Lachin corridor blocked by Azerbaijani forces

MINNEAPOLIS — The most recent gut-punch to the Armenian psyche happened this past week, with the double-whammy of the blocking of the Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting Armenia and Karabakh (Artsakh) and the cutting off of gas to the latter by Azerbaijan.

As of this writing, gas has been restored to Artsakh, but the road remains blocked by hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians who claim they want to make sure that mining operations in Artsakh do not harm the environment. According to social media, however, many have ties to the Azerbaijani government or military. Incidentally, the gas for Karabakh comes from Armenia but passes through the territory of Azerbaijan.

In a recent interview, Dr. Artyom Tonoyan, the editor of the book Black Garden Aflame: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in the Soviet and Russian Press, and a professor at Hamline University, offered some reasons for the increased Azerbaijani aggression against Karabakh.

“There are several reasons. Number one, because they can — and they can do it any time they want. There is a fancy term in political science, escalation dominance. Azerbaijan has the ability to escalate matters anytime it wants. This could have happened a month ago or a month from today but for some reason they chose this juncture,” Tonoyan said. “Number two is because of the conventional wisdom, which is somewhat iffy, Russia is distracted because it has bigger fish to fry or it is the biggest fish that is being fried. One way to look at it is that Russia has given a tacit agreement to [the blockade] because Russia for one reason or another is not happy with the Armenian authorities. It looks to them that Armenian authorities and Pashinyan’s government are stonewalling the opening of the borders — communications as they call it — the Zangezur [corridor]. The other way of looking at it is Turkey is pushing for it. Turkey has entered election season and it has thrown its complete lot in with Azerbaijan. A victory for Azerbaijan is a victory for the Erdogan government.”

Tonoyan concluded, “The truth is a mix of all these factors.”

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Wishful Thinking

When asked what could have been done in the past 31 years to have taken Armenia and Artsakh to a different point, he did suggest that of course, hindsight is 20/20 but that things could and should have been done. Tonoyan offered that there were many clues that the situation could change and the leaders should have prepared for it.

“Having the benefit of hindsight, we could always have conducted policy that would have deterred Azerbaijan. Armenia had the chance to upgrade its military capabilities and its civil society, to have a better government that had the foresight that could have predicted what would happen,” he said. “The world is not static and Armenia’s neighborhood is not static. It is not the European heartland. There are always clashing geopolitical interests. There is always something brewing.”

Instead, he said, Armenian authorities indulged in “wishful thinking,” assuming the victory in Karabakh in 1994 had closed that chapter for good.

He added, “The wishful thinking was that Russia is on our side, that it’s in Russia’s best interest to not allow a war to break out because at the end of the day, if Armenia loses, …  Armenia will look elsewhere for its security arrangements.”

The authorities, he continued, counted on Russia without really bothering to study its motivations or actions closely and thus leaving themselves open to their big ally’s shifting strategies.

“That wishful thinking continued apace. Just the very fact that Armenia’s main geopolitical and economic ally is Russia [yet] you do not have a full-time Russian studies department or Kremlinologists that analyze Russian press,” is a problem, he said.

In fact, Tonoyan said, that very obliviousness to Russian thinking was why he decided to study the reaction of the Russian press to the Karabakh war, which resulted in Black Garden Aflame: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in the Soviet and Russian Press.

“It was always ‘Russia is our friend. We are allies. We are on the same page on any number of security issues.’ But it’s not the case. It’s never the case,” Tonoyan noted.

“The Russian thinking on these issues is not very dissimilar to any great power’s thinking. It has its interests and its interests are always on shifting sand,” Tonoyan said. “If Russia’s security, economic or geopolitical interests call for other arrangements other policy priorities, you have to be ready for it.” Thus, he noted, such a mindset dominated for the past 30 years and “when push came to shove, we were caught with our pants down.”

Tonoyan is active on social media and has been critical of the tweets of Toivo Klaar, the European Union Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the Crisis in Georgia, which he deems toothless and mealy mouthed.

Asked why Armenia can’t get traction with many world bodies, he said, power or its lack thereof.

“Ultimately it comes down to power, to me, and to economic power, as well. It’s a small economy and a small country In the great scheme of things, it’s insignificant for them. It has very little to offer.”

In addition, because of its general Russian and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) orientation, the Western bodies are not sure they can meddle.

“It has not made a complete geopolitical turnabout toward Europe or the United States. Its complimentary policy that was adopted under Serge Sargsyan was at best mealy-mouthed. It was the due that vice was paying virtue,” he said.

Therefore, he said, the country’s stance globally is different from its neighbor, Georgia, which under former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led the country from 2004 to 2013, made the pivot.

“The other thing is that for Georgia, for instance, when Saakashvili came to power, he completely switched its foreign policy priorities, foreign policy engagements and security arrangements,” Tonoyan said. He kicked out the Russian soldiers, thus making his political orientation clear.

Tonoyan stressed that at this point, certainly, he would not advocate for Armenia or Artsakh to kick out the Russian troops, because the results could be deadly.

They are the only factor holding off Turkey, he said. “At this point, yes Russia has abrogated its duties and commitments and agreements with Armenia, but at the end of the day, they are still there and Turkey has not attacked. And Turkey can attack and Turkey will attack, given the chance and the time.”

Turkey’s global ambitions are willingness to invade the soils of other countries have already been demonstrated in Syria and Iraq, he stressed.

Asked why Turkey has not been taken to task for its acts of aggression in those two countries, as well as its regular threats against Armenia, Greece and Cyprus, among others, Tonoyan explained that the country serves a purpose.

“It may sound cynical, but sometimes good actors needs bad actors to act badly for the good actors to win ultimately,” he said about Turkey. “It may not be following the American lead on any number of issues but there is still some benefit to be drawn from Turkey’s actions.”

Of course, he stressed, we need to remember that Turkey is a NATO member. “To get rid of Turkey as a NATO member, you need unanimous agreement on it and nobody is going to kick out Turkey out of NATO.”

On a more hopeful noted, he said, Recep Tayyip Erdogan would not be the leader of Turkey forever and it is possible, as far as NATO members are concerned, a less aggressive leader might take over.


Facing Ethnic Cleansing

For now, however, Armenia and Artsakh have much to worry about. The end game they are facing, he said, is “total ethnic cleansing. There are no two ways about it.”

Tonoyan was loath to answer what the government of Artsakh should do now, whether to advocate for its population to stay or to move en masse to Armenia.

“Talk about being between a rock and a hard place, finding yourself constantly being badgered and hammered and the Europeans and the Americans are mealy mouthed about it and the condemnations are at best half-hearted,” Tonoyan said. “There is no strong disincentive for Azerbaijan to not engage in this kind of behavior and Azerbaijan takes advantage of it and ultimately the European and the Americans just may be OK with the Armenians being exiled from their ancestral homeland in Artsakh.”

As for what Armenians of Karabakh want, he noted, “The people in Nagorno Karabakh have voted with the blood of their sons and daughters, as have Armenians, in staking a claim, re-acquiring agency in their affairs. They have said what they want.  The question is not about what Nagorno Karabakh’s people want. We know what they want. It’s the ability of the Armenians in the Armenian Republic and the diaspora to understand that the die has been cast and there is no turning back,” he explained. What everyone needs to do is “our utmost to stave off the existential threat. My fear is that we are not doing our utmost. We wasted so much capital, so much good will, so much of everything, that at this point, all we can hope for is the status quo to at least exist, that Lachin is still open, that the gas is restored, that people can go back and forth, that people are not starving and dying en masse. The only way I see it is for Armenia to upgrade radically its capabilities, but also upgrade its political thinking.”

Tonoyan was very forceful about the political thinking by the authorities on Armenia. “It has been so sorely lacking. It’s one-dimensional, predicable, readable and very, very injudicious.”

Asked what he would advise Armenia’s leaders right now, he said, “To seek non-traditional allies.”

Tonoyan noted the government has started doing it recently, by reaching out to India, and China. They need to “expand the pool of interested parties towards the region.”

He continued, Armenia needs to “make its case to foreign policy actors and governments that matter that this is unacceptable, that Armenia matters and it needs its succor and support.”

The situation is precarious not just for Artsakh but for Armenia, if a route is carved through Syunik — what the Turks and Azerbaijanis call the Zangezur Corridor — linking Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhijevan. “If Azerbaijan manages to get parts of Syunik, Armenia’s statehood becomes questionable. It’s as good as a failed state. It’s as simple as that. It [Turkey] can’t control swathes of territory. … What would happen is basically would definitely encourage further outmigration and a massive humanitarian crisis.”

In addition, Tonoyan said that move will “completely destroy Iran’s ambitions toward South Caucasus” and cut off its trade routes.

He lamented, “I didn’t think in my lifetime I would be sitting where I am and thinking these thoughts.”

Tonoyan is a visiting professor of global studies at Hamline University. He was previously at the University of Minnesota Holocaust and Genocide studies. He will teach a course on the history of human rights.

Black Garden Aflame is available on Amazon.

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