Il Monastero di Dadivank, tra i luoghi più sacri del cristianesimo armeno passa sotto il controllo dell'Azerbaigian

The Armenian dilemma in the aftermath of Nagorno-Karabakh war

Published for Orizzonti Politici 

Between September and November 2020, the now almost thirty-year conflict between the former Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan took on a new dimension, definitively changing regional balances. The unexpected Azerbaijani advance within the territories of the Republic of Artsakh, the self-proclaimed independent state after the 1994 war, has led to an incredible victory of the Baku army. The conflict, which lasted for almost fifty days, cost the lives of almost 3 thousand soldiers on both sides. The agreement for a cease-fire was found thanks to the direct mediation of Vladimir Putin, who also promised to allocate military personnel as peacekeepers to guarantee the peace agreements.

The peace agreement…

The signing of the armistice allowed Azerbaijan to emerge strongly strengthened from the conflict, both from a military and territorial point of view. Baku has in fact maintained control of the territories conquered during the advance, together with the return, by the Armenian army, of seven Azerbaijani districts, including Agdam and Kelbajar, occupied for almost thirty years. The Republic of Artsakh, which has never been recognized by any State, not even by Armenia, loses control of most of its territories. The capital Stepanakert, which has not been reached by Baku’s advance, remains under the control of Armenian separatists, while Shushi (or Shusha), the cultural and historical center of the region, will become an integral part of the Azerbaijani State. The peace agreement also guarantees the Baku government the possibility of building a road link connecting the Azerbaijani territory with the exclave of Naxçivan.

…and the refugee emergency

Karabakh authorities estimate that 90,000 of the 150,000 residents have fled the region since the conflict began, seeking refuge and hospitality in hotels, schools, and gyms in the capital Yerevan. Refugee numbers have only increased since Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced in a Facebook video that he had reached an agreement with his Azerbaijani counterpart. Armenians soon abandoned towns under the line of fire, which in some cases were completely razed to the ground (such as the town of Martumi). Following the fall of Shushi on November 8, the Prime Minister was forced to sign a ceasefire to avoid further losses and a possible breakthrough of Azerbaijani forces into Armenian territory.

But terrible scenes also occurred following the signing of the agreement between Yerevan and Baku. In the northeast of the Republic of Artsakh, the Kelbajar district came back under Azerbaijani control. Here the inhabitants, terrified that they might be ruled by Azerbaijanis, took their few remaining belongings and headed for the Armenian border. Before leaving, however, many decided to burn their homes, to render uninhabitable the houses and places where they have lived for 30 years, from which the Azeris themselves were forced to flee after the advance of Armenian forces in the ’90s.

Despite Baku’s assurances to the Armenian population, long lines of cars have for days clogged the only road connecting the north of the region with Armenia. In Kelbajar there is also the Dadivank monastery, one of the most symbolic and sacred places of Armenian Christianity. In the days following the peace agreement, hundreds of Armenians showed up at the monastery, eager to say goodbye to the structure for the last time. As a preventive measure, Russian peacekeepers have stationed two tanks in front of the entrance, since the priests will be allowed to stay inside the complex. What they want to avoid is Azerbaijani soldiers targeting the building, as happened earlier with a cemetery, where some Azerbaijani soldiers damaged and desecrated bodies.

Protests in Yerevan

The military defeat, along with the very harsh conditions of the ceasefire, ignited protests by the population in Yerevan. The day after the signing, hundreds of citizens invaded Parliament and government offices, some of them armed, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan, considered the culprit of the military defeat. Since November, the opposition has continued to stage protests and roadblocks demanding the resignation of the head of government, clashing heavily with the police.

In fact, the military defeat is to be considered the result of a long series of moves and events that have allowed Azerbaijan to be ready to conduct a lightning invasion, with wide chances of victory. In the last fifteen years Baku, thanks to the huge revenues from the sale of hydrocarbons, of which the Caspian Sea abounds, has provided for the construction of a modern and technological army. If in the ’90s the Azerbaijani forces could do nothing against the better organization and preparation of the Armenian paramilitaries, in 2020 the opposite has happened.

The role of Moscow and Ankara

According to what has been reconstructed by various international experts, Azerbaijan has been able to count on a series of modern generation weapons, together with the use of new combat techniques proven in various Middle Eastern war scenarios. On the contrary, the Armenian army was left with Soviet-era weapons, which proved useless in the face of Baku’s technological superiority. The use of combat drones, of Turkish and Israeli origin, proved to be the decisive factor. Without the domination of the sky, in fact, the rapid territorial conquests would have required a greater expenditure of human lives and economic resources. The overturning of the regional status quo in favor of Azerbaijan can also be explained by analyzing how, since the beginning of the conflict, Armenia has lacked substantial help from its main ally, Russia.

Tying Moscow and Yerevan there is also a military cooperation treaty (the CTSO), which is why Armenians have always thought they had their backs covered by the protection of the Russian giant. But since 2018, relations have definitely changed. Nikol Pashinyan came to power with an innovative, democratic program that is highly critical of the political system of his predecessors, who were tied in a double bind with the Kremlin. Armenia has come very close to asking for integration within the European Union, making Vladimir Putin very irritated. It should also be underlined how Moscow is an active part of Baku’s arms race program, to which it has supplied 31% of its new arsenal. For this reason, Putin has always moved to try to maintain a balance between the two contenders.

The new chapter of this eternal conflict marks a historical turning point in the regional balance.

Turkey’s desire to reinforce its influence in the territories once under Ottoman control also fully involves the South Caucasus. Erdogan’s solid alliance with Azerbaijani President Aliyev can be understood in this direction. Turks and Azeris, both Turkish-speaking, recognize themselves as brotherly peoples, at the head of two states but of a single nation, whose territory is interrupted only by Armenia. For all these reasons, Turkey played a key role in facilitating Baku’s military victory, as demonstrated by Erdogan’s presence at the victory parade.

This conflict has seen the Kremlin, the historical host in the Caucasus, remain at the window until the end, only to impose itself as the arbiter of the dispute and favor the signing of a final cease-fire. The achievement of a peace agreement certainly rehabilitates Russia’s role in the field of diplomacy. As happened in Syria and Libya, however, Vladimir Putin had to reckon with Turkish activism, now to be considered a constant in all those scenarios that fall within the range of influence of Ankara. The Turkish meddling in the Caucasus should not necessarily lead to a deterioration of relations between Turkey and Russia, but rather to a strengthening of the cooperative relationship between the two actors, in a phase of redefinition of the balances in the regional and global geopolitical chessboard.

Milanese, nato nel 1998. Appassionato di politica e Medio-Oriente, studio alla St Andrews University nel Regno Unito le dinamiche geopolitiche mediorientali, caucasiche e dell'Asia centrale. Il primo libro che mi hanno regalato a cinque anni era una raccolta delle bandiere del mondo e, dopo averle imparate tutte, ho capito che per essere felice ho bisogno di esplorare. Nutro una passione sfrenata per le rivoluzioni e amo raccontarle.

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