x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Caucasus conflict could turn tragedy into wider disaster

The troubles surrounding Azerbaijan could spread to world powers.

I've got to know Parviz Ismailzadeh pretty well over the past couple of years. Parviz is the consul of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Dubai, and since my marriage to an Azeri lady he has been a great help in facilitating the documentation necessary to regularise matters for us and for our young daughter. It was a shock how much paperwork was needed, but Parviz guided us cheerfully through the minefield of post-Soviet bureaucracy and has become a friend. He is an affable man, good company over a good steak, and he has taught me much about the political and economic affairs of Azerbaijan, a fascinating country at an equally fascinating stage in its history.

My trips to Baku, where my in-laws live, are much better informed as a result of my briefings with him. The business and financial affairs of the city, the oil-rich capital of the Caspian, are complex, but a working knowledge of them is crucial to understanding the strategic role of Azerbaijan in the area. Parviz was in unusually sombre mood at an event last Thursday night in Dubai. Along with the ambassador to the UAE, Elkhan Gahramanov, some of the leading lights in the Azeri business and diplomatic community in the Emirates were gathering to commemorate the anniversary of a tragic event in Azerbaijan's history: the massacre of Azeri citizens at the town of Khojali in 1992.

Khojali is in the centre of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Mountainous Black Garden, historically part of Azerbaijan but occupied by forces of the neighbouring (though not neighbourly) republic of Armenia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In February 1992, Armenian forces, with the aid of Russian regular troops, surrounded Khojali as part of their campaign to extend their control of Azeri territory. They offered civilians one exit route to a nearby Azeri-controlled town. When the old men, women and children tried to take that road to safety, they were attacked by soldiers who left 631 dead and seriously injured a couple of thousand more. The American journalist Thomas Goltz describes the result at a nearby morgue in cold, hard prose in his book Azerbaijan Diary, the best single volume on the country's tortured history.

I felt like an interloper at a private tragedy at the Dubai event. My view is coloured by my marital ties with Azerbaijan, and I know Armenia disputes the version of a cold-hearted massacre. They say their forces were fired on by Azeri soldiers among the refugees, and the resulting firefight caused most of the deaths. But you did not need any of this background to understand that something terrible had happened in the burnt-out houses and corpse-strewn fields of Khojali. In the comfort of a Dubai hotel we watched grainy, shaky footage of the consequences of the attack. It was a powerful, disturbing reinforcement - like images of My Lai in Vietnam or Fallujah in Iraq - of what happens when civilians get caught in the military machine.

The Azeris have a list of 31 names of those they believe responsible for the massacre, and have been trying for years to get international police forces and courts involved in their apprehension. The Dubai event was the latest stage of a campaign to get Middle Eastern countries to take up the cause of the Muslim victims of Khojali. The Azeri government also wants the international community to implement its historical claims to Nagorno Karabakh, which have been recognised many times by the UN.

There is a strategic backdrop to this that has repercussions for the UAE, the Gulf countries and the global energy industry. The UAE has been increasing its trade links with Azerbaijan significantly over the past few years. Sultan al Mansouri, the Minister of Economy, heads a committee to further develop UAE-Azerbaijan relations. The GCC has a legitimate interest in matters in the southern Caucasus, through which a large part of central Asian oil and gas supplies pass, and which is increasingly drawing the attention of American and European energy investors. Any conflict there could spark Russian, Iranian and Turkish strategic intervention, for reasons of their historical ties to Azerbaijan and the security of their energy supplies from the Caspian region.

Conflict could still be averted. The Russians have hosted a number of meetings to try to resolve the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, so far unsuccessfully. But at about the same time as I left the sombre men in Dubai, the foreign minister in Baku was telling diplomats that a "great war" in the south Caucasus was inevitable unless Armenia withdrew. That would turn the tragedy of Khojali into the makings of a global disaster.