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Moldova: Time to Overwrite the Mind Traps

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Image By Andrez1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39746488

Moldova is usually assigned the title of the poorest country in Europe mired in financial and corruption scandals. The ’frozen’ Transnistrian conflict is said to further divide the country between chimeric pro-Russian and pro-Western camps. Oligarchs are blamed for having captured the state and preventing democracy to flourish; and so goes on the litany of reputational prejudices about Moldova.

Although these clichés hold some water, they have generated mind traps and have prevented any alternative reading of Moldova. Caught in a thug of war between Brussels and Moscow, Europe has three options on how to approach Moldova: oppose Moscow on Moldovan territory; scale back its engagement; or honour its commitment to strengthen the rule of law and deepen economic cooperation with Chisinau. The last option requires the political maturity to accept that Chisinau can be a partner of both Brussels and Moscow.

The Bright Side of Scandals

Moldova made headlines in 2014 when the banking sector was defrauded of one billion dollars. Courtesy of the testimony of one oligarch, Ilan Shor, who himself has been convicted of involvement in the fraud, the former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was convicted and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. Despite his own conviction, Ilan Shoris now the mayor of the small town of Orhei, heads the Shor party and recently won a seat in the parliament. For many, this was a typical “à la moldave” scenario where most of the thieves got off scot-free whilst only one sits behind bars. Taken from another angle, even though Ilan Shor has been granted some form of witness protection and has escaped punishment himself, at least some part of the truth has been divulged and justice has been partly served. Following Shor’s revelations about the scandal, people took the streets and a citizen movement emerged under the name of Dignity and Truth, now a political party headed by politician Andrei Nastase.

The one-billion theft has understandably attracted a lot of public attention, as did the role of Moldova in the Russian Laundromat, a scheme that laundered tens of USD billions from Russia between 2010 and 2014, involving over one hundred countries. Following these two scandals, Moldova launched a large package of reforms of its banking and judiciary systems, and put in place a National Integrity and Anti-Corruption Strategy for 2017-2020. These improvements have not gone unnoticed: the World Bank extolled the efforts of the National Bank of Moldova and the country’s economic progress, which should boost investors’ trust. Furthermore, criminal activities, such as smuggling, have been curtailed thanks to international cooperation, but the grey zone of Transnistria remains a thorn in Moldovan development.

Transnistria – A Peaceful Frozen Conflict

The active phase of the short 1992conflict lasted four months and left a thousand people dead. Due to the prolonged absence of military engagement, the situation was branded as a frozen conflict – thisvague concept was coined to qualify the blurry simmering situations of violence that followedthe several wars in various post soviet republics. As time passed, the term conflict has become redundant in the context of Transnistria; not much is frozen: population travels freely, students from Transnistria study in Chisinau and Transnistrians voted for the first time in the most recent February elections. There is a need to rethink our reading of this so called frozen conflict in Transnistria – violence is unlikely to resume between Tiraspol and Chisinau as long as escalating tensions between Moscow and Brussels do not boil over.

Former Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Osmochescu, asserts that the settlement was on right track with the 1992 Settlement Agreement, although he questions the decision to include Transnistrian representatives in the joint commission as it eventually gave Russia – allied with Tiraspol – the upper hand. The former diplomat is convinced that settlement dialogue should only include Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, excluding Tiraspol authorities that continue to insist on international recognition as a state. It is highly unlikely that European countries will recognize Transnistria owing to the fact that the EU Council has adopted restriction measures against the leadership of Transnistria for stalling progress of the political settlement.

Thecurrent process is a 5+2 settlement format, named after its composition including 5 negotiators (Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, Moldova and Transnistria) + 2 observers (EU and US). Unfortunately it has not yielded any meaningful results with the tensions between Russia and the West increasingly running counter-productive to the intent of the mechanism. During the recent conference on Transnistria, Russian academic Natalia Kharitonova underlined the unprecedented situation whereby relations between the external participants to the settlement process are far worse than between the parties to the conflict.

Today, some observers claim that a new conflict is poised because of Russian troops’ presence in Transnistria and in 2018 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution introduced by Moldova on the withdrawal of foreign troops, specifically targeting Russian troop and armament presence. These elements demonstrate that Transnistria is being utilised by both the West and Russia in pursuit of their own strategic objectives and, arguably, Transnistria is more an international affair than an internal one.

An Unhelpful International Involvement

For decades the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria has been a major concern for NATO, which has been amplified by the situation in Ukraine; and in its efforts to counter Russia, NATO opened an Information Office in Chisinau in December 2017. In view of the militarisation of the region and the recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF),the NATO-Russia confrontation directly affects Moldovan sovereignty and security. The Foreign Policy Advisor to the President, Mr Ciocoi, acknowledged that his country is trapped between a rock and a hard place:‘as a constitutionally neutral country, we are not pleased with the presence of Russian troops or NATO on our soil. It is a legacy of the past and a consequence of today’s geopolitical realities. We have to deal with it.’

With most international efforts focusing on security issues and more recently on the fight against so-called Russian propaganda, little effort has been comparatively made to promote sustainable economic development and the rule of law in Moldova. Moldovans’ daily concern is about making ends meet and employment, whilst Brussels and Moscow use the carrot and stick approach to promote their policies. Using economic incentives and sanctions, Brussels and Moscow are forcing Chisinau to choose between the West and the East. This dilemma is leading nowhere as Moldova is both West and East with the country depending on Russia for its energy and the EU market to export its goods. No reasonable politician or businessman in Moldova today embraces a west or east approach, but all favour a mixed approach. It is thus misleading to label President Dodon as a pro-Russian or the tycoon Plahotniuc as a pro-Western.

Blame it on the Rich

An oligarch turned politician, Vlad Plahotniuc presides over the Democratic Party, which won 30 seats at the recent parliamentary elections. Often described as the puppet-master who captured the state, most people blame him for all wrongs in the country and believe that he pulls the strings of the country including the judiciary system.

In a recent discussion with Vitali Garmurari, the Spokesperson for the Democratic Party said that the accusations against Vlad Plahotniuc need to be substantiated. Only a court can rule over the guilt of a person and so far, Mr Plahotniuc has not been sentenced, he added. Recently, Interpol rejected the request of Russia to place Mr Plahotniuc on their wanted list for alleged involvement in the attempt on the life of German Goruntsov, a Russian banker. For Vlad Plahotniuc’s detractors, the absence of condemnation is not a proof of his innocence but evidence of his control over the judiciary.

In Moldova and abroad, rumours flourish about this man who has unquestionable power thanks to his key role in the energy sector. As a veteran in the oil and gas business, he has forged strong connections in the US, who are obsessed with replacing Russia as the leading gas exporter to Europe. The situation though is not as straightforward as it seems. Moldova relies completely on Transnistria for its energy and the region acts as a small hub for Russian gas to the Balkans. Moldovagaz – a joint venture between the Ministry of Industry of Transnistria, the Moldova Government and the Russian giant Gazprom – has the monopoly over gas transactions. One of the issues is that Moldova has committed to the European Third Energy Package that calls for the unbundling and opening of the energy market. As part of its commitment Moldova must strip Moldovagaz of its privileged position and, given the complexities at play, Chisinau was granted an exceptional delay until 1 January 2020. This European requirement corners Moldova as the country is totally dependent on Russian gas and Gazprom holds 50% of Moldovagaz shares and, de facto, the 13% nominally held by Transnistria. The situation gets even more complicated as the contract between Gazprom and Moldovgaz are valid until the end of 2019and Moldova does not have a meaningful gas alternative in place. Mr Plahotniuc understands perfectly the gains to be by playing Russian, the US and European against each other in the energy sector. In 2017,his close ally Vasile Botnari was appointed as the new head of Moldovagaz.

The ruthless energy competition between Russia and the United States for the European market is driving their political and security agendas. The year 2019 will be pivotal in the Moldovan energy market and, as this deadline approaches, the manoeuvrings of those invested parties both within Moldova and externally will be a riveting game to observe.

An Oligarchy on the Way to Democracy?

In the meantime, the Moldovan constitutional court has validated the result of the 24 February elections and Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party has emerged as the party with second largest number of seats. Alongside the Democratic Party with 30 out of 101 seats, the Socialists gained 35 seats, the ACUM group gained 26 and the remaining 10 seats were shared between the Shor party and independents.

One of the features of the Moldovan political landscape is the fact that oligarchs head several parties: Vlad Plahotniuc heads the Democrats, Ilan Shor has his eponymous party and Renato Usatii is the president of Our Party. According to popular narratives, oligarchs are involved in politics to further their own profit and wealth; however their involvement does not necessarily pose a barrier to democracy. Commenting on the recent elections and the political landscape, Professor Osmochescu sees the emergence of these parties as a genuine mirror of the diverse opinions held by the population. Looking back at the political developments over the past thirty years, Professor Osmochescu recalls the evolution from an early enthusiasm with plethora of parties, the uncertainties around the future and the disillusion with both Russia and Europe. Today, he is hopeful that the leading parties will observe democratic principles and contribute to a new political paradigm.

The OSCE statement on the recent elections echoes the same opinion: although violations were recorded, fundamental rights have been generally respected, says the preliminary report. Taken as a whole, Moldova is transitioning and some are definitely looking at the cup half full rather than focusing on shortcomings.

It’s All About the Money

Conflict specialist Iulia Cozenco has worked on various projects in Transnistria over the past decade and today she has one message: efforts should be directed towards social inclusion, and not only in Transnistria. Due to all the challenges Moldova has gone through over the past three decades, the population has become increasingly vulnerable and the country lacks a social protection system capable of responding to all the problems. She concludes that international assistance should be directed at broader social inclusion and protection initiatives rather than narrow Tiraspol-Chisinau confidence-building projects.

Commenting on the situation in Transnistria, Dumitru Budianschi, an economist at the Moldovan ExpertGrup,has observed that, the lack of a political settlement between Tiraspol and Chisinau does not prevent economics agreements from forging on. These agreements cover energy and mobile communications, however Mr Budianschi has raised the concern that these agreements lack transparency and have been extremely profitable to a select few people on both sides of the river. Unsurprisingly, the lack of settlement is perversely convenient for such shady deals. According to Mr Budianschi, the international policy of small steps in Transnistria will not pay off and a crackdown on the criminal activities in the region is needed in order to give any settlement a chance of succeeding. The growing trade with Europe, Moldova’s first export partner, is a positive development that can no longer accommodate the black holes around Transnistria.

International involvement in Moldova is both a part of the problem and the solution. Should involvement take the shape of interference advancing eastern or western interests, it will only serve to polarise and destabilise Moldova and will ultimately backlash on European security. Disengagement would be equally damaging as Moldova today relies on both Brussels and Moscow and wishes to maintain relations with both partners. At this point in time, Chisinau needs international cooperation with Moscow and Brussels to assert itself as a solid partner to both the West and the East.

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Eastern Europe

War in the Caucasus: One more effort to shape a new world order

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Fighting in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia is about much more than deep-seated ethnic divisions and territorial disputes. It’s the latest clash designed, at least in part, to shape a new world order.

The stakes for Azerbaijan, backed if not egged on by Turkey, are high as the Azeri capital’s Baku International Sea Trade Port seeks to solidify its head start in its competition with Russian, Iranian, Turkmen and Kazakh Caspian Sea harbours, to be a key node in competing Eurasian transport corridors. Baku is likely to emerge as the Caspian’s largest trading port.

An Azeri success in clawing back some Armenian-occupied areas of Azerbaijan, captured by Armenia in the early 1990s, would bolster Baku’s bid to be the Caspian’s premier port at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

The Caspian is at the intersection of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) from China to Europe via Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that aims to connect India via Iran and Russia to Europe.

An Azeri military success would also cement Turkey’s claim to be a player in former Soviet lands that Russia views as its sphere of influence and bolster nationalist sentiment among Iranians of ethnic Azeri descent that account for up to 25 percent of the Islamic republic’s population, many of whom have risen to prominence in the Iranian power structure.

In an indication of passions that the conflict in the Caucasus evokes, Iranians in areas bordering Azerbaijan often stand on hilltops to watch the fighting in the distance.

Iranian security forces have recently clashed with ethnic Azeri demonstrators in various cities chanting “Karabakh is ours. It will remain ours.”

The demonstrators were referring to Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan that is at the core of the conflict in the Caucasus.

The demonstrations serve as a reminder of environmental protests in the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan at the time of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that often turned into manifestations of Azeri nationalism.

Baku port’s competitive position was bolstered on the eve of the eruption of fighting in the Caucasus with the launch of new railway routes from China to Europe that transit Azerbaijan and Turkey.

China last month inaugurated a new railway route from Jinhua in eastern China to Baku, which would reduce transport time by a third.

In June, China dispatched its second train from the central Chinese city of Xi’an to Istanbul via Baku from where it connects to a rail line to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the eastern Turkish city of Kars and onwards to Istanbul.

Azeri analysts charge that Armenian occupation of Azeri territory and demands for independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, threaten Baku’s position as a key node in Eurasian transport corridors.

“By continuing its occupation Armenia poses (a) threat not only to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity but also to the regional stability and cooperation,” said Orkhan Baghirov, a senior researcher at the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations, a think tank with close ties to the government.

Mr. Baghirov was referring to recent Russian, Iranian, Turkmen and Kazakh efforts to match Baku in upgrading their Caspian Sea ports in anticipation of the TITR and INSTC taking off.

Russia is redeveloping Lagan Port into the country’s first ice-free Caspian Sea harbour capable of handling transhipment of 12.5 million tonnes. The port is intended to boost trade with the Gulf as well as shipment from India via Iran.

Lagan would allow Russia to tap into the TITR that is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) via the Russian railway system as well as Kazakh, Turkmen, and Azeri ports.

It would also bolster Russian, Iranian and Indian efforts to get off the ground the INSTC that would hook up Caspian Sea ports to create a corridor from India to Russia via Iran, and in competition with the Suez Canal, to northern Europe.

The INSTC would initially link Jawaharlal Nehru Port, India’s largest container port east of Mumbai, through the Iranian deep-sea port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, funded by India to bypass Pakistan, and its Caspian Sea port of Bandar-e-Anzali to Russia’s Volga River harbour of Astrakhan and onwards by rail to Europe.

Iranian and Indian officials suggest the route would significantly cut shipping time and costs from India to Europe. Senior Indian Commerce Ministry official B B Swain said the hook up would reduce travel distance by 40 and cost by 30 percent.

Iran is further investing in increased capacity and connectivity at its Amirabad port while at the same time emphasizing its naval capabilities in the Caspian.

For their part, Turkmenistan inaugurated in 2018 its US$1.5 billion Turkmenbashi Sea Port while Kazakhstan that same year unveiled its Kuryk port.

The fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia with Turkey and Israel supporting the Azeris; Russia struggling to achieve a sustainable ceasefire; Iran seeking to walk a fine line in fighting just across its border; and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates attempting to stymie Iranian advances wherever they can, threatens to overlay port competition in the Caspian with aspects of the Middle East’s myriad conflicts.

Said Iran scholar Shireen T Hunter: “Largely because of the Iran factor, the Caucasus has become linked with Middle East issues. Israel and Saudi Arabia have tried to squeeze Iran through Azerbaijan… Thus, how the conflict evolves and ends could affect Middle East power calculations…. An expanded conflict would pose policy challenges for major international players.”

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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.

From our partner RIAC

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Eastern Europe

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.

From our partner RIAC

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