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Nagorno-Karabakh: The Interplay of Community, Ambition and Strategy

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Death toll has risen to thousands since the two ex-Soviet republics battle over the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) region. The war over the Caucasus region of NK has invited the global attention over its myriad dimensions and colossal possibility of breaking into a global conflict or World War III. What is startling about the development is the fact that the community and commitment factors are at interplay with an unpredictable alignments in the way. While Islamic world sees the conflict drawn on community lines between the Christian Armenia and the Muslim Azerbaijan, the states like Iran and Israel have moved beyond community shells. Most of the Islamic states have shown sympathy with Azerbaijan on community grounds with Turkey, Pakistan taking the lead. What is strange is that Iran supports Armenia and Israel has chosen to support Azerbaijan ideologically and militarily thus surprising the western camp and Russia. 

Armenians Lament Stalin’s Legacy

In the South Caucasus (mountains) of the former USSR is located the contentious territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK). The current tension could be traced to the ethnic composition of the NG (also called Karabakh) which is a Christian dominated area surrounded by Muslim dominated Azerbaijanis. The row owes to the developments when Bolsheviks settled issues with Turkey and Armenians and Joseph Stalin, acting Commissar of Nationalities for the Soviet Union, made a controversial decision of handing over  the Armenian dominated territory of NK to Azerbaijan.  Bolsheviks following a ‘dual pacification policy’ towards Azerbaijanis and Turkey on the one hand and Armenians on the other, in April 1920 occupied Azerbaijan.  It was followed by the annexation of Armenia and Georgia in 1921. Bolsheviks in order to earn legitimacy and popular support promised NK to Armenia. However, to appease Turkey, which had deep ethnic and cultural ties with Azerbaijanis like common Turkish descent, they agreed to a division under which NK would be under the control of Azerbaijan. Since Soviet Union gained more and more control over the people and territories over the years the discontent remained under thumb until the genie was let loose in 1991. The decision was never accepted by Armenians emotionally and legally. A fire of discontent simmered till the dissolution of the USSR and emergence of new political map of the post-Soviet Union states.

Even before the disintegration, in August 1987 NG Armenians sent a petition signed by tens of thousands of signatures to Moscow asking to join Armenia. However, the petition failed to garner any consequence. Therefore, immediately after the disintegration NG declared independence, and the two entered into a conflict in 1991 which ended in 1993 claiming about 30 thousands lives. “At that stage, for the first time during the conflict, the Azerbaijani government recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a third party in the war, and started direct negotiations with the Karabakh authorities”. As a result, a cease-fire was reached on May 12, 1994 through Russian negotiations. Unfortunately, tensions heated up yet again in April 2016 when Azerbaijan claimed to have killed and wounded more than 100 Armenian soldiers (ADST). The clashes in 2016 and in July 2020 lasted only for a few days, but currently, it is difficult to say whether or not these clashes would escalate into a full-blown war.

The Teaming of the States and South Asia

South Asia has its own stakes in the conflict keeping in view the Galwan development and LOC tension where India is faced on two fronts. In case of the spreading of the conflict the interests of the South Asian states are also seriously engaged over oil and energy sources with the actors like Turkey, Russia, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. NK is equated with Kashmir too, but the difference lies in history, geography and ethnic compositions too. Turkey has annoyed India by playing double as it asks for liberation of NK from Armenia although it’s a Christian dominated area and people want to join Armenia. But it backs Pakistan and Kashmir’s demand for self-determination. It has been joined by Azerbaijan too over the issue and it forces India lean towards Armenia which supports Indian position on Kashmir. While Turkey, an open ally of Pakistan registers its support for Azerbaijan, India has poses neutral, though it has secured a defence deal with Armenia and forward sympathy to it also. Indo-Armenian relations are quite old and the Indo-Russian friendship has also strengthened their ties. The volume of trade between India and Azerbaijan has also increased from 50 million dollars (2005) to 250 million (2015). India’s main import from Azerbaijan is crude oil (Korybko).

Pakistan stands with Azerbaijan, especially because of its warm relations with Turkey and supports its right of self-defence.  Pakistan’s support has the colour of community but it also meets its ever hated state Israel in the club. Israel has longstanding relationship with Azerbaijan on account of its supply of arms and Azerbaijan’s extension of recognition to it in 1992 against the wishes of whole of the Muslim world. Azeri president Ilham Aliyev once compared his country’s relationship with Israel to an iceberg saying “nine-tenths of it is below the surface (Perry, 2012). The recent conflict is witness to the use of Israeli arms and Kamikez drones by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan–Turkey relations have always been strong with the two often being described as “one nation with two states” by the ex-president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev due to both being Turkic countries and having strong cultural and ethnic ties (Joint press statements). Against it, surprisingly Iran decides to support Armenia because of different reasons like economic interests, nationalism, and race for dominance in Islamic world. Armenia’s largest trading partner is Iran. Although Iran recognises several UN resolutions on NK that expects Armenia to evacuate the occupied Azeri lands controlled by ethnic Armenians backed by Armenia.

On the other side, Armenia is backed by its long time security partner Russia. Apart from providing Yerevan with ballistic missiles and new SU-30 SM fighter jets last year, Moscow has been lending its support through military aid as well. Additionally, Armenia is part of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) akin to NATO which is a Russia-led military alliance of seven former Soviet states and Azerbaijan is not a part of the group. The CSTO’s mission is to secure the collective defence of any member that faces external threat and if tensions escalate, Armenia can always invoke the CSTO (The Eurasian Times).

One important development is India’s expansion as an arms trade rival in Central and South East Asia. India secured a $40 million defence deal with Armenia over the supplying of Radar systems (four SWATHI weapon locating radars) dipping Poland and Russia as competent to sign a deal with Armenia. The Indian move appears to be intriguing for Russia but India has its own peripheries of trade and technology that world has to digest now. India’s entrance in the region is to counter the influence of China and Azerbaijan-Pakistan-Turkey strategic triangle that goes against Indian position on Kashmir. Against it Armenia defends Indian position on Kashmir. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan remarked that “on Kashmir issue, we fully defend India’s position, and it is our firm position. We hope that in this case we will be able to create international cooperation for solving this issue peacefully” (WION).

The Dominance in Islamic World

The Iranian support to Armenia is based on its territorial balances with Azerbaijan and to check the growing influence of the nationalism among Azeri Turks. Somewhere behind lies its desire to bridle the Turkish wish of reviving the Ottoman time and lead the Islamic world. Under the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey has witnessed a shift from moderate Turkish Sufi Islam, based on teachings of Rumi towards a Salafi Islam – the political Islam that aims at encompassing the Islamic world and revive the traditional Turkish position very much like the rise of the cultural India that seeks influence in west, central and south-east Asia. The Azerbaijan’s obsession with Israel and arms deals irks Iran too.  Iranian backing to Armenia pays dividend too as Russia has now announced that it would sell its anti-missile system S-400 to Iran after the UN embargo on Iran ends on October 18, 2020. Therefore, the NK crisis omens not so good.

The conflict over NK has multilayered dimensions that carries the community association at the one end and the political aspirations at the other to make the issue more fragile. The truce on NK is short-lived and forecasts a larger escalation in the coming days keeping in view the new alignments and the mappings filtering out. So, Stalin’s mistake is what A. V. Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev are paying for.

References

“Joint press statements of Presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey”. Retrieved 8 December 2012.

“India calls for restraint over Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes”. WION.https://www.wionews.com/india-news/india-calls-for-restraint-over-armenia-azerbaijan-clashes-331791

ADST. “Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training”. https://adst.org/2013/08/stalins-legacy-the-nagorno-karabakh-conflict/

Korybko, Andrew. “India’s Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis Conundrum”. The Express Tribune, October 12, 2020.

Perry, Mark, “Israel’s Secret Staging Ground”.  Foreign Policy.  March 28, 2012.

The Eurasian Times, September 29, 2020.

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Eastern Europe

Armenia: Lies and realities

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The OSCE Minsk Group was established to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which arose as a result of Armenia’s brutal interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs and military aggression. However, the activities of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have been fruitless for almost 30 years. Armenia did not comply with the UN Security Council Resolutions No. 822, 853, 874 and 884 on the unconditional, prompt and complete withdrawal of the Armenian occupying forces from the territories of Azerbaijan. Armenian was trying to impose occupation fact and to bring it to a “fait accompli.” At the same time, Armenia was preparing to occupy new territories of Azerbaijan and commit provocations. Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan confessed: “We will not return an inch of land to Azerbaijan and will occupy new territories.”

In July 2020, the Armenian leadership committed another provocation in the direction of the Tovuz region of the Azerbaijani state border. There were several purposes in this provocation. First, to occupy the territories, where the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main export oil pipeline, which plays a vital role in Europe’s energy supply, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, TAP and TANAP lines pass, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway connects Europe and Asia. Furthermore, as a result, to obstruct the access of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Europe. Second, to divert attention from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and involve the CSTO, especially Russia, in the war. However, the Armenian occupying forces were repulsed and failed to achieve any of the above purposes. Armenia’s intentions against European countries and peoples have failed.

Later, Armenia committed provocations again, in response, when Azerbaijan took action, the Armenian leadership began to spread slander and false news in order to deceive European public opinion. Let us look at just two of them. First, the Armenian side tried to cover up their aggression policy and abuse the religious feelings of Christians around the world by spreading false information about the alleged attack of the Azerbaijani army on the church in Shusha. Even those unfamiliar with military science know that if the church had been hit by a rocket, it would have collapsed. However, the church was in place. On the other hand, mosques, churches and synagogues have coexisted in Azerbaijan for many centuries. Even the Armenian church, which is located in the centre of Baku, including its library, is protected by the Azerbaijani state and its guard also is Armenian. It can be questioned that what did Armenia do in return for Azerbaijan’s care for the church, the house of God? Armenians intentionally kept pigs in mosques in the occupied Aghdam and Zangilan regions of Azerbaijan. Their photos and videos are available on the Internet. The church, the mosque and the synagogue are the houses of God. By treating mosques as an object for insults, Armenia is tarnishing Christians, and Christianity, which is a religion of peace and coexistence. Russians, Jews, Georgians, Ukrainians and others, who are Azerbaijani citizens in the ranks of the Azerbaijani army, are fighting for the liberation of Azerbaijani lands from occupiers. Prayers for the Azerbaijani soldier are being held in all churches and synagogues in Azerbaijan. His Holiness Pope Francis, who visited Baku a few years ago, praised the policy of Azerbaijan in terms of inter-religious and inter-civilizational dialogue as an example.

Secondly, Armenia is lying about Azerbaijan’s alleged “genocide” of Armenians, which is nonsense. Because currently, more than 30000 Armenians live in Azerbaijan peacefully. If there was any discrimination policy against Armenians, how could so many Armenians live in Azerbaijan? However, the situation is different in Armenia. Since 1988, over 250000 Azerbaijanis have been savagely expelled from Armenia. Today there is no single Azerbaijani in Armenia and Armenia is a mono-ethnic state. At the same time, more than 750000 Azerbaijanis were expelled from the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories of Azerbaijan and became internally displaced persons.

Thus, on the one hand, the Armenian leaders pose a direct threat to Europe’s energy supply, and on the other hand, they try to use the religious feelings of the European people for their own interests by spreading false news and figments. However, they forget that the world is very small now, and everyone sees everything well. So, the question is: what is the name of Armenia’s policy? The answer is clear!

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Eastern Europe

Ceasefire Violated, Civilians of Ganja, Azerbaijan Hit –Again

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Image source: Azerbaijan Ministry of Defence

Authors: Julia Jakus and Anar Imanzade

Intensifying rocket and artillery fire exchanges between Armenia and Azerbaijan have driven military overtures from both sides as well as mutual accusations that civilians are being unlawfully targeted. The disputed region Nagorno-Karabakh has long been the catalyst of periodic clashes, but the situation dramatically deteriorated over the last several weeks. Why is Nagorno-Karabakh so ardently contested, and what are the implications of recent escalations in this conflict?

The Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts were occupied by Armenian forces between 1988-1993 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020). One year prior to the end of this occupation, Armenian forces massacred over 600 Azerbaijani civilians in Khojaly on February 26, 1992. Following the military occupation of the region as well as its seven surrounding districts, over 1.000.000 people were displaced – most of whom had immediate family members and relatives who were killed during the 5-year occupation.

Since 1992, the Armenian military has occupied upper Karabakh laying claim to the territory on the basis that the region harbors an ethnic majority of Armenians. However, no less than four UN Security Council resolutions (822,853, 874, and 884) recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh region as being a part of Azerbaijan and actively call for the immediate withdrawal of the Armed Forces of Armenia from occupied territories within Azerbaijan. Although a ceasefire was signed in 1994, the region has remained under Armenian occupation (Jeyhun Aliyev and Ruslan Rehimov, 2020).

From Border Clashes to Bombings

In July,the border clashes near Tavush of Armenia (Tovuz of Azerbaijan)resulted not only in 16 deaths (12 Azerbaijani, 4 Armenians) but also spiked these long-simmering tensions between the two countries. Azerbaijan responded by shelling military objects in Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh). The most recent operations recommenced on the 27th of September when Azerbaijan took the city of Hadrut (which is geostrategically important because of its proximity to the heart of Karabakh). Since then, the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan have liberated some of its territories namely via targeting military components such as artillery batteries and other facilities. While Azerbaijan proclaims that they are liberating the region, Armenian officials decry that Azerbaijan and Turkey are conspiring to commit another genocide against the Armenian people.

Although memories of 1915 still burn painfully in the hearts and minds of Armenians, many might argue that mobilizing memories of the 1915 Genocide with reference to the Nagorno-Karabakh actively ignores the fact that geopolitical conditions have markedly changed over the last 100+ years. Because Armenia is a member of the CSTO, if Armenia is attacked, then Russia and other members of this organization bear an obligation for military interference on their behalf. Likewise, more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians live in Azerbaijan in relative peace while veryfew Azerbaijani live in Armenia which means that very little threat should emanate from within Armenia’s borders. From this angle, it certainly appears that the main aim of Azerbaijan remains exclusively the liberation of its occupied territories.

The last week of September and the first week of October were marked by particular ambiguity as both sides ardently claimed to have succeeded in gaining the upper hand. However, the dynamic changed significantly on the 9th of October when both the Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Minister were invited to Moscow. There, they each agreed to a humanitarian ceasefire and promised to exchange the bodies of fallen soldiers beginning on October 10th. However, on the 11th of October between 2:00 and 3:00 am, Armenian Forces launched another missile attack on Azerbaijan’s second-largest city Ganja (the first occurred on the 5th of October). In the second attack, a missile struck a civilian residential building and resulted in the deaths of 10 people, more than 35 injured. Children were among both the fatalities and casualties. By targeting residential areas in the city of Ganja immediately following a ceasefire agreement, this military overture not only violated the Geneva Conventions but also upended over 30 years of negotiations presided over by the Minsk Co-Chair Group of the OSCE.

The city of Ganja lies in the West of Azerbaijan, just North of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. It is seen as an energy corridor from the Caspian Sea to global markets, and for this reason, bears a strong geostrategic value. On the heels of 3-decades of diplomatic stagnancy, the Armenian Prime Minister NikolPashinyan has made provocative remarks that steer away from rather than toward conflict resolution such as, “Karabakh is Armenia…full stop” (Eurasia.net, 2019). The deaths of Azerbaijani civilians in recent attacks appear to have had the greatest unifying effect on the Republic of Azerbaijan since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Azerbaijani demand to end Armenian occupation has even garnered the support of opposition leaders for Ilham Aliyev, the president of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Global Implications

As Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions escalate, both Russia and Iran have offered to broker peace talks. Macron and Trump have also publicly advocated for a ceasefire, in spite of powerful Armenian lobbies residing in both states. Azerbaijan has indicated that it is not willing to wait another 30 years without action. The ceasefire, to Azerbaijan, is tantamount to the permanent withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. To Armenia, stepping away is associated with abandoning ethnic Armenians living in the Azerbaijani territory—in spite of the international resolutions demanding them to.

External actors have also played a complicating role. For example, while Moscow publicly advocates for a ceasefire, Russia maintains a military pact with Armenia to the extent that they have continued to send military equipment to Armenia… while simultaneously bearing otherwise good politico-economic ties with Azerbaijan. This, in turn, raises Russia-Turkey tensions. Erdoğan recently pledged his allegiance with Baku on the basis both of historic alliances and existing economic ones. This is not surprising given the historic animosity between Yerevan and Ankara as well as the fact that vital oil and gas pipelines run from Baku to Turkey. Global responses have been mixed. All foreign powers watching the violence escalate have kept a keen eye on the pipelines, but some surmise that –until oil and gas are impacted – those same powers are likely to try to dismiss the issue as an internal clash. Still, other world leaders to UN Secretary-General António Guterres have been calling for a true ceasefire.

The dispute presents a situation riddled with competing narratives, but one thing is certain: as military overtures bleed beyond the traditionally contested region and into civilian cities of Azerbaijan, the prospects of fruitful diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh recede. 

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Eastern Europe

A Chill in Georgia-China Relations

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Photo: Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia at the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum, Tbilisi, 22 October 2019. Credit: Prime Minister of Georgia

A sense of growing disenchantment is starting to dominate China-Georgia relations. Given China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Georgia’s geographical importance to the realization of China’s plans, Georgian elites had high hopes for the future. Today, few people are as enthusiastic.

The relationship used to look promising. In 2017 China and Georgia signed a free trade agreement to remove customs barriers, in a move Georgian leaders hoped would boost exports and help develop the Georgian economy. The Georgian government also expected an increase in Chinese investments into Georgia’s infrastructure, specifically its Black Sea ports of Poti, Batumi, Anaklia, as well as east-west rail and road links. Several large-scale investment forums were held in Tbilisi for that purpose.

Fostering closer ties with China was also seen as a vital component of Georgia’s quest to balance Russia’s regional influence, and as a hedge against Russian military moves in occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The hopes for improvements in trade have not panned out. While there has been a steady increase in overall volume, statistics show that Georgia mostly exports raw materials to China, such as copper and various chemicals. A market for goods higher up the value chain has not materialized. Similarly, concerns over corrupt practices have increased, especially tied to how Chinese companies have been awarded contracts. One illustrative case concerns Powerchina’s subsidiary Sinohydro winning a €26.3 million tender for the reconstruction of a 42-kilometer section of the Khulo-Zarzma road. Sinohydro has a long record ­– both in Georgia and abroad – of corruption, environmental degradation, and of generally shoddy work. And yet it keeps winning new tenders.

Furthermore, it has become apparent to policymakers in Tbilisi that China will not go out of its way to harm increasingly important relations with Russia. For example, China has been generally unhelpful on key diplomatic issues critical to the Georgian side. It repeatedly failed to back Georgia’s UN vote on refugees forcefully expelled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia by separatists and Russian troops. It repeatedly failed to denounce de-facto presidential or parliamentary elections held in Georgia’s occupied territories. China has also stayed silent on Russian cyber-attacks against Georgia over the last few years, as well as on Russian “borderization” policies in South Ossetia. Its Ministry of Defense even announced that it would participate in the Russian-led “Kavkaz-2020” exercises, alongside troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

China has also helped the Kremlin seed destabilizing disinformation in the country. On September 2, the Chinese state media outlet China Daily questioned the utility of the U.S.-funded Lugar Laboratory located near Georgia’s border with Russia and alleged that it both represented a biohazard risk to Georgia and that Georgian citizens were being unwittingly used as test subjects.

All this stands in striking contrast with Georgia’s Western partners, who continuously stand up for Georgia’s foreign policy priorities, as well as for its territorial integrity. Though increasingly disenchanted with China, Georgian leaders continue to walk a diplomatic tightrope, keen to not draw ire from China while preserving its ties to the West. But as America’s stance on China hardens, it will be more and more difficult to maintain this balance. In a series of public letters addressed to the Georgian government sent earlier this year, U.S. congressmen and senators have been explicit that Georgia needs to avoid deep entanglements with China and hew closely to Western standards and trade practices.

The balancing act is simply unsustainable. Georgia’s NATO and EU membership aspirations, the cornerstone of its geopolitical orientation, are an irreconcilable irritant for China, especially as the Alliance expands its scope to face down China’s growing military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. Georgia will be forced to pick sides eventually.

And the outcome is a foregone conclusion. At this point, criticizing China openly would cost Georgia a lot, which means that Tbilisi taking a firm stance on Taiwan or on human rights issues is not likely. But as tensions ratchet up between the West and China, expect Georgia to side more firmly with the West, not only politically, but also increasingly economically, by embracing Western 5G technologies as well as its trade and investment standards.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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