Putin aide: Bringing Azerbaijan under Kremlin's influence would solve Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Putin aide: Bringing Azerbaijan under Kremlin's influence would solve Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
A restored Armenian T-72 tank, knocked out while attacking Azerbaijani positions, serves as a war memorial on the outskirts of Stepanakert.
By bne IntelliNews October 17, 2017

If Azerbaijan joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Russia-led free trade bloc, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would also be solved over time thanks to the strong economic and business ties that would be created among EEU member countries, Sergei Glazyev, Vladimir Putin's adviser on Eurasian economic integration, told journalists in Yerevan on October 13 according to Aravot.

That the Kremlin would seek to bring its former satellite states back under its influence is unsurprising - it has been seeking to do so ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, with varying degrees of success. Impoverished Armenia, the economy and military protection of which are highly dependent on Russia, has been one of the more tractable states that emerged out of the Soviet Union. Together with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Armenia is also an EEU member.

However, other countries - like Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and the notoriously closed-off Turkmenistan - have sought to distance themselves from the Kremlin and resisted pressure to join the Russia-led bloc. All member states have equal veto power. Therefore, Armenia could theoretically block Azerbaijan from joining if the latter ever considered that option.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bitter war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. The conflict ended with a ceasefire, but not peace settlement in 1994; the ceasefire has been frequently violated. Since a brief war left hundreds of casualties in April 2016, Moscow has been increasingly playing the role of unilateral peace mediator between the two sides. While historically it has sided with Armenia - Russia's support was essential to Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories in the 1990s and to its defence ever since - Moscow has in recent years been playing both sides by selling armaments to Baku and Yerevan at the same time.

This equivocal state of affairs makes Glazyev's statements all the more surprising. During the press conference in Yerevan, he went as far as to advocate that all three countries in the South Caucasus should join the EEU - Georgia is well-known for its opposition to Russia after the latter invaded it in 2008 - for the sake of regional peace. He added that, unlike with the EU, membership in the EEU is "voluntary".

Glazyev's statements represent a rare glimpse into how Moscow conceives of the longstanding territorial conflicts in the South Caucasus - and how it can benefit from them. Interestingly, Baku has never expressed an outright interest in joining the EEU or any regional organisation, focusing instead on promoting more loosely defined regional "trifectas" like Azerbaijan-Turkey-Georgia and Azerbaijan-Russia-Iran that would strengthen its relative economic and diplomatic importance to the detriment of Armenia.

Furthermore, Glazyev's statements come at a time when both Armenia and Azerbaijan are in the process of finalising revised agreements with the EU - Armenia is about to sign an agreement in November, Azerbaijan is still negotiating terms. Armenian and Azerbaijani media outlets reported on October 12 that the EU-Armenia agreement will help solve one of the bones of contention between the two countries, that of an ageing nuclear power plant that Armenia wants to revive and about which Azerbaijan has been complaining for years, saying it is an ecological and human health threat to the entire region. As per the terms of the agreement, Armenia is to close down the facility.

Furthermore, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents held renewed peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh in Vienna on October 16, part of decade-long efforts to mediate the conflict by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Russia is one of the three co-chairs of the group that mediates the talks, together with the US and France. The process has been frequently criticised by Azerbaijan and Armenia as ineffective. 

Little progress is expected to be reached as a result of the latest round of the negotiations, which are one of the many such occurrences to have taken place in the last two decades, because neither Baku nor Yerevan have been willing to compromise on their positions regarding the conflict. Nevertheless, their heads of state agreed to intesify negotiations and to take unspecified "additional steps" in order to reduce tensions at the border, Arka news agency reported on October 16.