Who Has a Soft Power Asset to Mitigate the Karabakh Conflict?

The long-standing but hitherto dormant conflict in Highland Karabakh has awakened. The very nature of this conflict was clearly “dormant” and by no means “frozen,” a standard cliché used in international affairs.

Ceasefire for humanitarian purposes mediated by and reached in Moscow is undoubtedly a brake pedal necessary to halt the violence and to prevent its further escalation. Still, one cannot expect that any agreement or goodwill gesture from any side will eliminate its root causes, nor even identify them. Solution plausible to all sides seems virtually impossible. In an era when all post-Soviet states (even Russia included) are amidst the surge of, and search for, national identities, the prevalent mentality of territory-and-ethnicity-based exclusivity will not, unfortunately, allow any permanent settlement of disputes. But there remains a window of opportunity. Realistically, the constructive force here is the former patron of both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Not simply for its hard power and political and security dominance in the region, but more so for its unmatched yet largely untapped ability to project its soft power, Russia has the potential to restore the fragile peace.


Just like other unsolved claims of territory and status, such as between Israel and Palestine, there is no clear-cut and rational historical justification for any side to claim this much-suffered piece of land. For that matter, the further one deeps into history, the more complicated it becomes. Indeed, common sense principle is that history has never been the solid ground for solving conflicts. History itself is factual thus rational, but its interpretation and narrative is emotional thus irrational. Especially when it comes to the “order of precedence” – “who settled where first,” hence who has more rights to claim a certain territory?


International law is more or less clear about the territorial integrity-related issue. Borders between sovereign states are recognized by the international community at large. Thus, all former constituent republics of the Soviet Union at least in theory have right to inherit all the lands that were belonging to them at the time of their independence. Therefore the position of Baku that the former autonomous region of Highland Karabakh and adjacent regions incorporated into the unrecognized “Republic of Artsakh” should, without any preconditions, return under the sovereignty of Azerbaijan is the easiest to understand and agree under the existing international norms. Had those norms applied equally and universally, this fact could have entirely denied the legitimacy for any action by Armenia. The problem is that the international law has been applied selectively in recent decades and hence, creating more excuses for any party challenging the status quo and supporting irredentist sentiments across its borders. From the Balkans to almost everywhere in the post-Soviet space, there are too many cases, ostensibly sui generis, that helped create a handful of unrecognized and partially-recognized states. Because of that, the question put forth by current Karabakh authorities “If Kosovo is, if Abkhazia is, if Crimea is after all, why we cannot be that another case sui generis?” may sound not very politically correct but ultimately not that absurd whatsoever. So here the international law should have been, but unfortunately falls short of serving as the unchallenged source of arbitration.


When law is perceived as lame, abstract notions of historical (in)justice and ethnic superiority enter the scene as drivers of political processes. Note that this is nothing more than just a convenient tool in the hands of politicians vying for legitimacy (I should say, pseudo-legitimacy) in the eyes of their populations. Needless to say, this is not only a very destructive instrument but also the one that lacks any logic. As noted earlier, as of 1991 the disputed areas belonged to Azerbaijan. The same was true for the most part of the 20th century. The two soviet socialist republics established in 1920 following the Bolshevik takeover and subsequent collapse of the short-lived independent countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan maintained that fragile arrangement of an Armenian-majority autonomous region within Azerbaijan. However, the entire region of Transcaucasia within the Russian Empire was not organized according to ethnic boundaries. Following the incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1805 the Karabakh khanate, formerly a vassal of Persia, initially enjoyed a brief period of relatively high degree of self-governance until was transformed into the Elisabethpolis governorate. Two what degree was it homogenously Armenian then is still the subject of much debate. Certainly the Christian Armenians and Turkic-speaking Shi’ite Muslim population of what is known today as Azerbaijan have lived as neighbors for centuries. In the early 18th century Karabakh was the epicenter of Armenian struggle against the Persian and Ottoman dominance and was hailed as hallowed land of Armenian cultural renaissance. Dig further back and one will see the influx of Oghuzic tribes of Akkoyunlu and Karakoyunlu in the 15th century, who cemented Turkic as the lingua franca for the largely Iranian-speaking population of the land known in ancient period as the Caucasian Albania. The Turkic component is the result of the series of great westward migration of the Eurasian nomads for over the first millennium CE, starting with the Huns and Avars and culminating during the Mongol conquests. In fact, this reportedly serves the Armenian claim.


But this fact is superficial as well. It is absolutely beyond any doubt that the Armenians created an ancient autochthonous civilization in the region, one of the earliest states and became the first Christian nation on Earth. But do this true historical facts are sufficient to deny the right of Azeris to call this land a home? Not many are aware that the contemporary (and neighbor) of Great Armenia in the 4th century BCE was the kingdom of Media Atropatene, whose Iranian-speaking population have survived the centuries of political changes and perhaps still retain the same genetic components today. They might have converted into a new religion and switched into a more widely spoken language, but anthropologically their direct descendants still call their country by a modified version of an old name (the name “Azerbaijan” derives from “Atropatene” through its Old Persian form “Aturpatakan” and Arabic “Adarbaigan”).


So after all these excursions into history, who can tell for sure who has the rightful claim to this land? Putting the question in this manner itself is absurd and wrong, let alone fighting a war over it. Instead, it is time to citizens of both countries with ancient and glorious history to reflect on times of their amity and accord.

A few decades ago Soviet citizens literally idolized the man whom they called “Soviet Sinatra.” He was the most famous son of Azerbaijan, Muslim Magomayev. But they also knew well and appreciated the fact that melodies of most of the songs that brought fame to Magomayev were composed by great Armenian maestro, Arno Babadjanian. This duo not only had the most fruitful collaboration in performing arts, but perhaps their most important legacy was their personal demonstration of lasting friendship and genuine affection between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Needless to mention that during the Soviet period there were recorded as many as 300 thousand cases of intermarriage between these two nationalities, including many in Karabakh. Notwithstanding all the shortcomings of the Communist regime, one cannot deny that the Soviet experiment in terms of nation-building had a more progressive outlook than the 21st century exclusive nationalism. And today, there remains a large and influential Armenian diaspora and a large and influential Azerbaijani diaspora in Russia. That is the soft power Moscow can project and a model it can propose to its sister republics to south. That will multiply Russia’s existing tools of hard power in the region, namely proactive diplomacy, which it already began to use. In addition to that, the presence of Russia’s permanent peacekeeping force in the region will surely become a guarantor of stability and instill hope for a lasting peace.               


Munkh-Ochir Dorjjugder is a Mongolian defense and security analyst affiliated with the National Institute for Security Studies based in Ulaanbaatar. In 2015 he served as Military Adviser to Permanent Mission of Mongolia to UN and other international organizations in Vienna and was involved in Mongolia’s chairmanship of the Forum for Security Cooperation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Mongolian government.  


[1] Often referred to as Nagorny Karabakh, which is a Russian word.