The Caucasus has for centuries been a kind of a buffer zone between the Ottoman, the Persian and the Russian empires, each vying for influence and control in the region. Prior to that, the Caucasus lay in the pathway of Turk migrations to the east and back, since antiquity. This became the basis of ongoing ethnonational strains in the region, of which the stress between the two, Azeri and Armenian populations has been a major one.
The Azeris are Turks of Caucasian Albanian decent, who converted to Shia Islam in the 7th century with the invasion of the Arabs and their settlement in Albania. The Armenians are more native and had converted to Christianity in about the 3rd century AD. Since the Islamization period, the Armenians were clutched between the Sunni Ottomans to their west, the Shi’ite Persians to their south and the religiously Shi’ite but ethnically Turkic Azeris to their east. This makes a simple chemistry between the Azeris and Turkey and between the Armenians and Russia, the traditional protector of the Eastern Orthodox Church – yet the Russians supplying arms to both sides, have obscured their patronage for the Armenians – as this constant supply of arms is a major reason why war will always remain a possibility between the two states.
With WW1 and the dissolution of both the Ottoman and the Russian empires, the people of Nagorno Karabakh self-designated themselves as a self-ruling Armenian province, but were soon absorbed into the Soviet Union that had soon captured the whole of the Caucasus. As it happened, Stalin made the ‘Treaty of Brotherhood and Friendship’ with Kamal Ataturk, under which Nagorno-Karabakh was placed under the control of the Azerbaijani SSR. At that time, Stalin saw Ataturk as a potential ally and made this undemocratic decision just to please his assumed ally.
When the Soviet Union eventually disintegrated at the end of the Cold War, again the self-assumed parliament of this sub-region voted to join Armenia. At that time, over one million people rallied in Yerevan in support of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast’s reunification with the Armenian SSR, but again the Supreme Soviet of the USSR concluded that Karabakh should remain part of Azerbaijan. This led to a full-blown war taking the lives of over 30,000 on both sides. Since 1994, Armenian forces have not only backed the Karabakh stance with arms and diplomacy but are also occupying 7 adjacent Azerbaijani districts.
It is difficult to put the blame on either side as war crimes have been committed by both and each believes that the Karabakh region rightly belongs to them. The truth is that at the time of independence, Armenia had a roughly 60/30 Azeri/Armenian population and Azerbaijan had almost the same ratio inversed; the two people had lived peacefully side by side in pockets for centuries.
But once they gained independence, the same people became bitter enemies, refusing to accept their own as their nationals on racial basis. These numbers give an idea of how mass deportations have served as a means of ethnic cleansing in the two states. In the 70 years since independence, planned and systematic deportations along with brutal episodes of massacres, have led to the displacement of as many as 230,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan and 800,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia and Karabakh and its adjacent districts. The Armenians had been four times more
aggressive in deporting the Azeris than the Azeri had been. This means that in the humanitarian terms the two nations have been giving each other a tit-for-tat.
Nakhchivan is an example of Azerbaijani atrocity, where forced displacement of the Armenian population has reduced it from 40% to zero percent. In his recent address to the UNGA, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said, ‘Karabakh must not be
part of Azerbaijan because Azerbaijani government wants the territory and not the people’ and ‘that the intention of Azerbaijani leadership is to cleanse Armenians from Karabakh, like they did in Nakhichevan’.
All this shows that the two nations have been using ethnic cleansing as a means of nation-building and an insurance of their sovereignties – but the question is, have these acts of genocide achieved the desired goals?
Or, has this constant internal conflict only consumed the two nations and forced them to mortgage their sovereignties at the hands of bigger powers who have exploited their situation? War and constant fear of war has forced the two states into an arms race. Both countries have been featured as the top 10 militarized states since 2011 and the highest military spenders of the post-Soviet states. Though deemed as a ‘frozen conflict’ by many, the current decade has seen increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), heavy-calibre weaponry and increased presence and reported casualties among contracted service personnel and special forces and intensified military drills involving thousands of troops on both sides, which means that both sides are only readying for a deadlier war.
Russia’s conduct clearly shows that it sees the continuation of the Karabakh conflict in its interest. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, that had resulted from Georgia’s allying with Germany and its bid to join the NATO and the EU, Russia has become more sensitive in Armenia’s case lest it would, being a Christian nation, be lured to the same path. Before that, the Chechen War (1999-2009) raised another alarm for Russia, that of Islamist fundamentalism, and being next door to Iran, Azerbaijan could become an easy prey. For this reason, Turkey’s and Pakistan’s swift maneuvering into befriending Azerbaijan and Russia’s backchannel leading to the failure of the Tehran Declaration (1992), show a shared sense of fear towards this Islamist trend.
The European initiative, the OSCE Minsk Group created in 1992, co-chaired by France, Russia and the US, shows a similar indifference pointing towards an inability or a noninterest in resolving the Karabakh Issue. Will the Nagorno Karabakh conflict be ever resolved by relying on big powers or will it be resolved by more ethnic cleansing or with more militarization?
The April 2016 escalation that took 200 lives has shown the world that the conflict is alive and boiling. Azerbaijan’s regaining control of two strategic heights in the conflict zone has also reignited strong pro-war sentiments in the Azeris and 2017 has seen more deadly encounters involving heavy artillery, anti-tank weapons and self-guided rockets. The two countries need to recognize how the conflict has consumed their nations and allowed exploitation at the hands of others. An all-out war for a ‘final solution’ would drag in several international stakeholders and plunge the two states into a long spell of destruction and death – whereas a prolonged low-intensity war situation would impact the normal life and progress of the two peoples. Both ways, only politics wins and humanity loses.
Conflict resolution seems possible only with direct negotiations between the three parties, with truth and reconciliation and with fair and agreeable give-and-take. The objective of these negotiations should not be to maximize gains but only a resolve to bring peace and to put the hate, abuse and killing in the past.