NKO Does not Exist Anymore

On 15 October 2023, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, in President Zelensky’s style attire (camouflage trousers, black T-Shirt), raised the national flag in Stepanakert, now Khankedi, the capital of Karabakh. On 28 September, the Karabakh president Samvel Shagramanian, had announced that, by decree, the Nagorno-Karabakh republic, unilaterally proclaimed by its Armenian majority on 6 January 1922, would cease to exist on 1 January 2024. By then, the separatist government had been dismissed and its armed forces dissolved. The Karabakh inhabitants, abandoned by the world during 9 months of total blockade, had no illusion about the possibility to live in security under Azerbaijani rule or to benefit of cultural rights. In a couple of days, the population of 120.000 was reduced to a few thousands, mostly elderly.

Deafening silence

Experience had taught Karabakh population that nobody will confront energy-rich Azerbaijan and its Turkish backers for the sake of an enclave lost in the Caucasus. Even Yerevan had declared that its army will not intervene. President Ilham Aliev had fulfilled his electoral promises to “recover all national territory”, and paid a tribute to his father Gaidar, from whom he took over in 2003. Twenty years later, the son, is fully Caucasian fashion, had avenged the father’s defeat in Karabakh.

Ilham Aliev was helped by the international situation, which has transformed his country into an alternative source of non-Russian energy since the embargo decreed by the friends of Ukraine a year ago. Next door, his Turkish ally president Erdogan, is pursuing his dream of turning his country into an energy hub by finding a delicate power games between Russia and the West – which benefits also Baku. Aliev knew too that the Russian army, absorbed by the war in Ukraine, cannot fulfill its role as a military ally of Armenia. Moscow has even not been able to reinforce the Russian peacekeepers forces, who lost 6 soldiers. But, at the end, they were the only one to provide shelters and humanitarian aid to Karabakh refugees. It did not prevent a majority of Armenians to feel led down by Moscow.

In the same time, one can suspect that Aliev has been surprised by the tamed Western reactions.  EU and Washington expressed consternation and concerns; they called for restrain and respect of human rights; they even announced their will send observers and humanitarian aid in a province already empty. The Pope called for the safeguard of the religious and cultural monuments in the cradle of one of the older Christian kingdoms. There was much mention of “international law”, a way to say that Karabakh is recognised as a part of Azerbaijan. In the context of the war in Ukraine, the West has been saluting the lost of Russia’s influence in the Caucasus, which seems a high price to pay for emptying a territory of 120.000 people. In fact, even before the 2020 attack of Karabakh by Azerbaijan, Russia had always been unease with the Karabakh situation, which was testing its ambivalent relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Still, Russia had been the only broker capable of negotiating in 2020, but in the autumn 2023, all its attention and spending were geared towards the front in Ukraine.

Armenia’s dilemma

In Armenia and Azerbaijan, the refugee’s question has been haunting national life since the late 1980s to this day. No political candidates can ignore the influence of the parties of ‘veterans of war’ and groups agitating the fate of forced displaced families. This is not the case any more in Baku, where president Aliev is the hero who opened the door back home for 700.000 Azeris victims of the confrontation with ethnic Armenians. The situation in Yerevan is just the opposite, the authorities being confronted for months by streets rallies of the opposition and now accused of betraying Karabakh Armenians.

The problem is that Armenia’s life-lines depend of Russian and Iran, two pariah states for the West. Both provide Armenia with connections to the outside world, energy deliveries and trade. Moreover, Russia has always been the normal destination for Armenians following the first ethnic clashes with Azeri in 1988 and the earthquake in Spitak in December 1988. Today there are more Armenians in Russia than in Armenia itself. It was logical to expect that, once again, part of the refugees will join relatives in Russia.

But, under Western pressure to demonstrate his “pro-democratic, pro-EU” credentials, Armenian president Khachaturian has signed into law his country’s adhesion to the International Criminal Court, that Russian foreign minister Lavrov called an “unfriendly step”, which cannot be without consequences. The EU spoke of a “step in the right direction”; Washington was more discreet, much concerned by the Middle East and Ukraine. In fact, the Armenian coalition had not much choice to survive politically.

Brussels has much money, but the CPI ratification by Yerevan, and the defiance of Armenians towards Russia, confront EU with much more than a humanitarian issue – a political and military challenge for which the European institutions are poorly equipped. The European initiative to invite president Aliev and prime minister Pachinian to Brussels cannot hidden the fact that no settlement in the Caucasus is possible without the involvement of regional powers, Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Armenia expects EU to repeat towards its refugees the generous attitude adopted for Ukrainians, now that the Russians might have a less open-borders policy in reaction to Armenia’s “unfriendly step”. More urgently, Yerevan wants the West to take seriously its concern that the ambition of Baku is much larger than retaking Karabakh. President Aliev has never hidden his intention to establish direct connection between Azerbaijan ‘main land’ and Nakhichevan, the Azeri enclave between Armenia and Iran from where the Aliev clan is originated. This can only take the form of a ‘corridor’ created across Armenian territory, and even other ‘rectifications’ of national boundaries.

While European foreign ministers were meeting in Luxembourg, Turkey and Azerbaijan were holding military manoeuvres in Nakhichevan, clearly a demonstration of force and a challenge to the West. Turkey is member of NATO and Azerbaijan an energy provider to replace part of the Russian gas.

Already on 10 October, both Baku and Yerevan agreed to go back to the 3 + 3 format that exist since the end of the Karabakh war in 2020. It includes Russia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia (which had declined to participate). Results of their meetings have been patchy, but recently Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia have been calling for new 3+3 format meetings as differences between Tehran and Baku seemed settled. On the 10 October 2023, president Aliev was meeting Russian Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev in Baku to discuss world issue –including the North-South transport corridor linking Iran with Russia via Azerbaijan. The same day, the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran discussed the current situation in the South Caucasus and called for promptly resuming joint work within the framework of the 3+3 consultative regional platform.

This is the context in which EU will have to insert itself if it wants to influence regional issues in a region of “geopolitical interests”. Already, France, the traditional ally of Armenia from which Armenians expected much more than diplomatic discreet visits, announced contracts for arms and air defence deliveries to a country whose military forces are traditionally equipped with Russian material.

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