Neither in the region directly affected by the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia nor among the governments and the media in Western Europe (including Switzerland) there is a clear assessment of the situation in Karabakh. Is it the case, as Armenia’s (still) Prime Minister Pashinyan says, that the ceasefire agreement prevented the deaths of perhaps a hundred thousand people – or has he betrayed his country? Has the Russian government exploited the conflict to consolidate its own position of power in the Caucasus – or has the Kremlin taken action just in time to avoid a tragedy of enormous proportions? An answer to Turkey is much simpler: Erdogan’s desire to stand up in favor of the Turkic people of the Azeri with logistics, weapons, and mercenaries (from Syria) is too obvious to be overlooked.
Sympathy with Armenia, outrage over Azerbaijan
In the media of Western Europe, including Switzerland, sympathy with Armenia, outrage over Azerbaijan and Turkey dominate – and deep distrust of Russia. I dare to try to dissect the highly complex mixture – knowing that I too am not free from emotions that threaten to obscure my view at any time. And also that I am, almost reflexively, spontaneously tempted to sympathize with the side that is closer to me mentally. Specifically, Armenia is a democracy; the Armenian people are victims of the genocide committed by Turks in 1915/16; Armenia has a Christian tradition dating back to the 4th century. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is an authoritarian state with a few pseudo-democratic sets; the Azeri are Muslims and therefore more “foreign” to us than the Armenians. And as for the topicality: Azerbaijan attacked in October. And now tens of thousands, perhaps even more than a hundred thousand Armenians are fleeing.
Refugees today and yesterday
It is clear where they are fleeing: to Armenia. Where they come from, however, is a question of standpoint – partly from the 4,400 square kilometer large, internationally never recognized “Republic” Nagorno Karabach on an area about the size of the cantons of Zurich plus St. Gallen and a part of Schaffhausen. It consists partly of “buffer zones” around Karabakh, which Armenia conquered in the 1990s. These cover a further 7,000 square kilometres, which is about the same as the canton of Graubünden. The Armenians conquered this area on the grounds that they had to secure the core area of Nagorno Karabakh. The fact that an estimated 200,000 Azeri were forced to flee during this conquest is a displacement of the people of Armenia in general. Or they say that Azerbaijan, which has become wealthy with oil and natural gas, could easily have settled these refugees “decently.” The regime in Baku, however, sees it differently.
Hope for dialogue was dashed
When Nikol Paschinyan became prime minister in 2018 through a velvet revolution in Armenia, there was hope on both sides, among the Azeris and the Armenians, for a constructive dialogue around the rocky Nagorno Karabakh problem. The leaders also met, spreading hope, but nothing else happened. On the contrary, rhetoric in both countries has intensified. In Azerbaijan, it was increasingly stated that thirty years of occupation of a large part of the national territory was enough, so it could not go on. In Armenia, Paschinyan said that there was no problem at all, that the Azeri simply had to acknowledge the facts, then peace could be made. In June, the perhaps disastrous short statement followed: “Arzach (Karabakh) is Armenia. Point.” Paschinyan could have understood that this sentence would lead to the decision of the rulers in Baku to take the initiative militarily. Did he lack the experience? Did he fundamentally misjudge the opposing side, did he underestimate Azerbaijan’s military strength and the government’s ties to Turkey in Baku?
Karabakh lobby put pressure on
Probably it was - otherwise Paschinjan would have acted differently. Or he came under too much pressure from the Karabakh lobby, which was powerful in Armenia, and which formed around the Karabakh Committee, which was founded in 1987. Even Armenian sympathizers may have their doubts about the political “wisdom” of this lobby – the fact is that it put so much pressure on every president, every prime minister of Armenia, that even small territorial compromises with Azerbaijan became virtually unworkable.
It is also a fact that Armenian families received subsidies if they agreed to move to the Armenian-occupied territories on Azerbaijani territory (well understood: not to the actual nagorno-karabakh area). Now they have to go back to Armenia. And sometimes they set their houses on fire. Terrible, moving images – which are understood very differently from the different sides. For people in Armenia, also for us in the West, photos documenting extreme despair. But people in Azerbaijan interpret it differently: “Once we were or our loved ones were driven out of these houses by the Armenian army, then Armenians lived in them, and now that we could return, they are putting them on fire.”
Russia has a treaty with Armenia to protect it. However, it does not contain a word about the exclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Moscow’s political leadership sees Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan – just as it was decided in the old Soviet era. Karabakh, it was determined at the time, belonged to Azerbaijan – but the Armenians living there should be given autonomy. Baku claimed that they respected this– but the people living in Karabakh said they felt zero and nothing of autonomy. Hence the decision to declare the region as an independent but Armenia-affiliated “republic”. And hence the occupation of the aforementioned Cordon sanitaire around Karabakh by the Armenian military. This cordon sanitaire eventually became so large that the government in Baku declared that 20 percent of The territory of Azerbeijan was occupied by Armenia (if you calculate exactly, you get about 15 percent).
Road corridors for both sides
What does the Moscow-brokered ceasefire include? Much is unclear, and some things may be clarified in the next few weeks. Is there still a reasonably safe area for Armenians in the wider area of Stepanakert, the so-called capital of Nagorno Karabakh? The Russian mediators seem to understand this. Can they guarantee it? That is not clear – Russia is only sending soldiers to the region in 1960. Among other things, they are intended to secure a road corridor from Armenia to Stepanakert. And also a newly agreed road in the very south of Armenia, from the territory of the Azeri to its exclave nachitchevan. From the point of view of the Russian mediators and the Azerbaijanis, this is something of a balancing justice: Armenia gets the road corridor to Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan the one to Nachitchevan.
No one believes in peace in Moscow
To insinuate that the Russian government wants to use this “deal” to expand its own power in the Caucasus is clearly afarover to reality. Russia cannot win anything in this conflict region – it can only hope that the long-frozen and now thawed conflict will now be mothballed again. That there will not be another bloodbath in his former sphere of power. No one in Moscow believes in peace or even reconciliation.