“I actually see a prospect of the Karabakh normalization. It could be very sudden,” – Georgi M. Derluguian, Associate Professor, Social Research and Public Policy at New York University Abu Dhabi, says in an interview to the Caucasus Institute.  

The expert offers, firstly, to take a look at the international environment around the South Caucasus where he sees great unknowns, as he puts it. According to Derluguian, all three regional powers surrounding the South Caucasus – Iran, Turkey, and Russia – are experiencing, to put it mildly, great challenges, at the present. This adds a lot of unpredictability to the situation in Karabakh.

“Iran is fighting for its survival. The question which is usually posed regarding the Islamic Republic in the West puts it in a dichotomy: is it moving towards a more authoritarian or more democratic regime? I think this is a wrong dichotomy like the majority of dichotomies,” says Derluguian suggesting that the actual dilemma for the Islamic Republic is getting out of the war mold in which it has existed almost from the outset, or disintegration of the country. In this sense, he compares the country to the Soviet Union. “It was not so much the question whether the Soviet Union was going to become democratic or authoritarian. It was whether the Soviet Union was going to survive at all,” he explains adding that “The Islamic Republic exists today because from the outset it was shaped by the attack from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it survived a major war and it survived it very much like the Soviet Union in the Second World War.”

The expert draws a conclusion that the Islamic Republic is rather a guerilla state than a republic, emerging from the Iran-Iraqi War. In his words, most of the political and social structures, and the identity of the country were shaped primarily there. Therefore, the question is whether the current expansion of Iranian geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East, expansion into the vacuum created by the failure of the United States in Iraq and now in Syria, doesn’t seem to be sustainable in the long-run. “So, Iran is trying to leave out its dream of spreading the revolution, which brings a lot of counter-pressure from the Gulf monarchies, the United States and Israel. So, we, here in the South Caucasus, are somewhere on the periphery of this great conflict. But we must not forget that this is what is going to define the region in the coming years,” Derluguian emphasizes.

On the other hand, there is, of course, Russia, which is also in conflict with almost the entire core of the capitalist world system. “It is capitalist Russia now, it is not the socialist Soviet Union. But it is oligarchic and militaristic Russia, which is trying now to upgrade its position in the world system, to bring back at least some of its lost positions after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, by pursuing what I would call a daring foreign policy. So far this policy paid off in Syria, but very much like with Iranian ambitions, it can’t be sustainable in the long run,” thinks Derluguian mentioning the conflict in Ukraine as a factor creating a huge psychological and financial pressure on Russia, accompanied by the respective economic repercussions.

And then comes Turkey. Derluguian considers that the model of the 21st century Turkey has been all but undone. “First, the reforms of Tayyip Erdogan and then especially in the aftermath of the coup attempt of 2016. What was undone was not just the Kemalism, but the whole elite, which was associated with the secular and highly in-egalitarian model of Turkish Republic.” Derlugian reminds that the backbone of that model was the army, one of the biggest armies, which was prudently never used during the existence of the Turkish Republic, except for the very beginning of the formation of the Republic, the so-called Turkish war of independence, and later on a minor episode of Turkey’s participation in the Korean War. “Turkey is beginning to participate in the regional conflicts, I mean Syria primarily and of course the huge challenge of Kurdish insurgency, which is not going away. At the same time after all the political events in Turkey, to put it mildly, the question is not only about the loyalty of the Turkish army, i.e. how loyal are the remaining officers to Erdogan’s regime, but simply of their professionalism,” he says adding that “The people who are familiar with Soviet history mostly compare it to the deportations of 1937, The Great Terror, which Stalin launched against his own military. Yes, probably it comes to that scale if not in the direct extermination but at least in the turn over in the elites.”

As Derluguian puts it, there are three unknowns: Iran, Turkey, and Russia. And the last unknown is Azerbaijan itself, while since the revolution of 2018 Armenia is relatively known. “When I look at Azerbaijan I cannot help feeling that I am looking at Iran of 1960s. That is Shah’s Iran: an oil state with the dynastic ruling elite, enormous discrepancies between the rich and poor, extremely ambitious and showing off modernization aspirations. And if that is going to implode I doubt that it will be a liberal revolution of any kind, a democratic revolution,” he says. Hence, who would be able to direct the blow would be either the Islamists, or there will be no direction. And here comes the most interesting part. Dr. Derluguian suggests that in this possible and sudden implosion of state one can see a prospect of the Karabakh normalization: “It could be very sudden. Because after 30 years of trying to overcome the Armenian challenge, primarily by violent and military means, Ilham Aliev might suddenly change the game and become a peace-maker. It might be to his own benefit, but it remains to be seen what is going on there.”

The interview was conducted by Gohar Martirosyan

The post is part of a project on Engaging society and decision-makers in dialogue for peace over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict implemented by the Caucasus Institute and funded by the UK Government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. The opinions and statements that are made in the publication may not coincide with the official position of the UK Government.

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