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Putin is not the only regime to use fossil fuels for electricity


“Nothing special is happening”, a frustrated local journalist tweeted recently about a humanitarian crisis in his post-Soviet homeland. It’s just our neighbour, she explained, “trying to finish the ethnic cleansing.”

Anush Ghavalyan, a TV presenter, was not talking about Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, but about a disputed region called Nagorno-Karabakh, a self-declared independent republic nestled within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. , but with deep cultural and historical ties to Armenia. A year and a half ago, it became the scene of a bloodbath when energy-rich Azerbaijan sought a violent solution to the century-old dispute over control of the region. Despite the November 2020 ceasefire that sealed Azerbaijan’s partial victory, the persecution of the remaining indigenous Armenian population continues. And, even as the war in Ukraine has brought the world’s attention to the consequences of reliance on Russia for energy, this lesser-known conflict also shines a light on how fossil fuels can become a weapon of coercion – and whether the world is truly ready to break their grip.

After the collapse of the Russian Empire during World War I, the South Caucasus region saw the re-emergence of Armenia and Georgia as independent states, joined by their new neighbor Azerbaijan. Competing territorial claims between the three contributed to their eventual sovietization. Regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin saw an autonomous Armenian province under Azerbaijani administration as a solution to the conflict. Two post-Soviet wars, in the early 1990s and in 2020, proved him wrong.

Part of Stalin’s calculation was based on economics: Azerbaijan’s energy wealth made it more important to him. All these years later, the country is still a case study in how control of energy resources creates geopolitical power. But all of Nagorno-Karabakh’s natural gas – which is its main source of heat, hot water and electricity – comes from a single pipeline that runs from the lifeline of the disputed region, Armenia. Since the 2020 war, part of the territory crossed by the pipeline has been controlled by Azerbaijan, which means that Azerbaijan has the de facto power to turn gas on and off at will.

Just a few weeks ago, on March 8, International Women’s Day, Nagorno-Karabakh’s primary energy supply was abruptly cut off. People first joked that the Azerbaijani authorities, believed to be behind the shutdown, were praising the women of Nagorno-Karabakh, giving them a break to cook or shower.

But the problem persisted for weeks. All homes and critical infrastructure in the region were affected: hospitals, schools, bakeries. March was unusually cold this year, with heavy snow and freezing temperatures. There are not enough electric radiators or boilers, nor extra electricity to compensate for the gas. Azerbaijan has denied blowing up the pipeline. A member of the ruling party noted that the Armenians themselves had damaged the pipeline to smear Azerbaijan: “It’s an Armenian plot, Armenian garbage.” But, following a outcryAzerbaijan repaired the pipeline, but only restored supply for a short weekend without acknowledging intentional damage, while installing, according to Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, a shut-off valve.

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An authoritarian regime harnessing fossil fuels to subjugate a people seeking self-determination is neither new nor unique. Experts have used the term “petro-aggression” to argue that oil-rich regimes are more prone to conflict. Others have argued that at the national level, an overreliance on oil is linked to repression, as resource-rich states are less dependent on tax-paying citizens and therefore less likely to heed their voice. To overcompensate for illegitimacy, authoritarian states often rely on a demonized enemy to rally against.

Among the Armenians, Ilham Aliyev, who was president of Azerbaijan for 18 years, has found the perfect enemy. In his own words, “Our main enemies are the Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians under their control.”

The gas crisis is not the first time Aliyev’s line of thinking has found expression. Since replacing his father as president in 2003, Aliyev has, according to an Azerbaijani dissident in exile, “elevated Armenophobia to the level of fascist Germany’s anti-Semitism.” In 2005-2006, Aliyev completed the erasure of more than 28,000 medieval Armenian monuments in the Nakhichevan enclave, which were supposed to be protected by UNESCO but which Aliyev now says never existed. And 2012 saw his extradition, pardon and promotion of a remorseless Azerbaijani officer who killed his sleeping Armenian classmate during NATO training in Hungary. State-sponsored demonization of Armenians extends to denial of the Armenian Genocide of World War I and dismissal of Armenian history as false. Azerbaijani dissidents who challenge this narrative are swiftly punished. Aged Akram Aylisli, once Azerbaijan’s most revered author, now lives under house arrest for writing a novel commemorating the Armenian antiquity of his birthplace.

Today, Armenian cemeteries newly occupied by Azerbaijan are being bulldozed, as Caucasus Heritage Watch satellites show, while other historic sites are being proclaimed “artificially aged” or stolen.

The feeling that Armenians deserve to be punished for the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s, to avenge the massively displaced Azerbaijani population who lived as poor refugees for decades, continued in Azerbaijan, despite the fact that it brutally conquered most of the disputed regions of Nagorno-Karabakh. end of 2020. Last March, when Italian journalist Claudio Locatelli interviewed an Azerbaijani volunteer soldier in Ukraine, what Aliyev calls “the Azerbaijani model of multiculturalism” was on full display. “We are all brothers: Muslims, Jews, Christians,” boasted the soldier. But when asked about Armenians, he said “they are worse than animals”.

Demoralizing the remaining Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh into self-exile is the obvious goal. But such a policy requires tacit international approval in the form of near-universal silence.

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine gave Aliyev the opportunity he needed. In fact, the West’s estrangement from Russian energy sources has given Azerbaijan even more power than before. In early February, the EU announced a two billion euro package in exchange for Azerbaijani natural gas to compensate for anticipated shortages of Russian exports. Then, the day before the invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan signed a treaty of alliance with Russia. On Thursday, the American Embassy in Baku tweeted the receipt of more than $30 million in equipment sent to Azerbaijan by the US Department of Defense; earlier this year, the United States Government Accountability Office called out the Departments of State and Defense for failing to provide Congress with adequate information on aid to Azerbaijan, which is supposed to be restricted except in specific circumstances.

The weather is warming up in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan can turn the gas on and off whenever it wants. That short window of gas supply restoration for just one weekend? Shortly after, the local United Nations office in Azerbaijan agreed to attend an event in a city that has seen several rounds of ethnic cleansing, most recently of Armenians in 2020. The presence of international organizations in the territories newly conquered is essential to legitimize Aliyev’s proposition that “territorial integrity” is a license for ethnic cleansing.

Read more: The United States buys little oil from Russia. Its ban will still have big consequences

Following the March 18 UN event, the Azerbaijani army captured another Armenian village in Nagorno-Karabakh, while harassing many other villages with loudspeakers, telling residents to ‘evacuate’ , without any reason. The entire population of Parukh town is now homeless. After public statements from Moscow, Paris and Washington on this ceasefire violation, Azerbaijan said it would, you guessed it, restore gas supplies. As of this writing, the gas is back. But no one knows for how long. “If every day we have to give natural gas to a village,” a resident of Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital and largest city, Stepanakert, told a TV reporter, “we don’t need this gas natural”.

As seen in the sanctions against Russia, fossil fuels are no longer bulletproof shields in international relations. This is a sign of hope: many countries have shown that they are ready to look for other sources or to accelerate their green energy transitions, rather than letting aggressiveness slip away.

And yet the White House should continue to waive the only sanction against Azerbaijan, Section 907. Despite acknowledging the Armenian Genocide last year, the Biden administration apparently sees no dilemma in limiting its response. to the crisis to sporadic statements of “deep concern”. “Even USAID chief Samantha Power, an anti-genocide advocate and longtime friend of the Armenian-American community, is not pushing for substantial new humanitarian aid for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Today, Aliyev is using the energy to light up Nagorno-Karabakh, one “nothing special is happening” at a time. Tomorrow its genocidal aggression will continue – unless the West shows it is ready to stand up to Azerbaijan too and live without its natural gas. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh have a lot of experience doing without it.

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