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Svante E. Cornell

The recent crisis in Kazakhstan took many by surprise. Long considered the most prosperous and stable in Central Asia, it now suddenly appears fragile and weak. To draw lessons from the crisis, for the country’s future course and for the long-suffering American policy in Central Asia, we need to understand what really happened in Kazakhstan. While the exact circumstances of the tragic events in the country may never be clear, we now know enough to draw some key conclusions. First, the key reason for this crisis is to be found in Kazakhstan’s incomplete succession of power. Second, while Russia will definitely exact a price for its intervention, Kazakhstan’s independence has not come to an end. Third, Kazakhstan will likely recover from this crisis, but it will need American and European support to proceed with much-needed reforms.

What Happened?

To someone who has studied Central Asian politics for over two decades, the speed and confidence with which many analysts claimed to understand exactly what had happened was somewhat distressing. In reality, the behind-the-scenes power balances in Kazakhstan are some of the most opaque in the region.

Still, it is now clear that two separate processes took place in Kazakhstan. The first was fairly straightforward: a sharp price hike for automobile fuel led to public protests in western Kazakhstan, which rapidly spread to the country’s largest city, Almaty. Given the frequency of public protests in Kazakhstan lately, this was unsurprising. But the second was more puzzling: on the evening of January 4, bands of armed thugs suddenly took over the Almaty protests, and engaged in violent attacks on authorities and government buildings. Eyewitnesses on the ground report that security forces appeared to melt away in the face of these thugs, with widespread destruction and looting as a result.

Sensing that the situation was spiraling out of control, and perhaps unable to trust his own security forces, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on January 5 appealed to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization for s “temporary” intervention. Within hours, a “peacekeeping” operation was dispatched to Kazakhstan. Appealing for outside help is a major loss of face for any government, and to legitimize this step beyond assuring it would be of short duration, Kazakh government officials blamed a nebulous international terrorist conspiracy for masterminding the violence. This has rightfully been met with skepticism. Meanwhile, western rights advocates have emphasized the government’s repression of peaceful protests. This is not a particularly helpful definition of the events either: it hardly explains the violence against authorities in Almaty, and why the government seemed so close to losing control over the situation. In fact, the real background is to be found in Kazakhstan’s informal politics.

Nazarbayev’s Political Economy

Like most post-Soviet states, Kazakhstan’s informal politics are based on a close fusion of political and economic power. This was the result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, which left the politically connected with tremendous advantages in securing economic assets and taking the reins of a budding capitalist economy. Meanwhile, the absence of strong political institutions meant that political leaders required an economic base, in effect to control institutions that provided patronage and ensured the loyalty of their followers.

As a result, the power of post-Soviet politicians has been more a function of their control over patronage than the position printed on their business card. To survive in power, therefore, the leader of a country needed to have a larger patronage structure than anyone else. Because blood is thicker than water, family members of high officials were key to managing these assets. Sadly, however, some suddenly enriched family members did not handle their newfound wealth with grace. Managing wayward children and relatives became a constant headache for post-Soviet leaders. And beyond the family are other, largely invisible grandees who remains largely out of the public view but wield real influence.

Thus it was in Kazakhstan as well, where the children and relatives of President Nazarbayev ended up in the news for all the wrong reasons. Still, Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon-fueled economy until recently produced enough wealth for the wider population to see improved living standards, while Nazarbayev’s diplomatic astuteness in balancing Russia, China and the West led him to become a respected international figure.

But in recent years, financial shocks hit the country hard, and Kazakhstan’s budding middle class saw its newfound standard of living jeopardized: GDP per capita dropped from over $13,000 in 2013 to about $9,000 today. As a result, the population grew restive, and frustration with the opulence of the uber-rich and politically connected mounted. Furthermore, a divide opened between an upwardly mobile and well-educated urban strata (the Kazakhs most Westerners interact with) and a much larger lumpen segment, for lack of a better term, which is much more impatient and nationalist. Against this background, the post-Soviet model of governance described above was no longer sustainable.

In response, the aging Nazarbayev resolved to engineer a controlled transition of power. He first gave parliament a greater role, then unexpectedly resigned in 2019. He designated the respected diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev his successor but retained significant powers as the country’s “First President.” This move was designed to safeguard the family’s interests, while allowing a new leader to implement much-needed political and economic reforms.

Knowns and Unknowns in an Incomplete Succession

While Nazarbayev had outlined lofty visions for Kazakhstan as one of the world’s most developed states by mid-century, international indices showed clearly that the country was progressing slowly in terms of rule of law and control over corruption, and barely at all in terms of public voice and accountability. Tokayev therefore embarked on a single-minded pursuit of political as well as economic reforms. But in so doing, he challenged the position of entrenched interest groups that controlled much of Kazakhstan’s economic life, and wielded considerable informal power in key state institutions.

Many of these were members of the Nazarbayev family, and networks associated with them, including the invisible grandees mentioned above. Some among these forces sought to actively slow-walk Tokayev’s reforms: on more than one occasion, the President’s initiatives were watered down in parliament, while others appeared to face hurdles in implementation. This led the President himself to repeatedly decry the pace at which his reforms were proceeding.  In retrospect, the key flaw in Nazarbayev’s transition plan seems to have been engineering a transition of formal political power, but not a parallel transition in control of economic assets.

Exactly how the tensions between the President and his opponents boiled over is not clear. But it is beyond doubt that they exploded during the New Year’s unrest. In a country like Kazakhstan, it is unthinkable that organized groups of armed thugs could mount a direct challenge to the state without being noticed and checked by security services. But as anyone familiar with post-Soviet ties between politics, business and crime can tell, it is more than likely that these thugs were used by some powerful political force that masterminded this action. Some suggest President Tokayev moved first, using the public protests as an opportunity to clean house. More likely, his opponents sought to use the unrest to weaken or even unseat him, forcing a counterpunch.

President Tokayev’s response to the crisis is telling: he removed Nazarbayev from his lifetime post as Chairman of the National Security Council, removed and detained leaders of the national security service, and in the aftermath of the crisis forced the removal of key Nazarbayev family members from senior positions in government agencies and state corporations. Tokayev’s January 11 address to parliament did not mention his predecessor by name, but he was clear enough: he announced the closure of monopolistic companies everyone knew were connected to the Nazarbayev family, and called on the many people who had gotten rich “thanks to his predecessor” to give back to the country in a new public fund he is creating. We should expect important assets to change hands in coming weeks.

Still, it would be premature to call this a direct, personal conflict between the only two Presidents that Kazakhstan has known since independence. One important unknown is the degree to which the 81-year-old Nazarbayev was in control over the vast conglomerate that his family had become. The Nazarbayev family was far from a united entity, and different wings of the family were known to have fought over economic assets in the past. Thus, Nazarbayev and his family are not one and the same; parts of his family may be involved in a conflict with President Tokayev, but that does not mean the entire family or Nazarbayev himself is.

President Tokayev has been careful, until now, not to directly challenge the position or legacy of Nazarbayev as the Elbasy, the nominal “leader of the nation.” Doing so would perhaps crumble too much of the edifice his own power rests upon, and Tokayev appears to genuinely appreciate Nazarbayev’s service to the nation. Still, a decisive shift has taken place in Kazakhstan. The most likely scenario is that Nazarbayev will continue to be respected as the country’s elder statesman, while his extended family will gradually lose their positions of influence as well as many of their assets.

The Russia Factor

The CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan is a major coup for President Putin, who has touted the CSTO as a Eurasian counterpart to NATO, and sought to portray it as an organization that could help regional leaders withstand both domestic and outside threats to their power. But in the past few years, neither Moscow nor the CSTO were able to rescue leaders in Armenia or Kyrgyzstan that were targeted by public protests. The lightning-speed deployment will now be an example to leaders who may previously have been skeptical about Russia’s commitment to their security.

Beyond that, there has been a tendency to view the CSTO intervention in the light of Russia’s threat against Ukraine. But the situations are not comparable. There is no question that the Russian intervention will have consequences for Kazakhstan’s foreign policy and for regional security, but it does not spell the end of Kazakhstan’s independence. 

President Tokayev has reported that the CSTO operation is winding down and that the foreign forces are in the process of leaving the country. From Kazakhstan’s perspective, they have accomplished their chief objective: they have ended, for now, the acute phase of elite in-fighting in Kazakhstan, and shown with all due clarity that Moscow supports President Tokayev against his detractors.

Given the past experience of Russian operations in the former Soviet Union, one could be forgiven for being skeptical that once invited, Russian forces would leave Kazakhstan. But there are at least three reasons to think that might actually happen. First, China has made it clear it wants to see no foreign forces in Kazakhstan, and Moscow is very sensitive to Beijing’s wishes. Second, Moscow has found itself in the unprecedented predicament of taking the side of a President that is identified with a reformist agenda. And if Tokayev wants to consolidate his power, he can do so only if he appears in charge and his reforms are implemented. If Tokayev is perceived as a Russian stooge, he could rapidly lose his standing in Kazakh society, resulting in further unrest and instability, something that is not in Russia’s interest. Finally, it should be recalled that Tokayev is the architect of Kazakhstan’s balanced “multi-vector” foreign policy, which seeks to build strong relations with all world powers, not just Russia.

It may thus be in both Tokayev’s and Putin’s interest for Russian forces to pull back, with Tokayev owing Putin a debt of gratitude. The alternative – installing a Putinist regime in Kazakhstan that quells public disenchantment with force – is simply not feasible, and not something Tokayev could or would do. The widespread public frustration and anger remains, and will not go away. Tokayev will be forced to tread carefully to avoid new upheavals.

American and European Policies

Three major events in the past year or so have shown the decline in American, as well as European, influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The U.S. was essentially a bystander during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in late 2020. The chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan epitomized the American disengagement, and the U.S. did not feature in any notable way during the crisis in Kazakhstan. This slide is unfortunate, not least given the fact that every other power from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east appears to be intensifying its relations with this emerging world region. U.S. inaction in the region makes it that much harder for regional states to have a balanced foreign policy. Particularly following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is now high time for the U.S. to revamp its approach to Central Asia, starting with a reappraisal of relations with Kazakhstan.

If the U.S. is concerned about Russian influence, the solution is not to distance itself from Kazakhstan but rather to redouble engagement with the country and President Tokayev. Tokayev continues to represent the best hope for a serious reform process that will make Kazakhstan both more stable and more responsive to the needs and views of its citizens. Simply because of the nature of Russia’s own political system, there is little Russia can or would do to support the reform process that Tokayev has launched. In fact, the only outside actors that could play a constructive role are the U.S. and Europe. Tokayev knows this and will want to re-engage with Western powers. But given his new predicament, this will be much easier if the initiative comes from Washington.

Kazakhstan must also be seen in its regional context. In the last few years, Central Asian states have engaged in an unprecedented effort to develop regional cooperation, to ensure they can manage regional problems on their own. The CSTO intervention is in this context a setback, because it gives the illusion that only outside powers can provide security in the region. It is therefore in the American interest to support efforts at regional cooperation that will, in the longer run, enable Central Asians to withstand both Russian and Chinese aspirations for hegemony.

Washington has an instrument for dialogue that is regional in nature. A first step should be to convene a meeting of the C5+1 mechanism including America and the five regional states to signal that America continues to care about developments in the region, and is ready to step up efforts to support reform initiatives and regionalism in Central Asia. Building on that, the Administration could deploy an inter-agency process to fine-tune the Central Asia strategy that was adopted two years ago. While much remains to be done, these steps would kickstart a reboot of American policy toward Central Asia.

Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.

Mamuka Tsereteli & James Jay Carafano 

19FortyFive, August 6, 2021

August brings bitter memories, a reminder that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin will press his sphere of influence by any means, no matter how ruthless. If the United States does not want to witness more of Putin’s brutality, America will have to partner more proactively with countries committed to a West whole, free, prosperous and at peace.

On August 7, 2008, Russian tanks rolled into neighboring Georgia under the pretext of supporting South Ossetian separatists. The Georgian villages of the Tskhinvali region were burned down to the ground and ethnically cleansed. Russia imposed a military occupation. The Abkhazia region was occupied as well. To cover up its creeping annexation of foreign territories, Russia formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

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S. Frederick Starr & Michael Doran

Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2021

American forces have left Afghanistan. Now what? President Biden has yet to settle on the outlines of an approach. What should the U.S. seek to achieve? Who are its partners?

As he mulls these questions, the president should take note of a July 16 conference, hosted by the government of Uzbekistan in Tashkent, on the subject of “regional connectivity.” The Uzbeks and their Central Asian neighbors, including Afghanistan, seek international diplomatic and economic support for new transport and infrastructure projects to connect their region with South and Southeast Asia.

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S. Frederick Starr & Eldor Aripov 

The National Interest, July 9, 2021

For many in the West and worldwide, the five countries of Central Asia remain a mystery, and their role in world affairs unknown. Yet through their own efforts, they have now emerged as a world region, with its own needs and possibilities. It is time for Washington and the world to embrace this reality and focus on ways that region can contribute to regional and global stability. 

The process of regionalization in Central Asia was launched in 2017 at a high-level international conference in Samarkand. Initiated by the President of Uzbekistan, it received support from all Central Asian countries. Together, they resolved to strengthen cooperation and resolve controversial issues on the basis of compromise. Their resulting communique led to a special resolution by the UN General Assembly. Over the following years, this process became a stable trend and the region a geopolitical reality.

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How Did Armenia So Badly Miscalculate Its War with Azerbaijan?

 

The National Interest

 

November 14, 2020

 

The long-term damage resulting from Armenia's miscalculations outlined are plain to see. While part of the damage is physical, even more significant is the mental damage: Armenia’s feeling of military superiority is now broken, and its feeling of isolation palpable.

 

Svante E. Cornell

 

Since the Armenia-Azerbaijan war erupted again on Sept. 27, Armenia has suffered significant military setbacks at the hand of Azerbaijani forces. Not only has it lost most of the originally Azerbaijani-inhabited territories it occupied in 1993: Azerbaijani forces have made inroads into Nagorno-Karabakh, capturing the strategic and symbolic city of Shusha on Nov. 8.

 

Armenia seems to have been taken by surprise, something that is particularly puzzling given its increasingly assertive and belligerent rhetoric against Azerbaijan in the past several years. Why did the conflict not play out the way Armenian leaders imagined? The reason lies in a series of grave miscalculations, whereby Armenia’s leadership misread almost everything about this conflict: the broader international environment, the Russian response, Turkey’s role in the conflict, as well as the domestic dynamics of their adversary, Azerbaijan.

 

A deep paradox was always built into the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Armenia has a third of Azerbaijan’s population, lacks its natural resources and key geopolitical location. But it won the war in the early 1990s, largely because of two factors: Azerbaijan’s internal turmoil and Russian backing for Yerevan. These factors helped Armenia win control over Nagorno-Karabakh as well as much larger territories surrounding that enclave, home to almost 750,000 Azerbaijanis who were forced to flee.

 

In Armenia, this victory laid the groundwork for a sense of military superiority that lasted until last month. But diplomatically, it soon became clear Armenia had bitten off more than it could chew. In large part because of the nation’s tragic history, Armenia had benefited from substantial international goodwill. But Yerevan’s territorial advances and ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis in 1993–94 changed that perception. By 1996, resolutions in international organizations like the UN and OSCE had made it clear that every other country in the world endorsed the return of all occupied territories to Azerbaijan and a solution to the conflict that would give the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh self-rule but deny them outright independence.

 

Meanwhile, the sheer scale of the territories Armenia occupied ensured that neither Azerbaijan’s leadership nor its society would come to terms with the situation. Instead, a powerful sense of revanchism built in Azerbaijan, and Baku invested a serious portion of the country’s windfall oil revenue into the country’s military. The growing disparity between the two countries became increasingly untenable: it was like a string that can only be pulled so far without breaking. Armenia responded by deepening its military dependence on Russia, which it saw as a guarantor of its military advances.

 

For some time, Armenia convinced itself that time was, in fact, on its side. After the twin shocks of 2008—the war in Georgia and the global financial crisis—its bet on Moscow even appeared rather shrewd. The West had proved unable to prevent the military defeat of its darling in the Caucasus, Georgia, and the financial crisis led to a gradual disengagement from the region on the part of western nations. Kosovo’s independence the same year created a second Albanian state in the Balkans, which Armenians saw as a precedent for Nagorno-Karabakh. Their hopes were further buoyed by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which shared similarities with Armenia’s incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh two decades earlier. As a result, Armenia came to view OSCE-led negotiations on the conflict mainly as a stalling tactic and did not appear to see the necessity of serious concessions in exchange for peace.

 

In April 2016, an escalation of tensions led to a “four-day” war in which Azerbaijan, for the first time since 1994, regained control of some occupied territories. Importantly, while Moscow negotiated a ceasefire after a few days, it did not intervene to stop or roll back Azerbaijan’s advances. This should have caused alarm bells to ring loudly in Yerevan. But, strangely, Armenia’s position instead hardened.

 

The first change was semantic. Many Armenians gradually began to refer to the occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh as “liberated territories”—a major shift, since they had previously been held as a security buffer and negotiating chip to secure Azerbaijani concessions on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. No longer: Armenia now indicated it might not be willing to return these territories at all, ignoring the four UN Security Council resolutions that called for their “immediate and unconditional” return to Azerbaijan.

 

When Nikol Pashinyan acceded to power in spring 2018 following a “Velvet Revolution,” he first appeared willing to restart the peace process. Tellingly, the Azerbaijani elite welcomed his arrival: Baku passed up the opportunity to launch military operations during Armenia’s internal turmoil. Hoping to have a partner for peace, Baku appeared willing to give Pashinyan time to consolidate his power. When Aliyev and Pashinyan met in Dushanbe in October 2018, they agreed to de-escalate tensions. The prospects for peace looked better than they had in a long time.

 

But then something changed. In May 2019, Pashinyan repudiated the OSCE’s “Madrid Principles,” which had served as the basis for negotiations since 2007. He also sought to change the very format of negotiations, demanding the involvement of the local leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh in the talks. But speaking in August 2019 in the capital of Karabakh, he then stated that ”Karabakh is Armenia, period,” and rekindled the theme of unification of Armenia and Karabakh that had sparked the conflict in the late 1980s. These two statements were not only contradictory—if Karabakh is Armenia, why should it have a separate seat at the table—but also appeared to remove any space for negotiations on the territory’s status. There were other signs of the shift. Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, who had started the “women for peace” movement in 2018, this summer dressed up in military fatigues holding a submachine gun in an effort to promote military training for women. Their son also volunteered to serve in the occupied territories.

 

Armenia’s military strategy also changed: the same year, Defense Minister David Tonoyan—whose power and influence grew rapidly within the government—stated that Armenia now rejected the land-for-peace logic that had served as the basis for negotiations, and adopted instead a strategy pursuing “new wars for new territories.” This was coupled with assertive moves that changed the situation on the ground: Armenia relatively openly began to resettle ethnic Armenians from Syria and Lebanon into the occupied territories, creating new facts on the ground and adding to the sense of urgency in Baku. Yerevan’s position was best summarized in Pashinyan’s BBC Hard Talk interview of August 2020, which led exasperated host Stephen Sackur to conclude that “you clearly are not a peacemaker.”

 

But Armenian leaders then went even further: they took steps that, perhaps inadvertently, drew Turkey more directly into the dispute. When fighting erupted this July on the undisputed Armenia-Azerbaijan border way north of the conflict zone, it triggered fears in Turkey that Armenia was threatening the energy infrastructure in the very vicinity of the flareup carrying Azerbaijani oil and gas. Then, in early August, Armenia’s president and prime minister both made a point of commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Sèvres, which would have carved out an Armenian state out of eastern Turkey—a treaty that has for a century been a rallying cry for Turkish nationalists.

 

These developments suggest at least four grave miscalculations on the part of Armenian leaders.

 

First, the rhetoric of “liberated territories” reflects a deliberate attempt to take advantage of the weakening of international law and institutions. For two decades, Azerbaijan had centered its efforts on using diplomacy and international pressure to undo Armenia’s attempt to change international borders through military force. A weakening international order appeared to give Armenia a free hand to maintain its control over these lands indefinitely. What the Armenian leadership neglected to see is that this same international order also deterred Azerbaijan from abandoning diplomacy and pursuing a military solution. In 2019, President Ilham Aliyev noted that a world was emerging where “might is right,” intimating that Azerbaijan would act accordingly if it could not achieve its goals through diplomacy. Similarly, Armenia did not realize the implications of its failure to achieve international recognition for its occupation of Azerbaijani territory. As recent events have made clear, as long as the fighting remains centered on internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory, there is little that western or other powers will do aside from issuing habitual calls for restraint and negotiations.

 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Armenia failed to internalize the fact that it could not take Russian support for granted. Russian influence over Armenia had grown so strong that Vladimir Putin saw little risk in also courting Ilham Aliyev and working to draw Azerbaijan into the Russian orbit. Students of Russian strategy had long understood that the Kremlin viewed its influence on Armenia as a lever to achieve influence over Georgia and Azerbaijan, both of which carry much greater geopolitical significance. Several years ago, Moscow began selling large amounts of weaponry to Azerbaijan. Baku certainly paid higher prices than Yerevan, but this move should have caused Armenian leaders to fundamentally question their strategy of dependence on Russia, as Russia also worked hard to entice Baku to join Russian-led organizations like the Eurasian Economic Union. But no such rethink happened in Yerevan, even after Russia failed to intervene during the 2016 flare up.

 

Like a poker player with a bad hand, Yerevan instead raised the stakes in a rather transparent bluff that Baku ultimately decided to call. While it remains possible that Moscow will step in and rescue Armenia, it is highly unlikely. Putin deeply distrusts Pashinyan and the way he came to power, and appears content to see him slapped in the face—perhaps in the hope that the ancien régime will return to power in Yerevan. It is notable that Ilham Aliyev this past August moved to purge the remaining pro-Russian forces inside his government and openly complained to Putin of Russian military supplies to Armenia. Putin’s cautious approach may reflect a need to play nice with Azerbaijan in order to retain some levers of influence over the most strategically important country in the Caucasus. Armenian leaders may have fundamentally failed to see that Russia, for all its bluster, is a declining power globally as well as regionally. While things could change, Russia so far appears to see little benefit from intervening decisively in this war, and even appears to seek to use the flareup to insert Russian peacekeepers into the conflict zone. All in all, Armenia was much more isolated than its rhetoric would have suggested.

 

Third, Armenian leaders failed to correctly analyze the growing linkages between the South Caucasus and the Middle East, and particularly Turkey’s role in the region. Since 2015, a powerful nationalist force has been ascendant within the Turkish state, and increasingly sets the parameters of Turkish foreign policy. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—himself an Islamist rather than a nationalist—has been pushed in a more nationalist direction, which has led Ankara to challenge Moscow both in Syria and in Libya. For Armenia, the fact that Turkish drones outsmarted Russian air defenses, at least in the Libyan case, should have led to considerable alarm and signaled the need for great caution. In spite of clear warning signs, like Erdogan’s February 2020 statement that Karabakh matters as much to Turkey as it does to Azerbaijan, Armenian leaders failed entirely to anticipate the shift in Turkey’s position on the conflict. In fact, through steps like their embrace of the Treaty of Sèvres this summer, they accelerated that shift.

 

Finally, Armenian leaders failed to grasp the recent internal transformation of Azerbaijan. For many years, Ilham Aliyev was hamstrung by the presence of various oligarchs around him. But in the past several years, Azerbaijan’s leader has embarked on a far-reaching purge seeking to make the state more efficient. Aliyev was liberating himself from the shackles of the regime he took over from his father seventeen years ago. Armenian leaders appear not to have understood that Aliyev’s more assertive approach would affect Azerbaijan’s most pressing problem, the unresolved conflict over and the occupation of Azerbaijani territories, although Aliyev had many times signaled his great frustration over this situation.

 

Why, then, did Armenian leaders commit these grave miscalculations? Several reasons come to mind. The world has changed rapidly in recent years, requiring considerable flexibility and analytical skill to process the implications of the interaction between global and regional processes. Armenian leaders appear to have instead become complacent and internalized their own propaganda. Still, this does not account for the scale of their failure, which can only be explained by a deeper analysis of Armenian domestic politics.

 

It is now clear that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan—who lacked political experience before being thrust into a position of power as leader of street protests in 2018—failed to comprehend the geopolitics of his country and region. But he was also constantly undermined by Armenia’s previous leadership, which in turn was aligned with the leadership in Karabakh, and maintained privileged relations with Moscow. This created a highly unstable situation, in which Pashinyan sought to outbid his rivals by adopting an increasingly hardline nationalist position to consolidate his power. Indeed, his call for unification was perhaps mainly targeted at the leadership in Karabakh and intended to shore up his popularity among Armenians there as well. If so, then he grossly underestimated the impact his words would have in Baku.

 

As of this writing, the parties have signed a cease-fire deal that cements Azerbaijan's military victory while maintaining some level of Armenian control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. The long-term damage resulting from Armenia's miscalculations outlined here is plain to see. While part of the damage is physical, even more significant is the mental damage: Armenia’s feeling of military superiority is now broken, and its feeling of isolation palpable. It should now be clear that Armenia can only be secure if it achieves lasting peace. Weakened as Pashinyan already was, it is difficult to see how he emerges unscathed from this episode, and calls for his resignation are mounting. More deeply, whether Pashinyan stays or goes, it remains to be seen whether Armenia will learn from this misadventure and embark upon a serious attempt to sue for peace.

 

Svante E. Cornell is the Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Strategy.

 

 

Between Eurasia and the Middle East: Azerbaijan's New Geopolitics

BakudialoguesSvante E. Cornell

Baku Dialogues, September 2020

Azerbaijan’s geopolitics have changed considerably in the last decade, along with the growing general instability in its neighborhood. Gone are the days symbolized by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline’s construction, when a relatively stable balance existed between a loose Russian-led alignment including Iran and Armenia, and an informal entente between the United States and Turkey, which supported the independence of Azerbaijan and Georgia and the construction of direct energy transportation routes to Europe. From 2008 until today, the geopolitical environment has shifted in several important ways. First, it is more unstable and unpredictable. Second, the threshold of the use of force has decreased dramatically. And third, to a significant extent, the geopolitics of Eurasia and the Middle East have merged, bringing increasing complications. 

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S. Frederick Starr

AFPC Defense Dossier, May 31, 2020

This Spring, the Trump administration formally released its official strategy for Central Asia. The occasion marks the first time in more than two decades that the United States has articulated a serious approach to a region where vast economic, geopolitical, and civilizational stakes are in play. Coming on the heels of repeated visits to the region by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the new strategy emphasizes American support for the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states, encourages the growth of regional cooperation among them, and acknowledges positive steps toward political and economic reform. Crucially, it also supports the expansion of relations between the Central Asian states and Afghanistan.

In releasing this strategy, the Trump administration has made clear that it views Central Asia as a world region where the United States has intrinsic economic and security interests. This represents a significant departure from the past practice of various U.S. administrations, who allowed the region to slip between the cracks of other national security and foreign policy concerns that were deemed more important.

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Mamuka Tsereteli

UIK Panorama, April 24, 2020

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Unites States, together with Turkey and other Western allies, led the process of strengthening the political and economic sovereignty of the newly independent countries in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkey was a major anchor and channel of Western political, strategic, and economic interests in the Black Sea-Caspian region.

This collaborative effort brought about the development of the vibrant energy, trade, and transit connections between the Black Sea-Caspian region and the Mediterranean, delivering huge economic and political benefits to all the producing and transit countries of the region: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. But Turkey was, and continues to be, the major beneficiary of the economic, political, and security benefits of the East-West energy and transportation corridor, of the expanding pipeline, railway, highway, and port infrastructure, linking the country to Caspian resources and markets. Further, the enlargement of NATO and the EU also brought more security and economic development to the western shores of the Black Sea – to Bulgaria and Romania.

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News

  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53

    Eurasia

  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.

     

    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.

    az-formula-SRSP

    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   




    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018

     

     

     

    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018

     

     

     

    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online

     

    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online

     

     

     

    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:

    BASIC PRINCIPLES FOR THE REHABILITATION OF AZERBAIJAN’S POST-CONFLICT TERRITORIES

     

  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

     

    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:

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    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.

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    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here

     

    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.