By Edmond Y. Azadian
After two years of a devastating war, Azerbaijan’s unrelenting pressure, in terms of border incursions, false negotiations and constant demands for concessions, recently, a turn of events offered a respite, some breathing room to recover and maybe even return to normalcy.
In addition, nature’s fury could lead to changes in regional politics.
The powerful earthquake in Turkey, which also devastated Syria, shook fundamentally the architecture of that country’s foreign policy, which will become more apparent in the coming months. The Turkish-Russian quasi-alliance will be changing its vector, as Turkey more and more depends on the West, and particularly on Washington, for its recovery. The regional nations, which have been living under Ankara’s bullying and aggression, will enjoy a window of opportunity to concentrate on their own priorities rather than worry about Turkey.
Turkey’s predicament will also restrain Ankara in its unconditional support for Azerbaijan’s maximalist policies vis a vis Armenia and Karabakh (Artsakh).
Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor, which began on December 12, 2022, could have lasted forever, had the situation not changed in the Caucasus. The intent of the blockade was to strangulate the 120,000-strong Armenian population in Karabakh, who are not yet out of the woods, despite the verdict of the International Court of Justice last week, ordering Azerbaijan to cease its action.
For a number of reasons, Armenia had hesitated to move its case to the international plane, concerned that the courts are influenced by politics and favor the mighty. Yerevan finally mustered its courage and entrusted its case to a team of international lawyers headed by the firm Foley Hoag, and Yeghishe Kirakosyan of Armenia. The effort was also assisted by prominent Armenian lawyers in the diaspora. Azerbaijan, which allocates tremendous resources toward think tanks, lobbying firms and legal professionals, was finally defeated because its case failed to convince the judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Indeed, on February 22, 2023, the ICJ, the main judicial organ of the UN, ordered provisional measures to ensure that Azerbaijan unblocks the Lachin Corridor.
Since Armenia lacks military power, it has to rely on this paper weapon.
This reminds us of another episode in Armenian history, where a paper allegory was used: Khrimian Hairik, later the Catholicos of All Armenians, returning from the Berlin Conference of 1878, lamented that all the participant nations had come to Berlin with iron ladles to partake of harissa (soup) and were successful, but that his own ladle disintegrated as it was made of paper.
In this case, the ICJ has indeed presented a paper weapon for Karabakh Armenians rather than the previous reference, where the paper was a symbol for weakness.
The ICJ verdict, which is binding, states that “the Republic of Azerbaijan shall, pending the final decision and in accordance with its obligation under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along Lachin Corridor in both directions.”
This ruling comes in addition to an earlier one from 2021 which demanded that Azerbaijan protect Armenian cultural sites on its territory.
In an effort to obfuscate the facts at the court, Azerbaijan, in a separate case, had accused Armenia of moving mines through the Lachin Corridor to Karabakh. However, the court struck down that case, which was based on false premises. According to Ara Ghazaryan, an international law expert, the rejection of Azerbaijan’s claim is even more important than the partial satisfaction from Armenia’s claim.
Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government has been dragging its feet and delaying the implementation of the court’s ruling. As of this writing, the corridor is still closed for regular traffic.
Armenia has hailed the ruling as a victory because noncompliance by Azerbaijan carries serious consequences. Ghazaryan, however, believes that the “court’s decision cannot be called as a victory, but rather a sort of instrument that dictates the situation in the political arena.”
Azerbaijan still has not complied. That country’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, in yet another blatant lie, claims “the Lachin Corridor is already open.”
Indeed, long-term political implications are more significant and far reaching. Thus:
• Once again the Karabakh case has been the focus of international politics.
• Azerbaijan’s leader Ilham Aliyev insists that the term Nagorno Karabakh must not be used because it is an impingement on Azerbaijan’s sovereignty. The ICJ uses the term and legitimizes it.
• The ICJ ruling makes reference to the November 9 declaration, rendering it an instrument of international law and requests Azerbaijan to abide by its provisions, which sometimes are forgotten by Baku and Moscow
• Baku has been struggling to create a false parity between Lachin and the so-called “Zangezur Corridor,” which Azerbaijan demands from Armenia. The ICJ, by its ruling, dissociates the two cases and refuses to condition the opening of the first with the creation of the second.
The ruling by itself would have remained an inert document if the Armenian government did not use it for its political ends. Indeed, the next day after the ruling, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan placed two phone calls, one to President Vladimir Putin and the second to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The contents of the first call has not been divulged, but during the call to Guterres, Pashinyan requested a UN fact-finding mission at the Lachin Corridor and in Karabakh itself. The second request will further infuriate Russia, which has already been complaining about the stationing of European Union monitors on Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. Recently, Toivo Klaar, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, commented that Russia is more concerned with the issue of the monitors than Azerbaijan is.
Azerbaijan has been under pressure from Western powers, and particularly Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to begin negotiating with the Armenian representatives in Karabakh. And it was looking for an excuse to take the initiative.That opportunity was afforded to him by the appearance of Ruben Vardanyan in Karabakh. Vardanyan’s rise and fall there is in itself a grotesque political drama.
When Vardanyan, a billionaire from Moscow, gave up his Russian citizenship and showed up in Stepanakert a few months ago, the leadership in Yerevan would not touch him with a 10-foot-pole and they labeled him a Russian agent. That insinuation was employed by Aliyev himself, when he accused Vardanyan, during the forum in Munch last month, of being a “criminal oligarch” from Russia smuggled into Karabakh and involved in money laundering, never mind that the Aliyev family is implicated in many more proven money laundering cases in the Panama Papers and was also accused of pilfering state funds to acquire $700 million in properties in London alone.
Meanwhile, Vardanyan was appointed state minister in Karabakh, which is equivalent to prime minister.
Aliyev announced that he was ready to negotiate with any representative born in Karabakh, which Vardanyan was not. (He was born in Armenia.) Lo and behold, within five days, Arayik Harutyunyan, the president of Karabakh, dismissed Vardanyan and replaced him with by Gurgen Nersisyan, the general prosecutor.
It looks like Aliyev received what he had wanted, since the very next day, a group of Karabakh representatives met with Azerbaijani government officials, to discuss the opening of the Lachin Corridor, as well as restoring the flow of gas and electricity. The meeting was mediated by the head of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Karabakh.
Along with this meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Baku to celebrate the first anniversary of the signing of the strategic alliance treaty between Russia and Azerbaijan. Lavrov has also been discussing the peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
If and when the Lachin corridor is opened, Aliyev would like to give credit to Russia and pretend that he did not give in to the ICJ ruling.
Meanwhile, President Aliyev paid a visit to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to find out how much Turkish support remains for Azerbaijan’s unremitting pressure on Armenia, especially in light of the latter’s overtures after the earthquake.
The final episode of this Karabakh drama is the arrival of Samuel Babayan, a decorated war hero from the 1990s, with a checkered history. He claims that he has a plan, which when implemented, will save Karabakh. He is looking for a government position before divulging that plan.
These are trying times for Armenia and Karabakh and opportunists and bona fide statesmen can try their luck, hopefully, for some positive results.
The people of Karabakh have suffered enough, and people in Armenia are yearning for the restoration of normal life.
Hopefully our paper weapon will prove to be effective this time around.