So ends the brief period of world history distinct for its lack of international war. Or maybe it doesn’t. We have been well endowed with civil strife during this short epoch, and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, called the Nagorno-Karabakh War, sits somewhere in between international and civil war. The Nagorno-Karabakh War has simmered in a predominantly dormant state since it began in 1988, and the recent flair-up is the worst bout of violence since 1994.
The primary purpose of this article is to contextualise the conflict and provide the reader with a background to Azeri-Armenian relations. What is known about the current situation will be addressed towards the end.
Nagorno-Karabakh: manufacturing identity
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous area in Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan. The ‘black garden in the mountains’, as the region is known, was an autonomous Armenian zone within Soviet-administered Azerbaijan. As the USSR began to collapse in 1988, and Armenia and Azerbaijan swayed on the cusp of independence, Armenians began to demand that the region be incorporated into Armenia. At the time — and in stark contrast to the present day — both countries’ political representatives sought to de-escalate the situation. Yet following rumours that two Azeris had been killed in Nagorno-Karabakh, violence broke out, and a number of Armenians were massacred. From here on, relations between the two Soviet republics unravelled and war broke out following independence. By the time a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh, along with seven surrounding Azeri districts were all under Armenian control. To this day, no country other than Armenia recognises Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent republic.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh to Armenians), is partly about ethnic self-determination; the rights of its predominantly Armenian population to govern itself as part of an Armenian nation. However, the region is not only integral to its inhabitants’ sense of identity, but that of Armenia and Azerbaijan as well.
Nagorno-Karabakh is celebrated as the cradle of the Azeri language and Azerbaijan’s cultural identity. To the Armenians, Artsakh was originally part of Greater Armenia; a distinct people and civilisation that predate the birth of Christ. For a people who suffered the first genocide of the 20th century, the small enclave of Armenians is a potent symbol of national survival. There is also a sectarian element, as the Armenians are Christian and Azeris Muslim, but this is an exaggerated component of the conflict. Ultimately, the region is integral to both Azeri and Armenian perceptions of self, and how they reify their national identities. As such, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh feels existential to many Azeris and Armenians.
Domestic Trends: manufacturing war
Against the backdrop of an existential struggle to possess their national identities, the past ten years have seen the conflict gradually begin to boil once more. For some time, Armenia was characterised as the ‘Caucasian Tiger’ — garnering foreign investment and reforming its moribund Soviet economy. The 2008 financial crash hit the country hard however, and foreign investment vaporised. Combined with western sanctions against Russia, Armenia’s largest trade partner, this has meant that one in three Armenians now live below the poverty line. Azerbaijan has also undergone a period of flux and decline, largely due to the slump in oil prices. As is so often the case, economic progress had been keeping both the Armenian Republican Party and Azerbaijan’s autocratic regime afloat. Without it, social unrest has risen and faith in the state declined. The loss of sacrosanct territory, or a perceived failure to prosecute the stagnant war, would intensify political disaffection on both sides of the border.
The significance of Nagorno-Karabakh is reflected in the military budget of both countries. Over 20 per cent of Armenia’s total expenditure goes to its military, and Azerbaijan is close behind. The deployment of attack drones by Azari forces in recent days demonstrates that much of this money is being spent on upgrading offensive capacities, rather than defensive weaponry. Neither the political elites in Baku or Yerevan, who rely on the conflict to bolster their domestic standing, or their respective militaries, who have lobbied for ever greater offensive armaments, have an interest in bringing the conflict to a close. Total victory is desirable, but stalemate is a tolerable status quo. This is a pretty serious problem, now that Armenia has the offensive capacity to strike Azerbaijan’s oil instillations on the Caspian Sea.
The Current Situation: enter Turkey
Exactly how the current round of fighting begun is hard to ascertain. Regardless, the past week has seen heavy fighting between separatists backed by Armenian ground forces, and Azeri troops supported by Turkish air power. The UN has issued repeated, and characteristically unheeded, calls for calm as the conflict widens. As of Wednesday 30 September, Azerbaijan claims to have ‘neutralised’ 2,300 Armenian soldiers; a rather vague and euphemistic claim. Having progressed into its sixth day, this is already the biggest flair up since 1994, and shows little sign of de-escalating. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has said Russian-mediated peace talks would be inappropriate, and both countries have vowed to fight on.
A particularly alarming development has been Turkey’s commitment to ;do what is necessary’ with ‘every means available’ to support Azerbaijan. This is alarming because Turkey could open an entirely new front in the war on Armenia’s western border, widening the conflict. it also risks internationalising the conflict and multiplying the death toll, as Turkish jets have a history of being undiscerning in whom they choose to bomb. Whilst alarming, it’s also unsurprising. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has never missed a chance to faux-champion Islam or lash out at Armenians. After all, this is a man who denies the Armenian genocide, and once threatened to expel Armenians from Turkey if the west continued to recognise it.
The situation on the ground is highly fluid, and appears likely to escalate further before the fighting stops. Without concrete action from organisations like the UN, there is a very real danger that this conflict will continue to widen and destabilise the southern Caucuses. With Turkish jets operational over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the danger to civilians is considerable.