I hope Nagorno-Karabakh conflict doesn't go the Syrian way, says ex-Indian Ambassador to Armenia

Written By: Manas Joshi
New Delhi Published: Oct 29, 2020, 07:18 PM(IST)

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Photograph:( AFP )

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The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is old. There are various geopolitical and ethnic reasons why the dispute has gone on for far too long

For many, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh has erupted suddenly. But the dispute is old. There are various geopolitical and ethnic reasons why the dispute has gone on for far too long. WION's Manas Joshi interviewed Achal Malhotra, IFS (Retd.), India's former ambassador to Armenia and Georgia about the conflict and its contours.

Malhotra has distilled his experience in the region in his new book 'The South Caucasus: Transition from subjugation to independence (Tracing India’s Footprints)' published by Indian Council of World Affairs. In his interaction with WION, he touched upon many aspects of the conflict currently unfolding in the Caucasus.

Manas Joshi: Tell us about your insights on this conflict. You say that this conflict has been decades in the making

Achal Malhotra: The Armenia –Azerbaijan armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is almost three decades old. Its seeds were however sown almost one hundred years ago. In July 1921, during the incorporation of the South Caucasus region into then evolving USSR, a Christian Armenian majority autonomous enclave was created on the territory of a Muslim majority Azerbaijan.

It was a flawed decision by any standards as logically Nagorno-Karabakh should have been a part of the neighbouring Armenia with which it shares ethnic, religious and linguistic links. Several petitions from Nagorno-Karabakh to central authorities in Moscow during the next seventy years for its merger with Armenia were rejected.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s decision to declare its independence in September 1991 in the backdrop of imminent disintegration of USSR  and emergence of its constituent Republics as independent States resulted in a war between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh in which the latter was supported whole-heartedly by Armenia.

By the time a ceasefire was brokered by Russia in 1994, the Armenians had established control not only over Nagorno-Karabakh but also surrounding seven districts of Azerbaijan. Since then the USA, Russia and France as co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the OSCE have engaged both Armenia and Azerbaijan extensively to resolve the conflict, albeit without success. Russia also has been mediating in a parallel triangular format.

Manas Joshi: During your years as Ambassador of India to Armenia and Georgia, what was the situation? Was the tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan palpable even then?

Achal Malhotra: The Nagorno-Karabakh issue has remained etched in the hearts and minds of the leaders as well as people in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan for several decades. It evokes strong nationalist fervour on both sides of the divide. The young generations of Armenians and Azeris have been fed on hatred for each other.

There have been several incidents of ceasefire since 1994, some of which were extremely serious for example the Four Days War of April 2016. The international interlocutors, however, managed to control the flare-up and to resume the dialogue process. The flare-up this time on 27th September is however unprecedented in terms of scope and scale, and the three ceasefire agreements brokered by Russia and USA could not hold for more than a few minutes 

Manas Joshi: What makes the eruption of conflict this time different from the previous occasions? 

Achal Malhotra: In my opinion, there are two reasons: First is the role of Turkey and to some extent also Pakistan. Both these countries have extremely poor relations with Armenia and have all along extended moral support to Azerbaijan; this time Turkey has assured all possible active support and so has done Pakistan. Turkey is also seeking to be associated with the dialogue process as one of the co-Chairs of Minsk Group.

Turkey’s actions fit into its ambitions to acquire the leadership of world Islamic community. The second important factor is that Azerbaijan appears to be fed up with the dialogue process while its seven districts, besides Nagorno-Karabakh, remain under the control of Armenians since 1994.

Emboldened by the assurance from Turkey and Pakistan, Azerbaijan now appears to be determined to retrieve as many lost territories as possible in this round of conflict.

Manas Joshi: Given the area's proximity to Middle East/ West Asia, do you think this is going to be another long drawn conflict with proxy elements involved?

Achal Malhotra: The conflict so far has remained more or less local in nature. Turkey’s entry and alleged participation of mercenaries on the side of Azerbaijan has however imparted new dimensions. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan can sustain the war for too long unless there is tacit or explicit material support from outside. If this happens the conflict will then become a proxy war between Russia and Turkey.

If the war zone is extended beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories of Azerbaijan and spills over to Republic of Armenia, Russia, as well as CSTO, will be obliged to intervene under treaty obligations. Turkey’s membership of NATO can further complicate the matters.

Manas Joshi: Do you think this is headed to a stalemate like Syria?

Achal Malhotra: I hope NOT. The USA, Russia and Europe are interested in the stability of the region: each for its own vested interests. Russia treats the region as its backyard as post-Soviet space of its natural influence. The USA and Europe have made huge investments in the energy sector in Azerbaijan and Europe’s energy security depends to a certain extent on an uninterrupted supply of oil and natural gas from Azerbaijan.

Sooner or later they will put in all possible efforts to stop war and restore normalcy. Whether they succeed also in resolving the conflict is a million-dollar question.

Manas Joshi: What do you think will be an effective way to end the conflict?

Achal Malhotra: The first priority is to stop the war. For that NATO must put adequate pressure on Turkey. It must be ensured that no further arms and ammunition are supplied to either of the two countries. The next focus would be on the settlement of the dispute. In my assessment, the chances of an amicable final solution will remain remote unless the parties to the conflict give up their maximalist positions and agree on a compromise formula.

At this point of time, Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Armenia,  doesn’t want to settle down for anything less than full independence whereas Azerbaijan at best is willing to grant some autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh within the territorial limits of Azerbaijan.

The conflict is thus between the principle of “right to self-determination” (as propounded by Nagorno-Karabakh and the principle) and  “territorial integrity” (as invoked by Azerbaijan and supported by international community as no country has so far recognised the self-declared independence of Nagorno-Karabakh) 

The real challenge is in devising a proposal which offers a win-win situation for the parties to the conflict. Armenia must agree to vacate the occupied territories. The international status of NK be determined in a manner that is acceptable to Armenians: it could be substantial autonomy, federal structure; some international guarantees will be needed to assure Nagorno-Karabakh that there will be no existential threat to this small landlocked entity with a population of just about 15,000.

The land Lachin Corridor created post-1992, linking Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh should be allowed under international supervision.

Manas Joshi: The conflict is taking place far away from India, but does India have any stakes? Is there any threat to Indian equations?

Achal Malhotra: India’s equations with the three countries of the region –Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia -are more or less already determined. There is a palpable asymmetry in India‘s relations with these countries. India has an excellent political understanding with Armenia-the only country in the region with which India has a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty. India has received three Heads of State level visits from Armenia and twice a Vice President of India has visited Armenia.

In comparison, no high-level contacts have taken place between India and Azerbaijan and also Georgia. The levels of India’s trade or investment with Armenia have remained very low, though recently we sold them some equipment in defence sector. We do have some investments and interests in the energy sector of Azerbaijan, which is also an important link on the International North-South Transport Corridor.

On the key issue of Kashmir, Armenia’s support for India is unequivocal, whereas Azerbaijan not only supports but also promotes Pakistan’s narrative. 

As a matter of policy and practice, India refrains from taking sides in matters of conflicts between the states. In the given case, India has every reason not to support Azerbaijan on the issue of its territorial integrity as Azerbaijan has shown scant regard for the territorial integrity of India violated by Pakistan.

At the same time India would not like to be seen openly endorsing Nagorno – Karabakh’s right to self-determination as it may have some implications within our own country. Under the circumstances, India has adopted a balanced and neutral stand reflected in the politically correct statement of 1st October 2020.

Manas Joshi: You've distilled your experience in your book 'The South Caucasus: Transition from subjugation to independence( Tracing India’s Footprints)' Tell us more about it.

Achal Malhotra: This is a publication of the Indian Council of World Affairs, published by Macmillan and released very recently on 23rd October. It covers the multiple transitions the region has undergone from subjugation under the medieval Persian, Ottoman and Russian Empires to subservience under the USSR and finally its evolution as independent region.

I have discussed at length the diverse political trajectories and foreign policy orientations adopted by the three countries. Also the objectives and motives of various regional and global players in seeking a foothold in the region have been identified in detail.

I have devoted considerable space to the simmering ethno-territorial disputes in the region and the reasons as to why it has not been possible to resolve them despite mediation by the international agencies and global players. And finally, I have traced India’s footprints in the region from ancient times through medieval periods and right up-to current modern times.

Manas Joshi

Manas Joshi is a journalist working with WION digital news team. He likes to resolutely maintain that this space is inadequate to mention his varied interests, some of which, are in focus time-to-time based on whatever catches his immediate fancy. He tweets @ManasJoshi

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