“There will be no big war between Armenia and Azerbaijan — no one needs it”
Aleksey Malashenko about the next escalation in Transcaucasia, Erdogan's ambitiousness and the fundamental unsolvability of the Karabakh issue
In July, the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have again deteriorated — this time not in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but on the border, where four Armenian and 12 Azerbaijani soldiers (including the general of the army) were killed in clashes involving drones and artillery fire. The reasons for the conflict in July 2020 are still unclear: Azerbaijani soldiers are reported to have “accidentally entered” the territory of Armenia, and although the border between the Tavush region of Armenia and the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan is now a little quieter, there are still skirmishes in this area. Orientalist Aleksey Malashenko told Realnoe Vremya about how events are going to develop.
“This conflict will continue for the next generations, it is eternal”
Mr Malashenko, can the current clashes on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan be called “normal” or has the picture become more complicated this time?
No, in general, this is an absolutely standard situation that we have seen in this region since 1991. The conflict continues, although various solutions have been proposed over the years. And it will continue for the next generations because it is unsolvable, eternal.
What surprised me about today's events on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan is the activity of the Turks, who sent six attacking drones to Azerbaijan. In this way, the Turks remind us that they support Azerbaijan, and in addition, they show that they can become an important factor in this conflict. The activity of the Turks has also been mentioned before, but it did not come to the point, and now, given how Turkey is acting in Syria and Libya, this may create problems in the region. Of course, this can't lead to any big war, but there is a lot of talk about Turkish activity in the Azerbaijani direction.
The thing is that Europe is de facto for the Armenians, and the Turks are for the Azerbaijanis. Of course, no one will recognise this, and everyone will say that the conflict needs to be resolved diplomatically, but everyone understands perfectly well that no diplomatic route can solve this problem. The problem of the conflict between the two countries, as I said, is eternal, and historical circumstances play an important role here. They have been talking about Karabakh for a very long time: I once spoke with academician Ziya Buniyatov, who brought me books and proved that Karabakh is the land of Azerbaijan, and then my Armenian colleagues showed me numerous materials that this territory has been Armenian since the middle ages. And I conclude that such problems cannot be solved.
Yes, there has been a conflict again and three tanks of the Azerbaijani army were shot down, soldiers and the Azerbaijani General were killed, and the sides seem to be talking about peace, but again they blame each other, but this will continue
The Karabakh problem is often compared to the Yugoslav problem, the split of the Sudan, or something else, but in those cases everything was obvious in terms of solving the problem, but here it is not. The independence of Karabakh is impossible for Azerbaijanis, the entry of Karabakh into Azerbaijan on any special conditions is also impossible, and the entry of Karabakh into Armenia is also not politically necessary for anyone — neither for Karabakh itself, nor for the Armenians. Besides, we should not forget that a million refugees affect the atmosphere in Armenia, and only recently people from Karabakh were in power in this country. So the situation is very complex, and no one is interested in solving it.
Nevertheless, to put it cynically, the interested party is Russia. It is very difficult for our country in this region, since Russian weapons are being supplied to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, but it is present as a mediator and an important factor in the negotiations. But I do not see people in the Russian elite who would offer any compromise on this issue. So everything will remain as it is. Yes, there has been a conflict again and three tanks of the Azerbaijani army were shot down, soldiers and the Azerbaijani General were killed, and the sides seem to be talking about peace, but again they blame each other, but this will continue. And there will never be a big war. They won't let it in because no one wants it.
“Yes, Armenia is a member of the CSTO. So what?"
Has there been any serious aspect of the active conflict over 30 years? Maybe chauvinism, rabid nationalism has gone?
Of course, the nationalism that was in the late 1980s and 1990s is no longer there. First, the nationalist line is fading, albeit slowly. Second, both Baku and Yerevan are already getting used to this conflict. And third, there is fatigue from it, and here it causes irritation in both states, and it is enough for some minimal pretext to resume everything in this conflict. This problem will last for generations. Yes, it's been 30 years, but I think it will take another 50-60 years for people in Armenia and Azerbaijan to get the following into their heads: yes, all this is wrong, bad, but it can't be changed, so the situation with Karabakh should only be a background.
But here's something else to pay attention to. After 1945, we got used to the idea that borders, like the bipolar world, are eternal, but it turned out that there is no such eternity. There is no Soviet Union, there is no Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Sudan, there are Transnistria, Abkhazia, Crimea as part of Russia. The borders change, so the Azerbaijanis still have “what if Karabakh returns?" in their subconscious, while the Armenians have the opposite. And this is part not only of political psychology but also of personal psychology. There is the concept such as “historical memory”. Is it a myth or not? Academician Valery Tishkov believes that this is a myth, it is not serious, but it is also a memory. Look at how it is always present in politics. One time we celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Kulikovo, then many people are obsessed with the Great Patriotic War. And all this affects the psychology, which means that such things quite contribute to the perpetuation of the conflict around Karabakh. We shouldn't also forget that relations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani ethnic groups have always been tense. Therefore, a large set of factors prevents the conflict from being resolved.
The borders change, so the Azerbaijanis still have “what if Karabakh returns?" in their subconscious, while the Armenians have the opposite. And this is part not only of political psychology but also of personal psychology
I personally do not blame anyone for this conflict. Why? Let's take another example — Georgia and Abkhazia. Abkhazia under the Soviet regime always wanted to be part of the RSFSR, and I saw with my own eyes how anti-Georgian demonstrations took place in Sukhumi, and this under the Communists! Therefore, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan will continue. Yes, they are killing people, but nothing will change in the coming decades: there were negotiations and agreements in Bishkek in 1994, then there were Minsk and Madrid, since 1999 the presidents of the two countries have been meeting with each other, the American side took part in the negotiations, not to mention Moscow — and what? There is no movement, and it is impossible. Well, in 1994 in Bishkek, the parties agreed that, they say, we were not at war, but you saw what happened at the border.
If people in both countries will live better, wealthier, it will probably contribute to a peaceful attitude to the problem?
Azerbaijan is a rich country because it has oil, gas, and a lot of money, and people live very well there, if we compare their lives with those of other countries from the former Soviet space. Against this background, Armenia is poor, of course, but has the growing rich Azerbaijan become calmer towards Karabakh? No. Moreover, in Azerbaijan back in the 1990s, it was believed that Armenians were good soldiers, but Azerbaijanis are worse, but now Azerbaijan has a great army with good weapons. Yes, Armenia is a member of the CSTO — so what? By the way, about the CSTO. Armenia believes that if it is attacked, the CSTO should unite against Azerbaijan. Is it possible? Of course not.
“For Erdogan, this is another opportunity to show that he acts correctly in the Middle East”
At the beginning of the conversation, you mentioned the inclusion of Turkey in this conflict. What does its activity indicate?
First of all, of course, it is the ambitions of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But don't forget how much the Turks “love” the Armenians, and how much the Armenians “love” the Turks. Besides, there is also pan-Turkist solidarity, and this is to Erdogan's advantage — he can't abandon the fraternal Turkic country, especially if Azerbaijan complains that it was attacked by Armenians. This is advantageous for Erdogan, it is an additional opportunity to show that Turkey acts correctly in the Middle East because pan-Turkist solidarity exists, and the fact that he sent drones to Azerbaijan is normal for him. Note that the tanks of the Azerbaijani army were destroyed by drones! Besides, the Turks sent two multiple rocket launchers to Azerbaijan, and multiple rocket launchers are very serious, as we know from some experience.
So it turns out that Erdogan's position in Syria and Libya as an international player is strong?
Surely, it's strong. Erdogan is terribly ambitious, and ambitious in a number of ways: he is certainly one of the Muslim leaders, in addition, he is the head of the state that, in his opinion, looks no lower than Europe — Erdogan behaves on an equal footing with us, with the Americans. If he has interests in Libya, Syria and Africa, will he abandon the Turks in other parts of the world? But the main thing is precisely Erdogan's ambitiousness. Look at his biography, look at how he has developed up as a politician, and he developed thanks to Islam.
Erdogan shows flexibility most often, and he is not a stupid person in this regard. Yes, he is cruel and ambitious, but he knows to what point it is possible to come
Is it impossible to weaken Erdogan?
So far, it turns out that he is playing on equal terms — with the United States, Russia, and France. Theoretically, he could have been ousted in 2016, but it is likely that he could have staged this coup himself. But Erdogan has a strong position in the army, he feels confident in Syria, and most of the Turks treat their president with respect — after all, this is the Turkish leader who is respected around the world.
Do they respect not only Erdogan's musle flexing but also with his flexibility?
Erdogan shows flexibility most often, and he is not a stupid person in this regard. Yes, he is cruel and ambitious, but he knows to what point it is possible to come. Look, the relations between Russia and Turkey periodically escalate, but then the parties somehow agree, find a common language. Remember the story of the downing of a Russian military plane in 2015. Erdogan apologized because he admitted his mistake, and everything was beautiful, and now Russia and Turkey have peace and so on.
If we talk about limits, what is the limit for Erdogan in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
The limit is technical supplies to Azerbaijan. What's next? Well, you can't send Turkish troops to Armenia, can you? It will be like a madhouse! Turkish troops are NATO troops!
It is unlikely that he will send troops to Azerbaijan for, let's say, pan-Turkist assistance. Do you agree?
I have already heard some speculations on this topic, but this is hard to prove: someone suggested that Turkey may be transporting fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan. But do we need militants in Azerbaijan who will fight against Armenians today, and tomorrow we don't know who they will fight against in Azerbaijan itself? Of course, this is gossip, exaggeration, but if we are talking about manpower, such people may well end up in Azerbaijan. But no one needs this, especially in Azerbaijan itself.
Is there any alternative to Aliyev? It was 6-7 years ago — it was Musavat followers, someone else, but whether there is an alternative now, I doubt
“The Aliyev clan is powerful and strong, they have settled everything in the republic”
What is the meaning of that some of the protesters broke into the Azerbaijani parliament building at a rally in Baku that was gathered because of the border clashes? Were they emotions?
Yes, it is emotions. But you understand the thing: Azerbaijan is an authoritarian state, although under the leadership of a MGIMO graduate. Well, people broke into parliament — so what? Yes, Azerbaijanis are emotional people, but this does not mean anything to the authorities. This is not a campaign against Ilham Aliyev.
Yevgeny Satanovsky has recently suggested that Aliyev might be deposed if a war does not start.
Is there any alternative to Aliyev? It was 6-7 years ago — it was Musavat followers, someone else, but whether there is an alternative now, I doubt. Yes, there have been reasons for discontent with Aliyev in recent years, but nothing serious has emerged in the end.
Note that the guys who moved to Azerbaijan from Karabakh did not become a political factor. Both Sunnis and Shiites live in equal numbers in Azerbaijan, and only Allah knows which of them is greater, and this factor also does not play any role for Aliyev. Therefore, I do not see any prerequisites for a change of power. The Aliyev clan is powerful and strong, they have settled everything in the republic. There are dissatisfied with the president in the country, but they are very few.
If nationalism, as you have noticed, is declining, although slowly, then we can say that the nationalist factor does not play a role for Aliyev?
All this ended in Azerbaijan. Today's Azerbaijan is a cosmopolitan Muslim state. There is no Islamic opposition, they have been crushed. There are not even Democrats there — there were some people in this camp at one time, but they were jailed. As for the regions, no region will go against Baku.
Of course, now we see that residents of certain countries are irritated by the coronavirus — yes, this factor probably exists, people are tired of all sorts of quarantines. But in this case, this is not the main thing, the virus could push to such things, but still did not push. I think that the parties will soon agree.
There don't seem to be any nationalists in Armenia either.
But Armenia still has a political multipolarity. And compare how many presidents and prime ministers there have been in Armenia and in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is actually a monarchy. But you see, there is a clear position in the Armenian society: Karabakh is not Azerbaijan, that's all. And how there is and what, these are details, and no one will get away from this position. As soon as someone in Armenia hints that it would be nice to make Karabakh part of Azerbaijan as a confederation, they will simply remove him and he will be crushed as a politician.
There is no doubt that Pashinyan, when he came to power, relied on people who advocated improving relations with the United States. And this is understandable — Armenia is the part of the former Soviet Union that is trying to pursue a multi-vector policy. But everything will be decided by Trump
“Pashinyan is not Aliyev or Putin”
What are the positions of the Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan?
As my colleagues from Yerevan say, they are rather strong than weak. But this is not an authoritarian fortress, Pashinyan is not Aliyev or Putin. Thus, the political situation in Armenia can be quite fluid. Kocharian, Ter-Petrosyan, and Sargsyan can be elected there.
How true is it that Pashinyan is looking for a lot of US support, given Turkey's joining the game?
There is no doubt that Pashinyan, when he came to power, relied on people who advocated improving relations with the United States. And this is understandable — Armenia is the part of the former Soviet Union that is trying to pursue a multi-vector policy. But everything will be decided by Trump. But Armenia will also rely on Russian support. Please note that there is no anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia.
How will events develop in the near future?
There is such a moment — since the Turks have already participated in the situation, as the European Union has somehow started to move, as the UN said the worsening conflict fraught with disaster and that it is almost a war, I think that there some kind of international gathering with the participation of all stakeholders. Of course, Russia is also working in this regard, and it has always worked here, but in order to satisfy everyone and show that the world is worried, the agreement must be very broad. The Turks are both the Turkish lobby and the Muslim lobby, but there is also a global Armenian lobby with California and France. By the end of 2020, there should definitely be some broad international event on this issue.
Will there be a war?