On September 27th, 2020 the Turkey-backed Azerbaijani army launched a military attack against Armenian forces in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh. The region is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani but has been run by ethnic Armenians since 1994. The war ended on November 10th with a ceasefire mediated by Russia declaring de facto a victory for Azerbaijan, holding on to areas taken during the conflict. Furthermore, Armenia had to withdraw from several other adjacent areas, thus allowing ethnic Armenians to keep living in just a small segment of the region around the city of Stepanakert. The agreement includes the creation of a terrestrial way controlled by Azerbaijan crossing all Armenia and the arrival of the Russian army as a peacekeeping force in Nagorno Karabakh to guarantee respect of the balance.
Four months after the ceasefire, the situation in the Caucasus remains precarious. The war brought a stronger Russian and Turkish presence to the region. Azerbaijan also increased its influence and now aims to be considered as a relevant geopolitical actor. At the same time, Armenia is facing strong internal instability, facing around 100,000 internal displaced people from the war and a restriction of its sovereignty due to heavy Russian presence. This has brought strong internal ongoing tensions between the pro-Western forces led by president Nikol Pashinyan and the oppositions. We discussed the regional scenario with Giuliano Bifolchi, intelligence analyst and news editor specialized in the field of international relations, geopolitics, terrorism and security for different companies and news agencies, and, most recently the author of Geopolitics of the Russian Caucasus (Sandro Teti, 2020).
The Caucasus has been a very unstable region since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Three wars have been fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the control of Nagorno Karabakh, two so called “color revolutions” took place in Georgia (2003) and Armenia (2018), while Chechnya has seen several conflicts as well. Are there common origins for these instabilities?
There are two main reasons for these instabilities. The first one is related to the transitional period from the Soviet Union to the post-soviet space. With the exception of the Baltic states all the former soviet satellites in the Caucasus and in central Asia reached an internal stability only when they established very centralized governments, controlled by family groups strongly connected to the previous soviet nomenklatura. This is the case for Azerbaijan and for today’s Chechen Republic. Less centralized states saw rising clashes between the oligarchies and the new political forces pushing for democratization, thus bringing internal instability as in Georgia and Armenia. On the other hand, the Caucasus is a hydrocarbons hub, a melting pot of religions and ethnic groups as well as a strategic junction between Central Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. This makes it historically a battleground between different powerful geopolitical players. The Tsarist Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Safavid Empire in the past. Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the West today. The intersection of these two reasons explains the structural fragility of the region.
How did the last war in Nagorno Karabakh change the balance of power in the Caucasus?
By supporting Azerbaijan, Ankara settled a permanent base in the Caucasus, thus increasing its power. However Turkish influence is balanced by Russia that also saw the rise of its regional importance. We should not forget that Russia was able to mediate the end of the war and sent its army straight to Nagorno Karabakh after that. This enlarges the Russian military presence in the Caucasus, in addition to its soldiers already based on the borders with Georgia and in the Russian military base of Gyumri, in Armenia. Now Moscow is extending its regional influence keeping Azerbaijan as a partner and placing Armenia almost fully under its influence.
How deep will this limit the sovereignty of Armenia?
Armenia’s main problem is that its economy has been shocked by the Turkish and Azerbaijani embargo since the heavy difficulties of the initial post-soviet years. Most of the economical assets were provided by the Armenian diaspora. Yerevan did not have any other choice but tying itself to Russia. Pashinyan’s opening to the West weakened the connection with its most important partner. Azerbaijan on the other hand has seen very rapid economic growth over the past 20 years, mainly through the export of hydrocarbons. Therefore, in the near future, Baku could provide a lot more investments in Nagorno Karabakh compared to what Armenia has done so far. While Azerbaijan can aspire to become a geopolitical power in the region, Armenia will have to accept Russian guidance.
Are the ongoing popular uprisings in Armenia and Georgia a direct consequence of the last war in Nagorno Karabakh?
This is definitely the case in Armenia. However, there are other structural reasons beyond these two uprisings. The so-called colored revolutions that brought Nikol Pashinyan into power in Armenia and Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia took place due to real existing problems as well as through the push of the West. They have marked a break with past oligarchies, however they have not reached the expected outcomes. The high expectations for wellness and development are now clashing with internal problems, thus leading to the reaction of the citizenry. The main mistake was to try to reproduce the Western model directly in the Caucasus without going through a transition phase that considers the peculiarities of these countries. Some issues were solved but others were aggravated, especially those related to Russia. We should not forget that post-soviet states are deeply integrated with the Russian Federation. The Kremlin hates colored revolutions as well as Arab springs because it fears that these will also arrive in Russia, as it was just attempted through Alexei Navalny. If we consider Armenia, Pashinyan is now paying for his grievances towards Moscow, since he tried to disconnect the country from the Eurasian space to attach it to the West. This is why Putin did not invite him to the anniversary celebrations for the Great Patriotic Victory in 2020 and Russia didn’t support Armenia during the last Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The Kremlin only acted when the Azerbaijani expansion was getting too large.
Azerbaijan has seen rampant economic growth since the end of the first Nagorno Karabakh war of the 90s, reaching a GPD of $47 billion in 2018. Does that suffice to make it a regional geopolitical power?
Azerbaijan has seen rapid economic growth since the 90s through the exploitation of its natural resources. Its government was able to establish good relationships with all the geopolitical giants surrounding it, starting with Turkey but also with Iran and Russia, from which Baku buys weapons. At the same time Azerbaijan, became one of Europe’s main energy suppliers, thus leading to a relevant growth of its geopolitical importance. However, this growth could be seen as a threat by its neighbors, especially Iran. Both countries share a common religious, cultural, and historical background and a part of the Iranian population is made by citizens of Azerbaijani ethnicity. However, there might be problems since they both have interests in the Caspian Sea; Tehran could see the growing maritime influence of Azerbaijan as a threat. At the same time, Iran accuses Azerbaijan of being an intelligence platform for Israel, claiming that Azerbaijan hosted Mossad agents from whence they developed underground activities against the Islamic Republic.
How can Azerbaijan face the threat coming from such powerful neighbors?
Azerbaijan needs to diversify its economy. It is not sufficient to be a producer anymore, it wants to become the logistic and transit hub for oil and gas through its platforms in the Caspian Sea. This would be facilitated by a strong and stable centralized government like the one currently in power. Ilham Aliyev is quite a young political figure that could remain in power for the next 20 years. He is pushing for the import of European technology, especially from Italy and Germany. That is why the Nagorno Karabakh issue is so important. Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan is not targeted by any sanctions and is able to facilitate European investments in the country. This way Aliyev can increase the import of the European technology and then deploy throughout the country, thus filling the existing gap between the developed centers like Baku and the less modernized countryside. The Nagorno Karabakh issue is not just a nationalistic one but a way to attract investments, uniform the entire country, and increase internal legitimacy.
Cover Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan (R) and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev deliver a joint statement following their talks at the Kremlin – January 11, 2021 (Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / AFP).
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