Fighting broke out last week in Nagorno-Karabakh between the Azerbaijani army and the Armenian separatists who have controlled the enclave since the early 1990s, when they came out on top in what was arguably the most violent war associated with the demise of the Soviet Union – an estimated 30,000 people were killed, and a million displaced, between 1988 and 1994.
A ceasefire announced on Tuesday, after clashes that reportedly killed dozens, could prove extremely fragile.
This far-flung, almost forgotten conflict matters so much because Armenia and Azerbaijan stand at a crossroads of geopolitical confrontations. Although Armenia never officially recognised the self-declared independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, it has backed it through financial and military means. Russia is, in turn, the traditional ally of Christian Armenia.
On the other side of the frontline, Muslim, Turkic-speaking and energy-rich Azerbaijan has long been supported by Turkey. And over the last year, Russian-Turkish relations have been poisoned by the war in Syria, so there is an dangerous potential for escalation if passions are not rapidly quelled: an all-out war over Nagorno-Karabakh could drag in both the big regional powers.
Last week Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu would, he said, “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Azerbaijan in the face of Armenian aggression and occupation until the end of time”.
Both Armenians and Azeris consider the mountainous region as their cultural and historical cradle. At the heart of this conflict is a centuries-old land dispute.
In 1915 some 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered and starved to death in the Armenian Genocide. Many thousands more were expelled or forcibly Islamised and ‘Turkified’ as Turkish ultra-nationalists incited ethnic-religious cleansing to rid the Anatolian Peninsula of non-Turks. In May 1918 the newly independent state of Armenia was declared, alongside the newly independent state of Azerbaijan. Although Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K) was historically Armenian and populated by Armenians (94.5 percent),
Azerbaijan claimed the mountainous territory as its own. War erupted. Exploiting the chaos, the Soviets invaded and annexed the region, dividing it between the Soviet Republic of Armenia and the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. To compensate Armenia for its massive territorial losses – specifically the loss of Western Armenia to Turkey – N-K was awarded to Armenia. However, when Turkic Azeri communists protested, Stalin stepped in. In 1923, to appease both Turks and Communists, he handed N-K (Armenian Christian) to Azerbaijan (Turkic Muslim), with N-K having the status of an autonomous oblast (province). For decades, ethnic-religious tensions were suppressed due to Soviet Communist repression.
In the 1980s glastnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) converged with Islamic revival to awaken Islamic identity and to fuel Islamic zeal. In 1990 the Soviet empire unravelled and Armenia declared independence. When Azerbaijan declared independence in 1991 it immediately abolished the N-K autonomous oblast. Horrified, N-K’s Armenian Christians held a referendum on self-determination in which 99 percent of voters supported independence.
Azerbaijan responded by launching a war of ethnic cleansing against Armenian ‘separatists’ and ‘occupiers’. By 1993 Azerbaijan – then a terror hub servicing the Chechen War – had incorporated some 2000 Chechen and Afghan jihadis into its armed forces to fight the Armenians. Despite overwhelming odds, the N-K Armenians not only prevailed but occupied some 20 percent of Azerbaijan so as to create a buffer zone around N-K to protect civilians from shelling. In 1994 a ceasefire froze the conflict. While Azerbaijan insists that N-K is its territory, the Armenians of N-K would rather die fighting than surrender their historic Christian homeland to Turkic Muslims whom history has taught them not to trust.