Nagorno-Karabakh: Understanding the Azeri-Armenian Conflict

By Yousef Nagib (graphic Amelia Ross)

October 3, 2020

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A few days ago, Azeri forces launched an invasion of the highly contested, de facto autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The area has been shelled by Azeri cannons, and there are reports that Azeri forces have targeted children and schools. The assault is a flagrant violation of a 1990s treaty, and is causing serious international concern. But how did we get here?

At the outbreak of World War I, the region known as Armenia was split between two warring powers: The Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey). The Russian Empire had Armenian soldiers in its army during the war, and the Ottomans used this as an excuse to cast doubt on the loyalties of Armenians living in what we now consider eastern Turkey and northern Syria. This perceived “disloyalty” prompted Ottoman officials to undertake a policy of “relocation” of Ottoman Armenians to the middle of the Syrian desert. With little oversight and a war raging in Europe, the Ottoman authorities began systematically massacring the Armenian people. These systematic killings would lead to the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians and one of the first genocides of the 20th century.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a border dispute occurred between the new nation state of Armenia and its eastern neighbor, Azerbaijan. The dispute was centered around the sovereignty of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh has historically been overwhelmingly Armenian in population, but during the dividing up of former Soviet territories, sovereignty of the region was seized by Azerbaijan, despite local preference to be unified with Armenia. This situation erupted into conflict between the two states. Over the course of three years, thousands died, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and pogroms against Armenians were carried out throughout Azerbaijan. In 1994, a ceasefire was negotiated and a fragile peace returned to the region. Since then, Azerbaijan has carried out one of the greatest cultural genocides in modern history, comparable to ISIS’ leveling of Palmyra and China’s suppression of Tibetan culture. Ancient cemeteries, churches, and cultural sites dating back thousands of years have been bulldozed and the Armenian population in Azerbaijan has plummeted from 400,000 in 1989 to between 2,000 and 3,000 as of 2009. Tensions between the two countries have remained tense for decades, with both sides spouting violent rhetoric and vying for political influence over the region.

The Azeri and Turkish people have a deep sense of brotherhood between them. It is said that a Turkish and Azeri are so similar that peoples of the two countries can have a full conversation without any prior experience in the others’ language. Their similar languages and similar ethnicities have led to a “one nation two states” attitude, and has indirectly exacerbated existing mutual disdain for Armenians which is common among the populace of both Turkey and Azerbaijan. As a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and a shared heritage with the Turks, a very potent amount of aggressively anti-Armenian sentiment has festered and grown in Azerbaijan over the past decades. This potent Armenophobia in Azerbaijan is reflected in statements made by Azeri political leaders. In 2012, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, who has held the Presidency since succeeding his deceased father Heydar Aliyev in 2003, described Armenia as “a country of no value… a territory artificially created on ancient Azerbaijani lands.” Aliyev frequently engages in this brand of revisionist history regarding the legitimacy of Armenian claims to their ethnic homeland, and has also referred to Armenians as “barbarians and vandals”. Another, far more disquieting display of anti-Armenian sentiment in Azerbaijan comes from then-Mayor of the Azeri capital, Baku, Hajibala Abutalibov. Abutalibov allegedly told German diplomats “Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and 40s, right? You should be able to understand us” as recently as 2005.

Tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh have ratcheted up in recent years, in particular as a result of the election of anti-establishment firebrand Nikol Pashinyan to the Armenian premiership in 2018, following a peaceful revolution led by Pashinyan against the government of autocrat Serzh Sargsyan. Pashinyan takes a more hardline stance than his predecessors on the territorial dispute, declaring in 2018, “Long live the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which will finally become an inseparable part of Armenia.” And while Pashinyan may have a tough stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, the odds are stacked against him. Superpowers such as Russia would prefer a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and Armenia is sandwiched between two countries whose presidents and governments both harbor an obvious bigotry towards the Armenian people. This is the context that precipitates the current violence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Currently, Azeri forces are bolstered by enthusiastic support from Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly stated his support for Azerbaijan’s “battle against invasion and cruelty,” calling on Armenia to end its “occupation” of Nagorno-Karabakh. In a Spectator USA interview with Prime Minister Pashinyan, the Armenian head of government was asked about the nature of the conflict. Pashinyan emphasized during the interview that this is about nothing more than recognizing the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to self determination, saying “When the collapse of the Soviet Union started… just as Azerbaijan seceded from the Soviet Union, similarly Nagorno-Karabakh seceded from Azerbaijan.” PM Pashinyan went on to blame Azerbaijan for the situation devolving into violence in the first place, saying that they responded to the Nagorno-Karabakh secession “with force, with pogroms, with killings. And the conflict started from that point.”

Pashinyan also made clear his belief that Armenia’s longtime ally, Russia, has taken a neutral stance on the conflict. Pashinyan went on to retort that Erdogan’s blatant support for Azerbaijan is just Turkey “continuing its genocidal policy towards the Armenians,” emphasizing this point by describing the situation as “an existential threat for us (Armenians).”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, joined by French President Emmanuel Macron, has called for a ceasefire and offered to host peace talks. In a break with precedent, however, neither Aliyev nor Pashinyan seems interested. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia rejected the offer, signaling that the two men share the resolve to continue fighting, rather than risking any concessions during peace talks. Since then, Armenia has offered to engage in discussions as Azerbaijan continues shelling hospitals and residential buildings in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. It seems for now that the bloodshed will continue. This region is on the brink of a wider war, and the world should be paying attention.


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