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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”)

Georgian Revolution

23 November 2003

Transaucasia: Two Down and One To Go

By Gwynne Dyer

“By his resignation, he avoided spilling blood in the country,” said Mikhail Saakashvili, the opposition leader who finally ended President Eduard Shevardnadze’s 30-year career as the boss of Georgia on Sunday. Twelve years after the death of the old Soviet Union, the westernmost of the three Transcaucasian republics has at last shaken off the grip of the old Communist mafia. With Armenia already well into its post-Communist era, this leaves only Azerbaijan to go. That may be trickier, however, for Azerbaijan is where the oil is.

A lot of the credit for the peaceful transition in Georgia must go to the disciplined crowds who protested in front of the parliament buildings in Tbilisi every day since the rigged elections on 2 November, and to the soldiers and police who made it clear that they would not open fire on the people to defend Shevardnadze’s position. But the United States is also due some credit for finally calling time on the old scoundrel, for its condemnation of Shevardnadze’s shameless manipulation of the parliamentary election was unusually blunt.

“The elections do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people,” said US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, “but instead reflect massive vote fraud in Ajaria and other Georgian regions. Specifically the parallel vote tally and exit polling conducted by reputable independent organisations differ significantly from the results released by the Central Election Committee and these discrepancies in our view reveal an extensive manipulation of the vote count.”

Shevardnadze had often rigged elections before without facing that sort of criticism from the US government. Washington was actually saying to the Georgians: we’re washing our hands of Shevardnadze – take him down if you can. Take him down they did, and it is safe to assume that the Bush administration had already decided that it can live happily with the man who is likely to end up as president instead, Mikhail Saakashvili. But that does not make Saakashvili a mere puppet, or invalidate the fact that there has been a genuine outbreak of democracy in Georgia.

For Washington, policy towards the Transcaucasian republics (and the other ex-Soviet republics east of the Caspian Sea) is driven by three considerations. Access to the vast new oil reserves in the region and ensuring that the vital pipelines pass through friendly countries is paramount. Enlisting the aid of these countries in the ‘war on terror’ is also a high priority. And democracy would be nice, other things being equal.

In Georgia, happily, other things are more or less equal. Indeed, Shevardnadze, far from being a guarantee of stability, had become a seriously destabilising influence, for under his rule Georgia, once the most prosperous of all the fifteen Soviet republics, has descended into desperate poverty and decay while a sleek minority grew rich amid the ruins. Georgians were furious at the corruption all around them, but Shevardnadze did nothing to curb it, for distributing favours and privileges to his supporters, and above all to his own clan, was how he kept himself in power.

It was how Shevardnadze originally rose to power as the head of the Georgian Communist Party in 1972. Indeed, it was how almost all of the Party potentates in the non-European parts of the old Soviet Union really secured their power: behind the facade of a modern totalitarian state, they built their local political machines on patronage and clan loyalties. The corruption did not reach such flagrant levels while the Party still ruled, but it is why the old Communist bosses survived to re-emerge as the new rulers in almost all the ex-Soviet republics of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia.

Shevardnadze was off in Moscow as Soviet foreign minister in 1985-90, and did some fine work in ensuring the peaceful end of the Cold War, but when he returned to Georgia as president in 1992 (thanks to a bloody coup) he reverted to his old methods and ruled Georgia with an iron hand for eleven more years. Now, at 75, he has been peacefully replaced by an American-educated democrat less than half his age. About time, too.

In 1992 all three Transcaucasian republics emerged from Soviet rule, but their old Communist Party bosses were soon back in power, now freed of the old Soviet-era restraints. All three countries went into social and economic free-fall, experiencing levels of corruption, poverty and violence that they could not have imagined in the old days. And now, perhaps, they are starting to recover.

Armenia was the first to dump its Soviet-era boss, replacing Karen Demirchan with Robert Kocharian in a free election in 1998. Now Georgia is doing the same: new parliamentary elections are due in 45 days, and a presidential election to choose Shevardnadze’s successor will follow soon after. Both countries are still desperately poor, but they may finally be on the mend.

That leaves only Azerbaijan, where Haydar Aliyev ruled as Communist Party boss and then as president from the 1970s until his death last August — and where his son Ilham Aliyev was duly elected president in his place in October. But then, Azerbaijan has oil, so the former Communist elite there has more money to bribe its collaborators with. It follows perfectly logically that Azerbaijan’s people are the poorest in the region despite the oil, and that its government is deeply repressive and corrupt. And that the US State Department keeps its views on the honesty of Azerbaijan’s elections to itself.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Shevardnadze…Georgia”; and “Shevardnadze…too”)