The history of a long-feared war
https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk-by James Robins
Rubble in the city of Shusha. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov/Tass/PA Images
Rising up from the deep past of the last century, a long-feared war has flared again at Europe’s edge. For more than a month, in the highlands of the Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought fiercely over the heavily disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. At time of writing, officially at least 1,000 troops have been killed and more than 70,000 civilians displaced. The true tolls are likely higher.
Brief skirmishes in the borderlands spark off every few years, but this new war—and it is a war—has lasted much longer. It seems anarchic to outside eyes due to the blizzard of propaganda online. In Baku, an Azerbaijani dictatorship plump with plundered oil cash wields conflict to mobilise its public in support of reconquest of lost lands. In Yerevan, the threat of another genocide is cynically deployed to recruit volunteers (and diaspora donations) for an occupation the UN has declared unlawful. The hatred between the capitals is intractable; in the case of Armenia’s revolutionary Prime Minister Pashinyan and the Azeri strongman Aliyev, it is personal.
Yet Karabakh (which means “Black Garden”) wasn’t always a wild frontier of competing nationalisms. For a brief shining moment in the weaponised histories of both countries, unity emerged from chaos.
The mutual hostility can be dated to the First World War, which produced a barbarous crime and an invigorating opportunity. The slaughter of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 onwards created a humanitarian emergency which profoundly altered the demography of the Caucasus, upsetting the imbricated array of ethnic and religious minorities that call it home. In turn, the Russian Revolution of 1917 created a vast vacuum of power. The old order collapsed overnight. New authorities asserted themselves.
On one side was the Ottoman regime which suddenly stood unopposed and free to conquer its way to Baku. On the other was the people. It was not forgone that their struggles for independence should lead to discrete nations. For a while, as the dregs of the Ottoman army threatened in 1918, a Transcaucasian Federation was created, made up of Georgians, Azeris and Armenians, its cabinet representative, independent of foreign rule for the first time. Yet they could not meet force with force and the federation fractured into three ethnic republics with claims—and populations—on each other’s territories.
In the settling ash of the war, the British attempted to assert control while eyeing the Bolsheviks to the north nervously. And it was British administrators who originally gave substantial support to the Azerbaijani claim on Nagorno-Karabakh—in exchange for access to petroleum reserves around the Caspian—despite the substantial Armenian population there. For a time, Armenian republicans did not worry over the trading of the mountainous area—they had been promised their homelands in eastern Anatolia by the Allies as recompense for the genocide. In the end, what stifled the Allied settlement—drawn up as the grotesque Treaty of Sevres—was a revenant of the Ottoman regime: a violent Turkish nationalist movement led by the ruthless commander Mustafa Kemal.
Hoping to “annihilate” the country “politically and physically,” Kemal ordered an assault on fledgling Armenia in 1920. From the opposite direction marched the Red Army, cleaning up the outwash of counterrevolution. Faced with likely extermination, the Armenians were forced to welcome the commissars. The Azeris, preferring Kemal’s liberation, had to submit to Soviet rule as well, as did the Georgians. By the end of 1921, the constituent parts of the federation had been reabsorbed into the USSR.
It was Stalin, acting as minister for nationalities and wearing the new clothes of the old colonialism, who reinforced the British view of Nagorno-Karabakh, handing it to Baku—again without regard for the wishes of its people. Soviet rule then strangulated reform, or even any reconsideration of the decision. Only Gorbachev’s glasnost, 60 years later, provided the space for talk of alteration to this arbitrary status quo. Indeed, the Armenian independence movement of the late 1980s began in the region. Thus, modern Armenian identity hinges on the apparent unity between the Republic and what they call Artsakh. In turn, Azerbaijan developed an animating grievance against the violation of its sovereignty. The war of 1988-1994 was the unleashing of resentment long tamped down, never mended.
The contested status of Karabakh cannot be extracted out of broader injustices from the era of imperial collapse. For so long as the Azeri regime can depend on Turkish arms and political legitimacy, there will be no long-term settlement. Nor will there be any settlement without an opening of the Turkish-Armenian border—the last closed frontier of the Cold War—which is itself contingent on Turkish recognition of the genocide. For now, a long shadow falls on the Black Garden.
James Robins’s book on the Armenian genocide is out in November