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Interview with Thomas de Waal

Thomas de Waal is a British journalist and writer who is an expert on the Caucasus. Currently, he is a senior associate specialising primarily in the South Caucasus region at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an international foreign policy think tank. De Waal is best known for his 2003 book Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. On March 12th, Arjen Berkvens, director of the Foundation Max van der Stoel, had the opportunity to interview De Waal about the recent developments and last year’s conflict in the region.

“It is not a conflict rooted in ancient hatreds” De Waal says about the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. The two peoples have gotten along historically, culturally they share a lot and in the past, they have always done business with each other. The disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region means a great deal to both countries, and both have claims on the region. However, as long as there was a Russian empire ruling both Armenia and Azerbaijan, every conflict that seemed to flare up, was ended by solutions imposed from above. Under the Soviet Union, similarly, the conflict was also contained. It was when the Soviet Union started to weaken due to many democratic currents coming up in the Gorbachev era, that those tensions “immediately” started to break out. A war between the two countries over the region lasted from 1988 until 1994. Armenia emerged victoriously and claimed Nagorno-Karabakh. Many Azerbaijani were displaced. A ceasefire followed, but there was no real and sustainable solution to the issue. 

With such a precarious peace, De Waal describes the region as a “ticking time bomb,” adding: “Will there be a war, was the question we asked ourselves every year.” The unresolved issues between the two nations, the fact Azerbaijan had lost a lot of its territory and had recently been building up its military – all signs that the peace in the region was hanging by a thread. Although the precise moment took him a little by surprise “Like many other people, I probably was not paying attention” says de Waal, the eruption of the conflict did not shock him.

Azerbaijan emerged victorious from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, not in the last place because it received a lot of military training and equipment from Turkey and Israel. “The role of Turkey was crucial,” emphasises De Waal. “Turkey and Azerbaijan are ethnically and culturally similar and see each other as kin, and politically Turkey has always supported Azerbaijan.” Up until quite recently, Turkey wanted a peaceful political solution to the conflict and did not encourage military action from Azerbaijan. But in the last year, president, Erdogan had made a deliberate decision to militarily support the country. In the end, the two presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey shared the military victory. 

For Armenians, this was a very painful memory. The Ottoman Armenians in 1916 were destroyed by Turkey in what most call the Armenian genocide – a definition that Turkey strongly rejects. The fact that the defeat by Azerbaijan had been enabled by Turkey, was “incredibly traumatic for Armenians,” says De Waal.

Another stakeholder in the conflict that was discussed with De Waal, was Russia. Moscow traditionally allied itself with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, with which it shares a land border. “Russia needs both countries equally and had the vision of being a mediator, but Armenia had gotten in the way of this vision,” De Waal explains. He attributes this to the Armenian Pashinian government, which was less flexible and more critical of Russia. “I guess that Moscow deliberately turned a blind eye,” says  de Waal about Russia’s inaction when the conflict erupted. De Waal thinks that Russia saw the Azerbaijani military campaign as a useful incentive that would force Armenia to come back to the negotiation table. But the reality of the conflict was far worse than Russia imagined. The conflict did absolutely not result in the balancing of the scales, but a hard-won victory for Azerbaijan. 

The bloodiness of the conflict was visible to the entire world. “In the past, documentation of wars took weeks, months or even years after the conflict had ended. Now, information is coming out on a mass scale.” Horrible video footage filmed with smartphones, depicting atrocities and executions of prisoners, spread on the internet while the conflict was ongoing.

Asked about the rumours of Syrian fighters being brought into the conflict by Turkey, De Waal says there is ample evidence. Although many Azerbaijani reject this version of the truth, De Waal says that various serious reports from Syria confirm that Turkey hired Syrian mercenaries to be deployed on the southern fronts of the conflict. Many Syrians may have been hired to take part in the conflict under false pretenses, as they were either captured or misled. However, says De Waal, “the full story  remains to be told.”

The two international actors that appeared to be completely absent, were the United States and the EU. For the US, this is quite logical to De Waal. The US had an election going on when the war broke out, and now that Biden is elected, he has a huge domestic and foreign policy task ahead of them, and the Nagorno-Karabakh war is not a priority. The EU’s absence may be more surprising. After all, the EU has an Eastern Partnership scheme and agreements with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yet despite his set-up, the EU did not become an actor of significance in the conflict. “The EU has always struggled to find a role,” De Waal observes, for example, because it was not yet a political entity when the conflict first flared up in the 1990s, and today, it is still not a strong presence on the foreign policy stage. With the EU not finding a voice, the role of potential mediator fell on the larger Member States. However, France could not take on the role of the impartial negotiator because Macron seemed very pro-Armenian, and Germany did not seem keen to get involved. “Thus, the role of mediator automatically defaulted to Russia” according to de Waal. 

“We should also note there are some positive outcomes from this situation,” De Waal points out. One example, is that more than half a million Azerbaijani were displaced in the 1990s, so those people now have the right to return. That question now seems to be resolved.

Forging a more lasting peace remains a vast challenge ahead. The status of Kharabakh – who will govern it and what will be its status – needs to be negotiated, which is going to be “a thankless task” according to De Waal. The first and foremost step is normalization of ties between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with increased trade and economic connectivity, which is impossible without political rapprochement and cooperation on security issues. 

“The two nations live in two different universes,” De Waal says. “99% on one side believe a version of the truth, and 99% of people on the other side believe something else.” He sees this also in the coverage of the issue and the books that have been written about it, which are almost always written from one perspective. Such sentiments do not make  fertile ground for negotiations. Many in Armenia are calling for stronger leadership and retaliation against Azerbaijan. “Neither country seems to have switched off the tap of hate speech” says De Waal.


You can rewatch the full interview here.