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Latvia should raise basic pension to reduce pensioner poverty

MD Staff

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Latvia should strengthen old-age safety nets and raise the basic state pension in order to reduce pensioner poverty, especially among women, and address the challenge of a fast declining population, according to a new OECD report.

The OECD Review of the Pension System in Latvia highlights the challenges facing the pension system. Latvia’s working-age population (people aged between 20 and 64 years) is expected to fall by about 20% over the next two decades, due to low fertility rates, increasing life expectancy and high emigration. The pension system is designed to automatically adapt to demographic trends. While this will secure the system’s financial stability over time, it will also reduce pension benefits.

Already today, Latvia’s old-age poverty rate is the second-highest in the OECD, after Korea: more than 25% of people aged 65 and older have an income below the relative poverty line. Older women are especially vulnerable: more than one-third of females over 75 live in poverty and the notional defined contribution (NDC) scheme does not offer survivor benefits for spouses.

At 64 euros per month in 2017, the basic pension represents 8% of gross average earnings against the OECD average of 19% and has not increased in nominal terms for more than 10 years. There is substantial room to increase the level of old-age safety nets, according to the report. In order to avoid a negative impact on work incentives, the minimum pension should be set so that each year of contribution increases the benefit.

The normal retirement age is 63 years and 3 months for both men and women and will reach 65 in 2025. As benefit levels decline when life expectancy increases, linking the future retirement age to life expectancy gains will help prevent too many people retiring with too low entitlements.

The Latvian NDC scheme meets its objective of delivering pension benefits that depend on contributions made during the working life in a financially sustainable way. However, the current practice of transferring funded defined contribution (FDC) assets to the NDC scheme to compute regular pension payments, the so-called annuities, should be eliminated as the two schemes are based on different rules and principles.

The design of the mandatory and voluntary funded pension schemes should be improved. Introducing a default investment strategy so that the amount of risky assets invested falls as people get closer to retirement would help.

Administrative fees charged by private financial service providers for the management of the FDC scheme are high in international comparison. In part, this may reflect the relatively recent introduction of the system, but it is mostly due to a lack of competition between pension providers. Recent reforms introduced in early 2018 to rein in costs go in the right direction but require strong monitoring to be effective.

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Eastern Europe

Nagorno-Karabakh: A Frozen Conflict Rethawed

Christian Wollny

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On the morning of September 27, 2020, along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, the armed forces of Azerbaijan launched an attack on the Republic of Artsakh. The clashes, and with them military and civilian victims on both sides, are ongoing at the time of writing. Yet another escalation of the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Republic of Artsakh and neighbouring Armenia have introduced martial law and total mobilization, while Azerbaijan introduced martial law and a curfew, with partial mobilization being declared on September 28. International entities such as the United Nations, the European Union, as well as countries including but not limited to the United States of America, Russia and Germany have strongly condemned the ongoing clash and called on both sides to deescalate tensions and immediately resume negotiations.

What are some of the root causes of the ongoing conflict? Is there any hope on an immediate ceasefire? What are the interests of outside parties?

Frozen 3: Conflict

“The end of history” did bring about an end to the Cold War between the world’s superpowers, but it didn’t ensure an end to history in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some conflicts that arose in the 90s had already been there, suppressed by the Soviet behemoth, and went from “cold” to “superhot” and then to “frozen,” as in unresolved. From the Mediterranean to the Balkans to Central Asia, these frozen conflicts remain, with the habit of resurging violence every now and then.

The increasing tension between Turkey and Greece, both NATO members, served as a heads-up to what is now happening in the South Caucasus. The ongoing tension between Georgia and Russia also stems from the frozen conflict unsolved in the last decade of the last millennia. Heading to the neighbours in the region brings us to Nagorno-Karabakh, and the ongoing armed conflict with Azerbaijan. Since Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, the political issue surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh has remained. The territory itself is mostly controlled by the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. While de jure a part of Azerbaijan, de facto it is independent, as Azerbaijan hasn’t exerted control over the region since 1991. After the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, there have been peace talks in place headed by the OSCE Minsk Group. To no avail, a compromise hasn’t been reached until today, and with the resurging attacks from both sides, a peaceful solution has moved far into the distance.

Divide et Impera: Soviet Edition

Moscow, as the third Rome, understood how to apply the old rules of ancient Empires. To practice control over a region, one should create smaller groups within, the interests (and treatment) of whom run diametral to one another. The Soviet Union continued this tradition of the Russian Empire, so that in the early stages of sovietization of the entire South Caucasus, the final status of the disputed areas between Armenians and Azerbaijanis was settled by Moscow. Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan became parts of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (AzSSR). The Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party took it upon itself to resolve the dispute for (or against) the local populace. Nagorno-Karabakh was to be given extensive autonomy rights within the AzSSR.

The Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Nakhichevan ASSR), the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and, for a limited time only, the Kurdistan Uyezd (aka “Red Kurdistan,” 1923-1929) were incorporated into the AzSSR. Splitting up the Armenian populace amongst different administrative units was thus in lieu with Stalin’s nationality policy, which advocated the concept of dovetailing the non-Russian nationalities into the same republics. This would force them to cooperate across their ethnic boundaries and overcome ethnic rivalries. From a historical viewpoint, the way Soviet leadership handled the Karabakh issue marks a prime example of “divide et impera.”

Propaganda, Propaganda Everywhere

Internet trolls are not a new invention. What is notable, however, is how strongly both sides appear to be using all rosters of information warfare, ranging from trolls spamming social media with false information (or just involving users in pointless rants), posting gore or even state authorities posting information that is, from their perspective, truthful and correct. Mainstream media from all countries are playing along, picking a side they support and willfully spreading fake news narratives. The utilization of the internet, to gain favour for either side can take place in the form of appeals to the public audience by affected (or affectionate) users, appealing to emotion to take action. It can also result in strife and uncivil behaviour, even amongst social media groups for academic scholars. Celebrities are also engaging in #activism by sharing and posting their opinions and viewpoints. Surely, it appears neither side has a strategic approach to control the story, yet by pushing certain narratives (“Another genocide” vs “it’s our rightful clay”), both sides are pushing for an acceleration neither side could desire.

He who controls the flow of information controls the conflict. Multiple reports have indicated that Azerbaijan has severely restricted access to social media following the deadly clashes with Armenia since the end of September 2020. The Ministry of Transport, Communications and Technology announced these restrictions as “security measures” against Armenian digital aggression. As both countries have mobilized their ground forces, so too have they mobilized their “digital” forces, if one will. Only Twitter seems to work in Azerbaijan. Government-loyal accounts and bots run large-scale propaganda campaigns, dehumanizing the other side.

The hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the digital battlefield will, just like in real life, only increase as a viable solution to the conflict is not found. Already in the past have partisan groups hacked each other governments websites. Ongoing cyber-attacks of this nature are a fundamental part of any modern-day battle plan. However, they are liable to be just as damaging as conventional weapons.

What Can EU Do For You?

It is clear that a solution in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is inconceivable without Russia. With Turkey deliberately instigating the Azerbaijan government, Russia sees itself as a mediator to both, Armenia and Azerbaijan. While there is a Russian military base located in Armenia, and is considered Armenia’s protector, Russian neutrality goes so far that Moscow supplies weapons to both sides of the conflict. While Russia’s military strength is enough to keep the conflict from escalating severely, without Russian intervention, there will be no de-escalation and no ceasefire. Turkey, on the other hand, is very eager to extend its sphere of influence deeper into the Caucasus.

What can the European Union do to ameliorate the situation and promote the pursuit of open-ended, peaceful negotiations? French President Macron, as a co-chair of the Minsk Group, is taking the lead, and pushing for a ceasefire together with President Trump and President Putin. German Chancellor Merkel has reached out to both the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev and the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Paschinjan. So, while there are attempts at mediating and heartfelt appeals, the EU has little else but to communicate on a diplomatic level. The toothless tiger plays no decisive role in the region and therefore only as an extremely limited means of applying (diplomatic) pressure. Azerbaijan is fed up with unfruitful negotiations in the framework of the Minsk group. Armenia doesn’t feel its interests appreciated by the EU. The United States is more occupied with the impact of an excessive, elephantine and paternalistic government and a radically self-absorbed, nearly anarchic private market (based on Benjamin Barber), or the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic and the upcoming 2020 Presidential election on November 3.

From an international law standpoint, the EU stands on Baku’s side, as they recognize Nagorno-Karabach as an integral part of Azerbaijan and haven’t recognized the past elections in Nagorno-Karabach. On the other hand, the idea of Armenian-Karabachian self-determination finds widespread approval in European Capitals, albeit without any meaningful impact. Even the mainstream media is having a hard time rallying for either side, most media mention the ongoing conflict as a side note in their reporting.

The outcome of this clash, and therefore the entire conflict, will shape the regional power structure for the next century and affect global interactions as well. Maintaining the status quo, just like in Ukraine, benefits no one and leads only to resentment and further strife. The EU can’t fix this, and with the United States disinterested, the task of creating long-lasting peace in the region falls upon Russia.

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Who’s Who in Nagorno-Karabakh

Michael Lambert

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The return of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory that has been disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia for several centuries, raises the fundamental question of what the belligerents’ expectations are and what diplomatic and military means they have at their disposal to impose themselves on the ground.

In Soviet times, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous oblast with a mixed population — Armenians and Azeris — within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. This affiliation, far from being the outcome of consultation between Yerevan and Baku, was imposed by Moscow in order to divide the peoples of the South Caucasus to rule them better.

Baku, for fear of losing control over the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast, was ready to grant many concessions to the Kremlin. Similarly, Yerevan did not fail to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards Moscow during the Cold War in the hope of one day regaining control over this territory. As for the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, identity affiliation to one country or another depended essentially on ethnicity, which led to sporadic and recurrent tensions in the region.

With the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the 1980s, Armenians and Azerbaijanis began to express themselves more freely and to oppose each other over the legitimacy of governing this area. As mentioned in a 1988 CIA report “Unrest in the Caucasus and the Challenge of Nationalist” (declassified in 1999), Moscow was unable to reach an agreement between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, and had no alternative but to send troops to the region to stop the violence.

After 1991, as the USSR disintegrated, Armenians and Azerbaijanis clashed and the troops of Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh managed to dominate Nagorno-Karabakh and expelled the Azeri populations who found refuge in the rest of Azerbaijan.

Diplomatic Strategy of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh

Since the 1994 victory, Armenia has been trying to have Nagorno-Karabakh recognised as an autonomous country under the Montevideo Convention, without success to date, except for territories that are themselves partially recognised, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Armenian diplomacy is active with the diaspora, particularly in the United States and Australia, and to date, it is more than 10 American states — California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, Colorado and Minnesota — which have recognised Artsakh (another name given to Nagorno-Karabakh), although for Washington the region remains de jure in Azerbaijan.

Yerevan’s strategy is to achieve recognition of the territory as an independent country in order to hold a referendum on the incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. Therefore, for Nagorno-Karabakh, it is a question of surviving the time of a diplomatic recognition which will ultimately lead to its reattachment.

Because of financial difficulties and poor relations with Turkey since the events of 1915, Yerevan is strengthening its partnerships with Moscow, which is the only power capable of imposing itself against Turkey (a member of NATO). Yerevan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union, and as such relies on Moscow’s support to preserve its territorial integrity. However, Russia made it clear that its agreements did not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenian Armed Forces

With 51 500 men and an annual budget of $634 million, the Armenian forces depend largely on Soviet equipment, good knowledge of the terrain and mastery of guerrilla techniques. The land forces consist of T-80, T-72, T-54/55 tanks and armoured personnel carriers dating back to the Soviet era, including BTR-60s. The AK-74 rifle is a standard in the armed forces. The air force has a mobile multi-channel ground-to-air missile system S-300, 9K33 Osa, S-75 Dvina, 2K11 Krug, Strela10, 2K12 Kub and ZSU-23-4.

In addition, Sukhoi Su-30, Su-25, Mil Mi-8 and Mil Mi-24 helicopters are available with Ilyushin Il-76 for troop transport and Czechoslovak Aero L-39 for training. The other pieces of equipment present, such as the Mi-2, are of little relevance.

Armed Forces of Nagorno-Karabakh

20 000 men, interoperability with Armenian forces and a guerrilla strategy similar to that of the Afghans against American and Soviet troops. Although they have few resources, they have T-72 and T-55 tanks, a large number of armoured personnel carriers such as the BTR-80, and above all affordable artillery and rocket launchers that can hold out against Azerbaijan in the event of an attack. Some reports also mention the presence of Chinese-designed WM-80 MRLs.

The importance of snipers and good knowledge of the terrain, the psychological motivation of the troops and the pragmatism of the soldiers should be highlighted. It is thus customary to take over the opponent’s equipment, repair it and then use it against them afterwards.

Azerbaijan’s Politico-Military Approach

Azerbaijan wishes to regain control over its territory in accordance with international law. According to Baku, a debate on the autonomy of the region is conceivable provided that the Azerbaijani refugees can also vote in the referendum. This rhetoric is combined with the strengthening of the armed forces which aims to allow the territory to be regained by force, which seems to be the most realistic prospect for Baku because Yerevan and Stepanakert are refusing to accept any possibility of the return of the land within Azerbaijan to date. The sale of hydrocarbons gives a considerable financial advantage to the Azeris who can upgrade their military equipment with drones from Israel, Russian fighter planes and various equipment from several countries.

Baku can count on the diplomatic and military support of Turkey since the fall of the USSR. The objective for Ankara is to support an allied country in the region but also to show solidarity with the Muslim world. In this respect, Nagorno-Karabagh has the appearance of a holy war and it is customary to note the presence of Chechen and Syrian mercenaries, and members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin alongside the Azeris. As a member of NATO, Turkey’s approach which favours Azerbaijan is badly perceived because it could lead to a conflict between NATO and Russia, a threat already mentioned by the CIA in its 1988 report and which worries the White House.

Azerbaijani Armed Forces

With 66,000 men for $2.2 billion of the annual budget, the Azerbaijanis have at their disposal modern equipment with the ambition to carry out a military intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This includes land forces with T-90s, T-72 and T-55 tanks, as well as troop transport with BMP-3, BMP-2, BMP-1, BTR80A, 82A, BTR-70, BTR0-60, BTR-3. A long list of armoured cars from Israel, such as the AIL Abir, South Africa, such as the Matador, Germany (Mercedes), Great Britain (Land Rover) and the United States are also in that list.

It can be seen that the upgrading brings together a set of equipment from various sources which attests to a strategy that aims to establish diplomatic relations with the purchase of military equipment. Baku seems to favour the rapid movement of troops, which seems logical insofar as Azeri strategy is to advance in the territory rather than occupy a stationary position. Several missiles and launchers from Israel such as LORA, Lynx, EXTRA but also from the USSR and Czechoslovakia, including the RM-70 are deployed. Anti-tank systems are numerous with France’s MILAN and South Korea’s LIG Nex1 AT-1K. Presence of American FIM-92 Stinger.

As for the air force (with more than 12 000 men), fighter aircraft are all from Russia and the USSR, with MiG-29, Sukhoi Su-25 and MiG-21. In addition, there are Russian helicopters — Mil Mi-24, Mil Mi-17 and Kamov Ka-27 — as well as American Bell 412s. Italian Aermacchi M-346s and Czechoslovakian Aero L-29s and L-39s are used for training.

The air force is not Baku’s strong point — with the exception of the drones — which is banking above all on the physical occupation of the ground with the reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh. As such, the objective is to locate, monitor and destroy ground equipment in order to advance more rapidly. There are drones, all from Israel — Hermes 450 and 900, IAI Heron, IAI Searcher, Orbiter, Aerostar — which are less expensive than fighter aircraft and more relevant insofar as the Azerbaijan air force will meet little resistance from the Armenian air force. In addition, there are Russian defence systems, including the S-300PMU2, 9K37 Buk-1M, Pechora-2TM, and Igla-S/SA-24 (more than 1000).

Because of its access to the Caspian Sea, the Azerbaijani Navy is developed with ships from the USSR including the Polnochny Class, the Svetlyak Class and the Osa Class, from Turkey such as the Kılıç class (German design), and some small submarines as well as European-designed helicopters such as the Airbus Helicopters H215 and the Sud-Aviation SA.365 Dauphin. Unlike Russia, which has ships in the Caspian Sea capable of sending missiles to the Middle East, as was the case during the conflict in Syria, Azerbaijan is limited to ensuring a military presence in the Caspian Sea without the equipment being able to be used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The Approach of the Members of the OSCE Minsk Group (Russia, USA, France)

Russia sells arms to the two protagonists and has the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) with Yerevan that ensures military intervention by Moscow in the event of an attack on Armenian territory. Trade agreements, participation in the Eurasian Economic Union, the CSTO does not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh and Moscow is absent and has no diplomatic or military representation. Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria, the Kremlin does not take a position and remains neutral without proposing any concrete solution other than the application of a ceasefire.

The United States has an ambiguous attitude, even going so far as to avoid referring to international law in its statements to the OSCE. To date, it is more than 10 American states that recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country, making the debate difficult for Washington, which prefers to avoid pronouncing itself on the question so as not to offend Turkey within NATO and the Armenian diaspora in the United States.

France, like the European Union, mentions international law and recalls the membership of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. However, Paris does not fail to take into account the reality on the ground and the need to find a solution between the protagonists and above all, without violence.

The recent events of September 2020 make the members of the Minsk Group fear possible interference from Turkey, which is problematic for both the West and Russia. Indeed, Russia does not want a military confrontation with Turkey, which is a member of NATO, and the United States and France do not support Ankara in its pro-Azeri stance.

Turkey and the Muslim World

Ankara recalls its closeness to Azerbaijan and the principle of ‘one nation, two countries’ which drives bilateral relations. Turkey is more assertive than it was during the Cold War and supports Baku, even going so far as to propose military interference, which was already the case in 1991-1994 with Turkish officers sent to train and support Azerbaijani troops.

For Turkey, it is a question of supporting an allied country, of showing solidarity with a Muslim country, and of confirming Turkish regional ambitions in the Middle East and the Black Sea. If Turkey intervenes militarily, the only two possible options will be to leave Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azeris or else a military intervention by Russia to support Armenia in its actions in Nagorno-Karabakh, as the Westerners do not want to risk interfering.

Azerbaijan can count on the sporadic presence of Chechens, often mercenaries, who are used to taking part in this type of conflict, as has been the case in Abkhazia and Syria. Mercenaries from Syria also join the conflict for similar reasons to the Chechens. The presence of Grey Wolves from Turkey, belonging to the extreme right affiliated to the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) and members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (حزب اسلامی گلبدین) from Afghanistan has been noted. While Turkey positions itself on the conflict for geopolitical and strategic reasons, the mercenaries do so mainly for ideological, pecuniary and religious reasons.

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Nagorno-Karabakh, the small Thirty Years’ War in the Caucasus

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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From 1618 to 1648 Europe was shattered by the violent and relentless conflict between Protestants and Catholics. After the end of the crusades cycle that had seen the first conflict between Christians and Arabs breaking out, what historians later called the “Thirty Years’ War” was the first and most severe armed conflict between the two great souls of Christianity, but it was certainly not the last religious war. The Thirty Years’ War ended with the Peace of Westphalia which led to the birth of European Nation-States and – as a paradoxical epilogue to a war unleashed for religious reasons – put an end to the control exercised by the Church over Christian kingdoms and nipped in the bud any attempt by the Protestant clergy to interfere in political affairs, by crushing it well before it could be openly manifested. Since then the centres of gravity of conflicts (also) on a religious basis have shifted towards the Islam-Jewish confrontation (the Arab-Israeli wars of the second half of the 20th century) and towards the confrontation-clash between Islam and Christianity.

Religious conflicts tend to be ferocious and bloody because none of the parties involved appears to be willing to mediate with a counterpart considered apostate or anyway “infidel”.

Faced with an international public distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic concerns, the still unresolved 30-year conflict for control over Nagorno Karabakh – a 30-year war on a small scale because it was confined to South Caucasus – broke out again violently on September 27 last. It sees the clash between Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia, which claims de iure control over a region, namely Nagorno, which it already de facto controls although its territory is totally enclosed within the Azerbaijani borders and without any geographical connection with the disputed Armenian motherland. As we will see later on, the conflict has ancient and deep roots, but is full of geostrategic implications that could cause damage and extra-regional tensions which are potentially very dangerous.

Ancient and deep roots which, in this case, can also be called the “roots of evil”. In the late 1920s, Stalin -who was determined to crush all the nationalist ambitions of the various souls that made up the huge Soviet empire – took drastic measures to prevent the different pan-Russian ethnic groups from creating political problems and, with the usual iron fist, decided to transfer entire populations thousands of kilometres away from their traditional settlements to eliminate their ethnic and cultural roots. Chechens, Cossacks and Germans were dispersed to the four corners of the empire while the Soviet dictator decided – under the banner of the more classic “divide and rule” principle – to assign the political and administrative jurisdiction of the autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh – inhabited by Armenian and Christian populations – to the Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, populated by Azeri Muslims, with a view to keeping any Armenian autonomist claims under control.

As also happened in the satellite countries (see the example of Tito’s Yugoslavia), the Communist regime in Russia managed to contain –  even with the unscrupulous use of terror and ethnic cleansing – every nationalist claim from all the different ethnic groups that made up the empire. This operation, however, lost its momentum when, in the second half of the 1980s, the cautious campaign of modernisation of the country and the start of timid liberal reforms by Mikhail Gorbachev with his Perestroika caused unexpected repercussions in the relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Never-ending hatred and revenge spirit re-emerged due to the decrease of oppressive and repressive measures that, until that moment, had contributed to keep the Soviet regime alive. The political and administrative cohesion that had turned the Union of Republics into a unitary body began to fail and the claims for autonomy became increasingly pressing.

Again this background, in 1988 the regional Parliament of Nagorno Karabakh voted on a resolution that marked the region’s return to the administrative jurisdiction of the Armenian Republic, the “Christian motherland”.

From that moment on, the tension between Armenians and Azerbaijanis mounted progressively, with isolated clashes and inter-ethnic violence that lead to open war in 1991 when, immediately after the USSR’s collapse and dissolution, the Armenians formally declared the annexation of the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh to the Republic of Armenia, thus triggering a bloody conflict against neighbouring Azerbaijan – a conflict that lasted until 1994 in which over 30,000 military and civilians died.

Faced with the inability of Boris Yeltsin’s government to bring the warring parties back to reason and to the negotiating table (which is always hard to do in ethnic-religious conflicts) and faced with the UN inability to resolve the Azeri-Armenian conflict, by any means necessary and whatever it takes, as enshrined in its Charter, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) intervened. Under its auspices, the “Minsk Group” – a permanent negotiating table managed by France, the Russian Federation and the United States – was established in 1992.

Despite the Minsk Group’s commitment, the war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis continued until 1994, when it ended – with no peace agreement signed – after the Armenians took military control of Nagorno Karabakh and over one million people were forced to leave their homes. A double exodus reminiscent of the one which followed the division between India and Pakistan, with the Azerbaijanis who, as the Muslims and Hindus, abandoned their lands to the Armenians and the Armenians who occupied back houses and territories which they believed had been unjustly taken away from them by Stalinist manoeuvres.

The fire of conflict was still smouldering, with clashes and armed aggression, for over a decade and later broke out again, with no apparent reason or triggering factor, in April 2016. International observers were puzzled by that resumption of hostilities: dozens and dozens of soldiers from both sides died for no apparent reason or triggering factor. According to some observers specialising in this strange and archaic conflict, the causes of the resumption of hostilities were to be found in the desire of the opposing States to “gain ground” and take control of strategic areas away from the enemy. According to other probably more reliable international observers, the reason for the resurgence of the conflict had to be sought within the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership. In the midst of an economic crisis due to the collapse of the crude oil international market (and prices), both governments gave a free hand to their respective “dogs of war”, in view of bringing together again their publics who were disoriented and dissatisfied with the collapse of the economy. Islam, oil and Christianity were the explosive ingredients of a dangerous and apparently unsolvable situation. In Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, crowds demonstrated for weeks, months or years under the banner of “Karabakh is Azerbaijan”.

In Yerevan, the capital of ”Armenia”, similar crowds – albeit of a different and enemy religion – asked for “Freedom for our Brothers of Karabakh”.

Meanwhile the fire was still smouldering: Armenia had de facto control of the disputed region, which was totally within the Azerbaijani borders, with no corridor connecting it to the Armenian “motherland”.

The inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict is further complicated by geopolitical factors.

Turkey is a traditional partner of Azerbaijan, inhabited by Muslims of Turkmen origin. Turkey was the first State to recognise the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1991 while, so far, it has not yet recognised the Armenian Republic, probably because it retains its name and the proud memory that links it to the Armenian genocide of 1916-1920, when the Turks – convinced of the Armenians’ infidelity and of their support for the Russian Tsar – quickly exterminated about a million of them.

Russia’s position towards the conflict and the belligerents is more ambiguous: on the one hand, Russia supports the legitimate aspirations of the Armenian people while, on the other hand – in order to avoiding entering into open conflict with Erdogan, with whom he plays a complicated game in Syria and Libya – Vladimir Putin avoids using threatening tones towards Azerbaijan – to which he continues to sell weapons – and tries to maintain equidistance and impartiality between the parties to the conflict. His attitude has not yet attracted Turkish criticism, but obviously leaves the Armenians perplexed.

As already said, the fire kept on smouldering until September 27 last when, without any apparent or evident triggering factor, Armenians and Azerbaijanis resumed hostilities using sophisticated weaponry, such as armed drones or long-range missiles, which killed dozens of soldiers and civilians on both sides.

As said above, the reasons for the resumption of hostilities are not clear: there is no direct provocation or triggering factor.

This time, however, many observers are directly pointing fingers at Turkey and its President, Tayyp Recep Erdogan.

He may have placed the Nagorno-Karabakh problem into the complex geopolitical chess game in which Turkey’s “new” and aggressive President is engaged. The latter, aware of the weight that his role in NATO has in the dialectic with the United States and Europe – which evidently do not feel like demanding a bit of fairness from such an undisciplined and cumbersome, but rather unscrupulous and aggressive partner – does not hesitate to have his own way and do the interests of his country in Syria, Libya, the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. From control of Eastern Syrian to the search for new energy sources, Erdogan is playing recklessly on several tables, without however openly challenging Russia, but not hesitating to mock the protests of his European and American partners.

An unscrupulous game that may have induced Erdogan to urge his Azerbaijani allies to resume hostilities against the Armenians on September 27 last, so as to later make the contenders accept the ceasefire of October 9: a move that would make him a mandatory and privileged counterpart for Russia, faced with the geopolitical irrelevance of Europe and the United States. The former is kept in check by the pandemic, while the latter is thinking only about the next elections. In this void of ideas and interventions, the situation in South Caucasus with its explosive possible implications in terms of production and export of energy sources remains in Russia’s and Turkey’s hands, free to seek agreements or mediations deemed favourable, obviously to the detriment of competition. In the past, at the time of Enrico Mattei, Italy would have tried to play its own role in a region as delicate as the Caucasus, not only to defend its economic and commercial interests, but also and above all to seek new development opportunities for its public and private companies. But Mattei’s Italy, however, is far away: we are currently unable to enter a hotbed of tension on our doorstep, such as Libya, and we are unable to bring home 18 fishermen from Mazara del Vallo illegally detained by the warlord of Tobruk, Khalifa Haftar.

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