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Why Europe Should Support Peace in the South Caucasus

07 Jun 2024
By Professor Taras Kuzio
This procession in Stepanakert, Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, on May 9, 2017, Source: David Stanley /

The steps towards peace in the South Caucasus should be considered a positive regional movement, and one that deals with lingering Soviet era conflicts. Avoiding irridentist claims to formerly occupied terrority won’t be easy, particuarly given Russia’s interest in keeping conflict alive. 

The way in which European and US leaders relate to the South Caucasus, by supporting one side (Armenia) and stigmatising two others (Azerbaijan, Turkey), you would think they are not interested in peace. This is despite the fact that the region is not only a great source of natural resources, but also strategically important as a crossroads between the Greater Middle East, Eurasia, and Europe. Europe should be applauding Armenia’s signing a peace treaty with Azerbaijan and the normalisation of Armenia’s relations with Turkey.

When the USSR was in the throes of disintegration at the end of the 1980s, ethnic and other forms of conflict began to take place in different parts of the Soviet sphere. In all these cases the conflicts were organised and manipulated by the Soviet KGB to discredit popular movements demanding democratic and national rights.

Fanning violence was also a means to provide an excuse for the Soviet authorities to violently suppress democratic and national movements. In April 1989 and January 1990, Soviet security forces brutally repressed democratic and nationalist forces in the Georgian and Azerbaijani capitals of Tbilisi and Baku. In January 1991, Soviet security forces attacked protestors in the Lithuanian and Latvian capitals of Vilnius and Riga.

The most egregious example of the KGB’s fanning of ethnic conflict took place between Armenia and Azerbaijan. From 1988, ethnic cleansing and pogroms took place on both sides, but, as in such cases, the worst atrocities are always committed by the victorious. In  the 1988-1994 First Karabakh War, Armenia was the key aggressor. Nearly one million Azerbaijani’s were forced to leave their homes inside Armenia after one fifth of Azerbaijan territory became occupied.

Over the next two decades, UN resolutions and negotiations by the OSCE (Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe) failed to break the impasse and bring about a peaceful resolution to the bitter conflict. Russia was always disinterested in unfreezing conflicts in the South Caucasus where it continues to occupy the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The so-called pro-Russian “Karabakh Clan” ran Armenia as their personal fiefdom, and they also had no interest in unfreezing the conflict with Azerbaijan. The coming to power of Nikol Pashinyan and democratic forces in the 2018 revolution opened the door to long-term peace with Armenia’s two neighbours.

Unfortunately, the frozen conflict erupted in September 2020 with the 44-day, Second Karabakh War that ended with Azerbaijan’s military victory. Azerbaijan was able to recover most of its occupied territory except for Karabakh, which remained under Armenian control. The trilateral peace agreement signed between both warring parties, and Russia, required the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Karabakh at the same time as the deployment of Russian “peacekeeping” forces.

This point in the peace agreement never took place. Armenia continued to supply its forces and rotate its security personnel in the separatist enclave of Karabakh. Meanwhile, both sides were becoming impatient with Russian “peacekeepers”; Azerbaijan, because they were ignoring Armenian support for Karabakh separatists; Armenia, because they were not intervening to end the blockade of the Lachin corridor and prevent Azerbaijani military intervention.

For the second time, the impasse was only ended by military force. In 2023, Azerbaijan intervened and quickly defeated Karabakh’s Armenian separatists. Instead of staying and accepting international and Azerbaijani guarantees of minority rights, many Armenian inhabitants fled from Karabakh. Importantly, this was not ethnic cleansing.

The last remaining hurdle was four villages occupied by Armenia in the 1990s. After talks, Armenia returned these villages to Azerbaijani control.

Thirty years on from the First Karabakh War in 1994, both sides are ready to move forward with signing a comprehensive peace treaty based on the delimitation and demarcation of their international border, based on Soviet era boundaries between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Similar treaties recognising Soviet boundaries as international boundaries were signed by other Soviet republics in the 1990s (including Russia and Ukraine in 1997).

These positive developments, in the search for peace, should be welcomed by Europe and the US. But instead of being impartial, Europeans and the US are siding with Prime Minister Pashinyan because of his pro-European rhetoric.

As we can see vividly in Ukraine, the Kremlin will unleash military aggression and ignore international law to maintain its Eurasian sphere of influence. These troubles are exacerbated by existing treaties. For instance, there is no mechanism that would allow Armenia to withdraw from two Russian-led organisations; it is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and Eurasian Economic Union. Additionally, Russia and Armenia signed an agreement in 1995 for a Russian military base in Gyumri. In 2010, both sides signed an agreement to extend the military base until 2044. Russian border guards, who come under the jurisdiction of Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) continue to control Armenia’s borders, although this may change.

Europeans and the US are making unsubstantiated accusations that Azerbaijan is laying territorial claims against Armenia. This is not the case. Baku has long sought to have its Soviet republican boundary with Armenia recognised by Yerevan as their international border. There is no appetite for war with Armenia in Azerbaijan.

At the same time, Europeans and Americans should understand that Russia and Armenia have similar identities that promote irredentism towards their neighbours. They should be pressing Yerevan to reconcile “historic [nationalistic, greater] Armenia” with “real [Soviet borders] Armenia.” Prime Minister Pashinyan admitted this conflict between the two “Armenia’s” is commonplace among Armenians–as it is with Russians.

The question for Armenians, Pashinyan said, is: “Currently, there is a painful transition from historical Armenia to the real one… If we do not make this choice, and the motivation for our actions will be historical Armenia, I am afraid that we will make it very likely that the real Armenia will also become historical.” Towards this goal, Pashinyan seeks to change how his country’s history is taught by moving from an ethnic “Armenian History” to a civic “History of Armenia.” In Russia, textbooks praise greater Russia, and President Vladimir Putin equates the USSR with “historic Russia.”

The same conflict within Armenian identity exists with Armenia’s relations with Turkiye, which have been frozen since the early 1990s. Mount Ararat, the “mythical birthplace of the Armenian people and a poignant symbol of the tragedy of their 20th-century history,” lies in Turkiye and looms over the capital city of Yerevan. The image of Ararat is to be found at the centre of both Soviet Armenia’s and independent Armenia’s coats of arms, which could be construed as a territorial claim towards Turkiye.

Azerbaijan’s concerns about potential Armenian irredentism have fallen on deaf ears in Brussels and Washington. This is surprising as it was Armenia that occupied a fifth of Azerbaijani territory from 1994-2020. “We need firm, verified guarantees that there’ll be no attempt of revanchism in Armenia. Why do we need it? Because we know what is happening in Armenia,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in December 2023.

Of the fifteen former Soviet republics, two have promoted “historic” nationalistic concepts of Greater Armenia and Greater Russia. A peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a good opportunity to bury “historic” Armenia, as Pashinyan has called for, leaving only Russia as a revanchist power in Eurasia. Russia also occupies a fifth of Ukrainian territory, as did Armenia of Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan, who came to power with a democratic and pro-European agenda that is cardinally different to the pro-Russian kleptocrats who earlier ran the country, understands that for Armenia to move forward it needs to be at peace with its neighbours. Europeans and Americans should support his steps to peace in the South Caucasus.

Taras Kuzio is a British professor of political science at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy of Kyiv, Ukraine, and Associate Fellow at the Forum for Foreign Relations. His book ‘Fascism and Genocide. Russia’s War Against Ukrainians’ is recently published by Columbia University Press.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.