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Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: Why Turkey’s Intervention Could Turn It into a “Proxy War”

StoryOctober 09, 2020
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The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan are in Moscow for talks following two weeks of fighting over the disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh. At least 300 people have already died in what could turn into a wider regional conflagration, with Turkey openly supporting Azerbaijan and Russia backing Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians. “Turkey’s intervention on the side of Azerbaijan is very destabilizing,” says Anna Ohanyan, professor of political science and international relations at Stonehill College. “It creates the conditions of transforming this conflict into a proxy war.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the rest of the hour looking at the ongoing fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where at least 300 people have died since the violence began two weeks ago — the real death toll expected to be far higher. Russia said both countries have agreed to talks in Moscow, expected to take place today, a sign that a ceasefire may be on the table. French President Emmanuel Macron said the — his office said the two countries were, quote, “moving toward a truce … but it’s still fragile.”

Nagorno-Karabakh lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians. It was the site of a bloody conflict in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many fear this latest spike in conflict, the worst since the ’90s, could spark a regional war, with Turkey openly supporting Azerbaijan and Russia allied with Armenia. The Guardian reports Syrian rebel fighters have signed up to work with private Turkish forces in Azerbaijan, and Turkey is reportedly supplying Azerbaijan with drones and weapons. In an interview with Sky News earlier this week, the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused Turkey of continuing its genocidal policies against the Armenian people.

PRIME MINISTER NIKOL PASHINYAN: [translated] It is absolutely not inflammatory language when I say that this is Turkey’s policy to continue the Armenian genocide. Let us look at what Turkey is implementing in the Mediterranean, in Libya, in Syria, Iraq. To me, there is not doubt that this is a policy of continuing the Armenian genocide and a policy of reinstating the Turkish Empire.

AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International reports Azerbaijan has used banned cluster bombs in civilian areas.

Well, for more, we go to Concord, Massachusetts, where we’re joined by Anna Ohanyan, professor of political science and international relations at Stonehill College. She’s the author of Russia Abroad: Driving Regional Fracture in Post-Communist Eurasia and Beyond and Networked Regionalism as Conflict Management.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Ohanyan. It’s great to have you with us. This is an area of the world that I believe most people in the United States are not paying much attention to. If you can talk about exactly what’s happening, as the foreign ministers of both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now coming to Moscow today, apparently, for peace talks? But what has happened? Why has this conflagration grown?

ANNA OHANYAN: Thank you very much, Amy, for covering the developments, the violence that is ongoing, the offensive from on the Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan and Turkey, coordinated offensive.

As you mentioned already, Turkey has come, has been supporting Azerbaijan diplomatically previously, as well as training the Azerbaijani military. But this particular involvement, the specific type of intervention, Turkey’s intervention on the side of Azerbaijan, is very destabilizing in terms of the support with the mercenaries, as well as drone technology. It creates the conditions of transforming this conflict into a proxy war.

But there are two broad perspectives, have been applied to analyze as to what has been going on. More of the more easily understood geopolitical analysis, “two-dimensional,” what I would call, has been describing — has been prevalent and explaining this conflict as a resurgence of Turkey trying to enter the South Caucasus as a regional power broker, although Erdogan has been self-proclaiming his foreign policy being neo-Ottomanism, essentially challenging given Turkish territorial boundaries recognized by the Lausanne Treaty. So, the geopolitical analysis also will have us think about this as a confrontation between Russia and Turkey.

But I think this narrative is really missing a lot that is very much under the radar and has not been picked up as much by the international news coverage. And the key development here is the domestic, domestic factors driving the foreign policies of these countries, Turkey and Azerbaijan. In particular, what is missing from the discourse is that two years ago Armenia had a democratic breakthrough, the Velvet Revolution, which was bottom up, driven by people power, a nonviolent disobedience campaign. And this created — was very significant for South Caucasus, because it created a democratic dyad with neighboring Georgia, already being a democratic society. Studies in social science and peace research have established that when in a region a democratic pole is strengthened, this creates cause, this creates pressure on the authoritarian pole — in this case, Azerbaijan — towards democratization.

So, this Aliyev regime, that — where President Aliyev inherited his seat from his father and is grooming his wife to take over — so, Aliyev, for a while, it looked like, tried to be a lot more accommodative. However, within two years, you also see Belarus protests breaking up, and people kept referring to Lukashenko as the last dictator of Europe, which is a mischaracterization because Aliyev is actually probably the last dictator of Europe. This Aliyev, instead of really trying to move in that direction, pulled in Turkey. I think the democratic dyad between the change, the structure, strengthened the democratic pole in South Caucasus, and therefore created an important avenue for mitigating the conflict. This was essentially offset by authoritarian coordination between Azerbaijan and Turkey.

So, Turkey’s entry, I mentioned, changes the structure of the conflict, because by bringing in mercenaries from Syria, it does two very important and unfortunate things. It introduces privatization and privatizes violence in a country. Probably these types of state formation conflicts that you see, of which Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one, they’re already hard to negotiate through a negotiated settlement, but they’re also hard to win militarily. So, introducing this element, Turkey’s change of the structure of this conflict, is very destabilizing for the region. Also —

AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about the significance of the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan going to Moscow today for peace talks. Of course, Putin, we know, is in a basically COVID bunker since March, does not see a lot of people. They have to be quarantined for two weeks before they can see him, going through disinfectant tunnels, everything like that. But why Moscow? And what do you think will come of this?

ANNA OHANYAN: I definitely — any push, any diplomatic attention to end the hostilities is welcome news. I think at this point the challenge is to end the violence. Turkey has been the only country, among the regional powers, great powers that matter, that has been pushing for a militarized solution, which would be — any militarized solution to the conflict would be a loss for Azerbaijani people, as well. It would be very difficult for Azerbaijani society to move into a democratic path down the road.

Russia’s role, in particular, here, I have to say, Russia has been the grown-up in the room. Russia, contrary to the, what I referred to, geopolitical analysis, that would have Russia and Turkey clashing — obviously there are tensions. Obviously Russia and Turkey are on different sides of conflicts in Syria, in Libya. But here, this indeed has been Russia’s historical backyard since predating the Soviet Union. And what is important here is that Russia has been playing — Kremlin has been playing very much an institutional role. In contrast to Turkey, it is using all the regional organizations and institutional channels that it created. So, the question is whether Kremlin will have enough leverage to pressure both sides. I am worried that it’s Turkey here, is the big factor. Whether Russia is pulling in the ministers of foreign affairs of Armenia and Azerbaijan is really wonderful. It’s important. So, right now — but I’m, again, not sure how Turkish factor will be handled.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have —

ANNA OHANYAN: Any —

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds.

ANNA OHANYAN: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: But you have called Azerbaijan an authoritarian petrostate. And the area we’re talking about, Nagorno-Karabakh, is an area of pipelines, of oil. This is that oil-rich area. Why is this significant?

ANNA OHANYAN: This is very significant, because, again, from the global perspective, The Economist magazine just issued a very important report that the global capital markets are shifting towards green energy order. So, this will be in the — that report also pointed out, not surprisingly, that this creates pressure on the petrostates to move towards taxation, taxing their citizens, which will require them to engage and build representative institutions.

This is a diversionary war on the side of Aliyev, that has been — domestic discontent has been enormous. And Aliyev has — the authoritarianism in Azerbaijan has been nourished by the oil, by the pipelines. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan emerged as an independent country and started to control its oil resources. Unfortunately, the —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

ANNA OHANYAN: Yeah, this authoritarianism, this militarism has not been challenged, and we see this playing out in Nagorno-Karabakh.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll, of course, continue to follow this. Anna Ohanyan, thanks so much for being with us, professor of political science and international relations at Stonehill College. Her books include Russia Abroad.

That does it for our show. Stay safe. Wear a mask. Save lives. I’m Amy Goodman.

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