Armenia: saving an isle of democracy in an ocean of autocracies is no longer just a moral question

by Simone Zoppellaro

As expected, the media curtain has fallen on the South Caucasus. Soon forgotten is the ethnic cleansing of Karabakh Armenians. But it is important to recall one thing: the war is not over. Nothing more than a ceasefire has been reached since 1994, and young Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers continue to die, as do civilians. Not only that: the Baku regime’s territorial claims have not ended, but are obsessively reiterated by the national media. Furthermore, there is also a complete lack of military and diplomatic balance between Azerbaijan and Armenia: at this stage, the only way to avoid a re-eruption of the conflict is to curb the ambitions of the Aliyev family, which is careful not to close a game that has seen them winning uninterruptedly since 2020.

It is not a question of who to support, but if the international community abandons Armenia – on the verge of collapse – to its fate, the real risk is that of a further ethnic cleansing. This time on Armenian territory. “That the horrific mass exodus of 120,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh has received so little international media and diplomatic attention says everything you need to know about the state of the world right now,” writes Andrew Stroehlein, European Media and Editorial Director of Human Rights Watch. It is hard to disagree with him.

Still, there is no absence of some signs of moderate optimism, even though the situation is likely to explode at any moment. France and Germany have shown tangible indications of support for Yerevan that has irritated Baku in no small measure, while Blinken has briefed some U.S. lawmakers on a possible new attack, leaking the news in the pages of Politico. Threats of sanctions, in case of a new attack, are multiplying in the parliaments of several European countries. But will that be enough?

The reality is that the neighbors’ front, now more than ever, seems to be compacting against Yerevan. In Moscow, racism against Armenians has now invaded the state media, while the ideological drive to erase the “colored revolution” of 2018 has never waned, turning the figure of a militarily defeated Pashinyan into a trophy and a warning for those who would try to take the democratic path in the future. Then there is Iran, which, scaling back its traditional support for Armenia, now looks to Moscow with renewed confidence, thanks to an ever-widening collaboration that from Syria to Ukraine to Israel sees them increasingly united.

For Azerbaijan and, in the background, Turkey, the issue is even more central. Armenophobia is a founding factor of the young Azerbaijani nationalism, reborn at the end of the USSR by feeding on the feeling of revenge against the defeat against Armenia and the loss of Karabakh. It thus structured itself as a backbone of the dictatorship, which found legitimacy and consensus in its (fulfilled) promise to make the Armenians pay for the first lost war in Karabakh. But is the Aliyev dynasty now ready for peace and normalization? How expendable will the capital from this victory prove to be, no matter how overwhelming the outcome?

It is hard to say, but these are unquestionable signs that, at the moment, point to a definite willingness to continue claims and tensions, in a desire to exploit – both from a domestic and an international perspective – the wave of bloodshed from the conflicts that, from the fall of 2020 to the present, continue to re-explode at a steady cadence. Here, too, there is a dual ideological component to consider, both for Baku and Ankara. The old dream of a Neo-Ottomanism that, like Russian nationalism, has never conceived of the South Caucasus as anything other than a backyard to be disposed of at will while denying it any independent impulse. This, paradoxically, also matches very well today with Pan-Turkism, which sees little Armenia as an obstacle to be swept away in order to put the Turkic-speaking culture world from China (Xinjiang) to the Mediterranean into vital communications again.

Last but not least, as is also increasingly evident in Ukraine and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, acting as a bond between the dictatorships mentioned above is a feeling of revenge – both symbolic and very concrete – that wants to systematically erase the experience of democracies, which continue to pose a threat to the various dictatorial realities that, thanks in part to the support of China, are intoxicated to be living a great season of assertion at the planetary level.

And so it is that, behind the claims of the Aliyev family – so dear to Meloni government and the Vatican, which has pocketed millions of euros from it, officially for “cultural” projects – deep-seated and perhaps inescapable impulses lurk, in an explosive situation such as the present one. Thus, obsessive demands are being made that would like to call into question Armenia’s territorial integrity to the South and East, but also going so far as to call for an integral conquest of all of Armenia, which, in the rhetoric of the hawks in Baku, is now significantly referred to as “Western Azerbaijan.”

We saw Moscow’s indecent jubilation after the Oct. 7 pogrom, capable of inflicting in one fell swoop a formidable attack on the myth of Israel’s (and the West’s) invincibility and, at the same time, relieving the pressure in the war in Ukraine. Now, is it so difficult to see how an opening of the Armenian front and the consequent erasure of its fragile democracy could be an easy goal to achieve and a profitable one, from a symbolic point of view? Will European diplomacy be able to find more than a rhetorical synthesis on this point?

There is little optimism, and 30 years of diplomatic failures are hard to forget. But it is certain that there is a need – and an immediate one – to breathe new life into the region’s young democracies, Armenia and Georgia, in order to save them, but also to hope that one day they may be able to contagion their neighbors. For one of the great omissions of this conflict remains the Azerbaijani opposition, ever more ignored by the media and international diplomacy, but also increasingly harassed internally as the dictatorship grows stronger and wins. Yet it represents among the most beautiful pages of South Caucasus history in recent decades.

Saving these small islands in an ocean of autocracies is no longer just a moral question. It is a question of survival for the future of democracy in the post-Soviet space and, in perspective, in the heart of Europe itself. Because, if we are unable to reverse the trend of threats and pressures mounting from the continent's borders, soon – the danger is this – the curtain will fall on us.

Simone Zoppellaro

Analysis by Simone Zoppellaro, journalist

6 November 2023

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