by Akhmet Makhmoudov (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 6, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1441)
Border clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia take place almost on a daily basis since Geidar Aliyev capitulated through the Bishkek treaty in 1994 and basically surrendered Karabakh to Armenia. Since the Aliyev family illegitimately seized power in Azerbaijan, Karabakh conflict has been used by the regime as a tool to cement power.
The Aliyevs have frequently cooperated with Armenian nationalists against their internal opponents. This fact was once again recently confirmed by the former colonel in Azerbaijan Army, Isa Sadiqiov, currently living in exile in Norway. These facts are well known in Azerbaijan. So, why did the recent headlines nudge the masses toward the idea that the Baku regime might soon start the war in Karabakh? The response to this question lies first and foremost within Azerbaijan’s internal political dynamics. The external and geopolitical factors are secondary.
The primary reason the July 12-14 clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan received greater than usual international attention is because of the people’s unexpected reaction. During recent clashes with Armenia, one Azeri general was killed. The people viewed this loss as a humiliation. The country has also lost 20% of its territory to Armenia.
Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh is a matter of national tragedy and is the main factor unifying domestic politics in Azerbaijan. This aspect, combined with the dire economic situation due to low oil prices, disruption of global trade and the regime’s poor performance on multiple levels in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, was a storm in the making.
The clash with Armenia simply acted as catalyst. In the capital city Baku, discounting other towns, some 30,000 people poured into the streets to demand a tough military response to Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh. Such action is quite unprecedented as no demonstration of this size has ever been held in the past 15 years. This shocked the Aliyev regime and shook its confidence in controlling public life through brutal methods.
As tens of thousands of people held a rally outside parliament, it quickly turned into an anti-regime protest. People began calling for the resignation of the Chief of Army Staff, Najmaddin Sadigov, who has gained notoriety for incompetence and for his collaboration with Armenian nationalists in the 1990s. Once the regime noticed the sudden turn of events, many protestors reported that security forces opened the doors of parliament and let them inside.
Once inside the parliament building, the regime launched its crackdown using brute force. The regime also immediately activated its famous rumor mill by propagating the idea that any domestic disturbance would be used by Armenia to widen its attack and inflict further harm on the state. The day after the protestors were brutally dispersed, President Ilham Aliyev announced on television that the domestic opposition must be immediately punished. Next day, dozens of opposition and media personalities were arrested.
Observing the latest events in a chronological and analytical manner, taking Azerbaijan’s past and present political landscape into account, it becomes clear that the latest Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes were significant because they shook the political landscape in Azerbaijan. To distract the local population from internal grievances, the regime’s propaganda machine diverted attention toward external issues and the shallow corporate media took the bait.
Nevertheless, the geopolitical aspect of the situation also matters but not to the degree publicized by the media. All regional and non-regional players are aware that the dormant Karabakh conflict can potentially explode at any moment. It is contained primarily because the Aliyev regime is not interested in pursuing any serious policies aimed at restoring Azerbaijan’s territorial sovereignty. Thus, all parties are satisfied with the status quo, most importantly Russia.
Moscow views the current situation as a win-win since it allows Kremlin to blackmail the Azeri and Armenian governments. As Russia was the principle military power in facilitating Armenia’s takeover of Karabakh in the 1990s, it knows well that without Moscow’s backing, Armenia stands little to no chance to maintain the occupation of Azeri territory. Thus, Moscow frequently reminds Armenia that if it steps into the Western security and political orbit as Georgia did in 2008, it will pay a heavy price.
Escalation of the Karabakh war does not benefit Moscow. It will create instability on its historically troubled southern borders which NATO regimes can exploit to destabilize Russia.
Turkey and theWestern powers are also not interested in renewed conflict in Karabakh. It will result in rearranging Azerbaijan’s internal political landscape. Forces outside the regime’s inner circle will gain influence. If they manage to come to power or even force the regime to share it, economic, political and security deals made with external powers will most likely be revisited and reconstructed, more in line with Azerbaijan’s broader interests. Also, many opposition forces in Azerbaijan are backed by diverse external powers who will use them to advance their own agenda in the new political set-up. Renewed conflict would also create tensions between Turkey and Russia. Ankara has historically supported Azerbaijan while Russia backs Armenia due to religious and geopolitical reasons. Neither Ankara nor Moscow wants serious confrontation with each other; both have important mutual economic and political projects elsewhere.
Also, NATO powers know well that in the region that comprised the former Soviet Union, Russia still has the upper hand. The reasons are not only geopolitical but also based on the internal dynamics of regional states. The primary strength of Russian influence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus lies in the fact that regional ruling elites were propped up by remnants of the Soviet bureaucracy, known in Russian political parlance as nomenklatura. In Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the connection to Soviet bureaucracy is much more direct than in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. The ruling elites in all these countries were at some point in their former careers allowed to occupy key positions by the direct vetting process overseen by the KGB. This was based on their loyalty to Russia as the main prerequisite.
Islamic Iran is another key regional player not interested in the renewal of the Karabakh war, as it can be used by Israel and NATO regimes to ignite nationalist Azeri sentiments inside Iran. The Zionist regime views Azerbaijan Republic as its “South Lebanon” for Iran. Even though Azeris are very well integrated in the Iranian society and have been in the vanguard of the Islamic movement in Iran, a renewed war will create additional openings for Israel and NATO to promote Azeri separatism in Iran. While it will not achieve much, it can certainly create problems.
The Aliyev regime is the main party not interested in renewed hostilities. It imprisoned, killed or exiled the main personalities who led the war against Armenian occupation in the 1990s. Unlike Armenia, where the political elite comprises prominent war-time commanders, the Azeri political elite are a bunch of paper-pushers with no experience in leading a nation in war and most importantly, the current regime lacks credibility among the Azeri population.
Thus, rekindling the Karabakh war will force them to either bring the opposition forces into a power-sharing arrangement or will be swept from power due to almost certain military setback.
The territorial dispute in Karabakh is a central issue for Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Armenians want to maintain the status quo, being the winning party. For Azeris, the return of Karabakh is an issue of national dignity, on which they will not compromise with anyone, including the current regime. However, since the Aliyev regime has a proven track record of not being able to resolve the Karabakh issue for over two decades, it is only a matter of time that the Azeri society will put two and two together and act upon the realization that to restore Azerbaijan’s territorial sovereignty in Karabakh, this regime must go.
No regional or non-regional power is prepared for this turn of events. All parties have placed their bets on the assumption that the Aliyev regime can remain in power, but the latest protests in Azerbaijan have shown that the masses can mobilize. While no war is expected soon, a societal explosion in Azerbaijan can lead to an unexpected series of events.