Tuesday, April 5, 2016

How War in Nagorno-Karabakh Could Spread – and Become a Major Problem for Europe

Every now and then, the West is reminded of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom it knows nothing (as Neville Chamberlain once said). Nagorno-Karabakh is such a place, a tiny enclave that has caused strife between neighbouring Azerbaijan and Armenia even before they gained independence from the Soviet Union.

While recognised as part of Azerbaijan by the international community, the ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region fought an independence war to a standstill in 1994. It is now essentially an independent republic supported by Armenia, and while the fragile truce that has held from 1994 on has been regularly breached, the latest bout of fighting is the most serious escalation of violence to date.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Ties that Bind: War, History and Power in and around Today’s Russia

It is difficult indeed to overstate the importance of victory day in Russia.  In its solemnity, it is as close to a religious festival as any secular event could be.  The Soviet Union was adept at filling the void left by its Marxist atheism with ritual and symbolism, and, more than on other days of the contemporary calendar, its imprint was still palpable on May 9th, 2015. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Small Exercise in Speculation: In the Caucasus, All Roads Lead through Tbilisi

The unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan experienced a sudden flare-up in tensions last week when the Azeri armed forces shot down an Armenian Mi-24 attack helicopter engaged in military exercises near the ‘line of contact’.  A video published by Azerbaijan’s defence ministry showed what appeared to be a shoulder-fired ground-to-air missile homing into one of two low-flying aircraft, resulting in a fiery explosion and subsequent crash.  As of yet, continued shelling has reportedly prevented the Armenian side from retrieving the bodies of the three crew members presumed to have died in the incident. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Empire That Will Not Speak Its Name

A few months ago, I posed the question – was Putin’s Eurasian Uniona pre-electoral sideshow, or a fully-fledged quest for renewed empire?  I believe this question has been answered beyond a reasonable doubt in recent days.  But should that surprise anyone? Since 1991, maintaining control over its ‘Near Abroad’ has clearly been part of Russia’s core interests.  Even while the Kremlin paid lip service to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of ‘its’ former Soviet Republics, it countered any attempt by them to join Euro-Atlantic structures with subversion, and, in Georgia’s case, successful provocation and open military intervention.  Dimitri Medvedev – once supposedly the ‘friendly’, Westernised face of the Putin regime – publicly declared this policy when he referred to Russia’s ‘sphere of privileged interests’ during the Georgian-Russian war of 2008.  And even under Boris Yeltsin, Western policymakers knew perfectly well that inviting former Soviet Republics to join NATO would have been inviting mischief; they had enough trouble convincing the Russians to accept any form of eastwards expansion, full stop.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Homophobia, Racism and Empire in Putin's Eurasia

As things go, the former Soviet Union is quite a homophobic place.  Over eighty-eight per cent of Russians approve of the law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’, including any assertion that homosexuality might not be deviant or morally reprehensible behaviour.  In other, even more conservative Soviet Republics, hostility against the LGBT community is even more dramatic.  In relatively ‘democratic’ Georgia, one attempt to hold a Gay Pride’ parade, in May this year, was thwarted by a furious mob egged on by extremist Orthodox clerics.  According to recent surveys, ninety-six per cent of Armenians believe homosexuality cannot be justified; and seventy-four per cent of Ukrainians believe homosexuality should ‘not be accepted by society’.   These are disheartening figures; and they provide politicians with dubious democratic legitimacy – like Vladimir Putin – with welcome ways of restoring some form of moral authority, by using a popularly marginalised group as a lightning rod.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Miracle of Empire? Sargsyan's Pauline Conversion


In the grand scheme of things, Armenia is a relatively insignificant country.  No major transportation routes traverse it.  It has minimal natural resources.  Its economy is stagnant, and its major export is, in fact, migrant workers, a steady flow of whom has depleted the population by several hundred thousand since independence.  Strategically, it is entirely dependent on Russia, which supplies most of its arms at preferential rates, maintains several military bases, guards its 'external' borders, and owns much of its economic infrastructure. 

Reports of today's sensational about-turn by Armenia’s current president during a visit to Moscow should therefore not have come as a surprise; Armenia’s long-standing insistence on initialling the Association Agreement with the European Union during the Vilnius Summit in November this year – despite of its military-strategic dependence on Moscow –  had been far more puzzling.  And yet, that policy formed part of a longer tradition, a ‘silent accord’ whereby Yerevan was allowed to participate in European integration processes by Moscow, provided it co-operated with Russia on the military front, and did not pursue actual membership of any Euro-Atlantic structures. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Pharisees of the Caucasus


Since independence, all three South Caucasus states have seen a revival in religious practice.  The Georgian and Armenian ‘national’ churches were quickly restored in their central roles within the identities of their respective ethnic groups; the Islamic denominations in Azerbaijan likewise saw the faithful return to their mosques in large numbers.  Meanwhile, as in the rest of the former Soviet Union, a large number of cults – including the Jehova’s Witnesses, and the Hare Krishnas – started infringing on what the established religions saw as ‘their’ rightful spheres of influence as ordinary Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians embraced the spiritualism they had been denied under Soviet, scientific-socialist rule, with gusto.