Nagorno-Karabakh: The edge of Russia’s orbit

What role does Russia play in Nagorno-Karabakh?

The flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016 again raised questions as to the extent of Moscow’s influence and role in the South Caucasus. It is quite clear that Karabakh is the only post-Soviet de facto state that is not under Russia’s control. There is no common border, no Russian troops in Karabakh, and no direct relations with Moscow. But even so, the simmering conflict provides Russia with tremendous leverage in the South Caucasus – a region Moscow considers to be its backyard. It was again Moscow’s diplomatic intervention that ended the fighting in April.

After the collapse of the Tsarist regime in Russia, Karabakh became a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 1921, Stalin decided to place the entity, predominantly inhabited by ethnic Armenians, under Baku’s control as a way to divide and rule the South Caucasus. This uneasy arrangement lasted until the Soviet Union started to disintegrate in the late 1980s. Serious inter-ethnic clashes erupted in 1988 after the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast voted to join Armenia. Moscow rejected this decision and sent troops to Yerevan to calm the situation but to no avail. As the Soviet Union collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in September 1991. Inter-ethnic clashes intensified and, by early 1992, Armenia and Azerbaijan were at war. While there were several attempts to end the fighting, it was Russia that managed to mediate a ceasefire, in May 1994.

Today, Russia remains the main mediator in the conflict. Russia, together with the United States and France, are co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group but, in this trio, it is clearly Russia that has the most dominant role. Yet its actual interest in resolving the conflict is dubious. While Russia does not want a major outbreak of hostilities, it is questionable whether it actually wants a resolution to the conflict. The status quo – in which Karabakh’s status remains unsolved – suits Russia well. It provides Russia with the greatest leverage it could hope for in this part of the South Caucasus. In order to maintain this status quo, Moscow strives for parity between the Azeri and Armenian sides, in part by selling arms to both – all this while being allied with Armenia.

The Russian security presence and the absence of diplomatic relations

Ever since the ceasefire in 1994, analysts have discussed the possibility of deploying international peacekeepers to the conflict zone. Although there is an understanding among the three co-chairs that none of them would provide peacekeepers in the event of a settlement, Russia has eyed-up the possibility of deploying troops. This would provide Moscow with increased leverage over Armenia and Azerbaijan and influence in the region.

It is for this reason that the sides are sceptical of the prospect of Russian troops in the enclave. Although Russia has some 5,000 troops in Armenia, the Karabakhis have never demonstrated any wish to host peacekeepers, saying that only the Karabakh army can be the guarantor of their own security. Until now the only forces on the frontline are Armenian – a portion of them being transported over from Armenia itself and doing their two years of compulsory military service.

The four-day battle in April, when Azerbaijan took Karabakh positions on the Line of Contact, raised the possibility once more of deploying peacekeepers. But Karabakh’s negative perception of peacekeepers – Russian or otherwise – has not changed. Moreover, neither of the active parties nor the US or France would accept a contingent of Russian peacekeepers alone in the conflict zone.

Even without boots on the ground, Moscow retains considerable leverage over both sides. Russia is Armenia’s strategic ally. It has two military bases in Armenia and sells arms to Yerevan at reduced prices. In addition, both Russia and Armenia are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russia-led organisation that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Although it does not cover Karabakh, the territory can still benefit indirectly, receiving cheap weaponry through Armenia.

But Russia sells weaponry to Azerbaijan as well, arming both sides in the conflict. In 2013, Baku signed $4 billion worth of arms deals with Russia – considerably more than it has signed with Armenia. In response to Armenian criticism, the CSTO’s secretary general, Nikolai Bordyuzha, said the sales were “simple business deriving from our economic interests”. By selling weapons to both sides, Russia keeps them dependent on Moscow, which can pull different strings to control the security balance in the region. This criticism increased after the recent fighting in April, when Azerbaijan used weaponry purchased from Russia.

Nagorno-Karabakh has no official political or diplomatic ties with Russia. But some members of the Russian State Duma have visited Karabakh to observe elections or attend other events. However, there is Karabakhi representation in Moscow, even though it does not have diplomatic status. This office maintains contact with Karabakhis in Russia, works with local businessmen and experts, and organises educational and cultural events. Russia has no diplomatic presence in Karabakh.

Economic ties with Russia via the Armenian bridge

Since Karabakh is unrecognised, it has no official ties with any state except Armenia. For that reason, Stepanakert trades through Armenia. This means that Karabakh-made products are stamped as “Made in Armenia”. The same process was taking place when Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015, meaning that the doors of the EEU were effectively opened to Karabakhi products too. Nagorno-Karabakh exports mostly agricultural products, as well as textiles and mining products.

This means that there are import and export relations between Russian and Karabakhi companies. Russia is Karabakh’s second-largest export market after Armenia. In the past three years, it made up 3–4 percent of all exports ($2 million). Imports from Russia are relatively low too at around 1.2 percent in 2015 ($3 million). Though there was a rapid increase in 2015 probably due to Armenia entering the EEU.

Russian foreign direct investment in Karabakh has increased in recent years. In 2014, Russian investments had increased to 58.6 percent of all foreign direct investment. It is largely Russian Armenians that are the source of these investments, mostly in tourism, agriculture, mining, and hydroelectric power. In recent years, Karabakh has recorded 8–10 percent GDP growth, but also an increase in tourism, which has grown annually at over 10 percent. In 2015, Karabakh had around 17,000 foreign tourists, nearly half of whom were Russian, and mostly of Armenian origin.

Russians in Karabakh, Karabakhis in Russia

In 1992, after the establishment of a land corridor with Armenia, the Karabakh authorities allowed national minorities to choose whether to stay or move elsewhere, and provided government assistance in accordance with people’s desires. As a result, in 1992, a considerable number of Russians and Greeks left Karabakh. But those Russians and Ukrainians who stayed in Karabakh later officially established an organisation to represent themselves. Currently, the community has around 200 members who are either Russian or Ukrainian. Including the children of mixed marriages, they number over 700.

The Ministry of Culture gives this community €6,000 per year to organise national events, and covers their costs if they make trips to Russia for events. The community gets no support from the Russian government, the only exception being a couple of years ago, when Yuri Luzhkov was mayor of Moscow. He funded the Russian community to hold Russian traditional ceremonies and keep their cultural identity. The Karabakh government funds a Russian “Sunday school”. There is also a religious organisation called the Russian Orthodox Church of Artsakh, established in 2009. Stepanakert municipality provided the community land to build a church and a cultural centre.

The overwhelming majority of Russians living in Nagorno-Karabakh have Armenian citizenship. This is because many of the people who live in Karabakh have done so since the Soviet period, and had to claim a national passport again in the 1990s. The largest Armenian diaspora in the world is in Russia, at around two million people. This obviously includes Armenians from Karabakh. The majority of them have some family ties to Karabakh, though few would likely send remittances.

Russian language and culture in Karabakh

In Stepanakert, there is one school that provides education in Russian for the most part, but which follows the Armenian curriculum. The school accepts only children whose parents are Russian citizens or are foreigners that have lived and studied in Russia for some time. At all other schools in Karabakh, the operational language is Armenian. Children are also taught two foreign languages – Russian, and English, French, or German.

In the early 1990s, there were more Russian TV channels broadcasting in Karabakh than Armenian ones. But today the Armenian media is more influential at the expense of the Russian media.

In the Soviet period, the Russian language was strong in Karabakh because the Armenian language was repressed by the Soviet Azeri authorities, and the population did not want to study or use Azeri. As there were so few good Armenian schools, parents preferred to send their children to Russian schools. Nowadays, as in Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russian is perceived as a foreign language with regional importance but little more.

Given the Soviet Russian legacy and the impact of Russian media and language, Russian culture had a strong presence in Karabakhi life in the 1990s. However, in parallel with the development of the country and the strengthening of Armenian culture, language, and media, the influence of Russian culture has decreased. Moreover, cultural events have diversified, including more Armenian and Western influence. As a result, more and more world-known artists visit Karabakh and hold concerts and master classes there. On the other hand, it is also obvious that Russia’s traditionally strong position in the near abroad gives Moscow an opportunity to affect developments mostly through security tools, its strategic alliance with Armenia, and its position as one of the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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