Prisoner of the Caucasus

Prisoner of the Caucasus

Nagorno-Karabakh: a clash of civilizations?

But the greatest legacy of independence was the melding of the two historical struggles. The Ottomans of 1915 and the Azeris became one indistinguishable enemy, the “Turks,” a supposition inadvertently upheld by the recent “one people, two states” policy embraced by presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ilham Aliyev. Nagorno-Karabakh is an ipso facto continuation of the 1915 conflict, in which Armenians of course had no great opportunity to fight back. Today they do. Retrieving Mount Ararat and the old heartlands of western Armenia is a hopelessly distant prospect. But to the east, in Nagorno-Karabakh, there is an extraordinary chance to exact historical justice. Losing the region, even in the form of minor territorial concessions, would be catastrophic. Armenians might again become the people without a state.


THIS, AT any rate, is very much the argument pushed by the men who rule Armenia today, a collection of military figures known formerly as the Republicans, informally as the “Karabakh clan.” Most come from Nagorno-Karabakh or began public life there. They gained prominence in the war not as regulars but guerillas. Their leading members are Robert Kocharian, one-time leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, later president of Armenia, and Serzh Sargsyan, Kocharian’s defense chief and current president of Armenia. A veterans’ movement that seized on the precarious security situation of the 1990s, it entered into close cooperation with a chaebol of some two dozen oligarchs who lorded over Armenia’s privatization, rendering it into the most monopolized economy in the former USSR. What little wealth the country possesses—agricultural lands, cognac distilleries, mines—was compounded with diaspora funds, but mostly Russian arms deals that on paper consume 10 percent of the annual state budget, in practice several times more; Moscow provides Armenia with Russian loans to purchase Russian weaponry, a profit loop in which Sargsyan and his epigones skim enough kickbacks to have personally annexed some 40 percent of Armenia’s GDP. “And you still can’t take the peasants out of them!” runs a popular Armenian joke regarding the Republicans’ baggy three-piece suits.

In early 1998, after Ter-Petrossian proposed conceding parts of Nagorno-Karabakh to secure a lasting peace, the Republicans overthrew him. A string of dubious elections has preserved their power since. Travelling around Armenia, you see a makeshift mix of hard-fist rule and patronage politics. In Yerevan, there are the parades of black military-grade Humvees transporting the khmbapets, “chieftains,” and their entourages of armed bodyguards. Many towns have a “military-patriotic club” where members are updated on the state of Miatsyal Hayastan, “Greater Armenia.” In the countryside, Republican mayors secure their rule by distributing sacks of potatoes to pensioners and patching up roads in highlands otherwise marked by starvation wages and electricity still faltering from the disastrous 1990s, when nearly every national resource was diverted to Nagorno-Karabakh’s defense.

Azerbaijan is ostensibly a very different place from Armenia. Historically, it has been the state—the Muslim world’s first democracy, even—without any certain people, Azeris having been variously called Caucasian Tatars or Shia Turks; the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh shattered much of the Azeri national identity it initially aroused. Like Armenians, most Azeris actually live outside of their country—in Iran, a country nominally aligned with Armenia. Armenia’s population is 97.9 percent ethnically Armenian, making it one of the world’s least ethnically diverse nations. Azerbaijan, by contrast, is a virtual preservatory of minorities, with 115 different groups comprising a tenth of the population.

Power in post-Soviet Baku initially fell to the same group that currently rules in Yerevan—a deeply nationalist collection of Nagorno-Karabakh veterans—until it was destroyed by fear of military rule and a bloody 1993 civil war; in its place came a nomenklatura combining at once a recycled Communist vanguard and an historically Turkic regionalism based on allegiance to the hoj, or the blood-kin clan. Its leader was the head of the Nakhichevan clan, Heydar Aliyev, an intellectual who could trace his family’s roots back to Yerevan, the former head of the Azerbaijani KGB and first secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee.

To the degree that it gives Armenia an outsized sense of historical retribution, Nagorno-Karabakh has never ceased undermining the narrative of Azerbaijan’s success. It is the embarrassment hounding a regime capable of spending twice Armenia’s annual state budget on weapons alone, though to absolutely no effect; the relentlessly virile statements about Nagorno-Karabakh—Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov repeatedly claims that “the Karabakh land will burn under the feet of the Armenian invaders”—become more and more ridiculous the longer the status quo holds.

Oil, of which Armenia has absolutely none, offered Azerbaijan an historic opportunity to build the kind of durable nation Armenia can almost certainly never become. No sooner was the “boom of the century” realized than it was squandered: following a decade in which Azerbaijan became the fastest-growing economy on earth, GDP per capita remains barely above that of Jamaica, largely because of extravagant military expenditure and a shadowy accumulation of state assets and international properties that, as made clear by the meticulous investigations of journalist Khadija Ismayilova, have allowed the Aliyevs to run Azerbaijan very much as their own family firm. Controlling interests of five major state banks went to Ilham after Heydar’s death; his teenage grandson assumed control of three more; his granddaughters have been put in charge of state telecommunications; Ilham himself has overwhelming control over every state-owned port, mine and major construction project. The “paradox of plenty” was doubly compounded by an unwillingness to acknowledge that Nagorno-Karabakh had been lost in the first place. Old problems were never addressed, much less solved. To this day, nearly 7 percent of Azerbaijan’s citizens are so-called IDPs, internally displaced persons, a percentage of the population surpassed only recently on the world stage by Syria. Providing them with government housing would be a tacit acceptance of Armenia’s victory. And so today, nearly thirty years after they were driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh, many continue to live in railway cars and makeshift shanty camps like Saatli, just several hours’ drive from the glistening marble skyline of Baku.


THE IRONY of the Nagorno-Karabakh situation is that, over the last two decades, two states brandishing almost civilizational differences have turned into uncanny mirrors of one another. Their political developments haven’t been so much paralyzed by the conflict as altogether hijacked by it: electorates in Baku and Yerevan are hostage to mimicking narratives claiming that national prosperity will come only when Nagorno-Karabakh is under their country’s own undisputed control.

The basis of authority for these respective regimes would, of course, entirely collapse were that to happen. It is extraordinary even by the standards of post-USSR states that neither Baku nor Yerevan has ever had an incumbent government voted out of power at the ballot box. The situation in Azerbaijan is more dire—Heydar Aliyev’s handover of power to his son Ilham in 2003 marked the first dynastic transfer of power in the post-Soviet space—but state capture in Armenia is no less pervasive. Replace Aliyev’s totalitarianism with the Republicans’ legislation of a parliamentary system that has turned Armenia into a “one-and-a-half-party state” with an all but nonexistent opposition. Perhaps more strangely still, Armenia’s scant pro-EU civic society has been overwhelmed by groups that are in fact more unrelenting than Sargsyan on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. The most manifest example of these are the armed gangs that, last July, paralyzed the country by storming a Yerevan police station and holding hostages in response to—unsubstantiated—rumors that Sargsyan has been contemplating territorial concessions.

Claiming to be the war’s chief mediator, Moscow is its perpetuator. Insofar as electorates of both Armenia and Azerbaijan are hostage to authoritarian regimes, these governments are themselves hostage to the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin not only profits fantastically from weapons sales to both combatants; he dangles those weapons before each regime as incentives to preserve their power. No weapons, no war, no basis for authority. This not only acts to prevent any Western-minded, democratic government from coming to power in either Baku or Yerevan; it also undermines the claims that both governments genuinely want the war to end.

One story you hear about the Four-Day War points to the steep devaluation of the manat and the recent decline in oil prices. Aliyev hoped to buoy his flagging support through military victory. The more spurious speculation points to Russia. Putin had already watched one Caucasus nation—Georgia—slip from his orbit. Now Azerbaijan was following suit. There was Aliyev’s neighborhood entente with Turkey and Israel, a strange trio of bedfellows brought together by energy agreements and common opposition to Iran. There was also the West, which Aliyev had courted relentlessly in recent years with bread and circus spectacles: the European Games in 2015, the Chess World Cup in 2015, the 2015 World Tennis Cup, the 2016 European Grand Prix in downtown Baku. Putin, the narrative runs, gave Aliyev four days to take Nagorno-Karabakh. It began while both Aliyev and Sargsyan were in the United States at a nuclear summit; Aliyev could claim it was out of his control. If he succeeded, he’d be beholden to Putin. If he didn’t, as the case would be, Putin could push the OSCE out of the peace talks, impose a resolution on the warring parties that only Moscow could guarantee and reassert Russia’s historic suzerainty within the Caucasus—all of which it has virtually achieved.