Imtiaz Rafi Butt
NAGORNO-Karabakh conflict is fast becoming a flash point of interest between important nations in the Central and South East Asia. Although, only a small piece of land between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the dispute is becoming a battleground to test alliances. The result of the military struggle will bolster ties and diplomatic relations between multiple countries, Pakistan clearly among them. It signifies growth, influence and power to be able to lend a helping hand to a brotherly country and that too in a modern day war. Pakistan and Azerbaijan have entered into a new era of bi-lateral ties in the wake of Nagorno-Karabakh struggle. The actions of Pakistan and Turkey Government in the region have the potential to change the power dynamics in the region for the foreseeable future.
From a historical perspective, the story of Armenia and Azerbaijan nations goes back to the Ottoman Empire. In short, after the 1st World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the area with both Azerbaijanis and Armenians fell into the Russian or the Trans Eurasian Empire. The main differences between Armenians and Azerbaijanis are of religion, culture and language. Armenians belong to the oldest tribe of Christians since the 1st Century A.D. The Armenian Church and its traditions of orthodox priesthood have been preserved for centuries. People of Azerbaijan are mainly Muslims. Their origin lay in the conquest of the region by the Ottoman Empire.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire survived only till 1922 when the Russian Revolution overthrew the empire and the Communist Soviet Union was born. After brief hostilities, both Armenian and Azerbaijani territories were made constituent states within the Soviet Union. Clashes between the two nations were mediated by Moscow. A period of peace and harmony was maintained until the Soviet Union began to crack from the inside. In 1988, the Soviet Union began to disintegrate and the restlessness reflected in the resumption of hostilities particularly in the landlocked region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is a region of around 4,400 kms with a population of approximately 125,000. In 1991, both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union and adopted democratic form of Government. Pakistan was the first country to recognize Azerbaijan. Armenia enjoyed explicit support by the new Russian Government.
In 1992, a full scale war took place between Armenia and Azerbaijan military. The Armenians were supported by Russians and took control of majority of the contested area in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in the bordering area of the two nations. Causalities both military and civilian occurred including violent pogroms. By the time the UN and European Commissions could broker a deal, the Armenians held a one sided referendum in the region and declared the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia naming it the de facto Republic of Artsakh which was not recognized by any nation. The issue is unresolved to this day but the balance of power lies in military might. In 2020, senior officers and soldiers of the Azerbaijani army were killed using heavy shelling and drone strikes by the Armenian army which has given rise to the present ongoing conflict. As of today, total population of Armenia is 2.9 Million and that of Azerbaijan is 9.9 Million but the count of military personnel is almost equal, a dangerous proposition by all means.
On the geo-strategic side, an impartial analysis of alliances is required. From the beginning of the conflict, Turkey has been supporting Azerbaijan as it observes the influence of Russia and European countries in support of Armenia. Based on Indo-European culture and religion, the Azerbaijanis were marginalized in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the 1990s. Further, after independence, Armenia accused the former Ottoman Empire of the Armenian Genocide which countries allied to Turkey vehemently denied, including Pakistan. Conversely, just like in the case of Kashmir, the United Nations and the International Community has failed to act in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Azerbaijanis living in the region have been massacred by the Armenian Army time and again. The right to vote to the Muslim population has been denied, quiet similar to the way it has been denied in Kashmir. Pakistan has fully supported Azerbaijan as it is aware of the injustice being done. On the other hand, Azerbaijan has always supported Pakistan in its voice against Indian aggression in Kashmir. Turkey and Pakistan are improving their cultural and diplomatic ties every year. Erdogan has unveiled a new chapter in the alliance between Pakistan and Turkey based on common values, faith and tradition. The Turkish leaders have time and again spoken in favour of Pakistan in the United Nations and against India. The Government of India even threatened halting trade with Turkey as a consequence for its support for the Kashmiri people, a gesture that the people and Government of Pakistan cannot forget. To some extent, Pakistan’s support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is a clear statement of unrelenting co-operation between Pakistan and Turkey. Nagorno-Karabakh is a back alley of Turkey, and in securing a foothold in the region by supporting the Azerbaijani army, Pakistan has changed the dynamics forever.
Pakistan is expanding its imprint and influence. Against the Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka, the Pakistan Army provided expertise, armaments and support; as a result, Pakistan ties with Sri lanka are at the pinnacle of their existence. This goes hand in hand with the fact that Sri Lanka is closely tied with the Chinese OBOR project. Pakistan and Sri Lanka are both key partners with the Chinese trade initiative. In case of Azerbaijan, it is the Muslim brotherhood coupled with strategic interest of Turkey. So much so, that Baku was filled with Turkish and Pakistani flags. In all this expansion of ties, it must be noted that Azerbaijan is a reservoir of minerals, metals and fuel for the region. It is a critical factor which will play out in the interest of countries supporting Azerbaijan in this hour of need. The President of Azerbaijan Mr. Ilham Aliyev has thanked the people of Pakistan time and again for their assistance.
Pakistan is on a forward march. Its key allies like China and Turkey are gaining ground. In Gwadar, Pakistan is set to connect the countries of Central Asia and the Middle East in a single trade path. The Maritime as well as Road network of OBOR will be watched over by a state of the art Naval Base in Gwadar. In mutual benefit, the Pakistan Navy is being developed with the assistance of the Chinese Army. The newly built Midget submarines will be permanent vanguard to protect Pakistan waters. Nagorno-Karabakh displays the commitment of the Government of Pakistan and its confidence in doing what it thinks is the right thing to do. Such a confidence needs only to be backed by intelligent policies, unity and discipline. Such actions ensure that the country is not surviving but thriving. Pakistan is securing its geo-strategic ties and prudently, it is doing so while protecting brother nations from aggression, which is sure to make allies that will withstand the test of time.
—The writer is Chairman, Jinnah Rafi Foundation, based in Lahore.