As tensions boil over in the Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the global community is searching for a quick and simple solution to a conflict in a region where ethnic tensions and religious strife oftentimes lead to deadly wars. In this paper by Dimitrije Jovanovich, the ethnic history of the Caucasus and the Middle East more broadly is discussed and brought into consideration when viewing potential solutions to the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis.
Beginning on September 27th, 2020, the South Caucasian nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. A region of southwestern Azerbaijan, inhabited with an Armenian majority of roughly 150,000 people, has historically been hotly contested between the two nations. Many Armenians both in the Caucasus and abroad believe that Azerbaijan under the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev will conduct a program of ethnic cleansing against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh (called “the Republic of Artsakh” by Armenians), similar to the pogroms and massacres conducted by the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian Genocide of 1914-1923. In contrast, many Azeris fear that rebellions in Nagorno-Karabakh will result in further sectarian violence in Azerbaijan while simultaneously prompting further ethnic tensions in a land that’s already experienced many bouts of bloody warfare following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The latest conflict between the two former Soviet republics has garnered much international attention, with world leaders ranging from France’s President Macron and Vice President Pence to local leaders in Russia, Iran, and Turkey having weighed in on the conflict. From the predicament, the main question that arises when analyzing this conflict is twofold: what underlying tensions caused it in the first place, and what can the international community do to solve it, both temporarily and in the long-run? In order to answer the aforementioned questions, the history of the region must be at least partially understood.
Historically, the Armenian ethnicity had inhabited a large, mostly mountainous expanse of territory in the Caucasus and Middle East including modern-day Eastern Turkey, parts of Azerbaijan, Iran, and Armenia proper. However, for most of that history Armenia has largely been either the puppet state of other more powerful regional powers e.g. Rome and Persia, or has been fully under the control of said powers altogether, such as the Russian and Ottoman-Turkish empires.
The same is also largely true for Azeris, who are ethnically closely related to Turks both genetically and linguistically. Modern Turkic peoples have only recently begun to inhabit Turkey and Azerbaijan, with ethnic Armenians having settled in Eastern Anatolia almost a millennia prior to the arrival of Turks during the period of the Seljuk Empire. To put it into perspective, Armenia at one point held a short-lived regional empire that encompassed much of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and the South Caucasus under King Tigranes the Great, who ruled from roughly 140 BC to 55 BC. In contrast, the introduction of Turks to Anatolia only occurred after the Byzantine Empire was decisively defeated at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 AD, a relatively recent event in the annals of history which allowed many Turks to migrate into Anatolia in the decades succeeding Manzikert.
For many Armenians, the current conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan produces a variety of fears stemming from unhealed wounds left in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide. In the years prior to the outbreak of the Genocide in 1914, the Ottoman Empire began a period of gradual (and at some points rapid) decay that saw the empire lose many of its lands in North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Like Germany in the period between both world wars, the Ottoman regime began to experience periods of rampant social and economic upheaval, culminating in the Young Turk political revolution of 1908.
The Young Turks were a group of young nationalist army officers affiliated with a plethora of other smaller political organizations in the Ottoman Empire. Taking advantage of the social and political climate of the empire, the Young Turks led a successful revolution to replace the authoritarian Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II with a constitutional monarchy in 1908. Although the rampant institutional changes brought about by the Young Turks initially satisfied many of the movement’s most ardent, pro-democracy supporters, the weak links binding together the coalition which had formed the backbone of the revolution quickly disintegrated. What followed was a sort of triumvirate that formed between the three most prominent military men affiliated with the revolution; Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha, and Cemal Pasha all became the de facto rulers of the Ottoman Empire during the period between 1908 and 1918.
While the democratic reforms the Young Turks had introduced the Ottoman State proved to be key in leading to the modern Turkish Republic’s strongly secular values, the foreign policy of the new regime proved to be their downfall. Not only did they push the Ottoman Empire onto the losing side of WW1, but they also became ethno-nationalists and believed that the Ottoman Empire was meant to be populated exclusively by Turks.
Many Armenians prior to the Genocide had risen to prominence in the Ottoman government and economy, with many Armenians notably gaining success in the banking sector and other businesses. Calouste Gulbenkian, for instance, was a wealthy British-Armenian tycoon who became one of the first men to exploit Iraqi oil, thus beginning the process of exporting Middle Eastern oil to Western nations, a practice which to this day still vitally important to many contemporary Middle Eastern states’ economies from Saudi Arabia to Iran.
For the ultranationalist Young Turks, however, Armenians were vilified in a similar manner to how Jews were demonized in Nazi Germany. With this wave of anti-Armenian (as well as anti-Greek, anti-Assyrian, and generally anti-Christian) sentiment washing over the Ottoman Empire, it was only a matter of time before violence broke out, which happened once WW1 exploded into existence.
After the Ottoman Empire joined the war against the Allies in 1915, the Ottoman government began to depict Armenians as being Russian collaborators and thus officially began persecuting Armenians en masse. Turkish soldiers conducted mass slaughters in the Armenian-populated lands of the Empire, raping women, brutalizing children, forcing millions to walk in death marches through the Syrian Desert with no food or water, and liquidated entire villages. By the end of the genocide, over 1.5 million Armenians lay dead in killing fields and barren deserts, while a further 700,000 Greeks and 300,000 Assyrians were killed in other pogroms. The majority of Armenians in Eastern Turkey were either killed, forced to flee to Russia and other countries like the US, or were forcibly converted to Islam and took Turkish names. Suffice to say, there still exists much enmity between Turks and Armenians regarding the issue of the Armenian Genocide since Turkey, as well as Azerbaijan, still deny the Armenian Genocide.
With the scars of the Armenian Genocide still simmering in the Armenian psyche, and with newfound independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Armenian state began to adopt what can be termed as a “survivor mentality.” Similar in many respects to the mentality of Israelis whose ancestors had only recently survived the horrors of the Holocaust, Armenians are in a state of constant high alert to the actions of the hyper-militaristic and oligarchic neighbors to their east and west. This was reflected most recently last September when war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as many influential Armenians on social media took to their platforms to protest the actions of Azerbaijan and Turkey against their people. Most notably, members of the well-known Armenian-American alternative metal band System of a Down released two protest songs aptly titled “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz,” both of which encouraged Armenians to protect Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) while simultaneously accusing the Turks and Azeris of attempting to carry out another Armenian Genocide.
In reference to the modern conflict, much of the fighting centered around Nagorno-Karabakh concerns the attempts of rebel fighters in the region to breakaway and declare independence from Azerbaijan. During the 1994 war, for example, over 600,000 Azerbaijanis were either expelled or fled from Karabakh, leaving much of the region populated with only 150,000, mostly Armenian people. Many Azerbaijanis, especially those who were forced to flee from Karabakh after 1994, still desire above all else to officially regain control over Karabakh at any cost.
The current conflict, as expected, is proving to be a prime-time event for regional powers like Russia, Turkey, and Iran to flex their military and diplomatic muscles. Russia, which has a military base in Armenia and has maintained close ties with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, is proving to be more of a neutral player than previously expected. Due to Azerbaijan’s rich oil industry, however, Russia desires to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan and its president Ilham Aliyev in order to continue the flow of petroleum. Russia has decided to play the role of arbiter between the two, with President Vladimir Putin having attempted two previous ceasefire agreements negotiated in Moscow, which went belly-up.
On the other hand, Turkey has openly taken a side on the conflict. As previously alluded to, Turks and Azeris are ethnically related, with similar customs, languages, and histories. Even though the majority of Turks are Sunni Muslim while the majority of Azeris are Shia (a contenious religious difference in the Middle East), this doesn’t seem to matter in the eyes of nationalist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is openly dealing arms and financial resources to the Azeri government. This is all a part of Turkey’s new initiative to spread its network of regional power and influence via its support of sectarian nations and groups throughout the Middle East, with Syria, Iraq, and now Nagorno-Karabakh being prime examples.
Iran holds a similar position to Russia in that it desires to remain largely neutral, although for entirely different motives. Although geopolitically Iran shares many of Armenia’s interests in its desires to undermine Turkey as a regional power, the fact that Azeris constitute roughly 16% of Iran’s population (making them the second largest ethnic group in the nation next to Persians) is a fact that President Hasan Rouhani and the Ayatollah must also contend with, for if they openly support the Armenian cause in this conflict or any future conflict they risk potential armed insurrections and domestic uproar from Iran’s native Azeris.
With this complex web of ethnic tensions, bloody regional histories of genocide and warfare, as well as the unending chess game that regional powers are playing in the Caucasus, it becomes almost impossible for one to even begin to make any reasonable plans to ensure peace in the region for a reasonable amount of time. However, the key word in that statement is “almost.” What most people tend to forget when looking at the dynamics between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is that, like in many other places in the world ranging from the mountains of the Balkans to the jungles of the Congo, leaving what can be classified as long-standing historical “beefs” unresolved will only continue to hurt the region.
For many Armenians, the fact that Turkey and Azerbaijan still refuse to recognize the Armenian Genocide as a real historical event and acknowledge the part that Turkey played in the Genocide leaves virtually all Armenians both in diaspora and in the Caucasus with a sour, angry taste in their mouths. A good first step (albeit a hard first step) would be for President Erdogan and President Aliyev to officially recognize the tragedy that was the Armenian Genocide and fully acknowledge the part that their nations played in slaughtering of millions of innocent civilians. This would be a good first step in at least mending many of the scars held between the two peoples, and by proxy mend the scars of the two nations.
Actually bringing about such a recognition on the Turkish and Azeri sides is a near impossibility, although not totally impossible. Applying just the right amount of international pressure would do the trick in persuading the two nations to officially recognize the part they played in the region’s bloody history. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, has made France a key ally on Armenia’s behalf during this entire ordeal, which would anger Erdogan in the short-term, but would persuade many Turks who want to see Turkey become an EU member to apply pressure on their president to recognize the Armenian Genocide in exchange for EU membership.
On the other hand, Armenia (more specifically those in Nagorno-Karabakh) must also recognize the part it played in the expulsion of thousands of Azeris from Karabakh. Even if one side committed a much more heinous crime in its history than the other, a crime is a crime nonetheless, and must be recognized as such in order for past wounds to be healed.
As for a more solid, stately solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis, there really doesn’t exist a bulletproof solution to ensure a decades-long peace among Armenia and Azerbaijan. Regardless as to what peace agreements are reached, radical elements of both political systems in Armenia and Azerbaijan will inevitably spill over and cause a flare-up of tensions in ethnic diasporas living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Even after the signing of an official peace agreement between Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev on November 10 of this year, crowds of angry Armenian protestors took to the streets and stormed the Parliament in the aftermath of the peace agreement, while the Aliyev regime (a dictatorship in which Aliyev has served as unelected president since 2004) has ramped up its propaganda war against Armenia.
But in the pursuit of long-lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, the first measure that should be taken is the establishment of a fully autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh) within the broader Azerbaijani state. This is by no means a radical idea. During the Soviet period, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh was given vast amounts of autonomy and given the name the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (or NKAO), which encompassed the Armenian majority regions of Azerbaijan. Although ethnic tensions were still present during this time of relative autonomy in Nagorno-Karabakh, it still granted the native Armenian population who were yet fearful of the outbreak of another 1915-style genocide perpetrated by their Azeri overlords the ability to at least nominally control their own internal affairs while simultaneously maintaining the Azeri desire to still consider the Republic of Artsakh as being Azeri territory.
In the great political theater that was the history of the 20th century, one cannot remotely begin to understand the political, ethnic, religious, and even moral dynamics without first looking into the past one-hundred years for some context. The events of the modern day must be viewed with a historical lens. With that being said, the national histories of the Armenian and Azeri peoples must first be thoroughly understood in order for any reasonable solutions to the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis to be achieved. Further, the granting of further autonomy to the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh alongside the acknowledgement of the past wrongdoings perpetrated by both sides in past conflicts must first be recognized in order for any healing of past wounds to take place. Hopefully, in the coming decades the looming spectres of enmity and hatred brought about by the Young Turks will be properly put to rest.
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