Soft Borders and Strong States: Artsakh

I am a Lebanese citizen and I am persona non grata in Azerbaijan. Why? — because I am of Armenian origin and have an Armenian last name. Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president, himself proudly declared: “All Armenians of the world are enemies of Azerbaijan!” Every single country’s visa requirements for its citizens has a section entitled “Armenian Ethnicity” on its wikipedia page, outlining how people of Armenian origin are banned from entering Azerbaijan. Yet, this is not an article about Azerbaijan’s Armenophobia or its human rights abuses and intolerance to dissent. It’s an article about the Artsakh Republic (Nagorno-Karabakh), a de facto independent country, and the importance and necessity its independence holds for its people. It also explains the 2020 September-October clashes.

At a time when states were being formed in the region, after World War I, different populations in the Southern Caucasus fought one another for territory which they all had been sharing for centuries. The Armenians, Georgians and Azeris fought a handful of unfortunate wars which drew most of the borders of these three countries with one another. 

In 1921, Stalin decides, in his troubling ideology of ‘divide and rule’, to give a mountainous territory, made up of 90-95% ethnic Armenians, to the Azerbaijani SSR, although the population wanted to join the Armenian SSR instead. This entity was to be known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. After the death of Stalin, the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, yet again, begged the Soviets to have them join their fellow ethnic Armenians in the Armenian SSR, but as history likes to teach us, ethno-political conflicts are something the Soviets enjoyed watching and spurring. 

Finally, in 1991, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence. It is at this very moment that Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast sought to join the newly independent Armenian Republic. This little region of the world was never part of Republican Azerbaijan and its Azeri inhabitants rarely exceeded 10% ! 

Regardless, the Republic of Artsakh today is not under Armenian occupation. It is independent. Its inhabitants have always been there, thus, they are not new settlers. This is not just about land, it’s about the people who live and have been living on this land continuously for ‘centuries’ and their self-determination. 

I am baffled with how the Azerbaijanis bring up the massacre at Khojaly and call it a ‘genocide’ or  ‘genocidal massacres’  (a term which does not technically exist). What happened in Khojaly in 1992 was tragic — a tragedy! But why be silent about Shushi in 1920, Sumgait in 1988, Baku in 1990 and Maraga in 1992, when the Armenians of Azerbaijan were targets of pogroms and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians died as a result? — this is not to belittle the pain the Azerbaijanis experienced because of Khojaly, but to portray both communities as being at fault throughout the initial years of the conflict. Turkey, Azerbaijan’s foremost ally, today, accuses Armenia — a country made up of 3 million people — of being a threat to regional stability; yet Turkey has been involved in disputes with Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Egypt, Greece, the Kurds and even France. Who’s the threat?

On the 5th of April 2020, a democratic election took place in Artsakh. It was the second round of presidential elections. If a strong-man were to be the head of this republic since 1994, international observers would have not been pleased. This democratic system is proof of the willingness and determination that the inhabitants of Artsakh strive to live in a free, fair and democratic country. 

Let’s be clear about something; Armenians do occupy Azerbaijani lands. The lands outside of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast could be considered occupied according to international law; as they had an ethnic Azeri majority. Probably, in any peace agreement, there will be concessions and giving Azerbaijan some land might be on the table. A major obstacle to this is Aliyev himself, an authoritarian leader who knows not what peace and prosperity mean; instead he relies on both petro-dollars and the Turkish Republic for security. Indeed, Europe needs Azerbaijani gas as well. 

On the 27th of September 2020, Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, waged an aggressive attack on Artsakh, claiming that the “Karabakh problem will be solved once and for all”. Armenia mobilized to help their Artsakh-Armenian brethren; so did many volunteers from the Armenian diaspora from all four corners of the world. Azerbaijan claims that Armenia started the clashes and international media is either silent or tries to be neutral — I really don’t know how one could be neutral in such a situation. Steparnakert, the capital, is being bombed heavily by the Azeris. Interestingly, Azerbaijan has banned foreign journalists to go there; all international journalists report the story from the Armenian side.

If Azerbaijan and Turkey succeed in capturing Artsakh, then the threat of ethnic cleansing of the 150,000 Armenians living in the Republic is alive and well. 

Arayik Harutyunyan, the president of the Artsakh Republic, a war veteran, went to the frontlines and looked at his soldiers in the eyes and said “I love you all” — which leader on planet earth has said that? Macron? Trump? Johnson? Merkel? — this is what integrity looks like. Armenians are fighting an existential battle, while Azerbaijan is using jihadist mercenairies to capture the land which is of no importance to them, except national pride delved in toxic nationalism (it’s not that Armenians are not nationalist themselves…). There is also the problem of the displaced Azeris in Azerbaijan who live in dire conditions (purposly by the Azerbaijani government) who fervently and defiantly want to return to Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas (the number of displaced people number 700,000 according to the Azerbaijani government). 

Establishing a peace deal between the two (or more…) countries might seem farfetched today, but it is not impossible. A plan for peace (or how a peace deal would look like) seems unclear, but the hatred between the two people currently shows the impossiblity of the two peoples to live side by side and thus Aliyev’s calls of giving the Armenians of Karabakh autonomy in the Azerbaijani Republic is not realistic (again, ethnic cleansing is the most likely scenario if this is to take place); approximately half the population of Artsakh has already escaped the violence (precisely what Aliyev wants to happen). 

The potential winner and loser in this tragic conflict cannot be predicted as of present. The world must pressure Azerbaijan and Turkey to stop the ‘war’ and resort to a ceasefire — something Azerbaijan has made clear that it doesn’t want to do. After a 10-hour meeting of the countries’ foreign ministers in Russia with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, a week after the start of the most recent conflict, a humanitarian ceasefire was agreed upon. Azerbaijan bombed Steparnakert 5 minutes after the ceasefire agreement was supposedly to be implemented. 

Therefore, who is the aggressor? 

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