Moscow surprised "Excitable Caucasians" have become rational

For many years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of the newly independent successor states, Russian diplomats counselled their western colleagues on the business of dealing with the people of the Caucasus, and their politics. 

They often described the Caucasians as the "excitable people of the South", who needed a special kind of handling, and only Russians knew how to do it. It was a Soviet version of "orientalism" that still lingers among the current Russian elite.

Putin’s handling of the 2nd Karabakh War - and the subsequent steps he took to establish the post-war order in the region - was very much in this vein. Russia rushed troops to Karabakh to keep the peace, and Russia was to be involved at every stage and in every corner of building a post-war order. There was no space left for others to contribute to this process, except for some general reference to a UN role in providing humanitarian aid. Well content that the excitable people of the South had been calmed down, President Putin turned his attention to other matters – namely what for him were the less excitable, but no less irritable people on the western frontier, the Ukrainians.

So it must have come as something of a surprise to Putin that the next time he turned his attention to the Caucasus, he found everything had turned upside down. The excitable people of the South had all of a sudden become rational. They were talking about peace treaties. They were holding meetings with each other in multiple fora, and despite the fact that they could not calm all the hotheads in their midst, by and large they had set the course for a historical breakthrough. The Kremlin Tsar was not amused, and he has summoned President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Pashinyan of Armenia to Sochi for a meeting on Monday (31 October). Given the noise coming out from official channels in Moscow in the last days, this will not be an easy meeting. In Sochi Putin will want to know why the Caucasians have stopped being excitable; why they propose to stop killing each other, and why they are doing this without Russia’s blessing?

Russia does not have many carrots it can give these days, but in the Caucasus they still remember well its sticks. So the warnings coming out from Moscow are taken seriously. In two separate articles in recent days on two regular columnists whose views reflect broad opinion in Baku and Yerevan, have cautioned against angering Russia, and urged prudence so as to not get entangled in Russia-West competition.

Writing on 15 October, Vasif Huseynov says that Russia is worried about the success of European diplomacy in approximating the positions of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the prospect of a peace agreement before the end of the year that would see it elbowed out of the South Caucasus. Russia may use its presence in Karabakh to throw spokes in the wheel, he warned. 

"This situation seriously threatens peace and stability in the South Caucasus. The region would descend into catastrophic escalations if the present peace efforts fail, and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict becomes another theatre of the Russia-West confrontation. Baku and Yerevan, having declared their willingness to recognize each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, would suffer the most from such a situation. Hence, both should make efforts to reach a deal with a delicate geopolitical balance."

Read it here.

From Yerevan, on 27 October, Benyamin Poghosyan wrote in a similar tone, saying that Russia has become increasingly critical of western involvement in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict settlement process.

"Armenia and Azerbaijan should take all necessary steps to avoid being trapped in Russia – West or US – Iran confrontation. The ongoing war in Ukraine proved that this scenario might have catastrophic implications for both states. It does not mean that negotiations should be stopped. However, the hectic moves to sign a US or EU-prepared agreement, which Russia may view as an attempt to kick it out from South Caucasus, may destabilize the situation and bring new war instead of peace. In this context, the possible option to not lose the momentum could be a signature of a document that will envisage the principles of the future peace agreement while providing more time to carefully draft a peace treaty based on the balance of interests of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other actors."

Read it here.

A peace agreement before the end of the year

If Putin’s objective is to spoil the party he may have left it too late. One thing has become clear in the last few weeks. Both President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan are determined to sign a peace agreement before the end of the year.  

Speaking in a Q&A session at the Armenian parliament on Wednesday (26 October), Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reiterated his commitment to sign a peace agreement. "I would like the peace agreement to be concluded by the end of this year", he told MPs.  

"How realistic is that? The government and I will make every effort to make it realistic. We hope that the delimitation works will be completed before the signing of the peace treaty. How realistic is it? If we take into account that in Prague we reached an agreement that this will happen based on the borders of 1991, it can be realistic because the borders are known," said the Prime Minister.

According to Nikol Pashinyan, an internationally visible dialogue should be started between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. "This is a very important circumstance and there must be certain mechanisms to protect the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. It will be very good and I will be very satisfied if we can do it," Pashinyan declared.

On his part, President Aliyev speaking in Georgia said: "We believe that after the Karabakh conflict, the time has come for Azerbaijan and Armenia to sign a peace treaty. At least this is our intention. We have laid down our proposals consisting of five main principles to the Armenian side. I do hope that the Armenian side will also show political will and sign the peace treaty with Azerbaijan on the basis of these fundamental principles recognized by the international community."

A full peace treaty may be difficult to finish in such a short time, but a more general agreement, which would still be substantial, is within reach. That progress on this was made in discussions outside the Russian framework is not a coincidence. Russia simply has too much baggage in the Caucasus. Its approach remains patronising, and often threatening. It is constantly manoeuvring to find ways to maintain its privileged position in the region, often ignoring the needs of the local players. The West has succeeded in pushing the peace process forward because it has much less baggage, and its engagement has been in good faith. The sides in the conflict recognised this and seized the opportunity. Now it is time to finish the job.

Don’t forget the Georgians

It is in the interest of both Armenia and Azerbaijan that as soon as they sort out the relations between them they should also bring in the Georgians in a trilateral regional format that is long overdue.

This week President Ilham Aliyev made a short working visit to Tbilisi. Apart from the usual statements about Georgian-Azerbaijani eternal friendship, there were other important messages that reflect the times, including for the first time, a reference to trilateral co-operation. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has made this a key feature of Georgian government policy. To be fair, both President Shevardnadze and President Saakashvili also tried to push this policy in their time, but the situation was very different, and this remained largely wishful thinking. Not so now. It is possible to move quickly with tangible co-operation between the three countries. There is no time to lose.

source: This is a briefing prepared by the editorial team of
photo: NewsArmenia

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