The Compassionate Human’s Guide to Nagorno-Karabakh11 min read
Last year, on the edge of Europe, two countries went to war. Not terrorist insurgents, rebels, or “little green men”, but the full military strength of two nation-states pitted against each other in a brutal 45-day tussle over a mountainous region in the South Caucasus. Thousands of soldiers, many of them conscripts, were killed on either side, as well as dozens of civilians.
The conflict has been marked by intense ethnic hatred and mistrust on both sides, dating back to reciprocal massacres over one hundred years ago and beyond. Like the frontlines of Nagorno-Karabakh, discussion of the topic online is a tense minefield— of hateful Twitter rants, government-sponsored misinformation, empty statements from the “international community”, and cold, chess-game geopolitical analysis. For the outside observer, forming an informed, non-aligned, and compassionate opinion is far from easy. The following points aim to help with just that, to take a fact-based look at the key areas of contention with respect and attention to those who have suffered the most.
1. Borders and recognition
Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territories are recognised by all UN member states as part of Azerbaijan. Even Armenia neither claims Nagorno-Karabakh as its own nor recognises the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (known in Armenian as Artsakh) officially.
However, this in itself isn’t actually a very strong argument for Azerbaijan’s claim, as when the Soviet Union collapsed, the world’s nations simply made the easy decision to recognise the internal borders of the Soviet republics as new state borders. This is not a case of the world taking sides politically, but of a particularly violent chapter of the breakup of a huge colonial empire; of old nations gaining new-found independence and immediately coming to blows over land.
The South Caucasus’ internationally recognised borders date back to the 1920s when they were drawn up by Joseph Stalin upon the Bolsheviks’ conquest of the area and peace deal with Turkey. This also includes the creation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and its placement within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. From Kosovo and Kashmir to Palestine and Peru, the recognition of postcolonial disputed territories is always messy and political. Just because the easy option was for the world to recognise the Soviet Union’s internal borders, it doesn’t change the fact that four unrecognised states (namely: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh) emerged from the collapse of the empire, having fought and won independence in the ensuing conflicts without ever joining the respective newly-independent “parent states” which claimed them.
In any separatist/independence movement, there exists a simple contradiction between a people group’s right to self-determination, and a nation-state’s territorial sovereignty. Karabakh Armenians argue that their claim to independence is enshrined in a 1990 Supreme Soviet law that gives autonomous oblasts and republics the right to secede independently from their parent Soviet republics. The legal debate thus boils down to one between the internal borders of a defunct empire and its laws, and neither position is particularly righteous.
2. A war over history and culture
The territory formerly held by the de-facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is rich in centuries-old Armenian cultural heritage. This includes dozens of monasteries dating back to the earliest years of Christian Armenia, including Tsitsernavank, Gandzasar and Amaras Monasteries, the last of which, according to legend, was home to the first ever Armenian-language school. Some of these sites, such as the 12th-century Dadivank Monastery, were handed over to Azerbaijan in the Russian-brokered ceasefire deal.
This land is also rich in centuries-old Azerbaijani cultural heritage. Nowhere is this on display more than in the once multi-ethnic hilltop city of Shusha (Armenian: Shushi), the former capital of the Karabakh Khanate. Shusha, often called the “cultural capital of Azerbaijan”, was a vibrant hub of Azerbaijani literature, poetry, music, and traditional crafts well into the 20th century, with 17 mosques, one for each Azeri-populated quarter.
Since independence, both countries have consistently misconstrued history to undermine and deny the historical presence of the other in the area. Azerbaijani state-backed historiography falsely claims that all older churches and monasteries belong to the ancient Caucasian Albanian civilisation— extinct since the 8th century apart from the descendent Udi minority in Azerbaijan— despite the clearly Armenian inscriptions carved into the walls. Armenia, meanwhile, has referred to Azerbaijani mosques in Shusha as being “Persian”, often used together with the outdated term “Tartar” to create confusion about the true ethnic identity of the historical Turkic population of Karabakh. A common barb in Armenia is that “even Coca-Cola is older than Azerbaijan”.
Both countries also have a track record of actively destroying physical evidence of the other’s claims to the region. The cities of Jabrayil, Fuzuli, and Agdam, which were captured by the victorious Armenians in the 1990s war to make Nagorno-Karabakh more easily defensible, were all vastly Azerbaijani-majority under Soviet rule. Here, as well as in many smaller settlements in the regions, thousands of homes vacated by Azerbaijani families during the war were systematically demolished, littering Karabakh with dozens of ruined ghost towns.
Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan enclave, ancient Armenian sites, identified by their decorative carved khachkar gravestones, have been wiped off the face of the earth by local authorities. A new wave of destruction has been documented to have begun in the wake of last year’s war, with Armenian graves and churches, including Shusha’s great Ghazanchetsots cathedral, among the early casualties of vandalism at the hands of Azerbaijan.
While they are often compelling, arguments over historical lands have no place in sensible negotiations over modern borders. In the post-WWII world order, one of globalisation, the United Nations, and unprecedented levels of peace between nation-states, irredentist posturing is immoral and dangerous. In a conflict like Nagorno-Karabakh, the first priority should always be peace. Ideally, this is a peace that accounts for the rights to life, property, and self-determination of local populations, including those recently displaced.
3. Peace, security, and ethnic cleansing
When Azerbaijan launched its full-scale attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, it was easy for Armenia to play the advocate for peace. Since the 1990s, Armenia’s peace was Armenia’s total military victory in Karabakh. Armenia’s peace was, according to UNHCR figures, 684,000 Azerbaijanis displaced from their homes, with their entire cities and villages quickly falling into ruin.
Azerbaijan has now achieved its own victorious peace. Now, it is the turn of tens of thousands of Armenians to be compelled to leave their homes, some which were lost during the war, and some which were handed over in the peace deal. In this sense, when Azerbaijan claims to have “liberated occupied territories”, the legitimacy of this claim varies. In the ghost towns that are former Azerbaijani cities like Fuzuli and Agdam, where there are now hopes for rebuilding and the possible return of thousands of refugees, fair enough. But in historically Armenian towns like Hadrut, which was taken over in October 2020, this “liberation” amounts to ethnic cleansing, no better or worse than the expulsion of Azerbaijanis in the 1990s.
Azerbaijan’s claim that ethnic Armenians will be safe in Azerbaijani Karabakh with the full rights of citizens is a blatant lie. This has been the case since the final years of Soviet rule, when successive anti-Armenian pogroms broke out in cities all over Azerbaijan, with thousands killed and the rest forced to flee. In this round of conflict, numerous videos emerged of unarmed and often elderly Armenian civilians being abused, tortured, and even executed by Azerbaijni soldiers. These incidents have largely been denied and dismissed, and even when irrefutable, have not been investigated. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev claims to envision a future where Azerbaijanis and Armenians live peacefully together, but for the moment, anyone with an Armenian surname, regardless of citizenship, is banned from entering Azerbaijan. Since the ceasefire, Azerbaijani forces have kidnapped civilians, killed livestock, and fired upon homes in the capital Stepanakert.
The same was also true of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Armenian-controlled Karabakh during the first war in the 1990s. The most heart-wrenching example was the 1992 massacre of hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians when the town of Khojaly, just north of Stepanakert, was taken by Armenian forces. Furthermore, while Armenians were given 15 days to leave Karabakh’s northern Kelbajar region after the 2020 ceasefire deal, notorious footage from 1993 shows an Armenian commander giving Azerbaijani residents of Kelbajar 10 hours to leave. Thousands were forced to travel long distances over high mountains on foot to reach safety. Overall, in a classic security dilemma, neither nation is prepared to allow those of the other ethnicity to exist within its borders.
4. Human rights and hatred
Though plagued with corruption, Armenia is a democratic state where basic human freedoms are largely observed, and Azerbaijan is not. In its 2021 Freedom in the World index, Freedom House ranked Armenia 114th out of 195 UN member states, and Azerbaijan a dismal 184th. This disparity in human freedoms was well on display during and after the war, where foreign journalists were freely given access from the Armenian side, whereas Azerbaijan only granted access to a select few, who were given set itineraries and accompanied by government minders throughout their trip. Azerbaijan is a country where the president and vice-president are husband and wife, where election results get announced before the vote is held, and where women are detained for marching peacefully on International Womens’ Day. This doesn’t diminish the Azerbaijani cause or the suffering of its people; in fact, many Azerbaijanis are critical of the regime but supportive of the war. However, one shouldn’t expect a country that consistently violates the human rights of its own people to show any regard for those of the “enemy” in wartime.
While hatred exists on both sides, in Azerbaijan it has been consciously fuelled and fostered in the country’s population by the state. For example, while the aforementioned abuse of prisoners of war was also documented on the Armenian side, the sheer volume of video and anecdotal evidence shows that for Armenians captured by Azerbaijani forces, beating and humiliation was the norm rather than the exception. These acts are only the tip of the iceberg of government-fuelled hatred in Azerbaijan, where schoolchildren are taught who their nation’s enemy is from a young age, where a soldier was lauded as a hero for murdering an Armenian in his sleep, and where activists who advocate peaceful reconciliation with Armenia are promptly jailed. Since the war, Azerbaijan has openly flaunted their dehumanisation of Armenians, with commemorative stamps evoking the chemical cleaning of Karabakh, and the vile, newly-opened Victory Park in Baku, where children are encouraged to taunt, beat and strangle grotesque, life-sized representations of Armenian soldiers.
5. The role of Russia
The Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh are preventing further conflict by their very presence, but that is not their primary strategic objective. As an authoritarian leader himself, Vladimir Putin is not concerned about the safety and wellbeing of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians. On the ground, this is painfully evident: Russian military forces are positioned in the major cities and along the strategic Lachin corridor, but on the line of contact, where Armenian and Azerbaijani troops face off every day, they are often nowhere to be found. Rather, Russia’s swiftly-executed mediation of the conflict and insertion of peacekeepers was motivated by three main reasons. Firstly, it was an opportunity to establish its military presence in the third post-Soviet Caucasian republic (Russia already has bases in Armenia and in Georgia’s de facto states). In doing this, Russia also succeeded in counteracting growing Turkish influence in the region. Lastly, after a war in which many Armenians already accuse Russia of betrayal for not offering military support, stepping in to “save” Karabakh’s remaining Armenians ensured Armenia’s continuing strategic loyalty to Russia and membership of the Eurasian Economic Union.
As with any war, the 45 days of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh last year produced a lot more losers than winners. Ask anyone in Yerevan about the war and it’s not unlikely their first reaction will be to look away and simply utter “so many young boys…”. The mood in Baku may be one of chest-beating, car-beeping victory, but behind the scenes, thousands of families are similarly suffering irreversible loss. For anyone trying to understand the conflict better, paying less attention to grand old maps of lost kingdoms and the hateful droning of dictators, and more attention to the simple suffering of the other side is a good first step.
For those interested in learning more about the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, the joint Armenian-Azerbaijani-produced documentary Parts of a Circle is a great start. For anyone wishing to help, donating to the HALO Trust goes towards crucial work in clearing land mines and allowing people to return safely to their land.