The enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region that offers little in terms of natural resources or strategic importance. But it is a battleground where historic grievances between Armenia and Azerbaijan are still being avenged. This is the key to understanding why fighting has flared up again.
For Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of the country’s land that is occupied illegally by Armenians. For Armenia it is the home of about 150,000 of its people, who are surrounded by enemy troops and cut off from the world.
The origins of conflict
The story goes back to the Armenian genocide that started in 1915, when the Ottoman government of Turkey murdered or expelled 1.5 million ethnic Armenians. The two countries have never fully reconciled because Turkey refuses to acknowledge the killings as a genocide. Last year President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to a US Senate vote in favour of recognising the genocide by threatening to brand the killing of Native Americans by European settlers a genocide. Azerbaijan’s spokeswoman called the Senate resolution “an attempt to falsify history”.
Armenia and Azerbaijan experienced a brief period of independence after World War I before being incorporated into the Soviet Union, together with neighbouring Georgia, in March 1922. Stalin assigned Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Moscow’s forceful rule brought an artificial peace, with Russian becoming a common language in all the republics. For 60 years Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived together, and in World War II they fought alongside each other against Nazi Germany.
Towards the end of the Soviet era, in February 1988, Armenians in the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, began demonstrating for unification with Armenia. The first clash between Armenians and Azerbaijanis took place soon afterwards. In Sumgait, Azerbaijan, mobs attacked and killed Armenians. Ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis were driven out of Baku and Yerevan, including chess world champion Garry Kasparov and his relatives.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 full-scale war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. On February 26, 1992, the Armenian armed forces massacred at least 161 Azerbaijani civilians in the town of Khojaly in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan claims the death toll was 613. The date is considered one of the darkest days in the history of Azerbaijan.
A ceasefire in 1994 left Armenia in control of 14% of the territory of Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh has its own government but is completely dependent on supplies from Armenia. Sporadic fighting has periodically broken out over the years, but with dozens dead on both sides already in just the past few days, the situation is threatening to escalate. Azerbaijan is led by a repressive dictator, Ilham Aliyev, backed by Turkey’s Erdogan, who has called on Armenia to give up Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia is more democratic but militaristic sentiment is equally fervent, and Russia supports Armenia while claiming to be a mediator.
A propaganda battle
Both sides have ramped up the propaganda, declaring martial law and tweeting videos of tanks being blown up, artillery being fired, dead soldiers on the ground and civilians in hospital. But Armenia has the edge with its claims that Syrian mercenaries and even a former ISIS commander are fighting on the Azerbaijani side, sent in by Turkey. Public opinion, at least in the West, is more likely to side with semi-democratic Armenia fighting jihadis than with Azerbaijan. Armenia’s diaspora in the United States, France and other countries is also influential.
The conflict occasionally spills out to the streets of foreign cities where Armenians and Azerbaijanis live. When fighting broke out in July there were street brawls between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Moscow. Rival demonstrators attacked each other in Los Angeles and an Armenian school was vandalised in San Francisco: someone painted the colours of the Azerbaijani flag on a pillar and daubed “Bitches” and “Kardashian nation!” on a wall. In Istanbul a couple of days ago cars with passengers waving Azerbaijani flags drove past the Armenian Patriarchate honking their horns.
“The West”, if there is such a concept any more, is overwhelmed by the pandemic and other conflicts. Donald Trump is completely erratic in his foreign policy and facing an election in just over a month, while the UK has the EU pinned to the Brexit negotiating table as talks go down to the wire. Little more than statements from leaders calling for peace can be expected. Armenia and Azerbaijan could be in for months of killing, which can only end in a stalemate – until next time.
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