By Nina Bachkatov
With all eyes on Belarus, the latest eruption of violence in the Caucasus came as a shock. But, in fact, both crises were highly predictable due to internal and geopolitical complexities. At least they sent a strong signal to the West about the importance of geography and history over ideology. They highlight the danger of reducing the world affairs to a simplistic opposition between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces.
The Belarus case is essentially an internal issue. Unfair elections were contested on the streets, the president confronted the opponents with arrests and demonstrators with violence. Some outsiders have been very vocal, but in term of action, they all are reluctant supporters. Lukashenko is not the former Ukrainian president Yanukovich, ready to fly to Moscow – where, in any case, he would be an unwelcome guest. As he sticks to power for 2 months now, the West and Russia are still looking behind the scene for a save-facing solution that should pave the way for a post-Lukashenko era and prevent destabilisation in another sensitive European region.
The situation is completely different in the South Caucasus, thanks to a combination of elements totally absent in Belarus – century old ethnic resentment, internal political rivalries based mostly on nationalism and clans’ structures, readiness and capacity to use military might. This readiness extends to outsiders in a region where Europe meets Asia.
The conflict around Karabakh has been especially difficult to handle for the West. Since 1991, it has been more interested by possibilities to reduce Russian influence in Eurasia, than by checking the nature of forces it was coopting on the spot. Confronted with people ready to die for defending the land they consider their, the West and Russia had to accommodate themselves with a de facto situation in which Karabakh functions as an independent non recognised state, with the financial backing of Armenia, backed by a strong Armenian diaspora, while continuing to support Azerbaijan territorial integrity.
Cyclically, deathly violence erupted in this far away mountainous province. Everyone deplored it. The West multiplied protests and tortuous communiques. Russia kept the channels open with all the partners, trying to escape anything like siding with Yerevan against Baku.
This leaves a very complicate map, a field for concurrence between too many states to advance or to protect their interests, and their national security. Georgia, the third South Caucasian state, has managed to maintain good relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan despite their different historical and cultural background, and differences in their relations with Russia or the CIS institutions. It trades with both of them, and with Russia; investors ignore borders. But Georgia, that has to cope itself with 2 “frozen conflicts” (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), fear political contagion. The Karabakh operations can entrenched secessionists and nationalist in their positions about “recovering lost territories” that one forgets at his peril during election campaigns.
Russia is, as often, driven by its will to safeguard a belt of stable non hostile states on its borders. In its Caucasian southern front, Moscow managed a difficult balance between the three states despite huge differences of relations at bilateral level. Hence the caution of the Kremlin since the beginning of the crisis. It shares the Western concern about regional stability, but is trapped by the contradiction of its own diplomacy, notably towards Turkey. In any case, it would be too simplistic, and misleading, to read the military actions in Caucasus through the lens of the Turkey-Russia in the Middle East.
Turkey it the key actor in the current crisis, driven by its own geopolitical interests and president Erdogan neo-ottoman project, backed by popular anti-Armenian prejudices. Erdogan has lately indulged into military operations due to reinforce his popularity at home and to test the political will of its partners, including those of NATO. The message is “dare to stop me” – and they didn’t.
It is now admitted that, without Erdogan’s support, president Aliev would never have taken the risk of launching this vast military offensive. It offered him an opportunity to counter accusations of betraying promises to regain full control on Azerbaijani territory; but by the same token, Erdogan made Aliev his hostage because his political survival depends on a total victory in Karabakh.
Iran is less mentioned for the moment, but its regional influence has been growing since the war in Chechnya, when Tehran adopted a softer position than Turkey. In consequence, it has emerged a more benevolent regional actor, a link with religious (not political) Islam, a Russia’s partner. Since Turkey and Azerbaijan declared a blockade of Armenia, Iran has been the lifebelt of its neighbourg.
That is leaving the West with the urge to be part of the solution, but also the need to accept that it will not be the dominant force because it has been closing its eyes for too long and lack the local relays the other actors have. This time it has to stop a military warm conflict, without using forces itself – if only because no Westerner is ready to die for Stepanakert. No usual dithering such as commissions, round tables, dispatching of observers on the ground, will manage to urgently reduce the intensity of the fighting bearing in mind that the military results will dictate the political solution – not the opposite. Turkey and Azerbaijan can win militarily, and “clean” the Karabakh of its Armenian population before to come to the negotiating table.