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Armenia Azerbaijan conflict: India should monitor Turkey-Pakistan nexus, says former ambassador

A file photo from Sept. 29, 2020 shows damage in the Nagorno-Karabakh region (Photo by Tofik Babayev/Xinhua/IANS)

Achal Malhotra is the former Indian ambassador to Armenia and Georgia. He recently wrote the book, The South Caucasus: Transition from Subjugation to Independence Tracing India’s Footprints.

Malhotra speaks with India Narrative about his book, the Armenia and Azerbaijan war and also India’s relations with the South Caucasus. He says that the war has many lessons for India in understanding conflict, diplomacy and geo-politics and it will need to keep an eye on the Turkey-Pakistan relationship.

What motivated you to write a book on a region that Indians hardly know about?

The lack of awareness about the South Caucasus in India was indeed one of the factors which motivated me to write the book. I developed domain knowledge of the region both as a student of Russian language, culture and history and as a diplomat who served as India’s Ambassador to both Armenia and Georgia. I thought it important to provide a comprehensive analytical overview of the region in totality, covering all local, regional, and international dimensions.

The book documents the painful transitions which the people of the region have unfortunately undergone in the past decades: from subjugation under medieval Empires (Russian, Persian and Ottoman) to subservience under the Soviet system. Much of the emphasis in the book is on the defining moments in the modern history of the region since its emergence as an independent sovereign entity in 1991, continued contest between major global and regional powers for a foothold in the region and unresolved ethno-territorial conflicts.

Equally important is the lack of awareness about India’s links with the region: imagine Hindu settlements in Armenia from 149 BC onwards and their peaceful co-existence with Pagan Armenians for over 450 years; presence of a temple with inscriptions in Devanagari and Gurmukhi near Baku in Azerbaijan or of Tamil manuscripts on a palm leaf, preserved in Yerevan or the glorious past in India of the Armenians, Georgians and Azerbaijanis in medieval and early modern period of history.

Does the Armenian-Azerbaijan war over Nagorno-Karabakh war hold lessons for India?

The entire world has a lesson to draw from the Armenia-Azerbaijan war over Nagorno-Karabakh. If resolution of ethno-territorial disputes through peaceful negotiations is prolonged beyond a point, the aggrieved parties can resort to military means. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the USA, Russia and France was managing the conflict for over 25 years rather than resolving it.

Turkey with its vested interest to get a foothold in the region and also to project itself as a leader of the global Islamic community exploited Azerbaijan’s growing impatience and not only provoked it to retrieve its occupied territories through use of military force but also provided material support in the war, including the alleged supply of mercenaries. So did Pakistan, which abuses Azerbaijan as its proxy for raising the Kashmir issue at multilateral forums such as the OIC.

Needless to say, India has to closely monitor the Turkey-Pakistan nexus to pre-empt any misadventure on their part in Kashmir. The studied silence on the part of global players during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should reassure India that if ever Pakistan and its allies create an adverse situation, India can invoke the principle of right to defend its territorial integrity and exercise the option of use of force to retrieve Pakistan Occupied Kashmir without fear of censure by the international community. I hope such situation does not arise.

The conflict also highlights the weaknesses of the global institutional mechanisms such as the UN Security Council, and underline the need for their reforms.

Israel’s ties with Azerbaijan must be seen as a part of Israel’s policy to increasingly engage Islamic countries, including Azerbaijan, which shares borders with Iran—Israel’s sworn enemy. Further, from Azerbaijan’s perspective Israel was a willing source of arms supplies which it needed to strengthen its military capacities to be used eventually in its war with Armenia.

Do you think India should make an active policy and engage better with the three nations in the South Caucasus?

India was quick in according recognition to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia on their emergence as independent countries in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union at the end 1991 and also in establishing formal diplomatic relations soon after. However, the region was not on India’s radar in initial years when the focus was first on the Russian Federation and later on Central Asia. At present, there is a visible asymmetry in India’s relations with the three countries in the region; this is largely because of the different political and ideological trajectories adopted by them: Georgia is for complete integration with Euro-Atlantic structures; Armenia is torn between Russia and the West whereas Azerbaijan maintains equidistance from Russia and the West.

Some extraneous reasons such as Azerbaijan’s close proximity with Pakistan and Georgia’s poor relations with India’s strategic partner Russia have also been a factor. India has a high degree of political understanding with Armenia, which is not the case with other two countries in the region.

Though there is no “South Caucasus Policy”, yet India must accelerate its engagement in the region to derive maximum benefits without being influenced by intra-regional dynamics or extraneous factors. India must respond to Georgia’s request to establish a resident diplomatic mission in Tbilisi. It is a good sign that the market forces have so far prevailed over political considerations as far as trade and investment matters are concerned.

Fortunately, there are no serious bilateral irritants in relations with any of the three countries. As India aspires to emerge as a global player, support from the region can be useful for India in pursuing its goal of reforms of institutions of global governance. The region also offers itself as a transit hub for connectivity with Russia and Europe. Finally, there are raw materials like uranium, oil and gas, and even technologies in the field of seismic sciences, which India can procure from the region.

Do you think the south Caucasus region can enable India to diversify its energy resources or provide it accessible routes to Russia?

The answer is yes, though limitations arise from the fact that only Azerbaijan is endowed with oil and gas and India’s relations with Azerbaijan get overshadowed by the latter’s proximity to Pakistan and willingness to act as its proxy on issues like Kashmir. Nevertheless, India has been importing Azeri oil, though the quantities are relatively small. India’s ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) has invested in the energy sector in Azerbaijan and the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) has entered into an MoU with the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan to jointly pursue opportunities in LNG. Closer ties with Azerbaijan can help India diversify its sources of energy to some extent.

Located on the cross-roads of Asia and Europe, the region offers good opportunities as a transit hub for getting access to Russia and Europe. The International North-South Transport Corridor is one such example, which will not only cut the costs but also help India bypass Pakistan. Further, Indian goods destined for Turkey and in Europe can branch off at Baku and use the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey) passenger and freight rail link inaugurated in October 2017. If and when Armenia’s borders with Turkey reopen, it can provide another option for India to reach Turkey and beyond via Iran and Armenia. In short, connectivity with the region is of immense importance.

Can India find a market for defence items, IT, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and medical tourism in the south Caucasus?

India has recently sold indigenous Swathi Weapon Locating Radars to Armenia under a $40million defence deal. India’s private sector must explore the possibilities of collaborating with Armenian and Georgian counterparts to benefit from tariff and other concessions which these two countries enjoy by virtue of their respective special trading arrangements with the USA and EU.

India’s investments in the manufacturing sector in the Special Economic Zones in these countries can be considered for exports to third countries. The World Bank and IMF funded projects in these countries also offer good opportunities for the Indian private sector to participate in competitive bids. At the government level, India can enhance its footprint by undertaking projects to be funded through soft loans, Line of Credit or even on outright-grant basis.

All three countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, are pursuing different political and regional agendas – much like the Gulf countries. Do you think India can balance its relations with the countries in the south Caucasus?

India has so far followed a balanced and pragmatic approach in dealing with individual countries in the region. It has refrained from taking strong partisan positions on intra-regional conflicts. India has dealt with each country on the basis of merit, their level of outreach towards India and also on the basis of sensitivities shown by them towards India’s concerns. I am sure India will be able to follow the policy of de-hyphenation in this region as it has successfully done elsewhere and build relations on the basis of mutual interests.