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Why Azerbaijan is Unable to Offer Viable Solutions to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

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Azerbaijan has cornered itself with the inability to offer peaceful solutions to the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict. The impasse has been caused by Baku’s assumption that time will force Armenia and the Armenians of NK into economic collapse and thus push Armenia to sue for a resolution of the conflict in the interest of Azerbaijan. That resolution would be to integrate the Armenian inhabited lands of NK into Azerbaijan proper.

The region of NK, and much of the surrounding area are currently under Armenian sovereignty. At the time of the sovietization of the greater Caucasus region, NK had an Armenian population well over 90%. For various reasons, rather than NK being set under the jurisdiction of Soviet Armenia, rulers in Moscow placed it, as an autonomous region, under Soviet Azerbaijani rule. At various times during the seventy years of the Soviet Union, demands that NK be placed under Armenia’s jurisdiction were made, but rejected. This demand actively re-emerged in the late 1980s as Moscow’s control was under pressure and the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. NK Armenians exercised their right under the Soviet constitution for a referendum which overwhelmingly supported secession. The re-emergence became violent as NK demands for a union with Armenia, or self-rule, were met by a brutal crackdown by authorities in Baku. Pogroms against Armenians across the whole of Azerbaijan culminated with the violent expulsion of over a quarter million Armenians from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and  hundreds of thousands more across the breadth of Azerbaijan. In reaction, Armenia expelled its Azerbaijani minority.

The ensuing war between Azerbaijan and the Armenians of NK resulted in over 30,000 killed and the displacement of about a million people on both sides. In May of 1994 a cease fire was arranged. Since then the region of NK has exercised independence. Although not recognized intentionally as a state, it exercises democratic sovereignty over the region. Border skirmishes and sniper deaths are daily occurrences as aew limited-sized battles along the lines of contact. At the ten thousand foot level, in lieu of a negotiated agreement, Armenians want the status quo and Azerbaijan endeavors to make this status quo come at the highest cost to Armenians.

Negotiations over NK, ironically, have taken place between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, not with NK. Azerbaijan rejects any acknowledgment of such entity as NK not under its jurisdiction. This is the first mistake Azerbaijan made in limiting its diplomatic options. Negotiations have been sponsored by several international bodies, including the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the OSCE Minsk Group organized by  the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) now known as Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE.

The OSCE is mandated to encourage a negotiated settlement of this conflict. Armenians have offered  to release land outside of NK, especially those to the east and south to Azerbaijan in exchange for Baku’s recognition of NK’s status. Azerbaijani negotiators have offered many packages that are associated with autonomy, self-rule, etc, but predicated on NK being placed under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Thus, we have an apparent zero sum: Baku demands NK be integrated into Azerbaijan, NK want their republic recognized.

However, what appears zero-sum outwardly, upon closer inspection reveals something else. Over the past two decades, when Azerbaijan claims to offer an integrated NK  with all the benefits of “broadest autonomy” [1] under Azerbaijani jurisdiction, such offers are operationally disingenuous. Not only was “broadest autonomy” noted during negotiations multiple times, but specific references were made to Aland Islands, Tatarstan, Northern Ireland, South Tyrol, Trieste, and Catalonia by political historians in Baku, such as Elhan Shahinogly [2]. Taking Finland’s Aland Island as an example, if such a status were a serious offer in negotiations, operationally it would mean:

Azerbaijan’s constitution would have to change as it is currently a unitary state. If NK Armenians gain autonomy, surely other ethnic minorities who find themselves under Azerbaijani jurisdiction such as the Lezgin and Talish, will demand geo-ethnic autonomy. None of this is in the interest of the Azerbaijani state.

Armenian will become an official language within Azerbaijan and so will other non-Turkic languages. The chance of this being enacted is near zero as Armenians, their language, religion, and culture have been demonized within Azerbaijan.

NK will have a direct say in Baku’s foreign policy direction and decisions. This is not in the interest of the Azerbaijani state.

In addition, if Azerbaijani demands for the return of all displaced peoples were enacted:

Armenians would return to Baku, displacing Azerbaijanis living in their former homes and the Azerbajianis who lived in NK would return to either destroyed, pillaged, or weather-ravaged homes. This is not in the interest of the Azerbaijani state or its people.

Armeno-phobia has reached such a level in Azerbaijan, with a generation being socialized to equate all evil with Armenians; inter-ethnic strife would run rampant across Azerbaijan, probably uncontrollable for years.

This last point is where time worked directly against policy-makers in Baku. Time, rather than to bankrupt Armenia and the Armenians of NK, unfortunately created conditions making it virtually impossible for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live in close proximity to each other.

Basically, Azerbaijan can propose all or any such autonomy-centered items during negotiations but  they are not in the interest of Azerbaijan. The impact of the points noted above could have been minimized if Azerbaijan had engaged the Armenians of NK in direct negotiation, avoided extreme official ethnic hatred campaigns, or simply had recognized NK as an independent entity early on.

Azerbaijan is left with the only remaining option (outside of complete disintegration of the Aliyev ruling elite and associated oligarchy) and that is the military option. The feasibility of this option is enhanced since Azerbaijan’s military budget has grown rapidly and it alone is larger than Armenia’s entire state budget. Azerbaijan claims its military budget is ten to twenty times that of Armenia’s.

A recommendation would be for Azerbaijan to immediately begin to tone down its gross discriminatory rhetoric against Armenians and then to recognize the status of NK outside of its jurisdiction. Logic dictates either Baku recognize its status or engage in a war that will devastate the economies of both Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the greater region. The other option, keeping the status quo, is not sustainable.  Baku may be assuming that time is on their side again and will bring a disintegration of larger regional power structures enhancing a decision for a military solution. However, as Sun Tzu noted, “He wins his battles by making no mistakes.”


[1] Autonomy Possible For Karabakh Armenians https://www.rferl.org/a/1086938.html and Azerbaijan Ready to Grant Wider Autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh https://sputniknews.com/world/201607221043467831-nagorno-karabakh-azerbaijan-autonomy/

[2] Azerbaijan suggests the status of autonomy for the neighboring states http://www.nkr.am/en/news/2011-01-28/332/

David Davidian is a Lecturer at the American University of Armenia. He has spent over a decade in technical intelligence analysis at major high technology firms.

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Eastern Europe

Crisis in Armenia Provides Fertile Ground for Russian Meddling

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The immediate cause came on February 25, when Onik Gasparyan, Chief of General Staff of the Armenian Army, and other senior commanders released a statement calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to step down. Pashinyan responded by firing Gasparyan.

Yet the real cause of the uproar is Armenia’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War last year, which has triggered a deeply troubled and long-drawn-out period of soul-searching and consequent instability.

Delving into the details over what are the real reasons and who is to blame may anyway be futile in the cloudy political world of all three South Caucasus states (including Georgia and its current woes). While many Armenians believe that the protests are more about internal democratic processes, there is an undeniable geopolitical context too. Perhaps what matters most is the international ramifications of the conflict, especially as the early phases of the Russian-brokered November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan are now being implemented.

The political crisis in Armenia does not affect the implementation of the agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 26. Other statements by the Russian leadership indicated that the Kremlin, which closely follows the internal development of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ally and the fellow member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is nevertheless remaining aloof for now.

Over the past year, Russia has confronted multiple crises along its border with some finesse, successfully managing near-simultaneous crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia-Azerbaijan.

In each case, the Kremlin has sought to extract geo-economic benefits. Take the current Armenian crisis. The opposition has some support, but not as much as the current leadership. Leaders from both sides have connections with senior Russian leaders, albeit the Kremlin was far more comfortable with the pre-Pashinyan Armenian political elite. They understood what Russia likes in the near-abroad – cautious leaders mindful of Russian sensitivities and unwilling to play the reformist and Western cards that Pahinyan has used since coming to power in 2018.

And yet however much illiberal Russia feels uncomfortable with the reformist Pashinyan government, it needs for now because his signature is on the November ceasefire agreement. With the early stages of the deal being implemented, Russia is keeping its eyes on the prize — most importantly, the agreement to reopen Soviet-era railways which potentially will reconnect Russia to Armenia via Azerbaijani territory. Chaos in Armenia can only jeopardize this key aim.

Russia also understands that Pashinyan is becoming increasingly dependent as time goes by and that it can exploit this vulnerability. Equally obviously, the opposition could prevail, and that would ultimately benefit Russia too.

In the long run, Russia has caught Armenia in a cycle. To stay in power, the government would need extensive Russian economic, diplomatic, and perhaps even military support. But any new government formed by the current opposition would likely demand even more weaponry from Russia to prepare for the next confrontation, however hypothetic, with Azerbaijan. In both cases, the price for more arms would likely be deeper integration of Armenia within the EEU. And whatever remained of Armenia’s policy efforts towards the West, already under grave pressure since the Karabakh defeat, would die.

Potentially, there is a yet-greater reward for Russia – persuading Azerbaijan to allow the Russian peacekeeping mission to remain on its soil beyond the end of 2025. In which case, an openly revanchist Armenian government formed by an opposition determined to build a battle-ready military capable of offensive operations would be a useful tool for the Kremlin to justify the continued presence of its units in Karabakh.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

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An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

How has the world’s largest inland body of (salty) water escaped the economic and political notice for so long? And it is for a resource-rich area of a unique locality that connects Europe and Asia in more than just geography. Simply, the Caspian Basin is an underrated and underexplored topic with scarce literature on its geomorphology, mineral deposits and marine biota, its legal disputes, pipeline diplomacy,environmental concerns and overall geopolitical and geo-economic interplays.

As the former Minister of the Canadian government and Secretary General of the OECD – Honorable Donald J Johnston – states in the foreword, Caspian – Status, Challenges, Prospects“is a fitting title for a book that masterfully gives an objective, comprehensive overview of the region. The authors have compiled an analysis of Caspian’s legal classification, security and environmental concerns, geopolitical scenarios, and energy flow impacts as they affect the world’s largest continental landmass – Eurasia.”

From comprehensive but content intensive insights on Caspian littoral states Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russiaand Turkmenistan, to external actors like Turkey, EU, China and the United States, readers are presented how separate actors and factors interact in this unique theater. The book elaborates on the legal classification of the Caspian plateau including the recent ‘Convention on Legal Status of the Caspian,’ to the numerous territorial and environmental security concerns.

Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors present Caspian as the most recent, fresh and novel way, in one stop-shop offering broad analysis on the Caspian region. It is a single volume book for which extensive information is exceptionally rare to find elsewhere. Following the read, authors are confident that a new expanse of scholarly conversation and actions of practitioners will unfold, not only focused on Caspian’s unique geography, but its overall socio-economic, politico-security and environmental scene.

Welcoming the book, following words of endorsements have been said:

The Caspian basin and adjacent Central Asian region (all being OSCE member states, apart from Iran) have, since the early Middle ages, acted as a crossroads between different civilizations and geopolitical spaces. In an increasingly interconnected world, growing geopolitical competition, economic interdependence and the emergence of new global challenges, particularly those related to water, energy and the climate emergency, have highlighted the relevance of this region, making it of increasing interest to researchers and academics. This book presents a thorough analytical compendium of historical factors, political dynamics, economic trends, legal frameworks and geopolitical interests which underpin, but also affect, the stability and development of this complex, diverse and strategically significant region.

Amb. Lamberto Zanier,Secretary-General, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (2011-2017)  OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (2017-2020)

A thoughtful, comprehensive and balanced analysis of the complex interplay between geopolitics and geo-economics in Central Eurasia, and pivotal energy plateau – that of Caspian. We finally have an all-in reader that was otherwise chronically missing in international literature, which will hopefully reverse the trend of underreporting on such a prime world’s spot.   

Hence, this is a must-read book for those wondering about the future of one of the most dynamic and most promising regions of the world and what it could entail for both reginal and external players. 
Andrey Kortunov Director General, Russian International Affairs Council

Although of pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic importance, Caspian energy plateau represents one of the most underreported subjects in the western literature. Interdisciplinary research on the topic is simply missing.  

Therefore, this book of professor Bajrektarevic and his team – unbiased, multidisciplinary, accurate and timely – is a much-needed and long-awaited reader: A must read for scholars and practitioners, be it from Eurasia or beyond.

It is truly a remarkable piece of work!  

Authors were able to tackle a challenging subject with a passion, knowledge and precision, and turn it into a compelling, comprehensive yet concise read which I highly recommend.   

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Kazakhstan Erzhan Kazykhanov, Ambassador Embassy of Kazakhstan, Washington dc, USA 

ARTNeT secretariat is pleased to see how our initial invitation to Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic to present at the ARTNeT Seminar Series in 2015 evolved. The talk was initially published as a working paper for ARTNeT (AWP 149). Now Prof. Bajrektarevic, in collaboration with another two co-authors, offers a comprehensive study on a nexus of legal, security, and environmental issues all emanating from and linked to energy cooperation (or lack thereof) in the subregion. This volume’s value extends beyond the education of readers on the Caspian Basin’s legal status (e.g., is it a sea or a lake?). It is just as relevant for those who want a more in-depth understanding of an interplay of economic, security, and political interest of players in the region and outside. With the global institutions increasingly less capable of dealing with rising geopolitics and geo-economic tensions, more clarity – even if only about some aspects of those problematic issues – should be appreciated. This volume offers such clarity.   

Mia Mikic, Director UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) ARTNeT coordinator

It is my honor to reflect on this work on Caspian. Comprehensive and content rich, this book of professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors brings up comprehensively all the useful information on Caspian, with the geographical and historical background and cultural, economic as well as security aspects related to it.

Authors’ novel and unbiased approach shall certainly help decision makers in their bettered understanding of the region that has centuries-long history of peace and cordial neighbourly relations. Long needed and timely coming, I warmly recommend this reader to those who want to know, but more importantly to all those who want to understand, this pivotal region of the world.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh Former Ambassador of Islamic Republic of Iran to United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva & Vienna

The book by Professor Bajrektarevic and his co-authors embodies a wide-ranging overview of the intertwined interests pursued by the young democracies of the Caspian basin, battling with inherited land and water disputes, and their interplay with regional and global powers. Apparently, supporting political independence of the formers and promoting their integration into the latter’s markets requires adequate analyses, timely outreach policies and consistent engagement. In this sense the publication serves as one of the scarce handbooks to understand diverse interests of stakeholders, dynamically changing security architecture of the region and emerging opportunities of cooperation around the Caspian Sea.

Ambassador GalibIsrafilov Permanent Representative to the UN Vienna and to the OSCE Embassy of Azerbaijan to Austria

Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

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Eastern Europe

As Georgians Fight Each Other, Russia Gleefully Looks On

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Earlier today, the leader of Georgia’s major opposition party – United National Movement (UNM) – was detained at his party headquarters by government security forces, the most recent escalation in a drawn-out political crisis. This could well be the beginning of a new troubled period in the country’s internal dynamics, with repercussions for the country’s foreign policy.

The optics favor the opposition. Images of armed and armored police storming UNM’s headquarters was damaging to the ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD). Western diplomats expressed grave concern over the events and their repercussions. Protests have been called, and will likely be covered closely in Western media.

What comes next, however, is not clear.

Much will depend on what long-term vision for the country the opposition can articulate in the aftermath of the most recent events. It was not that long ago that UNM was declining as a political force in Georgian politics. There is a real opportunity here. But the burden is on the opposition to make a play for the loyalty of voters beyond its circle of already-convinced supporters.

Appealing to ordinary Georgian voters is ultimately the key to resolving the crisis. Beyond the intra-party clashes about the legitimacy of the most recent elections, there is a growing chasm between political elites and the challenges faced by people in their daily lives. And tackling these challenges successfully will not be easy.

Both the ruling party and the opposition have been facing declining support from the public at large. Long-term economic problems, which have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, have not been credibly addressed by either side. Instead of solutions, both sides have engaged in political theatrics. For many voters, the current crisis is more about a struggle for political power, rather than about democracy and the economic development of the country. No wonder that most people consider their social and economic human rights to have been violated for decades no matter which party is in power. These attitudes help explain high abstention rates during the most recent election. Despite remarkable successes in the early years after the Rose Revolution, Georgia has lacked a long-term policy for reimagining its fragile economy since its independence and the disastrous conflicts of the 1990s.

None of this, however, should minimize the threats to Georgian struggling democracy. Today’s arrests reinforce a longstanding trend in Georgian politics: the belief that the ruling party always stands above the law. This was the case with Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili, and is now the case with the current government. For less politically engaged citizens, plus ça change: Georgian political elites for the last 30 years have all ended up behaving the same way, they say. That kind of cynicism is especially toxic to the establishment of healthy democratic norms.

The crisis also has a broader, regional dimension. The South Caucasus features two small and extremely fragile democracies – Armenia and Georgia. The former took a major hit last year, with its dependence on Moscow growing following Yerevan’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War. Today, Russia is much better positioned to roll back any reformist agenda Armenians may want to enact. Armenia’s current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been weakened, and easily staged protests are an easy way to keep him in line.

Georgia faces similar challenges. At a time when Washington and Brussels are patching things up after four years of Trump, and the Biden administration vigorously reiterates its support for NATO, Georgia’s woes are a boon for Moscow. Chaos at the top weakens Georgia’s international standing and undermines its hopes for NATO and EU membership. And internal deadlock not only makes Georgia seem like a basket-case but also makes a breakthrough on economic matters ever more unlikely. Without a serious course correction, international attention will inevitably drift away.

At the end of the day, democracy is about a lot more than finding an intra-party consensus or even securing a modus vivendi in a deeply polarized society. It is about moving beyond the push-and-pull of everyday politics and addressing the everyday needs of the people. No party has risen to the occasion yet. Georgia’s NATO and EU aspirations remain a touchstone for Georgian voters, and both parties lay claim to fully representing those aspirations. But only through credibly addressing Georgia’s internal economic problems can these aspirations ever be fully realized. The party that manages to articulate this fact would triumph.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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