Fears grow over the ‘Karabakh factor’ in Russia-Turkey spat

Fears grow over the ‘Karabakh factor’ in Russia-Turkey spat
By MJ del Valle December 2, 2015

A blind, burning desire for revenge can make people behave in irrational, cruel and unpredictable ways. This is something the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, appears to understand well: the use of the desire by Azeris to retake occupied territories has played an important role in the country's politics over the past two decades. And given the increasingly bitter dispute between Russia and Turkey, it is a time bomb waiting to explode.

This bomb has a name: Nagorno-Karabakh. In the 1990s, the oil-rich Azerbaijan lost a bloody war over the landlocked region against neighbouring Armenia, one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet space, with a population a third the size of Azerbaijan’s – facts that have all contributed to the sense of humiliation accompanying the defeat. About 20,000 people died and around a million were displaced. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding Azerbaijani regions are under Armenian control, despite the international community considering Nagorno-Karabakh a part of Azerbaijan. A peace treaty was never signed and violations of the ceasefire are becoming increasingly common.

A new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over this disputed territory would involve some of the world’s greatest powers and endanger the supply of Azerbaijani and Central Asian gas and oil to Europe. It could also become the battlefield for a proxy war between Russia and Turkey if the hostilities between the two countries escalate: Armenia is Russia’s closest ally in the region, while Azerbaijan is closely bonded to Turkey. On December 2, reportedly under a direct order from President Aliyev, the Azerbaijani state-run Caspian Sea Shipping Co. announced discounts of up to 20% for Turkish trailer trucks carrying goods to Kazakhstan using its Caspian Sea ports, in a move one observer said was Baku “revealing that it can be helpful to Turkey still, in terms of transit and energy supply”.

Leaders in the West are well aware of the possible risks of destabilization in the Caucasus, and are desperate to keep a lid on the unresolved conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Deadly skirmishes along the so-called “Line of Contact” are a regular occurrence, but the fighting at the border has so far not escalated into a full-scale military conflict, even though Azerbaijan has been busy using its oil and gas revenues on building up its military.

According to Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal, who has written extensively about the conflict, the government of Azerbaijan “knows that a full-scale war would be very bloody, and carry the risk of defeat, disappointment and perhaps even the downfall of their regime”. This restraint on the front line contrasts sharply with the belligerent tone of some of Aliyev’s speeches.

Not everyone in Azerbaijan thinks another war is inevitable: in 2013 around half of the respondents of the Caucasus Barometer thought that it was very or rather unlikely a solution to the conflict was possible through force. But for those dreaming of marching victorious into Nagorno-Karabakh, the president’s words ignite the most visceral nationalism. Vadim Dubnov, independent journalist and expert on the Caucasus, tells bne IntelliNews that he has often encountered a very romanticized attitude towards war in Azerbaijan, where some young people think of an eventual victory without calibrating the enormous cost it would have.

While there are many voices calling for peace and reconciliation in Azerbaijan, it is common to hear extremely aggressive views about Armenians, comments that make one fear what could happen if a new war actually erupts. One does not need to speak Azeri to understand the feelings that lie behind the enraged tone of voice and the furious gaze when conversation turns to Nagorno-Karabakh. I spoke to one young boy at a decrepit rural bus station, only a couple of hundred kilometres from Baku, but seemingly another world away from the glitz and glamour of the capital: “I would die in the attempt to retake the lost territories,” he tells me dramatically. “This is my duty as an Azeri man, as it is my duty to kill any Armenian I may ever meet.”

Ignorance and propaganda

The fact the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia has been closed for more than 20 years contributes greatly to nurturing these kinds of attitudes. Having contact with Armenians or even mentioning something good about them is likely to get Azerbaijanis into serious trouble: in 2009 a number of people in Azerbaijan were questioned by the police for voting for Armenia in the Eurovision Song Contest. And in the summer of 2014 leading opposition activist Leyla Yunus was accused of high treason – among other charges – for her involvement in civil society efforts to end the long-running conflict. The charge was a fabrication, but strong enough to cancel out any sympathy from the public. In Azerbaijan, one is expected to say bad things about Armenia, even if not heartfelt.

Another powerful factor is state propaganda, which has left a deep imprint on people. It is difficult to tone down the most extreme attitudes towards the conflict when the TV constantly shows images of Azeris being slaughtered by Armenians. This bellicose message was made clear in the government’s approach to the case of Ramil Safarov. The Azerbaijani officer axed to death an Armenian fellow participant in a Nato training course in Budapest in 2004. He was sentenced to life in prison by a Hungarian court. In 2012 Hungary sent Safarov home with the assurance from the authorities of Azerbaijan that he would serve the rest of his sentence there. But once in Baku, he was welcomed by government officials as a hero, immediately pardoned and promoted to major by the president, and given money and an apartment. The message was clear: slaughter your enemy and you will be rewarded.

Hatred cannot be considered intrinsic to the relations between citizens of these two countries. British journalist Onnik Krikorian has done extensive work in bringing young Armenians and Azeris together, and categorically states that these opinions are politically induced and attitudes can and do change: “We are not talking about an ethnic conflict here. When people do meet, you discover their ‘violent disposition’ disappears. It is easy to ‘hate’ an ‘enemy’ when you don’t know them. Restricting contact is by design in order to allow the image of the enemy to perpetuate”. Krikorian’s view is corroborated by the fact that communities of Armenians and Azeris live together peacefully in neighbouring Georgia.

Some analysts blame the attitudes that some display in Azerbaijan to the loss of territory. But Georgia is dealing with two ongoing territorial conflicts involving Russia and it is rare to see aggressive attitudes towards Russian citizens and culture. Unlike people living in Azerbaijan, Georgians are not subject to this sort of propaganda.

Useful distraction

These hardline feelings are extremely vulnerable to manipulation that could spill over into a proxy war, and are definitely useful for the government of Aliyev. According to De Waal, Nagorno-Karabakh “is a useful tool to distract attention from other problems, such as corruption, the decline in the economy or the crackdown on dissidents and civil society activists”. In de Waal’s opinion, the current low-level conflict suits the Azerbaijani leadership: they are aware of the cost of war, but they are equally aware of how important Nagorno-Karabakh is for Azeris.

In 2013, unresolved territorial conflicts were cited by 48% of the respondents of the Caucasus Barometer in Azerbaijan as the most important issue facing the country. This percentage is now likely to be lower given the current economic crisis, but its importance goes some way towards explaining the general support for Aliyev, who has been criticized by international institutions for his authoritarian practices. Many ordinary people in Azerbaijan favour stability above all else, perhaps because every major territorial loss that the country sustained in 1992 and 1993 was preceded or accompanied by political infighting and a power vacuum in the country. So the mere existence of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue makes many in Azerbaijan think twice before opposing the government. In de Waal’s words, “periodic violence on the Line of Contact reminds Azerbaijanis that they must be on a ‘war footing’ and suggests that criticism of the government is somehow unpatriotic”.

Nate Schenkkan, project director of the Nations in Transit project at Freedom House, tells bne IntelliNews that Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia are definitely wielded as a weapon in the crackdown on dissent, allowing them “to maintain a sense of siege and persecution by not just Armenia, but the outside world that mobilizes support for the [Armenian] state”.

Thus it is not only Armenia that is demonized in state propaganda. Slowly savouring a cup of hot coffee in a flashy new café in Baku, the topic of Europe’s role in Azerbaijan causes a 21-year-old student to blurt out, “Who needs them? They just talk and talk but don’t do anything to help us recover our territories”. Schenkkan thinks that, “the government of Azerbaijan encourages a perception that international powers, including Europe and the US, have never done enough to reverse Azerbaijan’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, and that they are hypocritical in their insistence on international law in other settings but not in this one”.

The disappointment that some Azerbaijanis show with the West, especially after the uprisings in 2008, and the way that Europe is currently being negatively portrayed by the domestic media run parallel to the cooling of relations between Azerbaijan and Brussels, and the increasing closeness between Aliyev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The media rhetoric is leaving behind the years where Russia was portrayed as a two-faced and untrustworthy ally over its good relations with Armenia.

For Avaz Hasanov, director of the Baku-based Humanitarian Research Public Union, the Azerbaijani government is now trying to tone down the poisonous rhetoric against Armenia, exemplified by the recent news in the domestic media about an Armenian family being given refuge in Baku.

But the authorities could find that years of incendiary propaganda are difficult to erase. It might cause skirmishes at the border to spiral out of control, which could then be easily used by Turkey or Russia to start a proxy war. If that happens, the desire for revenge that Aliyev’s leadership has fostered could very well become a grave the regime has been digging for itself.