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

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Harish Thakur 

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.