Updated at 13:33,29-11-2021

What dangers do the clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh bring for Belarus?

Aliaksandr Filipau, BelarusDigest

Saturday 2 April witnessed intensive clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijan forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The same day Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka ordered the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Relations to start consultations with their Armenian and Azerbaijan colleagues.

Moreover, the Belarusian leader held telephone conversations with Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev and Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan. In spite of Belarus’ membership of the OSCE Minsk group, which has been the only more or less active platform for negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since 1992, this reaction of the Belarusian authorities demonstrates their deeper interests and concerns about the situation.

Lukashenka’s interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Some experts consider Belarusian activities in the current conflict as a continuation of Lukashenka’s policy to transform Belarus into a kind of regional Switzerland that provides a reliable platform for solving regional and even global issues.

However, the Ukrainian case remains the only example of relative active Belarusian participation in the process of conflict resolution. Other recent initiatives, including statements to promote Minsk as a place to resolve the Middle Eastern conflict, look extremely odd and ambitious for a country such as Belarus.

Nevertheless, Lukashenka’s interest to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is much older than the Ukrainian war. In November 2009 the Belarusian president rather unexpectedly made several statements on this issue, emphasising Belarusian interests in engaging to resolve other conflicts in the post-Soviet space.

There are permanent rumours within the Belarusian establishment that the main reason for Lukashenka’s peace initiatives was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to US president Barack Obama in October 2009. Lukashenka is rumoured to have given orders to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “win” the Nobel Peace Prize for him.

However, the apparent lack of Belarusian capacity to influence the process, deteriorating relations with the West after the presidential elections in December 2010, the economic crisis of 2011 and Lukashenka's receipt of the parody Ig Peace Nobel Prize in 2013 definitely cooled the president's ambitions.

One might claim that Belarus' more or less successful experience in conflict resolution in the case of Ukraine and recent improvements in relations between Belarus and the West give Lukashenka a new chance to pursue his “peacekeeper” position in the region, regardless of the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the year 2016 differs from the year 2009.

Belarus’ interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

In January 2015 Armenia officially jointed the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) free trade bloc. The absence of a common border between Armenia and the other EEU member states seems non-conducive for economic integration and has caused numerous concerns in Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has expressed these concerns clearly, pointing out the unclear status of Nagorno-Karabakh in the EEU. Belarus refrained from making direct statements on this issue, but the Belarusian authorities have joined their colleagues from Kazakhstan in discussing this issue at a number of working meetings.

The governments of Belarus and Kazakhstan believe that Armenia will play the role of 100% Russian ally in the EEU management and policy-making, and will promote the idea of transforming the EEU from an economic union into a politically and militarily integrated entity.

Armenia considers Nagorno-Karabakh a key issue for its own national survival. No Armenian politician admits even the theoretical possibility of returning Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Armenian officials, as well as society in general, completely understand the growing gap between the military capacities of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s economic vulnerability compared to Azerbaijan, its full dependence on arms supplies from Russia and Russia’s key influence on the dynamics of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

According to some estimates, the military budget of Azerbaijan exceeds Armenia’s military budget eight to nine times. Russia has supplied weapons to Azerbaijan worth a total of about $5bn, while to Armenia supplies totaled only about $400m (however, such a comparison should take into consideration lower prices for Armenia).

In this context, official Yerevan is seeking ways to secure sustainable and incontrovertible Russia’s support for the Armenian position in the conflict. Russia’s intentions to promote deeper integration, including furthering political and military rapprochement, match Armenia’s goals. Since Armenia joined the EEU, Russia has strengthened its forces at the Erebuni military airbase and has intensified the integration of the Armenian air defence forces into the Russian air defense system.

Unfortunately, these intentions contradict the interests of Belarus and Kazakhstan, who would like to preserve the purely economic character of the EEU. Both governments understand that Russia and Armenia could use the current clashes as a precedent to strengthen the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and / or further deeper integration within the framework of the EEU.

The current Nagorno-Karabakh clashes in the context of Belarusian foreign policy

Belarus’ positions on the current clashes appears to be one of the most critical towards Armenia. While Kazakhstan has called for an immediate ceasefire and a solely peaceful solution of the conflict, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called for strengthening the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

This fact demonstrates Belarus’ deep concerns about the “politisation” of the current clashes. The issue of the Russian airbase in Belarus, which has still not been officially removed from agenda, sparks these concerns. Even Kazakhstan, which has directly supported the position of Azerbaijan in recent years, has not risked mentioning the principle of territorial integrity.

Until April 2016, Belarus maintained close political and economic cooperation with both main parties of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as a balance between respecting the positions of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Baku’s financial support for Belarus during the gas conflict with Russia in 2010, as well as close personal relations between Lukashenka and Aliyev, are no secret.

Despite Azerbaijan’s more significant economic importance for Belarus (both in terms of goods turnover and trade balance), the Belarusian authorities have managed to maintain close relations with a part of the Armenian political and economic elite, in particular with businessman and politician Gagik Tsarukyan.

The Armenian authorities reacted immediately. The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded on 3 April explanations from the Belarus Ambassador to Armenia, emphasising its deep bewilderment because of Belarus’ position.

Whether Armenia will forget Belarus' calls for “territorial integrity” and be satisfied with the Belarusian ambassador’s explanations remain under question.

Risking relations with Armenia

Neither party in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict expected Belarus’ support in the current clashes, nor do they need it. However, Belarus understands that these clashes have a far less local character than they would have several years ago.

Belarus’ direct engagement in deeper military and political integration with Russia has become increasingly unavoidable, while it completely contradicts the authorities’ intentions. Only an immediate ceasefire and return of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into a “frozen” one can prevent Belarus from a clear withdrawal from further Russian initiatives such as the long-planned airbase in Belarus.

It seems that Belarus is more ready to risk its relations with Armenia than to support de-facto strengthening of Russia’s role in the region.