Geopolitics of the Caucasus between Armenian protests and Azerbaijani strategies

The Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan, the President of Russia Vladimir Putin and the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev during a meeting which discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the future of the Caucasus (Credits: President.az, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 19 Issue 2
Author: Silvia Boltuc

Against the backdrop of the Ukrainian conflict, several frozen conflicts of the post-Soviet space have witnessed new tensions. Two critical events promoted by Azerbaijan sparked protests in Armenia and might prompt a new escalation over Nagorno-Karabakh.

On April 22th, 2022, in the city of Shusha (Shushi in Armenian) took place the Fifth World Congress of Azerbaijanis. President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, attended the event and gave a speech with crucial geopolitical implications. The words chosen had a substantial propaganda value and underlined the Azerbaijani narrative, which highlights the victory over the Armenian counterpart.

The Head of State opened his speech by stating that the Congress was held “in free Karabakh and free Shusha.” Moreover, he added that “the name of the event was ‘Congress of Victory’, as natural (…) after the victory in the Patriotic War”. The President called Azerbaijani work on Shusha a “rebirth” of the city. He also accused the Armenians of having insulted and demolished mosques and ultimately not having built a single edifice in years. Another critical passage in his speech was the recalling of the first Congress organised on the initiative of National Leader Heydar Aliyev in 2001. The Azerbaijani President remarked how the successors of the great leader have turned what Heydar Aliyev said in 2001 into reality: Azerbaijan restored its territorial integrity, freed the occupied territories and thus allowed the Azerbaijani people to return to their homelands.

One of the most controversial points in Aliyev’s speech was the normalisation of relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. He argued that:

“Baku proposed five specific principles, and Armenia accepted them. Therefore, the Armenian leadership has officially declared that it recognises the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and has no territorial claims and will not have any in the future.”.

According to Aliyev, the agreement’s text might have been prepared and signed soon. Afterwards, President Aliyev took part in the International Conference on “Southern Caucasus: Development and Cooperation” held at the ADA University, one of the leading universities in Azerbaijan. The first edition of the Forum in 2021 was devoted to the great victory and the liberation of the Azerbaijani lands.[1] This year the Forum celebrated Shusha and was attended by international experts and think tank representatives from 23 countries. On this occasion, the one side narrative was direct to the global audience to spread this specific version of the events worldwide.

As the President underlined,

“it was essential that the international community, the leading international organisations accept the new realities on the ground”.

Ambassador Hafiz Pashayev, who once again recalled the “barbarian destructions left after Armenian occupation”, also invited the audience to “spread worldwide the messages and points coming from the panel through articles and social media networks”. According to Pashayev, President Ilham Aliyev is turning Karabakh into the world’s most prosperous and peaceful region.

Some recent developments, confirmed by the Azerbaijani President’s words, have sparked protests in Armenia. Aliyev, in fact, in his speech, stated that Azerbaijan got a positive response from the Armenian side as Yerevan accepted five basic principles, which Baku put forward.

“Thus, the Armenian leadership has officially stated that it recognises the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and has no territorial claims to Azerbaijan and will not do so in the future”, added Aliyev.[2]

Based on Baku’s proposal, Armenia agreed finally to establish joint working groups with Azerbaijan to start the process of delimitation of the border. As a confirmation of ongoing collaboration, Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia Armen Grigoryan scheduled a meeting with Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan Hikmet Hajiyev in Brussels on May 2nd, 2022.[3]

Furthermore, the Russian and Armenian Foreign Ministers discussed forming a Commission for the demarcation and security of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ararat Mirzoyan agreed with Lavrov’s proposal to hold a trilateral meeting (Russia – Armenia – Azerbaijan) within the CIS Council of Foreign Ministers’ framework on May 13th,2022, in Dushanbe.[4]

Protests and political crisis in Armenia

On April 17th, 2022, the Armenian opposition launched an ongoing protest to force the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Protesters accused him of wanting to transfer Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan after Pashinyan’s statement on the need to “lower the bar” of requirements for the status of Artsakh, as requested by international partners.

“The country’s authorities have already resigned themselves to the idea that Artsakh will be part of Azerbaijan. We have come to a situation where the security of Armenia itself is threatened,”

said Artur Vanetsyan, leader of the “Honor I Have” Alliance, which is participating in the protests. Vanetsyan complained that the loss of Armenian soldiers’ life and years of struggle is turning out to have been meaningless. Following, several prominent political leaders participated in the protests, including Ishkhan Saghetalyan and Robert Kocharyan, Armenia’s second President.

The leader of the opposition party “Bright Armenia” Edmon Marukyan said that it is unlikely that the current rallies can change anything since “in June last year, Yerevan held parliamentary elections, the result of which was accepted by everyone, even marginal parties. As for the situation of Nagorno-Karabakh” he underlined that Armenia “has a threat of war until a peace treaty with Azerbaijan is signed. In such circumstances, all resources must be concentrated to get out of this situation peacefully,” the politician said.[5]

The opposition and part of the army had already accused the government of having signed the ceasefire of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and gave Baku territories that the Azerbaijani troops had not conquered. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the Artsakh leadership justified the agreement as “obligatory to avoid total defeat”.

Looking at recent Baku’s strategies, Azerbaijan has isolated Armenia, whose only neighbouring ally is Iran. In this regard, it should be noted that in his recent speech, Aliyev emphasised how “there is a very close cooperation between Azerbaijan and Georgia”.

“During the 2020 war, we asked our Georgian friends to block the transport of weapons from Russia by air and land to Armenia. Georgia did it, for which we are grateful to it”.

Furthermore, Azerbaijan has attempted to rewrite the regional history or delete Armenian historical sites. On February 3rd, 2022, the Azerbaijani government announced that it would target hundreds of sacred sites that bear witness to Armenian Christian history in the disputed Nagorno- Karabakh region.[6]The European Parliament has adopted a resolution that ‘strongly condemns Azerbaijan’s continued policy of erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage in and around Nagorno-Karabakh’.[7] The review of these territories’ historical heritage is also sought through soft power, such as books publications. This is the case of Karabakh Khanate: Historical and Cultural Profile presented at recent forums. The book was realised by a group of Georgian scientists under Professor Eldar Nadiradze, who has gathered more than 300 photographs of objects related to the Karabakh Khanate of the Azerbaijani state with its capital in Shusha, to enhance Baku’s rhetoric that these territories belong to Azerbaigian.[8]

Finally, Baku attempted to open international airports representing its state in liberated territories. Aliyev, in the course of the forums, underlined:

” in Lachin, we are currently in the phase of construction of an international airport, and in Zangilan the airport will open this year “.

 Conclusions

Due to the well-known ‘frozen conflict’, the post-Soviet space has experienced continued tensions and escalations. The current Ukraine conflict, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the ongoing tensions between Abkhazia and Georgia, South Ossetia and Georgia and Transnistria/Pridnestrovie and Moldova underline the complex situation that originated after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2020, thanks to Israel and Turkey’s help, Baku managed to regain most of the territories lost 26 years before. The Republic of Artsakh is reduced to a small enclave around the capital Stepanakert surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. The connection with Armenia, the narrow corridor of Lachin, is protected by Russian peacekeepers, but taking advantage of Russian involvement in Ukraine, there have been recent attacks from the Azerbaijani side, which Moscow has confirmed. Armenia is facing economic difficulties also due to two years of pandemic and solid political instability. There are about 150 military and civilian prisoners of Azerbaijan and hundreds of thousands of refugees from the territories reconquered by Baku.

Moscow has a robust military presence on the Armenian territory. In May 2021, two new Russian military sites were announced in the Syunik region on the border with Azerbaijan. Although some experts declared that Pashinyan is part of a pro-Western coalition, the only two allies he can count on remain Russia and Iran. Azerbaijan has secured the European and Georgian alliance with gas supplies and boasts two of the most potent regional players among its military allies: Israel and Turkey (which is a NATO member).

The humiliation to which the Armenian people have been subjected, such as “Victory Park”, a horror museum inaugurated by Azerbaijan, increases internal discontent. Protesters clamouring for Pashinyan’s resignation and the recent attacks by the Azerbaijani military on the territories controlled by Russian peacekeepers risk triggering a new conflict in the region or starting a new Armenian uprising. In the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, with Bruxelles’s growing dependence on Azerbaijani gas, it is difficult to predict how the European Union will manage the situation in the Caucasus.

Source

[1] Azertac, (2022) Canciller azerbaiyano participó en la mesa redonda de la conferencia internacional “Cáucaso Sur: Desarrollo y Cooperación”. Link: https://azertag.az/en/xeber/International_conference_on_South_Caucasus_Development_and_Cooperation_was_held_at_ADA_University_President_Ilham_Aliyev_attended_the_conference_VIDEO-2115236

[2] President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev (2022) Ilham Aliyev gave a speech at 5th Congress of World Azerbaijanis in Shusha. Link: https://president.az/en/articles/view/55859

[3] Armenpress (2022) Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia will meet with  Foreign Policy Advisor to the president of Azerbaijan. Link: https://armenpress.am/eng/news/1081992/

[4] Newsarmenia (2022) Встреча глав МИД Армении, России и Азербайджана состоится 13 мая (Meeting of Foreign Ministers of Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan to be held on May 13). Link: Встреча глав МИД Армении, России и Азербайджана состоится 13 мая (newsarmenia.am)

[5] Ivan Polovinin (2022) «Попытка сменить власть под соусом Карабаха»: сможет ли армянская оппозиция убрать Пашиняна (An attempt to change the government under the sauce of Karabakh”: will the Armenian opposition be able to remove Pashinyan), Gazeta.Ru. Link: https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2022/04/18/14747972.shtml?updated

[6] Simon Maghakyan (2022) A Vicious Circle of Cultural Erasure in Azerbaijan, The Wall Streat Journal. Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-vicious-circle-of-cultural-erasure-azerbaijan-armenia-culture-muslim-christian-sites-11648151998?mod=e2two

[7] Ani Avetisyan (2022) EU Parliament condemns destruction of Armenian heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh, OC-media. Link: https://oc-media.org/eu-parliament-condemns-destruction-of-armenian-heritage-in-nagorno-karabakh/

[8] Azertac (2022) Canciller azerbaiyano participó en la mesa redonda de la conferencia internacional “Cáucaso Sur: Desarrollo y Cooperación”. Link: https://azertag.az/es/xeber/Canciller_azerbaiyano_participo_en_la_mesa_redonda_de_la_conferencia_internacional__quotCucaso_Sur_Desarrollo_y_Cooperacion_quot-2117468