On October 10 a temporary ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, brokered by Russia, was announced, nearly two weeks after Azerbaijan started shelling Armenians in the Artsakh Republic, more commonly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, located in the South Caucasus.
During the military campaign, Azerbaijan has targeted not only whole towns, including Stepanakert, but also Armenian cultural and religious heritage. On October 8, Azerbaijan devastated the cultural house and the Holy Savior Cathedral, known locally as Ghazanchetsots, in the town of Shushi. Ghazanchetsots is one of the largest Armenian churches in the world.
The church was bombed twice, heavily injuring three journalists who were documenting the damage from the first bombing.
Raffi Bedrosyan, author of the book “Trauma and Resilience: Armenians in Turkey ‒ Hidden, Not Hidden and No Longer Hidden,” said:
“In the 1990’s war, when Azeris were still in control of Shushi, they used this church as an arms depot, storing the Grad missiles that they rained upon Stepanakert, which is directly below Shushi.”
After Armenians liberated Shushi from Azeri occupation in 1992, Bedrosyan visited the region, participating in water supply and road reconstruction projects.
“When I entered this church,” he added, “it was still full of human waste and damage left behind by the Azeris. It was reconstructed beautifully in a few years and witnessed hundreds of weddings of Armenian young girls and boys.”
Azerbaijan has been targeting Artsakh with the direct support received from Turkey. “We support Azerbaijan until victory,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on October 6. “I tell my Azerbaijani brothers: May your ghazwa be blessed.”
“Ghazwa” in Islam means a battle or raid against non-Muslims for the expansion of Muslim territory and/or conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. Erdoğan thus openly claimed that attacks against the Armenian territory constitute jihad. Moreover, it is not only Turkey and Azerbaijan attacking Armenians. Turkey has also deployed at least 1,000 Syrian jihadists to Azerbaijan to fight against Artsakh.
Azerbaijan’s ongoing attack against Artsakh appears part of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman expansionist aspirations. In recent years, the Turkish government has escalated its rhetoric of neo-Ottomanism and conquest. In an August 26 speech, for example, Erdoğan, said:
“In our civilization, conquest is not occupation or looting. It is establishing the dominance of the justice that Allah commanded in the [conquered] region…We invite our interlocutors to put themselves in order and stay away from mistakes that will open the way for them to be destroyed.”
Meanwhile, Armenian president Armen Sarkissian asked Russia, the US and NATO to restrain Ankara, describing Turkey as “the bully of the region.”
“If we don’t act now internationally, stopping Turkey . . . with the perspective of making this region a new Syria . . . then everyone will be hit,” he told the Financial Times in an interview.
Azeri-Turkish aggression against Armenians has cost many lives. According to Armenian sources, the total death toll in the Artsakh military has reached over 500 as of October 12. Azerbaijani authorities have not released details on their military casualties. The war has also taken its toll on civilians; the two sides have reported more than fifty civilians killed. On October 9, Armenian medical doctor VaheMeliksetyan, a lecturer at the Department of Clinical Pharmacology, lost his life on the battlefield while providing professional assistance to a wounded soldier.
“According to our preliminary estimates, some 50% of Karabakh’s population and 90% of women and children — some 70,000 to 75,000 people — have been displaced,” the region’s rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan told the AFP news agency.
The organization Save the Children International also reported on October 9 that “Hostels, schools and kindergartens in some Armenian cities and villages are overcrowded after opening their doors to shelter people fleeing the violence, mainly women and children… Many children arriving are separated from their parents, as they were sent to stay with extended family or friends on the Armenian side of the border,” Save the Children said.
Turkish and Azeri attacks against Armenians for the purpose of conquering the region are unjustified. Artsakh, whose population is 95 percent Armenian, is peaceful and has been an integral part of historic Armenia for millennia. It has never been part of an independent Azerbaijan. Artsakh fell under the rule of various conquerors throughout the centuries, but mostly preserved its semi-independent status as an Armenian entity.
Today the region is often referred to as “disputed” because Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin granted it to Soviet Azerbaijan as an autonomous region in the early 1920s. During Soviet rule, the majority of the population of Artsakh peacefully and repeatedly requested reunification with Armenia. The Azerbaijani government, however, responded by violence not only in Artsakh, but throughout the whole Azerbaijan. It committed pogroms and mass killings against Armenians in the Azerbaijani cities of Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad, Shamkhor, and Mingechaur, among others.
On September 2, 1991, Artsakh finally announced its independence through the same legal basis as did Azerbaijan, Armenia and all other former Soviet republics. This announcement was based on the principles of international law and the Constitution of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan, however, once again resorted to violence. The Artsakh-Azerbaijan war (1991-1994) brought complete or partial destruction on Armenian villages and towns in Artsakh.
Another violent attack against the region occurred in April 2016 and is known as the Four-Day War. During this conflict, Azerbaijan launched a full-blown military attack on Artsakh and reportedly committed war crimes. In the village of Talysh, for instance, an elderly Armenian couple was found shot in their home on April 3, 2016 and their corpses were mutilated.
The European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy (EAFJD) noted:
“During April, 2016 the Azerbaijani armed forces committed a number of war crimes against the population of Artsakh including torture, execution and mutilation of bodies and beheadings. The ISIS style war crimes were committed by the regiments of the Azerbaijani armed forces that established control over the soldiers and civilians including children, elderly people. Their murders were executions merely for being Armenian which is the result of the Armenophobic policy implemented and promoted by president Aliyev’s administration over the decade in Azerbaijan.”
Four years later, the people and cultural heritage of Artsakh are again under fire.
Yet those attacks are nothing new. Turks and Azeris have systematically engaged in destructive violence against Armenian cultural heritage. A lengthy report entitled “A Regime Conceals Its Erasure of Indigenous Armenian Culture” was published in the art journal Hyperallergic in 2019 and documented “Azerbaijan’s recent destruction of 89 medieval churches, 5,840 intricate cross-stones, and 22,000 tombstones.”
“Oil-rich Azerbaijan’s annihilation of Nakhichevan’s Armenian past makes it worse than ISIS, yet UNESCO and most Westerners have looked away,” the scholar Argam Ayvazyan said. ISIS-demolished sites like Palmyra can be renovated, Ayvazyan argued, but “all that remain of Nakhichevan’s Armenian churches and cross-stones that survived earthquakes, caliphs, Tamerlane, and Stalin are my photographs.”
Destruction of Armenian cultural heritage is a long-held Turkish tradition that culminated during the 1913-23 Christian genocide targeting Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. Professor Peter Balakian notes:
“The Armenian case discloses a range of cultural destruction. Statistics convey not only the mass killing and forced deportations, but also the government and its local collaborators’ destruction or silencing specifically of 1) cultural property; 2) cultural producers (e.g., intellectuals and artists); 3) belief and value systems; and 4) historical lands and corresponding identifications with them.
“Statistics compiled by the Armenian Patriarch Ormanian in Constantinople in 1912–1913 (at the request of the Ottoman government) indicated that there were 2,538 Armenian churches on Ottoman territory. During the genocide all but a handful were plundered, appropriated, burnt, demolished, or entirely razed. The same census also documented at least 1,996 Armenian schools and 451 monasteries, almost all of which were later destroyed. The CUP’s [the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress] destruction of churches and schools furthered the eradication of the living presence of Armenian history throughout Turkey.”
The Artsakh-Azerbaijan dispute should thus be seen in the historical context of wider policies of Azerbaijan and Turkey regarding Armenians. Throughout history, these two nations have failed to recognize the Armenian right to self-determination and often resorted to murderous violence.
The ongoing problem in the South Caucasus is much larger than land. It is mostly caused by obsessive Turkish-Azeri hatred against Armenians, and a delusional belief that historically Armenian lands are not Armenian, and that these lands should instead belong to Muslim Azeris or Turks.
An effective way to stop the violence and destruction is for the world to officially recognize the Artsakh Republic, for whose protection the indigenous Armenians have made so much sacrifice throughout history.
Thorny path towards peace and reconciliation in Karabakh
On January 11 the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a deal to develop cross-border transportation routes and boost economic growth to benefit the South Caucasus and the Wider Region. This meeting took place two months after the Moscow-brokered armistice between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
This ethno-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has drawn dividing lines between Armenia and Azerbaijan for almost 30 years. Some estimates put the number of deaths on both sides at 30,000 after the First Karabakh war before a ceasefire was reached in May 1994. As a result of this war, one fifth of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan was occupied and the entire Azerbaijani population of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and seven adjacent districts (Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam, Fizuly, Jabrail, Gubatli and Zangilan) was forcibly expelled by the Armenian armed forces. Incidentally, due to sporadic frontline skirmishes and clashes, both military personnel and civilians have been killed along the Line of Contact, devoid of any peacekeeping force, since 1994.
Over the years, Armenia and the separatist regime that emerged in the occupied Azerbaijani territories refused any final status short of independence for Nagorno-Karabakh and tried to preserve this status quo and achieve international security guarantees on the non-resumption of hostilities while avoiding the withdrawal of its armed forces from the occupied territories and preventing the safe return of expelled Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence. However, such a policy, in its turn, polarized the region and reduced to naught any meaningful regional cooperation between the three South Caucasus states.
The Second Karabakh war, which took place from September 27 to November 9, 2020, and the subsequent Russia-brokered peace deal on November 10, significantly changed the facts on the ground and created a new political reality that replaced the “no war, no peace” situation that had been hanging over the region for almost 30 years. As a result of this war, more than 6,000 soldiers died on both sides in fighting.
This war came to an end because of a clear victory for Azerbaijan, which has restored its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Owing to the humiliating defeat of Armenia,the myth of the invincibility of the Armenian armed forces has been shattered and the Prime Minister of this country has been under continuous pressure from the opposition to step down.
Thus, after the Second Karabakh war, the pendulum has swung from devastating war towards actual peace. The question, is, however, whether the conflicting parties will be able to achieve lasting peace in the coming years: How can a relationship that has been completely destroyed owing to this protracted armed conflict and previous wars be restored?
The fate of all inhabitants of both the highlands and lowlands of Karabakh, irrespective of their ethnic origin, is crucial in this context. Security arrangements for the Armenian minority residing in this area are currently organized through the deployment of 1,960 Russian peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the implementation of the trilateral statement signed by the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Russian Federation on November 10 (hereafter, the trilateral statement). At the same time, the return of the former Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence previously occupied by the Armenian armed forces is envisaged by the trilateral statement and the UNHCR has been assigned to oversee this task.
It is paramount that Azerbaijan has to demonstrate a policy of “strategic patience” in the coming years to entice the Armenians of Karabakh region into closer incorporation through attractive political, economic, social, and other development.
On the other hand, Armenia has to concentrate on its own internationally recognized sovereign territory. Today, it is important that this country changes its external minority policy and withdraws its territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a next step, both Armenia and Azerbaijan can recognize the territorial integrity of one other.
Such rapprochement can lead to the opening of the borders between Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan, which would increase economic opportunities for landlocked Armenia. It can thereby contribute to regional stability, development, and trans-regional cooperation among the three South Caucasian states. At the same time, it would create an enabling environment that could be more conducive for future dialogue and interactions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
We must face the fact that a stable equilibrium between these two nations has never previously been achieved. However, despite ups and downs, there was peaceful coexistence between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Karabakh as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective minorities in Azerbaijan and Armenia. This protracted conflict has, however, led Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live in parallel realities for almost 30 years.
In light of the recent past, we cannot soon reconcile our different narratives. It is a long process; however, reconciliation is not only an outcome, it is also a process. Although the gestation period might be long, the process of reconciliation itself can be extremely rewarding.
In fact, the Armenian and Azerbaijani inhabitants of Karabakh have lived together in this region in the past. However, for almost 30 years this was impossible. Will and determination should be put to good use in order to arrive at such a peaceful coexistence once again.
Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus
The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.
The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.
It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.
The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.
The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.
In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.
Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.
Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.
With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.
The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.
The Western stance
The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.
Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.
Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.
The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.
The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.
Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.
Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.
Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.
Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.
The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”
The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.
Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.
But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.
The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.
Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.
After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.
Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.
Author’s note: first published in dailysabah
An Impending Revolution
Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.
The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.
The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.
On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.
European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.
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