Russian Hegemony and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Resolution: A Quandary or an Impasse?


The events of the last few months have shown that the U.S. and European Union (EU) policies in the South Caucasus have not reached the desired results. The hope for swift Armenian-Turkish reconciliation became negligible and, more recently, Russia’s preference for keeping the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh rather than solving the conflict by means of negotiations is being demonstrated more openly. For now, it seems that the main outcomes are increased Russian influence in the region, the failure of democratic development in Armenia and, worst of all, the risk of large-scale fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Let us suppose that the so-called “soccer diplomacy” was not planned from the beginning to result in the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations. In that case, the current situation may be considered rather expected. So far, the soccer diplomacy contributed to international legitimization of the ruling regime in Armenia, as hopes for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation motivated the West to minimize the criticism towards the oppressive and corrupt Armenian government. But at the same time, the soccer diplomacy strengthened Russia’s hegemony in Armenia. As Turkey’s leaders declared that opening the border and establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia would depend on the return of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, Armenia’s ability to maneuver and act more independently from Russia diminished. Statements made by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in January 2010, during the negotiations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Moscow, and in June 2010, during a working meeting with Erdoğan in Istanbul, showed that any principal decision on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue would be made in Moscow, not in Yerevan. The signing of the Russo-Armenian agreement to extend Russia’s military presence during President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Armenia in August became the logical conclusion.

It should be noted, however, that in spite of the official propaganda, that agreement has not been met with widespread optimism in Armenia. Quite the contrary, there has been an increasing awareness that de facto rejection of a compromise through negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and the prolongation of Russian military presence will seriously obstruct the political and economic development of Armenia. A few days before President Medvedev’s visit, the Russian base in Armenia had been included in Russia’s Yug (South) military district, together with Russian bases in the North Caucasus, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. That caused the concern about the possible deterioration of Armenia’s relations with Georgia, as the latter is the main (if not the only) target of the Yug military district. Finally, there is now a common understanding in Armenia that in case of resumed large-scale fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh Russian troops will not provide any assistance, and that such fighting would be, to a large extent, a result of Russian policy for keeping the status quo. Russia’s recent decision to sell S-300PMU-2 long-range surface-to-air missile systems to Azerbaijan is viewed by the Armenian public as an openly hostile move against Armenia, as Russia may benefit not only from keeping the status quo but from resumed fighting as well.

The Iranian factor should also be taken into account. If Russia may trade some of its influence on Armenia for certain concessions from Azerbaijan, Turkey, or the West, Iran does not have similar capability, although it also benefits from the present “no war, no peace” situation. If the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is solved, NATO peacekeeping forces or, possibly, a U.S. military base can be deployed along Iran’s northern border, and Iran views such a possibility as a threat to its national interests. Iran also views the possible growth of aspirations for autonomy among ethnic Azeris living in northern Iran as a threat, in case the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is solved and does not remain the principal issue of concern for Azerbaijan. Iran’s influence on both Armenia and Azerbaijan and the capability to sustain the status quo are limited, but they must not be underestimated.

Iran’s possible actions in case of resumed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh are also rather predictable. Iran, as well as Russia, would significantly benefit from a sharp growth of hydrocarbons prices. Most probably, Iran would attempt to complement economic profit with political influence, particularly by “export” of the politicized variety of Islam. Such a possibility is viewed in Azerbaijan as a threat to the secular order and national security, so it may be one of the factors constraining the inclination to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue by force.

As the chance for a breakthrough in the negotiation process, as well as for successful regional cooperation in the South Caucasus, has become even weaker than before, the U.S. and EU policies may need a critical revision. Western players, being nowadays unequivocally devoted to “soft power,” have not been taking into account that negotiations serve as an effective problem-solving tool only for democratic entities; authoritarian regimes (no matter what ideology they employ — communist, Islamic, or “fortress-under-siege”) may prefer to use negotiations as a means for delaying any meaningful solution. As the enthusiasm of “soccer diplomacy” prevailed, it was not taken into consideration that President Serzh Sargsyan, who like his predecessor Robert Kocharyan comes from Nagorno-Karabakh and has close ties with Russia, might also wish to maintain the status quo. Unlike the general population, Armenian state officials, the military establishment, and politically affiliated businessmen do not experience hardship as a result of the closed borders. Quite the contrary, economic preferences in exchange for political loyalty provide many opportunities for making money fast. The military establishment also benefits from corruption in the army — one of the largest armies in the world in proportion to the country’s population. If the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict were solved and borders were opened, economic competition would make existing monopolies inefficient and lead to decreased military spending, which would reduce the profits and political influence of the loyal establishment.

Unless there is a profound change of mentality among the Armenian political elite, solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through negotiations is practically impossible. That was underscored once more on September 2, when President Sargsyan in his address stated that a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would be possible only through international recognition of the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, while large-scale fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh would be a political, economic, and demographic disaster for Armenia, Azerbaijan would be unlikely to achieve its ultimate objective, in other words, to regain full control over Nagorno-Karabakh and its adjacent regions, while possibly suffering huge economic losses and risking internal stability. With resumed fighting, the sharp growth in hydrocarbons prices, most probably, would result in another economic crisis in the US and EU. The West, apparently, needs to review the policies of the last few years and act more assertively in order to protect its own political and economic interests, to maintain international security, and to bring stable peace and security to the South Caucasus.

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10 Apr 2012

Thank you for this very good article. This confirms my view that if the conflict is still not resolved it is because the status quo is actually preferred by most actors in the region. If peace and long-term security were the real objectives of the negotiations, an agreement would have been reached already.