Observations of an expat: Geopolitical fault line

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Throughout history the Caucasus region has been one of the world’s key geopolitical fault lines and a potentially explosive ethnic, religious, cultural and political melting pot.

It links Europe and Asia. It connects the Black Sea to the riches of the landlocked Caspian. It straddled the Silk Road which connected the Turkic-speaking tribes which stretched from Anatolia to China’s troubled Xinjiang region. The Caucasus region is at the centre of dividing line between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Islamic world of Central Asia. It has been disputed, fought over and occupied by the Ottomans, Russia, the Mongols and Iran.

At the very heart of this fault line are Islamic Azerbaijan and Orthodox Christian Armenia. Separating these two countries is mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh; internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but with a majority ethnic Armenian population that has set up their own government (The Republic of Artsakh) which nobody – not even Armenia – recognises. However, Azerbaijan has not governed the area since 1988.

During the days of the Soviet Empire the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was smothered by political control from Moscow. But when the Soviet Union fell apart the two South Caucasus nations fell out over Nagorno-Karabakh. From 1988 to 1994 they fought a war which left 30,000 dead and displaced a million people from their homes. In the end, Moscow managed to broker a ceasefire, but not a peace.

Since 1994 there have been sporadic clashes along a “Line of Control”, but this week the clashes quickly escalated into a proper renewal of hostilities. With the rest of the world distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and the US presidential elections, the conflict has the possibility to drag Russia and NATO Turkey into opposing positions.

Russia is doing its best to assume the honest broker position, but Turkey makes no bones about its diplomatic stance. It fully backs Azerbaijan and demands that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh accept that they are part of that state.

There is strong evidence that the Azeris are using advanced Turkish drones against Armenia and the self-proclaimed government of Nagorno-Karabakh.  Azerbaijan also claims that one of their fighter jets was shot down by a Turkish F-16. Turkey denies the claim. But almost simultaneously, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported that Syrian mercenaries were being flown to Nagorno-Karabakh in Turkish planes, and Armenia asserted that Turkish “volunteers” were turning up in the disputed province.

It seems that Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has discovered the value of foreign adventurism and nationalism as a way of distracting the populace from domestic problems. Syria, Libya the Aegean and now Nagorno-Karabakh produce a rally round the flag effect coupled to dreams of Ottoman glory.

The battle for Nagorno-Karabakh has the added attraction of being linked to the concept of Pan-Turkism which is based on a complex mix of ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic links that stretch back through time and central Asia from Turkey to Xinjiang. There has never been a pan-Turkic political structure, and in fact, the political philosophy that drove pan-Turkism did not emerge until the 1880s. In the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, pan-Turkism was embraced the disgraced wartime leader Enver Pasha who died fighting for the cause in 1922. In recent years shades of pan-Turkism have been slightly revived by the creation of the six-nation Turkic Council formed in 2009 during Erdogan’s premiership.

Russia’s involvement in the conflict is a bit more ambivalent. It has a formal alliance with Armenia and two military bases there. But it also has good relations with Azerbaijan and supplies both sides with military hardware.  For 66 years both countries were semi-autonomous states within the USSR and the links that were formed during the Soviet years remain strong. Russia’s main interest is maintaining stability because adjoining the region is Muslim Chechnya and pro-Western headache Georgia.  Russia, along with France, is co-chair of the Minsk Group which is charged with overseeing the 1994 ceasefire.  Putin was quick to offer his services as an honest broker to end the current conflict. So far he has been ignored, as has a similar offer from French President Emmanuel Macron.

Russia is working hard at staying neutral. But it Turkey threatens dominance in an area Moscow considers part of its sphere of influence than it is likely to react.

 

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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17 Comments

  • John Marriott 2nd Oct '20 - 7:50pm

    I am surprised that Mr Arms is treating us to an analysis of an area that would logically constitute a part of the Middle East (and in which our interests are tenuous to say the least) and clearly missing up on the opportunity to run his ex pat eye over the latest events across the pond.

    In fact, given that excuse for a Presidential debate two days ago and the far more serious repercussions it might have for us all in the West, I’m equally surprised that the conference navel gazing appears to be preventing anyone else on LDV from looking at the bigger picture.

  • Yeovil Yokel 3rd Oct '20 - 2:13pm

    Thank you for this informative piece, Tom – it’s a useful reminder that there is a lot of important things going on in the world apart from a spoilt elderly man being treated for Coronavirus in Washington DC.

  • Gordon Lishman 3rd Oct '20 - 2:16pm

    Unlike John Marriott, I can see no reason why an article on one, clearly distinct subject has any obligation to “cover” a different area nor why it should be expected to delve into US policy on wider subjects.

    Two comments on the actual article:

    1. Poor Georgia
    2. This is one of those parts of the world where knowing the physical geography is needed to understand how tensions work through.

  • The Armenians have their own church- the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is one of the earliest churches founded and as theologically Miaphysite, it is part of Eastern Oriental Orthodoxy. That is different from Russian Orthodoxy.
    Armenian Apostolic Church uses a version of the Bible based on the Greek translation (Septuagint) of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was produced in Egypt in the court of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-246 BC), and includes Deuterocanonical books that are not a part of the present Hebrew and Protestant canons. There is plenty of evidence indicating that the Septuagint was the Old Testament version used throughout the early Christian Church and was revised in the course of the first and second centuries.

  • Armenia and Russia are both members of a military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), along with four other ex-Soviet countries, a relationship that Armenia finds essential to its security. The Armenians got Georgia to reopen the Military Road so that goods can be trucked from Russia and this includes wheat from southern Russia from which real bread can be baked. (not the sugary stuff the Irish court was talking about),

  • John Marriott 3rd Oct '20 - 4:07pm

    @Gordon Lishman
    Unlike Ray Charles or Paul McCartney, Georgia isn’t ‘always on my mind’. Mind you, they have a pretty fair rugby union team, which ought to be joining the Six Nations or even replacing Italy. It’s a pity they don’t have promotion and relegation.

    I admire Mr Arms’ obvious great knowledge of so many things. I was trying to make the point that we might have welcomed his comments on recent events in the land of his birth. Talking of ‘knowledge’, what’s happened to Mr Bourke lately? I’m sure that Peter Martin is missing his sparring partner.

  • John Marriott 3rd Oct '20 - 5:24pm

    @Yeovil Yokel
    I wouldn’t touch Twitter, Facebook or any other social media with a barge poll. I just thought that, given his obvious knowledge of the US system, I would have enjoyed hearing Mr Arms’ views. Perhaps it’s not too late even now.

    One thing I will say, however. I’m pleased that people are now beginning to question the relevance of the Electoral College in deciding who gets to the Oval Office, as I have on several occasions on LDV over the past few years.

  • Paul Barker 3rd Oct '20 - 6:44pm

    This Region is another example of the problems caused by the 19th Century invention of Nationalism & the idea of The “Nation State” in particular.
    Who qualifies to be a Citizen of Nation “X” ? Over time the definition tends to get narrower – Turkey being a terrible example. First it was Ethnic Greeks & Arabs who defined as Outsiders, then Armenians & now Kurds.
    As Liberals we should push for a model of States as based on proximity & convenience with everyone within current borders being included & allowed whatever Identity they choose.

  • Paul
    This region had kingdoms long before the idea of modern nationalism. In fact in Georgia there was talk of bringing back the monarchy.
    Basically throughout the world people have to get used to living side by side whatever ethnic and religious difference they have.

  • John Marriott 4th Oct '20 - 2:30pm

    @Martin
    For goodness sake, the point I was making was that, given Mr Arms’ background, I was just surprised that he hadn’t seen fit to comment about events in his country of birth – no more and no less. In fact, so far, no body seems interested in the possible repercussions of a hospitalised Donald Trump.

    OK, it’s crisis time in the Balkans again. Perhaps it’s time to bring back Gladstone, by jingo!

  • John
    It is in the Caucasus. A place of great natural beauty. At the time of Gladstone what is now modern day Armenia was part of the Russian Empire.

  • John Marriott 4th Oct '20 - 7:19pm

    @Manfarang
    Caucasus, Balkans – whatever. It’s still an area which has figured in disputes in the past. My reference to Gladstone and the phrase ‘by jingo’ arises from a popular song in 1878, when there was a movement to send a British fleet to the region to resist Russian expansion. Back then, the Ottoman Empire was a basket case. Who is stirring things up at the moment and who is probably egging them on? Talking of Armenia, who was responsible for what was the first of what we would call genocide today during WW1? As for Putin acting as ‘the honest broker‘, now, that’s a new one!

  • @ John Marriott. You have already been at the receiving end of quite a bit of stick because of your comment, so I don’t really want to add to it. But, I felt that lately I have been a bit over-focused on the land of my birth, and I felt that there was little new that I could say this week. Also, I do feel that there is a danger that if we occasionally need to look beyond coronavirus and the antics of President Trump to avoid the risk of an important problem slipping past unnoticed.

  • John Marriott 4th Oct '20 - 9:13pm

    Fair comment, Mr Arms. As far as ‘stick’ is concerned, I get plenty of that at home, believe me!

    At my time of life, sorting out COVID and Trump for that matter is far higher on my list of priorities than a lot of other things. Trying to sort out the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire is not unlike the Irish Question. As one wag once said; “If they ever think they’ve solved the Irish Question they’ll just change the question”.

  • John,
    It is an area with a lot of conflict. The Georgian greeting for Good Morning is ‘Victory in the Morning’. In the aftermath of WW1 Britain briefly occupied Batumi (a port on the Black Sea) in 1919.
    If it wasn’t for covid-19 I might well have been in Armenia. I want to visit the Molokans there. The problems in Armenia are a legacy of Soviet map makers.
    Meanwhile in Thailand Mr. Arms, the ex-wife of Thaksin Shinawatra has taken control of his party Pheu Thai.

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