Staunton, September 18 – Deteriorating relations between Azerbaijan and the West and warming relations between Baku and Moscow have sparked a flood of speculation that if Azerbaijan shifts from its balanced foreign policy to a closer alliance with Russia, Moscow will arrange for a settlement of the Karabakh conflict that will result in its return to Baku’s control.
Indeed, that possibility, other than the near absolute certainty that Vladimir Putin’s government will never criticize Azerbaijan for its human rights record, is often presented as the chief incentive for Azerbaijan to ally itself more closely with Russia, especially since the OSCE Minsk Group despite 20 years of negotiations has not achieved a settlement.
But given that any such return now would likely involve the introduction of Russian peacekeepers in the region and not prevent Armenian flight, the situation in western Azerbaijan could come to represent that in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow is seeking to use the Donbas within Ukraine as a means of giving it undue influence of Kyiv’s decision making.
Obviously, Armenians, who have long counted on Russia’s support – there was no movement on the Karabakh issue up to now precisely because Russia did not want a settlement, an attitude that worked to Yerevan’s advantage – are worried about what this shift might mean for them, but one Armenian analyst has suggested Baku should be worried as well.
The reasons for that are to be found in history: Stalin drew the borders in the south Caucasus in the 1920s not only to exacerbate tensions between the nations there in a classical example of imperial divide and rule politics but also to give Moscow leverage over them by creating in Azerbaijan and Georgia ethnically different territories within their borders.
As a result of the conflicts of the last 25 years and both the refugee flows and the territorial changes that have occurred in Georgia, the three south Caucasus republics de facto if not de jure are more ethnically homogenous than they have ever been in their histories, thus limiting Moscow’s leverage.
Azerbaijan without Karabakh and the adjoining Armenian-occupied regions is more Azerbaijani than it has ever been; Georgia without Abkhazia and South Osetia is more Georgian than it has ever been; and Armenia, as a result of the outflow of Azerbaijanis and its seizure of Azerbaijani territory is more homogeneously and more numerously Armenian than ever before.
Should Moscow orchestrate the return of Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani lands to Baku’s control, that would either lead to a massive exodus of Armenians from there to Armenia proper or make Azerbaijan more ethnically diverse than it has been in a generation and thus susceptible to another form of Russian leverage, the use of the Armenian minority against Baku.
That possibility and what it would mean for Armenia as well as Azerbaijan is the subject of Yerevan political analyst Igor Muradyan’s speculations.
In a comment for Lragir.am, he argues that Azerbaijan no longer sees itself as close to the West and that Russia sees an opportunity to win Baku over to its side more or less permanently by arranging for Armenian-occupied territories in Azerbaijan to be returned to Azerbaijan’s control (lragir.am/index/eng/0/comments/view/34669).
According to Muryadyan, “the Russians are looking for weaknesses in the Euro-Atlantic strategy” and are focusing on Azerbaijan because that country “has lost its logistical and transit importance” to the West, its oil prices are higher than those of other supplier, and because “Azerbaijani society has been ‘defeated’ and is not capable” of moving that country in a democratic direction.
That gives Russia an opening, and Moscow is exploiting it, the Armenian analyst says. Russia would like the Armenian population to remain inside Azerbaijan protected by Russian peacekeepers. He says plans for their presence are already on the table in Baku. According to Muradyan, however, the Armenians in Karabakh and the adjoining regions are not going to stay.
Of course, but as he does not say, if Armenians flee, Moscow will argue that there is ever more reason for Russia’s presence there. But as he does indicate, the West will “not be active because” if they were to criticize Moscow, their words would have the effect of “enabling Russia’s presence in the region.”
And in this situation, the Armenians in Yerevan will back Moscow seeing Russia once again as “a guarantor of Armenia’s security.” Thus, Muradyan suggests, such a move by Moscow would win points not only in Baku but also in Yerevan, even though it is clear that in this game, “Armenia has become [primarily] a tool.”
As an Armenian, Muradyan undoubtedly hopes that Yerevan will see the risks to itself and oppose these moves to the best of its ability by turning to the West; but the issues he raises suggest that it may resonate among some in Baku given that if Russia gets its way, Azerbaijan could find itself under far greater Russian control than its government or people want.