we realize one thing. If a person has been in the Soviet Gulag, as soon as he leaves he cannot be free, he does not know what freedom means. The bandits have taken over and we continue to live by the rules of the Gulag. We can only prepare people for the future which could be quite far away.”

(Svjatlana Aleksievich, in an interview by Fabrizio Dragosei for the italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, March 28, 2017)

Welcome Back to Unpredictablepast.com,

This article is intended to be what we could define as the conclusion of the events concerning the protests in Russia, generated by the attempted murder of the main opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his subsequent arrest and conviction, through a lightning trial with fairly motivations and questionable sentence. As usual, when I say “conclusion”, I am not referring to the fact that the movement of events is over, and that I will stop following it in detail, but that the right moment has arrived to draw some conclusions from the facts previously analyzed.

Inside there will also be some reflections on Belarus, and on other ex-Soviet countries that have experienced similar events and of which it is good to talk again, also in this case trying not to limit ourselves strictly to the facts and trying to observe everything in the most wide range possible, and every possible example will help us in analyzing the situation, and to do this, we will go through a series of points that most of the situations considered so far have in common:

Державничество (Dierzavnichestva)

An incomprehensible term for a Westerner, but one that is crucial if one wants to understand what is the heart of the problem in some post-Soviet countries, above all the Russian Federation. Often, especially in English texts, it is simply translated as statism or, at times, nationalism: an error in my opinion, not just because russian language has specific terms to indicate statism (этатизм, etatiszm), nationalism (национализм, nazionaliszm) or patriotism (патриотизм, patriotiszm).

This word has a different meaning, however, in the sense that it includes and amplifies the previous terms and can be translated with the paraphrase “Either [Russia] is great, or it is not”. A concept that could be assimilated in some way to the politics of the French “Grandeur”, with the difference that, while progressively the latter succeeded in a more or less tragic way (think only of Algeria and what was called Indochina) to come to terms with the end of a historical era, that of Imperial Colonialism, the Russian Federation, which since 1989 has inherited much of what was the Soviet Union, has not been able to do so.

The issue certainly deserves a detailed study, but, speaking of the reasons that led to the current situation, it necessarily deserves a prominent position, as essentially all the others derive from it. If you think about the most important international events in the last twenty years, you will realize for yourself how this ontological vision of a state based on its “prestige” (the term is used by George Orwell in one of his most important writings, Notes on Nationalism) was the main impediment to a “normalization” of Russia within the world context, and also within it: every attempt made in this direction (yes, even by Vladimir Putin) has crashed into this insurmountable wall created by a Past that has progressively become both Present and Future.

The desperate attempt not to lose a prominent role as a Superpower can be found hidden in every attitude of the Russian government: from foreign policy, still mainly governed by a more or less veiled hostility towards the West, to the series of murders or attacks carried out towards political dissidents. Everything refers to an image of Undisputed Power, or at least of “new bipolarism” or “new Cold War” that the ruling class wants to give of the country, making it explicit both with concrete actions (but, to note, without ever exceeding), and through the propaganda that rages especially on the web (to date, the flagship product is the infamous Sputnik V vaccine).

Even smaller countries closely linked to Russia (such as many of those of the former USSR or adhering to the Warsaw Pact) still have similar problems, albeit in a “reduced” version: Belarus is a perfect example (in the articles I have I wrote about it extensively), but also the countries of Central Asia (those that Erika Fatland wittily defined as Sovietistan) have been heavily affected by this attitude: “imitative” in domestic politics and “limiting” in foreign policy.

Centralization of Powers

The second question which, in my opinion, is an obstacle to any change is that of the centralization of powers and the consequent “messianic” vision that is generated within the population, including both “the average man” and “the ‘intellectual”.

This problem stems from both historical reasons and purely political intentions. Without the need (as is done in some cases) to go back to Kievan Rus’, to the Mongols and so on, if you look at what was the “feeling” one breathed in the few years in which the decline of the USSR took a strong acceleration until its dissolution, it can be seen that the element that terrified those who at the time lived the events in the first person, was the terror of a civil war, especially within the RSFR. Once the Central Power lost its grip on a territory of such vastness and heterogeneity, the fear was not only justified, but concretely realized: not at the level, for example, of the Civil War following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but, for example, with the birth of movements with a strong ethno-nationalistic or religious connotation, which once the Soviet “Mastiff” disappeared recalled the ancient hostilities and unleashed a myriad of local conflicts, just think of the Caucasus area, where the conflicts and animosities of ethnic, nationalistic, religious are still there to make the whole area a powder keg.

The political clash between parties and factions was also very strong, fueled by both these fears and by the disastrous “economic transition” implemented by Yeltsin, leading to the “Constitutional Crisis” (in fact an attempted coup by some high grades of the Army, then used by Elstin as a pretext to center all the powers on himself, as the President of the Russian Federation) of 1993, resolved with the shelling of the Parliament, an episode that, in hindsight, became a tragic preamble of the following years.

The White House (The building in which the Russian Parliament reunites) burning after being shelled by artillery fire

Matter of fact, when Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation at the eve of the new millennium, he found the way cleared to do what he wanted, or rather, what, as we will see, the country expected from him.

His figure should have put an end to the internal clash by acting as a balance in the “redistribution” of powers, which subsequently led to the hypertrophic expansion of the presidential cabinet to the detriment of the constitutionally appointed bodies to guide the Russian Federation, which in the course of the years have become “facades”: legally they exist and their powers are constitutionally legitimized and regulated, de facto, everything passes through the presidential entourage (a body that only with the last referendum had a sort of de jure legitimacy) which imposes its decisions to all other state bodies.

“Political Messianism”

And it is precisely from this centralization of powers on the figure of the Head of State that another problem arises that should not be underestimated: “Political Messianism“.

If it is true that historically the Russians have had a very close and personal relationship with the figures in power, this is something that is more part of a medieval legacy than of a democracy (even under construction, as it was at the time). This is because in the population the conviction is created that only the apex of power can act on public life, disempowering them and at the same time generating peaks of ecstasy at every regime change and profound resignation in the following period: Gorbachev, Yeltsin and finally Putin have had all this “sacred aura”, which heralded an epochal change, then regularly disappointed. Of the three, the last is the only one who made sure that this aura was continually renewed in some way (and he did, for better or for worse).

In this sense, citizens are beginning to get used to this ambivalent thought: on the one hand, there is no alternative to the current state of affairs, or there is fear that the change will be disregarded and will lead the country towards disaster; on the other hand, the change at the top is seen as a New Advent, in the Christian sense of the term, something inevitable and that will surely open the doors to the Golden Age by sweeping away Evil. Both attitudes are the furthest away from a democratic process: they reflect an almost monarchical attitude towards power, the activity of the citizen is limited to being for or against a power that, although perceived in a highly personal, it remains something inaccessible, untouchable, but above all not contestable.

Political Messianism does not look at political figures in rational terms, but in emotional terms, which makes any public debate worthy of the name useless: everything is reduced to a Manichaeism that sees the Rightful on one side and the Damned on the other, creating a climate of perennial tension in which the entire social body is involved on a daily basis. We cannot know if Alexey Navalny will be the next President, or at least if he’s movement will led to a political change, but it does not matter as long as the centralization process is not reversed and the figure of the Man of Providence does not come to decline in the eyes of the population.

Corruption

As I have already stated, fighting corruption, especially in those countries where it is endemic, such as Russia (in fact, since the Soviet Union). But as usual, “the devil hides in the details”: perhaps few remember that, but corruption was one of the biggest problems even during the governments of Boris Yeltsin, a period in which the notorious figures of the “Oligarchs” emerged, of which “Tsar Boris” had to secure economic support especially during his second term, making many concessions to them, to the point that some went directly into the presidential cabinet or the government. Putin himself, at the time the right arm of the mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoliy Sobchak, was embroiled in shady deals concerning the embezzlement of Western aid together with his boss, doing his utmost when he lost his power due to his own illness to make him expatriate.

St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchack and a young Vladimir Putin 
Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

This is why he was chosen as Yelstin’s successor. No machinations of the KGB / FSB, or other sort of spy-story conspiracies: two things were expected from him, a safe conduct for the President (also too ill to fulfill his duties) and for his family, and a continuity with Yeltsin’s line on power management. But those who hoped to be able to maneuver “Volodiya” at will, soon realized that they had made a big mistake.

Starting from his second term as President of the Federation, Putin unleashed the judiciary (in the meantime passed almost entirely under the control of the presidential entourage) against the Oligarchs: lightning trials, heavily mediated, found many of them guilty of financial crimes, causing them to end up in imprisonment or forcing them into exile, and, more importantly, the state seized their properties by reassigning them to the new “circle” that Putin had created in the first years of government. Thanks to this “Witch Hunt” its popularity skyrocketed, both at home and, unfortunately, in the West, a first sign, of which few realized, that the idea of ​​a democratic Russia had been set aside and that also in countries where the rule of law was not just a facade, something had changed, and liberal democracy had begun to be devoured by the cancer of the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”.

In Belarus, Lukashenko seize his personal power more or less in the same way: as we already saw in the essay on his ascent to power, he uses his position to launch a massive anti-corruption campaign, which basically cut off the head of the Belarusian State, and replace them whit himself.

Today, in both countries, the corrupt have changed, but not the system of corruption, which is inevitably linked to the concentration of power and the maintenance of a balance of forces that move under the apparently granite skin of the administration. We also have someone else who, very naively, thinks of eliminating corruption by eliminating the corrupt: whoever succeeds Vladimir Putin, tomorrow or ten years from now, will have to seriously ask themselves the question, and put it in front of the population, or the cycle will simply start again from the beginning.

Et Pluribus Unum

A third point never dealt with in a democratic way is the heterogeneity and complexity of territories, ethnic groups and religions that make up Russia, just as the relationship with the other former Soviet Republics has never been dealt with in the same way.

This attitude has mainly two reasons: the first, the more concrete one, is that many of the regions that claim more autonomy, or at least a more decentralized federal system, are strategic for the economic survival of the Federation, which is entirely based on the export of materials. the first that come largely from the transural territories, but whose control in the years passed, as mentioned, to Moscow, or, even better, to the circle created around the President. We have seen how, even during the pandemic emergency, resources continued to be drained from these territories in exchange for meager state subsidies and the burden of managing an unprecedented health crisis.

The second reason is that of the “prestige” of the “Dierzavna”: Vladimir Putin, in particular, represented, compared to his predecessor, the “champion” of the unity of the Russias, starting from the beginning of his mandate, which coincided with the Second Chechen war, passing through the war with Georgia up to the invasion of the Ukrainian territories considered “natural part of Russia”. A symbolism that is progressively decaying, due to the increasing intolerance of some Regions towards the central government, and above all because of the economic power of China, which is slowly eroding Russia’s influence on some territories, without this being able to counter it in any way.

The Russian Federation in this has inherited the behavior of the USSR in all respects, exchanging tanks and guns with threats of an economic or psychological war, but the principle remains the same and indeed, makes everything a house of cards even more shaky, with unpredictable consequences.

Smaller former Soviet republics have adopted the same attitude over the years: the confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh that I have repeatedly spoken of is the most striking example. Power is based on the ability or not of the rulers to gain prestige and superiority over the Enemy, seen as an atavistic nemesis with which there is no compromise: yesterday Ilham Aliyev was a hated corrupt autocrat, today a national hero, in the same way, his counterpart Pashinyan was the hero of the Velvet Revolution, now a traitor who lost Artsakh. There are places where coexistence is not impossible, it has been made impossible in order to rise to power and keep it at the expense of the population.

Lack of concern about Liberal Democracy

In conclusion of what has been written so far, you can understand how much the discussions made around Russia and other countries in recent months take on surreal connotations, at least as far as I’m concerned. We have pages after pages of analysis, forecasts, hypotheses with a common substrate: the constant avoidance of concrete problems.

Those who, including me, deal with these events, should try to free themselves from a debate that feeds the problems, rather than trying to solve them. This does not mean not taking a position or boasting an alleged objectivity, but understanding how much we are personally involved and why, without thinking of being immune to it just because we know a little more than the average reader. This would not only help those who try to fight seriously so that their country comes out of a situation considered unsustainable, but also to notice how much this attitude goes to question our beliefs, and personal prejudices, which contribute to fuel the problem, making it endemic.

This is the “Eternal Gulag” in which the post-Soviet countries have fallen (and they are not the only ones, but this is another story): a continuous struggle between factions that slaughter each other to divide increasingly scarce resources, under the close surveillance of guards “ideological”, armed and threatening, which do not let anyone leave the camp and do not send news from the outside world, which in the meantime is moving forward.

Putin, Navalny, and the problem of “Then” in Post-Soviet Countries – Pt. II

“Good government grows out of the people; it cannot be handed to them.”

(R. A. Heinlein, “My Object All Sublime” from “Off the Main Sequence“, 2005)

Welcome back to everybody,

let us resume the analysis of what is happening in the Russian Federation, with the intention of delving into the current situation as we generally listen to it in the course of the news. We are left with several questions that may not necessarily find their answer here, but at least they have been asked, as it was necessary, in my opinion, to do.

last time we talked about the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, how the elimination of uncomfortable personalities for the Kremlin is not “new”, and the oddities surrounding this particular case. In this regard, on a personal level, it is difficult for me not to feel a certain discomfort for this desensitization, and I wanted to express sincere admiration for those who are waging this battle at the risk of their own lives; the fact is that here we are trying to make an analysis that has as much a scientific value as possible and that necessarily involves a more or less large degree of depersonalization, but it is good that I remind myself, first of all, that we are talking about people’s flesh and blood, however distant they may appear to us through a screen.

The Return of Alexey Navalny in the Russian Federation

After recovering, Navalny decided to return to Russia: he did so on January 17, and was arrested by the police as soon as he passed passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, all in live streaming. In response to his arrest, many of his supporters called for protests across the nation, and, another important element, while in custody in prison Navalny managed to publish a documentary known as “Putin’s Palace” (in original entitled “Дворец для Путина. История самой большой взятки”, “A Palace for Putin. The history of the biggest bribe”), in which a princely palace on the Black Sea is shown in detail, stating that it is the “de facto” property of Vladir Putin and that it was financed by the wealthy members of his circle to gain favors in return (to date, the video has passed one hundred million views).

In the political activity carried out by Navalny this system is nothing new: in September 2016, another documentary entitled “He’s not Dimon to you” (original “Он вам не Димон”) targeted the heritage of the then Primo Minister Dmitry Medvedev (the title is a reference to the derogatory term with which the then Prime Minister was called: “Dimon” is in fact a colloquial diminutive of Dmitry used in the underworld), led to mass protests in March 2017, which lasted until October 2018, the year in which new elections would be held in which Navalny himself tried to run, blocked by the Kremlin-controlled bureaucratic opposition (and, as mentioned , will also be the period in which FSB members designated as responsible for his poisoning began to monitor him more closely).

So, in spite of those who speak of a “new phase of protests”, this seems to be Navalny’s usual method of “attack”: that is, trying to corner the Russian power system by revealing its rampant corruption, self-referentiality and what is often an opulent and unregulated lifestyle. This time of course, as we saw in the previous article, he has one more weapon: his own attempted murder, to be taken as an example of the brutality exercised by the regime, who, for his part, immediately used the “heavy hand” against him and against the activists who met in the square to protest his arrest.

Navalny knows very well the mechanisms by which power moves in Russia, and knows how to exploit it to his advantage: in my opinion, his return to his homeland, however courageous, has been carefully calculated to provoke a reaction of the system which, as already said, it is unfortunately now considered “obvious”. What is the problem with this strategy? In the first place, I would say, paraphrasing Sun Tzu, is that if Navaly knows Russian power very well, Russian power knows Navalny and “himself” very well.

That is, because if this method is capable of arousing strong indignation, it is also true that they lead nowhere: if you try to storm the most fortified bastion, the propaganda machine built in more than twenty years (if we want to consider only the Putin Era), needless to say that you will come out with broken bones (forgive me the rather poor metaphor). If Navalny has decided to continue on the path of the “Internet Guerrilla” and the “clash of personalities” whit Putin, he has already lost. And it’s not a prediction: Lev Gudkov, director of the Moscow-based Levada pollster, told Reuters: “The euphoria in the liberal community is clearly very exaggerated. The main mass of the population is responding inertly to all the events linked to Navalny […] [Putin] It’s got a bit worse among young people, but it practically hasn’t changed for the main mass (of people)”.

Of course, it is by no means an easy task to organize a protest involving about 120 cities, with peaks of 40,000 people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, both because of the new strong sanctions for those who organize unauthorized demonstrations, and because of the restrictions caused from the Covid-19 Pandemic. But are we sure they were all there for the same reason? As we have already seen, 2020 saw numerous demonstrations and clashes related above all to the management of the pandemic that the federal government has unloaded on the shoulders of local administrations, many of which have ended up in serious economic and social trouble due to this decision (to the point that, I’ll be honest, at the time I learned about Navalny’s poisoning, I thought he was making a documentary about the situation in transuralic regions, and not about Putin’s alleged Dacha).

Yes, young people pick up calls to protest, and that’s an important thing, but if their idea of ​​protest is to applaud an MMA champion hoping to beat OMON agents one by one like Captain America, it means something is wrong in the premises. And no, it is not even enough that many say they are “fed up”, or that they strive to find ways to avoid being arrested or stopped by the police.

Not to mention that this attitude, as we have seen in recent days, provides the possibility for the regime to use the protests for its propaganda purposes. Specifically choosing highly presidediated places so that physical contact between demonstrators and police is reached is a deliberate choice: as mentioned before, this is precisely one of the strategies used by Navalny and by him to show police brutality. Too bad that this attitude, in addition to being reckless, is also easily usable by the regime’s propaganda: in summary, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov asserted that in the end the demonstrators were explicitly violating the law, accusing Western countries of double standards (and, of course, of secretly direct the opposition), making a meaningless, but no less effective comparison with the events on Capitol Hill or with the recent protests in Brussels.

In a January 19 article published in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen, recounting the story of Navalny’s arrest, said: “Navalny’s superpower has been his ability to show people what they had always known about the Putin regime but had the option of pretending away. He has shown the depth of the regime’s corruption. He has shown that Putin’s secret police carries out murders. With his return to Russia, he has shown the regime’s utter lack of imagination and inability to plan ahead. He has also shown that, contrary to the Kremlin’s assertions and to conventional wisdom among Western Russia-watchers, there is an alternative to Putin. Politically, Navalny was not a candidate who could have unified Russia a few years ago—he has a history of espousing nationalist views that made much of the intelligentsia wary of him. But he has shown that the alternative to Putin is courage, integrity, and love. The name of Russia’s next leader is almost certainly Navalny, or Navalnaya.”

Here, this is an example of rhetoric, typically “Western”, which at this juncture is completely dysfunctional: if there is something that the opposition would now need is a bit of healthy realism and concreteness. What importance can the name of a possible next President have, if he is not really able to have the support, the will and the ability to reform a system that is rotten to the core, and of which corruption is the last of the problems.

And here we come to the second and most important problem of Navalny’s “strategy”: the complete lack of any political program worthy of this name. In his analysis of the affair for Foreign Policy, Alexander Gabuev noted the lack of any kind of political result by Navalny and his colleagues: it seems quite logical, since there were none. Is not that Putin has learned how to manege protests well, is the protest that doesn’t have learned to menage itself. If it all boils down to the comparison between two different ways of doing “Storytelling”, the protest becomes an end in itself, and the same pattern we have seen on other occasions will be repeated: clashes, indignation, exchange of accusations with Europe and the United States, and finally oblivion

The mobilization of the streets without some kind of precise objective, even a minimal political program, leads people towards two paths, both equally harmful: senseless violence or aphasia. Generally the first is soon followed by the second: the city of Kharabakovsk, to say, has had an average mobilization of 60,000 people a day, for one hundred days, which in the last week has decreased to just 1500. Fear, disaffection and a sense of helplessness are the natural consequence of a snake moving headless, aimlessly. It’s even too easy to depict those who gather to manifest any kind of dissense as “domestic terrorists” in the first case or as “a small minority of freaks” in the second.

A political program that only says “Enough Corruption” or “Let’s kick the President out” is fine if you decide to reform the Republic of Malta, not the Russian Federation. I have deep doubts that once Putin is gone, Russia will become a paradise on earth, or, at least, a different country: we must remember that the President is a symptom of a disease, not the cause.

What I wrote a few months ago about Lukashenko and the situation in Belarus (but if it is also about Donald Trump, or what concerns the political situation of my country) also applies to Putin’s Russia; as “Western observers” we can only sympathize with Navalny’s cause, we admire what it does, we empathize with people arrested, beaten and threatened, but the thruth is that our emotional bias prevents us from asking the fateful question: “and then?

We will discuss the reasons for this in the next article, which will try to look at events in a more global perspective. In the meantime I hope that you have found everything interesting and a harbinger of reflection. For any questions, clarifications or corrections, do not hesitate to contact me as usual.

Out of Sight: What’s happening in Russia? – Part II

“Russia is not corrupt. Corruption is what happens in all countries when businessmen offer officials large bribes for favors. Today’s Russia is unique. The businessmen, the politicians, and the bureaucrats are the same people. They have privatized the country’s wealth and taken control of its financial flows.”

(Andrei Pionkovsky, Another Look Into Putin’s Soul)

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin after delivering the annual address to the Federal Assembly of the RF

Welcome Back my friends,

Last week we talked about the internal situation of the Russian Federation, and about some of the problems that are putting the upper echelons in serious difficulty, first of all, the way in which the Central Government is dealing with the Covid-19 Pandemic in the country, delegating all responsibility to the governors of the Oblasts, without however increasing the resources at their disposal, nor by granting them again the freedom of action that in recent years have been progressively reduced. The worst thing is that this maneuver was devised intentionally, with the intention of “unloading” the discontent from the shoulders of Vladimir Putin’s administration, but, as we will see, not everything is going as planned.

In addition to this, the economic crisis turned out to be much more serious than expected. From the earliest years in power, Vladimir Putin and his entourage have tried to use the proceeds from Russia’s massive oil resources to fix the serious economic problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent catastrophic “reforms” of the Yeltsin Administration. The success that this strategy initially achieved proved counterproductive in the long run: the idea of transforming Russia into a Petro-state modeled on some Arab countries has exposed the country to continuous crises, creating a much more fragile economic system than what does not appear from the outside. With the arrival of the pandemic and the slowdown in global industrial activity, the demand for energy supplies and raw materials has also decreased, leaving, as we have seen in the previous article, many Russian Oblasts with empty coffers to face an emergency situation.

Although the situation is at least problematic, even relying on official data provided by the Ministry of Health, the President and the Council of State did not miss the opportunity to do what they do best: Propaganda and further Centralization of Power.

As laboratories and pharmaceutical companies around the world worked tirelessly to find a vaccine or more effective cures against Covid, August 11 of this year, instead of announcing the usual “Doomsday Machine” or other sorts of military progresses, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was in possession and has registered the first vaccine against Coronavirus, baptized, to remember the “old days”, with the evocative name of Sputnik V. How could the Russian government miss such an opportunity, in its long string of desperate attempts to appear “on par” with Western countries? Kirill Dmitriev, the head of of Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), responsible for financing vaccine research, called this a Sputnik Moment, in he’s own words: “Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik’s beeping. It’s the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first. “

Despite the effectiveness of the alleged vaccine had yet to be proven (and to this day little is known, except that on November 23 the daily infections in Russia broke all previous records, certainly not a good sign), Dmitriev has also stated that twenty countries were ready to buy a billion doses of Sputnik V: a great way not only get a substantial financial windfall from an (eventually) successful cure, but it would also gain international respect as a scientific center and frustrate the US and the European countries, in a sort of re-edition of the space race, designed to feed the memory of a past that in Russia over the years it has taken the form of a “factor of national cohesion”, obviously in its revised and corrected version (but this is a separate story).

The so-called “second wave” turned out to be even more exemplary regarding the dysfunctionality of a system that tries to make every event a foothold for propaganda: as mentioned in the previous article, the (intentional) lack of room for maneuver for the Oblasts has transformed the response to the emergency into a cacophony of discordant measures, mutual accusations and generalized discontent. The regional administrations were completely taken aback, lacking, in addition to the aforementioned fiscal autonomy, of “transparent” numbers on which to base the response to the emergency. As some analyzes show, the number of deaths from the first wave is likely underestimated by five times.

Vladimir Putin has clearly stated that he does not want to implement restrictive measures or stronger lockdowns, precisely to avoid problems of “too visible” reactions within the population, and the governors have basically obeyed him, and, in this regard, one would wonder if the numbers sent to the Central Government are true and how they are treated by it.

Moving on to the centralization of power, just before the August announcement, a Constitutional Referendum was held in the Russian Federation, already scheduled for the beginning of the year, to submit to the population the approval of some amendments to the Constitution. As in the case of the health emergency, the constitutional reform project is little more than a “painting” of a facade of a building that does not substantially change inside, or worsens further. A typical expedient of the so-called “Illiberal Democracies”: the people are given what they want but in the manner decided a priori by the government. Given the recent protests of recent years, which demanded greater participation, what better way to be open and democratic than a National Referendum (In Russian “всенародное голосование”, that can be translated as “nationwide voting”)? Obviously by putting everything in such a way that the vote can be easily directed towards the desired result (for example by including rules on the minimum wage or on the indexation of pensions among the amendments).

The results of the Russian constitutional vote in 2020. In Green, the Oblast in which the Constitutional Emendaments were approved by the majority (the majority of “No” in red, was in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug and tied to territorial issues, more than opposition to reforms)

Legally, the Referendum was not even necessary for this type of constitutional amendment. The approval for the Constitutional Reforms reached around 75%, but as previously mentioned, it was not difficult to imagine, since in essence everything was little more than a giant pantomime from the beginning.

The things that most interested the enstablishment of the Russian Federation were to definitively overrule the rule that imposes a limited number of Presidential mandates (the rule that last time was circumvented by the Putin-Medvedev Tandem in the years 2012-2020), the regularization of Council of State, a body that should officially assist the President but which in fact over the years has become the only true center of power of the Federation, although not legally regulated in this sense, and finally introduce the prohibition of “alienation of Russian territories” (criminal liability for call against “territorial integrity” was introduced in the Criminal Code in 2014) and “unified system of power” from municipal leaders to the president.

To better explain how this is not just my opinion, I propose the thought of two experts on the subject:

Elena Lykyanova, lawyer, professor of constitutional and administrative law at the Higher School of Economics said in an interview with the Meduza website: “It’s a real  threat to the constitutional order. There is no expansion of the real powers of the Duma and the Council of Federation… as all of this is a word game: confirmation, appointment, etc. The president can dismiss any judge or prosecutor, so none of these [amendments] work. There will be no truly responsible government. [It] can appoint someone, but the next day the president can remove them, claiming lack of confidence. The same applies to the prime minister. The Duma approves [him], but it’s the president who appoints. Again, it’s a word game. The parliament is not gaining more control, nor is the government getting more responsibilities. All of this is a strengthening of the ‘vertical of power.’ It is the construction of a unified, non-democratic, non-federative vertical—without separation of powers and an independent judiciary, but with impairment of citizens’ rights“.

Or Victor Sheinis, co-author of the current Constitution, chief research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Russian Academy of Sciences), deputy of Russia’s First and Second State Duma, member of the Yabloko party’s political committee, that, in his interview whit the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, states that: “The majority of amendments to the Constitution have to do with the procedure for forming Russia’s government bodies and their powers—primarily those of the president. The 1993 Constitution is often called “superpresidential.” As I have repeatedly pointed out before, it suffers due to the excessive powers vested in the president (which can be explained by the political situation in the early 1990s). <…> The current draft law is said to envision a redistribution of powers between the president and the prime minister. It is not so. At best, only the procedures and the way they are spelled out have changed. <…> The government, which in one part is directly managed by the president and in another part [indirectly by him] through the prime minister, remains as it was—the president’s cabinet. Also unchanged is the procedure [of its formation]: the government resigns after the elections, and reports to the president, not to the Federal Assembly. And the president can dismiss the government at his own discretion. The terms of dissolving the Duma also remain the same”.

July 12, 2020: Thousands protest in support of the arrested governor Sergey Furgal in Khabarovsk. Photo: Youtube.

The question of the management of the Pandemic and that of the Centralization of Power were then combined in September, the month in which, on the 13th, the governorial elections were held in 18 regions and those for the Legislative Assemblies in another 11. Despite the “routinary” character that this type of voting has (as mentioned, in fact the regional bodies have little or no autonomy) this time the mood was different precisely because of the aforementioned reasons.

In past years, the strategy adopted by the Kremlin in these cases was a combination of factors given by the demotivation of the electorate, the abuse of electoral laws, the co-optation of the notorious “system opposition” and finally administrative barriers that created an insurmountable bureaucratic obstruction to independent candidates or candidates not linked to “United Russia”, the only party that has the means and facilities available to overcome this “wall”.

This time the victory, usually simpler, saw an unprecedented fact, at least as regards the Putin Era: a clearer confrontation, with widespread spontaneous protests, regarding the problems of centralization of power, especially by the regions of the Far East, which consider themselves increasingly neglected and, in this juncture, literally abandoned by Moscow: Alexey Navalny was shooting a series of documentaries on regional governments in the Siberian area, prior to his poisoning by the nerve agent known as Novičok, which forced him to repair in Germany, the only episode that had any media coverage in the West.

In all this, the same figure of President Vladimir Putin, until a few years ago practically merged with the image of Russia itself, the bogey of the West, is increasingly secluded, despite maintaining substantially the same power, is probably committed to holding up in balance the different groups of power that in situations like this begin to bite each other to maintain their influence within an increasingly restricted circle of individuals.

But this will be the subject of the last part of this excursus on events of the last year, overshadowed by the global problems in which we are all involved, or simply by issues that take priority in the newspapers, such as the American Elections. I hope that now some of my statements on topics discussed previously will be clearer, such as the Crisis in Belarus or the Nagorno-Karabakh War, when I stated that the Russian Federation had other problems, more pressing than those of Minsk or of the Artsakh and that he would have avoided direct involvement in the events as much as possible, as in fact it was.

I hope you have found the topic clearer, as well as interesting. Thanks for reading these lines and see you next week.

Out of Sight: What’s happening in Russia? – Part I

When we think we lead, we are most led.

Lord Byron, The Two Foscari (1821)

The former president Boris Yeltsin at Putin’s inauguration, 2000
Photo by GETTY

Welcome back to UnpredictablePast,

Last week we dealt with the US elections, looking specifically at the “Personalization” of politics and what happens when institutions are progressively de-legitimized. In the past elections, at the center of the debate was the question of Russian influence on the public debate and the links that the Republican candidate, later elected, Donald J. Triump, had with Moscow. In these elections the problem seems to have somehow disappeared, just as the shadow of Moscow seems to have dissolved from the Media debate, and for this reason I think it is right to try to reconstruct, at least in part, what is happening in Russia and why.

First of all, obviously, the global SARS-Cov2 pandemic takes all the front pages, but the problem is not all there: ust like other countries, Russia is hit by this global threat, but this time it seems to have taken the hit more than others.

Until shortly before the virus appeared in Wuhan, it almost seemed to be in a “new” Cold War climate: psychological warfare that sought to undermine the foundations of the Western States, the replacement of the US in the Middle East as a new hegemonic power together with Iran (even Nethanyau had inaugurated more “relaxed” relations with the Kremlin) and the invasion of Crimea, they seemed to have rebuilt a bipolarity in the global geopolitical framework. Russia was “resurrected” and ready to regain its place among the world powers.

Or at least that was the tenor of the public debate.

As usual, in all this there was a part of truth and another “inflated” by TV, Newspapers and Websites, unable to make accurate analyzes and less sensationalist headlines, which the Kremlin did not mind at all, quite the contrary. We will talk more about this topic in the near future, for now let’s focus on recent past events in the background for the reasons mentioned above.

First of all, as we said, how much has Russia actually been affected by the epidemic?

Certainly much more than what it shows. Since the beginning of the crisis, in the eyes of those of us who have been observing the country for some time, something very strange has happened: the Central Government has in fact seemed to “loosen” its grip on federal institutions, giving them free rein to manage the emergency. For those unfamiliar with Russian politics, this is not very strange, those who are slightly more into these matters know that the clash between the Institutions of the Oblast (the Federal States of Russia) and the central ones has been going on since the time of Boris Yeltsin: Russia is a vast and multicultural country, and many of its regions have a strong sense of community and autonomy, embodied by the Regional Governors, the only “thorn in the side” left in a system of power that over the years has become increasingly centralized in figure of the President and his “plenipotentiaries”.

In the course of the last ten years, in particular, the Executive Power has worked to ensure that the Governors of the Oblast remain with a margin of autonomy as narrow as possible, mindful of the experience of Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and his entourage made sure that these institutions were as closely linked as possible to Moscow, both by installing governors who were “favorable” to them (see “Puppets”) and by limiting the possibility of implementing autonomous policies, under the pretext, much felt among the population, of not compromise the territorial integrity of the country.

But in this case, the choice made by Vladimir Putin is not a concession or a truce, but rather a subtle and cunning way of offloading the burdensome responsibilities of dealing with the situation on someone else. The Regions have not obtained any “real power”, especially in the economic field (everything remains firmly in the hands of the State Council and the “special envoys” of the Kremlin), but only the responsibility of “managing” (not governing) situation, as they did before: making sure that order is maintained, ruffling the local potentates, and getting everyone to vote right. When someone wants to take an initiative, especially in the economic field, they must first wait for it to be approved by the Central Government.

The Pandemic revealed the weaknesses of Russia (and in my opinion, of the other “Illiberal Democracies”): a central government absolutely unprepared to manage the situation and, to put it mildly, very lacking in transparency, it has only one way to maintain some degree of consensus: find a scapegoat. And in this case in Moscow they hope to be able to use it, in the future, to increase their influence even more. To make you understand how serious the economic situation is, think that even before the pandemic, the National Credit Rating Agency estimated that at low oil prices 62 of the 83 regions would deplete their reserves this year.

Especially regions that rely on the export of oil and other commodities face up to 560 billion rubles ($ 7.5 billion) in lost corporate and mineral extraction tax revenues, while federal transfers to replenish their budgets barely reach 200 billion rubles ($ 2.7 billion). In 2019, by comparison, transfers from the Federal Government amounted to 2.6 trillion rubles ($ 34.7 billion), counting on projected regional revenue (excluding Moscow Oblast) of 9.6 trillion rubles ($ 128 billion) in 2020.

Vladimir putin confronts Regional Governments in a videoconference. Photo: kremlin.ru.

The Governors will therefore have only the concrete possibility of maneuvering with the money they will have in hand, while they will have to bear the “responsibility” for any discontent. For example, regional institutions can block movements within their borders, but not prohibit movements between them (those who attempted have their requests immediately rejected, even a “risk” area such as Chechnya) Despite having the highest infection rate, the citizens of Moscow can continue to move around the other Oblasts, fueling the clash between the city’s Mayor Sergey Sobyanin and the other governors, only some of whom have managed to impose limited measures quarantine for those coming from infected areas. As if that were not enough, regional governments do not have the possibility to secure areas considered economically strategic by the federal government (the case of an outbreak in a hostel that housed IKEA workers in Leningrad Oblast) or which belong to whom, like Gennady Timchenko’s Novatek, it is closer than they are to the President.

Only a few governors, those belonging to the “system” opposition (that is, linked to the Kremlin, but not belonging to the majority party, “United Russia”) have dared to publicly complain about the limited means available to public health or to use of masks. In a country where trust in institutions has always been very low, this continuous rebound of responsibility and inaction (on one side or the other) or contradictory measures have enormously increased the general confusion and mistrust. While on the one hand more restrictions and adequate measures are called for, others, in particular the men most linked to Putin (like the Governors of Tula and Yaroslavl Regions, who where President’s former bodiguards), the restrictive measures were limited to “recommendations” to avoid riots.

The diversity of treatment has rekindled many of those centrifugal thrusts that seemed to have been dampened over the past few years. In recent months it has become clear, even to less astute or politically committed citizens, that there is a clear difference in treatment and even more stringent room for maneuver, depending on whether or not one is “organic” within the entire system of power.

In a country that has so far been held together by the strong figure of the President, it is not easy to imagine how those who are now suddenly seeying that power so distant, or unprepared to handle the situation, can feel while people die near them. The construction of a system of such wide consensus, centered on a very specific figure and with peculiar characteristics, finds itself disoriented and in disarray when this “image” fails. And those who should act more concretely cannot do it, even if they want to, as they are now reduced to a figurehead of true power, who intends to preserve themselves by offering citizens other heads when they ask for them. Or at least that’s what they hope in the Kremlin rooms.

In the next part we will see how all this is already having concrete effects at the local level, and will help explain to you why the role of Russia, apparently launched (by the media) towards a new golden age, has suffered such a strong setback.

Thanks for reading these few lines, see you next week with the second part.

The U.S. Elections and the perils of the Illiberal Democracy

“In cauda venenum”

(Latin phrase traucibile as “The poison [is] in the tail”)

Protest groups have gathered outside vote counting centres across the US

Welcome back my friends,

This week, it was impossible not to deal in some way with the American elections of 2020, and as far as I am concerned I would like to do it in a particular way, exactly as this election was, which, I’m afraid, did not end here. On this blog we have dealt very often with those political systems called “Illiberal Democracies” or “Hybrid Systems”: a classification used to define those countries in which there is an authoritarian politics that for one reason or another enjoys strong popular support. We generally find this system in the countries that were part of the Soviet Bloc, but also in other realities around the world.

But this time it’s different: today we see this phenomenon at work even in completely different realities, with an important history of democracy behind it. This article aims to be a reflection on their development and on some of the factors that lead to the development of Illiberal models also in the West.

I decided to follow these elections closely for a “personal” matter: I wanted to verify as closely as possible what was happening in the United States, and, in the three days of counting required before Joe Biden was officially declared the winner, something I, and maybe nobody else, did not ever expected, happened.

Outgoing President Donald Trump announced he would give a speech, and, in unified networks, declared that the elections were rigged. Pandemonium has broken out. The television stations were even forced to interrupt the live broadcast, not being able to cross-question the president on his serious statements, and obviously fearing that there was an exaggerated reaction among the Republican electorate.

In a few minutes the word “Fraud” was on the lips of half the world, American and foreigner, for or against President Trump. Never expected such a thing, even from Trump. And it is even stranger, if I think of my country, Italy: here politicians and political parties declare electoral fraud before, during and after the elections, even if they win elections, not to mention all the times that somebody yelled for an ongoing coup d’état, obviously withouth any reason, and, needless to say, without any proof.

During the night (for us, in GMT +01) then, I came across this very good article by Professor Zeynep Tufekci published by the newspaper “The Atlantic”. In her article, Professor Tufekci highlights the “anomalies” of the Trump presidency (in the American context): its over-the-top TV star attitude, the compulsive use of social networks and the ever more striking promises, never realized. In addition, let us not forget, to far more dangerous ideas, such as his heavy abuse of presidential prerogatives, together with the diffusion of an idea of ​​State based on the concept of “herrenvolk democracy”, or rather on its ethnic-religious characterization (in this case, WASP), which should have “priority” over minorities, especially in matters concerning access to the welfare state and, in turn, to institutions.

In the article, a comparison is then made with other leaders who the professor considers somewhat similar to Trump: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Putin in Russia, Orbán in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey. The warning that is thrown through this brief comparative analysis is that a more capable, future politician, without Trump’s grotesque excesses, might be able to inherit his legacy but without discredit, carrying out identical policies but with a “public figure” which is more institutional.

And it is at this point that the question finds me both in agreement and in disagreement.

Let me explain: the warning that Professor Tufekci launches is sacrosanct, since one of the main problem of the “Trump phenomenon” lies in the identification with the person. Those who support him, identify themselves with him, rather than in a political project or view. And the silence (or, worse, the support) that in recent days many Republican leaders have given in response to his narcissistic delirious is eloquent, it shows us how they do not know how to turn back, once supported all the abuses committed in recent years, and above all how to behave with their’s own electorate, which from now on will hardly accept someone more “moderate”.

Furthermore, this is not just a problem of a political side: Biden will have, for the next four years, to deal with more than 70 million voters who consider him a President detestable at best, and abusive in the worst. At the time I write, Trump has not yet conceded him the victory, despite his lawyers being turned down in every court they appeal to.

This involves two things: first It puts us in front of the “personalization” that this electoral campaign has had (I can only vote for Him vs I whould vote for everyone except Him), and the fact that the former President has decided (he or whoever for him) to launch his latest poisoned “tail shot”, creating a very dangerous climate of institutional delegitimation. These two factors, together, are the keys that open the doors to Illiberal Democracy.

Where is my disagreement, then?

It is in the models taken for example, which, in my opinion, are strongly decontextualized and fail to give an idea of ​​what can happen within a democratic system. Don’t take it as an academic habit: understanding “where” your country is going can really make the difference. And don’t take it as some kind of “prediction” either, because it’s happening right now, in the meantime you’re reading.

The countries cited as an example, rather than having intelligent politicians who win elections, all have in common a historically undemocratic background. Putin, Bolsonaro, Orban and Erdogan were not necessarily “better” or “luckier” than Trump: they were instead able to exploit that illiberal streak already present in their society (even in those who opposed them) to take power. But on the contrary, the United States discovered this vein recently, or at least it became evident when someone went to dig to get it out. With it, however, also a strong opposition movement emerged, which in the end managed to prevail.

Unfortunately it is my opinion that the problems have only just begun.

And here is where the example of Italy comes in handy: despite the complete diversity of political systems (and their “scale”), Italy has had, and have (over time always to a lesser extent, unfortunately) a democratic spirit in its own way, and, although not as strong as in the US, it has withstood tremendous blows for decades, and now is on the verge of collapse. The United States is experiencing a phenomenon similar to the one that, for about twenty years, has gripped my country. Yes, I’m talking about Silvio Berlusconi and his legacy. Maybe you’ve heard of him (just in comparison to Trump) or maybe not.

In that case, a small summary may be useful to better understand why we are in this situation now. Berlusconi came to power with slogans that today would be called “anti-enstablishment”: he represented the outsider who challenged a sclerotic political system overwhelmed by corruption scandals. For twenty years he was, for better or for worse, the undisputed protagonist of our national politics, regardless of whether in power or not. Not unlike Trump, he treated “public affairs” as his property, he appeared as a showman, a histrionic television entertainer, a testimonial who had to sell a product, which was none other than his Party. He has never hidden his sympathies towards illiberal regimes (one above all, Vladimir Putin, but also, Muhammar Gaddafi) and his acquiescence towards the extreme right, of any kind, and he himself has always governed on the edge of the institutional context, pushing the powers of the state to clash on each other for personal pourpose.

For its part, the opposition merely said to its constituents “we are not Berlusconi” and little else. Surrendering on income and only managing to bring together coalitions and coarse and quarrelsome governments, without a vision other than to send the Black Man away and restore “national prestige”. It will be precisely in those years that an increasingly illiberal feeling will begin to manifest itself even in the opposite field: anything was lawful in order to strike Him.

For two decades the country was clearly split in two, and all attention was focused on the figure of Berlusconi.

When, at the end of 2011, he was forced to resign for bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy in the context of the European Debt Crisis, we all (myself included) thought it was truly over. We were wrong. The drastic measures necessary to stem the economic problems he created throught the years allowed him to return to the fore one last time: conspiracy theories about “foreign interference” or a “White Golpe” orchestrated to make him resign became part of the mainstream debate (in fact they already were, but not to an extent so marked) and thanks to the promise to bring everything back as before (i.e. Make Italy Great Again) he was one step away from winning the elections again. Neither Berlusconi nor his party managed to regain the hegemonic role of the past, but the climate of constant confrontation remained, and this cancer had metastasized in Italian society.

But the worst was yet to come.

In fact, Berlusconi was out of the political game, but was quickly replaced by far more aggressive and undemocratic heirs. The personalization of politics and the de-legitimization of any institution had opened the doors to unscrupulous individuals, ready to do anything to enter the vacuum of power. Much more virulent and demagogic than their worthy predecessor, it took them just over 5 years to conquer the whole country, whit the help of new technologies and a more viral “marketing”, based on fake news (the good, old, lies) and conspiracy theories.

Even the most traditional media, such as newspapers and televisions, have done nothing but continue with the same behavior as before, but with new subjects who represented the “novelty of the day”, contributing with an “idiotic equanimity” putting intellegible debate and conspiratorial nonsense on the same level, when they did not directly leave these subjects free to speak, and to spread their “ideas” without any contradictory.

To date, they have a majority in parliament and in the country, while the democratic opposition has dwindled to a flicker.

Now the United States is facing a similar problem: a pathologically narcissistic President, after losing regular elections, has decided to poison the wells by claiming that there has been electoral fraud. Now 70 million of its supporters are more or less convinced that the System is rigged, empathizing with a character who presents himself as the victim of an unfair world, just like them. An explosive mixture, of which, observing what surrounds me every day, I can already anticipate the results.

In a Democracy, Society creates Institutions, in a Dictatorship, Institutions create Society. In an Illiberal Democracy, Society is viewed split into “Us and Them” and the institutions were used to increase the level of confrontation, necessary to strengthen the Parties involved and their respective electorates. Be aware that the real war begins now: if Americans (not just the President, or the politicians) fail to cut off the climate of perennial confrontation and delegitimization, together with the personalization of politics, they will not find themselves with another “more institutional Trump”, but with 70 million Trumps, narcissists, bullies and prone to victimization, and at that point it will become difficult to hope that they will simply go away.

In conclusion, the question is not whether or not the GOP is organizing itself to field the next Trump, and who he may be, the question is whether or not they can do otherwise. The other question is what can be done now to prevent the same situation from happening again, and thats a matter for all the american civil society. If the sole purpose of this election was to beat Trump, then in four years we will see another, and then another, until the phenomenon infects all politics in a game in which electors become mere “supporters” and democratic competition will have no purpose other than victory itself.

Paraphrasing Giorgio Gaber, a famous Italian songwriter: “Don’t be afraid of Trump himself, but be afraid of the Trump in yourself”.

I hope you found it interesting these few lines, and have made you understand what I mean (it would take the books, but at the moment we lack). Also a heartfelt thanks to all those who followed and commented with me during the election days, and to Professor Tufekci for the inspiration.

Stay Vigilant. Toghether.

The borders of Nagorno-Karabakh or “how broad is the conflict?”

“I sit on a man’s back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.”

(Lev Tolstoj, Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence, 1886)

An Armenian soldier stands among the ruins of a house destroyed by the recent shelling of Martakert

Welcome back to Unpredictablepast,

In the last article on Nagorno-Karabakh I put forward the hypothesis that the determining reason of the post-96 conflicts was linked to the internal stability of the two countries, rather than having very specific war objectives. I am still convinced of this, but given the many questions about which other countries were more or less directly involved in the conflict, I realize that I have been lacking in explaining that part of the problem. I hope this piece will clarify some points left unclear.

While remaining convinced that a more obvious involvement of the countries in question remains a distant hypothesis, this does not mean that their governments are not trying to take advantage of the situation to “resolve” some internal issues. And obviously, in doing this they put an already problematic situation into a more precarious balance, and the fact that the conflict will probably not fully escalate doesn’t mean that it will be less terrible.

Georgia

The Caucasian country closest to the two contenders has always remained neutral within the clash. Nonetheless, the fact of hosting numerous communities of Armenian and Azerbaijani refugees makes it vulnerable and exposed to destabilization, should the two minor ethnic groups become radicalized to the point of clashing or starting to support their side in a violent way. In addition, the government of Tbilisi fears that the supplies of arms and aid from Turkey and Russia, which must necessarily pass through the national territory, put the country in the difficult position of not being able to maintain its neutrality in order to preserve its national sovereignty.

Turkey

As explained in the previous article, Turkey and Azerbaijan are two countries united by very deep ties, so much so that they consider themselves “one nation”. But these are certainly not the reasons that push Turkish President Erdogan to help the Azerbaijani “brothers”: exactly as for his intervention in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, what matters most to the country’s enstablishment is to avoid confronting the deep economic crisis that affects the country since 2018, and keep the population “mobilized” in order to avoid internal turbulence. This is a task entrusted above all to propaganda, which continues to attribute the country’s problems to external “machinations”, and to spread this theory of a “Neo-Ottomanist” project, in which many, even among seasoned Western observers, firmly believe.

But in my opinion it is a bluff.

Basically, in addition to hitting the Kurds in northern Syria and sending around mercenaries picked up from the ranks of what was Daesh, Turkey has done very little else. The fact is that to wage a serious war, one must be able to afford it, and Turkey, in addition to it’s economic crisis, has to deal with growing international isolation, following Erdogan’s authoritarian squeeze in response to the attempted coup d’etat in July 2016, which was only the culmination of a democratic involution that the country has been experiencing for some time, and which has substantially alienated the country from the sympathies of its allies: while remaining formally within NATO, I do not believe that the other member countries would be willing to support Turkey and its President in any way.

Russia

Russia has traditionally supported Armenia (while selling armaments to both sides over the years), and even today its funding is directed there. Despite this, Russia can only limit itself to threatening and little more: the country has been severely hit by the global pandemic, both in terms of the number of victims and economic repercussions, due to the lower demand for raw materials. The war effort to keep Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime going is already quite grueling, not to mention the internal problems in neighboring Belarus, and ultimately within itself.

Russia and Armenia have a mutual defense pact, as the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian tried to recall (as already mentioned, who came to power without the consent of Russia, after the so-called “Velvet Revolution”), but in the Kremlin they pointed out that this is valid only if the clashes were to cross the borders of the Armenian territory, and therefore do not include the territories of the Republic of Artsakh, namely those of Nagorno-Karabakh. This quibble suggests that Russia is firmly determined to avoid direct involvement in the conflict, in addition to the fact that it does not tolerate the new Armenian administration, less prone towards it, and, who knows, hoping that as the conflict progresses it will be able to get rid of it.

Of course, the looming presence of Russia keeps a possible greater commitment by Turkey at bay, and, as has happened in the past, its military presence in the region is capable of stopping Azerbaijan’s advance at any moment. But, despite this, it is a hard blow for the Russian enstablishment not to have a greater say in the matter and not be able to broker even a ceasefire, fearing to see what once considers as his own areas of influence pass under the protection of other patrons.

Bloodstained stretchers outside a military hospital near the front lines of the Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo by: AP

Iran

In its attempt to establish itself as a regional power, Iran also finds itself involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Given its position, it has always been, but now obviously the question is different: the rivalry with Turkey in trying to polarize Muslim countries around it, and the indirect confrontation that the two states fought during the Syrian civil war and in northern Iraq have worsened theirs relations, and this now also reflects on the Nagorno-Karabakh question. In fact, the area north of Iran is mainly populated by a Turkish population of Azerbaijani origin, which in the last month has often protested against the passage of Russian supplies and weapons directed to Armenia, passing through the territory of the Islamic Republic. Obviously the Ayatollahs see Turkish interference in these protests, and have reacted with brutal repression, fearing that a separatist movement could also arise in its Azerbaijani-majority regions if things in Nagorno-Karabakh will see a significant change.

Israel

Few people know this, but the relations between the State of Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan are long-standing (think, for example, that post-Soviet Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim countries to have recognized Israel as a nation) . Mainly these are trade agreements that see oil supplies from Baku in exchange for military supplies from Tel Aviv, and which are still ongoing. This has sparked some debate, as Armenia claims a “moral” affinity with Israel, as both Jews and Armenians have been subjected to a massive planned genocide. But Benjamin Netanyahu’s realpolitik has shown us several times that he is not inclined to be convinced by this type of argument, and indeed, given the proximity (and as we have said, the hostility) between Azerbaijan and the Iranian arch-enemy, the Israeli government will do everything to keep such a valuable ally in a strategic position.

China

China has very strong economic interests in the region: as mentioned, for several years it has been trying to free the regions of the Caucasus from Russian influence, and in some ways, through the “Silk Road” project it is somehow succeeding, in discreet way we are used to, preferring commercial relations to armed threats. This time, however, there seems to be something slightly different: the weakening of Armenia would mean a further, and advantageous, weakening of the Russian presence in the area.

In addition to this, there is the fact that China tends to support countries that claim the principle of their own territorial integrity, rather than those that claim the Principle of Self-determination, having within it numerous regions that claim their own autonomy from Beijing (in order of time we have seen the oppression of the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the repression of anti-Chinese protests in Hong Kong) and, in contrast to the usual institutional silence, the Deputy Secretary General of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Wang Jingqing, openly declared himself in favor of the return of the Nagorno-Karabakh under the control of Azerbaijan, of whose territory it would officially belong.

Conclusion

In the midst of this game of opposing forces, there are military and civilian casualties, the number of which continues to rise (even if the two sides are often reluctant to report correct data), and, for the moment, is not seen on the horizon. the possibility of a lasting ceasefire achievable in the short term.

For my part, I hope the situation is clearer to those who have asked me about it. Also I would like to remember what was said above, namely that this is not some kind of game just because we watch it from afar: it is much more important to focus on the issue from a human and humanitarian point of view: exacerbated nationalism, ethnic hatred. and the Enemy’s “stabilizing” desire are much closer than we think, as John Donne said in his famous sermon:

…And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

(Meditation XVII, 1624)

Thank you for reading these lines, in which I have tried to summarize the situation surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh War, I hope they have answered your questions, for the rest, you can contact me as you prefer.


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

“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.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The Black Garden of Caucasus

“War and peace are not separate compartments. Peace depends on threats and force; often peace is the crystallisation of past force.”

(Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 1973)

I welcome you back once again,

In this part we will deal with what is properly called the Nagorno-Karabakh War, even if as we have seen, at this point the clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been going on with more or less intensity for about 70 years. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union will open a new chapter within the Caucasian scenario, differentiating this clash from those that occurred previously in the area.

First, the absence of the Soviet “gendarme” sparked the arms race in the region. From this point of view, Azerbaijan was in an advantageous position, since, in the defensive programs of the Soviet Union, the resistance to a possible attack by Turkey (a member of NATO) would be concentrated, while the Armenia was destined to be a “Combat Zone”: therefore the Azerbaijani military forces were more numerous, prepared, and supported by the aviation. In addition to this, the divisions sent to the Caucasus by the MVD (МВД, Министерство внутренних дел – the Ministry of Internal Affairs) were made up of poor conscripts from other regions of the Soviet Union, who quickly inaugurated a black market of all equipment in their possession, in order to be able to leave the Caucasus. Weapons also arrived in large quantities from abroad: Turkey, Israel, Arab countries and from members and organizations of the Armenian Diaspora, especially those in the United States.

The ranks of the two armies also began to swell, following the Operation “Ring”, volunteers and mercenaries lined up on one and the other front: in Armenia, in addition to the compulsory conscription, there were many volunteers who, inspired by the guerrillas of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of the beginning of the century, they formed autonomous squads called jokats, even if unlike the fedayi these men were mostly interested in the looting and profit they could make by reselling what they stole on the black market. A great many women also joined the Nagorno Karabakh army, both as fighters and as auxiliaries. Anatoly Zinevich, a former Soviet general, remain in the region and served on the armenian side for five years, becaming the Chief of Staff of the Republic of Artsakh armed forces.

As mentioned earlier, the Azerbaijani army was slightly better organized, with 30,000 regulars in addition to around 10,000 paramilitaries from the OMON militias and several hundred volunteers from the Popular Front. They were joined by the ultra-nationalist Pan-Turkish groups of the Gray Wolves, commanded by Isgandar Hamidov, and many mercenaries paid with the income that Azerbaijan obtained from the exploitation of its gas fields in the Caspian Sea. The Azerbaijani military was also assisted by Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, at the time leader of the Mujahideen and future Prime Minister of his country.

On December 31, 1991, with the official dissolution of the URRS, nothing could prevent Armenia and Azerbaijan from engaging in a large-scale war.

It will be the Azerbaijani troops to open hostilities after their government tried to cancel the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh in November 1991, obtaining in response a referendum from the local authorities in which the Armenian population overwhelmingly votes for the independence (later officially declared on January 6, 1992). Just in the winter of 1991-92 the army besieged Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, starting to bombard it with artillery and air force for several months, indiscriminately hitting military and civilian targets, such as hospitals and homes. , even in the areas surrounding the city. On some days as many as 400 GRAD missiles rained down on Armenian citizen.

“Anyone could just get up with a hangover, after drinking the night before, sit behind the Grad and fire, fire, fire at Stepanakert without any aim, without any coordinates.”

 Azerbaijani soldier Aiaz Kerimov, as reported in the book “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” by Thomas De Waal, NYU Press, 2003

The newborn Republic of Armenia began to feel the stranglehold around its territory, despite having joined the Commonwealth of Independent States created after the dissolution of the USSR, it was still at the mercy of the embargo operated by Azerbaijan and feared that from the West before or then the attack by Turkey would come, which openly supported the Azerbaijani cause.

he counterattack of the Armenian Forces focused on the only strip of land that connected the region to Karabakh, the “Lachin corridor”, and which could only be reached by helicopters. The Azerbaijani town of Khojaly was first targeted: firstly it was one of the artillery positions from which Stepanaket was daily bombed, and secondly it had the only airport in the region. On February 26, assisted by a contingent of the CIS, the Armenian Army stormed the city, conquering it and at the same time attacking the fleeing civilian population of Azerbaijani ethnicity, killing at least 161 people (an episode that became known as the “Massacre of Khojaly “).

The scent of impending war had led much of the Azerbaijani population to take refuge in the fortress-city of Shusha: from there, the Azerbaijani army organized attacks on surrounding Armenian villages and prepared the ground for a heavier offensive on Stepanakert, whose population lived now in the bunkers and undergrounds of the city. The resistance of the Armenian militias around Shusha prevented the Azeris from organizing an offensive: on the contrary, the military leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh took advantage of the situation to attack the last Azerbaijani outpost in the region.

On May 8, 1992, the Armenian Army attempted an assault on the city and, despite being outnumbered and outgunned compared to the Azerbaijani forces, their greater military preparation allowed them to take the city on the 9th, after a day of bloody street fighting, forced their enemies to retreat and abandon the city.

A small parenthesis: as we have said, the Azerbaijani armed forces were larger and better equipped, but, due to strong discrimination within the Soviet army, they had never fought a real war; the Armenian army of Karabakh, on the other hand, was made up for over half by veterans of the terrible Soviet-Afghan War. The only professional soldiers Azerbaijan could count on were the Chechen militiamen commanded by Shamil Basayev, trained by the Russians to fight in Abkhazia against Georgia, who will remember that as their “only defeat” and will soon begin to desert the fighting in as in their vision they had a “too nationalist and not very religious” connotation.

The capture of Shusha forced the Azerbaijani President Mutalibov to resign (just the time to find a scapegoat for the failure and be reinstated on May 15th), and worsened the relations of the Armenian Republic with Turkey, slightly improved in the period following independence from the Soviet Union. Although the then Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel said he was in favor of an intervention in favor of Azerbaijan, this never happened due to the tensions still present between NATO and the CIS: leading exponents of the former Soviet armed forces clearly stated that the intervention by a NATO country in the Caucasus would have brought everyone “to the brink of World War III” (curiously, the same situation will recur with the Civil War in Yugoslavia, but at that time the threats of the former Eastern Bloc could appear much more concrete compared to just a few years later).

On May 18, the Armenian army took the city of Lachin, thus achieving the goal it had set itself: obtaining a safe corridor to reconnect the Republic of Armenia with Karabakh. This put an end to the Mutalibov regime, which was overthrown by a coup organized by the members of the Popular Front, who elected their own President, Abulfaz Elchibey, and took control of parliament, with a view to distancing themselves from Russia and approach to Turkey.

With the cessation of internal conflicts, the Azerbaijani army organized its own counterattack: Operation “Goranboy” (named after a region in northern Karabakh) should have represented, in the minds of its creators, the one that would have sanctioned the final victory. about the Armenians. On June 12, 1992, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive in the direction of the Askeran region, in the center of Nagorno-Karabakh, managing to take control of several important settlements, and then marching towards the Goranboy region, defended by handful detachments of Armenian militias, which resisted until July 4, 1992, when the Azeris took Mardakert, the main city in the region.

The Armenian forces only had to retreat south towards Stepanakert, along with 30,000 Armenian civilians. On June 18, a state of emergency was declared throughout the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a call to arms of all those fit for combat, reunited together with the various militias in a single structure, the Defense Army of the Nagorno Republic -Karabakh.

The offensive of the Azerbaijani army was stopped by the Russian air force, which, given the pro-Turkish tendencies of the Azerbaijani government, decided to take sides, even if it never officially declared it, on the Armenian side, providing weapons in addition to the support of the airborne divisions . This gave the Armenian Army time to reorganize and launch a counter-offensive against the Azeris, whose “blitzkrieg” had run out of office and whose soldiers were exhausted: their general, Suret Huseynov, preferred to abandon the most precarious positions and retreat to Ganja, allowing the RNK Defense Army to reverse the situation by regaining lost ground, beginning to regain territories from February-March 1993.

Azeri tanks abandoned in Nagorno-Karabakh, photo by Nicholas Babaian

In the midst of all this, there were several attempts to broker some kind of peace: the first was Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsnjani, who convinced the two sides to sign an agreement known as the “Tehran Communiqué” on May 7, 1992: needless to say, the capture of Shusha and the Lachin ovvensive made the whole thing void in less than two weeks. Attempts were also made by the CSCE (the organization that would later become the OSCE) to try to bring NATO and the CIS to a table, with the idea of ​​creating a peacekeeping force that would include both and that could to intervene as a “Peace Force” also in Moldavia, Chechnya, Ossetia, Abkhazia and above all in the Yugoslav Civil War. Of course, none of this was accomplished, particularly due to strong opposition from Russia, which saw the intrusion of European countries as an attempt by NATO to enter the country’s affairs through the “Back Door”.

Despite the easing of hostilities during the winter of 1992 – 93, the material losses and the embargo caused great suffering in the Armenian population, both that of the Republic and that of Nagorno-Karabakh: the economy was collapsing and the he single pipeline was reduced to a minimum due to the renewed clashes in Georgia against the Ossetian and Abkhaz separatists. Numerous families even ran out of hot water. The country was helped by the organizations of the Armenian Diaspora, the European Union and Iran, the latter definitively antagonizing Azerbaijan. The latter was certainly not faring better: full of internal and external refugees living in desperate conditions, and also with a collapsing economy, due to the failure in an attempt to revive its oil industry, given that no company he intended to invest in a country in constant conflict.

“No wars are unintended or ‘accidental’. What is often unintended is the length and bloodiness of the war.” (Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 1973)

The winter sufferings, however, did not seem to be able to calm the spirits of the parties involved: despite the attempts carried out by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and American President George H. W. Bush, hostilities in the region began to grow again. Russia itself, which on the one hand tried to mediate peace, on the other hand financed the Armenian army with armaments for a billion USD, which allowed them to occupy again the Karabakh villages lost the year before and still in their hands. to the Azeris, who, for their part, were experiencing a troubled political moment: the military insisted that Azerbaijan also ask for support from Russia, but President Elchibey was immovable and the Azerbaijani generals were removed from their post.

To secure the northern border of Karabakh and prevent it from being used to install artillery positions, between 2 and 3 April the Armenian army attacked the neighboring region of Kalbajar, mostly Azero-Kurdish, wiping out the few and evil armed troops in his defense and taking possession of the region, as well as numerous armored vehicles in use by the Azerbaijani army. The conquest of Kalbajar was marked by indiscriminate violence, killings and the mass exodus of civilians from the area. President Elchibey could not help but declare a state of emergency and order the universal conscription, but on July 18 he was overthrown by a coup d’etat hatched by General Huseynov, who on July 1 was appointed Prime Minister, while the office as President it passed to the MP Heydar Aliyev.

Azerbaijani refugees from Kalbajar, photo by Ilgar Jafarov, 1993

Obviously the Armenians took advantage of the political chaos inside the Azerbaijan republic to launch a series of offensives during the summer of 1993: the Karabakh front was open and defenseless, and it was not difficult for the Armenian army to advance rapidly in the region. while the Azerbaijani army retreated without even fighting. At the end of June, the Azeris were driven out of Mardakert, thus losing their last settlement in the region. Given the right moment, the Armenians decided to continue the advance to the Agdam region, just outside Nagorno-Karabakh, with the intention of making it a “barrier zone” that would protect their cities from artillery fire. Azerbaijani. When the bombing began on the 4th of July, civilians and military began to evacuate Agadam, and President Aliyev, faced with political and military collapse, decided to turn to the international community for help, while the Armenians were preparing the offensive against the regions south of Karabakh, the Fizuli and the Jebrail.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Çiller, tried to threaten the Armenians, demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops from the territories of Azerbaijan and sending the army to the border with the Republic of Armenia. Her plan foresaw that, with the victory of the coup leaders during the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, the troops deployed on the border with Armenia would be withdrawn: in particular, it seems that she had made an agreement with one of the leaders of the revolt against Yeltsin, Ruslan. Khasbulatov, who, once he gained power, would have allowed Turkish forces to make raids in Armenia and northern Iraq, under the pretext of prosecuting Kurdish PKK guerrillas. But the coup failed and the Turkish army did not move, fearful of the confrontation with the 20,000 Russian soldiers stationed on the Armenian border.

At the beginning of September, the Azerbaijani military forces were in disarray, abandoning weapons and military means on the field that went to strengthen the counterpart. President Aliyev was so desperate that he recruited between 1000 and 1500 Afghans and Arabs Mujahadeen, while large foreign oil companies, such as MEGA-OIL, required the support of armed contingents of the US Army as a clause to continue their work in the Azeri oil fields.

In October, Aliyev, now formally elected President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, strove to restore order and organize the counter-offensive, managing to achieve some small successes: in January 1994, the Azerbaijani army, with the help of the Afghan guerrillas, recaptured some of the neighboring regions of Karabakh, but the offensive quickly died out in the face of the intervention of the Armenian Army. Moreover, it had a tremendous cost in terms of human lives: boys aged sixteen and up, without any training, werw recruited for completely ineffective “human wave” attacks. The small victories of the winter campaign cost the lives of 5,000 Azerbaijani soldiers. Likewise, the attempt to recapture the Kalbajar district proved to be a disaster: the initial success turned into carnage, with Azerbaijani divisions isolated and surrounded by Armenians, killing more than 1,500 in a single fight. From that point on, the Azerbaijani forces lost any desire to fight again.

In his 1997 book, On Ruins of Empire, Russian professor Georgiy I. Mirsky try to explain the lack of purpose and commitment to fighting the war by the Azerbaijan population, stating that “Karabakh does not matter to Azerbaijanis as much as it does to Armenians. Probably, this is why young volunteers from Armenia proper have been much more eager to fight and die for Karabakh than the Azerbaijanis have” and also the physicist and Nobel laureate Andrej Sakarov remarked that “For Azerbaijan, the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death.”

And so, after six years of war, both sides agreed on a ceasefire. Azerbaijan in particular, short of men and aware that the Armenians had a clear path to march directly on Baku, asked for the intervention of the OSCE or Russia (having also entered the CIS) to broker an agreement. On May 5, 1994, with Russia in the role of mediator, the parties agreed on a truce to be triggered starting at midnight on the 12 of the same month, signed by the respective defense ministers of the three principal warring parties: Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Republic of Artsakh.

The final borders of the conflict after the 1994 ceasefire was signed. Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh currently control almost 9% of Azerbaijan’s territory outside the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, while Azerbaijani forces control Shahumyan and the eastern parts of Martakert and Martuni.

Unfortunately, like other times, this too was only an “apparent” end to the conflict, which in fact remained as one of the many “frozen” high-tension situations in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and the Caucasus in particular. In addition to the enormous cost in human lives, and to a number of refugees of about one million people, the war (this one in particular, but it can be valid in general) has fueled an irrational and rooted hatred among the opposing sides, which has manifested in sporadic successive clashes but above all in the interethnic hatred still strongly found both in Armenia and in Azerbaijan.

But we will talk more about this in the last part, the one that will take us to the present day and the reasons that have, once again, rekindled the conflict in the region.

Thank you for reading this writing, and, hoping that beyond the story of a war it has also made you reflect, I greet you and I make an appointment with you next time. As usual, if you have any questions, you just have to write to me.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The end of the “Pax Sovietica”.

Revenge, at first though sweet,

Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667; 1674), Book IX, lines 171-172

Emblem of the TSFSR 1930-1936. The only difference compared to version 1924-1930 is that the azeri text is in latin script.

Welcome back to this excursus through the history of Nagorno-Karabakh, and, more generally, of the countries of the Caucasian area.

But before we begin, I have to admit a mistake: it was my initial intention to divide the story into three parts, but while writing, I realized that this is impossible, so a fourth will be added: if the goal of these articles is understanding, I don’t feel like leaving out some episodes for the sake of synthesis, otherwise it will be impossible for you who read me to understand how things went and how deep are the roots of modern events. As a historian, it is my job to ensure that history is simple to understand, but not simplified.

That said, we can proceed.

Last week we left in a very specific historical moment: the end of hostilities between Turkey and the Soviet Union, with the Kars Treaty of 1921, while the 11th Red Army occupied Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia without too many problems.

On March 12 of the following year, on the proposal of Vladimir Lenin, the new Soviet Republics proclaimed in the three states were reunited into the Federative Union of Socialist Soviet Republics of Transcaucasia, which on December 13 of that same year became a single federal state, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. the All-Caucasian Congress of Soviet, whose intention should have been to maintain formal autonomy for the three republics, adopted a common constitution, appointed the Central Executive Committee (the highest legislative body) and the Council of Commissioners of the People (who exercised executive power, and was therefore the government). Mamia Orakhelashvili, one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, of Georgian origin, became the first President of the TSFRS, whose capital was established in Tbilisi.

In 1936, the Transcaucasian SFRS was again divided into three autonomous republics (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), with the formation of several autonomous Oblasts (Regions): Adijeian, Karachai-Cerkess, South Ossetia (in Georgian territory), Nakhichevan (under Azerbaijani protectorate), and Nagorno-Karabakh (in the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR).

Soviet Caucasus: from 1957 to 1991

It was the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities or Narkomnaz (from russian Народный комиссариат по делам национальностей, Нар.ком.нац.) chaired (among others) by Josif Stalin, that dealt with the issue of peacekeeping in the Caucasus. The hypotheses concerning the conception of such an administrative structure vary: some scholars believe that the Soviets have played, as in the episode of the Baku Soviet, “Divide and Impera” (ancient Latin expression meaning “Divide and Command”), pitting the local ethnic groups against each other, so that they would not fight against the Soviets: Nagorno-Karaback, in particular, was placed under the control of the Azerbaijan SSR, while retaining 94% of the Armenian population. The same can be said of the Nakhichevan exclave, separated from Azerbaijan by a “corridor” of Armenian territory.

It is a plausible and coherent explanation, also taking into account the historical precedent of the Baku Soviet, which, as we saw last time, was an active part on behalf of the Soviets, in fomenting the First Armenian-Azerrbaijan War. But there would be another: the idea that Stalin, subsequently head of the Soviet Union, had of the relationship between national identities and Soviet communist identity. I have already mentioned this issue and I apologize for postponing it each time, but it is a complex issue that had affect the entire USSR, and which deserves to be treated separately, with with due consideration.

Despite the desire for unification between Armenia and Karabakh remained in question throughout the Soviet period, the control exercised by the Eastern Bloc Superpower kept the situation substantially stable, mainly through its own military strength. It will be with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and with the implementation of the “glasnost” (openness or transparency) policy that the Nagorno-Karabakh question forcefully made itself felt again: the Armenians of Karabakh now free to express a certain level of dissent, began to demand reunification with the Armenian SSR, accusing the local government of trying to culturally “Azerify” the region, finding support both in Russia and in the international community.

Despite Gorbachev’s attempts at mediation, and unfortunately for Armenians, the Soviet constitution contained a sort of “Comma 22”, which relegated the situation to a perpetual stalemate: while Article 70 of the so called “Brezhnev Constitution” of 1977 states that “the USSR is an integral , federal, multinational State formed on the principle of socialist federalism” and also that “the USSR is the result of the free self-determination of nations and the voluntary association of equal Soviet Socialist Republics” and Article 72 recalls that “each republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR“, Article 78 otherwise states that “The territory of a Union Republic may not be altered without its consent. The boundaries between Union Republics may be altered by mutual agreement of the Republics concerned, subject to ratification by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics“.

The question of the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union was the great problem of its entire history, so great, that even after its dissolution the Russian Federation had to take it upon itself (always think of the Caucasus: Georgia, Chechnya, Ossetia) and it always reacted in the same way: with violence. A possible explanation can be found in the geography of the country itself: if the countries of the Caucasus had begun to become autonomous, Russia would have risked losing its “bridgehead” towards the Middle and Far East and towards the Black Sea, and with it is the continuous flow of resources, especially raw materials, to and from abroad.

Thus, the situation was left unresolved. But “Dum Romae consulitur, Saguntum expugnatur” (from Latin: “While Rome discusses, Sagunto is conquered”): says a bitter comment that can be found in book 21o of the work “Ab Urbe Condita ” written by the Roman historian Titus Livius.

It is a reference to those who waste a lot of time in continuous consultations without deciding, in a context that would require quick decisions. And this is precisely our case: from 1985 to 1987 the tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijans in Nagorno-Karabakh continued to grow, while the the Soviet government had forgotten about the issue (or rather, it had a problem of general collapse to deal with, and the affairs of the small Caucasian Oblast were certainly not at the top of the list).

Television images showing burnt automobiles and marauding rioters on the streets of the city of Sumgait during the pogrom in February 1988.

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. You cannot subjugate a nation forcibly unless you wipe out every man, woman, and child. Unless you wish to use such drastic measures, you must find a way of settling your disputes without resort to arms.”

(A. Einstein, in a speech to the New History Society, 14 December 1930)

On February 22, 1988, after several months of small clashes and forced displacement on both sides, there was the first real skirmish between Azeri and Armenians in Karabakh, in the city of Askeran: two days earlier, two Azerbaijani trainee female students denounced being raped by Armenians and two other young Azeri died in clashes with the police.

But this was only the prelude: during a demonstration in Sumgait, in support of Azeri refugees driven out of their villages from Karabakh, anger over news of “murders and atrocities” committed by Armenians rose to the point of unleashing a real pogrom against the Armenian community, resulting in 26 deaths. Armenians were beaten, raped, mutilated and killed both on the streets of Sumgait and inside their apartments during three days of violence, with no intervention from the police, that only subsided when Soviet armed forces entered the city and quelled much of the rioting on 1 March. Nearly all of Sumgait’s Armenian population left the city after the pogrom.

On March 23, 1988, the Supreme Soviet refused for the umpteenth time the request for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, sending the army to Yerevan to face any protests. The Armenians of Karabakh were now convinced that they would face the same fate of those of the Nakhichevan exclave, in which the Armenian population had gone from 40% before absorption into the Soviet Union to total disappearance in the late 1980s.

No one seemed to realize it, but The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War had begun.

The parties in dispute then began a harsh diplomatic confrontation, and neither of them (Armenia in particular) trusted more in Gorbachev’s mediation. The years between 1988 and 1990 were characterized by the exponential growth of inter-ethnic tensions: in addition to the episodes of violence on both sides, just think that, in that period, fear led to a massive exodus from one country to the other, in which Armenia and Azerbaijan “exchanged” large sections of the population. From Armenia alone, in the period 88-89, more than 200,000 people left, including Azeri and Kurds of Muslim religion. The latter, despite not having taken part in the conflict, preferred to leave the villages where they lived because located in a “potentially hostile” territory.

In 1990 the situation worsened further: Armenia imposed an embargo on the Nakhichevan ASSR, while the newly formed Azerbaijan Popular Front first organized sabotages on the Armenian railway network bound for the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and then attempted a “risky move” to break away from the dissolving Soviet Union anytime soon: the wrong “timing” led the Soviet authorities to declare a state of emergency in the region (also due to the pogroms unleashed against the Armenian population of Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku) and, in what comes Known as “Black January“, 26,000 Soviet Army soldiers brought an end to the uprising by force, shooting at protesters and causing more than 90 deaths.

Victims of Black January in Martyrs’ Lane, Baku.

The Soviets also tried to keep this intervention secret, destroying the lines of communication to and from Baku: despite this, the journalist Mizra Kazar and the staff of Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe, managed to send a daily bulletin outside the occupied zone.

At that point the Armenian army and paramilitary militias decided to fight back: several Azerbaijani exclaves in Armenian territory, or near its border, were attacked by paramilitary troops and even bombed with artillery during a series of night raids. that lasted from March to August, until once again the intervention of the Soviet army drove back the aggressors and temporarily put an end to the massacres, with more violence.

On March 17, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev held the famous “Referendum on the future of the Soviet Union“, also known as the “Union Treaty“, which was to decide whether the republics of the USSR should remain together. With the success of the Referendum, the structure of the Union was changed, allowing even non-communist leaders to compete for the presidency of the republics, which brought to power, for example, Boris Yelstin in Russia and Ayaz Mutalibov in Azerbaijan, while Gorbachev remained in office as President of the Soviet Union.

Voting bulletin for the “Union Treaty”, March 17, 1991

The Armenians boycotted the referendum (in fact they declared themselves independent on August 23, 1990) while the Azeris voted in favor. The prediction of new clashes led to an arms race in Nagorno-Karabakh on both sides, but this time the newly elected Azerbaijani president Mutalibov decided to exploit the post-reorganization situation to his advantage: he thus convinced Gorbachev to organize a pre-emptive strike to disarm the ‘Armenia and make it desist from its proposal of reunification with the Karabakh region.

Thus, on April 30, the Soviet and Azerbaijani forces launched Operation “Ring”, which resulted in the deportation of all Armenian inhabitants of the Shahumyan region, a process which was joined by indiscriminate violence, kidnapping, looting, murder, rape and torture. and that forced 17,000 people to exodus, until July 4th Gorbachev announced the end of the Operation as the area had been “pacified”. Obviously, everything turned out to be counterproductive: from that moment on, the thought became clear in the minds of the Armenians that the only solution for reunification with Karabakh was armed resistance against the Soviets and the war against the Azerbaijans.

In September 1991, there was a first attempt to mediate a peace, promoted by the Russian President Boris Yeltsin and by the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev: after a series of talks, between 20 and 23 September the Železnovodsk Communiquè was signed, in which the parties undertook to respect mutual territorial integrity, national sovereignty and respect for human rights. But they were just nice words on a sheet of paper.

While Yeltsin, Nazarbayev, Mutalibov and Armenian President Ter-Petrosian signed the agreement, the Azerbaijani OMON forces continued to bomb Armenian towns and villages, such as Stepanakert and Chapar. The Armenians, for their part, certainly did not stand and watch: at the end of 1991 an offensive was launched in which the militias broke the siege of the bombed areas, and then concentrated on the destruction of the Azerbaijani villages, considered as hidden posts for the artillery, again with an escalation of violence and ever greater rancor, which involved numerous civilians who had little to do with the bombing done by Azerbaijani troops.

Finally, when the Soviet Union imploded, the Ministry of the Interior ordered the withdrawal of troops from the region, completed between 19 and 27 December 1991. With the end of the Soviet military presence, the situation in the region literally went out of control.

So here ends the second part of our story, e story of an only apparent “peace”, guaranteed by the heavy shadow of the Soviet Union, which at the same time created the basis for the actual conflict: by feeding a local nationalism in the hope of a future “Soviet Nationalism” it left the field free to violence, pogroms and reciprocal feuds, which in addition to a high number of deaths, continued to stifle the embers that would later flare up in the fire of war.

In the next writing, we will deal with the military clash that broke out in the years following 1991, I hope that so far the explanation has been clear and stimulating, as usual, for any question you can contact me.

Thanks to all those who have had the patience to read these lines.