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Chaos in the Caucasus
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 04 - 2016

It is hard to pick the oddest conflict in the strategic Caucasus region that separates Russia from the Middle East and Turkey from its fellow Turkic-speaking republics that were once part of the Russian Empire and then the former Soviet Union.
The forces that animate this combustible region are different in psychological terms, and the various rival nationalities of the Caucasus region see fighting each other for survival as a heroic venture.
Although there is plenty to be unhappy about in the Caucasus states, they all strive for survival. The prefix Nagorno, for instance, is derived from the Russian adjective which means “highland”. And Russia holds the key to peace in the region. Perhaps its influence is not surprising since Russia was once the ruler of the volatile region, though Turkey would also like to make its presence felt.
Can the countries of the Caucasus do without external charity, be it Russian or Turkish in origin? At least 30 troops and a 12-year-old boy were killed on Saturday as conflict broke out between ancient enemies Armenia and Azerbaijan over the ethnic enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The consequences of this latest conflict in the Caucasus augur ill. So why did the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupt at this moment? Many argue that it was instigated by powers that did not take part in the fighting on the ground. The pertinent question is whether it was Ankara's doing or was it the Kremlin's.
The name Karabakh is made up of two Turkic words and literally means “Black Garden”. The majority ethnic Armenians, however, prefer to call the region Artsakh, an ancient Armenian name for the area. The enclave lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians.
A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in 1994, leaving Karabakh as well as swathes of Azeri territory around the landlocked enclave in Armenian hands. The enclave, comprising an area of 4,400 square km, has been the scene of sporadic breaches of the ceasefire since.
Fighting erupted in the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Saturday. Though there have been regular flare-ups of hostilities since the Russian-brokered agreement, none has been as violent as the current hostilities.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu spoke on phone, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, with his Armenian and Azeri counterparts Seyran Ohanyan and Zakir Hasanov, respectively, in a bid to ease the tensions.
Among the political events of 2016 so far, few have been as worrying as the return of the traditional war between Armenia and its Turkic foes centred on Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict has roots dating back well over a century into competition between Christian Armenia and Turkic Muslim Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh became part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century. The oil-rich, predominantly Muslim republic of Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea was one of the first Muslim states to declare itself secular immediately after independence in 1918.
The Azeri population of Nagorno-Karabakh, which constituted 24 per cent of the enclave's population before the conflict, have fled the disputed territory, while ethnic Armenians have fled the rest of Azerbaijan.
There was once a considerable ethnic Armenian population in the Azeri capital Baku. Azerbaijan claims that 21 per cent of Azerbaijani territory is now occupied by Armenia.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has expressed “grave concern” over the break-out of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave. Azerbaijan is considered to be one of the most important nations in the world for oil and natural gas exploration, even though the current plummeting of global petroleum prices has negatively impacted the economy.
The Kremlin has reasonably good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, even though Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan has closer relations with its ethnic kith and kin in Turkey, a country that has seen deteriorating relations with Moscow over the past few months.
Azerbaijan has also purchased at least US$4 billion worth of arms from Russia in recent years. But Armenia is also an important strategic partner of Russia in the Caucasus, especially now that Russia has set its eyes on Syria as Armenia and the Caucasus in general is a conduit between Russia and the Middle East.
Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev said that “an Armenian subversive group was eliminated last month” in the country, “exposing and disgracing the Armenian authorities.” The Azeri president was in Washington for a two-day nuclear security summit hosted by US president Barack Obama, and Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan was no less forthright.
“We want to see a resolution of the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh that needs to be a negotiated settlement and something that has to be worked on over time,” US secretary of state John Kerry stated. However, beneath the surface of American political prestige, it is the Kremlin, and not the US Congress, that cracks the whip in the Caucasus.
The OSCE Minsk Group coordinates with some 80 US Congressmen on the region, and the co-chairmen of the body, ambassadors Igor Popov of Russia, Washington's James Warlick, and Pierre Andrieu of France, issued a strongly worded statement expressing their concern about the “senseless loss of life” in the enclave.
They also stressed that there was “no alternative to a peaceful negotiated solution of the conflict and that war is not an option.”
Turkey has not kept quiet either. “Turkey has stood by Azerbaijan from the very beginning of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. At some point, Karabakh will inevitably return to its rightful owner and become a part of Azerbaijan again,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared over the weekend, deliberately dropping the Russian “Nagorno”.
In Moscow, president Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin was concerned about developments in Nagorno-Karabakh.
History is the cradle of contemporary politics, and Armenian culture and civilisation flourished in early mediaeval Nagorno-Karabakh. In the 5th century, the first-ever Armenian school was opened in the mountainous territory, leading the way to an Armenian cultural renaissance in the region.
Around the mid-7th century, the region was conquered by the invading Muslim Arabs, and yet Armenian kings maintained control over Nagorno-Karabakh until the mid-18th century. Then another powerful regional player, Iran, intervened.
Iran's celebrated ruler Nader Shah, the Napoleon of modern Persia, took control of Nagorno-Karabakh when he regained control over Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The first modern Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to 1918 to 1920. This was a time when Armenia temporarily lost control of the “Black Garden,” though it later moved back centre stage. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged.
The demise of the Soviet Union released new energies as far as the Armenians were concerned. Relatively resource poor in spite of remittances from overseas Armenians in North America, Europe and Australia, the Armenian economy was fast faltering at the time. By 2009, Armenia's GDP had contracted over 14 per cent, which according to the World Bank was the fifth worst in the world that year after the three Baltic states and Ukraine.
Today, Armenia blames Azerbaijan for hampering the peace process and pursuing an openly anti-Armenian stance. Turkic Azerbaijan does not deny the charges, much to Armenia's consternation.
This history that takes Armenians and Azeris back and forth over the intractable threshold between two rival civilisations brings into sharp relief the rivalry for control over the Caucasus. Artsrun Ovannisian, an Armenian defence ministry spokesman, said on Monday that the Karabakh militia had advanced in the territory overnight, “liberating new positions.”
“A further escalation of military action could lead to unpredictable and irreversible consequences, right up to a full-scale war,” Sarksyan warned at a meeting with foreign ambassadors in the Armenian capital Yerevan.
The Azeri response was swift, and an Azeri drone promptly targeted a bus taking Armenian volunteers to defend Nagorno-Karabakh, killing five people.
The Minsk Group met in Vienna on Tuesday and announced a ceasefire. “The deterioration of the situation on the ground demonstrates the need for an immediate negotiation on a comprehensive settlement.”
After the meeting and until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press a ceasefire has been declared following four days of intense fighting.


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