Settling Nagorno-Karabakh and Reviewing the Peripheral Talking Points

Stepanakert, Karabakh  (SCF) – In the April 11 Voice of America piece «What’s Hiding Behind Russia’s calls for Peace in Nagorno-Karabakh», Paul Goble claims that Russia is manipulating the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, in an effort to gain a greater allegiance from fossil fuel rich Azerbaijan. This view comes across as a dubious conspiracy theory.

If this were true, simple common sense would lead to Russia being condemnatory towards Armenia, along the lines of Turkey’s position. Instead, Moscow takes a comparatively more neutral approach on Azeri-Armenian differences. Moreover, the Kremlin is sophisticated enough to realize that Azerbaijan will do what it deems as being in its best interests and that Russia has limits – something evident in varying degrees with the other major powers. This pragmatic realization recognizes Baku’s overall worldview, which sees wisdom in maintaining good relations with a range of nations, including Russia, Turkey, the US and EU members.

It’s ideally in Russia’s best interests to see Armenia and Azerbaijan on good terms with each other and Russia. Moscow is in a kind of juggling act in its relations with Baku and Yerevan, while hoping that the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute will somehow end.

On former Soviet Caucasus and some other former Soviet matters, Thomas de Waal of Carnegie Europe and Goble, have been among the main US foreign policy establishment sources. Overall, de Waal’s April 7 New York Times article «Solve the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Before It Explodes», is pretty much in line with the biases evident at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which has frequently utilized de Waal and Goble.

This excerpt is from de Waal’s most recent New York Times piece:

«Recept Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has blamed France, Russia and the United States, the countries charged with mediating the conflict by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, for failing to clean up the mess. This is wrong too. Yes, more could have been done over the years to resolve the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, but mediators mediate – they cannot alone solve conflicts between intransigent parties.

The bitter truth is that the leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan have become trapped by their own rhetoric, promising their publics total victory that can never be achieved. They have employed the status quo as a weapon to shirk hard questions about their own legitimacy or to divert people’s attention from socioeconomic problems.

A similar temptation is to identify Russia as the real villain. For sure, the Kremlin has played a role in manipulating the ethno-territorial conflicts that emerged from the breakup of the former Soviet Union. And Russia continues to sell weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. But Russia’s role in Nagorno-Karabakh is much weaker than it is in Georgia’s frozen conflict, let alone in Ukraine. Russia shares no border with the conflict zone, has no troops on the ground and, in different ways supports both sides. Its ability to control what happens in Nagorno-Karabakh is limited».

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No Western countries are criticized unlike others. The leading Western nations don’t make much noise over how the strategically important NATO member Turkey has maintained a decades long military presence in the northern part of the island nation of Cyprus – inclusive of Turkey’s recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In support of the Albanian majority in Kosovo, the leading Western countries felt it okay to actively recognize Kosovo’s independence, in contradiction to a standing UN Security Council Resolution (1244) and the preference of Serbia.

In essence, these kind of stances tell the pro-Russian majority in Crimea, the Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as some others, that it’s okay to declare themselves independent from the respective national entity claiming them – and to fight for that change if necessary.

Geopolitical, historical and cultural biases are behind the inconsistent stances on territorial disputes. Putting aside politically correct niceties, the might makes right approach has been used in one way or another to influence the outcome of such disputes.

De Waal’s criticism of Russia is comparatively greater than what he says about Turkey. The Turkish government has arguably encouraged ethno-religious nationalism, with its stated strong support for the predominately Muslim and Turkic Azerbaijan over the mostly Christian Armenia. In comparison (and as previously noted), Russia has taken a more neutral approach. This is evidenced by how key Russian government officials can formally travel to Armenia and Azerbaijan, much unlike what Turkish officialdom can reasonably expect to do.

Since the Soviet breakup, Turkey has gained influence in Azerbaijan with limits. Azerbaijan has exhibited neutrality in the developed spat between Russia and Turkey. Thru the course of the post-Boris Yeltsin political era, Russia has maintained pretty good relations with Azerbaijan, while having closer military and economic ties with Armenia. The Azerbaijanis are predominately Shia Muslims, unlike the mostly Sunni Muslim Turks. As is true with many Turks, many Azerbaijanis aren’t so religious.

The countries of Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran recently held high level talks. Turkey, Armenia and the Western powers weren’t present at this gathering. Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran plan on having another high level meeting. To date, Armenian-Iranian relations can be described as generally good. Iranian-Azerbaijani relations haven’t been as good. Within the past couple of years, the Iranian-Azerbaijani relationship has improved.

Iran has sizeable ethnic Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian populations. (There’re more ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran than the entire population of Azerbaijan. Iran’s ethnic Armenian population is noticeably smaller.) Russia also has a share of ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis (whose numbers in that country are more even than the Azerbaijani-Armenian differential in Iran).

In the above excerpt from de Waal’s New York Times piece, the last paragraph has what amounts to as an obligatory Russia bashing, that serves to legitimize whataboutism. A more perfect Western mass media would see de Waal’s and Goble’s commentary challenged on a point by point basis, with extended give and takes, which include a knowledgeable opposite perspective. This broken record advocacy on my part is rehashed in reply to the ongoing Western mass media biases – slants that lead to a bit of hypocrisy, when Western mass media elites piously bash Russian mass media – which I accept as needing improvement as well. In answer to de Waal and Goble (who clearly leans in an anti-Russian direction), several points can be noted. (Goble’s commentary on a Russia related matter is discussed in my July 2, 2016 Strategic Culture Foundation article «Propaganda In the Eyes of the Beholder».)

Western governments have been soft in condemning the nationalist violence in Kiev regime controlled Ukraine, in line with anti-Russian propaganda. As quoted in RFE/RL, the pro-Kiev regime Crimean Tatar activist Mustafa Dzhemilev, has called for the ethnic cleansing of Russians from Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin made it a point to condemn the Soviet WW II collective punishment of the Crimean Tatars and support a multiethnic Crimea – different from Dzhemilev’s rhetoric. (Concerning this particular and some other matters, my February 28, 2016 Strategic Culture Foundation piece «Eurovision, Crimean Tatars and Some Digressions», provides further insight.)

Western mass media and Western influenced mass media at large have inaccurate anti-Russian segments, like a Nick Schifrin reported Al Jazeera segment that presented the erroneous image of Crimea’s Jews, Tatars and Ukrainians opposed to Russia/Russians. Talk about stirring the pot of ethnic animosities with faulty babble. In point of fact, Crimea’s Jews, Tatars and Ukrainians are by no means part of a uniform anti-Russian opposition. Moreover, there’re indications that a noticeable portion of Crimea’s Tatars aren’t so opposed to Crimea’s reunification with Russia. (Pardon my not having a direct hyperlinked video of the Schifrin-Al Jazeera bit, which I’ve accurately characterized. Al Jazeera doesn’t appear to be as good as RT, when it comes to having an online access to prior segments.)

Within the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Ossetians and Abkhazians generally seem to prefer Russia over Georgia. Is this aspect so much the result of any Russian instigating, or fault involving Georgia? If Russia is so bad, it stands to reason that the Ossetians and Abkhazians would be taking a different stance.

In his New York Times piece and (to my knowledge) elsewhere, de Waal doesn’t offer a plan that finally settles the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. His call for the cessation of hostilities and further negotiations, with the future possibility of Nagorno-Karabakh becoming a fully recognized entity, leaves the conflict in limbo. In 2009, I provided a thinking out of the box settlement for ending that dispute. My proposed agreement would see Nagorno-Karabakh as a jointly recognized part of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Short of a full scale war, resulting in one clear winner and likely numerous casualties, what other practical final settlement option is there, besides a prolonged «frozen conflict», with a likelihood of periodic flare ups? The Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh shows no desire to become a loosely autonomous part of Azerbaijan. In turn, Azerbaijan is opposed to that disputed land becoming internationally recognized as non-Azerbaijani territory.

After my Nagorno-Karabakh settlement proposal, the next best case scenario is probably a northern Cyprus like situation of relative peace, without a full settlement. This latter prospect is iffy for Nagorno-Karabakh. In northern Cyprus, there’s no sign of a great military challenge to Turkey. Nagorno-Karabakh concerns a closer military balance between the two rival sides wanting control of that area, in conjunction with some other variables.

The Armenians and Azerbaijanis appear firm in their respective preference. The smaller numbered Armenians face an Azerbaijani side which (because of its fossil fuel sale capability) can more easily increase its military spending. Conversely, the Azerbaijanis are facing a tough Armenian opponent. Having a greater number of personnel and arms doesn’t necessarily lead to a final victory.

This report prepared by MICHAEL AVERKO for STRATEGIC CULTURE FOUNDATION.