BY ARMEN SAHAKYAN
From the Armenian Weekly
The continuous state-sponsored terrorism campaign of the Republic of Azerbaijan against the Republics of Artsakh and Armenia recently culminated in a shooting of an unarmed helicopter belonging to the Air Force of the Republic of Artsakh. The helicopter was conducting a training flight within its sovereign air space. It is intellectually naive to attribute such aggressive behavior to one factor. Rather, there is a host of major drivers of Azerbaijan’s adventurism, which this article will address. They are namely heavy petrol-reliance, increasing domestic illegitimacy of the governing regime, loss of international reputation, the ongoing Ukrainian Crisis, the false parity of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, and the projected perpetual decline of Azerbaijan’s relative regional power and role.
Major current events have the tendency to be analyzed in isolation from history and overall trends with an added component of emotions that further distorts the real picture. Keeping this in mind, Azerbaijan’s petro-aggression, as defined by Jeff Colgan, should be viewed within the wider historical and political economy contexts.
Azerbaijan’s economy has been heavily reliant on oil exports, which peaked in the 2010s and has been steadily decreasing by each passing year ever since. The decline in world oil prices combined with reduction in oil output have put greater pressure on the state and further exacerbated its Dutch Disease—the inability to develop other export industries in the economy due to high exchange rates caused by heavy reliance on oil. The natural gas sector is much less profitable than oil, implying that the “golden age” of Azerbaijan may be well behind us, if no new major oil fields are found.
The Aliyevs’ almost-uninterrupted dictatorial reign of Azerbaijan for over four decades is showing signs of crippling. With the forces of globalization providing citizens with easier access to alternative information, paralleled by the intensifying levels of repression within the country, the governing regime finds itself ostracized both by its citizens as well as the international community. The government denies fundamental rights to its national minorities, such as Lezgins, Avars and Talysh; jails human rights advocates as well as journalists; and keeps the general population economically worse-off due to systemic rent-seeking and increasing income inequality. The tally of political prisoners currently stands at over 100 individuals and increasing, further cornering Azerbaijan on the international stage.
The international criticism of Azerbaijan’s worsening domestic situation has also been intense. Organizations such as the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Journalists without Borders, and many others have repeatedly condemned the government’s actions and even called for international sanctions.
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Russia and the West’s swerved attention provide a window of opportunity for Azerbaijan to maneuver. Armenia’s strategic partner Russia serves as one of the major deterrent forces against Azerbaijani aggression. Certainly, the armed forces of Armenia and the defense army of Artsakh are the primary and best guarantors of security, yet Armenia’s membership in the CSTO alliance provides an extra layer of security. Aliyev is taking his bets by testing the resoluteness of the CSTO as well as the Russian-Armenian bilateral pact.
By looking at the graph above, it is clear that Russia has historically maintained disproportionately more power than Turkey and Iran combined. This is obviously an analysis looking at the three states as a subsystem of their own, isolated from the rest of the world, and discounting for the effect of alliances. Nevertheless, it is helpful to visualize the stark power discrepancy among the three major South Caucasus players in order to appreciate the deterrent feature of Russian involvement. It also has additional advantage over the Western powers due to its geographic proximity, cultural affinity, and immediate national security concerns.
The August meeting in Sochi of the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia after the Azerbaijani provocations on the border and the immediate cease of violence by Azerbaijan following the meeting is an indication of Russia’s strong influence in the region. Armenia should also appeal to its Western partners for support in an effort to end Azerbaijan’s petro-aggression, and aid Baku in establishing democratic oversight institutions that would allow for more predictable negotiations in the future, insuring against Aliyev’s unilateral warmongering attempts.
Given all these constraints and opportunities, the Azerbaijani junta seeks maximum benefits especially knowing that the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs will continue a policy of false parity. Such an appeasement strategy may well have been justified for the Minsk Group Co-Chairs in the past, but the circumstances have changed drastically since 1994, making such a policy today not only ineffective but also counterproductive, further exacerbating the impunity of the Aliyev regime.
By instigating provocations on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border as well as Artsakh-Azerbaijan line of contact, the Aliyev regime is pursuing at minimum two objectives: first, trying to send a signal to the international community that it is opposed to the status quo (this becomes especially clear when looking at the timing of Azerbaijani sabotage activities), and second, silencing its own disgruntled domestic population, which has witnessed an extraordinary increase in income inequality and intensifying repressive crackdowns. As much as international developments may have an effect on a state’s foreign policy conduct, it is unwise to dismiss the domestic considerations that play into power calculations. Rather, there exists a mutual reinforcement of international and internal factors that result in rational decisions of governments, including in the case of Azerbaijan.
It is important to keep in mind though that rationality is a type of subjective thought-process that is not guaranteed to lead to optimal outcomes for actors. More often than not, bounded rationality is also coupled with non-rational elements further increasing the level of uncertainty. Therefore, even if there are no questions about the premeditated nature of Azerbaijan’s provocations, there always exists a margin of error that, if large enough, may prove to be detrimental to the state’s national security interests.
The authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert need to be vigilant and level-headed when making their decisions on retaliation. Further intensification of violence is exactly what Azerbaijan would want in order to try to move up the spiral of violence in an attempt to eventually reap significant concessions in exchange for de-escalation. The question is not about the “if,” but rather about the “when” and “how” of planning an operation. This incident may be a good opportunity to open the airport in Stepanakert for commercial flights, to convince the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs into admitting the fallacy of their outdated policy, and to further isolate Azerbaijan from the international community given its bad reputation for dictatorship, gross human rights violations, and organizing state-sponsored terrorism campaigns against a democratic and free people. Now is the time for the international community to stop the Aliyev regime from future attempts to destabilize the region.
Armen Sahakyan specializes in international political economy and international economics. He serves as the executive director of the Eurasian Research and Analysis (ERA) Institute (Washington, D.C. branch), and as analyst of Eurasian affairs at the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC) based in Yerevan, Armenia. Sahakyan is a Master of Arts candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and has previously served as an adviser to the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Armenia to the UN in New York.