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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Karabakh Tensions Part of New Great Game

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As the United States and Russia continue their uneasy struggle for influence across the CIS, a remote corner of the southern Caucasus is gaining prominence once again, part of a series of regional subplots that could aid or impede any grand designs for power. The corner in question is Nagorny Karabakh, a tiny mountainous enclave inhabited predominantly by Armenians, which was the scene of a brutal armed struggle in the 1990s when local separatists successfully ended Azerbaijan's rule. Since that time, Karabakh's Armenians have controlled the enclave and its borderlands, having fashioned their own republic, which enjoys significant support from neighboring Armenia. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan refuses to acknowledge any change, instead seeking Karabakh's return to its full control.

Emerging in 1988, the Karabakh struggle was once heralded as a test case for Soviet nationalities policy under Mikhail Gorbachev. Karabakh's Armenians, with the support of Armenia, initially sought to secede from Azerbaijan, citing their constitutional right to self-determination. However, when these demands met with violent reprisals against Armenians across Azerbaijan, peaceful rallies and petitions were replaced by low-intensity conflict pitting Armenian partisans against Azerbaijan's special forces, amid the rapid demise of Soviet power.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Karabakh struggle quickly spiraled into all-out war. By 1994, it had left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands uprooted on both sides. The conflict also drew in a host of regional actors -- Armenia and Azerbaijan, of course, but also neighboring Turkey and Iran, as well as Russia and eventually the United States. This made for a complex geopolitical equation. Indeed, depending on whom you speak to, the Karabakh issue is framed differently. For native Karabakhtsis, it is a pure-and-simple national liberation struggle that seeks to remove foreign occupation. For politicians in Yerevan and Baku, Karabakh is an apple of discord vied over by competing states. For regional powers, it is a political playing card, through which ethnic tensions can be stoked, suppressed or otherwise manipulated depending on the interests at stake. The problem, of course, is that all four levels operate simultaneously within a hierarchical nest of power relations.

Following a 1994 cease-fire, the Karabakh conflict has subsided to a large extent. True, border skirmishes continue, and military preparedness remains a priority for Armenians and Azeris alike. Yet all concede that a tenuous "not-war, not-peace" environment has slowly set in. The war on the ground has been largely replaced by a war of words, as all sides press for advantage at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, these sides seek to create new facts-on-the-ground that will bolster their positions in the future. For example, the self-declared Nagorny Karabakh Republic has consolidated its de facto independence by establishing firm links to Armenia, on which it now relies for substantial economic and political support. At the same time, Azerbaijan has skillfully parlayed its trump card -- massive Caspian energy reserves -- into a strong multilateral foreign policy that has steered away from dependence on Russia and toward friendly ties with Turkey and the United States, thus creating a favorable mix of anxiety and dependence among those who seek favor with Baku. Diplomacy aside, there are also concerns that oil and gas money now entering Baku may contribute to its remilitarization, thus leading to renewed hostilities.

In this war of maneuver, uneasy coexistence has been the norm for the last decade or so. In Baku, Soviet strongman and former President Haidar Aliyev made some noise occasionally, but generally remained low-key, as he favored negotiated solutions and steered clear of any destabilizing developments that might upset investors. In Yerevan, the dovish President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and his successor, the slightly more hawkish Robert Kocharyan, have been even less prone to belligerence, given the ongoing pressures they face from neighboring Turkey and the United States, which have scarcely concealed their support for Azerbaijan. Perhaps most compelling has been the rivalry between the United States and Russia, as the two have evinced markedly different approaches to the region. The former seeks a negotiated settlement within an East-West integrated sphere of influence that would extend from Turkey to Central Asia, effectively cutting off Iran from Russia. The latter has sought permanent instability in Karabakh and elsewhere that would ensure the Caucasus' continuance as its primary zone of influence.

This slow-motion dance has faltered only twice: once in early 1998 when Ter-Petrosyan was ousted after becoming too conciliatory in his talks with Aliyev and again in 2001 when Kocharyan and Aliyev agreed to a tentative compromise that blew up when Aliyev returned to Baku and apparently changed his mind. Today, however, things appear to be changing: Ilham Aliyev, recent successor to Haidar, has retained his father's authoritarian habits at home while demonstrating increasing belligerence abroad, both in his pronouncements and concrete initiatives. He is emboldened by Russia's seeming retreat, coupled with the United State's recent involvement in the region, as well as its present attempts to court Baku in the campaign to isolate Iran. Thus, with wind in his sails, Aliyev has combined periodic threats to retake Karabakh by force with diplomatic offensives designed to paint Armenia as the conflict's aggressor. The most recent initiative is a proposed UN resolution decrying Karabakh's hold over "occupied territories" surrounding the enclave, in which Baku demands that Armenians evacuate these lands before negotiating anything regarding Karabakh's status.

Armenians reply that these are buffer zones, required as a cushion against possible future attacks -- a claim supported by the occasional war cries that still emanate from Baku. Moreover, Karabakh's authorities report that their "occupation" hardly resembles the West Bank or Baghdad; rather, Karabakh's borderlands have been settled sporadically and unevenly, in many cases by itinerant refugees driven from Azerbaijan during the war years. These claims, too, have been borne out, most recently by French mediator Bernard Fassier, who was in Karabakh as part of an OSCE monitoring team in January. Fassier notes in part, "In many areas there is no electricity and poverty predominates. I wouldn't say people live. Rather, they are surviving in half-destroyed walls topped by a tin roof."

Not surprisingly, Armenians have rejected Baku's territorial preconditions for a settlement, saying that the central issues -- guarantees of Karabakh's security and, ultimately, its political status -- must remain at the forefront of any negotiating process. Azerbaijan replies by stressing Karabakh's illegitimacy as a party in negotiations, insisting it will only deal in state-to-state scenarios involving Armenia.

So what is to be done? Having spent a good deal of the past decade in Karabakh, I know first-hand that native Armenians are stubbornly distrustful of Azeri authorities, and would sooner die than return to the pre-1988 status quo. Accordingly, Azerbaijan must take the fundamental steps of acknowledging Karabakh's right to exist and allowing its inclusion as a side to the negotiations. No solution -- no matter how clever -- can work without local involvement.

A second issue, however, is perhaps even more thorny: It involves the regional balance of power and, specifically, how Russia intends to react to growing U.S. aggressiveness in and around the Caucasus. If Russia retreats, leaving matters in the hands of U.S.-led interests, more blood may be spilled before a solution is reached. On the other hand, Russia must acknowledge that it cannot use the blunt instruments and blatant manipulations of its recent past, if it is to maintain influence. Rather, Moscow's intentions must become more transparent, aiming to build trust within a framework of regional cooperation rather than by perpetuating instability among vassal states. Otherwise, the stalemate will continue well into the next decade.

John Antranig Kasbarian holds a Ph.D. in geography from Rutgers University and serves as Nagorny Karabakh program director for the New York-based Tufenkian Foundation. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.