Russia Direct sat down with Alexander Skakov, an expert from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), to discuss the implications of the Feb. 20 referendum in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic for Russia and the West.

Empty gun shells near the village of Madagis in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. Photo: RIA Novosti

On Feb. 20, the authorities of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic held a constitutional referendum. According to the Central Electoral Commission of Nagorno-Karabakh, over 90 percent of the registered electorate voted for the proposed constitutional reforms, with a turnout of 76,51 percent. As a result, the self-proclaimed republic increases the powers of its President and does away with the position of Prime Minister.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory in the South Caucasus that has become the source of one of the thorniest disputes in the post-Soviet space, involving both Azerbaijan and Armenia in a long-standing conflict since the late 1980s.

The South Caucasus, bridging Europe and Asia, has an ancient and complex history. The three South Caucasian republics – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – have intricate relations to each other and a central position in regional and global politics, squeezed as they are between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The region's breakaway territories — Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh — are both catalysts and manifestations of the complex games of influence that have traditionally shaped South Caucasian politics at the local, regional and geopolitical levels. Thus, even though the Feb. 20 referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh went relatively unnoticed, it was not unimportant for the world.

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Nagorno-Karabakh's regional parliament voted to secede from the Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan and unite with the Socialist Republic of Armenia in 1988, as the unravelling of the Soviet Union was prompting a reconsideration of the prevailing political principles of territorial delimitation in favor of resurgent ethnic-national identities.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 precipitated the events: While Azerbaijan asserted its independence from Moscow, Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani region with a majority of ethnic Armenian inhabitants, attempted to assert its independence from Baku with Erevan's support. The effort turned into a bloody ethnic conflict in 1992.

Since 1994, a ceasefire, brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, keeps the region in a fragile equilibrium. Nagorno-Karabakh remains the main thorn in Armenian-Azeri relations, a major factor of instability and uncertainty at Russia's and Europe's doorstep, and a driver for militarization in a geopolitically critical region.

Alexander Skakov, an expert on the South Caucasus at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), was in Nagorno-Karabakh during the referendum. Russia Direct sat down with him to discuss why Russia and the West should keep a close eye on the tensions in the South Caucasus.

Russia Direct: Why does this referendum matter?

Alexander Skakov: First and foremost, it matters for the relations between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Armenia recently carried out a constitutional reform [a successful referendum was held in December 2015 — Editor's note] abandoning its presidential system for a parliamentary system. The President loses his functions and the Prime Minister becomes the most important person in the country.

One motivation for the reform were general concerns of governance, in part by the desire of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to stay in power — as Prime Minister or leader of the ruling party — after his current and last mandate. Now this is not unlike what Mikheil Saakashvili did during his time as President of Georgia, although he did not succeed in reaping the benefits of the constitutional reform he initiated.

With its February 2017 constitutional reform, Nagorno-Karabakh is moving in the opposite direction from Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh's constitutional system becomes more incompatible, less easy to integrate with Armenia's in case of unification.

RD: Not everyone supports the integration of Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia, though.

A.S.: It is a complex question. First, note that officially Armenia never recognized the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan. Ironically, Armenia takes offence that Russia — its strategic ally — has not recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a state, but it has not even done so itself. De jure, then, Armenia recognizes the integrity of Azerbaijani borders as defined by Azerbaijan, that is to say including Nagorno-Karabakh as a region of Azerbaijan.

RD: Now, de facto the situation is different. Armenia militarily supports Nagorno-Karabakh's secessionist aspirations from Azerbaijan. It hosts Nagorno-Karabakh's diplomatic delegations within its embassies in Russia, the U.S., France, Australia, Lebanon and Germany. Does Armenia want to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh or not?

A.S.: In Armenia there are two approaches. According to one approach, Nagorno-Karabakh shall become an integral part of Armenia in the future. According to the second approach, it shall become completely independent from Azerbaijan, of course, but also from Armenia. In Nagorno-Karabakh itself, a majority of the population supports independence.

In Azerbaijan there is this bizarre narrative, according to which there cannot be two Armenian-speaking states in the region. Of course this makes no sense, there is no principle excluding such a situation. But the narrative helps counter the idea of an independent Nagorno-Karabakh.

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In Armenia, unofficially, the approach according to which Nagorno-Karabakh should become part of a "reunited" Armenia tends to prevail although these are not the kinds of themes that are discussed publicly. This is why the Armenian leadership was not too happy with the referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh, as it takes the two political systems further apart from each other. It is not a huge problem for the moment, but it is one small step by Nagorno-Karabakh away from Armenia.

Armenia is transitioning from a presidential to a parliamentary system. It expected Nagorno-Karabakh to follow, and at first the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities considered this option, but eventually they did the opposite and reinforced the powers of their President instead.

Alexander SkakovRD: Why did the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership seek to reinforce the President's powers in the first place?

A.S.: Well, in the state of de facto and de jure war in which Nagorno-Karabakh is embroiled, it is difficult to give up a presidential system. A regime where the President is strong and can take strategic decisions quickly, without too many hurdles, seems to be the most suited for a small breakaway region that lives under the bombshells. All the more so as the situation is currently deteriorating, and the likeliness of full-blown conflict is increasing.

RD: How did the international community react to the referendum?

A.S.: More than 100 observers attended the referendum, from various countries including European ones, but no official delegations from states. Of course, the international community has not recognized this referendum, like all previous normative acts of Nagorno-Karabakh, and there have been a few statements to declare it illegal. But in general it has not attracted much attention. Russia has made no statement.

By the way, there were no official observers from Russia, which was a little bit unusual. In fact, a few Russian parliamentarians wanted to attend notably, Konstantin Zatulin but someone in the State Duma decided not to allow them. Apparently, they did not want to antagonize Azerbaijan, especially after the recent tensions caused by the extradition of Russian blogger Aleksandr Lapshin.

RD: Do you see any substantial evolution in the bilateral relations between Russia and Azerbaijan on the one hand, and Russia and Armenia on the other hand?

A.S.: I don't see any strong trends. Russia and Armenia are strategic allies, while Russia and Azerbaijan are strategic partners. This is an uneasy position. Russia strives to maintain cordial relations with both countries. At the same time, it must assist Armenia militarily in case of aggression, which is most likely to come from Azerbaijan.

This, in part, explains why Russia has traditionally remained silent on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem: If Russia recognized that Nagorno-Karabakh was of legitimate and vital interest to Armenia, then by virtue of its strategic alliance, it would have to intervene in case of Azerbaijani aggression on the breakaway territory which is less unlikely to happen than an Azerbaijani agression against Armenia itself.

Not taking a clear position on Nagorno-Karabakh gives Russia more margin of maneuver. In case of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia gets involved not as a strategic ally but as an international negotiator within the OSCE Minsk Group, together with France and the U.S.

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Yet… During its most recent annual press conference [that took place on Jan. 17], Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov made an unusual answer to an Azerbaijani journalist: Nagorno-Karabakh “is not a matter of internal affairs for Azerbaijan”, he said. In diplomatic terms, he meant that Russia would not exclude intervening militarily in case of an armed conflict in the breakaway region. This was the first official statement of this kind in Russia, and certainly not the answer the journalist was looking for!

Now Russia has substantial economic ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan but more substantial ties with the latter. Azerbaijan is an important energy player, an important transportation route between Russia and Iran, and important actor in Caspian Sea politics. Ties with Armenia are still important much of Armenia's infrastructure is sustained by Russian investors but there are even stronger and more influential business ties and capital integration between Azerbaijan and Russia. The Azeri diaspora in Russia is also more influential than the Armenian diaspora.

Geographically, Armenia is disadvantaged. It does not directly Russia's neighbor and is bypassed by the most important Eurasian transportation routes.

RD: Does the referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh change anything to the configuration of regional politics?

A.S.: To Azerbaijan, any referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh is problematic but this particular instance does not substantially affect Azeri interests. In general, the referendum was not a big issue for any player in the region besides Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Azerbaijan would only be concerned if there was a substantial change in the balance of forces and the stability of the conflict.

Armenia is currently concerned with its upcoming parliamentary election, which will be interesting as the party in power has historically low approval ratings and will be struggling not to lose seats. Georgia – which would not recognise such a referendum in any case has other fish to fry, embroiled as it is in a massive scandal following an alleged murder attempt against the Church's Patriarch by one of his priests.

RD: Do you consider that the resolution of South Caucasian problems could be a chance to build bridges between Russia and the West?

A.S.: Yes, definitely, and the Nagorno-Karabakh standoff has already been the occasion for Russia, France and the U.S. to participate together in conflict resolution within the OSCE Minsk Group. However, until now little has been achieved.

The current tensions between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community do not help. The question of Georgia's accession to NATO, as well as the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the issuance of visa and passports to their populations, are sensitive issues that impede a meaningful dialogue between Russia and the European Union.

In addition, insofar as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not deemed to be of vital interest to either Brussels, Moscow or Washington, it will take extraordinary circumstances to force any of them to serious action.

Azerbaijan has been the strongest obstacle to the work of the OSCE Minsk Group. It is very clear that 90 percent of the provocations in the conflict come from Azeri forces, and Azerbaijan is doing its best to impede the work of observers on the front line. Azerbaijani provocations worsen whenever the political and economic situation worsens domestically as the leadership looks for an external enemy in a "rally around the flag" move.

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However, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian forces are also hampering the OSCE's work and its ability to report on retaliation measures against Azerbaijan. It will take serious political pressure from all sides to overturn the current trend of militarization and escalation.

Since the April 2016 clashes, the situation has been consistently deteriorating, and it is no longer possible to speak of a “frozen conflict”. If the parties continue their provocations, if foreign countries continue to supply arms to the belligerents, and if mediation remains as ineffective, there will be a war. It could be a massive war, not necessarily restricted to the Nagorno-Karabakh.

RD: Some Western and South Caucasian commentators share the opinion that Russia intentionally fuels the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, by accommodating all sides, in order to nurture a form of controlled instability or “controlled chaos” in the region and maintain Yerevan and Baku in a state of strategic dependence on Moscow. What do you make of it?

A.S.: The “controlled chaos” that exists today in and around Nagorno-Karabakh has its source in local political processes that started in the 1980s, without Moscow's participation. The region did not need Russia to be unstable and it does not need Russia to maintain itself in a state of instability. Now the question is can Russia create order out of this chaos? No, it cannot. If it could, it would have done so a long time ago.