A hundred years later, de Waal repeats the Kavbiuro’s argument

karabakh flag

On May 30, Thomas de Waal, a well-known commentator on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, penned an article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “Nagorno-Karabakh in the Shadow of Ukraine: What Russia’s War Means for Armenia and Azerbaijan.” In his piece, de Waal presents the state of the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiation process amid the ongoing war in Ukraine. He notes that Russia’s preoccupation with its military campaign in Ukraine has created new possibilities both for further escalation in the conflict zone and for a breakthrough in peace talks.

De Waal’s article is, overall, a good summary of the events that have been unfolding in the region since the outbreak of the Ukraine war in February. However, his piece ends with highly problematic conclusions and wording that need to be addressed. In one of the final paragraphs, de Waal argues:

“Sooner or later, however, dialogue must begin on the future status of the Karabakh Armenians, the issue that triggered this disastrous conflict in 1988, when the region was still part of the Soviet Union. Baku will have to declare what rights and provisions it is ready to extend to the Armenian inhabitants of Karabakh, and the Karabakh Armenians themselves will have to acknowledge that if only by virtue of geography and their energy and economic needs, their future lies within Azerbaijan.”

De Waal’s claim that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh will have to agree to Azerbaijani rule because of geographic and economic factors is extremely superficial and paternalistic at the same time.

Ironically enough, by using economic and geographic factors as a justification for Baku’s control over Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh, de Waal is repeating the exact same argument made in July 1921 by the members of the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party (Kavbiuro), including Joseph Stalin. The Kavbiuro’s decision to put Nagorno-Karabakh under the control of the Azerbaijani Socialist Republic was justified by the necessity of “establishing peace between Muslims and Armenians, the economic ties between Lower and Upper Karabakh, and the permanent ties of Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan.”

The Bolsheviks’ economic determinism ultimately laid the foundation for the bloodiest inter-ethnic conflict in the Soviet Union. The Soviet elites’ inability to comprehend the essence of the conflict only exacerbated it. In 1988, when the active phase of the Karabakh conflict broke out, the first reaction in Moscow was to send a big socio-economic aid package to Nagorno-Karabakh. However, it failed to address any of the grievances of the people on the ground.

The use of economic factors as a justification for the incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan is even more out of touch with reality after two bloody wars and against the backdrop of the permanent threat of ethnic cleansing of the republic coming from Azerbaijan’s ruling elite. Moreover, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia’s economies, including energy infrastructure, have been closely connected for decades. There surely can be some sort of economic cooperation between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan in the future, but the assumption that there are economic needs that must predetermine Nagorno-Karabakh’s final political status is preposterous.

What is even more troubling is the willingness of the Karabakh expert community and de Waal in particular to accept the possibility of overturning internationally accepted frameworks and principles by the use of military force. De Waal imperiously claims that the Karabakh Armenians will have to acknowledge that their future lies within Azerbaijan. The author makes this claim only because the situation on the ground has changed as a result of Azerbaijan’s war of choice. He never said anything even remotely as straightforward as that about Nagorno-Karabakh’s final political status before the outbreak of the Second Karabakh War. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Karabakh conflict, esteemed analysts and experts appear less concerned about the preservation of the rules-based international order.

It is understandable why analysts like de Waal are willing to make bold and radical claims at the expense of the Armenian side. In a nutshell – it is the safer option.

Any attempt to cross Azerbaijan’s red lines may cause dire consequences. Baku has been consistent in creating hardships for all the public figures and analysts who dare to voice opinions about the Karabakh conflict that are not in line with Azerbaijan’s official narratives. Multiple journalists have already been blacklisted and de-platformed because of the Azerbaijani authorities’ interference.

In contrast, there are no such risks coming from the Armenian side. Moreover, the Armenian government itself is now talking about the need to “lower the bar” of expectations on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status. There are a few lone voices in Armenia who dare to speak out, but they can always be labeled as irrational nationalists and ignored.