“The Brussels Diary With Yana Toom”: Nagorno-Karabakh and Erdoğan


Sadly, there is a joke going round online that the mainstream media currently has two news items: ‘coronavirus’ and ‘this is the last thing we needed now’. While the EU is struggling with the pandemic, warfare in neighbouring countries that is changing the balance of power on the continent is on going. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh seems only to be a local affair. However, first, it has only just begun, and second, this is only one link in a not so sturdy chain.

Frozen conflicts with roots in the past do not peter out quickly. We could go back to the beginning of the 90s when the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was proclaimed. We could also go back to the Armenian-Azerbaijan war in 1918-1920 when bloodshed in Karabakh was stopped only by the Red Army, which established the Soviet regime in Azerbaijan and Armenia. And even that war was only an echo of events that the Armenians call the Great Atrocity and that Turkey has never recognised. During the genocide against the Armenian people that began in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, one million people were killed according to very conservative estimates, and I would like to point out that this happened a long time before the Holocaust.

Is it necessary to go back in history, such as Pashinyan, Prime Minister of Armenia, has done and say that if Turkey is not stopped in Karabakh then its troops will soon advance to Vienna as happened 350 and 500 years ago? I am not convinced, and I do not want to join those who are shouting about the battle between the Islamic and Christian civilisation. However, it seems to me that closing our eyes to the ambitions of Turkey, and more precisely its president Erdoğan, is a huge mistake.

Erdoğan is not an Islamist; he is an Ottomanist. As Trump dreams about making America great again, Erdoğan cannot wait to restore the glory of the destroyed empire. Turkey wishes to be like the US and become the policeman of its neighbouring regions, if not of the world. Erdoğan interferes in civil wars in Syria and Libya. He tries to capture gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea and threatens Greece and Cyprus with warships. Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to the same series. There is little doubt that it is Turkey that is acting through Azerbaijan. A tight connection between these countries is expressed in the words spoken by Heydar Aliyev: ‘Same ethnicity – two states’.

I am afraid that for Turkey the Armenians are like a thorn in the side, much like the Kurds. This is a mix of geopolitics and – for many – ancient hatred based on nationalism. There is no logic in the arguments against Karabakh. Yes, it is on the territory of Azerbaijan, but the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is not recognised by anybody except for Turkey, is also on the territory of another state. This has not prevented that republic to exist de facto for almost a half of century.

It is clear that Erdoğan has decided to deal with Karabakh – and nobody is stopping him. Not Russia with whom Turkey is at odds one minute and then later a friend and who sells arms to it. Not the EU that even in peaceful times did not have much influence in the region but now pays Erdoğan for keeping refugees. Not the USA that under Trump's leadership has clearly lost interest in interfering in regional conflicts; besides, Turkey is an ally of NATO as are Germany, France and Estonia.

I am afraid that there will be a time when Nagorno-Karabakh makes it to the discussion rooms of Europe. And, true – ‘this is the last thing we needed’.