Paris Perspective #41: France, the Caucasus, and Nagorno-Karabakh – Richard Giragosian

By David Coffey - RFI
France  Sergei Grits  AP
NOV 18, 2023 LISTEN
© Sergei Grits / AP

In this edition of Paris Perspective, we look at the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the ethnic cleansing of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and France's influence in the Caucasus.

At the beginning of November, Germany insisted that European mediation was the best option for Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach a lasting peace agreement.

The Caucasus neighbours have been locked in a decades-long conflict for control of Azerbaijan's Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Baku reclaimed in a lightning offensive in September.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have held several rounds of peace talks under EU mediation and both leaders have said a peace treaty could be signed in the coming months.

However, last month, Aliyev refused to attend a round of peace talks with Pashinyan in the Spanish city of Granada, over what he said was France's "biased position".

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had been scheduled to join European Council President Charles Michel as mediators at those talks.

So far, there has been no visible progress in EU efforts to organise a fresh round of negotiations.

From a brutal war in 1988 to the 2020 conflict in which over 6,000 people were killed in 6 weeks of fighting what lies behind the animosity between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave?

For Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center think-tank based in the Armenian capital Yerevan, the hostile reationship between Yerevan and Baku is very much a construct of Soviet-era political machinations.

"Nagorno-Karabakh has historically been an Armenian populated region that has been very much used as a pawn by Moscow. It was used by the Soviet Union to actually divide and rule in terms of keeping-up a contentious potential conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan," he explains.

After seven decades of Soviet rule, there was an eruption of violence even before the implosion of the USSR.

"The outbreak of violence was largely due to the onset of Gorbachev's reforms – Glasnost, Perestroika, the new degree of openness and examining taboos."

"What we saw was the eruption of nationalism that occurred between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," says Giragosian.

The conflict was also unique at the time, as it was the first to erupt within the borders of the Soviet Union.

"During the Gorbachev period," he explains, "it was especially significant because the conflict tended to distort the development of independent Armenia and Azerbaijan, in terms of conflict economics and the fact that [they] were already locked in war upon gaining independence."

Azeri assertion, Armenian arrogance

Fast-forward to November 2020, and the two countries agreed to end a spike in hostilities that killed thousands over a six week period, signing a Russian-brokered peace agreement where Armenia – the loser – agreed to give up control over 20 percent of territory captured by Azerbaijan.

2,000 Russian peacekeepers were then deployed to Nagorno-Karabak, but the most recent Azeri offensive against Armenian separatists in the enclave revealed the failure of Russia's mission to the region. 

"The war of 2020 was especially significant for several reasons," Giragosian explains. "First, it marked the emergence of a genuine military capacity by Azerbaijan to not only defend itself but to retake lost territory. It was also significant because it marked an end to years of Armenian arrogance and complacency."

Giragosian blames both sides for too many missed opportunities for compromise.

"Armenia, in many ways, was overly self confident. But the most important casualty from the 2020 – not the loss of territory, nor the loss of life – it was the demise of deterrence," he reveals.

"This ushered in a new period of insecurity on the ground, but for the Russian position, the Russians drafted and imposed their own ceasefire on both countries, and then failed to be able to uphold the terms. This is why Azerbaijan imposed a nine month blockade [on the enclave] and effectively seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh."

But for the think-tank director, it's the humiliation and weakness of the Russian peacekeepers that's most interesting – "Azerbaijan has become very good at challenging and defying the Kremlin," he tells Paris Perspective. 

Echoes of the 1915 genocide

Recent images coming out of Nagorno-Karabakh drew many comparisons with the 1915 Armenian genocide, bringing to the fore the question of national identity as residents of the enclave are defacto Azerbaijani citizens.

Baku maintains that the people of “Artsakh” or the Armenian population of Karabakh have the same rights as Azeris, but what is the reality on the ground?

"First of all, even prior to the most recent escalation, there was little faith and no confidence in Azerbaijani promises, largely because of the historical record.

"During the Gorbachev period through to the 90s, there were a number of anti-Armenian massacres and egregious human rights violations. The situation has only gotten worse in recent years," Giragosian underlines. 

What was remarkable about the September 2023 conflict was the speed and success of the Azerbaijani military offensive and how easy it was for them to drive out the Armenian population. 

So, was Azerbaijan's military objective to purge the enclave of all Armenians? 

"Yes," says Giragosian, "but what was interesting is their real objective was a have protracted period [of conflict] for domestic political dividends within Azerbaijan."

Baku essentially expected a longer, protracted campaign "to maintain power that has a lack of legitimacy."

One could almost say that politically, they were the victim of their own success, but "with dangerously high expectations," Giragosian adds. 

But what he finds interesting about the exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh – where the Armenian population was forced to leave with little more than they could pack into their cars – the refugees aren't looking to rebuild their lives in their ethnic homeland.

"Coming to Armenia, the core population of the last remnants of 100,000 Armenians are not necessarily keen to stay in Armenia. Many are now looking to go to Russia or European countries, because many of the Armenians from Karabakh have never lived in Armenia," Giragosian points out.

"I moved to Armenia over 15 years ago, and I'm as alien or foreign to the local Armenian experience as they are. And that's something we failed to understand," he underlines.

The quest for lasting peace

Indeed there is a massive Armenian diaspora in France, and Paris recently marked the 20th anniversary of its recognition of the genocide committed by the “Young Turk” administration in 1915. But in light of the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, has France has done enough to support Armenia and its isolation in the region?

Giragosian believes Paris has stepped up to the mark. 

"To be fair, French engagement has actually exceeded expectations. But at the same time, it's the EU's engagement that's both more significant and more effective than simple French actions."

He outlines that important as President Macron's commitment to Armenia is, there is a wider European context that's necessary for sustaining the resilience of Armenia.

"The French will be announcing a package of military assistance to Armenia in the coming weeks, designed to provide a defensive capacity for Armenia. But it's the EU's engagement [that is important] because they're not trying to mediate the conflict, they are simply trying to facilitate a negotiated peace treaty.

"My worry is the day after and what is in store to ensure a lasting durable peace. That remains an open question and one in which France – within the EU – can actually work toward," Giragosian says.

So when push comes to shove, and the peace talks really do get in motion, what will work in Armenia's favour and what will be the end game that will create a lasting peace?

"Let me be provocative," Giragosian quips. "I think the real challenge now is less the peace treaty, and more Russia, for Armenia.

"If we look at the peace treaty – the specific elements – Nagorno-Karabakh is no longer an issue," he says.

Border demarcation, the restoration of trade and transport, the opening of road and railway links are all significant aspects of a bilateral peace agreement – which are positive in terms of moving beyond conflict – but the real challenge is Russia.

"In terms of Armenia now seeking greater room to manoeuvre, we're not seeking to replace Russia [as an ally], but we're seeking to offset Russia. For Armenia, Russia has emerged as a more serious challenge as an unreliable, so-called partner," Giragosian concludes.

Watch the full video here.
Written, produced and presented by David Coffey.

Recorded by Cécile Pompeani and Nicolas Doreau 

Edited by Erwan Rome
Full Interview: France, the Caucasus and the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh – Richard Giragosian