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Jan 25, 2006 | 11:09 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: A Pivotal Moment for Nagorno-Karabakh

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov met with his Azeri counterpart, Safar Abiyev, in Baku on Jan. 24. Both men issued statements that will shape politics in the Caucasus for years to come: Ivanov said Russia might station peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which has been long disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ivanov said that in Moscow's opinion, the peacekeeping forces of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) aren't up to the job. If that wasn't interesting enough, Ivanov added that Moscow stands ready to supply weapons and military technology to both Armenia and Azerbaijan — both for the sake of balancing out the situation in the disputed region and in view of Russia's own national and economic interests. For his part, the Azeri defense minister said that if upcoming negotiations in Paris don't settle the matter to Azerbaijan's satisfaction, his country would take Karabakh — a region now controlled by Armenia — by force. It had been hoped that this would be the year the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would be settled. French President Jacques Chirac has invited Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharyan to Paris for negotiations in early February, but anyone who believes a settlement could result from such talks would be taking a far more optimistic view than either the Azeris or the Armenians — or for that matter, the Russians — have exhibited. Militarily, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been relatively dormant since Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease-fire in May 1994, but both countries continue to lay claim to the land. Armenia, the controlling country, has expelled all Azeris from the territory, which uses Armenian currency and is the birthplace of Armenian President Kocharyan. The obstacles that have kept Yerevan from annexing Karabakh are international pressure, lack of support from every nation except Russia and Iran, and fear of Azeri retaliation. In fact, Armenia has very few allies. It is supported by its own large diaspora community, American foreign aid and Iran, which is hedging against its own Azeri population. Azerbaijan has the backing of multinational corporations (as part of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline project) and political support from the United States, which would like nothing more than to count it as a military ally. Azerbaijan's nearest ethnic relative, Turkey, also lends extensive economic and strategic weight, as do the Central Asian nations. If Azerbaijan chose to take Karabakh by force, it would clearly have the upper hand. The situation surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh has become further complicated of late — partly for reasons relating to the BTC pipeline, and partly as a result of Russian foreign policy and other political realities in the region — making it necessary to revisit the 1994 cease-fire agreement. For example, Azeri President Aliyev has just been re-elected by a large margin and has reshuffled his Cabinet in a bid to consolidate power. Any time now, the BTC pipeline will go online and start generating the kind of income Azerbaijan has never seen before. If negotiations don't go well, Baku will have every opportunity to make good on its threats, using oil revenues to buy weapons and drive the Armenians out of Karabakh. And on Tuesday, Russia strode into this volatile environment, eyes fixed on regaining control of its own "near abroad." A foothold in the Transcaucasus would serve Moscow quite well, especially if it comes at the expense of the OSCE — with which Moscow has a long history of disagreements. Russia will continue to play both sides and support whichever policy brings it the greatest degree of geopolitical influence — if necessary, with wild disregard for the stability of its neighbors.

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