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Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh opens the door to new conflicts in the Caucasus

Yerevan fears that President Aliyev’s forces will continue their streak of victories and seize Armenian territory

Azerbaiyán Nagorno Karabaj
Refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh region ride on the back of a truck as they arrive at the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, on September 26, 2023.IRAKLI GEDENIDZE (REUTERS)
Pilar Bonet

The self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has ceased to exist and the ethnic Armenian population residing in the territory has set out on another exodus, adding one more painful exile suffered by the Armenian people to the country’s collective memory.

It remains to be seen what effect the wave of refugees will have on the leadership of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. It also remains to be seen what the attitude of President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan will be towards the Karabakh Armenians who remain in the territory. They have to trust that the authoritarian leader will respect, as he claims, the minority rights of Azerbaijan’s citizens of Armenian origin.

In Armenia itself, the people fear that Aliyev’s forces will continue their victorious streak that led to the take-over of Nagorno-Karabakh and seize territory in the internationally recognized state of Armenia.

For the region to develop, it is essential to restore (and expand) the system of communications that was severed at the end of the 1980s, when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict first broke out. But the restoration of communications can only be a reality if the two countires and the larger regional powers involved in the area (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) reach a consensus that the European Union and the United States can also sign up to. In these untamed lands, the political and economic configuration of an important part of the world is at stake.

From a geostrategic point of view, the key point is the corridor through the Zangezur region, in southern Armenia. It is a 43-kilometer (27-mile) wide strip of land, located on the route from Turkey to Baku along the border with Iran. On this route, which unites the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan proper, a rail and road communications system operated during the Soviet Union. It was later abandoned when the conflict broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh, as the trains were stoned — by one side or the other, depending on the section — and the rails were torn up. The loss of land communication between the main territory of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan forced Azerbaijanis to detour through Iran or through Georgia and Turkey to access Nakhchivan.

The creation of a corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan appears in the ceasefire protocol that Aliyev and Pashinyan, arbitrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, signed in November 2020. But the negotiations to implement it have not been successful, as Armenia fears Azerbaijan will use the corridor to annex Zangezur. And there is no shortage of other reasons.

Zangezur adopted Christianity in the 4th century and Armenians consider this region the cradle of their people. Occupied over time by the Seljuk Turks and the Mongols and devastated by Ottoman and Persian raids, in 1813 Zangezur was incorporated into the Russian Empire. At the beginning of the 20th century, Muslims (mostly Azerbaijanis) and Armenians lived in the territory, but the majority of the Azerbaijani population in the area fled the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Armenian warlords in their war against Azerbaijan (1918-1920).

In 1920, Zangezur became part of the Armenian Soviet Republic. And at the end of the 1980s, its last Azerbaijani residents fled for fear of a new ethnic cleansing, like those that had already been unleashed in other territories affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In front of a military audience in 2014, Aliyev said: ”The Armenian state was founded on the historical territories of Azerbaijan. The Yerevan Khanate, Zangezur […] are our historical lands. We, the Azerbaijanis, must and will return to these lands, and we will do it. We must restore our territorial integrity.” In April 2021, the Azerbaijani leader stated in an interview that “the creation of the Zangezur corridor fully responds to our national, historical, and future interests. We are implementing the Zangezur corridor, whether Armenia wants it or not. If Armenia wants it, then the issue will be resolved easier, if it does not want it, we will decide it by force.”

Following his meeting on Monday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Aliyev said, “I am sure this project will develop successfully and […] it will serve the interests of Azerbaijan, Turkey and other countries.” He added that he was confident that the Azerbaijani part of the work would be ready at the beginning of next year.

Turkish President Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, on a joint visit to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, on September 25.ROMAN ISMAYILOV (EFE)

The Russian presence

Under the November 2020 agreement, the custody of the Zangezur corridor falls to Russian border guards, who also control Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran. In addition to a military base in Armenia and several thousand border guards, Moscow has a military contingent of nearly 2,000 soldiers on a peace mission who were to ensure the safety of the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The interests of the principal actors diverge. For Azerbaijan, in addition to communication between parts of its territory, the corridor reinforces the “two states, one people” policy practiced by Ankara and Baku. Moscow, for its part, fears that Turkey will gain a foothold in the area and that the West will position itself to replace Russian border guards. For the Kremlin, staying in Zangezur is a way of staying in the South Caucasus, even if only symbolically. Iran, in turn, fears that Armenia will become a NATO outpost and an operational platform for Israel.

If Aliyev invaded Zangezur, would the West consider measures against Baku similar to those it adopted against Russia for its annexations in Ukraine? Azerbaijan has the support of Turkey and is a valuable source of hydrocarbons. The country is also a strategic transit area, and, given the nature of its neighbors, Baku would have a different field of maneuver in a war with Armenia than Moscow has in its conflict with Kyiv.

Nikola Pashinyan came to power in 2018 supported by a popular revolution and with ideas of democratization and development that went contrary to the course Putin wanted Armenia to navigate. The Prime Minister of Armenia has had to choose between allowing his country to potentially suffer heavy casualties in a war to protect Nagorno-Karabakh or “cutting ties” (hopes and ambitions) and negotiate with Baku, trusting that the country’s regime will respect the rights of the citizens of Azerbaijan “of Armenian origin.” The June 2021 elections endorsed Pashinyan’s policies and allowed him to renew his mandate. For Armenian society as a whole, the future outweighed the defense of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Whatever the resentments towards Moscow, Armenia cannot do without Russia right now, any more than Moscow can do without Yerevan. However, Armenia is trying to replace or compensate for Russian influence. “Having lost hope of obtaining weapons that had long been requested from Russia, Yerevan has negotiated arms deals with India and France. The precedent set by the French would mean that other NATO countries could also sell to Armenia and there would no longer be a dependence on Russia,” says Armenian historian Georgi Derluguian, according to whom the situation in that country is part of “the same war for global hegemony that we see in Ukraine, perhaps in Syria and elsewhere.”

With Pashinyan in power, Armenia’s economy has developed, also partly thanks to the exile of highly qualified Russian specialists. “Pashinyan is a leader with a sense of state because he has supported the real and current interests of Armenia,” says Azerbaijani analyst Togrul Juvarly. And he adds: “For Aliyev, respecting the rights of Armenians would be a historic step to position himself in the modern world and become part of the community of civilized leaders.”

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