New skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan
July 2020. Azerbaijan’s youth demonstrate for war. “End quarantine-begin war,” so to read on their demo banners. 75 years after the end of the Second World War, modern, educated youth take to the streets and demand war. How is such a thing possible?
Nagorno-Karabakh, an unconsidered considerable conflict area
Although the ethnic-territorial conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan is geographically closer to Europe than the Gaza conflict between Israel and Palestine, which is comparable in its intensity and almost hopelessness, the former, unlike the latter, is not even known to most Western Europeans. In its origins, the Karabakh conflict is comparable to the Yugoslavian wars, where clear power structures eroded after Tito’s death and within de- and new composition the politically constructed association of states of Yugoslavia again split up into ethnic national units.
The main reason for the lack of knowledge of the Karabakh conflict is certainly the Iron Curtain, which cut off Western Europe from this territory for 70 years.
What do we know about Armenia and Azerbaijan? They are neighboring states in the South Caucasus between the Black and Caspian Seas. To the west, they are in direct proximity to eastern Turkey, in the south to Iran (not far from northern Iraq), and up north to the third South Caucasus republic Georgia and huge Russia.
Armenia is counted as the first Christian state in the world and was the victim of genocide by the New Turks during the First World War. A genocide whose victims are estimated at up to 1.5 million Armenians and which the whole world officially recognizes as such except for “a few states”. Among the “few states” that do not recognize it is the successor state of the “perpetrators” themselves, i.e. Turkey and its “brother state” Azerbaijan. Between the two is the small Armenia, with today 3 million inhabitants in the midst of volcanic high mountains.
Nagorno-Karabakh, Stalin set borders
For all Armenians, this also includes “their” southwestern high mountain range “Nagorno-Karabakh”, roughly the size of the Spanish Balearic island of Mallorca, which is the heartland of their millennia-old history for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
Immediately after the Armenian genocide trauma of World War I, warlike conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out, which were ended by the invasion of the Red Army. The three South Caucasus republics became part of the new Soviet Union and its new borders were largely determined by the then – still- “nationality commissioner”, Josef Stalin, and under the influence of the new Turkish government under Kemal Atatürk. The Nagorno-Karabakh plateau, which at that time was inhabited by an absolute majority (well over 90%) of Armenians, was assigned as an autonomous region of the Union Republic of Azerbaijan in 1923 against the will of the Armenians. Central Moscow retained the upper hand, thus putting the existing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on ice. Attempts by the Nagorno-Karabakh region to become part of the Armenian Soviet Republic failed because of the Moscow Soviet Central.
But regardless of the critical faculties of the borders that were drawn at the time, today these form the clear international legal basis for the territorial affiliation of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh, bubbling volcanic rock and deepest abysses
A whole Soviet life later, in 1985, another attempt at independence by the Nagorny-Karabakh Autonomous Republic has consolidated into a larger Armenian protest movement, which has resulted in the first wave of refugees from thousands of Azerbaijanis. Then in February 1988, pictures on the television screens of a pogrom against Armenians, from the Azerbaijani Sumgait, shook the entire Soviet population, including the Azerbaijani population itself. After many decades of Sovietization, this problem was neither politically nor socially prepared.
Thus, the then young ISHR sections of Armenia and Azerbaijan reported again and again about the will for peace of both peoples, which, however, were repeatedly stirred up by various interest groups.
And one does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe these reports of the then democratic movements of both countries that within the disintegration of the largest state-structure in the world and the resulting new power constellations, various mafia-kind interest groups were involved in sowing the seeds of division.
The spiral of violence and war that was triggered was unstoppable under the conditions of the time and without outside support, so the post-Soviet state- and identity-building of Armenia and Azerbaijan became firmly interwoven with the enemy image of the other.
Until the 1994 ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia, this spiral of violence claimed up to estimated 50,000 lives and at least as many wounded and drove far over a million people (estimated up to 400 000 Armenians and more than 1 Million Azerbaijanis) from their homes to this day!
The province of Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself a de facto independent republic in 1991 (Republic of Arzach, approx. 140,000 inhabitants, after the flight of the approx. 40,000 Azerbaijanis, today almost 100% Armenian), also occupied 7 neighboring provinces and thus factually occupied almost 15% of Azerbaijani territory.
The friend of the one is the enemy of the other
These facts, set at that time, are still the starting point of the conflict today. Armenia and Azerbaijan have basically been in a state of war for more than 30 years now, soldiers are facing each other at their borders, people are dying again and again in smaller border fights, last in 2016 200 people fell victim to a major battle.
One might hope that in the last two decades, marked by modernisation, globalisation and, in partly EU rapprochement, the waves of mutual hatred, at least in the younger generation, would have calmed down somewhat, but unfortunately this is not the case; on the contrary, the images of the enemy have continuously manifested themselves in both societies.
Just how deep this goes can be seen from a few examples:
Neither an Armenian nor an Azerbaijani may enter Azerbaijan or Armenia without state permission. Even an ordinary visitor to Azerbaijan cannot simply enter the other country with the entry stamp of one country. An entry into Nagorno-Karabakh not authorized by Azerbaijan is punishable as a criminal offence.
Positive reports about the other person or even friendships are considered as a kind of treason, this usually applies to the wider environment as well. In other words, the friend of an Armenian, regardless of nationality, cannot also be the friend of an Azerbaijani and vice versa.
An Azerbaijani officer (traumatized by violent expulsion of Nagorno-Karabakh), who chopped off the head of an Armenian participant with an axe in his sleep 2004 during a NATO event in Budapest, was pardoned by Azerbaijan after Hungary’s extradition in 2012 and almost declared a national hero whereas 2013 the then 76 year old celebrated national hero and most famous writer Akram Aylishi was dishonored by the state and socially persecuted and ostracized for the fact that his new book “Stone Dreams” also mentioned Azeri atrocities. And on the other side the British journalist Thomas de Waal is unpopular in Armenia for mentioning Armenian atrocities against Azerbaijanis in his famous 2003 work “Black Garden” or for classifying todays Armenian national hero Garegin Nzhdeh, a famous military strategist from both world wars as fascist.
In the historical sciences of both countries there are many attempts to prove of who now is really “the owner” of Nagorno-Karabakh. For this purpose, one goes deep into antiquity and lists a line from times before Christ, which leads both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani side to the conclusion that Nagorno-Karabakh is “Ancient-Armenian” or “Ancient-Azerbaijani”.
While Armenia links the pogroms directly to the continuation of the genocide perpetrated against them, Azerbaijan calls for the Armenian attack on Khojaly (1992, at least 500 deaths) to be recognized worldwide as genocide.
And not least, the example mentioned at the beginning of this article, that after a recent border incident with at least 16 deaths, thousands of Azerbaijanis, including many young people, took to the streets, even stormed the parliament and demanded war against Armenia, respectively the military reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh.
No step forward in 30 years
Armenia surprised all the more in 2018 with its “Velvet Revolution” and in the person of its leader Nikol Paschinyan, who – although of course also a nationalist – had dedicated himself above all to the internal fight against corruption, the social and democratic construction of the country and who, as a modern democratic revolutionary, inspired the masses of the people and the youth.
The German Chancellor will certainly never forget her inaugural visit to him, when he led her, outside state’s usual protocols, onto the streets directly among the Armenian population, who emphatically welcomed the Chancellor and everyone wanted to get a selfie with her.
Pashinyan also surprised with statements such as that he is open in all directions of foreign policy and that for him the Turkish recognition of the genocide does not play a fundamental role in relations with Turkey. In April 2019, in his speech at the Parliamentary Assembly on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, he said: “I am convinced that mere dialogue between leaders is not enough to solve the problem. It is equally important to initiate a dialogue between societies so that we prepare our societies for peace and not for war”. But only a few months later, at a rally in the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, he declared: “Karabakh is Armenia! Period!”
In response, Azerbaijani President Aliev sharply criticized the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe/OSCE, which has held the mandate for peaceful conflict resolution in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since 1992, saying that its mission has been inconclusive over all these years and that it is only conducting sham negotiations. Even such a provocative and counterproductive statement would remain without reaction within the group. For Aliew, and he has always clearly emphasized this, the only option is to return Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan or to find a military solution. And indeed, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are constantly re-arming, with resource-poor Armenia now being heavily inferior to oil-rich Azerbaijan. In addition, the Turkish giant is always clearly and unambiguously ready to “aid” Azerbaijan on this issue.
As in times before the Soviet Union, small Armenia is dependent on the protective power of Russia for its defence and is therefore also a member of the international military alliance of the “Collective Security Treaty Organisation/CSTO” led by Russia.
How did the current battles come about?
The renewed current military clashes of 12 July, whose victims already include 10 military men on the Azerbaijani side, including 5 off
icers and one general as well as one civilian and on the Armenian side 4 military men, including 2 officers, are the biggest since 2016 and they carry a real danger for the outbreak of war. Thus, the Pope of Rome, the UN Secretary General, the EU, Russia, America, the OSCE Minsk Group and also ISHR immediately called on both parties to cease fire and to de-escalation, while Turkey clearly stated Armenia’s attack on Azerbaijan’s territory, and promised Azerbaijan to do everything it can to protect its territorial integrity. Shortly afterwards, both Russia and Turkey flexed their muscles with “military exercises” in the region.
Since Armenia and Azerbaijan are fully aware of this danger in the current situation, the question remains how this could have happened. And another important question is why it did not happen in the border region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but much farther north, in the border region of Tavush/Tovus?
There are no clear statements on this from either side; both parties describe the other as the aggressor and see themselves in a defensive position. It apparently began with the shelling of an Azerbaijani military jeep, which had carelessly entered Armenian territory. Whether there is really nothing more that happened here than a rash reaction or whether there is a bigger plan behind it, is still speculated about by all experts.
Azerbaijan has a clearly formulated motive: it wants its territory back, and has wanted it for almost 30 years now. Nothing is moving in this direction, the OSCE mediation group is not even warning off Pashinyan, the country is now well equipped militarily and Turkey is almost rushing to fight the Armenians. Nevertheless, in this case an Azerbaijani strategy can basically be ruled out. For it is important that Russia, or rather the CSTO, should only be required to support Armenia in a legally binding manner if its national borders are attacked. In other words, if Azerbaijan starts a war in the border area of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia does not have to intervene, since under international law this is undisputedly Azerbaijani territory. But here in Tavush, far north of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia would have to intervene. Therefore, if Azerbaijan had been looking for a reason for the outbreak of war, it would hardly have chosen Tavush.
Conversely, if Armenia were the warmonger, it would have chosen a place outside Nagorno-Karabakh and thus secured Russia’s military support. So did Armenia want to provoke here, to show strength and determination? To divert attention from domestic political problems? For Pashinyan still has many powerful opponents in the country and has not yet achieved any resounding political success. Social services and the health system are in a deplorable state, and are currently under heavy additional pressure from Covid 19. Although there are motives here, they are in no way related to the inferno that a war could trigger for the own people in Armenia.
And again, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that there may be entirely different interest groups behind the current armed conflicts. The well-known Russian journalist and television presenter, Maksim Shevchenko, for example, is convinced that it is no coincidence that the Tavush/Tovus border region has become the site of the military conflict, but that it was deliberately targeted to damage the South Caucasus gas pipeline that runs through it, which pumps natural gas from the Caspian Sea into the Turkish gas distribution network (far also to Italy). He speaks of a war for energy resources within the “Russian-Turkish waltz”, which practically forces Azerbaijan into war with Armenia and has nothing to do with the actual Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but is merely a means to an end.
But whether this skirmish is random, self- or foreign-controlled, each additional drop of blood now increases the danger of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia and with their respective allies Turkey and Russia.
Why do young, modern and educated people demonstrate for war?
The fact that in 2020 in Azerbaijan thousands of people will take to the streets with their young people and demand this war and Armenia together with its young people hold against it uncompromisingly, makes shudderingly clear that the “mere freezing of conflicts”, without broad and intensive peace-building measures, is a lazy and reprehensible compromise!
Dr. phil. C. Krusch, ISHR-Germany, Directorate for Eastern Europe, the Southern Caucasus and Central Asian Republics