Written by Achal Malhotra
The three decades-old unresolved ethno territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh flared up once again on September 27. In terms of its scale and intensity, the current conflict has surpassed all previous clashes, including the “Four Days War” of April 2016. Significantly, Turkey’s determination to play an active role much beyond the moral support it had so far extended to Azerbaijan has imparted new dimensions to the conflict.
The genesis of the conflict is in the flawed creation of an Armenian Christian majority autonomous region, Nagorno-Karabakh, on the territory of a Muslim majority Azerbaijan. In July 1921, when the South Caucasus was being incorporated into the evolving USSR, Nagorno-Karabakh’s repeated petitions to Moscow for its merger with Armenia were turned down. The self-declaration of independence by Nagorno-Karabakh in September 1991 in the backdrop of an imminent collapse of the USSR resulted in a war between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh — supported by Armenia. This clash lasted till a ceasefire agreement was reached in 1994, mediated largely by Russia. Since then, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the USA, Russia and France have engaged Azerbaijan and Armenia extensively to resolve the conflict.
Prima facie, the conflict is between two relatively small countries and is territorial in nature. However, several regional and global players particularly Russia, USA , Europe, Turkey and Iran are also involved to secure their strategic, security and economic interests in the region. Europe’s energy security hinges to a certain extent on the stability of the region. So far Russia, the USA and Europe have adopted a concerted approach in managing the conflict. Turkey’s aggressive entry with the explicit consent of Azerbaijan may, however, upset the equilibrium.
The conflict is essentially a conflict between two international principles — the principle of territorial integrity advocated by Azerbaijan and the principle of the right to self-determination invoked by Nagorno-Karabakh and supported by Armenia. The international interlocutors have so far failed to offer a compromise solution acceptable to both parties, who have adopted maximalist positions. Azerbaijan may, at best, agree to granting some autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh, whereas the ethnic Armenians are insisting on full independence.
India does not have a publicly articulated policy for the South Caucasus — unlike “Neighbourhood First”, “Act East” or “ Central Asia Connect”. The region has remained on the periphery of its foreign policy radar. Further, there is visible asymmetry in India’s relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Armenia is the only country in the region with which it has a friendship and cooperation Treaty (signed in 1995), which, incidentally, would prohibit India from providing military or any other assistance to Azerbaijan in case Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh spills over to the territory of Armenia. India has received three heads of states from Armenia, but none from Azerbaijan or Georgia. Armenia extends its unequivocal support to India on Kashmir issue whereas Azerbaijan not only supports but also promotes Pakistan’s narrative on this issue. The levels of India’s trade or investment with Armenia are, however, very low.
In the case of Azerbaijan, ONGC/OVL have made relatively small investments in an oilfield project in Azerbaijan and GAIL is exploring the possibilities of cooperation in LNG. Azerbaijan falls on the International North South Transport Corridor route, connecting India with Russia through Central Asia; it can also connect India with Turkey and beyond through Baku-Tbilisi-Kars passenger and freight rail link. In view of Georgia’s foreign policy priority of integration with Euro-Atlantic structures and also in deference to Russia’s sensitivities, India has slow-peddled the development of its relations with Georgia with whom Russia’s relations are at a very low ebb. On the whole, India’s stakes in the region can be assessed as more or less peripheral.
India has adjusted its position on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as the situation has evolved over the years. In the initial stages of the conflict in 1993, India had endorsed the concept of respect for territorial integrity. For quite some time now, India’s emphasis has been on a peaceful resolution of the conflict through diplomatic negotiations. India has every reason not to support Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity as Azerbaijan has shown scant regard for India’s territorial integrity violated by Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. At the same time it is difficult for India to publicly endorse Nagorno-Karabakh’s right for self-determination in view of the possible repercussions it can have repercussions for India as its adversaries may misuse it not only by making erroneous connections with Kashmir but also re-ignite secessionist movement in certain parts of India.
Under the circumstances, India has adopted a balanced and neutral stance and made a politically correct statement in which it has expressed its concern, called for restraint and immediate cessation of hostilities and resolution of the conflict peacefully through diplomatic negotiations. India has also expressed its support for the OSCE Minsk Group’s continued efforts towards peaceful resolution, implying that India is not in favour of involvement of any other entity, including Turkey. Arguably, India’s statement should have also reflected its position on the alleged entry of mercenaries in the conflict.
The writer was India’s Ambassador to Armenia and Georgia between 2009-2012. He also served as India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to UN and International Organisations in Vienna.