The deceptive peace in unpronounceable Nagomo-Karabagh - another Czechoslovakia?

Chaimberlain said 'Czechoslovakia is a faraway country about which we know nothing.' Azerbaijan-Armenia quiet is before the storm. Op-ed.

Prof. James R. Russell ,

Russian President Putin attends meeting of Defense Ministry Board in Moscoww
Russian President Putin attends meeting of Defense Ministry Board in Moscoww
Reuters

The war in Nagorno-Karabagh seems to be over for a while: Middle Eastern wars don't end, they just take breaks for a smoke (Rus. перекур). There will undoubtedly be much more bloodshed and destruction, possibly much worse. But let's take stock right now.

For the time being, there is a treaty: Azerbaijan will get back all the buffer districts around Karabagh/Artsakh (the latter is the Armenian name of the region) itself from which the Armenians expelled the Azeri population. The latter, numbering about half a million, will return in a vengeful mood.

In Karabagh, Azerbaijan will hold on to all the territory it has gained, including the city of Shusha (Armenian Shushi), which is strategically crucial: it is on the high ground dominating Karabagh's largest city, Stepanakert.

Shushi is also an ancient cultural and spiritual center for Armenians. It was the site of a terrifying pogrom against them a century ago, in the wake of the Armenian Genocide. The Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam toured it in 1930 and was terrified by the ruins and chilling silence of the grave. After the Armenians conquered the town three decades ago, they rebuilt and resettled it. But its ancient cathedral was struck twice and badly damaged during the recent fighting. The Russians are maintaining peacekeepers but they cannot be everywhere or do everything, and unfortunately it seems likely that Armenian Shushi will be no more. A Georgian friend of mine on Facebook was head over heels with joy about that this morning.

The Georgians are Orthodox Christians? Why would a Georgian delight in the misfortune of a fellow Christian? The very question reflects a sort of naïveté that has crippled much Armenian thinking and has blinded Armenian opinion to reality for a long time.

First of all, there is no such thing as Christian solidarity. Much of the Western world is post-Christian; and even before that Christians were at each other’s throats for centuries. I have heard Armenians suggest that people ought to support them because they were the first Christian state. That is a claim more or less guaranteed not even to be heard. Nobody cares.

Corollary to that consideration is the mistaken Armenian belief that the republic’s fealty to the Russian state— also Orthodox Christian, though of different denomination— guarantees protection. To Russia, Armenia is not a younger brother. It is a pawn. Before Communism, Tsar Nicholas II's minister Pobedonostsev said he loved Armenia but would love it more without Armenians. To Russia, the little country is just the closest Moscow has got territorially to the Middle East (I'm not talking alliances, like Syria, but real estate).

Armenia hosts Russian bases; but the defense treaty between the two states goes into action only if Armenia proper is attacked. The Azeris, aware of this, did not touch a square inch of Armenia, even though Armenian forces bombed Azerbaijan's second-largest city, Ganja, and killed hundreds of civilians there. To come back to my Georgian friend’s delight in Armenia’s defeat, Russia has attacked and conquered two chunks of Orthodox, Christian Georgia— Abkhazia and South Ossetia— without giving a hoot about a common faith.

To the Georgians, Armenia is a Russian stooge. To the Russians, Georgia is too pro-Western. There's no love lost there.

Russia therefore was not obliged to intervene, and did not. This pleased Putin’s fellow strongman Erdogan. Instead of stepping into an unwanted confrontation with Turkey, Azerbaijan’s supporter, and thereby risking a war involving NATO if Turkey were to suffer direct Russian assault, Putin has instead wooed Turkey away from the Western alliance, while making it clear to the Armenians who’s boss: if Armenians thought they had a Russian card to play, it turns out their hand is empty. The tail cannot wag the dog. Erevan is in no position to force anybody’s hand, on any issue at all, and still has to remain an abject Russian satellite in order to survive. The mass demonstrations against the Armenian leader, Pashinyan, may end in his resignation or assassination, but they will change nothing on the battlefield. The Kremlin doesn't like Pashinyan, so the end of his career is just more icing on the cake.

Armenia is a landlocked country with a dwindling population and no important resources. Its economy is very fragile, at best; and it is riddled with corruption from top to bottom. Civil society and academia there largely disintegrated long ago into an ugly, strident, crypto-fascist chauvinism. It is very possible that tens of thousands of refugees from Karabagh will soon be streaming into Armenia, which is ill-equipped to receive them. Many will no doubt try to enter Russia to join the vast army of lowly-paid guest workers from the former Asian republics of the Soviet Union, or will seek to emigrate to Europe, Australia, and the United States.

We would then face the multiple possibilities of a failed state in Armenia, a humanitarian crisis, and a refugee crisis. There are more displaced people, in both proportional and absolute numbers, in the world than at any other time. For many reasons, some of them legitimate, wealthier countries have been closing their doors: some migrants from Islamic countries have been bringing radical politics with them. But this is an age also of parochial nationalisms, an unreasonable and cruel time. Jews will remember the way the world shut us out in the Nazi era. Fortunately the Armenian diaspora communities are prosperous and well organized, and can both help distressed compatriots and effectively lobby Western governments, especially France and the US, to let people in.

Meanwhile the Russians, per the peace treaty, will be patrolling the five-kilometer-wide Lachin corridor— the highway linking Karabagh to Armenia— as well as other points. The agreement lasts five years. I don’t give it that long. It depends on Russia and Russia could become unstable soon. Putin has suggested he may step back or even step down, and it is by no means clear whether he has a successor and a viable exit strategy, clever as he is. He has enriched himself as the head of a one-party state, but although dictators may enjoy riding a tiger, but when you dismount, the tiger will eat you.

In its thousand-year-long history as a polity, Russia has never enjoyed one full day of transparent, democratic government and the rule of law, except maybe the medieval republic of Novgorod, if we want to get really esoteric. Major transitions and interregnums up north in Moscow usually mean anarchy down south in the Caucasus. Even if the small force of two thousand Russian peacekeepers does its very best, the hatred between Armenians and Azeris is so extreme that anything could happen and set off another war— an attack on traffic in the Lachin corridor, a pogrom in Shushi, some sort of guerrilla campaign by Armenians.

What will the USA do? Nothing. This country is reeling. The very transfer of power to the new administration is up in the air, with Trump claiming voter fraud and refusing to leave till, it seems, the Supreme Court itself recounts every vote by hand. An incumbent refusing to cede office? That has never happened before in over two centuries of American democracy, although there have been contested elections where the loser turned into the winner.. Meanwhile there’s a surge in the coronavirus, a very uncertain economy, and left-fascism with its “critical race theory” (the updated version of Nazi Rassenkunde) and “cancel” culture (again, the equivalent of Nazi Gleichschaltung) presenting far graver a threat to American liberty than any foreign enemy ever did. America is preoccupied and looking inward. There is no taste for entanglement in a war in the Transcaucasus, to say the least.

I have a good friend, a local Republican party bigwig, who cannot pronounce the name Azerbaijan. He tried a few times and then decided the hell with it. But it is a name worth learning. Czechoslovakia, said Neville Chamberlain, is a faraway country about which we know nothing. He could at least pronounce the tongue-twister name, though it didn’t help. Funny how world wars have started, in faraway places about which we know nothing.

James R. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Armenian Studies at Harvard. He has also taught Iranian Studies at Columbia and was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In retirement, he lives in Fresno, California, prays at Chabad and occasionally teaches Biblical Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the local branch of Cal State. He serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Judaica Petropolitana, which is published by St. Petersburg State University in the Russian Federation. He is also Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions in the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb (University of Religions and Denominations), Qom, Iran. His most recent books and articles include Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons: Armenian and Iranian Studies, 2, two volumes, Iranian Series of the University of California, Irvine, 2020; The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents, Armenian Publication Series, CSU Fresno, 2020; and “Aeneas and Moses,” Judaica Petropolitana 12, 2019, pp. 118-156.



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