Armenian Prisoners of War Now Hostages of Power Play between Russia and Turkey

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The flight arriving from Baku to Yerevan on April 8 was expected to be laden with hope for the families of Armenian prisoners of war who are still held captive in Azerbaijan. But those families had to face a huge disappointment as no prisoners disembarked from the plane. Indeed, the only person aboard the flight was Lt. Gen. Ruslan Muradov, the commander of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Karabakh and Azerbaijan.

Exasperated families vented their anger by protesting outside the Ministry of Defense, as well as on the road connecting Yerevan to Gyumri, since the majority of those held hail from Gyumri and the rest of the Shirak region.

Why did this heartbreaking drama take place? On April 7, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan paid his much-anticipated visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The talks lasted more than four hours, but the most pressing issue was the fate of the Armenian prisoners still being kept in Azerbaijan in order to inflict maximal trauma to the families of the latter after the 44-day Karabakh war.

The guarded hope coming out of the Pashinyan-Putin meeting was that the Russian president would work hard to resolve the issue of the prisoners. Offering even more hope was the news about Putin’s phone conversation with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. To complete the circle of expectations, Gen. Ruslan Muradov flew to Baku with the obvious mission of bringing back the prisoners to Yerevan.

Although the news about the imminent release of the captives came from Moscow, officials in Yerevan also confirmed it, heightening expectations. But one piece of news which was not covered in the media concerned the visit of Abdullah Bozkurt, speaker of the Turkish Parliament, to Baku, for talks with President Aliyev. The speculation is that the visit led to the aborting of the plans to release those prisoners.

The frustrated families back in Yerevan were told by Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan that the arrival of the prisoners was delayed while General Muradov chided the Armenian government for feeding false hopes to the families, suggesting that his visit to Baku was not connected with the POW issue. That was certainly a face-saving announcement for the Russian side, which had trumpeted that President Putin had exerted tremendous efforts to solve the POW issue.

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News emanating from Baku had indicated that President Aliyev was angry because the Karabakh authorities had not handed to the Azerbaijani authorities the maps for the minefields, as a consequence of which many Azerbaijanis had fallen victim to exploding mines.

Fueling Aliyev’s anger further was that the plan for building his coveted corridor through Syunik region in Armenia, connecting Baku to Nakhichevan, had hit some glitches.

Analysts believe that these issues cannot be sufficient causes for Azerbaijan’s reticence, since it is being manipulated behind the scenes by Ankara, expecting to extract further concessions from the Armenian side.

We need to remember that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey had stated recently that Ankara can lift the blockade on condition that Armenia “behaves.” Politicians have been exploring many conditions which may define that behavior. Turkey’s demand, particularly in this critical period, means that the government of Armenia should renounce the pursuit of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

The director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, Alexander Iskandaryan, believes that the prisoner issue will not be resolved anytime soon, and that Aliyev will not return the prisoners even at the request of President Putin.

Armenia’s representative office at the European Court of Human Rights had asked the court to intervene regarding 240 cases of prisoners still in Azerbaijani custody. Of those, 90 percent have already been verified with documents, pictures and videos. President Aliyev, on the other hand, has conceded that more than 70 prisoners were returned to Armenia and only 60 are still held, because they were captured after the November 9 tripartite agreement was signed.

On the other hand, Azerbaijani Foreign minister Jeyhun Bayramov announced that those remaining prisoners are considered terrorists and will be tried under Azerbaijani law. To cover up the embarrassment of the Russian side, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, has accepted that assertion at face value and during a recent press conference, maintained that excuse that “the Azerbaijani authorities consider them terrorists.”

President Putin had personally drafted and signed the November 9 declaration which calls for the swap of POWs “all against all” as stated in Point 8.

The Armenian side, believing that it will reduce the agony of the affected families, rushed to return 69 detainees, fulfilling its side of the bargain. Those returned to Azerbaijan included among them two convicted criminals, Dilgam Askarov and Shahbaz Guliyev, who were in custody of the Karabakh authorities since before the war.

The Armenian side had committed a very serious blunder by returning during the POW swap two jihadists from Syria. In the first place, they had to be surrendered to the Syrian authorities to face charges for the crimes they had committed. Barring that, they had to be released to an international court as living proof that the Turks had used those terrorists during the war. Up until now, Turkish and Azerbaijani authorities deny the involvement of Syrian jihadists in the Karabakh war. It is all too obvious that those jihadists have become permanent features in any and every military adventure Turkey concocts, yesterday in Syria and Libya and today in Karabakh, Yemen and Ukraine.

Now, Turkey has added incentive to embarrass President Putin, as it has officially joined its military forces with Ukraine to drive out Russia from the Black Sea region and Crimea. This recent drive is very much in sync with the Biden Administration’s new foreign policy of standing up to Russia and pushing Ukraine into a conflict with Russia.

On the other hand, the Azerbaijani intransigence must be viewed within the context of Turkish belligerence against Russia and Armenia, now that Karabakh war is over, with Armenia’s loss. (But the bill of goods Turkey is selling to the West is that the victory was against Russia.)

In early April, the combined forces of Turkey and Azerbaijan held war games on Armenia’s borders. These are the fourth such exercises since the beginning of the current year. Which country is the intended target of those war games? This is a tactic of continual pressure on Armenia to extract further concessions. The issue of prisoners and Turkey’s war policy are also meant to influence Armenia’s upcoming parliamentary elections in June. We have to be reminded that President Erdogan will be visiting Shushi in May, as part and parcel of his overall policy of intimidating and pressuring Armenia.

President Aliyev believes that he was the victor in the Karabakh war and that he had “chased the Armenians like dogs from Azerbaijani soil;” lo and behold, now he is paying the price for “his” victory. The families of the Karabakh war victims in Azerbaijan are demonstrating, other groups are calling for Russian troops to get out of Azerbaijani territory.

On top of all that, the Russification of Karabakh itself is intensifying. The Russian language has become an official language there. The  prospect of offering Russian citizenship to Karabakh residents is proceeding quickly, as it was done in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Political voices are rising in Moscow to bring Karabakh under a Russian protectorate, like in the days of Arkady Volsky. And pretty soon, the bear hug of Mr. Erdogan will become too close for comfort.

It turns out that Karabakh’s loss has affected both Armenia and Azerbaijan, with families left grieving on both sides of the border and Mr. Erdogan grinning and calculating his next move towards his pan-Turanic plans.

 

 

 

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