An Armenian perspective on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and current perspectives in conflict resolution
Disclaimer: I do not claim to be impartial and this opinion piece does not claim to be entirely neutral. As an Armenian, I have lived in Armenia and my world-view has been shaped by its context. What I have tried to do is to give a honest opinion, based on my own research and observations. Also, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is very complex and multi-layer and I could not hope to represent it in its entirety in this article. Which is why I advise against basing your understanding of the conflict on this opinion piece alone.
On a trip to Tbilisi, me and my friends were passing through a southern regions of Georgia known as Javakheti.
The multinationalism of Georgia has always fascinated me; Javakheti is an Armenian-majority region and when you cross the border, Armenian and Azeri villages coexist side by side. You can’t tell the difference just looking at the people: Azeri people speak fluent Armenian and don’t look different from your average Armenian. “People are people”, they say. The only difference is, Armenian villages have a church and the Azeri villages have a mosque.
This really puts the thesis that Armenian and Azeri people are natural enemies to the test. They can coexist, given the chance.
We bought a box of oranges and spent the next ten minutes debating, whether we bought it from Armenian or Azeri villagers. And concluded that it doesn’t matter. People are people.
I also got the chance to interview people in Artsakh while being a member of an Armenian election monitoring group in September 2019. “We used to live side by side, then things got bad”, they say.
So how did we get to where we stand right now, and where can we go from here?
First, some historical context.
Both the First Republic of Armenia and Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan were born of the ashes of the Russian Empire when it fell to the fires of revolution.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to a massacre of ethnic minorities on its territory — an event Armenians call “The Great Crime” (“Մեծ Եղեռն”) — in 1915, following a series of pogroms and massacres earlier — better known to the international community as the Armenian Genocide.
The Russian Empire crumbled under the weight of the Great War, and then burned in the fires of two revolutions in 1917 — the February Revolution first, and the October Revolution that put the bolsheviks in power in Russia.
The Special Transcaucasian Committee was formed to fill in the administrative gap that was formed by the collapse of Russian authority in the region, and after the Russian Civil War, it evolved into the Transcaucasian Commissariat and created a ruling body - the Seym in Tbilisi. Three parties became a part of the Seym —the Georgian side was represented by Georgian Mensheviks, the Muslim population was represented by old Musavat, and the Armenian side was represented by Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks). The Bolsheviks refused to join the Seym and decided to create an alternative body — the Baku Commune.
The treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 3, 1918, signed between Lenin’s bolsheviks and the Axis powers allowed Turkey to expand east. This revealed a deep fault line between the Christian and Muslim populations of Transcaucasia: the ideologies of Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism among the Muslim population made them more accepting of the idea of Turkish rule, while Georgians and especially Armenians, who saw it as a potential continuation of the Genocide, would not accept it.
While Armenian National Council was able to repeal the initial Turkish invasion in the battles of Sardarapat (21–29 May 1918), Bash-Aparan (May 21–29) and Karakilisa (May 25–28, 1918), the war effort was not going well.
Georgia declared independence in May 26, 1918, followed by Armenia and Azerbaijan in May 28, 1918.
After the Axis Powers lost World War I, the Treaty of Sevres was signed to partition the Ottoman Empire, which included a recognition of the First Republic of Armenia in its “Wilsonian borders”. This was followed by the Turkish War of Independence, which ended with a decisive Turkish victory and the treaties of Kars and Moscow — and “Wilsonian Armenia” never materialized.
The First Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan Democratic Republic had very different objectives. After the Genocide and centuries of being a nation without state, Armenia needed a flag to rally all Armenians, a safe harbor.
Azerbaijan needed to forge a national identity and from the many diverse ethnic groups on its territory and legitimize their claim to their land. The latter is very difficult when your land is littered with the cultural heritage of other nations, including Christian churches and monuments.
It was a period of strife and tragedy for the whole region, which included The March Days — “Mart hadisələri” — a massacre of the Muslim military and civilian people in Baku by a joint bolshevik and ARF force, commanded by Stepan Shahumyan, an ethnically Armenian bolshevik leader, and the September days, “1918 թվի Բաքվի հայերի կոտորած”, a retaliatory massacre of the 10.000–30.000 Armenians after the battle of Baku.
Eventually, the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 1918–1920 ended with the sovietization of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
If you look at the map, you’ll see how it looks wrong. Azerbaijan is split into two pieces — the main body of the republic and a smaller strip of land known as Nakhchivan. The reason is — Stalin had decided to give Artsakh, Zangezur and Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan, but an Armenian nationalist leader, Garegin Nzhdeh, declared Zangezur an independent republic — the Republic of Mountainous Armenia — and held on long enough for Stalin to realize that Turkey was never going to be a communist ally, and to stop its Pan-Turkic ambition by keeping Zangezur a part of Armenia, denying Turkey direct access to Baku.
The Soviet leadership of the time believed that creating “internationalist” divisions would facilitate the assimilation of local ethnic groups into one Soviet nation, counterbalancing the local nationalist ambitions against each other. Sadly, such division led to deep fault lines, and when the Soviet Union began to crumble, it led to yet another tragedy: the Karabakh war.
The Karabakh movement and demonstrations in Artsakh and Yerevan created a panic and discontent in Azerbaijan.
On 22 February, 1988, the Azerbaijani population of Askeran heard that an Azerbaijani man was killed in Stepanakert. They surrounded the local Soviet administration, which told them the information wasn’t true. The angry mob started moving towards Nagorno-Karabakh, wreaking havoc in its way, and the local authorities had to mobilize roughly 1000 police officers to stop them.
The killing in Stepanakert was, most likely, fake news. But the fact that a rumor was able to create a clash that left about 50 Armenian villagers and 2 Azerbaijani civilians dead, and a much larger number of people injured, is an indication of the fact that the situation was about to explode.
The clash at Askeran was the trigger that set off the Nagorno-Karabakh war, followed by Sumgayit pogroms of February 26, 1988, Kirovabad pogroms of November, 1988, and later by Baku pogroms of January 12–19, 1990. The Soviets retaliated to the Baku pogroms with Black January (“Qara Yanvar”) on 19–20 January, 1990.
On December 10th, 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh held an independence referendum which was unsuccessfully boycotted by the Muslim minority — 20% of the local population.
On 30 April–15 May 1991 the Soviet OMON organized “Operation Ring”, which was opposed by the Armenian police force and led to the deportation of Armenian populace of the Shahumyan region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The rest is history; the Soviet Union fell, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over Karabakh. Roughly 6,000 Armenian soldiers died in the fighting, and, depending on who you ask, 11,000–30,000 Azeri soldiers (Azeri claim being 11,557, Western and Russian estimates being about 25,000–30,000). And this is nothing to boast of for either side; these were real living human beings that lost their lives in the fighting.
The cost was high for the civilian populace too. 1,264 Armenian civilians were reported dead by the time the ceasefire was signed, and 167–763 Azerbaijani civilians.
724,000 Azerbaijanis were reported to be displaced from their homes in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas, as well as 300,000–500,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhchivan.
In 1994, both sides signed a ceasefire, but let’s not make a mistake: the Nagorno-Karabakh war is not over yet. It has temporarily entered a passive period, with regular border skirmishes threatening to reignite the embers of war.
Nagorno-Karabakh evolved into the Republic of Artsakh — an unrecognized, yet de-facto independent republic, while internationally still recognized as a part of Azerbaijan.
So where does this leave us? Can negotiations lead to a compromise, which both sides will accept?
The answer, in my opinion, is sadly no.
Let’s be honest with ourselves — the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan will never recognize Artsakh as an independent country or as a part of Armenia. Their anti-Armenian rhetoric has created a situation when such an act might lead to violent retaliation from Azeri people.
And neither the people of Armenia and Artsakh will accept Artsakh as a part of Azerbaijan.
So I wouldn’t expect the conflict to be resolved anytime soon. A compromise that would be accepted by both sides simply doesn’t exist in the current political and social climate.
And while the recent democratic reforms in Armenia have also lowered the anti-Azerbaijani sentiment in Armenia, the Pashinyan administration being often accused of “humanizing the enemy”, the anti-Armenian propaganda in Azerbaijan doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
The thoughtless threats of Vaghim Daryakhli of “blowing up the Metsamor nuclear power plant” are not unique. Aliyev often takes it to Twitter (this might sound familiar) with tirades of anti-Armenian rhetoric.
Back in 2005, the then-mayor of Baku, Hajibala Abutalybov, met with a municipal delegation from Bavaria, Germany, and uttered this gem of diplomatic brilliance:
“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.”
So how about the offer of a second referendum to decide the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, which includes a demand to remove all Armenian military presence on the territory of the Republic of Artsakh?
We all realize how a fair referendum would end on an Armenian-majority territory even if all the displaced Azeri residents of Artsakh were returned to their homes. So there is no trust that the Azeri administration would not use the demilitarization of Artsakh to either forcefully annex it or falsify the results of the referendum. After all, the Aliyev regime does not have a good track record in democracy, with alleged crackdowns against its ethnic minorities, tampering with the electoral process and numerous human rights abuses.
To demonstrate this mistrust to the other side of the trenches, would Azeri people unilaterally demilitarize Nakhchivan and agree to a referendum organized by Armenia? It’s clear that a fair referendum would leave Nakhchivan a part of Azerbaijan, so what’s the purpose of even discussing it?
So, if no peaceful resolution is to be seen at this point in time, what about an all out war? How would that end?
The answer is very simple. An all out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan would end in tremendous cost for human life on both sides.
Who would win? Nobody knows. Azerbaijan has more money, but Armenia is prepared to fight a defensive war — to the bitter end, if need be. And if Azerbaijan was drawn into an offensive war without a clear military advantage, it would be much costlier for Baku than for Stepanakert and Yerevan.
Russia and Iran would likely position themselves as peace-keepers and mediators, not intervening directly, and would balance out the risk of Turkish military intervention. Georgia would remain neutral, even more so than during the previous active phase of the war.
So, “tremendous cost for human life on both sides” is the only simple answer I can give. And if it isn’t enough for you not to want this war, I don’t know what is.
And again, where does this leave us, if the current situation leaves no chance for peaceful resolution, and an all out war leaves us with an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, a refugee crisis and even if one side won, the other side would just gather their forces to retaliate for the perceived injustice done to them?
First, we need to bilaterally stop hostile rhetoric demonizing the opposing side. Azerbaijan has to remove the anti-Armenian propaganda from its school textbooks, ban ethnic hatred from their internal and external diplomacy, and Armenia should calm down its nationalists and “the war party”. The people of these two countries should start building bridges where they see chasms, taking example from their compatriots in Georgia.
Will this happen? I’m not naive; so no, not anytime soon. As long as the Aliyev regime is in power, they will use the Nagorno-Karabakh war to justify their existence, their corruption, their abuses of human rights. Dictatorships need a bogeyman to keep their people in line, to represent their actions as a necessary evil.