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The Chechens—The Sons and Daughters of the Mountains

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“These Chechens…They are like wolves coming down from the mountains… I am afraid they will come after me…”, the Turkish character of Vigo Mortensen’s Eastern Promises movie ushered.

This brief yet strong statement concerning the imagination and representation of the Chechens as a wolf pack was what first intrigued me about the so-called Chechen’s warrior culture. Besides the reports of Chechens fighting in Ukraine and Syria, and now that we have recently read that Putin critic Boris Nemtsov was apparently murdered by Chechen hitmen, the Chechen warrior reputation will only prolong itself even further. In this opinionated article, I will briefly describe some anecdotes and stories while researching the warrior culture of three Russian republics (Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan). However, I will limit this article to my experience with the Chechens, coupled with a few anecdotes—there are way too many stories to be shared that, unfortunately, this article would not be enough.

ds1The Caucasus is one of the most diverse places in the world, both ethnically and linguistically. There is a story about Alexander the Great and The Caucasus. The story tells of the fierce resistance Alexander and his men faced while venturing in Vainakh (Chechen and Ingush) lands. Because of this, The Greeks tired of fighting the Vainakh tribe, decided to turn around and march towards modern-day Dagestan. A potential explanation of why you find more tribes and diversity in Dagestan than the more uniform Ingush and Chechen clans. And a potential explanation of why the Russian North Caucasus nations have been, throughout the course of history, more territorial than many other nations in the world, for history makes no distinction: you are either conquered and colonized, or you simply aren’t. The Ingush and Chechens, in reality, never were.

Each republic in the Russian Caucasus is as diverse as the other—politically and culturally. The Ingush, for instance, though physically similar and ethnically related to the Chechens, have had different problems, specifically, because of land ownership and territorial boundaries, with their Christian neighbors, the North Ossetians. And, well, Dagestan, I would describe it as the most diverse of all republics, from its landscapes and its peoples. Dagestan is a world of its own—with numerous ethnic groups and different idiosyncrasies (from Wahhabis to secular-inclined villages).

When I asked a Chechen highlander, in the breathtaking, mountain village of Tazbichi, about why have the Chechens historically fought the Russians for so long, he simply replied with a proud-looking face and a smile: “We are the sons and daughters of the mountains”. Not another word more, not another word less. Only that profound statement. At first, I didn’t understood what that meant, but then I truly understood his meaning: This landscape, this environment, these mountains, what you see and feel, is and has been our home; we have lived and hunted in this land for hundreds of generations. The mountains are our family.

The question most likely, by now, you are probably wondering is: How did some guy from Guatemala end up in Chechnya?

ds2Before telling you my story, first, I would like to ask you a few questions: Have you ever been curious about the unusual, exotic, remote and untraveled landscapes? When you look and read the morning news, about places that have been labeled as ‘failed states’, like Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and so on, but despite of how bad the situation seems to be, still, have you ever wondered what it would be like to talk to a Yemeni tribal elder from an important, politically powerful tribe? Or listen to what the local Mexicans have to say about how the Mexican cartels support the local economy and communities, despite of the violence ravishing Mexico? And, lastly, have you ever been to places (which I’m sure many of my American, European and Canadian colleagues have), such as the beach resorts of Cancun, south Spain and Punta Cana, where there are hordes of tourists, fighting for the few beach chairs and umbrellas? Where you ought to wait until someone, hours later, leaves his chair and umbrella? Well, I have experienced these types of landscapes—from researching conflicts in ‘failed states’ to enjoying a nice beach vacation in a five-star resort. In my case, I prefer the former: the remote, the untraveled, the unknown and the war-torn spaces; I have been writing and personally researching, what I call the ‘warrior culture’ of a place—and eventually looking forward to write a book, about the stories and essence of these dark and remote places. But, I know what you are thinking: this guy is completely crazy. What does adventure-writing has to do with geopolitics or whatsoever? My response: a lot—I will explain this at the end of the article.

            My story with the Chechens and Chechnya began in a hot, humid, typical Florida day, at a Russian-owned deli shop, in the summer of 2010, in Daytona Beach, Florida.

It was the first time I walked into a Russian deli shop. As I walked in, I encountered a well-endowed, tough-looking, mature, bold, white-bearded person, whom the customers—in Russian, of course—seemed to ask many questions, thoroughly putting attention to whatever the old man replied; as if you would see someone asking his grandfather or a respected elder for an advise.

The deli shop, resembled like those picturesque mom and pop stores, in Brighton Beach, New York, given its unofficial label, by the Russo-Ukrainian community, as ‘Little Odessa’. This store, felt exactly like that: the menu was written in Russian, with mouth-watering pictures of fresh rye bread, borscht, Siberian pelmeni; and needless to say about the amazing selections of black tea, vodka, caviar, and other fine Russian products. As I stood, while waiting in line, and listened to the TV—in Russian, of course—I felt I was in a complete different country, since the owner and customers, seriously, glanced at me, silently implying: “Are you lost, son?”.

 

            Priviet…What can I do for you?” very seriously, the owner asked me.

“What would you recommend me? I’d really like to try something authentic and traditional”, I shyly asked.

“Well, I recommend you the borscht…you cannot get more Russian than that. However, this is Ukrainian type of borscht; we are not only Russian but Ukrainian as well; Russia has all kinds of people, with all kinds of different foods”…

Although as ironic as it seems—in light of the current conflict between Russian separatists and Ukrainians—my initial journey into the Caucasus started every Tuesday at lunchtime, whenever on occasional basis, while eating a sandwich or potato salad, the owner decided to talk to me about his experiences in the Soviet armed forces; moreover, his experience relating to the people from the North Caucasus.

ds3By hearing the owner’s stories, regarding his experience in the North Caucasus region, I, in turn, used my own geographical imagination—about the mountains, the valleys and peoples, and how mysterious and culturally untouched it must be—based on the representations and descriptions the owner told me. The owner originally served as a cook in Soviet submarines, as well in the infamous North Caucasus Military District, which oversaw the diverse republics and borderlands of the then-Soviet empire. And that’s when my curiosity for the Russian North Caucasus skyrocketed. The first thing the owner commented was the hardcore nationalism he saw and encountered when dealing with Ingush and Chechens, especially. But what captivated me the most was his narration of inter-clan feuds in Chechnya and Ingushetia, particularly the Chechen interpretation of vendetta.

“Regardless if you were in the army, and were protected by your rank and uniform, like many of my colleagues were, if you ever decided to lay your hands upon a Chechen girl, you would have to think it twice. If one of her relatives would find out, that she’s dating a non-Chechen and non-Muslim, they would intimidate you—and her—regardless of your rank”, the owner once told me.

“Chechens still think and act like a tribal society and each family, has its own patriarch or head of clan—just like that Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart, but in modern times”, the owner pondered with a serious look, finishing his cigarette.

“It’s even worse if you are fighting them and you kill one of their members; doesn’t matter whether it’s a brother, a cousin, an aunt, a relative, or the dog as far as I am concerned”.

The owner went on: “the head of the clan, will choose one of the members of his clan to avenge the killing of his family member; the person he [the patriarch] chooses, will sleep on the floor, grow a beard, and until his family member’s death has been avenged…only then, he will be able to sleep in a normal bed, shave his beard and continue with his life. The Chechens value blood and honor”. Scratching his bald head, in a soft, paused, tone, the owner leaves my table, goes back to the kitchen, silently suggesting: I have too many memories about the Caucasus that I do not want to talk or share.

Eventually, the Russian deli shop, out of the blue, without previous warning, closed—no goodbyes, no nothing. A part of me was sad—I wanted to learn more from the mysterious, white-bearded, bald, Russian person. Yet it was that conversation (blood, feud and honor in Chechnya) that struck me as if you would of encountered an old, battle-hardened American cowboy from the mid 19th century, telling you stories about the Apache tribe. Whether his anecdotes were true or not, I still wanted to know more about Chechens and Chechnya—the landscape, the place, their culture, codes of honor and values, and their so-called tribal mentality.

It was the fall of October 2013. And now instead of being in sunny Florida or in my homeland—Guatemala—I was in the cold, wet, British town of Egham. After living four years in Florida and one in China, I decided to apply for a master degree in geopolitics at a top British university. I wanted to study, reflect and research geopolitics, specifically taught from a geographical point of view. This was one of the principal motivations on why I wanted to study geopolitics. I wanted to focus more on the ‘geo’ than in the ‘politics’. (Needless to say it was in the U.K. where geopolitics internationally aroused—Halford Mackinder’s Geographical Pivot of History, is the best example). Besides academic purposes, there was also another side of the story on why I chose Britain: London Heathrow would be my traveling hub into conflict-ridden countries on which I wanted to personally research. Heathrow would be my gateway into what Mackinder would of called the “World Island”. But Vladikavkaz would be the entrance into the wild, mysterious, Kavkaz (Caucasus).

Guatemala, the place, the country—most commonly and derogatorily labeled as the ‘banana republics’—on which I was born, has been ravished by war and conflict since the post-colonial period, which, in turn, has prompted me to study—academically and personally—world conflicts, particularly in the world region that I love the most: The Global South. From the guerrilla conflicts in Central America—i.e. Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua—to more unheard conflicts in places like Guadalcanal Island, in the Solomon Islands. But apart from the fact that I come from the ‘Global South’, let me tell you, my dear reader, that there is also a little bit of ‘Global South’ in you. Yes, in you. In the coffee and tea you drink; in the fruits, vegetables, and chocolate you eat; the fuel your car uses; the cobalt mineral inside your smartphone; and, in the tacos and kebabs you eat after a crazy Friday night out with your friends. Regardless whether you live in New York, London, Vienna, Toronto or Tokyo, you experience on a daily basis the Global South. And, though Russia can be labeled, based on physical geographical terms, as a ‘northern’ country and ideologically as an ‘eastern’ country (apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg), Russia, can be, essentially, considered a part of the Global South. This was the impression I had when I first was at Vladikavkaz airport in North Ossetia and Alana—manual baggage handling, no gates, a very short and bumpy runway followed by the taxi drivers standing literally next you, as you waited for your luggage—oh yes! The warmth and kindness of the people made me feel just like I was somewhere in the tropics; however, without the heat and mosquitoes.

Vladikavkaz is the invisible border inside the Russian North Caucasus, indirectly making North Ossetia and Alana a Christian enclave nestled between Muslim neighbors—primarily because North Ossetia borders Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia, which are of Islamic majority. Locally—Vladikavkaz, that is—is known as the entryway towards their ‘badly’ behaved, rebel neighbors, Ingushetia and Chechnya. I say badly, because the 2004 Beslan Massacre, was still well and alive inside the hearts and minds of the North Ossetians, more notably, all Russians. Vladimir Sevrinovsky, whom I met through another Russian acquaintance, was my guide, friend and expert for this expedition. (If you would want a guide for the Caucasus, Vladimir, was the perfect guide—he thoroughly knew the most remote places of Russia and, more importantly, Russian ethnic idiosyncrasies).

ds4At the airport, when I picked up my luggage, Vladimir already had hired a taxi driver. Our taxi driver had a thick, dark mustache, almost resembling to that of Josef Stalin, with an impeccable shave, a medium-sized height and a chubby figure. Our taxi driver, a North Ossetian, was extremely friendly and happy to see a foreigner who had come all the way to Kavkaz (Caucasus). The taxi driver drove us to many interesting points in Vladikavkaz—for free. However, when he understood the true reason of why I was in the Caucasus—the Ingush, Chechen and Dagestani warrior cultures—he automatically told Vladimir that he had to take me to the cemetery to pay tribute to the departed hostages that died. His smile, friendliness and happiness, suddenly turned into a grumpy, serious look. He wanted me to see what the Ingush and Chechens did to the North Ossetians (the terrorists that participated in the school takeover, apparently were of Ingush and Chechen ethnicity). What our taxi driver really meant was: Before you even dare and study these ‘savages’, you must first see what they did to us, to our people and to all of Russia.

What 9/11 was for the entire American and Western world, the Beslan Massacre was the 9/11 Russian version of tragedy—I respectfully paid homage to the deceased. No questions, only silence. The beginning of my expedition was filled up with more questions than answers, notwithstanding. If the Ossetians were majorly Christians, why weren’t they so opinionated against other Islamic republics—Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia, for example—as they were against both the Ingush and the Chechens? Were the Ingush and Chechens perceived as the same belligerent group? Or were they perceived differently amongst their fellow Caucasus neighbors? What do the Dagestanis had to say about the Chechens and Ingush? And what did the Ingush had to say about the Chechens?

After an adventurous week in Ingush tribal lands—the militarized, Dzheirakh valley—along Vladimir, we changed course onto Chechnya, where I was received with the highest honors and welcoming by our Chechens hosts (Murad and Ruslan). “In Chechnya, in this fine land, that Allah the all mighty gave us, you are most welcome”. Murad continued, “in this land, you are our guest, thus you are protected by our highest codes of honor: the guest is sacred and untouchable”.

When I asked, Murad what he meant by ‘untouchable’, Murad bluntly replied: “This means that even if someone would try and do you harm, they would have to fight us first. Here in Chechnya, you are under my clan’s protection. We have rules; we have codes; we have the Adamallah…”

What do tribes and clans have to do with geopolitics? My response: Islamic extremism often grows in tribal societies within the Muslim world; for example, whether they are the Kanuritribe of Borno State in Nigeria, who make up the leading structure of Boko Haram; whether they are the Syrian and Iraqi Sunni tribes who, out of discontent with the Iraqi-Shiite government, joined ISIS, by allowing them to settle from Al-Raqqa to Al-Anbar; whether they are the Ghilzai Pashto tribes of South Afghanistan, who eventually became the all-powerful Taliban; whether they are the Al-Houthi rebels from Yemen, who have recently wreaked havoc in all of Yemen; or whether they are members of Abbu Sayyaf fighting in the islands of Mindanao and Basilan in the southern Philippines, it is important to understand tribal structures and their internal codes to further understand their interpretations of warfare. By understanding tribal dynamics and codes, we are, in fact, delving into the geopolitics of political identity—and the repercussions that come with it. In a nutshell, the Islamic world is still a tribal society. And for us, in the Western world—or Latin America in my case—if we really want to understand the geopolitical effects of a tribe in grief, the cases of Iraq, Syria and Yemen, should give us a good head start.

In his book The Spirit of the Wolf, Shaun Ellis talks about how wolf packs were admired by the Native American tribes, considering them as another type of respected tribe. According to Native American folklore, there is a story that narrates how the Native Americans considered that to kill a wolf, was to eventually challenge the wolves to kill one of their own members. Therefore, they made a deal: to respect the wolves, so the wolves would respect the Native American tribes, and split the hunting grounds. In Chechnya, I realized that earning the trust of the Chechens is like earning the trust of a wolf pack. This means to earn the trust of a Chechen clan. At first you will be sniffed to make sure that you are not hostile. Secondly, you will be growled to make sure you are not easily intimidated. And thirdly: they will protect you as one of their own…

The rest, my dear readers, I will leave it to your imagination…

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Eastern Europe

Iran’s Position on Karabakh War: Tehran Competes for the Hearts of Azerbaijanis

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This article focuses on the Iranian official position on the latest escalations of Artsakh (Karabakh) war which started in the morning of September 27, 2020. The main military operations were happening in the bordering areas of Iran and even several artillery bombs, rockets and unnamed aerial vehicles occurred in the territory of Iran. Actually, after the independence of the South Caucasus states, Tehran created good relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia. In general, Iran was not interested in a non-stable situation in its northern borders, where regional war was going on between Artsakh, backed by Armenia and Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, which was supplying Azerbaijan with modern weapons and jihadists from the Middle East. This time, Iran decided to choose a side.

Iran’s Options

Actually, Iran had only two options, it could stay neutral or take the Azerbaijani side. Iran chose the second option. Here I will bring several facts. During the war, in northern provinces of Iran-Eastern Azerbaijan, Western Azerbaijan, Zanjan and Ardabil, where the majority of the population are identifying themselves as Iranian Azeris, anti-Armenian demonstrations where organized. Protestors were demanding from the Iranian government to close Iranian-Armenian border for weapons, which were being supplied from Russia through Caspian Sea and mainland routs to Armenia. As a result, Iran prohibited to transfer any kind of weapons to Armenia and spokesperson of Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, mentioned that Iran was implementing its decision, and announcements, that Armenia was still getting its weapons through the territory of Iran, did not coincide with the reality. On October 6, Advisor of the Supreme leader of Iran, Ali Akbar Velayati announced, that Armenians occupied Azerbaijani lands and they must return them. For making his statement much more acceptable and understandable for most of Iranians, he noted that Iran’s position in Palestine and Artsakh is the same, that they are standing with Azerbaijani side as they are standing with Palestinians. Moreover,Ayatollah Khamenei stated “the main solution to the problem is a return of all occupied lands of Azerbaijan by Armenia and this must be done and international borders must be respected.” It is also true, that he spoke about physical security of Armenians in “occupied lands”, he also noted, that terrorists, which were being used by [Azerbaijani] side, would be killed, if they tried to cross Iranian borders. Azerbaijani side “thanked Ayatollah Khamenei for backing its stance on Karabakh conflict”.

In turn, deputy minister of Iranian Foreign Affairs, Abbas Araghchi, who also visited Baku, Yerevan, Moscow and Ankara for discussing Artsakhi war, announced that Iran closed its borders for transferring weapons to Armenia, he condemned Artsakhi side for shelling Azerbaijani Barda city and did not mention about heavy bombardments of Stepanakert, Shushi, Martakert and Martuni by Azerbaijan. He also stated that for 27 years Iran had always condemned the “occupation” of Azerbaijani lands.

Reasons of Iranian choice

As it was mentioned, Iran backed Azerbaijan. Even Azerbaijani president Aliyev announced, that Iran supplied weapons to Azerbaijan. There were 3 main reasons, which could explain the Iranian decision.

  1. Iran and Azerbaijan develop their relations in economic and transportation spheres, for instance in the context of International North South Transport Corridor(INSTC) Tehran and Baku have agreed to invest US$500 million each for linking Azerbaijani railways with Iranian. It will provide an opportunity to connect their railways with Russians as well. Thus, these two states by the help of their cooperation will get an opportunity to play important role in INSTC, which lays from Indian Mumbai to Russian Saint Petersburg.
  2. There are more than   15 million ethnic Azeris in Iran, and this time their lobby played very decisive role and Iran took Baku’s side in a demonstrative way, without even bothering  to give any diplomatic covering to it. There were also some Iranian politicians and scholars, who were speaking about keeping status quo, which was in place after 1994 ceasefire. They were arguing that, if Artsakhi Armenians lose the war, Turkish influence would grow in South Caucasus, which is bordering with Northern Iran, but this position did not receive enough attention from Iranian government.
  3. In 1979 Iran proclaimed it as an Islamic Republic of Iran. For a long time, this country struggles for leadership in Shia Muslims world. For this reason, it could not take the Armenian side, when religious leaders from Qom, Mashhad and Najaf were pressing Iranian government to help Shia Azerbaijan against Christian Armenia. Khamenei’s representatives in Eastern Azerbaijan, Western Azerbaijan, Zanjan and Ardabil announced about their support to Baku, arguing that Azerbaijan was also a member of Shia community.

Conclusion

In sum, Iran took the Azerbaijani side taking into consideration its growing cooperation with this country in economic and transportation spheres, same religion and to meet the demands of ethnic Azeris in its northern provinces. Tehran also tried to keep the opportunity for the future in its competition with Turkey for Azerbaijanis hearts. Throughout last years, Iranians succeeded in creating a network in Armenia, through their “soft power” diplomacy. They were working with the Armenian society through social networks, media and tried to convince, that Iran supported Armenia in Artsakhi crisis before, during and after the war, even after aforementioned statements, concrete steps of the Iranian and Azerbaijani decision makers. Of course, there are also several Armenian independent specialists, who are not involved in this network, but they also think in the same way. Anyway, these kind of presentations of Iranian policy on Artsakhi conflict, made baseless expectations from Iran in Armenian society and I do believe, that during war this kind of “advices” hindered Armenian decision makers in their calculations.

The following question is going to Ayatollah Khamenei and Araghchi: How Armenians in Artsakh can “occupy” their homes and lands, if they live there for thousands of years? It is the same, if someone tries to argue, that Iranians occupied Esfahan or Tabriz. Even the statement about physical security of Armenians, which was made by Khamenei does not correspondent with Araghchi’s statement, as the last one failed to speak about human rights of Artsakhi people, when he was arguing it for Azerbaijani people.This is making another reason for not letting Iran to stand a side in peace talks, which it is offering not the first time and only relay on Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe’s Minsk group format, where Russia, France and US are the main players.

It is also worth mentioning, that Artsakhi conflict maybe the only case in the world, when interests of long-time adversaries-Iran and Israel coincided. Both of them supplied Azerbaijan with weapons and supported it politically.

It will be quite interesting to follow what will possibly happen to Iran in the future, when jihadists with their families create enclave in territories which Azerbaijan took from Artsakh. Will they be used against Iran in the future? Actually, in Syria, they were struggling against Iranian ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and Iranian troops in Syria.

Turkish troops will stay in Azerbaijan, Ankara will get in the ground military base, as they helped Azerbaijan and now it is time to get its benefits from the efforts used. For this reason, the following question arises:

Is it really correspondent with Iranian geopolitical interests to have NATO troops, in the face of Turkey next to its Northern provinces, where people mostly speakTurkish language and sympathize Turkey and see it as a “big brother”? Did Tehran make right choice when it fully supported Azerbaijani side during the war? Future will bring answers to these questions. But the answer can be also, that maybe Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran have created road map for further cooperation having religious, economic interconnectedness as a main base and their cooperation in Artsakhi conflict was part of it.

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Thorny path towards peace and reconciliation in Karabakh

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On January 11 the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a deal to develop cross-border transportation routes and boost economic growth to benefit the South Caucasus and the Wider Region. This meeting took place two months after the Moscow-brokered armistice between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

This ethno-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has drawn dividing lines between Armenia and Azerbaijan for almost 30 years. Some estimates put the number of deaths on both sides at 30,000 after the First Karabakh war before a ceasefire was reached in May 1994. As a result of this war, one fifth of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan was occupied and the entire Azerbaijani population of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and seven adjacent districts (Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam, Fizuly, Jabrail, Gubatli and Zangilan) was forcibly expelled by the Armenian armed forces. Incidentally, due to sporadic frontline skirmishes and clashes, both military personnel and civilians have been killed along the Line of Contact, devoid of any peacekeeping force, since 1994.

Over the years, Armenia and the separatist regime that emerged in the occupied Azerbaijani territories refused any final status short of independence for Nagorno-Karabakh and tried to preserve this status quo and achieve international security guarantees on the non-resumption of hostilities while avoiding the withdrawal of its armed forces from the occupied territories and preventing the safe return of expelled Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence. However, such a policy, in its turn, polarized the region and reduced to naught any meaningful regional cooperation between the three South Caucasus states.

The Second Karabakh war, which took place from September 27 to November 9, 2020, and the subsequent Russia-brokered peace deal on November 10, significantly changed the facts on the ground and created a new political reality that replaced the “no war, no peace” situation that had been hanging over the region for almost 30 years. As a result of this war, more than 6,000 soldiers died on both sides in fighting.

This war came to an end because of a clear victory for Azerbaijan, which has restored its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Owing to the humiliating defeat of Armenia,the myth of the invincibility of the Armenian armed forces has been shattered and the Prime Minister of this country has been under continuous pressure from the opposition to step down.

Thus, after the Second Karabakh war, the pendulum has swung from devastating war towards actual peace. The question, is, however, whether the conflicting parties will be able to achieve lasting peace in the coming years: How can a relationship that has been completely destroyed owing to this protracted armed conflict and previous wars be restored?

The fate of all inhabitants of both the highlands and lowlands of Karabakh, irrespective of their ethnic origin, is crucial in this context. Security arrangements for the Armenian minority residing in this area are currently organized through the deployment of 1,960 Russian peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the implementation of the trilateral statement signed by the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Russian Federation on November 10 (hereafter, the trilateral statement). At the same time, the return of the former Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence previously occupied by the Armenian armed forces is envisaged by the trilateral statement and the UNHCR has been assigned to oversee this task.

It is paramount that Azerbaijan has to demonstrate a policy of “strategic patience” in the coming years to entice the Armenians of Karabakh region into closer incorporation through attractive political, economic, social, and other development.

On the other hand, Armenia has to concentrate on its own internationally recognized sovereign territory. Today, it is important that this country changes its external minority policy and withdraws its territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a next step, both Armenia and Azerbaijan can recognize the territorial integrity of one other.

Such rapprochement can lead to the opening of the borders between Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan, which would increase economic opportunities for landlocked Armenia. It can thereby contribute to regional stability, development, and trans-regional cooperation among the three South Caucasian states. At the same time, it would create an enabling environment that could be more conducive for future dialogue and interactions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

We must face the fact that a stable equilibrium between these two nations has never previously been achieved. However, despite ups and downs, there was peaceful coexistence between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Karabakh as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective minorities in Azerbaijan and Armenia. This protracted conflict has, however, led Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live in parallel realities for almost 30 years.

In light of the recent past, we cannot soon reconcile our different narratives. It is a long process; however, reconciliation is not only an outcome, it is also a process. Although the gestation period might be long, the process of reconciliation itself can be extremely rewarding.

In fact, the Armenian and Azerbaijani inhabitants of Karabakh have lived together in this region in the past. However, for almost 30 years this was impossible. Will and determination should be put to good use in order to arrive at such a peaceful coexistence once again.

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Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus

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The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.

The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.

It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.

The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.

The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.

In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.

Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.

Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.

With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.

The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.

The Western stance

The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.

Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.

Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.

The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.

The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.

Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.

Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.

Georgia’s position

Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.

Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.

The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”

The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.

Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.

But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.

The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.

Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.

After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.

Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

Author’s note: first published in dailysabah

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