- Share to or
‘People matter more than territories’ Economist Ruben Enikolopov talks about the fate of Karabakh Armenians — and what the West has to do with it
Azerbaijan’s military strike on Nagorno-Karabakh culminated in Baku’s regaining full control over the separatist region within 24 hours. The Republic of Artsakh, established in the region by the local Armenian majority with military support form Yerevan, will now be dismantled, together with its defeated militia forces. Armenia must also withdraw its remaining troops from the region. Numerous Karabakh Armenians became refugees virtually overnight, as both Russia and the West distanced themselves from the conflict. Meduza correspondent Margarita Liutova talked about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh with Ruben Enikolopov, a professor of economics at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and a self-described Karabakh-born, Russian-speaking Armenian. Here’s what he thinks about the future of his birthplace and its Armenian population under Baku, and about the region’s human rights predicament, which has been neglected by the international community.
Could you first talk about your Karabakh roots? Your grandfather, Nikolay Enikolopov, the well-known Soviet chemist, was born in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, part of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.
Yes, our family originally came from Kusapat, where he was born, and shortly afterwards they moved to Stepanakert. He died when I was very little, but I do remember him talking to me about the Karabakh conflict. It bothered him a great deal. He always had a balanced position, clear of any extremist leanings, but he worried a great deal about what was happening to his family members in the region.
I often travel to Armenia, but the last time I was in Karabakh was about 10 years ago. Stupidly, I thought I had plenty of time to go back.
My identity is complicated. I am a Moscow Armenian — I grew up in Moscow and hardly speak any Armenian. On the other hand, I have at least twice as much Armenian blood in me than any other kind. I identify as an ethnic Armenian — a Russian-speaking Armenian, let’s put it this way.
I still have family in Karabakh. In the 1990s, some of my relatives were killed — one of them, mind you, wasn’t even in the military. He was a baker, and bakers are always the last to leave, since people would die without them. So he was killed, in the village where he was, close to the front line.
In 2020, I lost my 19-year-old nephew who was serving his obligatory term in the Armenian army. He was a business student at the American University of Armenia.
Fewer of my relatives live there now. The Red Cross evacuated my aunt in February.
What did you think about the cease-fire, achieved on condition of Armenia withdrawing its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh?
It’s a complete forfeiture of Karabakh and Artsakh. I guess it could have been worse. A meat-grinder with thousands or tens of thousands being killed, with the same end result, would have been far worse. But it’s still a heavy feeling.
Russia has clearly decided to step back and give Turkey carte blanche. There are two old empires still in existence in our world, and they live according to 19th-century laws, with the division of spheres of influence and so on. I think that Putin’s meeting with Erdogan definitely had something to do with this conflict. The phrase “Do what you want” was uttered there — and the rest was settled by Azerbaijan’s military superiority, buttressed by Turkey.
Armenia has a banal problem: it doesn’t have weapons, and that’s a huge strategic mistake. In the 1990s, wars were fought with manpower. Now, warfare has become capital-intensive. A country can ramp up its armaments very quickly if it has partners who support it. In Azerbaijan’s case, we’re talking about partnerships ranging from Turkey to Israel. If you don’t have partners, as Armenia doesn’t, this isn’t achievable. Buying weapons from India is a desperate measure.
I could see two possible solutions to this conflict, one of them being less ghastly than the other, but we don’t yet know which of them has been implemented.
I’m afraid that the only scenario that could preserve Artsakh’s independence would involve Kosovo-style bloodshed, captured on video. This could possibly pave the way to some Kosovo-style arrangement. But people matter more than territories, and sacrificing such a huge number of people for the sake of a very uncertain goal would have simply been strange. In a situation where no one was going to intervene from the outside, given this kind of imbalance of forces, surrender was predictable.
The only question left is what’s going to happen with the people who are now in Karabakh. The last 30 years of history have shown that tolerable relations between Baku and Karabakh Armenians are hardly possible. Besides, Ilham Aliyev’s legitimacy rests squarely on his reputation as the “liberator of Karabakh” (apart from him being also the son of the Soviet-era politician Heydar Aliyev).
What this means is that there won’t be any Armenians left in Karabakh. Some of them are bound to become refugees in Armenia. Others will be deposited in Azerbaijani prisons.
Do you mean that they’ll be prosecuted for separatism?
Yes, they could very well simply arrest all the men. Azerbaijani troops have been known to abduct people right out of Red Cross vehicles. The overall state of Azerbaijan’s justice system is very questionable. So, it’s merely a political decision, how many men to arrest and how many not to. The courts have very little to do with it.
It’s unclear at the moment how the question of Karabakh’s population will be dealt with, since no one is ready to intervene or guarantee those people’s safety.
I heard about Armenians’ fears that Azerbaijan might launch an aggressive attack on Armenia itself, and not just Karabakh.
I think it’s a perfectly realistic scenario. Armenian Premier Pashinyan’s decision is fairly obvious: we’ll relinquish Karabakh, in exchange for security for Armenia. I’m not all that sure that the second part of that deal will be upheld. Over the past few months, Azerbaijan has attacked Armenian territories and remonstrated about Armenia’s airports and Armenia’s extraction of natural resources — not in Karabakh, but on its own territory proper.
So, I have some doubts about the prospect of peace and quiet in Azerbaijan’s relations with Armenia under the current regime in Baku. I’m not sure that they won’t end up at war. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, doesn’t have Russia’s immunity to sanctions. These two economies have completely different scale. So, sanctioning Azerbaijan is only a matter of will in the West to protect Armenia.
But for Europe, this conflict is remote. Judging by the kind of rhetoric that comes from the West, this region simply doesn’t register as a group of independent subjects. They treat it as a kind of chess board: Armenia hardly gets a mention; Turkey doesn’t, either, because they don’t yet understand the situation. There’s Russia, though, with its waning influence in the region. Regardless of whether it’s Georgia, Armenia, or Azerbaijan, they’re seen as distant, insignificant countries where there’s little point in wasting political resources.
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
As far as humanitarian motives, they’ve long since been forgotten, it seems to me. I haven’t seen the West intervene in anything for humanitarian reasons in years. There had been examples of this in the 1990s, but not since the turn of the millennium.
Things used to be simpler for the West: there was the USSR and it has to be defeated, for the sake of freedom and democracy. The methods varied — some were so bad it would have been better not to struggle at all — but the goal was there. Now, I see a deep global crisis of objectives. What bright future are we now aspiring to? What kind of utopia do we dream of? There isn’t any utopia left. And in the absence of goals and ideals, what remains is bare pragmatism.
While liberal Russians tend to sympathize with the Armenian people, the West seems to be emphasizing Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, comparing the Republic of Artsakh to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” in Ukraine. What do you think about these comparisons?
This is a complicated situation, and it lends itself to spin. When you don’t want to intervene, you can say that you care about territorial integrity. But in Yugoslavia, it turned out that ethnic cleansing mattered more than territorial integrity.
No one is trying to say that Karabakh Armenians were right with respect to all the international norms. They weren’t, and this is why Artsakh wasn’t recognized as a state. But it’s too late to go back to the early 1990s, when for simplicity’s sake the borders of old Soviet republics were preserved, which created problems for Karabakh. We understand, for example, how Europe set state borders in Africa, drawing straight lines from afar. This was the same approach.
As for the West, the last time it even glanced in this region’s direction was probably 100 years ago, when Woodrow Wilson drafted a treaty that defined how the place should be run. Since then, it’s been just a remote region no one cares about.
Let’s admit it: if the West had wanted to regulate this conflict, it has certainly failed. A year ago, when missiles were already flying into Armenia, the U.S. sent in a ranger (in the figure of Nancy Pelosi) who scattered everyone, redlining the situation. When they want to, they’re certainly capable of achieving results.
As for the mistakes committed by the Armenian leadership, it’s always hard to tell apart its lack of will from its lack of opportunities. From my perspective, the current failure is definitely the failure of Armenia’s earlier leadership, who was in the best position to resolve the Karabakh question on its own terms in the 1990s, when it controlled both Karabakh and some of Azerbaijan’s territory. What proved to be an absolutely losing strategy, though, was to sit and think: “We already won, so let’s not do anything, since Russia has us under its wing.”
After 2020, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan certainly understood that Armenia was on its way to relinquishing Karabakh. We must also take into view that the people who pour into the streets of Yerevan in protest want to preserve Artsakh by force — but this isn’t how 100 percent of Armenians think. Lots of them could not understand why their children should have to die for Artsakh, and the disproportionate place of the Artsakh question in Armenian politics wasn’t something everyone appreciated. Society itself was conflicted about this, but not openly: it’s hard to talk about such things aloud, and so they were never fully formulated in the public space.
I have a very distinct feeling that the government could have achieved much more, which makes me doubt its professionalism. At the very least, they could have achieved greater guarantees for the people who live there, even while relinquishing that territory. Yes, they’ll evacuate women, children, and the elderly. But what about the men? How many of them will remain alive and not in prison?
Of course, even guarantees from Baku couldn’t but inspire skepticism, since Baku can say anything at all in the absence of any checks and balances, either inside the country (which is an autocracy) or from outside agents. Russia is out of the game, the international community is silent. It strikes me as particularly cynical that this should all be happening while the UN General Assembly is in session. This proves the UN’s incapacity to do anything at all. This has been clear for quite a while, but here’s another nail in that coffin.
The destruction of international mechanisms that once guaranteed adherence to agreements is not a normal situation. For the time being, things are only getting worse, and rebuilding that system is today’s major challenge for global politics.
- Share to or