Requiem for Nagorno-Karabakh?

Nagorno-Karabakh, AP/Scanpix

In her article on Nagorno-Karabakh, Nathalie Tocci, political scientist and director of the IAI (1), states that “there is no doubt that Nagorno-Karabakh lies within the officially recognised borders of Azerbaijan. Europe and the international community have never questioned this, and the war in Ukraine has underlined once again the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity as pillars of international law. There is therefore no legally valid reason to oppose the reintegration of Karabakh into Azerbaijan.” (2) Such statements are worthy of discussion.

Just over 100 years ago, Armenians were in the majority in some 15-20% of the territory of present-day Turkey (an area of 120,000-150,000 square kilometres), (3) and made up more than 10% of the country’s total population. In 1915 and 1916, between 1.2 and 1.5 million (4) of them died in what was the first major genocide of the 20th century. (5) Hundreds of thousands more, including the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh today, went into exile. In parallel, 1.5 million Greeks were driven out of Turkey.

Four years later, in 1920, the Caucasus Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Kavburo) decided by 4 votes to 3 to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Following anti-Bolshevik demonstrations in Yerevan and protests from Nariman Narimanov, the leader of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, the Kavburo reversed its decision: in 1921, in the presence of Joseph Stalin, then People’s Commissar for Nationalities, it incorporated Nagorno-Karabakh into the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic instead. At the time, 94% of the population of the Autonomous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was Armenian. It was also at this time that the Latchine “corridor” separating Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia was established. The corridor was overwhelmingly populated by Armenians.

At the end of the 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to falter, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh once again demanded their incorporation into Armenia. In February 1988, a demonstration in support of the request by the autonomous region’s Supreme Soviet brought out nearly a million people in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the antagonism between Azeris and Armenians quickly turned into open warfare between, on one side, the militants of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian army, and on the other, the Azerbaijani army. The Armenians emerged victorious, taking control of Nagorno-Karabakh (5% of Azerbaijan’s territory) as well as neighbouring territories representing 9% of Azerbaijan. By the end of the war, some 724,000 Azeris and 413,000 Armenians had been displaced. Russia had a hand in this Armenian military success – a certain Russia, at any rate: that of the secret services, which were already working in the shadows to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev and thus the Communist Party, the only organised structure capable of challenging the power of the KGB/FSB.

Just as with Boris Yeltsin, whom the Russian intelligence services used internally to torpedo Gorbachev (and the Communist Party), albeit at the cost of a loss – temporary in their eyes – of part of the Soviet empire, the intelligence services fomented or supported separatist movements in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Gagauzia.

Their aim was to create future levers of destabilisation that would enable them to keep control of the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia. In Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, their plan worked to the full, and all the more so since it was sealed in blood: two hundred Azeris were slaughtered in the Khojaly massacre in February 1992. It was a sad echo of other pogroms, including at Kirovabad in 1988, in which around a hundred Armenians died and 40,000 were forced into exile; at Sumgait in 1988; and Baku in 1990.

The Karabakh Committee, the intellectual and political crucible of the movement for the attachment of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, was a grassroots initiative which, we believe, did not escape the influence of the Moscow secret services. Moscow’s political support and supply of arms depended on it, as did the permanence of the “Karabakhtsi clan” in power.

Mafia-style methods took hold, first in Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupied Azerbaijani territories, then in Armenia itself. Robert Kocharian, a former member of the Communist Party of Nagorno-Karabakh, became president of this de-facto entity in 1994 and then prime minister of Armenia in 1997 under the presidency of Levon Ter-Petrossian. Ter-Petrossian, one of the 9 founders of the Karabakh Committee in May 1988, was without doubt one of the rare Armenian politicians, along with his adviser Jirair Libaridian, who genuinely tried to reach a political agreement with Baku. The plan, to which he and Heydar Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president, agreed in principle, provided for a “phased” settlement of the conflict.

The first stage would involve the return of most of the Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenia around Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for the deployment of OSCE peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts. In a subsequent phase there would be a lifting of the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades of Armenia. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Latchine corridor and the return of displaced persons were to be settled in a final phase.

But a peace agreement between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians would have deprived Russia of its leverage in the region. In all likelihood, it did not receive Moscow’s approval. In any case, it was not approved by the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh. In Yerevan, it aroused the opposition of Karabakhtsi Robert Kocharian, who had meanwhile become prime minister of Armenia. Also opposed were Vazgen Sargsyan, minister of defence, and Serge Sarkissian, then minister of the interior and former secretary of the regional committee of the Communist Party of Nagorno-Karabakh. A few months later, in February 1998, President Ter-Petrossian resigned. Robert Kocharian went on to become the president of Armenia in 1998, a position he held until 2008. At a time when it was already clear that Azerbaijan was going to see very strong economic development thanks to the export of hydrocarbons, Robert Kocharian could have used these ten years, strengthened by the aura he enjoyed among Armenians as a victorious warlord, to negotiate with Baku. He did not do so, and neither did Serge Sarkissian, another Kharabakhtsi, who would hold the presidency until 2018.

On the basis of these facts, can we imagine that Europe and the international community as a whole could “resolve” the Nagorno-Karabakh question on the basis of respect for the principle of territorial integrity? That is hard, and even more so given that another principle, that of self-determination, has guided the international community in resolving the issue of decolonisation since the end of the Second World War. It was quite logically on the basis of this second principle that a majority of United Nations members recognised the states born of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, as well as the independence of Eritrea in 1993 and the independence of Timor Leste in 2002.

In 1999, NATO countries decided to intervene militarily to counter the ethnic cleansing operation carried out by the Slobodan Milosevic regime against the Albanian population of Kosovo. And it was on the basis of the principle of self-determination that most of them began the procedure for international recognition of Kosovo. During the Yugoslav era, Kosovo had the status of an autonomous province within the Serbian Republic. However, its president was a member of the Collegial Presidency of Yugoslavia, along with the presidents of the six Yugoslav republics and the autonomous province of Vojvodina. This status was not unlike that of the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

Like Serbia then, today’s Azerbaijan is carrying out an ethnic cleansing operation. Like Serbia then (and, in some respects, Serbia now), today’s Azerbaijan is far – very far – from meeting even the most minimal criteria of the rule of law and democracy. It is a dictatorial and corrupt system. (6) It is in this light that the declarations of Baku must be read. Some of them are odd, such as that of September 2023, according to which “Azerbaijani citizenship would be granted to Armenians who lay down their arms and abandon the political struggle for independence” (7) – this despite the fact that these Armenians were born in a place that the Baku authorities consider to be part of Azerbaijan. There is also the violently anti-Armenian rhetoric spewed daily by the Azeri media.

But the facts are plainer still. Azerbaijan’s final offensive on 19 September 2023, which led to the exodus of the entire Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, took place just as negotiations (8) for a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia were progressing. At the same time, the 2020 ceasefire agreement between Baku and Yerevan provided for maintaining the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh until the peace agreement was concluded.

President Aliyev’s override also raises questions insofar as one might have thought that Baku would have kept the Nagorno-Karabakh issue open during the negotiations as a means of exerting pressure to obtain concessions from Armenia on the issue of the access corridor to the exclave of Nakhchivan.

But this is undoubtedly introducing rationality into a context where hatred, or perhaps an imperial rationale, now predominates. President Aliyev is particularly explicit when he talks about Armenia. In 2015, for example, he declared that “Armenia is not even a colony, it is not even worthy of being a servant.” (9) “I said we would drive the Armenians out of our lands like dogs, and we have done it.” (10) More recently, he has been even more specific, stating that “we will implement the Zangezur corridor, whether Armenia likes it or not.” (11) Or “Today Armenia is our territory”, invoking the possibility of a “return to Western Azerbaijan.” (12)

In any case, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, seems to be taking a possible attack on Armenia by Azerbaijan very seriously. He told a group of parliamentarians during a conference call in Washington that his department currently believes that Azerbaijan could launch an invasion of Armenia in the coming weeks. (13) The concern also seems palpable in Tehran, judging by the proposal (14) – desperate in view of the state of relations between Azerbaijan and Iran – to route the corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan through Iranian territory.

But the objective of creating territorial continuity with the exclave of Nakhchivan by seizing, at the very least, part of southern Armenia, is not just that of the Azerbaijani president. It is undoubtedly even more important to President Erdoğan. The slogan he likes to use to describe the links between Turkey and Azerbaijan, “One nation, two states”, prefigures his neo-Ottoman project to link up the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and beyond to other Turkic states in Central Asia. From this point of view, Baku is harder to understand. Turkey “weighs” 85 million inhabitants, Azerbaijan only 10 million.

In other words, the heir and successor to the Republic of the Young Turks, which was responsible for the genocide of the Armenians (15), is preparing, after supporting Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh, to support the despoiling of part of Armenian territory.

The precedent of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, despite its membership of NATO, is a further cause for concern. It also reflects the regression of President Erdoğan’s regime, both internally (imprisonment of opponents, criminalisation of the Kurdish question (16), muzzling of the press, etc.) and externally (non-application of sanctions against Russia, harassment of Greece in the Aegean Sea, conversion of the Basilica of Saint Sophia into a mosque, and so on).

Unless we consider that sending the aircraft carriers USS Gerald R. Ford and USS Eisenhower to Israeli waters is also a message sent to Ankara, then Turkey and Azerbaijan may seize the opportunity offered by the opening (following Ukraine) of a new anti-Western front in Israel to stage a coup de force.

Like Iran, Russia has no interest in the establishment of territorial continuity between Turkey and Azerbaijan and in the resultant opening up of Azerbaijan. The fact remains, however, that Turkey did not react when, in 2021 and 2022, Azerbaijan occupied some 50 square kilometres of Armenian territory around Black Lake in the Syunik region and in the regions of Gégharkunik and Vayots Dzor. The same was true, as we have seen, during the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh, even though Turkey had deployed a so-called interposition force in the region. Nor is it clear whether the Turkish president’s downplaying of the “corridor” issue following the informal meeting last September between Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia and the United States (17) was the result of a position defended by the United States alone or a joint position of the United States and Russia. Azerbaijan’s announcement on 23 October that military exercises will be conducted jointly with Turkey near Armenia seems to indicate that the lull may be short-lived.

However, there is no doubt that the 2018 Velvet Revolution in Armenia has profoundly changed Moscow’s approach to Yerevan. The initial “shortcomings” in the assistance that Russia should have provided to Armenia under the CSTO Treaty may have been aimed at destabilising Nikol Pashinian’s government. But faced with the persistent discrediting of the Armenian political forces that had previously been favourable to Russia, and the often critical but genuine popular support that the Armenian government continued to enjoy, Moscow has gradually abandoned Yerevan in favour of increasingly explicit support for Baku. This is evidenced in particular by Russia’s large-scale arms supplies to Azerbaijan in recent years and, more recently, by the visible order given to its so-called intervention troops not to intervene in the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh.

However, Russia still retains a powerful influence in Armenia itself, through the intermediaries it has been able to retain there and, above all, through the presence of two military bases. (18) Yerevan therefore has little room for manoeuvre. It is still a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (19) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) (20). What’s more, its only non-hostile neighbour, Georgia, is still governed, despite growing tensions (21), by the “Georgian Dream” party of Bidzina Ivanichvili, a billionaire with close ties to Vladimir Putin.

As we have seen, the Americans are monitoring the situation very closely. The Europeans, after believing that they could play a decisive role in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict – witness a tense meeting between President Aliyev and President Macron on the fringes of the European Political “Community” meeting in Prague in October 2022 – seem suddenly to have resigned themselves to the fact that they can do nothing.

Such an abandonment would mean paying a posthumous tribute to Stalin as well as tributes to Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdoğan and their imperialist designs. That would be politically irresponsible. The European Union should identify and propose a scenario that it would consider acceptable to Baku, to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, to Armenia and to itself.

This scenario should include a proposal for an institutional status which could be inspired by that of the Basque Country, where the region’s institutions manage all political matters except foreign affairs and defence. In order to create the conditions for the return of the inhabitants, OSCE troops should be tasked with guaranteeing the security of the inhabitants during a transitional period. Should such a plan fail to win Azerbaijan’s support (22), the EU and its member states could launch an initiative for international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh.

With regard to Armenia and the threats to its security, the European Union could break with its wait-and-see approach towards Ukraine prior to the invasion of 24 February 2022 and immediately inform Armenia of its willingness to grant it candidate-country status if it so wishes. Such a signal from the Union would help Armenia to work out more calmly the terms and deadlines for its exit from the Commonwealth of Independent States, which is an essential prerequisite for the opening of formal accession negotiations with the Union.

Furthermore, to provide Armenia with immediate support, the Union could, following the example of what it has done with Ukraine, immediately open its borders to Armenian persons and goods. The EU should also provide Armenia immediately with all the arms it needs to defend itself. At the same time, the EU should introduce an embargo on arms sales to Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Unless we believe, as does Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, that “the war in Ukraine has made us [the EU] a geopolitical power, not just an economic one” (23), and that the status of “power” can be decreed, then the support that the Union can give Armenia is a matter of “soft power”. To be able to do more, the Union would need a degree of strategic autonomy. This is impossible until a solid group of member states recognise that the main obstacle to the emergence of such strategic autonomy is none other than the approach defended by the member state that is crying out for that autonomy.

(1) IAI, Istituto Affari Internazionali

(2) Nathalie Tocci, “Nagorno-Karabakh’s tragedy has echoes of Europe’s dark past. But a remedy lies in Europe too”, The Guardian, 2 October 2023

(3) Turkey covers an area of 783,000 km2. The surface area of present-day Armenia is 29,000 km2.

(4) In addition to the Armenians, the genocide also claimed 250,000 victims among the Assyro-Chaldean minority in the Eastern provinces and 350,000 among the Pontics, the Greek-speaking Orthodox in the province of Pontus.

(5) There is less talk about this, but the question remains of the spoliation of the victims of the genocide and of all those who were forced into exile without Turkey ever making reparation.

(6) As in Russia, its elites amass considerable fortunes and make extensive use of the corruption of elites in European countries. See, for example, Guillaume Perrier, “Ilham Aliyev, dictateur et corrupteur en chef”, Le Point, 6 October 2023.

(7) Nathalie Tocci, op. cit.

(8) These negotiations began in 2020, following the ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

(9) “Armenia is not even a colony, it is not even worthy of being a servant”, Ilham Aliyev, Twitter, 29 January 2015

(10) “I said we would drive the Armenians off our land like dogs, and we did it”, Ilham Aliyev, 7sur7, 10 November 2020

(11) “Aliyev threatens to establish ‘corridor’ in Armenia by force”, OC Media, 21 April 2021

(12) Elisabeth Pierson, “Arménie: pourquoi l’Azerbaïdjan pourrait ne pas s’arrêter au Haut-Karabakh”, Le Figaro, 21 September 2023

(13) “Blinken warned lawmakers Azerbaijan may invade Armenia in coming weeks”, Eric Bazail-Eimil, Politico, 13 October 2023

(14) “Arménie-Azerbaïdjan: la proposition iranienne sur l’enclave azerbaïdjanaise du Nakhitchevan”, Régis Genté, RFI, 13 October 2023énie-azerbaïdjan-la-proposition-iranienne-sur-l-enclave-azerbaïdjanaise-du-nakhitchevan

(15) The Armenian genocide has been recognised by around thirty countries. 10 EU member states have still not done so: Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Malta, Romania, Slovenia and Spain.

(16) Not all non-Turkish populations have been eradicated. Turkey still has a large Kurdish minority: between 12 and 15 million (16-23% of the total population) and several tens of thousands of Armenians.

(17) “EU, Russia and US held secret talks days before Nagorno-Karabakh blitz”, Gabriel Gavin, Nahal Toosi and Eric Bazail-Eimil, Politico, 4 October 2023

(18) The Russian military base (102nd) is located in Gyumri, 120 kilometres north of Yerevan. It is under the command of the southern military district of the Russian armed forces. The garrison numbers around 5,000 soldiers. The air base (3624th) is located at Erebouni airport, not far from Yerevan.

(19) The CIS includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Moldova announced its withdrawal on 15 May 2023.

(20) The CSTO brings together Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.

(21) Tensions heightened by the arrival in 2022 of hundreds of thousands of Russians seeking to escape military conscription.

(22) The cohabitation of a democratic entity with the structures of a dictatorial and autocratic state is, as the experience of Hong Kong shows, particularly problematic.

(23) Josep Borrel, Financial Times, 14 October 2023

Translated by Voxeurop

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EPP Lithuanian Office
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