“Middle powers” have been on the forefront of many international initiatives that demand coordination of resources and promotion of values. Traditionally, middle powers are named so because they are neither great, nor small. Scholars in the field, however, see “middle powers” beyond their mere geographic meaning and rightly so portray their importance not only in terms of their physical criteria. In an attempt to classify, some scholars like Marijke Breuning divide states into great/superpowers, middle powers, regional powers and small powers, with “middle powers” defined as the “states that can wield a measure of influence, albeit not through the projection of military might”.
It is stated that “middle powers” are usually affluent states that employ their resources to foster peace and lessen global economic inequality” and are norm entrepreneurs that “advocate for the adoption of certain international standards and work diplomatically to persuade the representatives of other states to also adopt these norms”.Carsten Holbrad in his identical work defined “middle powers” as “… moderating and pacifying influences in the society of states, reducing tension and limiting conflict among the great powers; or as principal supporters of international organizations, evincing a particularly high sense of responsibility.
Such countries play a role in the area of international development cooperation and the decision-makers of such countries advocate for more developmental aid and sustainable development. As examples to such states are said to be Canada, the member of the G8 and who has self-proclaimed itself as a middle power, to portray its role in international environment; Norway, who for instance facilitated negotiations between the representatives of Israel and Palestine in the run up to Oslo Accords in 1993. Netherlands and Sweden also claim to as norm entrepreneurs, for the work they do that fall into this category, especially in the field of mediation and good offices, and environmental issues. There is no consensus on the eligibility criteria, however, and often advanced countries of the world with purposeful activism on international affairs make their names to the list.
Another interesting element in this categorization is the distinction that some authors drive between the concepts of “middle power” and small states. It is underscored that the latter is not so easily defined, covers diverse group of states and is not solely confined to geographic size,as it is a “relative concept”. In this context, small states are described “as those that have a rather limited capacity to exert influence on other states” and rarely resort to force in international relations.
In this work I would like to argue that despite its relatively small geographic size, Azerbaijan, a country in the South Caucasus, is also assertively making its name as a “middle power”. The country has come a long way to become a regional leader with all the energy and infrastructure projects that it is implementing together with its international partners, such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum oil and gas pipelines and Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) megaproject, expected to be completed in 2020.
However, those projects are not merely profit-oriented, they also aim to contribute to energy security and stability of wider neighborhood and regions, including in Europe. Security means stability. Stability and profits facilitate sustainable development. However, merely energy and infrastructure projects aside, Azerbaijan’s rising international profile in the recent years and its role as norm entrepreneur should be closely examined as the country, I would like to argue, has earned the title of “middle power” by virtue of its initiatives and emphasis on certain values that unite societies, alongside serving as a bridge between often competing geopolitical spaces.
The country has long made the promotion of tolerance and multiculturalism as one of its central slogans in international affairs and there is a specifically established International Center on Multiculturalism in Azerbaijan that implements initiatives and state’s vision in this area. Azerbaijan declared 2016 as the year of multiculturalism. It is multiethnic and multi-confessional state where national minorities and freedom of religious belief is respected. Tolerance is therefore idiosyncratic to Azerbaijani society.
On another note, Azerbaijan’s emphasis on multilateralism is no less important. Its belief in the power of international institutions and increasing weight in international affairs has elevated it to the non-permanent member status of the UN Security Council in 2012-2013. One of the hallmark initiatives promoted by Azerbaijan was the conduct of the high-level open debate on “Strengthening partnership synergy between the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)”, during its second-term presidency over the Council in October 2013, which was the first ever high-level debate in the Council on this very topic.
Besides, Azerbaijan’s faith in multilateralism is also manifested in the very recent initiatives it took to bring together countries of diverse as well as similar faith, identities and interests. In fact, it was also Azerbaijan, who initiated the creation of what now became the driving force behind the international efforts to stabilize the global oil market, – the OPEC+. As a matter of fact, the establishment of the united format of OPEC and non-OPEC countries amid the fluctuating oil prices in order to tackle the challenges in the global oil market stems from the idea by President Ilham Aliyev, which he proposed during World Economic Forum held in Davos, in January, 2016. He said that “it would be nice if the main OPEC and non-OPEC countries could come together and agree with each other”. Azerbaijan’s appeal to the concerned oil producing countries found a widespread support among the relevant oil producing states, and so it happened. The OPEC+ format has since been acting on the forefront of all the developments associated with the global oil market. Azerbaijan’s emphasis on international cooperation, and importance it attaches to the role of international organizations paid well in this case for the common objectives of the oil-producing states as well as attaining a balance in the global oil market.
Its above initiatives testify to the fact that Azerbaijan has acted as a “middle power”, norm entrepreneur that both “advocated for the adoption of certain international standards and work diplomatically to persuade the representatives of other states to also adopt these norms”, as well as worked towards “… moderating and pacifying influences in the society of states,…; or as principal supporters of international organizations, showcasing a particularly high sense of responsibility.
Moreover, the country has acquired a valuable chance to assert itself as a “middle power” and norm entrepreneur also through the chairmanship in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – the second largest entity after the UN with 120 members – for the period of 2019-2022, as well as of the Turkic Council, GUAM and TRACECA in 2020. The 7th Summit of the Turkic-Speaking States and the 18th Summit of the NAM under Azerbaijani chairmanship were held in October, 2019, while the 2nd Summit of World Religious Leaders was held in Baku in November, 2019. Possession of the central role in these organizations and once again focusing on the issues of religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue gave Azerbaijan another opportunity to act as a norm entrepreneur and as a “middle power” that once again stand for multiculturalism, tolerance, inter-faith dialogue, multilateralism and global partnership by making its voice heard through such versatile institutions.
Azerbaijan’s initiatives with Turkic Council and NAM also continued in the COVID-19 induced realities. The online special meetings of the two organizations were convened in April and May, 2020, respectively, that focused specifically on the global efforts to deal with the consequences of pandemics and sought to unite with more specific actions in order to alleviate the negative effects of the COVID-19 on the member states of the two organizations. Focus on unity, multilateralism, international cooperation and commitment to common objectives was the crux of those meetings. It was repeatedly underscored that it is only through the effective multilateralism and consistent adherence to the common values that unite all affected states, will they be able to overcome these challenges. Azerbaijan also acted as a norm entrepreneur and “middle power” because it repeatedly stood for sustainable development, having allocated about 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization (WHO) to support its efforts in the midst of the COVID-19, especially with the idea to help needy population in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Moreover, as noted above, the large-scale energy projects that Azerbaijan implements together with its international partners contribute to the energy security and sustainable development of its immediate neighborhood, as well as larger European continent.
Another distinctive feature of the “middle power” as defined in Holbrad’s above work is “…reducing tension and limiting conflict among the great powers…”. Azerbaijan has hosted meetings between Russia and its western partners several times in a row. The first such a meeting took place in April, 2018 between Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s General Staff, and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Curtis Scaparrotti, who met in Azerbaijan to discuss the situation in Syria, while the second one happened in December of the same year.
This practice continued in 2019 as well with a meeting between the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Army General Valery Gerasimov and NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe General Tod Wolters that took place in July in Baku, where the parties discussed issues on “European and global security, ways to prevent incidents between Russia and NATO and the prospects for resuming dialogue between military experts”. They also discussed topics related to the fight against terrorism and maritime piracy, alongside also focusing on situations in Afghanistan and Syria. In November, 2019, a meeting was held in Baku between Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov with Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach. In February, 2020, another meeting of Valery Gerasimov and NATO’s Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe Tod Wolters took place in Baku.
The choice of Baku for such meetings between Russia and NATO officials is not coincidental as Baku is increasingly proving itself as a geographic venue capable of accommodating diverse and often competing interests between different geopolitical spaces, thus once again hewing to the very definitions attested above to the concept of the “middle power”.
In conclusion, there might be different outlooks in the scholarly literature as to what actually constitutes “middle power”. The ones that are chosen for this work have given some description of the concept, sufficient to be utilized as analytical frameworks. In an attempt to argue whether Azerbaijan fits into the very concept of the “middle power”, the work highlighted many initiatives and policies implemented by the country during the recent years, that have encapsulated on the values of cooperation, multilateralism, multiculturalism, inter-faith dialogue, sustainable development and a bridge for dialogue.
Objectively, our world would have been a better place had all the above values and initiatives been instilled into the very fabric of our societies and foreign policy choices. Widespread acceptance of these values and norms could in fact bring in more dialogue, understanding and peace to the anarchic nature of international system. Norm entrepreneurs – “middle powers” are therefore valuable for the premium they place on those or other types of value systems that build, unite, improve and consolidate our collective home. Seems like Azerbaijan is on the right track, and its ambition to qualify for norm entrepreneur and “middle power” should be taken at face value.
What stands behind escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Thousand Azerbaijanis are launching peaceful protests and marches around the world to support Azerbaijan’s position demanding a justice for this country which is suffering for over 25 years from the illegal occupation of its internationally recognised territory by Armenia, which was clearly acknowledged by four UN Security Council resolutions (822, 853, 874 and 884). Azerbaijan still has the largest number (1 mln.) of refugees and IDPs in Europe as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
During the peaceful protests of Azerbaijanis around the world we are witnessing a high level of violence and aggression by the Armenians against Azerbaijanis and even Azerbaijani diplomatic missions in certain cities such as Brussels, Amsterdam and Los Angeles. In some cases, the inaction of the law enforcement agencies in Belgium, the Netherlands and US, which admitted such attacks on the Azerbaijani diplomatic missions in these countries is deeply disappointing. Obviously, the individual cases of such violence against Azerbaijanis abroad fall under the jurisdiction of the states where those crimes took place. Any inactivity or failure to do so by the local law enforcement agencies to investigate and bring to the responsibility of those criminals, would potentially give the Azerbaijani State a right to bring Belgium, the Netherlands or US to the responsibility under the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Under international law the territory of diplomatic and consular missions is considered as a territory of that state and they enjoy full diplomatic immunity. Article 22 (2) of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations clearly provides that “The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity”. It should be noted that all of these countries, along with Azerbaijan joined the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This gives Azerbaijan the right to bring these states to international responsibility for non-compliance with the requirements of the Vienna Convention. In the 1980 United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran (United States of America v. Iran) case, the International Court of Justice clearly defined that that the immunity and protection of the diplomatic mission is the responsibility of the host and it is responsible for ensuring such full security.
Earlier this month and at the time of global war with COVID-19 pandemic, starting from 12 July 2020 we were witnessing a tragic escalation of the conflict between the two former Soviet republics. Both countries have faced serious challenges and the negative coronavirus statistics is pretty stable for some months now. Recently, the Armenian regular armed forces attacked Azerbaijani border territory in Tovuz region. Although the two countries have an unresolved conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan for decades, and Armenia still illegally occupies 20% of the Azerbaijani territory, at this time the clash provoked by Armenia takes place at Azerbaijani-Armenian border. Quite unusual, since for all these years any escalations between the rivals took place only in and around of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The latest events in the Tovuz region of the Republic of Azerbaijan can and should be qualified as military aggression against Azerbaijan. This is nothing more than a violation of the fundamental principles of international law enshrined in the UN Charter such as the principle of the non-use of force and the threat of force, the principle of inviolability of state frontiers, the principle of the territorial integrity of states and the principle of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is also necessary to recall the numerous conventions and regional agreements to which Armenia has joined within the framework of the Council of Europe, OSCE and other international organisations.
An attack on Azerbaijani border force positions in Tovuz is nothing more than an act of aggression against Azerbaijan. In this case, reference should be made to the position of the International Court of Justice in the Nicaragua v. United States of America (1986) (Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua case, where the Court expressly determined that military action of regular armed forces of one state in relation to the international borders of another state is an armed attack and aggression. Under international law the attack by the regular Armenian military forces on the border force positions of Azerbaijan in the Tovuz region shall be precisely qualified as an act of aggression against Azerbaijan.
To certain degree it could be argued that the Government of the Armenian Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan decided to distract attention from the disastrous outcome of COVID-19 pandemic and deepening economic crisis, and justify his personal failure by playing with patriotic feelings of the Armenian people. However, a bigger picture of certain attempts of economic sabotage of major economic projects affecting the European energy security are seen in the background.
Tovuz is a critical geographical hub for Azerbaijan and transportation arteria for its hydrocarbons export to Europe through Georgia and Turkey. The three Azerbaijani strategic energy pipelines Baku-Supsa, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum were launched under the patronage of the West. All three pipelines pass through Tovuz region. The importance of such oil and gas supply for Europe as a part of the latter’s supply diversification strategy contributing in reducing the energy dependence from Russia is undeniable. Tovuz also lies within the new Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway link connecting pro-western Georgia and Azerbaijan with Europe through Turkey.
Why now? Perhaps it is a part of the general strategy that there is no more reliable supply for Europe other than the Russian Nord Stream 2. Discrediting Azerbaijan as a reliable energy supplier due to the military clashes with Armenia is a strong argument to assert.
Armenia’s third-party orchestrated attempts to attack Azerbaijan is not just a threat to the regional peace and stability, but also to the Europe’s energy security. We are currently witnessing a passive reaction from the West who has substantial economic interests in Azerbaijan and in the said energy projects. Such position could contribute into further escalation and development of a scenario favourable to third parties having their own agenda for this region.
The political inertia of the EU in the South Caucasus becoming a serious problem for the West
The geopolitical panorama in the South Caucasus, which has strategic importance for Europe, has changed dramatically in recent years. Different development indicators of the countries in the region, as well as innovations in the Caucasus policy of foreign states and organizations now create a new situation here.
Processes show that Azerbaijan and Georgia are again the main countries interested in integration into the Euro-Atlantic space. On the other hand, in the current situation, Azerbaijan’s importance and role in Europe’s energy supply and security is growing. Official Baku is interested in establishing closer relations with the European Union in the economic, political and juridical spheres.
At present, Azerbaijan is a decisive country in the South Caucasus, and 75% of the region’s GDP is formed in Azerbaijan. Transnational projects implemented by the country in partnership with Western countries show that Azerbaijan’s economic position will continue to grow. This point is becoming increasingly important for geopolitical players in the region to cooperate with Azerbaijan.
The European Union is an interested party in the development of relations with Azerbaijan also. But this is more about economic relations. However, the geopolitical role of the South Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, is unique in terms of its potential and geostrategic position. This region plays an important role both as an energy source and in the transportation of Caspian energy resources to Europe in general. The location between of the Caspian and Black Seas, Russia, Iran and Turkey turns the South Caucasus region into an East-West and North-South corridor. This factor shows that the Caspian region, especially the South Caucasus, has an important position on the geopolitical map of the world. However, the European Union is not as active in the South Caucasus as a geopolitical actor. This is one of the main factors making Russia as major geopolitical player in the region. This situation ultimately causes the Kremlin to treat Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia at different levels and in different statuses. The countries of the region, with the exception of Armenia, have to take into account Russia’s position. The tradition of the Armenian authorities to act on instructions from Russia has not changed.
Currently, Azerbaijan and Georgia are trying to prevent Russia from acting as an outpost against them. On this purpose they hope to cooperation with the West, including the European Union. But to achieve this, they need the economic and political support of Europe and the United States. That is, economic cooperation alone is not enough. It should be noted that the demand for oil and gas is growing not only in the West, but also in the rapidly developing countries of Asia. The Caspian Sea basin, comparable to the hydrocarbon reserves of Kuwait, Mexico and the North Sea, makes the Central Asian energy resource region a vital interest zone for the superpowers. The safe flow of this energy to the West depends on stability in the South Caucasus. Stability here lies in resolving existing conflicts in the region, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Because Russia, which wants to keep Europe in an energy monopoly, maintains its influence in the region through these conflicts. By taking an active part in resolving them, Europe can become a key player in a strategically important region and successfully secure its geoeconomic interests.
While Azerbaijan is the gateway to the region, Armenia, which remains under Russian influence, plays a divisive role in the policy pursued by the Western world to ensure its strategic interests in the South Caucasus. By maintaining Russian military bases in Armenia and relying on Russia’s political support, official Yerevan does not give up its policy of aggression and baseless territorial claims. These factors play a role in reviving the modern political landscape of the South Caucasus region.
The current geopolitical reality is that there is no unique security system in the Caucasus. First of all, the presence of conflicts in the South Caucasus, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in which Azerbaijan unjustly involved is a major obstacle to Caucasus regional security system. The security of Azerbaijan is very important for the security of the whole region. It is a stable and secure system for delivering the region’s energy resources to world markets. Participation in global economic projects can be attributed to Azerbaijan as one of the leading countries in the region. But Azerbaijan still does not receive any important support from the Western world.
Another point here is the European Union, the United States, which initiated the creation of a security system in the region, but despite concrete proposals and models, did not take serious steps in this direction. However, Azerbaijan is a favorable place for them both from a geostrategic and geopolitical point of view. Transnational projects in the South Caucasus are being implemented with the main participation of Azerbaijan. Along with the regional projects implemented so far, Azerbaijan is considered to be a country with sufficient potential and transit opportunities in the implementation of new transnational projects in the coming period. The irreplaceability of Azerbaijan is not only due to the fact its energy producer, but also as an energy transit corridor that transports the oil, gas products of the Central Asian republics to Europe as a transit country. So, by helping to ensure the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, the West would also guarantee its security.But they are still not politically active in the region.
During the new military clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in July of this year, Western countries did not take an active part in the subsequent course of events in the region. Instead, Russia is again active in the South Caucasus in terms of both the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and other political processes. Such situation is a serious obstacle to accelerating the integration of countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia into the Euro-Atlantic space. This is also unacceptable in the interests of Europe and the United States. Now it is important for the European Union, which is close to the region, to be more active in the South Caucasus, to contribute in settlement of conflicts, and for this there is a need for active political steps. Otherwise, the European Union will continue to lag behind Russia.
It should be noted that the European Union peacekeeping mission is very important, first of all, to accelerate the process of European integration. The European Union has great experience as both a conflict mediator and a participant in diplomatic negotiations. Over the past 20 years, the European Union has participated in about 30 peacekeeping operations. Its activities are regulated by the European Security Strategy, the Amsterdam Agreement, the Petersberg and Helsinki Declarations. Thus, the European Union has shown that it is one of the main centers of power in the settlement of regional conflicts and ensuring European and international security. In this case, the organization can have a stronger geopolitical position in the South Caucasus by playing an active role in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and helping to restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. The formation of a security system at the regional level and the expansion of multilateral relations with the European Union are of particular importance for Azerbaijan. It just needs to be European active role not only economically but also politically field in the region. Otherwise, European Union will continue to lose geopolitically to Russia and, in the long run, to China in the region.
The long-term threat of Armenian nationalism
According to the paradigm of realpolitik, states have no permanent friends or enemies- only interests can be permanent. This thought has been dominant in the foreign policy-making of the last centuries and, though subject to various mutations, has in general remained a dominant principle of international relations. However, there have been, and there still are, some exceptions. And one of the most persistent and seemingly counter-intuitive cases thereof remains the foreign policy of Armenia, a small landlocked post-Soviet republic in South Caucasus. The week of furious skirmishes along the border with Azerbaijan, that started on July 12, and subsequent tensions arising between Azerbaijani and Armenian communities in various countries of the world, have reminded the world about the destructive potential of this special case and at the same time invite us to think why this conflict has become so intractable and thoroughly outgrown its initial causes and interests.
To begin with, let’s remember the beginnings of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which started to unfold in 1988, three years before the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. The demands of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians (constituting around 75% of the population of this area, which had a status of an autonomous region- “oblast” within the Azerbaijani SSR) for “reunification” (or “miatsum” in Armenian) with the mother-Armenia, were the trigger. The movement defined itself through the discourse of a national awakening and revival, and posed as an inalienable part of the process of democratization which was then beginning in Armenia, along with Azerbaijan and some other Soviet republics. Let’s for now remember this point- it is really important.
The “Karabakh committee”, as the leaders of the secession movement called themselves, of course put forward standard accusations of the violations of Armenians’ cultural rights in Azerbaijan. However, these accusations were, mildly speaking, ill-grounded, as the recently released documentary “Parts of a circle” may attest: the worst oppression cited by the region’s Armenians were the occassional inaccessibility of the TV and radio broadcasts from the Armenian SSR. Other than that, Nagorno-Karabakh had its high school education predominantly in Armenian, hosted an Armenian pedagogical college and a theatre. Moreover, Armenians constituted a significant and influential share of the population of Azerbaijan outside Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly in the country’s biggest cities- Baku, Ganja and Sumgayit, and were widely represented in the republic’s social and cultural elite. Up until now, you cannot find any document-based, hard evidence of systematic violations of the cultural autonomy enjoyed by the Armenian majority of the Oblast’. So, we cannot understand the motives of the Karabakh movement unless we put it into the context of the much wider, global revival of extreme form of nationalism among Armenians of the world.
In 1973, Kurken Oghanian, an elderly Armenian living in California and a refugee from the 1915 events in the Ottoman Empire, assassinated two LA-based Turkish diplomats, declaring revenge for the alleged genocide as the motive of his crime. This murder inspired a group of Armenian nationalists who in 1975 founded a group called ASALA (Armenian Secret Army of the Liberation of Armenia), whose goal was defined as forcing Turkey to recognize the 1915 events as genocide and make Ankara not only pay generous compensations to the Armenian victims and their families, but also to cede territories (!) of the Eastern Turkey, which, according to the never-ratified colonial Sevres treaty were supposed to become the homeland of would-be Armenian state. To achieve these goals, ASALA unfolded a campaign of full-fledged terror against Turkish diplomats, killing 46 of them in the period until 1990. After the particularly vicious attack at the Orly Airport in France, the group was recognized as terrorist by most major countries of the world, including U.S.
At the same time, nationalistic attitudes were slowly brewing among the Soviet Armenians, back then very loosely connected with the Diaspora. Since 1965, when the 50-year anniversary of the “genocide” was for the first time openly commemorated in Yerevan, these events started to be held every year on April 24, and in 1967 a massive memorial was unveiled at the site of the Tsitsernakaberd Hill, quickly becoming the symbol of Armenians’ anti-Turkish sentiment. The Soviet government tolerated these expressions of nationalism, which were in general all but prohibited by the official ideology of “friendship of peoples” partly because Ankara was considered a dangerous geopolitical adversary of the Soviets and a puppet of “American imperialism”. However, this produced shocking repercussions, when on January 8, 1977 three explosions took place in Moscow (including one at the underground station), claiming the lives of 7 people. Later that year, three Armenian nationalists were found guilty of these terror acts, the first ever to happen in the USSR. The court concluded them to be an isolated group, though claims about their links with ASALA, which was in the process of creation back then, were subsequently made.
Hence, the 1980’s witnessed the rise in exclusive Armenian nationalism driven by ressentiment and a sense of pending revenge against the Turks. The Karabakh movement, though it succeeded in portraying itself as the vanguard of the Soviet-wide wave of democratization, was heavily imbued with this ideology, which equated Azerbaijanis, ethnically close to the Turkish people, to perilous “Turks” considered perennial enemies of Armenia. That’s why the initially peaceful protests gave way to an interethnic strife in a matter of months, and in 1988 most Azerbaijanis (around 170,000 people back then) were expelled from Armenia by force.
As the both republics became independent in 1991, Karabakh started to attract “fidains”- mercenaries who had their training at the ASALA camps in the Middle East, many of whom participated in the acts of terror and served prison terms for that. The most famous of them, Monte Melkonyan from California, who was among the organisers of the Orly attack, is now a much-revered national hero in Armenia. The arrival of these people with their fierce anti-Turkic stance, brought the primordial discourse of “much-oppressed ancient nation”, “Armenia from the Caspian to the Mediterranean”, to the fore. Presence of the “fidains” significantly increased the intensity of atrocities, the most vicious of which happened in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly where on the night of 26 February 1992 613 unarmed people (including children and the elderly) were slaughtered. And although the negotiation process conducted by the Azerbaijani and Armenian governments, served to bring the conflict to the international level as a “classic” interstate one, it never lost, at least for the Armenian side, its zero-sum “either we or you” character. The words uttered by former Armenian President Kocharyan, who used to be the leader of Karabakh Armenians during the war, in an interview to the British researcher Tom de Waal, that “Armenians and Azerbaijanis are genetically incompatible”, sound as something from the racist playbook. Yet this black-and-white vision of the Armenian history and interests reflect the dominant, if not usually articulated, thinking which among others defines Armenian foreign policies as well.
The major feature of the Armenian strategy ever since its independence- the reluctant but inevitable affiliation with Russian interests- is one example. The Armenian democratic movement perceived Moscow as no friend as well. However, as the conflict intensified and Turkey in 1993 ultimately closed borders with Armenia, Yerevan had no other choice but to fully embrace Russia as security guarantor. Ultimately, the presence of the Russian military base in Gyumri as well as the frequent engagement of former Soviet army units in hostilities on the Armenian side, were among the major factors behind the ultimate Armenian victory. Later on, as the idea of preserving the “security” of the Nagorno-Karabakh (which proclaimed itself an independent republic, not yet recognized by any sovereign state), and the seven adjacent districts occupied by Armenian forces, got entrenched in both the national state of mind and political strategy, any attempts to re-orient Armenia towards Western integration would fail against the need to preserve Russia’s exclusive leverage in the country in exchange for its security guarantees. The failure of the “compliant Armenia” strategy preached by the first President Ter-Petrosyan, encapsulated this permanent deadlock of the Armenian foreign policy. This strategy envisaged gradual shift of Yerevan towards the Western-centered global institutions, including NATO and EU, and distancing from militant exclusive nationalism that characterized Armenia’s attitude towards Azerbaijan and Turkey. Ter-Petrosyan supported the maximally quick return of the 7 occupied regions (the “buffer zone” in the parlance of Karabakh separatists) to Baku and even reportedly contemplated an option of the “single state” for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. Such prospects were rejected by the majority of Armenians, and the President had to resign in 1998, being replaced by the war hero Kocharyan, who quickly turned to considerably more nationalist rhetoric.
Another exemplary U-turn happened in 2013, when the Sargsyan government, preparing the association agreement with the EU, refused from signing it in the most unexpected manner days before the planned agreement date and a few days later joined the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The evidence indicates that this decision was obtained by Moscow through pressing hard on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, pivotal for Armenian politics. The newest case is the current president Pashinyan, who swept to power with the agenda of a more transparent and reforming Armenia and prioritized improving ties with the West. In the first year of his presidency Pashinyan did a lot to relieve the tensions with Azerbaijan, making 2019 the calmest year on the frontline in at least a decade. However, domestic pressure exerted by nationalists, who manipulated public opinion into believing that the President prepares a “treason” on Karabakh, and growing bitterness with Moscow, triggered Pashinyan to gradually adopt the traditional intransigent mode, and the latest escalation has been the logical outcome of the mounting tensions. In the aftermath of the July hostilities, he made a number of unprecedentedly pro-Russian statements, reassuring Moscow that Yerevan will remain its firm ally. At the same time, the officials and expert community in Armenia are again pushing the idea that only Russian umbrella can save their country from the destruction by “enemy Turks”. However, violence against peaceful Azerbaijani protesters in Los Angeles, Brussels or London, as well as rioting in Moscow, came as a shock and was the first time the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict really spilled over the territory of third countries and involved thousands of people with no direct links to the armed forces or politics. Given that the Armenian leadership never bothered to denounce such behavior by their ethnic kin, it must be concluded that the conflict in the eyes of most Armenians, despite of their appellations to international law and the language of realpolitik, is clearly an ethnic one which justifies war by all means. Among the Armenians who came on the streets of Western cities to confront the Azerbaijani crowds, were scattered people bearing the insignia of “ASALA” on their t-shirts, which also indicates the merging of Azerbaijanis and Turks in the radical-nationalist perception.
However, the most dramatic consequence of the intransigent, zero-sum policy of Armenia are the numerous wasted opportunities for the dynamic development of the whole region. Even in the 1990’s, when all the three countries of South Caucasus experienced the economic collapse of more or less similar magnitude, Armenian President Ter-Petrosyan warned about long-term adverse outcomes of the uncompromised attitude to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue for the country’s economic development. Since then, Armenia found itself isolated from the major infrastructural projects of regional significance, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Jeyhan oil pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, as well as many more international initiatives promoted by the Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan triangle. The absence of the border with Russia, together with economic problems Moscow is experiencing since 2014, mean that this partnership is not nearly as lucrative for Yerevan as the hypothetical collaboration with the direct neighbours could have been, and in fact the only serious boon from it is Yerevan’s ability to obtain Russian weapons for lower-than-market prices from time to time- which only strengthens “the party of war” and perpetuates the mentality of a besieged fortress. The resulting dependence on communications with Iran puts severe limits on Armenia’s attempts to deepen cooperation with the West. As a result, in the last 15 years Armenia’s GDP per capita consistently lagged behind Azerbaijan, for some years even falling to the half its level, and in the recent years has also been considerably lower than the respective figure for Georgia. Moreover, Armenian economy, compared to Azerbaijan and Georgian ones, is much more dependent on the inflow of investment from rather limited sources (particularly the Armenian diaspora), which makes it more vulnerable to various shocks and further constrains the range of available policy options, as diaspora money is usually linked with Armenia’s uncompromised and vigorous promotion of the issues of genocide recognition and Nagorno-Karabakh “independence”.The vicious circle of stagnant economy and bellicose rhetoric serves to reward the politicians most radical on Nagorno-Karabakh, since its “defense” from Azerbaijan becomes the only success that can justify the government’s performance.
At the same time, Armenian policies have put significant obstacles to the whole region as well. Amid the growing weariness from the enormous Russian influence, the continuing presence of Russia’s 302ndmilitary base in Gyumri can now be justified only by the guarantee of the status-quo it provides for Yerevan. Unsurprisingly, after initial irritation at the CSTO and Moscow who didn’t rush to interfere into the border skirmishes with Azerbaijan, President Pashinyan had to change his stance and recognize the strategic importance of security partnership with Russia- a victory for Moscow but another blow to the sustainable peace in South Caucasus. The lack of such peace and the constant, if often understated threat of a new escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan causes skeptical assessment of the strategic importance and potential of the whole region in the West, which throughout his last decade has considerably diminished its presence here; since Obama’s presidency, South Caucasus has been downgraded in the list of U.S’s foreign policy priorities. The constant threat of war in South Caucasus was very clear to the whole world in the aftermath of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, but the fact that Armenia is, unlike Russia, a small, economically backward state has blinded many analysts from fully recognizing its destructive role and put the Karabakh conflict to the back row, relative to the conflicts in Abkhazia and Ossetia. Yerevan’s rejection of compromises and desperate attachment to the Russian security umbrella made a long-term time bomb from Nagorno-Karabakh. The fact that many Armenians abroad perceive Azerbaijani embassies and peaceful rallies as a target, attests to the flawed thinking which perpetuates Armenia’s conflict with “Turks”. At the same time, it made as clear as never before that it would be in the best interest of the international community to return, after many years, to a pro-active role, and take a harsh stance against war-mongering and ethnic radicalism in South Caucasus. It must be finally made clear that Yerevan cannot pretend to be a flagship of democracy in the region and continue its occupation, preaching the ideas of militant primordial nationalism and disregard for international law.
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