War in the Caucasus as a window on what brings peace

A serious eruption of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a test for the idea that democracies are less inclined to use war to distract from domestic woes.

In a TV address Sept. 27, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev gestures as he addresses the nation about fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In the latest ranking of nations based on their “peacefulness,” the small landlocked nation of Armenia in the Caucasus region showed the most progress. It shot up 15 places on the Global Peace Index to 99. This was largely due to a nonviolent revolution in 2018 that restored much of its democracy. Since Sunday, however, Armenia has been embroiled in a dangerous war over disputed territory with its neighbor Azerbaijan. That country, with an authoritarian leader, ranks only 120 on the index.

Just who started this war is not yet clear. Yet the answer would be telling. Is democracy a deterrent to war? And do dictators initiate external conflicts more often to retain power? Perhaps the way this war ends will shed light on which of the two governments needed to fight a foreign enemy.

Among some experts, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has the greater incentive to rally his people around the flag. The pandemic has greatly reduced revenue from exports of oil and gas. Social grievances, especially over police brutality, are piling up. During a short military skirmish with Armenia in July, a pro-government demonstration quickly turned against the regime.

Mr. Aliyev has reason to worry over his popularity. He also has turned to Turkey for military help, fired an official in charge of peace talks with Armenia, and spent millions on advanced weapons.

In contrast, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is known for his role as a no-violence activist who led the protests that brought down an authoritarian government. His view of security is less in building up the military and more in fighting corruption, improving rule of law, and encouraging self-governance. While he faces tough political opponents from the previous regime, he remains popular.

Since the 1990s, the two countries have struggled over Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority-ethnic Armenian enclave under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction. As Armenia has moved toward full democracy, the conflict has become a test of whether that form of government better allows grievances to be addressed and reduces nationalist aggression as a way to distract from domestic problems.

In the past decade, during a time of global decline in democracy, the vast majority of the increase in armed conflict has taken place in authoritarian regimes, according to the Institute for Economics & Peace. In addition, authoritarian regimes spent 3.7% of gross national product on military expenditures in 2019. Full democracies spent only 1.4% of GDP.

The current Armenia-Azerbaijan war may end with outside mediation by big powers. Yet the real end to the underlying conflict will come with a full blossoming of democracy in both countries. In recent centuries, progress against violence has been linked to a rise in freedom and equality.  

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