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Intuitive Reactions: Conflict Resolution in the Southern Caucasus?
Many moons ago, as I was working toward a second LL.M in Alternative Dispute Resolution (Conflict Resolution) in London, I chose to write one of my 3 mandatory treatises on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (known also to Armenians as Artsakh).

19 July 2020   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  The Armenian Genocide

And so every time there has been a flare-up between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, I have gone back to my book. Why? Because the principles of the conflict that started in 1988 have hardly budged at all. Today, thirty-two years hence, we still regurgitate the same constituent points of the dispute between the parties. The OSCE (Minsk Group), founded in 1992 and co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States, still spearheads the efforts to mediate this conflict peacefully. It trudges through the conflict with the false assumption that it will eventually square the circle when the parties get tired of the status quo - or as we legal practitioners would say, when the conflict has reached its peak and a deal could be possible. Moreover, the key players themselves go from one chapter of violence to another, whilst Iran and Georgia (as two of the regional neighbours) try to maintain an impartial stance. The UN echoes concern but little else, and the world community is oblivious to this conflict in the mountainous and scenic Southern Caucasus.

Will the same thing happen this time round as Armenians and Azerbaijanis fight with drones and heavy artillery and as they trade threats in the Tavush province of Armenia - located at the northeast corner and bordered by Georgia from the north and Azerbaijan from the east? In fact, a cursory look at the map makes me wonder in the first place why Azerbaijan decided to attack this region that lies not in the territories of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh but rather within Armenia proper itself.

However, consider the two conflictual countries. Armenia is in the throes of a velvet revolution and is slowly trying to eradicate the abuses and corruption of yesteryears. It is also trying to keep equidistant diplomatic relations with the USA and the Russian Federation and might appear to a casual observer that it is sitting on the fence. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has not witnessed any revolution - velveteen or otherwise - as the Aliyev dynasty continues its despotic hold on the country & feeds its inhabitants with spurts of jingoism. But equally importantly, with oil and gas prices tumbling down, the Azeri economy is not as plentiful or thriving as before and I would argue that many Azeri men and women would wish for some democracy to reach their borders too.

And what about the other main players? Turkey, a heavy-handed player in the region who often rashly compares apples and oranges, has no diplomatic relations with Armenia. The 311-kilometre between the two countries has been closed since 1992, and in the words of the then prime minister of Turkey [Erdogan] during an official visit to Baku, "There is a relation of cause and effect here. The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh is the cause, and the closure of the border is the effect.” Moreover, the populist and increasingly irascible president of Turkey has pledged his full support to Azerbaijan. Russia (alongside France and the USA) on the other hand has called for a de-escalation of the fighting between the two warring protagonists.

So what are the key Turkish and Russian objectives as they pursue their own interests and manage the crisis in ways that have precious little to do with Armenia or Azerbaijan directly?

  • The attempts by the Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, to pursue a policy of equidistance from the USA and Russia has irked the Russian President Putin. This has been made manifest on many occasions. Therefore, could it be that Putin considers this crisis as an opportunity for him to remind Armenia that its very physical safety relies heavily on Russia? After all, the Russian 102nd Military Base of the Group of Russian Forces in Transcaucasia is based in Yuri (Armenia). Russia could be sending out a message that it wants Armenia to power down its political flirtation with the USA - and to a lesser extent with the EU - and stay firmly within the Russian fold.
  • Conversely, however, Russia also wants to pressure Azerbaijan to agree joining the Eurasian Economic Union established in 2014 and consisting of 5 member-states. Russia views the EAEU as a counterpoint to the European Union, and Azerbaijan has to date refused to become a member. What better way for Russia to send a message to Azerbaijan that it is not doing itself any favours by staying outside the club.
  • President Erdogan’s strident support for Azerbaijan has something to do with Turkic bonds. But more cogently in terms of realpolitik, it is also one way for it to send a message to Russia that it should mollify its stance and be more accommodating toward Turkish interests in Libya and also in Syria. Or else, Turkey could create instability in the Russian backyard. In fact, Turkey has been flexing its muscles across this region of the world (and elsewhere) as part of President Erdogan’s increasingly more public espousal of political Islam alongside his determination to rekindle the neo-Ottoman embers of an erstwhile defeated empire.

There are bigger games that are being played out in this conflict than merely Armenian and Azeri interests. But the region is also a tinderbox and so caution must be exercised to avoid a major escalation - whether intentionally or otherwise. This means that both sides need to show flexibility and take a strategic decision to forgo their nationalistic refusal to steer away from their stated positions since the days I wrote my treatise. Besides, the OSCE must also seriously examine whether it is truly exerting its efforts to reach a compromise solution to this frozen conflict. Over the years, I have discussed the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group with many of its ambassadors and it seems to me that they are happy to keep the conflict simmering in its present configuration.

Hard-core politics notwithstanding, and win-lose options cast aside, perhaps the wisdom of the future direction of travel could best be gleaned from a tweet reply to me by Dr Ibrahim Fraihat, an author and academic on conflict resolution. He posted, “The people of Armenia and Azerbaijan deserve to live in peace. The conflict is preventing economic prosperity in the region, and the people should not be paying the price forever.”

Not a bad recipe for a win-win solution, don’t you think?

A few days ago, minor scuffles regrettably took place between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in front of the Armenian embassy in London W8. If nothing else, such untowardly actions also underline the high levels of polarisation and distrust between the two communities.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   19 July 2020


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