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The Powder Keg of the Caucasus

Nagorno-Karabakh and Nationalism's Tragedy


On September 27, 2020, shots were fired in the Caucasus. Armenia and Azerbaijan, stuck in an unforgiving cold war since 1994, mobilized their armies and declared a state of war. Soon, civilian evacuations and artillery bombardments followed, plunging the region into violence it had not seen in decades. 

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has been described as potentially leading to a serious regional war. Although at this time it is unlikely, it does however remain quite possible. It is a highly serious problem, one that can only be solved with strong international cooperation with the aim of preserving Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomy, ceding Armenian-occupied territory surrounding it to Azerbaijan, and ultimately democratizing Azerbaijan’s political system. 

The tragedy of the region, even so, is not its conflict, but the possibility of its escalation and perpetuity. The United States is unlikely to confront Azeri interests for a variety of geopolitical reasons and the domestic situation of Azerbaijan would make it impervious to diplomatic proposals so long as they are not accompanied by serious pressure. Thus, with no lasting solution insight, the outlook of the Caucasus is bleak indeed.

History of the Conflict

To fully understand the reasons for the current hostilities and the requirements for their cessation, one must look at their genesis at the turn of the twentieth century.

The origins of the conflict lie in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, when the Azerbaijan and Armenian Soviet Socialist Republics were founded as part of the Soviet Union. Armenia with its capital of Yerevan, landlocked and poor, counted a measly 880,000 people in its population while its neighbor, Azerbaijan, was endowed with the coasts of the Caspian, vast oil reserves, and a population of over three million. Azeris, the republic’s largest ethnic group, were Turkish and Shia Muslim, sharing little with Christian Armenians. These differences, fanned by the flames of nationalism, had previously resulted in the deadly March and September Days of 1918, ethnic conflicts between Armenians and Azeris in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku. Although nationalism was harshly condemned by Soviet authorities, which imposed a vigorous policy of ethnic tolerance and coexistence, it had never been completely eradicated, as the region’s history shows.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, an autonomous region within Azerbaijan with its capital in Stepanakert, was largely Armenian. Under the longtime leader of Soviet Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, consistent efforts were made to “Azerify” its population, restricting Armenian cultural expression.

Heydar Aliyev as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan attending a parade in Red Square.
Aliyev’s days were numbered, and the climate of reform created by Gorbachev’s accession to General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 condemned his authoritarian politics to the past and forced him to resign by 1987. Nevertheless, amid calls for glasnost and perestroika, Gorbachev and the Soviets soon found themselves having to deal with events they never expected. Immediately after Aliyev’s ouster, the dissatisfied Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh began raising its grievances with Azerbaijan, protests which found an echo in Yerevan’s increasingly free climate. Soon, Armenians both within the Autonomous Oblast and the Soviet Republic itself had coalesced around the Karabakh Committee, a group of intellectuals around dissident Levon Ter-Petrosyan, a charismatic and articulate nationalist, calling for the region’s separation from the Azerbaijan SSR. By 1988, the Karabakh Committee’s demands became so popular that the Autonomous Oblast’s overwhelmingly Armenian parliament had declared its desire to join the Armenian SSR. 

These events outraged Azeris, concerned with losing control over land which they saw as theirs. Furthermore, the Committee’s demands could not be accommodated by Gorbachev and the Soviets, which swiftly muted it in order to maintain their hegemony and the stability of Azerbaijan. 

Azeris, however, translated their anger into violence, and in 1988, Azeri mobs would instigate the Sumgait Pogrom, raping and massacring dozens of Armenians barely 30 kilometers from Baku. More violence, despite the best attempts of the Soviet Army to contain it, soon followed. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris and Armenians from both republics fled in fear, seeking safety amongst their compatriots as demonstrations for the independence of Karabakh spread in tandem with Azeri violence. 

From 1989 to 1991, Gorbachev’s ability to control the situation gradually disintegrated. The Karabakh Committee was soon freed from prison following massive demonstrations. Then, Ter-Petrosyan was overwhelmingly elected leader of the Armenian SSR. Meanwhile, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh began organizing armed groups, asserting their independence. The Soviets, threatened by this, resorted to collaborating with Azeri forces, seeking to expel Armenians from the Shahumyan region of Nagorno-Karabakh in a vain attempt to subdue the insurgency and maintain the stability of the region. “Operation Ring,” as it was called, failed to diminish the resolve of its Armenian targets, and their power only grew as Soviet control collapsed.

Eventually, in September of 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh officially declared its independence from Azerbaijan, calling itself the “Republic of Artsakh” and remaining reliant on Armenia to this day. Full-scale war soon broke out with the Azerbaijan SSR before its independence in October of the same year, continuing the conflict without Soviet aid. In Yerevan, Ter-Petrosyan wasted no time in declaring his country’s independence, and by November he became the first President of Armenia, turning his eye to the matter of Karabakh.

Although determined to aid its brothers in Artsakh, Ter-Petrosyan’s Armenia, poor in natural resources and population, had few international backers save for a large Armenian diaspora active in defending the country’s interests abroad. However, Armenia still showed remarkable resolve in defending the enclave, and as Artsakh’s Armenian militants took control of more of the region, Ter-Petrosyan’s forces were quick to advance on their Azeri foes. As town after town in Karabakh fell to Armenia in 1992, Armenian forces committed the Khojaly massacre, slaughtering 200 Azeri civilians fleeing a captured town. Ayaz Mutallibov, Azerbaijan’s first president, was widely blamed in Baku for the crime, and after his ouster, the leader of the nationalist Azerbaijan Popular Front, Abulfaz Elchibey, was elected in 1992. Elchibey promised to deal strongly with Armenian incursions and orient Azerbaijan to the Turkish sphere of influence, citing common ethnic background and a fierce pan-Turkism. Turkey, excited at the possibility of gaining an ally so rich in oil, quickly responded to Elchibey by providing Azerbaijan with some arms and military advisors in the conflict for Karabakh. Nevertheless, Turkish president Suleyman Demirel remained careful not to overstep his bounds, and worried about sparking regional instability, declined to intervene militarily in the conflict or provide Elchibey with more substantive assistance.

Amidst Elchibey’s rise, however, Heydar Aliyev made a sudden reappearance in Azerbaijan. Having reinvented himself as a nationalist and relying on fine-tuned political savvy, he seized control of the enclave of Nakhchivan, which although a part of Azerbaijan, was isolated from it. Aliyev’s Nakhchivan was, for all intents and purposes, his own private state. Although nominally submissive to Elchibey’s authority, Aliyev quickly prosecuted his own foreign policy, making peace with Ter-Petrosyan’s Armenia and moving to seize control of the rest of Azerbaijan.

Elchibey, at this point embattled with Aliyev and Armenia, also had to deal with Surat Huseynov, a former black market business magnate turned warlord who assembled a ragtag army marching on Baku to claim the mantle of president. A desperate Elchibey then reached out to Aliyev, inviting him to Baku to jointly negotiate with Huseynov. Seeing an opportunity, Aliyev switched sides and allied himself with the rebel warlord, promising him the post of prime minister under his presidency. Together, they ousted Elchibey in 1993, who disappeared in provincial obscurity. Huseynov, no match for Aliyev’s tactical skill, was quickly outmaneuvered after a failed coup against his partner. Thus, by 1994, Heydar Aliyev became the sole, unquestioned leader of Azerbaijan, regaining the absolute power Gorbachev stripped him of in 1987. 

In office, he immediately agreed to a cease-fire with Armenia while maintaining Elchibey’s Turkish connection and rebuilding ties with Russia. The cease-fire was unfavorable to Azerbaijan, which due to internal instability had failed to press its monetary and military advantages and was brought to its knees in a war which claimed over 30,000 lives. Nagorno-Karabakh was still in the hands of the Republic of Artsakh. Ter-Petrosyan’s Armenia, meanwhile, occupied much of the ethnically Azeri territory between it and the Republic, which soon saw the expulsion of over 600,000 Azeris.

A detailed map of the frontlines following the fighting in 2020.
The cease-fire was brokered by Russia as part of the Minsk Group, an organization created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), chaired by France, the United States, and Russia with the goal of creating a solution to the conflict. Russia leaned towards supporting Armenia and currently maintains a military base there, the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri. Furthermore, in order to prevent an Armenian collapse which could lead to a consolidation of Turkey’s position in the Caucasus, Russia spent much of the war and its aftermath arming the small state. Nevertheless, Russia also supports Azerbaijan to this very day, supplying its military with arms and maintaining close ties for its oil reserves while seeking to draw it away from Turkey’s sphere of influence. Despite providing by and large more support for Armenia rather than Azerbaijan, Russia has tried to use its ties with both countries to foster cooperation and avoid a destabilizing regional situation which would disadvantage it, frequently acting as the conflict’s mediator. However, despite its mediatory intentions, the cease-fire effectively formalized Azerbaijan’s status as the loser of the conflict, cementing the region’s long standing ethnic hatreds.

Following the cease-fire, ethnic tensions have been less pronounced in Armenia, which managed to successfully resettle the 300,000 refugees it absorbed during the war in newly captured territories. Thus, with the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh currently standing in Armenia’s favor, a 2012 opinion poll found that 63% of the Armenian population views Azerbaijan as their nation’s greatest enemy, a relatively low number. 

Armenian domestic politics, however, have somewhat limited the concessions the country is willing to offer as part of a final peace deal. Of course, Ter-Petrosyan repeatedly discussed the possibility of surrendering the Armenian-occupied land surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan in exchange for other diplomatic concessions. His successors to the presidency, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, maintained similar stances.

However, efforts at diplomatic resolution have been hampered by three factors: poor bilateral relations, an expansive vision of Artsakh’s borders, and an unwillingness to negotiate its sovereignty. This proved fatal for the Minsk Group’s Madrid Principles of 2007, which would have transformed the region into an autonomous part of Azerbaijan. The expansive conception of Artsakh’s borders is caused largely by the aforementioned resettlement of Armenian refugees to territory beyond the technical limits of that state. As such, Armenians largely see no distinction between territory taken from Azerbaijan (that isn’t part of Nagorno-Karabakh) and Artsakh itself. As for the third factor, fear of a repeat of the Armenian Genocide is strong in Armenia and its diaspora, making anything short of recognizing the Republic of Artsakh nigh-impossible. Such fears have only been exacerbated by violent rhetoric and bellicose actions coming from Azerbaijan, which feels hurt in the face of the refugees it must accommodate and the occupation of 14% of its territory by Armenia and Artsakh.

The picture in Azerbaijan is very different. Following the cease-fire of 1994, Aliyev continued to successfully capitalize on its oil and gas wealth in order to build a fairly prosperous country with two oil pipelines connecting it to Turkey and another one tying it firmly to Russia. 

Its budding friendship with Ankara has only grown closer since ambitious nationalist Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to lead the country in 2003, gradually establishing a more assertive foreign policy based on intervention in Libya and Syria, confrontation with Russia in domination of the Caucasus, and a pronounced pan-Turkism drawing it ever-closer to Baku’s warm embrace. Erdogan’s game-changing policies have persuaded Russia to maintain favorable relations and military cooperation with Armenia in order to prevent Turkey and Azerbaijan from threatening its sovereignty. However, it has also lent an open hand to Aliyev. Intrigued by Baku’s oil and gas wealth and finding common ground on counterterrorism cooperation in the North Caucasus, Russia has courted his favor and ultimately seeks his complete reintegration within its sphere of influence. This has worried some in Yerevan, but it should come as no surprise. Russia makes no sentimental commitments: it desires peace, stability, and hegemony. It must play both sides, to some degree, in order to maintain that.

Azeri president Ilham Aliyev meets with his colleague and ally, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Domestic security within Azerbaijan was also promoted by both Heydar Aliyev and his son Ilham, who succeeded his late father in 2003 to the presidency. Both authoritarians committed to repressing civil society and political opposition (and quietly amassing billions of dollars in the process), they have encouraged and utilized Azeri revanchism against Armenia in order to distract from popular grievances. Thus, their regime’s credibility is built both on providing material prosperity for Azeris and fulfilling the promise of eventually retaking Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs, something which could seriously endanger that region’s Armenians. 

Far more than in Armenia, ethnic hatred and intolerance has steeped for decades in Azeri society, with 91% of the population describing Armenians as their ultimate enemy and school textbooks painting them as an eternal foe of the Azeri people. This endemic intolerance has manifested itself in many forms, even to the point of glorifying murder, as the 2004 case of Ramil Safarov demonstrates. Safarov, an Azeri military attache at a conference in Budapest, brutally murdered a participating Armenian soldier with his axe, nearly decapitating him. Following a Hungarian court sentencing him to life imprisonment for murder, he was released after just eight years to Azerbaijan on the explicit condition that he serve his term out. Ilham Aliyev, never wasting a moment to exploit the propaganda value of freeing a man who was perceived as a hero within Azerbaijan, pardoned him nonetheless, offering him a promotion and pay raise while Azeri television hailed the event as a triumph, a fitting welcome for a national hero. This, of course, solicited strong reactions from Yerevan.

With intolerance so ubiquitous in Azeri society, any attempt at humanizing Armenia is beyond the pale for Azeri civil society. Even a figure as esteemed as Akram Aylisli, Azerbaijan’s national author, is not immune. Following his publication of a novella describing the anti-Armenian pogroms of his hometown, he was lambasted in the media, expelled from the Azeri Writers’ Union, stripped of state honors by Aliyev himself, and for weeks Baku’s parliamentarians suggested that he have a DNA test to prove secret Armenian ancestry corrupting his patriotism. Such demonization has seriously hampered efforts at negotiation and reconciliation between the two countries.

The blame for that, nevertheless, cannot be fully cast upon the Aliyev regime. Although it has certainly encouraged revanchism, its fall would not eliminate the phenomenon. Rather, those sentiments are deeply rooted in Azeri society as an outcome of the 1994 cease-fire, with refugees and their descendants playing an active role in inciting discontent. Aliyev, for his part, merely channels them. Even the ruthlessly repressed Azeri opposition, led by remnants of Elchibey’s Azerbaijan Popular Front, has been active in promoting anti-Armenian sentiment. Thus, continued ethnic tensions have resulted in regular border confrontations between Azerbaijan and its neighbor since 1994.

Furthermore, in foreign affairs, Azerbaijan has also had to contend with its Iranian neighbor, somewhat hostile despite a similar Shia Muslim religious make-up. Azeris, after all, possess grievances against Iran’s control of ethnically Turkish areas, quietly longing for their incorporation in a unified state. These tensions, furthermore, have led to naval confrontations in the Caspian Sea between the two states in the past, and despite their diminishment, the reasons for them remain intact. Thus, Iran leans towards Armenia, wary of the threat that a dynamic and nationalist Azerbaijan could pose to its internal security. Incidentally, this also brought fruitful relations between Azerbaijan and Israel, which operates intelligence outposts in the country and supplies it with military equipment to defend itself from the Islamic Republic.

Thus, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has generally proceeded unconstructively for years, largely due to aggressive Azeri rhetoric weaponized by the Aliyev regime and Armenian unwillingness to cede control of Artsakh, with a variety of geopolitical forces aligning themselves with either side.

The Current Situation

In 2020, tensions reached a boiling point. Serious clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh began in July, notably resulting in the death of Azeri Major General Polad Hashimov. Azerbaijan was outraged, with over 30,000 young men flooding the streets of Baku with a call to outright war. As their zeal intensified, some even stormed the Azeri Parliament, the Milli Majlis. 

This terrified Aliyev, who immediately proceeded to quell the protests, fearful of losing control of a belligerent climate he himself encouraged in order to maintain his rule. Blaming the opposition, he arrested major figures within the Azerbaijan Popular Front in order to solidify his authority and prevent it from leading the protests.

Previously, Azerbaijan’s domestic situation was already deteriorating due to falling oil prices which have hurt Baku’s economy. With an upsurge of vitriolic nationalism, this tenuous situation most likely led Aliyev to conclude that he needed to appear more militant in order to rebuild support. A well-planned surprise attack on Nagorno-Karabakh could have been just the answer, and on September 27, shots were fired on the border and shelling began.

Armenian premier Pashinyan shakes hands with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Baku claimed that Armenia started the fighting, and although Armenia’s current premier Nikol Pashinyan was elected in 2018 on a populist, nationalist platform, it is improbable for several reasons. For one, not only is it likely that this was a way to shore up support at home in an increasingly unstable domestic situation, but Azerbaijan also had a variety of strategic advantages which would make an Armenian attack hopelessly foolish. The balance of forces has changed considerably since 1994, and this time around Azerbaijan has a larger, modern army supplied by Turkey, Israel, and the United States. This comes hand in hand with an overwhelmingly advantageous strategic situation: Erdogan is willing to get his hands much dirtier than Demirel in 1993.

Furthermore, there is evidence that Azerbaijan planned this attack for quite some time, as Aliyev noticeably shuffled his cabinet earlier in September to remove its old guard. To replace them, he has chosen politicians surrounding the nascent clique of his wife, the vice president, ensuring that they got credit for and control over a serious military operation. There would have been no particular reason to make such a decision unless serious action was to be taken in the near future.

Serious action, indeed: since September 27, Azerbaijan has declared a state of war and fully mobilized its armed forces, escalating shelling on Stepanakert and recapturing several of Artsakh’s towns. The ongoing fighting has tragically contributed to significant civilian casualties and been highlighted by various important aspects. Not only is it the most destructive fighting the area has seen since 1994, but it is fought dynamically with cutting-edge weaponry and escalated foreign involvement. 

Armenia, for example, alleged that Turkey brought in allied Syrian Islamist fighters to aid Azerbaijan and shot down an Armenian fighter jet. Although the veracity of the latter is uncertain, the former has been all but confirmed. 

In response, Erdogan wasted no time in accusing Armenia of cooperating with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a Turkish bogeyman and Kurdish nationalist group hostile to his government. No evidence has been provided for this claim, which Erdogan has leveled indiscriminately and unfairly against his regional opponents in the past.

Peace is thus far improbable, as Aliyev has also shown no sign of accepting even the possibility of negotiating, vowing to continue fighting until every last inch of Azeri land is reconquered. This could potentially lead to a much larger, broader war with serious human rights implications for Armenians if Artsakh falls. In times of war, ethnic hatreds turn deadly.

However, the actions of foreign governments could prevent this from happening. Although Turkey strongly backs Azerbaijan, France and Russia, two members of the Minsk Group, have both proven constructive in urging for peace and a cessation of hostilities.

Despite France’s support for peace being exclusively diplomatic, Russia has been more concrete due to the fear of Syrian jihadis potentially exporting Islamism to the region. Thus, it recently laid out concrete guidelines for a potential military intervention, committing itself to deploying troops if Armenia proper was invaded.

Ilham Aliyev shakes hands with Vladimir Putin.
Unfortunately, despite sharing common aims in the Caucasus, France, Russia, and the Minsk Group have been ineffective and uncoordinated in conflict prevention, something only aggravated by the United States’ studied indifference to the conflict itself.

This is a result of the Trump Administration realigning its regional priorities wholly towards containing Iran. In American strategic calculations, Azerbaijan is valued for its petroleum wealth and for acting as a bulwark against its neighbor, the Islamic Republic. Consequently, the Trump Administration has given Aliyev $100 million in security aid for 2018/19, even more than its staunchest regional ally, Georgia. In the meantime, it has cut 70% of humanitarian aid to Armenia, and reduced security aid to a mere $5 million. Given that, it is unlikely that the United States would ever seriously intervene in the current conflict in order to preserve its positive relations with Azerbaijan, but it would also avoid risking the ire of a powerful Armenian lobby domestically by intervening for Aliyev.

These divisions within the Minsk Group make it unlikely to enforce a sustainable peace in the near future, and although Pashinyan has announced his willingness to negotiate so long as conflict stops, Aliyev’s current military successes and promise to seize all occupied territory have made that a dead end unless the Minsk Group adopts robust policies for de-escalation or Aliyev walks back on his promises. 

Defusing the Powder Keg

In the event of Russia, the United States, and France seriously cooperating, what would they need to do in order to broker and enforce a sustainable peace?

For one, collective attempts must be made at putting pressure on Turkey to scale back its Azeri commitments while hounding Azerbaijan diplomatically and economically, making Aliyev pay the price for continuing his invasion.

This could bring him to the negotiating table, and the following deal must largely echo the Madrid Principles. In order to prevent a possible humanitarian crisis, the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, preferably without returning Artsakh to Azeri control, should be stipulated. If actions to prevent the region falling to Azerbaijan are not taken, it is difficult to overstate the danger which Armenian civilians face. Many Azeri soldiers, after all, are motivated by a burning desire for vengeance. 

However, measures guaranteeing the immediate safety of Armenian civilians must also accompany far-sighted actions aiming to rid the region of ethnic tensions, and Azeri refugees should be given a right of return to their former homes, with territory surrounding Artsakh transferred to Azerbaijan and Armenian colonists resettled. As Armenia is less able to finance a transfer of refugees from its occupied territories than Baku, compensation could be provided to those Armenians which lost their homes in the aftermath of Soviet collapse and developmental aid must be increased. In order to guarantee economic opportunity, both Turkey and Azerbaijan should be compelled to open their borders for trade and travel with the state. Ultimately, a long-term process of reconciliation between the two countries and peoples must be the endpoint of any agreement worth its salt.

Assuming that such a deal would be accepted and lead to ethnic reconciliation, it might also result in Aliyev’s fall. With the Nagorno-Karabakh issue now resolved, Azeri domestic politics could begin focusing on economic and social policies, potentially exposing his corruption and making it impossible for him to rely on nationalism to mobilize his base. Optimistically, it could eventually lead to Azerbaijan’s overdue democratization. 

In any case, due to current divisions within the Minsk Group, such a solution is improbable. The region is likely to remain the powder keg of the Caucasus for the foreseeable future, potentially putting it and the world at serious risk.


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