Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Ronald Grigor Suny

The sixteenth installment of the Reconsidering Russia podcast series features Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny, William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

He is the author of numerous books on Russia, Armenia, Georgia and the former Soviet region, including The Baku Commune, The Making of the Georgian Nation, Looking Toward Ararat, The Soviet Experiment, and the forthcoming Red Flag Unfurled, to name a few. He was also the MA advisor for the host of this podcast at the University of Michigan.

In this interview, Dr. Suny discusses the history of his grandfather – the composer Grikor Suni – and his experience of the Russian Revolution, the Revolution in Transcaucasia, Stepan Shahumyan and the Baku Commune, and the issue of class and nationality in the Russian Revolution. This interview also includes discussions of Dr. Suny’s work with Leopold Haimson at Columbia, his close friendship with Moshe Lewin, Revisionism vs. Authoritarianism in Soviet and Russian historiography, and the recent push for “de-communization” in Armenia.

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Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Fred Weir

The sixth and latest Reconsidering Russia podcast features Fred Weir, the Moscow Correspondent at The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Weir holds an honors B.A. in European history from the University of Toronto and a teaching degree from the Ontario College of Education.

In this podcast, Mr. Weir and I discuss Russian politics and society, US-Russian relations, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, the American Rust Belt, and his experiences covering Russia as a journalist, living on an Israeli kibbutz, and working as a journeyman ironworker. Enjoy!

Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Sergey Markedonov

After a lengthy hiatus, the Reconsidering Russia podcast is back! The fifth and latest installment of the podcast series features Caucasus analyst Sergey Markedonov. Dr. Markedonov holds a PhD in history from the Rostov-on-Don State University and he is an Associate Professor at the Russian State University in Moscow. He is also a frequent contributor to the online news service Russia Direct.

Our discussion was wide-ranging and covered topics as diverse as the Don Cossacks, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Syria, NATO, Mikheil Saakashvili, Russo-Georgian relations, US-Russian relations, and Dr. Markedonov’s personal experience with the Caucasus region. Enjoy!

How Moscow views Nagorny Karabakh

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh.  This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh’s identity

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic. This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of the identity of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

One of many hotspots in the former Soviet space is the region of Nagorny Karabakh in the Caucasus. I have written about Nagorny Karabakh in the past, but this time, I would like to focus precisely on Russia’s view of the situation.

What is Nagorny Karabakh?

Nagorny Karabakh is a majority-Armenian region in the Caucasus. Its landscape is forested and mountainous, dotted with numerous historical Armenian monuments and churches. It is one of the most beautiful places in the former Soviet Union.

The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is a de facto independent state, closely allied with neighboring Armenia. Armenia, which does not officially recognize Nagorny Karabakh, maintains that its local Armenian inhabitants have the right to self-determination (whether or not to be an independent state, part of Armenia, or an autonomous region of Azerbaijan). This position is supported by the area’s majority-Armenian population. By contrast, Azerbaijan argues for the principle of territorial integrity and that Nagorny Karabakh’s future should be determined only within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Supported by Armenia, Nagorny Karabakh gained its de facto independence from Azerbaijan after a war in the 1990s, one of a handful of post-Soviet ethnic conflicts. Today, the status of Nagorny Karabakh is frozen and can be best described as one of “neither war nor peace.”

The name of the region, a testament to its checkered history, is a Russian, Turkish, and Persian amalgam, which literally means “Mountainous Black Garden.” The “Nagorny” or “Mountainous” aspect is important because this distinguishes the area from the traditionally majority Muslim Azerbaijani Lowland Karabakh. The term “Karabakh” is often liberally used as shorthand in the West to refer exclusively to majority Christian Armenian “Mountainous Karabakh.” However, the term “Karabakh” can also be used to refer to both the Mountainous and Lowland areas in totality. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the area as Nagorny Karabakh (henceforth NK).

NK is also referred to by its historical Armenian name, “Artsakh,” by Armenians in Armenia and in NK. The local Armenian population of NK speaks a unique dialect of Armenian that even standard Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus.  Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus. Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Why is Nagorny Karabakh important to Russia historically?

With regard to Russian history, NK is part of the reason that present-day Armenia (historical Eastern Armenia) and the South Caucasus generally became part of the Russian Empire. In the 18th century, Khachen (as NK was then known) and Syunik (today southern Armenia) were the only parts of historic Armenia that were able to retain a semi-independent status amid Armenia being overrun by the Mongols, Turks, and Persians. Formally, the two principalities were semi-independent vassals of Persia. Their princes (meliks), together with the king of eastern Georgia and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch (Catholicos), formed a coalition beseeching Tsar Peter the Great to liberate their lands from their larger Islamic neighbors.

Peter was interested in the Caucasus not only to help fellow Orthodox Christians, but also as a means for Russia to secure access to profitable trade routes to India, in order to gain access to silk and other riches. Thus began the relationship between Russia and the Caucasus that would eventually culminate in the annexation of eastern and western Georgia (starting in 1801), the further incorporation of historical Eastern Armenia and present-day Azerbaijan in 1813-1828, and the conquest of the North Caucasus in the 1860s.

What are the origins of the present-day dispute over Nagorny Karabakh?

The origins of the present-day dispute over NK date to the Sovietization of the Caucasus in the early 1920s. It is important to understand how the dispute originated in order to comprehend the dynamics of the conflict today. There are two different theories in this regard that are widely repeated in the media. Neither is supported by factual evidence, but both fit conveniently into dominant political narratives.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925.  Though often blamed for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin's actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925. Though often held chiefly responsible for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin’s actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

One theory asserts that the dispute began when Stalin personally decided to assign NK to Soviet Azerbaijan during the Sovietization of the Caucasus. Those who support this theory have given different possible explanations as for Stalin’s exact motivation for such a step. Some claim that he wanted to appease Turkey, hoping that under Atatürk, Ankara would develop into a communist state. Others allege that Stalin had an anti-Armenian bias. However, most proponents of this theory claim that the motivation was for Moscow to divide-and-rule Armenia and Azerbaijan. Overall, this theory is undermined by the fact that Stalin was far from the zenith of his power and was not the sole decision-maker in determining NK’s fate, even though he was the Commissar of Nationalities at the time. Moreover, he had good relations with Armenian communists like Mikoyan and was actually sympathetic to Armenian claims over NK.

The second theory holds that the Soviets assigned NK to Azerbaijan because it was economically dependent on the city and surrounding area of Baku during Tsarist times. However, if this was true, then the Armenian provinces of Syunik and Tavush (which, together with NK, were part of the Tsarist-era Elizavetpolskaya Guberniya) would have been logically assigned to Azerbaijan on the same basis. Instead, they became part of Soviet Armenia.

In reality, according to recent research by Caucasus scholar Arsene Saparov, the actual reason behind NK’s assignment to Azerbaijan was the fact that, despite its majority Christian Armenian population, it was controlled by Azerbaijani forces at the time of Sovietization. It was therefore easier for the Soviets to sanction the existing situation on the ground, while also offering the “compromise” of local Armenian autonomy. Hence the “Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” of Soviet Azerbaijan was established. Again, it is important to emphasize that the Soviets were desperate to secure control of the region at the time and, being communist-internationalists, they believed that national borders would one day be abolished anyway. There were no sinister imperial schemes or machinations behind the assignment of NK to Azerbaijan.

How does Russia view Nagorny Karabakh today?

Today, Moscow ultimately wants to see some sort of resolution, but it realizes that devising one is virtually impossible right now, given current conditions. It therefore favors the status quo and continued peace talks.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Along with the United States and France, Russia is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group which facilitates talks on the NK issue. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments are committed to these talks. However, the present government of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, which has engaged in high military spending and bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric, is unwilling to compromise on anything short of NK’s total return to Baku. Armenia in turn has stood firmly in favor of Karabakh’s self-determination. The unrecognized NK Republic is currently not involved in the negotiations, but states that it should be, due to the fact that it is the representative of the local Armenian population.

As of a result of the NK war of the 1990s, the NK Republic also controls a handful of districts of Azerbaijan proper, giving them contiguous frontiers with Armenia and Iran. A potential compromise solution may require forfeiting some of these districts, such as Aghdam. The status of refugees and other issues also need to be discussed, but the main sticking point for both sides remains the determination of NK’s ultimate status.

It is important to note that Armenia relies on Moscow for security vis-a-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey, both of which have closed their borders with Armenia since the 1990s. However, Turkish-Armenian relations have improved significantly since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) came to office. For instance, though Turkey still denies the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the issue is no longer a taboo in Turkish society and is now openly discussed. However, largely due to pressure from Turkey’s domestic nationalists and from official Baku, the border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed, despite the obvious benefits for both Ankara and Yerevan. Nevertheless, Turkish-Armenian relations will continue to improve and will be further helped by growing cooperation between Ankara and Moscow on issues such as the proposed Turk Stream gas pipeline.

Meanwhile, relations between Yerevan and Baku remain tense. In this regard, Armenia looks to Moscow for security and is therefore a close ally of Moscow and Russia’s main “center” in the South Caucasus today. By contrast, Azerbaijan was engaged in a flirtation with the West for some time, especially with oil lobbyists and neoconservative politicians in Washington eager to undermine Iran and Russia. The latter two groups have been very interested in creating alternative energy pipelines from post-Soviet Central Asia through Azerbaijan and to Europe, at the expense of traditional energy routes from Russia.

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

However, Azerbaijan’s flirtation with the West appears to have diminished in recent years, amid mounting criticism regarding Baku’s human rights record. Baku has therefore engaged in new thaws with Moscow and Tehran. However, it is unlikely to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union any time soon, given Aliyev’s interest in keeping Azerbaijan independent of any supranational union or alliance. However, Baku has a finite supply of natural energy reserves and will have no choice but to turn to regional cooperation, compromise, and economic diversification in the future. In this respect, it would do well to discard the bellicose discourse and adopt a more balanced and constructive approach.

In Moscow’s view, a resolution of the NK dispute is not only desirable for regional stability but also for Russian security. Russia continues to face challenges on its troubled southern frontier in the North Caucasus with Islamic extremists. In order to help contain and isolate this threat, Russia seeks to solidify its position in the former Soviet South Caucasus states. A strong “buffer zone” of secure and friendly countries to the south of the North Caucasus is therefore an important vector of Russia’s policy toward the region.

Russia is also concerned about the potential expansion of NATO in the South Caucasus, particularly in Georgia. Additionally, it is concerned about the expansion of US-supported energy projects designed to undermine Russian energy exports to Europe. Moscow is puzzled by these American-backed steps, which are viewed as a throwback to Cold War “containment” and as a provocation intended to isolate and weaken Russia. They are also regarded as spurning potential cooperation on serious matters such as fighting Islamic extremism in the area. Indeed, Georgia has recently faced problems with Islamic radicalism in the Pankisi Gorge and attempts by ISIS to woo the region’s local population of ethnic Kists (a Chechen subgroup). Notably, the infamous ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani is originally from Pankisi. Given such concerns, it is clear that if Moscow, Tbilisi, and Washington all worked together to combat this common threat, the benefits would be optimal.

Whatever the future, for Moscow, the Caucasus remains an important area within the post-Soviet space and a potential flashpoint for future conflict. Despite the dispute over NK, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have co-existed and lived together side-by-side in the past. Peace is possible, and indeed NK would greatly benefit from cooperation between Russia and the West.

Upcoming Elections in the Former USSR, 2015-2018

Considering the ongoing Ukraine crisis and rising tensions between Russia and the West, the former Soviet space is definitely a region to observe in 2015.

Elections in the former Soviet republics are especially important to watch. In some cases, like the authoritarian states of Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, the results are foregone conclusions. However in other more open states, such as Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, they are not. In Russia’s case, it will be interesting to see what happens in 2018, and whether or not Putin will stay on for an additional term.

Below is a schedule of upcoming elections in the former Soviet space over the course of the next four years, from 2015 to 2018.

Correction: Transnistria’s parliamentary election will be taking place in November 2015, not February 2015.

2015

  • February
    Voting in Transnistria (TASS).  In 2015, the locals of this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    Voting in Transnistria. (TASS) In 2015, the locals in this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    • Tajikistan: parliamentary election
  • March
    • Uzbekistan: presidential election
  • May
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): parliamentary election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: parliamentary election
  • November
    • Belarus: presidential election
    • Azerbaijan: parliamentary election
    • Transnistria (Md.): parliamentary election

2016

  • March
    Longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win re-election in 2016. (Photo: AP)

    Kazakhstan’s longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win a landslide re-election in 2016.  He is seen here casting his ballot in the 2011 presidential election with his wife, Sara. (Photo: AP)

    • Abkhazia (Ge.): parliamentary election
  • September
    • Belarus: parliamentary election
  • October
    • Georgia: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Kazakhstan: presidential election
    • Transnistria (Md.): presidential election
    • Russia: parliamentary election

2017

  • January
    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh (Photolur). In 2017, locals in this disputed majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president.  It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent Bako Sahakyan.

    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh. (Photolur) In 2017, locals in this disputed, majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president. It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent president, Bako Sahakyan.

    • Kazakhstan: parliamentary election
  • February
    • Turkmenistan: presidential election
  • March
    • South Ossetia (Ge.): presidential election
  • May
    • Armenia: parliamentary election
  • July
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): presidential election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: presidential election

2018

  • February
    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters)  2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia.  Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president.  It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term.  In 2015, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote for a new mayor.

    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters) 2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia. Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president. It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term. In 2018, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote in the Moscow mayoral election.

    • Armenia: presidential election
  • March
    • Russia: presidential election
  • September
    • Moscow: mayoral election
  • October
    • Azerbaijan: presidential election
    • Georgia: presidential election
  • November
    • Moldova: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Turkmenistan: parliamentary election

Davit Gareja: A Disputed Frontier in the Caucasus

The Davit Gareja monastery complex, from the Georgian side of the border.

The Davit Gareja monastery complex, from the Georgian side of the border.

Observers of the post-Soviet space are well aware of the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorny Karabakh as well as conflict in Russia’s North Caucasus. However, there are also smaller conflicts in the region, including border disputes that have yet to be resolved. One of these is Davit Gareja.

Davit Gareja is a rock-hewn Georgian Orthodox monastery situated between Georgia’s Kakheti province and Azerbaijan’s Agstafa raion. The complex has been subject to a long-running border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan that dates back to the Sovietization of the two republics in the 1920s.  The legacy of Soviet nationalities policy has only further complicated this dispute.

Establishment and development

The vast majority of Western, Russian, and Georgian academics are in agreement that Davit Gareja is clearly a Georgian monastery complex. Its inscriptions, artwork, and architectural character are clearly of Georgian origin and the site has a lengthy Georgian history.  Its two main monasteries are Lavra and Udabno.

Last Supper Fresco, Udabno Monastery

Last Supper Fresco, Udabno Monastery

According to Georgian tradition, the complex was founded by St. Davit Garejeli (hence the name), one of the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers, a group of Christian monastic missionaries who arrived in Georgia from Mesopotamia in the 6th century. It was further developed in the 9th century by St. Hilarion of Georgia, and it reached its apogee during the 11th-13th centuries, especially under the reigns of King David the Builder and Queen Tamar. Notably, it also served as a place of refuge and seclusion for the 12th century Georgian King Demetre I.

Sadly, Davit Gareja was also subject to attack from foreign powers.  It was devastated by the Mongols and the Persians but managed to remain within the Georgian cultural and political sphere.  According to Artur Tsutsiev’s Атлас этнополитической истории Кавказа (now available in English translation from the Yale University Press), the monastery complex was located entirely within the borders of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti at the time of the Russian annexation in 1801. It subsequently became part of the Georgia guberniya and later the Tiflis guberniya under Tsarist rule.  In 1918, it passed to the control of the short-lived Menshevik Democratic Republic of Georgia, though the monastery and its surrounding territory were also claimed by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Origins of the dispute: Sovietization and division

In 1921, the Georgian republic fell to the Bolsheviks.  In keeping with the Soviet anti-religious policy, the complex was closed and worship was prohibited.  In terms of its location, the complex was initially entirely within the boundaries of the newly proclaimed Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).  However, during the course of the 1920s, the boundary was readjusted, leaving Davit Gareja divided between the Georgian and Azerbaijani SSRs.

Georgian monks at the monastery in 2007 claimed that this decision was made deliberately by Soviet authorities as a “divide-and-rule” strategy in order to undermine relations between Christian Georgians and Muslim Azerbaijanis.

Location of Davit Gareja in the Caucasus

Location of Davit Gareja in the Caucasus

However, this explanation seems unlikely given that the prior Soviet division of territories in the Caucasus was based less on a divide-and-rule policy and more on geopolitical expediency.  According to the research of the academic Arsène Saparov, the Bolsheviks were primarily concerned with solidifying their control of the region in the 1920s. Establishing long-term boundaries was not their aim.  In fact, the Bolsheviks regarded national boundaries as only a temporary phenomenon that would be rendered irrelevant with the realization of an internationalist communist utopia.  It is more likely that the border in the vicinity of Davit Gareja was adjusted to accommodate the immediate needs of the nomadic Turkic population of the Azerbaijan SSR.

The boundary was finalized between the two republics by 1928.  At that time in Moscow, Joseph Stalin was consolidating his power for the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin. During the subsequent Stalin era, any debate or discussion regarding disputed borders was strongly discouraged, if not strictly prohibited. Lavrentiy Beria served as the party boss of Soviet Georgia and the whole of Soviet Transcaucasia during the 1930s.  He ruthlessly stifled dissent, especially in his native Georgia.  The culture of fear remained widespread after Beria became the chief of the all-Union NKVD in 1938.

Davit Gareja in the post-Stalin era

Following the deaths of Stalin and Beria, the Soviet state began a limited liberalization initiative under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, known as the Khrushchev Thaw (Хрущёвская оттепель). Suddenly, Georgian intellectuals had more freedom to express their opinions on disputed inter-republican boundaries established by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.

Territorial claims by Georgian intellectuals and dissidents focused on two regions in Soviet Azerbaijan in particular: the multiethnic territory of Zaktala (Saingilo-Hereti) and the Azerbaijani portion of Davit Gareja.  On the latter, they periodically petitioned Soviet authorities to place the complex entirely within Soviet Georgian territory, but to no avail.  In some cases, they pointed out mistreatment of the site by Soviet Azerbaijani authorities. Georgian dissidents complained to Moscow that medieval frescoes were “blotted out.”  By contrast, they claimed that Islamic cultural monuments in Azerbaijan were receiving active attention and preservation care.

Georgian dissident, nationalist leader, and former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia

Georgian dissident, nationalist leader, and former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia

One report by the Georgian dissident, nationalist leader, and future president Zviad Gamsakhurdia entitled The State of Relics of the Christian Culture in Georgia asserted that the site was also being utilized as a “firing range” by Soviet military authorities.  The report further claimed that specialists had appealed to General Shkrudnev of the Transcausian Military District with no success. In the text, Gamsakhurdia openly wondered why the general, who no doubt knew about efforts to preserve Russian architectural monuments in places like Novgorod, Pskov, and Vladimir, would be so indifferent to the preservation of Davit Gareja.

The launch of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost brought the issue of Davit Gareja from the samizdat to the open public discourse.  At the time, the disputed border between Georgia and Azerbaijan was not the primary focus of discussion.  Instead, the focus was the deplorable state of the monastery on the Georgian side and its use as a firing range by the Soviet military.

In 1987, a group of students, led by the writer Davit Turashvili and others, protested against further use of the site by the Soviet military.  Officials in Tbilisi and Moscow agreed to move the firing range away from the complex site.  However, the shelling continued in late 1988, prompting 10,000 students to angrily demonstrate on the streets of Tbilisi.  The authorities quickly relented and the shelling finally stopped.

The Davit Gareja dispute since 1991

The status of the Davit Gareja entered a new phase after the dissolution of the Soviet state in 1991.   Religious life was revived and efforts to actively restore and preserve the monasteries on the Georgian-controlled part of the site commenced.  Yet, controversy arose in 1996 when it was decided to resume military exercises in the area.  Public protest led to an end to such exercises the following year.  The complex has since become a major tourist attraction in Georgia.

The Soviet collapse also internationalized the Davit Gareja dispute.  No longer was the complex divided along an internal boundary within a single state.  It was now an external frontier between the independent republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan.   The situation was no longer an internal political matter involving Moscow and the local cadres in Tbilisi and Baku.  It now became an international dispute.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (EU)

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (EU)

Border talks began as early as 1992.  Georgian officials proposed the possibility of exchanging the Azerbaijani section of the complex with another section of border territory.  However, Baku has categorically refused such an exchange.  This position only hardened under the authoritarian regime of Ilham Aliyev, citing the monastery’s “strategic importance for Azerbaijan.”

Little progress was made to resolve the dispute during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze.  After his ouster in the 2003 Rose Revolution, the new Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, played down the Davit Gareja dispute.  Unabashedly pro-Western, Saakashvili viewed relations with Azerbaijan, Washington-backed regional energy projects, and financial aid from Baku as more important.  This position prompted criticism from the Georgian opposition.

In April 2007, the situation became more complex when Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Khalaf Khalafov, controversially stated that the monastery “was home to the Caucasian Albanians, who are believed to have been the earliest inhabitants of Azerbaijan.”  These “Caucasian Albanians” to which the envoy referred are not to be confused with the Albanians of the present-day Balkans.  Rather, they were a Christian Caucasian people who maintained close cultural ties with their neighbors, the Armenians and the Georgians, and even shared a similar alphabet.

The traditional Albanian kingdom, known as “Aguank” to Armenians and “Rani” to Georgians, encompassed territories in present-day Azerbaijan east of the Kura River, west of the Absheron and Shirvan, and south of the Greater Caucasus range.  It also included a region historically known as Hereti in modern-day northeastern Azerbaijan (Zakatala-Saingilo) and southeastern Georgia (southern Kakheti), which later became part of the unified Georgian kingdom.  Contested with the neighboring Armenian kingdom were the provinces of Utik and Artsakh, which today form northwestern Azerbaijan, much of the northeastern Armenian province of Tavush, and the disputed, self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic.  Eventually, Albania was overrun by the Arabs in the 7th century and virtually disappeared.  Its people were assimilated by neighboring groups.  The Christian Udi ethnic minority in the Caucasus is said to be the remnant of the Caucasian Albanian people.

While it is true that the original site of Davit Gareja falls within the Hereti region, which was variously controlled by the Albanian and Georgian kingdoms, the fact remains that the area was in the Georgian political and cultural sphere by the time the monastery complex was founded.  Further, the numerous Georgian inscriptions and work of Georgian artists attest to the complex’s distinct Georgian character.  The assertions from Baku that Gareja is an Albanian, not Georgian, monastery complex have caused bafflement and indignation among Georgians.

Georgia’s then-Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili stated that Khalafov’s “history lessons are absolutely incomprehensible” and that he “should read up on world history.”  A monk from the monastery also dismissed Azerbaijani claims as “simply absurd,” adding that if the monastery was built by Caucasian Albanians, then “you might as well say that Georgians built the Great Wall of China.”

Udabno Monastery

Udabno Monastery

However, Khalafov is not alone in his assertions. They are also widely endorsed by Azerbaijani academics who oppose ceding any land whatsoever to Georgia. Khalafov’s statement was also made in the context of a greater effort on the part of Baku to claim “Caucasian Albanian” origins of Armenian cultural monuments, monasteries, and churches in its dispute with Armenia over Nagorny Karabakh.  This “academic war” over the Caucasian Albanians involves such controversial personalities as Ziya Bunyadov and Farida Mammadova.

The influential Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II stated that Davit Gareja is a “holy shrine” and should be located “entirely on Georgian soil.”  His position is shared by the Georgian public, which is generally opposed to conceding any portion of the monastery to Azerbaijan.  In 2007, Giga Bukia, a member of Georgia’s then-opposition (now a member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition) stated that “Georgians will never, under any circumstances, give up this territory” and that “Azerbaijan has absolutely no historical rights to this land.”  He also openly wondered if the Aliyev government was planning to go to war with Georgia, given Baku’s interest in the site’s “strategic significance” on a heights overlooking Georgian territory.

In the latest episode, which occurred in May 2012, Azerbaijan stationed border guards inside the complex’s Udabno monastery, refused to allow Georgian pilgrims to pray, and informed them that the monument was not Georgian but Caucasian Albanian. This caused outrage among the Georgian public and protests in Tbilisi.  It also sparked a diplomatic row between Georgia and Azerbaijan, which became so serious that it prompted a direct meeting between Saakashvili and Aliyev on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Chicago. Ultimately, the two sides agreed to allow tourists open access to the site while continuing border negotiations. However, the dispute remains unresolved and tensions persist.

Moscow’s Sochi Summit on Karabakh

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

In recent weeks, Armenia and its sister republic of Nagorny Karabakh have been experiencing an increase of violence along the contact line with Azerbaijan, claiming the lives of many soldiers on both sides. The fighting has been so intense that some observers have dubbed it the worst the region has seen since the 1994 ceasefire.

Ceasefire violations have been common since the 1994 armistice, with Azerbaijan often doing the violating as a means of warning the Armenians and the international community that it is not pleased with the status quo. Since the death of longtime Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev and the succession of his son Ilham, the ceasefire violations have only increased in their intensity and aggressiveness. This reflects much of the character of the regime of Ilham Aliyev, who frequently engages in bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric as a means of rallying the population around his notoriously corrupt government. He has often referred to the Armenians as a “worthless” nation and has continuously vowed to not only invade Karabakh but also advance on the Armenian capital Yerevan and to take the country’s turquoise Lake Sevan and the ruggedly mountainous Syunik region as well. Aliyev has also worked to use his country’s oil wealth as a means of not only enriching himself, his family, and his clique but also massively increasing Azerbaijan’s military spending. All this while brutally and swiftly stifling voices of dissent at home, earning Aliyev’s Azerbaijan an international reputation as an authoritarian petrostate – a corrupt kleptocratic khanate on the Caspian.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Aliyev’s strategy is a dangerous one. By intensifying ceasefire violations, engaging in aggressive rhetoric, and massively spending on the military, he believes that this will increase his authority and legitimacy domestically.  However, he is instead driving the region toward a war that neither the Armenian nor Azerbaijani sides need. In fact, despite its astronomical spending on high-tech military equipment, Azerbaijan is in a particularly bad place to start a war. Among other things, the Azerbaijani army is poorly-trained and rampantly corrupt. This is compounded by the fact that Aliyev does not want to have a military that is too strong because there has been a history of military coups in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. A war would also be devastating for Baku because the Armenians could easily target the Western-backed oil pipeline that runs through Azerbaijan. Further, it would be extremely difficult for Azerbaijani tanks to make it through Karabakh’s very mountainous terrain, which the local Armenians know intimately and would use as a “natural fortress” to fight against the Azeris. Finally, Armenia has very good security relations with the Russian military, which would protect Armenia in the case that a new conflict erupts.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has persisted in violating the ceasefire along the line of contact and not just in the vicinity of Karabakh. In recent years, there have been several ceasefire violations along the border with Armenia’s northern province of Tavush, close to the border with Georgia. Then in June, Azerbaijan launched an unexpected attack on Armenia from its exclave of Nakhichevan. The exclave has a naturally-defined border with Armenia running along the Vayots Dzor and Syunik (or Zangezur) mountain ranges. The situation has remained largely calm along this border due to the fact that Armenia controls the heights looking over Nakhichevan.

Protection mounds placed near the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014

Defensive mounds placed near Armenia’s north-south highway along the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014. (Photograph by this writer)

However, one section of Armenia’s border with Nakhichevan, between the Armenian Ararat province and the northern Nakhichevan district of Sadarak, remains less secure and it was there where the recent border attack unexpectedly occurred. While traveling along Armenia’s north-south highway in Ararat province this July, I witnessed large mounds along the roadside of this section of the border that had been setup by the Armenian military. They are intended to protect civilian drivers from Azerbaijani artillery and indeed, the attacks on Armenian positions are so close that they have actually reached this highway.

In yet another recent episode in early July, three men from Azerbaijan (allegedly Azerbaijani commandos) infiltrated the Karabakh contact line and entered into the region of Karvatchar (or Kelbajar) where they killed two people and seriously injured another. One was shot dead while the other two are on trial for murder in Nagorny Karabakh. All of this has only increased fears in Armenia about the start of a potential new conflict in the region, which very few in Armenia desire. It has also made efforts for peace and dialogue between the sides even more difficult.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Despite this, Armenia’s Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev have been invited to Sochi at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting was already planned in advance. Moscow wants to strengthen its position in the Caucasus, especially regarding the Eurasian Union. As efforts to lure Georgia back into Moscow’s fold have stalled, the Kremlin is instead looking to the possible prospect of bringing the sides together and luring Azerbaijan into its Eurasian Union. However, despite some recent warm-up in the relations between Baku and Moscow, Aliyev appears largely content with remaining independent of any geopolitical union, whether it be the Eurasian Union or the EU.

In this context and in the context of the more recent ceasefire violations, Moscow is now shifting gears and trying to play the role of a peacemaker. It realizes that an immediate peace deal over Karabakh is unattainable and is instead working to simply calm tensions and prevent another war from breaking out. As noted above, if a new conflict erupted in Karabakh, Moscow would be obliged by treaty to assist Armenia in ensuring its security. However, given the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, a war in the Caucasus is the last thing that Moscow needs. Therefore, Putin’s primary objective at the Sochi summit is to de-escalate tensions between the sides, as Moscow was successfully able to do during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Overall, one thing is most certain: nobody in the region would benefit from a new war over Karabakh.