MOSCOW (Sergei Markedonov for RIA Novosti) - Nagorno-Karabakh was the first ethnic conflict that shook the foundations of the political power "vertical" of the Soviet Union and became the detonator that exploded it.
It enriched our active political vocabulary with such terms as "ethnic cleansing" and "cleansing of the territory." As a result of the Armenian-Azeri conflict over Karabakh, about 500,000 Armenians had to leave Azerbaijan, and about 200,000 Azerbaijanis had to leave Armenia. Both states (particularly Armenia) have essentially become homogenous mono-ethnic entities. During the armed clashes over Karabakh, Azerbaijan lost 13% of its original territory.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was not simply the largest regional conflict to affect the former Soviet Union. First, it became an example for Georgians, Ossetians, Abkhasians, Moldavians and residents of the Dnestr region (Russians and Ukrainians). Secondly, it caused the "karabakhization" of the political life in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Karabakh problem became a reference point for both Caucasus republics. Any event in the political life of both states is tested by the Karabakh factor.
However, the Karabakh problem is also a problem for Russia. This thesis is not a tribute to nostalgia for the former Soviet Union or to imperial ambitions. Russia has the world's largest Armenian diaspora. Data recorded as part of the 2002 Russia census, suggest that 1,130,000 Armenians live in Russia, while various expert estimates put the current figure at about 2 million people. The Armenian migration to Russia increased largely due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
In 2002, the official Azerbaijani population of Russia numbered 621,500 people (the 13th place among ethnic groups in Russia). The Azerbaijanis reside in 55 Federation members, with the Azeri communities in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Volgograd, and the Tver region. The diaspora is an important economic factor for the development of Azerbaijan itself. According to R.S. Grinberg, the head of the Institute for International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, money transfers alone to Azerbaijan are worth $1.8-2.4 billion.
These Caucasian diasporas are two of the ten largest in Russia, which means "karabakhization" became a factor in Russian as well.
Russia is a Caucasus power. The territory of its Caucasus subjects is twice as large as the three independent countries in the Southern Caucasus put together. In addition, the border, which passes over mountain ridges, makes the four neighboring countries a system of "communicating vessels."
Russia's role in any future resolution of the conflict should be based on the potential of the diasporas and the ties between Armenian and Azerbaijani residents of Russia and their native lands. Initially, Russia should attempt to establish interaction between the two ethnic groups, which regard one another cautiously, if not with animosity.
At present, it would be sensible to avoid two problems in the settlement for the time being, as the sides cannot find acceptable compromises. Azerbaijan demands the "liberation" of the regions allegedly occupied by the Armenians and the return of Azerbaijani refugees. Armenia (Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh) demands a solution to the problem of the political and legal status of Nagorny Karabakh. It is obvious that the situation demands compromises, which would at least point to some progress in the conflict's resolution.
Russian diplomacy could certainly provide such solutions. "The liberation" of seven districts occupied by Armenian forces could be separated from the issue of returning refugees, which the Armenians regard as a security threat. It would eliminate both the "Armenian occupation" (a political trauma for Azerbaijan) and the security threat, which is a complicated issue for Armenia. International peacekeeping forces (led by Russia) could be deployed in the seven districts that would become a buffer zone between the conflicting sides, and the Azerbaijani refugees could receive serious material compensation from global financial structures for the loss of property and moral damages. Real progress toward a compromise and signs of certain positive developments in the process (even if they are palliative) could evidently be beneficial both for Russia and for the conflict's resolution, even though the final solution is a long way off.
Russia needs Armenia, a traditional ally, and Azerbaijan, which aside from its geopolitical importance is notable for its public's pro-Russian views. Success in the process of reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan would mean there was no alternative to Russian-Georgian dialogue. Therefore, the key to stability in the entire Caucasus region is the Armenian-Azerbaijani settlement with proactive support from Russia, if it demonstrates the political will.
Sergei Markedonov is the head of the ethnic relations department at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.