This is the first article of my series on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Thank you for your interest!
One of my recurring nightmares is me hiking in the mountains and accidentally crossing the border to Azerbaijan. Then, my silly dream-ego struggles to come up with lies to hide my Armenian identity. In one version, I speak broken Persian, in another one I just pretend to be an Indian who grew up in Germany. Luckily, I always wake up before my lies are exposed.
On 27th September, I didn’t have a bad dream, I woke up to a bad reality. The first thing I read in the morning was the ominous and ambiguous message from my brother: “What the hell, what the hell is going on here. Have you seen it?” I opened Facebook and saw a myriad of posts with the hashtag #Հաղթելուենք (#WeWillWin). Then I knew for sure. The war had started. Azerbaijan had pulled the trigger.
People call the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan a “frozen” one but anyone remotely familiar with the issue knows how deceptive that description is. A tremendous storm was brewing under the thin ice of the 1994 ceasefire, ready to be unleashed anytime. But what is all the fuss about? The long story is about countless broken human lives on both sides. The short answer is human irrationalism. Let me give you the long-short story.
There are historical claims from both sides about which nation is more ancient, about demographic shifts and mutual atrocities, but in this series, I will focus on the recent history and the key issues that, I think, are important to understand this conflict. Obviously, I am biased towards the Armenian side but I will try my best to give an honest perspective, which is open to be challenged.
The map above shows the current situation. The Nagorno-Karabakh region together with surrounding areas is under Armenian control. Technically, it is controlled by the armed forces of the Republic of Artsakh, a self-declared, de facto independent state on that area. Practically though, Armenia is the main supporter of this tiny state with 150,932 inhabitants.
Under international law, these areas belong to Azerbaijan and the independence of Artsakh is not recognized by any country, including Armenia. This fact is often used to portray us as ruthless invaders but well, the reality is much more complex.
In 1918, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan declared independence from Russia and formed their first republics. There were territorial claims between all of these countries, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region was an apple of discord between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflict was solved in favor of Azerbaijan when Bolsheviks took over Transcaucasia, and the Sovietization of the region begun.
Why did they assign this Armenian-majority (~94%) region to Azerbaijan? In his book “Black garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war”, British analyst Thomas de Waal suggests different hypotheses. One option is that Azerbaijan’s oil made Bolsheviks more eager to please them than Armenia. Another reason might be that geographically it was separated from Armenia by mountains and thus, economic integration might have been easier within Azerbaijan. Finally, pleasing Muslim Azerbaijan might have served as a bait for other Muslim countries in the region, such as Iran and Turkey, to join the communist cause. Whatever the reason, Nagorno-Karabakh became an autonomous region within Azerbaijan, without considering the will of its inhabitants.
The coexistence of Armenians and Azerbaijanis during Soviet era was peaceful at the surface. However, people in Nagorno-Karabakh did not feel comfortable as part of Azerbaijan. In my understanding, one reason was the massive historical negationism and cultural appropriation in Azerbaijan, in an attempt to remove any mention of Armenian existence on their territories. Besides, with an increasing Azerbaijani population, the local Armenians feared another de-Armenization, a tragedy that Armenians had experienced over and over again throughout history. A New York Times article from 1977 reports about ethnic Armenians complaining about “cultural oppression, economic discrimination and other ethnic disadvantages”.
There were numerous attempts to peacefully convince Moscow to change the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, to make it part of Soviet Armenia, all in vain. The tensions rose as the USSR was nearing to its end, escalating in full-scale war in 1992. After two years of military fighting and ~30.000 lost lives on both sides, the sides agreed to a ceasefire in 1994, leaving the above-mentioned territories under Armenian control.
If you are an Azerbaijani and feel furious that I’m not talking about Khojaly massacre and internally displaced people (IDPs) at this point, bear with me, I will talk about the human cost in a separate article. Fellow Armenians, I will of course talk about pogroms organized by Azerbaijanis as well.
Since then, the negotiations to achieve final peace agreement have been basically fruitless. Formally, the clash is between the international law supporting territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and the right of the people in Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination. An optimistic approach would assume that
a) Azerbaijan could recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh
b) Armenian forces could withdraw from the regions of the surrounding buffer zone, except for some parts to connect Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh
In theory, this solution would serve justice to the people of both nations. However, there are several issues hindering this option, which, in my opinion, have not been given enough attention by the international community. These are my thoughts, which I’ll try to explain in the next articles:
- The belittlement of the Armenian fear of genocide as some kind of nationalist paranoia. Yes, the Armenian Genocide was commited by Turkey more than 100 years ago and it may seem irrelevant to the current topic but it’s not.
- The role of the highly authoritarian government in Azerbaijan and state-sponsored Anti-Armenian sentiment (don’t worry, I will cover Anti-Azerbaijani sentiment as well)
- The shallow and toothless coverage of the conflict by the international community
- The stereotypes and misunderstandings in the societies of both countries
Some people suggest that the 4th point is the most important. I agree that it’s important for a long-lasting peace and coexistence but I think it cannot be the starting point. Don’t get me wrong, I like and fully support the idea but much to my own disappointment, it doesn’t seem realistic.
In the next part, I give a short introduction to the Armenian Genocide.