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War in the Caucasus

Barnabe F. Geisweiller, December 4, 2009

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and his counterpart Vladimir Putin of Russia chat during a press conference following a protocol signing ceremony in Ankara on Aug. 6. (Photo: Adem Altan/ AFP-Getty Images)

The six-year war in the landlocked region of Nagorno-Karabakh left around 30,000 dead. It entangled Armenia and Azerbaijan in an undeclared war, which halted in 1994 but has been frozen in a deadlock ever since. Border skirmishes have continued to punctuate periods of relative calm.

War was once again on the horizon in November as Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev threatened to use force if new efforts to resolve the decades-old conflict failed.

Only this time, Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, has signed two protocols with Armenia to establish diplomatic relations and promising to reopen their border, which Turkey sealed during the war in 1993.

Improved Turkish-Armenian relations would do much to defuse a powder keg that would have worldwide ramifications were it to go off, as war between Turkish-backed Azerbaijan and Russian-backed Armenia could rapidly escalate. At the very least, war in a key oil and gas transit region would not bode well for the West.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been under the control of Armenian forces since the 1994 ceasefire that brought the war to an end.

The territory was created as an autonomous oblast within Azerbaijan against the will of the enclave's majority ethnic Armenians by the Soviet Union in 1923. Tensions between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis came to a head as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in the late 1980s.

Nagorno-Karabakh's parliament voted to secede to Armenia. Later, in a 1991 referendum boycotted by the region's Azerbaijanis, ethnic Armenians voted for the creation of an independent state. This resulted in a declaration of independence to this day unrecognized by any other country.

Full-scale war between the newly declared republic and Azerbaijan ensued. Armenia backed Nagorno-Karabakh and soon became directly involved. By the end of the war, Armenian forces were in control of 16 percent of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno-Karabakh. The new deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan would see Armenian forces return most of the Azeri districts around the ethnic Armenian enclave.

Turkey took Azerbaijan's side during the war, joining in on the Azerbaijani blockade of Armenia. Tensions between Turkey and Armenia have run high ever since World War I, and Turkey's refusal to formerly recognize the massacre of over a million Armenians in 1915. The butchery was the first modern genocide, called an "administrative holocaust" by Sir Winston Churchill.

But Turkey disputes that the killings amounted to what we now call genocide—defined by the U.N. as a state-sponsored attempt to destroy a group, in whole or in part.

Azerbaijan fears a deal between Armenia and Turkey would make it lose leverage over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. For Turkey, a deal with Armenia would do much to elevate its status as a mediator in the Caucasus, and would presumably help its desperate bid to enter the European Union—something French President Nicholas Sarkozy vehemently opposes.

The crippled economy of landlocked Armenia would benefit greatly if Turkey and Azerbaijan were to open their borders.

If no resolution is found, it is theoretically possible the violence previously limited to the mountainous enclave could draw in Turkey and Russia. In a worst-case scenario, the embroilment of these two regional powers would bring alliances into play with potentially disastrous consequences—as happened after the single bullet of a Serb nationalist pierced the jugular of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

Turkey has close relations with the United States and is a member of NATO. Russia and Armenia are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

At the very least, war in the South Caucasus would be yet another destabilizing force in Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, and a further source of concern for the West's economies.

Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president, surely knows starting a war would be bad business for his oil-exporting country, and it would pit him against most of the world powers. It is likely his hawkishness will be limited to rhetoric, though there can be no doubt that his anger at the prospect of a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement is very real.

Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia may have emboldened Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenians. But Aliyev's bellicose statements are backed by a domestic arms industry and a military budget far larger than Armenia's.

In March 2008, clashes on the border left 16 people dead. Both sides accused each other of triggering the exchange of gunfire.

Though it appears the two countries are moving towards peace, the incident shows how easily war could return to the Caucasus.

Barnabe F. Geisweiller was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. He is currently a graduate student at Columbia University's School of Journalism. He has worked and lived throughout the Middle East and Latin America and has traveled in Europe and Asia.

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