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Armenia Ceasefire

11 November 2020

This time, the truce will last. The 2,000 Russian troops flying into Armenia this week and fanning out to police the ceasefire lines in Nagorno-Karabakh are being sent there for five years renewable, and neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan will challenge them.

Armenia is in shock, but what remains of the Armenian enclave in western Azerbaijan would quickly be overrun if the Russian troops were not there. As Arayik Harutyunyan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist leader, admitted on Tuesday, “had the hostilities continued at the same pace, we would have lost all of (it) within days.”

Azerbaijanis are jubilant about their victory, but they will abide by this ceasefire. It’s enough: about three-quarters of the Armenian-occupied territory in Azerbaijan has fallen into their hands already, or will be handed over by Armenian forces by the end of this month. Besides, the Russians would be very cross if they broke their word.

Armenia won all that territory in a war that was almost inevitable after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were ‘republics’ during the Soviet era, but the borders that Stalin had drawn for them left a significant ethnic Armenian population inside the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Armenians living in the ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (Province)’ accounted for about four-fifths of the local population. They declared their independence in 1991, and when fighting broke out between them and the Azerbaijanis, Armenia proper, also newly independent, sent troops and weapons to help them.

That war ended in an Armenian victory in 1994, after Armenian troops drove all the Azerbaijanis not only out of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also out of three times as much territory to the north, south and west of it. Armenia wound up with a large territory extending about 50 km east from its own eastern border.

The analogy with Israel’s situation immediately after the independence war in 1948-49 is irresistible.

There were only 800,000 Jewish Israelis in former Palestine in 1949, surrounded not only by a million Palestinian Arabs but by another 50-100 million Arabs in other countries within military reach of them.

There were 3.3 million people on the Republic of Armenia in 1994, and another 145,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. There were no Azerbaijani minorities left in Nagorno-Karabakh nor in the large occupied territories around it, but there were about 75 million Turkish-speaking Muslims in Azerbaijan and Turkey who saw the outcome as an outrage.

That was worrisome, especially for people who were survivors of a recent genocide (the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915-18, the Jews in Nazi-ruled Europe in 1941-45).

However, both Armenia and Israel are supported by very large ‘connected’ diasporas: around 7 million people in each case, the great majority living in relatively prosperous countries like the United States, France, Canada and Russia. So how did they fare in terms of holding on to their lands?

Both countries have held their core territory as defined at independence. They are likely to do so indefinitely thanks to great-power guarantees, for Armenia by Russia and for Israel thanks to French guarantees until 1968 and subsequently by the United States.

Israel conquered quite a lot more territory in 1968, some of which (the West Bank) it is busily settling with Jews and will probably keep forever. Armenia also conquered extra territory in 1994, but it is losing most of it right now.

The ceasefire lines will probably become de facto borders. All the formerly occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh will be repopulated by Azerbaijani refugees, including the one road linking it to Armenia proper (but Russian peace-keeping troops will hold it open).

About a quarter of Nagorno-Karabakh itself was also captured by Azerbaijani forces, and will stay in their hands. Most Armenians have already fled the enclave, and only a minority are likely to return given the precarious lifeline through the Lachin corridor and the fact that Azerbaijani troops will remain within 5 km. of Stepanakert, the capital.

Why such dramatically different outcomes? The obvious answer is that Azerbaijan is oil-rich and was spending nine times as much Armenia on ‘defence’. But the Arab world is oil-rich too. How did Israel manage it?

By mobilising the support of its diaspora a great deal better. Immigration has grown Israel’s Jewish population from 800,000 to seven million since independence. In contrast, the population of the Republic of Armenia has actually fallen by a quarter-million, and there was no big influx of Armenians from overseas to Armenia proper, Nagorno-Karabakh or the empty occupied territories.

As with immigrants, so also with money for defence. Why Armenia couldn’t exploit its diaspora more effectively is a mystery, but that’s the difference. The military defeat was the eventual, inevitable result of a long-running political failure.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“That…1941-45”; and “Both…states”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Azerbaijan Wins

28 October 2020

The month-old war between Azerbaijan and Armenia is so low on everybody else’s list of concerns that when Azerbaijan won the war last Monday morning, hardly anybody in the media elsewhere even noticed.

Shortly after 8am local time on Monday, Azeri troops gained control of the road through the Lachin Pass. That is the sole land route between Armenia proper and Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave inside the borders of Azerbaijan that the whole war is about.

A new road further to the north, offering a quicker link between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, was opened in 2017, but it has been closed since 1 October, shortly after the war started, “for the safety of civilians (i.e. because of shelling from Azerbaijani territory).

Until Monday the Lachin road was crowded with Armenian refugees fleeing west to safety and Armenian troops and military supplies heading east to the war. Apart from one or two big strikes by Israeli-made LORA quasiballistic missiles (hypersonic, 400-km. range, GPS and television terminal guidance), the road was fairly safe.

But now there are Azerbaijani armoured vehicles across the Lachin road, and all of Nagorno-Karabakh is cut off: no more reinforcements, and more than half the Armenian civilian population of 146,000 people still there, trapped under constant shellfire and drone attacks. At least 2,000 people, most of them Armenians, have been killed in the fighting.

The outcome of the war was inevitable once it became clear that Russia was not going to intervene militarily to help Armenia, despite the fact that both countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Azerbaijan is clearly the aggressor in this round of fighting, but it is a CSTO member too, so Russia had to make a choice.

Azerbaijan has three times Armenia’s population and a great deal of oil, and Armenia is of no great strategic value, so Russia restricted itself to mediating futile ceasefires. The Azeris signed each time, but they knew they were winning and they never stopped their advance.

The most recent (third) ceasefire was actually negotiated with the help of the United States, and was supposed to come into effect at 8 am on Monday morning, but the Azeris broke that one too. As usual, they blamed the Armenians for having broken it within five minutes of its coming into effect (that is, at 8.05 am) – but they tweeted their protest at 5 am, which rather undermined its plausibility.

The Azeris did not commit to an all-out offensive until about ten days ago, confining themselves to probing attacks and random shelling until they were certain that the Russians would stay out. Then they sent an armoured column west along the Iranian border through territory that had been emptied of its Azeri inhabitants in the 1994 war.

The Armenians, outnumbered, overstretched and outgunned, did what they could, but by 22 October the Azeris had reached the Hakari river valley. There they turned right and headed north up the valley – and on the 26th they took Lachin. End of game.

It was a move that they would never have risked against a more mobile and better equipped enemy. The Hakari runs through the narrow strip of territory that separates Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia proper, so they had Armenian-held territory on both sides of them, and a 100-km supply line behind them that was overlooked by Armenian troops on the right-hand side all the way.

Fortune favours the bold, but it’s easier to be bold when you have total air superiority – Armenia has nothing to match Azerbaijan’s Turkish-built drones and Israeli-supplied missiles – and massive firepower on the ground. So now Azerbaijan holds the Lachin Pass, and all that remains is for Armenia to negotiate the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to its legal Azeri rulers (probably minus its Armenian residents).

That will be very painful for Armenians after a quarter-century of holding the territory, but they have no way of taking it back. They were bound to lose it in the end unless they could more or less match Azerbaijan’s military spending, and they couldn’t; the Azeri military budget was at least five times bigger, maybe more.

Like the Balkan wars of the early 20th century, nobody is in the right in the various wars that have been waged in the Caucasus since the old Soviet Union collapsed. The ethnic groups were already numerous and hopelessly intertwined, and Soviet policy deliberately made the situation even more complex.

The Armenians drove over half a million Azeris out of the territory of Nagorno- Karabakh and large adjacent entirely Azeri provinces in the 1992-94 war. Now the Azeri refugees will go home and 150,000 Armenians will have to seek new homes in Armenia proper. None of it is fair, but that’s how it still works in much of the world.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“A new…territory”; and “The most…plausibility”)

Armenia and Azerbaijan

28 September 2020

It’s probably Azerbaijan that started the shooting in this latest round of fighting with neighbouring Armenia. Which is not to say that it’s all Azerbaijan’s fault.

The killing that started on Sunday is the biggest clash since the cease-fire of 1994: helicopters shot down, tanks blown up, and dozens of soldiers dead already. It could go the distance – the 1992-94 war cost 30,000 lives and drove a million people from their homes – or it could die down in a few days. But it won’t settle anything.

In the Caucasus, neighbouring countries can be wildly different: Azerbaijan is Shia Muslim and speaks what is really an eastern dialect of Turkish, while Armenia is Orthodox Christian and speaks a language that has no known relatives within the Indo-European family. But the two countries share a long history of oppression.

They both spent almost a century in the Russian empire, got their independence back briefly during the Revolution, and then spent another 70 years as part of the Soviet Union. When they both got their independence again in 1991, however, they almost immediately went to war.

That was Joseph Stalin’s fault. When he was Commissar of Nationality Affairs in 1918-22, he drew the borders of all the new non-Russian ‘Soviet Republics’ in the Caucasus and Central Asia according to the classic imperial principle of divide-and-rule. Every ‘republic’ included ethnic minorities from neighbouring republics, to minimise the risk that they might develop a genuine national identity.

In the case of Azerbaijan, Stalin gave it the district of Nagorno-Karabakh (‘mountainous’ Karabakh) even though that area was four-fifths Armenian in population. When the Soviet Union began crumbling 70 years later, the local minorities in both countries started fleeing to areas where they would be safely in the majority even before the war got underway.

The actual war in 1992-94 was a brutal affair involving active ethnic cleansing: 600,000 Azerbaijanis and 300,000 Armenians became refugees. On paper Armenia should have lost, for it has only 3 million people to Azerbaijan’s 9 million, but it actually won most of the battles.

When post-Soviet Russia brokered a cease-fire between the exhausted parties, Armenia wound up holding not only Nagorno-Karabakh but a large amount of other territory (now emptied of Azerbaijanis) that connected Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia proper. And that’s where the border – more precisely the cease-fire line – remains to this day.

I haven’t been near the front line since shortly after that war, so why would I claim to know that it’s Azerbaijan starting up the war again this time? Three reasons.

First, Armenia already controls all the territory it claims and more. However, in terms of international law it has no legal claim to it, and the UN Security Council has four times called for the withdrawal of Armenian troops. Why would Armenia draw further unwelcome attention to the fact that it has been illegally occupying ‘foreign’ territory for 26 years?

Secondly, Armenia is much weaker in military terms. Not only has it far fewer people but it is poor, whereas Azerbaijan has enjoyed great wealth from oil. Both countries buy most of their weapons from Russia, but in the past two decades Azerbaijan has consistently outspent Armenia on defence nine-to-one.

Finally, Azerbaijan’s ‘elected’ dictator, Ilham Aliyev, has a strong political need for a war right now, while Armenia’s new leader, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, does not.

Pashinyan came to power in 2018 in a free election, after non-violent protests forced out his long-ruling predecessor, who was trying to ‘do a Putin’. (That is to say, stay in power when he hit the two-term limit as president by moving real power to the prime minister’s office, and coming back himself as prime minister.) Armenia now has free media and a popular president.

Aliyev is fighting to prolong his family’s dynastic rule for a third generation in the face of popular protests. His father, Heydar Aliyev, was a career KGB officer who became leader of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and took over as dictator after the Soviet Union collapsed. (This happened in most of the Muslim ex-Soviet republics.)

Heydar managed to pass power to his son Ilham before he died in 2003. Ilham changed the constitution to scrap presidential term limits in 2009. In 2016 he even lowered the age limit on the presidency, to smooth the path to the throne for his then 19-year-old son.

Azerbaijan’s opposition parties, despite oppression, jail and torture, are resisting Ilham Aliyev’s tyranny, and their most effective rallying cry is Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Mobs of anti-regime demonstrators took over central Baku last week demanding action, and this mini-war is Aliyev’s attempt to placate them.

It will all die down if Armenia can hold on long enough for Russia to impose another cease-fire. Otherwise, it may get very ugly again.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“Aliyev…son”)

Armenia: The End of the Debate?

14 October 2009

Armenia: The End of the Debate?

By Gwynne Dyer

The first great massacre of the 20th century happened in eastern Anatolia 94 years ago. Armenians all over the world insist that their ancestors who died in those events were the victims of a deliberate genocide, and that there can be no reconciliation with the Turks until they admit their guilt. But now the Armenians back home have made a deal.

On October 10th, the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers signed a accord in Zurich that reopens the border between the two countries, closed since 1993, and creates a joint historical commission to determine what actually happened in 1915. It is a triumph for reason and moderation, so the nationalists in both countries attacked it at once.

The most anguished protests came from the Armenian diaspora: eight million people living mainly in the United States, France, Russia, Iran and Lebanon. There are only three million people living in Armenia itself, and remittances from the diaspora are twice as large as the country’s entire budget, so the views of overseas Armenians matter.

Unfortunately, their views are quite different from those of the people who actually live in Armenia. For Armenians abroad, making the Turks admit that they planned and carried out a genocide is supremely important. Indeed, it has become a core part of their identity.

For most of those who are still in Armenia, getting the Turkish border re-opened is a higher priority. Their poverty and isolation are so great that a quarter of the population has emigrated since the border was closed sixteen years ago, and trade with their relatively rich neighbour to the west would help to staunch the flow.

Moreover, the agreement does not require Armenia to give back the Armenian-populated parts of Azerbaijan, its neighbour to the east. Armenia’s conquest of those lands in 1992-94 was why Turkey closed the border in the first place (many Turks see the Turkic-speaking Azeris as their “little brothers”), so in practical terms Armenian president Serge Sarkisian has got a very good deal.

The communities of the diaspora, however, believe the Armenian government has sold them out on the genocide issue. Their remittances are crucial to Armenia, so President Serge Sarkisian has spent the past weeks travelling the world, trying to calm their fury. In the end, he will probably succeed, if only because they have nowhere else to go.

But can any practical consideration justify abandoning the traditional Armenian demand that Turkey admit to a policy of genocide? Yes it can, because it is probably the wrong demand to be making.

Long ago, when I was a budding historian, I got sidetracked for a while by the controversy over the massacres of 1915. I read the archival reports on British and Russian negotiations with Armenian revolutionaries after the Ottoman empire entered the First World War on the other side in early 1915. I even read the documents in the Turkish General Staff archives ordering the deportation of the Armenian population from eastern Anatolia later that year. What happened is quite clear.

The British and the Russians planned to knock the Ottoman empire out of the war quickly by simultaneous invasions of eastern Anatolia, Russia from the north and Britain by landings on Turkey’s south coast. So they welcomed the approaches of Armenian nationalist groups and asked them to launch uprisings behind the Turkish lines to synchronise with the invasions. The usual half-promises about independence were made, and the Armenian groups fell for it.

The British later switched their attack to the Dardanelles in an attempt to grab Istanbul, but they never warned their Armenian allies that the south-coast invasion was off. The Russians did invade, but the Turks managed to stop them. The Armenian revolutionaries launched their uprisings as promised, and the Turks took a terrible vengeance on the whole community.

Istanbul ordered the Armenian minority to be removed from eastern Anatolia on the grounds that their presence behind the lines posed a danger to Turkish defences. Wealthy Armenians were allowed to travel south to Syria by train or ship, but for the impoverished masses it was columns marching over the mountains in the dead of winter. They faced rape and murder at the hands of their guards, there was little or no food, and many hundreds of thousands died.

If genocide just means killing a lot of people, then this certainly was one. If genocide means a policy that aims to exterminate a particular ethnic or religious group, then it wasn’t. Armenians who made it alive to Syria, then also part of the Ottoman empire, were not sent to death camps. Indeed, they became the ancestors of today’s huge Armenian diaspora. Armenians living elsewhere in the empire, notably in Istanbul, faced abuse but no mass killings.

It was a dreadful crime, and only recently has the public debate in Turkey even begun to acknowledge it. It was not a genocide if your standard of comparison is what happened to the European Jews, but diaspora Armenians will find it very hard to give up their claim that it was. Nevertheless, the grown-ups are now in charge both in Armenia and in Turkey, and amazing progress is being made.