Timothy Colton: “The economic disparity between Armenia and Azerbaijan is becoming more obvious”

Timothy Colton: “The economic disparity between Armenia and Azerbaijan is becoming more obvious”

Professor Timothy Colton is an expert on Russian politics, the head of the Political Science Department at Harvard University. He told Vestnik Kavkaza about the situations surrounding Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran and Turkey.

-          What is your opinion about the US’s reaction to Russia’s activity in Syria?

-          Obviously, the relations between our two countries have been pretty bad for three years now, from back in 2012 in Syria, just the latest serious issues. I don’t think that we are as deeply divided as we were on the Ukrainian crisis last year; I think this is something different.

 The US has not really officially questioned Russia’s right to be involved. So Russian airplanes are there at the invitation of the government of Syria, the US recognizes the Assad government, doesn’t like it, but you know that the government has an embassy in Washington. The US criticism has been about two things. One of them is tactics.

It almost seemed to some observers as if the Russian government was seeking to embarrass President Obama, because Putin and Obama agreed to meet in Washington, which they did, and only a few days later Russia started the bombing campaign. This is not a very diplomatic way to do it. So I think in the short term there’s concern about that.

But more fundamentally, I think the issue is really not about the two countries, the two outside great powers, but about the internal coalition or constellation of forces within Syria and particularly about whether or not it’s appropriate to cooperate with the Assad government. I think that’s the great question at the moment.

Russia is quite happy to do that, as it has an ally with a real army on the ground, so it’s understandable. The US refuses to do so because they say this is an illegitimate government. However, whether this is the last disagreement, I think it’s over the need to find some kind of way through diplomacy and negotiation to bring an end to the conflict.

I think both sides agree that this is a very high priority for the world, neither Russia nor the US obviously have any territorial designs on Syria. The breakdown of the Syrian state is pretty dramatic. And this is almost in Europe, it is almost in your country. I think that Obama’s administration has the knowledge that Assad cannot be moved on day one. This is what the American policy was until recently.

The US is still insisting that Assad has to go because of the crimes, if you like, that he has committed, but this will happen as part of a process in which there will be many players. And this is not so far, not so dramatically far from the Russian position, if again you read into what Russia does implicitly, rather than what we all are doing explicitly.

-          How are relations between the USA and Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia?

-          These are three different countries. They are in the South Caucasus, but they are so different from one another. I think Azerbaijan is largely seen as an energy supplier, whose wider relationship was formed in the 1990s over pipelines. Georgia was very much a project for the Bush administration. Its relations with Washington are now cooler, less close. Armenia is different, in that there is a large or significant diaspora within the US, which is interested in Armenia’s problems; most of these people are of Armenian origin; many of them are living in my own city of Boston, by the way. So there is a domestic basis for American policy that takes Armenia’s interests to count.

I think when you look at the three countries together it’s hard to see that the US is moving the general situation in any particular direction. It struggles with the Karabakh dilemma like everybody else does. It doesn’t want another war, just like Russia doesn't. It would be catastrophic for Russia actually.

So American policy towards the Caucasus is in somewhat of a jumble for the moment, I think. And I don’t think this is going to change any time soon.

-          In your opinion, what are the possibilities of a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

-          The most intractable conflicts are the ones of territory, when you have two rivals claiming the same piece of land. Could it be divided? I don’t think too many Armenians or Azerbaijanis would say that it could. But partition is sometimes used historically when you have conflicts of that kind. The economic disparity between the two countries is becoming more and more obvious, as Azerbaijan gets wealthier and it is as much as three times the population of Armenia. And its leadership now pretty regularly makes threats to use military force. And of course, Azerbaijan has the support of Turkey, which is a NATO country. So I think that most American policymakers wish it would just go away, but it won’t go away. I think America’s main position here is negotiation. The one thing where everybody would lose would be another war, which would potentially be a devastating thing.

-          What has changed in Iranian-American relations after the signing of the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program?

-          Certainly, many other players in the Middle East are concerned that the US and Iran are going to become very close. They are going to start cooperating on a much wider range of issues.

I think that Russia has now much closer relations with Iran on the Syrian issue. It is going to lead to a kind of a competition between Washington and Moscow for the affections of Iran. So it seems that an absolutely locked-in conflict is not becoming much looser. Iran is a very large country with a lot of economic potential. It has a fantastic cultural heritage, I mean it’s a country that was isolated for far too long and it’s going to seek to advance its interests as well. We don’t know for the moment how far it’s going to go. The first steps in implementing the nuclear deal are, of course, just beginning. But a number of countries in the region, including Israel and the Gulf States, are concerned that the US and Iran are going to become too close to one another.

-          What can you say about the development of the American-Turkish relationship?

-          Turkey is of course a very important member of NATO, and it’s right next to Syria, right next to Iraq. And the two countries have had a very close military relationship since 1950. Turkey is its own boss, its own master. I mean, it has a pretty independent foreign policy. And it has a leader Erdogan who is determined that Turkey will find its own path forward.

There is a number of points of tension, I mean definitely since 2012-2013 Turkey has been unhappy that the US doesn’t take a more forward position on Syria, including a no-fly zone and things of that nature. Turkey’s domestic policy had also become rather unpredictable and unstable. They are going to hold national parliamentary elections on November 1st, which would maybe help to settle how much Erdogan, the new president, is going to be able to make these decisions on his own. If it’s on a coalition basis, then things are going to be even more complicated. 

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