Aliyev’s conflict with Pashinyan: Historical rivalry flares in the South Caucasus

  • + Clashes have erupted over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
  • + The so-called “Ganja Gap” is a strategic passage linking Eurasian energy.
  • + Involvement of regional powers points to far-ranging geopolitical stakes.
Source: eurasianet/president.az

Ilham Aliyev is the president of Azerbaijan and has been in office since 2003. The Azerbaijani president has overseen a strong economic development and the emergence of Azerbaijan as a regional power in the South Caucasus. 

Nikol Pashinyan is the Prime Minister of Armenia and has been in office since 2018. A former journalist, he has led an “Armenia-first” foreign policy but is described by analysts as a “Western friendly” president.

Why is Aliyev in conflict with Pashinyan?

Answer: Azerbaijan wants to retake the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenia.

Only July 12th, firefights broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops on the Nagorno-Karabakh disputed region. Dozens of people were killed, and both countries directed the blame on each other. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan stems back to the dissolution of the USSR when the former Soviet Republics gained their independence. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh region, separating both states, is home to a majority of ethnic Armenians, but territorially part of Azerbaijan. In 1988, Armenia made territorial claims on the region, backed by the local Armenian population who voted through a referendum to secede from Azerbaijan. However, the local Azerbaijani population boycotted the vote, and Azerbaijan refused to have its territory annexed by Armenia. 

As such, armed conflict broke out in 1988 between both former Soviet republics, with full-scale fighting taking place from 1992 to 1994. Accusations of ethnic cleansing, mass deportations and human rights abuses were made by both sides, as over 30,000 people were killed and up to a million locals forcibly displaced. By the 1994 armistice, Armenia occupied the Nagorno-Karabakh region and an additional 9% of Azerbaijani territories. A peace treaty was never signed, and the countries are still nominally at war. Frequent border clashes have erupted over the years, notably in 2016 when fighting resulted in 200 deaths, and 3500 deaths have been recorded since 1994. Since 1994, and especially since 2010 under president Aliyev, Azerbaijan has tried through various means to retake Nagorno-Karabakh.

More than territorial disputes however, the conflict in the South Caucasus presents a host of regional and international stakes. Regional powers are key players in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Russia holds an ambivalent position towards the ex-Soviet republics: officially supporting Armenia, with 5000 Russian troops present in the country, Russia is also the most important arms provider to both states; while Putin maintains good relations with Azerbaijan, notably due to the geopolitics of the Caspian Sea. Turkey’s Erdogan supports Azerbaijan, sending materials and troop training to his ethnic Turkic allies. Iran has close ties with Armenia, notably in economic and historical terms, as Teheran supported Armenia in the 1992-1994 war to marginalize Azerbaijan’s influence in the region. The EU (and the US) is anxious to preserve Europe’s energy autonomy from Russia, and so maintains strong links with Azerbaijan. However, the EU and US are also close to Armenia, culturally due to the large Armenian diaspora and politically in recent years. 

The string of regional alliances, widely differing interests of key players, historical antagonisms and nationalist sentiments makes the outcome of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a crucial stake for the future of the South Caucasus region. 

What does Aliyev want?

Answer: Retake the Nagorno-Karabakh region, expand Azerbaijan’s regional influence.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in power since 2003, has always sought to retake the lost territories. To pressure the Armenian military occupation of Azerbaijani lands, Aliyev has been increasing defence spending, which reached $2.5 billion in 2020. He is strongly backed by Azerbaijan’s public opinion, stoking nationalist and historical revindications to guarantee continuing domestic support. Furthermore, Aliyev has been active on the global stage to get international support for Azerbaijani claims to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Indeed, the international community and international law rule that the region is Azerbaijani land. As such, the Azerbaijani president attended three UN General Assemblies, each time asking for an international framework which would restore Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. 

Aliyev also intends to leverage Azerbaijan’s strategic position in the South Caucasus to gain an advantage over Armenia. Azerbaijan represents the main gateway between Europe and Eastern Asia, notably in terms of oil and gas pipelines, as well as fibre optic cables (the other routes, Russia and Iran, are blocked due to diplomatic deadlocks). These cables and pipelines pass directly through the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a key trading sector of the old Silk Road which is called the “Ganja Gap”. Three pipelines bypass Iran and Russia through Azerbaijan: Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the Baku-Supsa pipeline, and the Southern Gas Corridor, while essential roads and train tracks connect Europe to Asian raw materials. Aliyev knows his Caspian corridor is essential to European energy security, and therefore that Europe has crucial interests to keep violence down to a minimum in the region. The Azerbaijani president can, therefore, exploit diplomatic support from Europe to reach a peaceful conclusion to the conflict. Furthermore, Aliyev is keen to maintain economic and diplomatic contacts with Europe, which give Azerbaijan more independence from Russia, while being extremely profitable. 

The Azerbaijani president has looked on with a disapproving eye at Putin’s position in the conflict. He is unnerved by the presence of 5000 Russian troops in Armenia, even though Moscow and Baku are close partners in the Caspian Sea. Aliyev doesn’t want to be a pawn in Putin’s geopolitical ploys, which aim to sustain the violence in Nagorno-Karabakh to weaken the EU’s energy position and divide Turkey’s forces amidst Turkish-Russian clashes in Libya and Syria. He is also confronted by Iran’s close ties with Armenia, meaning that 2 of the 3 regional powers are against Azerbaijan in the conflict. As such, Aliyev has reinforced ties with Turkey, while forming strong strategic alliances with the EU and diplomatic overtures to the US. However, the US has barely commented on the conflict, Trump writing in 2017: “The United States remains strongly committed to the Southern Gas Corridor and welcomes the efforts of Azerbaijan and its international partners to complete it. The United States is also committed to a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the Minsk Group process.” The EU holds diplomatic weight, but no real hard power in the region. As such, Azerbaijan relies on Erdogan for regional backing. 

Aliyev needs to retake Nagorno-Karabakh, through force or peaceful means. This is a priority for him in terms of maintaining domestic support and upholding Azerbaijan’s honor. However, the current geopolitics of the region point to a continuing stalemate in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as Azerbaijan doesn’t have enough support from regional powers to retake the lost territories militarily or through negotiations. Furthermore, Nagorno-Karabakh is now unofficially an independent state aligned with Armenia, and the population remains of Armenian ethnicity. Thus, Azerbaijan’s territorial claims are not supported by the region’s population, further complicating Aliyev’s task. 

What does Pashinyan want?

Answer: Keep the Nagorno-Karabakh region, strengthen alliances.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in office since 2018, also faces a complicated geopolitical situation. His first priority is to keep control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, resisting Azerbaijani military and diplomatic attempts to retake the territory. Pashinyan is strengthened by strong Armenian nationalist sentiments, which support any means, especially military, to hold off Azerbaijani attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

As with his counterpart Aliyev, Pashinyan is dependent on the support of regional powers to consolidate his position in the conflict. The Armenian Prime Minister knows that the presence of 5000 Russian troops in Armenia is a powerful failsafe, while strong economic relations with Iran also gives Armenia the support of another regional power. On the other hand, Pashinyan exploits the cultural links Armenia enjoys with the EU, maintaining a neutral European approach to the conflict. 

However, the Armenian Prime Minister is keen to stay independent from the geopolitical struggles of these regional superpowers. Pashinyan has declined to enter the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union, or apply for EU membership. Although he faces a two-sided security threat – from Azerbaijan and Turkey – the string of regional alliances and interests likely means that a diplomatic solution won’t be found regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan is unlikely to engage in full-scale warfare due to Russian troops and Iranian support to Armenia. As such, Pashinyan is content with the current situation, which allows Armenia to keep Nagorno-Karabakh while condemning Azerbaijani attacks. 

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: Controlling the pathway between Europe and Asia in the South Caucasus.

If you’re European, whoever controls the Ganja Gap decides whether or not Russia dominates European oil and petroleum imports. If this were to happen, the EU would suffer from a strategic energy dependency to Russia, weakening its geopolitical standing. Price fluctuations on energy due to Russia’s control of its supply to Europe would greatly disturb the continent While the effect of this conflict won’t necessarily be felt on an individual level, it will still largely affect the stakeholders, namely the political leaders.

The Ganja Gap is a crucial economic passage for European access to energy and raw materials. Europe needs to keep this passage open to guarantee its energy security, as the other routes through Russia and Iran are blocked due to strained diplomatic relations with both countries. Thus, Europe is keen to minimize the violence in Nagorno-Karabakh to keep the Ganja Gap open.

By officially supporting Armenia in the conflict, Putin seeks to put pressure on the Ganja Gap’s security and thus, threaten Europe’s energy security. The Russian president is also increasing tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh to divert Turkish resources from the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, where both countries frequently clash. Putin knows Russia is by far the most influential regional power in this conflict, and he seeks to exploit Moscow’s influence with both sides to satisfy his geopolitical objectives. 

Erdogan, on the other hand, is eager to expand Turkey’s influence in the region. Consolidating military ties with Azerbaijan would mean access to the Caspian Sea, potentially challenging Russia in that region. Playing an active part in the conflict falls into Erdogan’s growing interventionist policy, which seeks to create a neo-Ottoman sphere of influence. 

The string of alliances and widely different interests of the involved parties means a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is very unlikely. However, keep an eye out on developments in the region, as South Caucasus geopolitics have far-ranging effects on European energy, Russia/Turkish security and the Iranian economy.