In his fascinating account of the USSR, Imperium, the Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes a flying visit to Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. The area was sealed off by Soviet troops, attempting to keep the peace between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Defying the Kremlin and arguably common sense, Kapuscinski, got himself onto the daily flight from Yerevan to the Nagorno-Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, with help from a stolen pilot’s uniform and the passport of a deceased Armenian. Upon arrival, with the airport surrounded by the Red Army, Kapuscinksi managed to smuggle himself to safety in the back seat of a car with the instructions from his handler ‘‘pretend to be drunk’’.
It is just one of a number of incredible stories by Kapuscinski about the region, written at a time of flux and uncertainty. At his time of writing the boundaries of the Soviet republics had started to become the state borders of future sovereign nations, free of the old Soviet Empire, or the Imperium, as he warily refers to it.
Much has been made of the frozen conflicts which litter the edge of the former Imperium. Of these the conflict which Kapusincki went to great effort to witness is one of the oldest. Although much of the post-Soviet world has undergone great changes since those times, much remains the same in Nagorno-Karabakh.
On April 1 this year, the ceasefire between the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and Azerbaijan was broken on numerous points along the ceasefire line. In the subsequent days, more than thirty people were left dead and hundreds forced to flee the fighting. Reports of maneuvers involving tanks, helicopters and other heavy weaponry suggest a more series escalation than the occasional exchange of sniper fire.
The conflict has its roots in the drawing (and re-drawing) of the borders of the Socialist Republics of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Like many colonial masters the borders of conquered peoples were drawn in such a way to divide ethnically homogenous communities and lower the possibilities of revolt. Ironically, the man responsible for this work at the time was from the Caucasus region, the Commissar of Nationalities, Josef Stalin.
The Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was divided from the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and instead became an autonomous oblast (state) within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. The difference between the two communities in terms of language, ethnicity, religion and culture prompted a referendum in 1991 on whether to remain part of Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani population of NK boycotted the poll, and 99.89% voted in favor of separation, triggering three years of conflict between Azerbaijan and NKR, backed by Armenia, which left 30,000 dead. It was during this time when Kapuscinski made his flight to the heart of the besieged territory to witness the generational hatred of the local population against what they perceived as being their illegal occupiers in Baku.
As with other conflicts on the border of the former Imperium, the conflict was not concluded with a peace agreement, but rather with a ceasefire arrangement. The Minsk Group, formed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mediated a ceasefire arrangement in 1994. The end of the conflict however, did little to end the generations old animosity between the two sides, Armenia continued to occupy Azerbaijani territory between Armenia and NKR, and the latter remained an unrecognized entity.
So what now? Efforts at securing a long term peace deal have begun in earnest though a former US mediator on the conflict, Matthew Bryza believes that the US, as a co-chair of the Minsk Group, has not done enough this time round.2 This is a leadership void willingly filled by Russia and Vladimir Putin. After his foreign policy success in Syria, Moscow will be eager to continue to restore international prestige after the events in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. Through positioning Russia as a mediator and a peacekeeper, Putin can reassert that it is Moscow, not Washington or Brussels, which is still the ultimate power in the post-Soviet territories.
Russia enjoys good relations (and indeed sells arms) to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Putin has reportedly already spoken with the presidents of the two countries as a way to stop the fighting in the short term. Azerbaijan is now being pressed by Russia to join the Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian dominated alternatives to the EU and NATO, thereby pulling it closer to its former colonial master.
Kapuscinski’s journey to Nagorno-Karabakh is perhaps a reminder of the political complexities in the Caucasus region, complexities exacerbated rather than removed by the break-up of the Soviet Union. Whilst on the surface it may appear as though very little has changed in the two decades since the first cessation of hostilities, this is not strictly true. The ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is likely to be one without a traditional victor, but rather, by playing the mediator it is Putin’s Russia which may emerge stronger, tying two more former Soviet states back to Moscow control. And it looks like the EU and US are powerless to prevent it.