Russia’s Karabakh Protectorate Taking Clearer Shape (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 45

A Russian peacekeeper in Stepanakert, Karabakh (Source: Foreign Policy)

Russia’s military “peacekeeping” intervention in Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh in November 2020 laid the foundation for a Russian de facto protectorate (see EDM, December 8, 10, 2020).

The Second Karabakh War (September 27–November 9, 2020) has resulted in a partition of Azerbaijan’s former Upper Karabakh Autonomous Region (obsolete Russian acronym: NKAO). The war’s victor, Azerbaijan, currently controls one third of that territory, while Russian troops and the Armenian authorities of the unrecognized Karabakh republic centered in Stepanakert control about two thirds. All of Upper Karabakh is universally deemed—also by Russia, emphatically—as being a part of Azerbaijan.

The Armenian-inhabited “NKAO” had been supposed to receive a legal-political status through an international negotiation process—the Minsk Group—that operated from 1994 to 2020, inconclusively. Following this war and partition, however, the “NKAO” no longer exists as a territorial or political unit. Its remaining territory, moreover, is being turned into a Russian protectorate with both military and civil-affairs dimensions (see EDM, January 21, 22, 26, 2021). All these new facts render the status issue moot.

Yerevan and Stepanakert currently estimate the population of rump–Upper Karabakh (the unrecognized Karabakh republic) at 105,000 to 110,000, including the registered war refugees from Karabakh sheltered in Armenia. Those refugees’ number was last cited by Armenia’s government at 20,000 (Civil.net, Arminfo, February 3, 4), as against 35,000 to 40,000 cited by the Stepanakert authorities (Armenpress, February 11, 15).

The number of war refugees from Karabakh registered in Armenia had peaked at some 90,000 to 93,000 last December (Armenpress, December 25, 29, 2020). Most of them have been encouraged to return to Upper Karabakh since then. Yerevan and Stepanakert are acutely conscious that Armenian outmigration from Upper Karabakh would undermine their effort to wrest this territory from Azerbaijan. This is why their officially released data might overstate the size of Upper Karabakh’s population.

Outmigration could also weaken the rationale for Russia’s military presence to guarantee the security of Karabakh Armenians. Accordingly, Russian “peacekeeping” troops have helped organize the mass return of war refugees from Armenia to Upper Karabakh, using buses under Russian military escort. The number of Russian-escorted returnees reached 50,000 on January 19, by the Russian military’s count (Mil.ru, January 19) and inched upward afterward, at 52,712 by the most recent Russian count on February 26 (Mil.ru, February 26). A far smaller number of refugees returned with their own transportation means and have not been officially or reliably counted.

Incomparably higher, approaching one million, is the number of Azerbaijanis displaced from the seven inner-Azerbaijani districts that Armenian had forces seized in 1993–1994 and Azerbaijan regained in November 2020. The tripartite armistice declaration of November 9, 2020, had stipulated that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would oversee the return of all refugees and displaced people. Preempting the UNHCR, however, the Russian military largely took over this process in Upper Karabakh for Armenian refugees.

The Armenian side nevertheless remains apprehensive about population decline in this territory. Attempting to address this problem, “President” Haraik Harutiunian has announced the re-launch of a “state” program of artificial insemination in order to increase local birth rates (News.am, January 17).

Russia’s “peacekeeping” mission in what Moscow itself deems as Azerbaijani territory has no agreed-upon mandate; and Russia’s military presence there has no legal basis. It does, however, have Baku’s carefully weighed consent as part of the November 9 armistice declaration; it was not imposed on Baku, but was worked out through genuine give-and-take negotiations; and the mission’s actual execution by Russia is subject to constant adjustments through negotiations with Baku. This bilateral process has, to all intents and purposes, excluded Armenia from any significant role or initiative. Yerevan seems merely to react and largely comply with Russia’s initiatives in Upper Karabakh.

Without making any formal arrangements, therefore, Russia has become the real and recognized guarantor of Upper Karabakh’s security. Armenia has lost the guarantor’s role after 26 years of filling it (1994–2020). Yerevan has not only exhausted its resources in the recent, lost war but has also been outplayed diplomatically by Baku in the triangular process with Moscow.

Some Stepanakert officials, including the Security Council’s chief, Major General Vitaly Balasanian, and “parliament” chairperson Artur Tovmazian, have publicly registered Armenia’s loss of the guarantor’s role. They have clearly identified Russia’s “peacekeepers” along with the Karabakh “republic’s” forces as security guarantors, omitting Armenia from the equation (Artsakhpress, February 26; Artsakh Public TV cited by Arminfo, March 13). Russia, moreover, is bringing substantial humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Upper Karabakh, taking over also the “social guarantor’s” role from Armenia.

Armenian nationalism kept firmly aloof from the “Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”) even when operating in alliance with Russia. This distinctiveness remains intact in Yerevan. However, Stepanakert seems to consider moving toward the Russian World as a way of ingratiation with Moscow. Karabakh’s unrecognized “foreign affairs minister,” David Babaian, has issued an irate indictment of Azerbaijan’s disrespect for Soviet-era military memorials in the territories regained from Armenian control (News.am, March 8). The “parliament” in Stepanakert is considering draft laws to confer official status on the Russian language in the Karabakh “republic’s” administration and its mass media. A debate is ongoing on whether Russian should become an “official language” on par with the literary Armenian language or, alternatively, a “working language” to be used when necessary (Azatutiun.am, March 12).

Some international observers expect Russia to begin (after a decent interval) distributing Russian passports in the Karabakh “republic,” turning the recipients into citizens of Russia and potential labor migrants there. This would reproduce the model used earlier in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and, currently, in Donbas. The case of Upper Karabakh, however, differs from those previous cases. Stepanakert’s as well as Yerevan’s top priority is to keep the population firmly attached to the land in the “republic,” since population loss would negate the Armenian claims to this territory (see above). Russia is also interested in keeping its would-be protégés in place, so as to justify its military presence and even augmenting it if deemed necessary in the future. Launching Russian passportization while at the same time strongly discouraging emigration could be a solution that would satisfy Moscow, Yerevan and Stepanakert.

*To read Part Two, please click here.

*To read Part Three, please click here.