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This conflict was always on the edge of Europe

An interview with Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe. Interviewer: Bartłomiej Krzysztan

BARTŁOMIEJ KRZYSZTAN: The second Nagorno-Karabakh war left the South Caucasus in new geopolitical circumstances. What do you perceive as the main changes from the perspective of the international order? 

THOMAS DE WAAL: This war was a defeat for the attempt to achieve a multilateral, international peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Since the early 1990s that has been the vision: that this was a conflict which had not just Russian mediation, but also mediation from the United States and France. Part of the vision was that it would be some kind of multilateral peace, maybe similar to the one we have seen in the Balkans, but hopefully without its flaws, one which would take into account human rights abuses and be accompanied by some democratisation and a European integration agenda. That was the hope.

April 11, 2021 - Bartłomiej Krzysztan Thomas de Waal - InterviewsIssue 3 2021Magazine

Photo: Carnegie Europe

But this conflict was always on the edge of Europe. It is much more marginal to Europe than the Balkan conflicts, and also the region is very different. It was not solved for various reasons, for which one can blame the West, or one can blame the Russians. But primarily we have to blame the local actors – Armenia and Azerbaijan – for not trying to take the opportunity. This conflict descended into a second war and a Russian-brokered peace. So, what we have now is a nominal continuation of the multilateral, international OSCE process, but in practice, we are seeing Russia as the main mediator and broker, and, indeed, security actor on the ground with a smaller role being afforded to Turkey. The Europeans and the United States are not completely out of the picture, but are certainly marginalised. I guess this is maybe one example in the world where we are looking at a regionally-brokered peace, with the international players left on the outside. It harkens back to the not-so-great traditions of the Caucasus of the 19th and early 20th century, when the big neighbours, the imperial powers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – were the main international actors. I guess this is the main geopolitical fallout of this conflict.  

Do you think we are heading in direction of a complete withdrawal of “the West”, or “the Wests,” in plural, from the Caucasus? 

No, I do not think so. The South Caucasus remains a region that is always going to be an international hub, a crossroads. It is the meeting point of different regions, different neighbourhoods and different powers. I do not see any particular power having primacy there. The Russians have come back to a much more crowded region than the one they left at the end of the Soviet Union. Turkey is there, China is there, Asian powers are there and the European Union is there, certainly in the economic sense – certainly in Georgia and to a lesser extent in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The United States is still also an important actor with economic interests. I think it is incorrect to say that there is a withdrawal of western powers, but it is very much up to the West to decide to what extent this region is a strategic priority. I think the main way they can gain influence again is by spending money. That relates, of course, to the question of whether they have the financial resources, because there are huge economic needs, particularly now in Armenia and Azerbaijan after the conflict. Money spent wisely with international assistance will definitely increase western influence. 

After the war, the balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan has changed, but also the position of Georgia remains quite uncertain. How do you evaluate the new regional circumstances? 

Since the middle of the 1990s we saw the smallest power in the region, Armenia, exerting disproportionate influence due to its victory in the first Karabakh war. Azerbaijan was in very difficult circumstances having hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. Now Azerbaijan has reversed that dynamic and I do not think they will want to let it change again. We are seeing that the Azerbaijan-Turkey axis is much stronger, with Armenia feeling exposed in the middle. That will lead to Armenia’s increasing reliance on Russia as its main security patron and ally. This is also a wake-up call to Georgia. Georgia got used to the idea that it is the regional hub, the most open country in the South Caucasus, and the main East-West transit route. Now we see a challenge to that in the sense that we now have a Russian-proposed alternative – a planned Russian-Azerbaijani-Turkish transport network which goes through Russia, Azerbaijan, crosses a small part of southern Armenia into Nakhichevan and to Turkey. Eventually, railways and roads will be established there. This is an alternative East-West route that can be used by Russia, Turkey, and of course China. This is a challenge that is not welcomed in Georgia; they see an increase in Russian influence towards the south. Georgia, in this way, has to make its case better as a regional hub, as a transit route, and it has to look again at projects like the Anaklia Deep Port on the Black Sea. Unfortunately, from the events we see at the end of February, Georgia seems to be not drawing these conclusions at all; instead, we see the escalation of the domestic political crisis there, based on vendetta politics which have distracted the country for the past decade with the revenge match between the Georgian Dream and the United National Movement dominating domestic politics.  

Do you think that building infrastructure would be a possible way of creating reconciliation or it is rather some kind of devil’s plan by Turkey and Azerbaijan to just close down Armenia even more?         

I think this is one of the most positive elements emerging from the end of this conflict. Of course, the most positive element of all is the humanitarian one – the right of return to internally displaced Azerbaijanis. Another positive element is the potential reopening of transport links between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and possibly between Armenia and Turkey. We know that Armenians and Azerbaijanis have always traded together quite normally, including during the years of protracted conflict. For the last 25 years, they have traded together in Georgia. That is positive, but I do not think it will become a truly sustainable driver of peace, at least until we see more political elements in the new order. What we have at the moment is basically a ceasefire agreement with some economic elements attached to it. There is really no agenda for political normalisation, for resolution of the issue with the Karabakh Armenians and their status, and an end to all the toxic nationalist discourse happening between the two countries. Without that political element, I think we can see a lot of fear and distrust between the two countries and a rather limited economic agenda, which will suit Azerbaijan and Turkey a little, maybe, but it does not mean a big step forward for the whole region. 

The Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement has altered the balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but at the same time it left many issues unresolved. How will those issues be addressed in the future by both Armenia and Azerbaijan? Do you think that, right now, we are entering into a stage when they have to find common ground or maybe this is a new “frozen conflict,” and the rivalry will continue, but in a different form? 

What we have is not full peace. It is a ceasefire agreement that has stopped major fighting, but with a five-year window, which is the length of the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping mission to bring some kind of stabilisation, normalisation and political agreement. At the end of the five years, one of the parties, presumably Azerbaijan, has the right to veto the extension of that peacekeeping mission. Of course, Russians will try to find strong arguments to continue the mission, but it means that there is also a potential for a breakdown of this new order. Now, are the two nations interested in making a sustainable peace deal? That would be logical, but we have not seen much of that logic for the last 25 years. At the moment, both countries seem very much preoccupied with the domestic agendas. President Ilham Aliyev is consolidating his triumph in Azerbaijan, trying to further marginalise the opposition. And there is also this big, quite disturbing struggle taking place in Armenia where Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is fighting for his political career. That does not leave much room for forward thinking and working with the other side. The Russians are interested in some kind of stabilisation, but they also have a contrary interest – if there is full normalisation of relations, that removes the raison d’être for the Russian peacekeeping mission there. The Russians are not in a big hurry to see a full peace agreement either. I think the best we can say is that the cards have been shaken and the map has been changed. There are new opportunities there for people to seize. Hopefully some actors, maybe the business community can begin that, and later other actors can seize these opportunities. But, to be honest, I do not see much evidence of forward-looking strategic thinking in either Armenia or Azerbaijan. 

What do you think about the Azerbaijani victory? Because we already see in Azerbaijan a certain triumphalism. Do you think that this is the moment when Aliyev will be consolidating his authoritarian regime even more? We are also seeing what is happening in Armenia. Do you perceive it as the failure of the 2018 Velvet Revolution?             

To start with Azerbaijan, I think Aliyev almost certainly sees this as vindication of the policies he adopted over the last 10-15 years which is authoritarian consolidation and a non-aligned foreign policy. He picks different partners and works with them, but does not align with one particular regional order, be it Russia or the West. Indeed, relying on a quite repressive style of government, Aliyev looks around – he looks at Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Turkey and he sees that all these countries had popular uprisings which have either challenged or removed previous regimes. He thinks that Azerbaijan has avoided that. One could, of course, say that he just postponed the problems rather than resolved them, but I think he feels vindicated. I would not expect any alteration in that policy. The main weakness he has is the economic one. Oil revenues are falling. Last year they were worth 3.5 billion US dollars compared to 20 billion in 2011, which simply means he has fewer financial resources. His regime will also be likely to be pressured from the devaluation of the manat (the currency of Azerbaijan) in the upcoming months. The expenses of the war and the reconstruction process would even be more expensive. He has things to celebrate politically, but still has a difficult economic climate to contend with.

As for Armenia, certainly the Velvet Revolution now almost looks like a distant memory, even though it happened less than three years ago. Pashinyan came to power on a massive wave of popular support, but he has mainly used that to wage domestic political fights. There is not much evidence of institution-building in Armenia. His default reaction to any crisis is to call people out on the streets, which is more the action of the opposition leader than the head of the government. And, indeed, this is what he has done during the latest crisis. The Velvet Revolution succeeded in sweeping away one regime, but has not put a new political order in place. We can now see a kind of hybrid system with a still strong oligarchic presence. Pashinyan’s popular government is less popular, of course, after the disastrous failure in the war, but it is still more popular than the opposition. But it does not have much of an agenda. I guess, the fear after the war is that many Armenians will prioritise national security issues over democracy, and they will see that it is more important to defend Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey than to build democracy. There are many reasons to be pessimistic about the democratic gains of the Velvet Revolution. 

I want to ask you about the human costs of the war. You recently wrote that reconciliation should come from above. The speeches by Aliyev and Pashinyan after the war do not give much hope. This hatred, this building of the picture of the enemy from both sides continue even after the war is over. Do you think that politicians in Baku and Yerevan are aware of how damaging these speeches can be for reconciliation, or are they just instrumentalising the possibility? 

One would hope that here is another way to change this discourse. For 30 years now Armenia and Azerbaijan had been yin and yang opposites. They both define themselves in opposition to the other. Armenia is anti-Azerbaijan; Azerbaijan is anti-Armenia. Their national projects have been based on defying, almost destroying, the other. One would hope that could change, but as you say the discourse continues – Armenophobic discourse in Azerbaijan without any acknowledgement that Azerbaijan could do anything wrong towards Armenians. And, again, this view in Armenia that Azerbaijanis are an existential threat to the country, that they are preparing the second genocide therefore justifies any Armenian actions. These discourses are quite strong and, indeed, have been strengthened by the recent conflict. Obviously, it would be nice to see political leadership from above to remind Armenians and Azerbaijanis that there are many examples in history of how the two nations got along well together, that they have reasons to co-operate. I do not expect that to happen any time soon. The best one can hope for is maybe this will tone down gradually. I guess the hope is that people-to-people contacts will begin to somewhat resume, particularly with the two sides living more in proximity and trading with one another. Armenians and Azerbaijanis have always found a lot in common on trade and other areas. Musicians still work together while neither of them works so closely with Georgians, because they have much more similar musical tradition. The hope is maybe that there will be small, gradual convergence and coming together. But I do not think anything will radically change until the message from above changes. That requires political leadership and political will. 

Do you think that in order to achieve this, a change of leadership is necessary or a change within the leadership which is already in power? 

Maybe different leaders could give different messages, but I think these leaders are emerging from a political culture which has a broad consensus on these issues. It might be a mistake to wait for different political leaders. Possibly the next political leaders would have the advantage that they would not be associated with this conflict and would be able to turn a new page, which I guess would be positive. One has to look for other elements in society as work to begin to change this discourse, whether that is cultural people, business people, or young people who may be fed up with the kind of messages older generations have been feeding them for many years. 

The problem which I have always seen in relations between young Armenians and Azerbaijanis is that they do not remember when they were getting along, or hanging out together. Young people are very often much more confrontational, because they lack any experience of common living like during the Soviet times. 

It is certainly the case that lots of the younger generations are antagonistic, having grown up with this brainwashing for the last 30 years while older people, who were living together during the Soviet times, have common memories and are often more tolerant. Having said that, I think some younger people are a bit dissident and are actively interested in building links with one another. I have discovered that personally. Since the conflict started, people have been in touch with me and want to actively meet people from the other side. Unfortunately, particularly in the Azerbaijani case, many of these people are now outside of the country, because they are not feeling comfortable and safe within. There is perhaps – and I am being a little cautious here because one always has to be cautious about this conflict – the beginning of a kind of peace constituency among certain groups. We have seen that these groups can form in these new circumstances, the kind of peace constituency one sees in other conflict situations – like in Cyprus, for example, or in Northern Ireland, where it was large enough to change everything. In the Caucasus it has always been much smaller; it has been almost non-existent in the Armenian-Azerbaijani context, just a few individuals. Hopefully that peace constituency will grow a little over the next few years and be a factor to be reckoned with. 

You said that you see one more positive outcome of the recent war – the right of return for Azerbaijani internally displaced persons from the 1990s. On the other hand, thousands of Armenians have now fled the districts which were regained by Azerbaijan. Thus, I have the impression that we are exchanging one humanitarian crisis for another. How can this problem be solved? Do you think that peaceful coexistence in Karabakh is possible? 

There are several points which have to be addressed. First of all, of course, this is a tragedy that people have been displaced by this conflict, but in terms of raw numbers, the number of beneficiaries is much greater at the end of this conflict. More than half a million Azerbaijanis will have the right to return. I think we should talk about the right of return because it would be many years before these de-occupied districts of Azerbaijan are demined and reconstructed and then become liveable. People are already visiting their former homes in small numbers and this is positive. This affects a huge number of people. Certainly more than five per cent of the whole Azerbaijani population is affected by that. This can be viewed as a big deal, the big upside of this conflict. It is certainly a shame that it had been achieved by war when it could, theoretically, have been achieved by a peace agreement without blood being shed. But as you say, there are new people displaced by this conflict – more than 30,000 Armenians from Karabakh, particularly from the Hadrut region and the town of Shusha (or Shushi, as the Armenians call it). There are also several thousand Azerbaijanis who do not have a right to return at the moment, because there are also the Azerbaijanis from Khojaly in Karabakh and the town of Lachin. So that is the problem, these new displaced Armenians are certainly a tragic outcome of this war and will be an embittered constituency. Is peaceful coexistence possible? I think it will probably happen one day when there is a full political agreement. I think the best one can hope for at the moment is some kind of living side by side, some kind of interaction between the two sides, firstly through a certain level of trade and business. But the idea that Armenians and Azerbaijanis will be living side by side in the same population centres, I think that is a very, very distant prospect indeed. 

Many Armenians are in denial, while Azerbaijanis set a triumphalist, yet unrealistic, narrative. They are not understanding the real cost of rebuilding the de-occupied regions and part of Karabakh under Azerbaijani control. Does Nagorno-Karabakh as a separate, informal entity still exist? Or the status it had during the Soviet times and for the last 30 years is gone and we are not going to talk about its special status anymore? 

That is a very important question for which I am not sure we have an answer. Certainly, we can say that Nagorno-Karabakh, as a territorial entity within the borders that were drawn in 1923 when the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was created, no longer really exist in the sense that Azerbaijan is now in control of about one-third of that territory and no longer recognises it as a distinct entity. Having said that, the Karabakh Armenians are still there –for them it is their homeland. As we know, they are extremely tough people who are not just going to surrender to Azerbaijan. They believe they achieved their aspirations to separate from Azerbaijan, even if they then lost a lot of ground and a lot of hope in the war. But the idea that they would peacefully reintegrate into Azerbaijan is a fantasy. I think everyone knows that certainly is the case. The question then becomes what happens to these people within the rather smaller territory that remains to them. A lot in the short term depends on the Russian strategy, but what is Russia’s plan? Does it plan to make them a little Russian enclave and give them Russian passports? Are they automatically less important for the Russian agenda than Azerbaijan? These are all unanswered questions. I think we can certainly say that the Karabakh Armenians are an important group in the region, certainly in the Armenian nation and the idea that they will just simply disappear and give up is not feasible. Giving them some kind of just solution, obviously far less than independence, but more than just becoming a normal district of Azerbaijan, is a challenge that remains. It was always at the core of this conflict and it will not be resolved until that question is settled.    

Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specialising in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.

Bartłomiej Krzysztan is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. His research interests include cultural memory, identity in the post-Soviet space, and politics in the South Caucasus.

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