There exist several so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ in Eastern Europe which developed out of territorial clashes after the break-up of the Soviet Union and remained unresolved. One of them, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan revolving around the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, erupted in a new ‘hot’ war in 2020. E&M author Thomas Barrett offers an explanation for the sudden outburst of violence, pointing out the historical and imperial path-dependencies the two countries are still trapped in.

On the 27th September 2020, war broke out on the fringes of Europe. Over 45 days deadly battles were fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. After three failed ceasefires and more than 6,000 casualties, a Russian-brokered agreement returned a fragile peace to the region. It is easy to assume that this is simply an ethno-religious conflict built on historical hatred between Christian Armenians and Azeri Muslims – especially after seeing the extremely hateful and dehumanising language coming from both sides on social media. However, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is part of the wider legacy of imperial collapse in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is not an isolated case, but one of many consequences of Russia’s attempts to maintain hegemony over its former colonies in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Rather than getting embroiled in endless debates about whether Nagorno-Karabakh ‘rightfully’ belongs to Azerbaijan or Armenia, we must understand the common struggle of both peoples to determine their future – and how it has led to a deadly stalemate with no end in sight.

The South Caucasus was and remains a patchwork of ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, including Abkhaz, Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Ossetians, Turks and Yezidis – to name just a few.

New boundary lines in Nagorno-Karabakh after the peace agreement.
Source: Mapeh, Wikimedia Commons.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, these groups were co-existing rather peacefully within the Russian Empire. The three modern-day capitals – Baku, Tbilisi, Yerevan – both contained substantial populations of ethnic Azeris, Armenians and Georgians. However, with the collapse of the Russian Empire the region erupted into nationalist conflict, and for a brief period between 1918 and 1922 there emerged independent Armenian, Azeri and Georgian republics. This period saw the first foretaste of Azeri-Armenian violence, as both sides fought to carve out their territory at the expense of the other and pogroms erupted in large cities. This brief ethnic conflict was snuffed out by the arrival of a new colonial power in the region in 1920 – the Soviet Union. The Red Army swiftly and violently conquered the three Caucasus Republics. What followed was 70 years of peaceful coexistence between Armenians and Azeris under Soviet rule. Yet it would be a mistake to view this as a golden age of ethnic harmony. The Soviet policy of ethnic ‘divide and rule’ laid the foundation for today’s conflict.

“Divide and Rule” – Soviet roots of ethnic tension

The Soviet policy towards nationalities changed abruptly many times during its existence. Lenin favoured fostering the national consciousness of the various peoples within the Soviet Union as a stepping stone towards communism, while Stalin, an ethnic Georgian, was extremely suspicious of supposedly dangerous nationalities, famously orchestrating the Holodomor famine of 1932 to 1933 in Ukraine and the mass deportation of Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, Koreans and Germans – just to name a few – from their native republics to Siberia and Central Asia. In the South Caucasus, the Soviets created the Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs).

These SSRs gave the “titular” nationalities dominance over governing their republics, often resulting in significant demographic engineering. For example, although Armenians made up around half of the population of the Azeri-governed region of Nakhichevan in the early 1920s, few to none remained by the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, Josef Stalin, People’s Commissar for Nationalities from 1917 to 1923, complicated the picture by creating several autonomous regions or republics within the SSRs. Many of these have become the site for post-Soviet conflicts with Russian involvement, such as Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The massacre of Azeris in Khojaly in 1992 holds a special place in Azeri historical memory as the largest massacre of war.

In the 1920s, the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh had a substantial Armenian majority but was cut off from the Armenian SSR by lowland regions mostly populated by Azeris. It was the main site of Armenian-Azeri military clashes during their brief independence. The Soviets incorporated Nagorno-Karabakh into the Azeri SSR, but as an autonomous region, which gave ethnic Armenians a degree of self-rule. However, this did not prevent the authorities in Baku from settling Azeris in the region and underinvesting in the development of Armenian towns, resulting in increasing ethnic tensions. With the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities declared independence from the Azerbaijan SSR in February 1988. An anti-Armenian pogrom immediately broke out in the Azeri town of Sumqayit, which would be followed by many more on both sides after full-scale war broke out in 1991.

In particular, the massacre of Azeris in Khojaly in 1992 holds a special place in Azeri historical memory as the largest massacre of war. The First Karabakh War ended in a resounding victory for the Armenian side, which controlled Karabakh and seven surrounding lowland regions from which the majority Azeri population was expelled or fled. However, the Armenians failed to secure international recognition – perhaps the main reason why Nagorno-Karabakh was never incorporated in Armenia but became a de facto independent state known by Armenians as the Republic of Artaskh.

Nations born from War

What followed were 30 years of failed attempts to negotiate a ceasefire, mostly conducted by the OSCE’s Minsk Group. Meanwhile in both countries the Karabakh question overshadowed the experience of independent statehood. In defeated Azerbaijan, a brutal authoritarian regime led by Heydar Aliev and later his son Ilham promised that it would reclaim the territory. Political opposition and freedom of speech are violently repressed, and anger at the regime’s extremely unequal distribution of the country’s vast oil wealth is deflected towards the Armenian foe. In Armenia, the conflict with Azerbaijan is seen as part of an existential historical struggle for survival against its Muslim-Turkic neighbours, dating back to the genocide of Armenians within the Ottoman Empire from 1915-1916. Armenia developed a hybrid regime with basic civil rights, but elections were carefully managed by the dominant Republican Party. A cornerstone of their claim to legitimacy was their ability to defend Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, largely by maintaining a close alliance with Russia, which acted as Armenia’s security guarantor.

This all changed in 2018 when a peaceful pro-democratic revolution swept away the Republican Party and brought Nikol Pashinyan and his ‘My Step’ party to power. Armenia held its first fully free and fair elections, and Pashinyan promised to fight endemic corruption and reform the state. Yet relations with Russia gradually soured. In July 2020 Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russia Today TV channel, accused Armenian politicians of being ungrateful of Russian protection, stating that “after all that you have done, Russia has every moral right to spit on you and grind you into the ground.”

Perhaps it was such signals of Russia’s dissatisfaction with the Armenian government which encouraged Azerbaijan to prepare a military offensive in the region. Clearly the willingness of Turkey to offer significant military and diplomatic support played a key role. In any case, Azerbaijan launched a devastating offensive, deploying military forces far larger and equipped with more sophisticated technology than the Armenian side. Armenia was left totally unprepared, since its leaders had relied on the belief Russian protection would deter Azerbaijan from any significant offensive.

Russia succeeded in destabilising Pashinyan’s reformist government and reminding Armenia not to take Russian support for granted.

This Russian protection emerged only at the final moment, after Azerbaijan captured the strategically vital city of Shusha and was on the verge of cutting off Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. Just as in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, Russia succeeded in injecting itself as a ‘security guarantor’ in Nagorno-Karabakh, providing peacekeepers to guard the new ceasefire line between the two sides. Russia succeeded in destabilising Pashinyan’s reformist government and reminding Armenia not to take Russian support for granted. The only concern for Russia is the emergence of a rival post-colonial power in the region – Turkey.

Armenia suffered a crushing blow and a national tragedy. It was forced to give up the seven Azeri regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh which could have been used as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the status of the ethnic Armenian region. The optimism for a bright democratic future after the 2018 revolution has been replaced with trauma and hopelessness. Meanwhile President Aliev is benefitting from a surge of national pride which may sustain his autocratic regime for many years to come.

Like most ethnic conflicts, neither the Armenian nor Azeri peoples are winners in this war. There is only one clear winner. The former imperial power, Russia, has successfully exploited the tensions created during Soviet rule to entrench its power in the region. Until Armenians and Azeris recognise that the blood shed over the past century is not the fault of the “evil” other, but of their shared colonial past, there is little chance for peace. And if nothing has changed when Russian-brokered ceasefire comes up for renewal in five years’ time, the chances of repeated violence are alarmingly high.


Cover photo: Sarin Ave (Unsplash licence)

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    Thomas Barrett is a Research Fellow at the Yerevan Brusov State University. He is a Master’s student of Eastern European Studies at the Free University of Berlin and a graduate of the University of Oxford.

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