Nagorno Karabakh 101
What’s with all the fighting?
A damaged building in the Gubadli District of Azerbaijan, Dec 26, 2020. Photo: Orkhan Azim
Throughout the autumn and winter of 2020, the world’s news media were mesmerized by the twin spectacles of Covid and the Biden versus Trump US election. So you might not have noticed that for 44 days, part of Europe was at war. Or ‘part of Eurasia’ if you prefer: quite what counts as Europe is rather blurry as you head into the continent’s southeastern periphery. What is not in question, however, is the importance of that war for the people of the Caspian region and their diasporas. It’s already being called the Second Karabakh War. But in reality, the fighting was the culmination of an Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict that dates back to at least 1988: the longest-running conflict of the Soviet breakup. Here we’ll try to answer some of the most basic questions about the war and its background.
Q: So who won?
A: Azerbaijan won quite conclusively. Military analysts considered the campaign paradigm-changing due to the sophisticated use of advanced yet relatively inexpensive drone-weapons. This helped the Azerbaijani military gain aerial superiority and thus a swift victory over a much more conventional Armenian force.
Q: What stopped the fighting?
A: Azerbaijan set tightly restricted goals at regaining its own legally recognized territories: those that had been lost to Armenian forces in the First Karabakh War of 1992-1994. When it became clear that the Azerbaijanis were unstoppable, the Armenians capitulated. A three-way agreement including Russia was signed, and all occupied territories were returned to Azerbaijani sovereignty with Russian peacekeepers brought in to ensure peaceful compliance.
Q: What areas had been occupied?
A: A major chunk of Karabakh, the southwesterly part of Azerbaijan. The occupied areas had ‘declared independence’ in the 1990s under the title of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR) but were never officially recognized by any other nation. Not even by Armenia itself. That’s because, in reality, NKR’s independence was a legal ‘fig leaf’ for what was essentially annexation of the territory by Armenia. That situation was quite openly apparent from the fact that Robert Kocharyan moved seamlessly from President of the NKR to Prime Minister of Armenia without raising any eyebrows.
Following the mass exodus and partial ethnic-cleansing of the region’s Azerbaijani population, the remaining citizenship was almost 100% ethnic Armenian. The NKR renamed itself Artsakh, a term that was generally used only by Armenians. Using that name in Azerbaijan might be seen as implying a pro-Armenian stance, but actually, the term ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’ was even more fraught with potential problems and misunderstandings.
Q: How so?
A: Importantly, the Nagorno Karabakh Republic that declared itself independent was vastly bigger than the Nagorno Karabakh ‘AO’ with which the name is easily confused.
Q: Why does that matter? And what’s an ‘AO’?
A: Well, the Soviet Union was made up of 15 constituent republics (SSRs). Those were what went on to be recognized as independent countries after the USSR fell apart in 1991. The USSR had also had a number of less autonomous regions (ASSRs and AOs), which didn’t qualify for nation status after 1991 by the somewhat arbitrary rules that were applied. Anyway, in Soviet days, there had been an entity known as the Nagorno Karabakh AO (NKAO for short), a small, peanut-shaped lozenge of territory totally within Azerbaijan. It had been created in 1923 to give local voice to an ethnic-Armenian minority but remained subordinate to the Azerbaijan SSR.
Remember that as an AO, NKAO didn’t ‘qualify’ for independence in 1991, and as we’ll see later, Armenia’s attempts to annex the territory hit some snags. So in seeking legitimacy, it tried to justify its nominal independence through the notion of self-determination. That’s always a bit of a longshot in geopolitics, but it had worked for Eritrea and – to some extent – for Kosovo. However, the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh Republic was far larger than the NKAO, as it included all or part of some seven surrounding Azerbaijani provinces – all occupied since the first Karabakh War. The overall majority of this much bigger area would have been Azerbaijani – were it not for the mass departure and partial ethnic-cleansing of the non-Armenian population during 1992-1994. Quite apart from causing vast numbers of homeless, displaced people, the occupation finished any pipe dream that ‘self-determination’ might legitimize a possible claim for ‘Artsakh’s’ independence.
Q: Why did Nagorno Karabakh want independence anyway?
A: Actually, the NKAO didn’t really want independence at all. The Armenian SSR had wanted the NKAO to be transferred to its jurisdiction. Many Armenian residents of the NKAO concurred with the claim, some feeling that distant Baku was neglecting the region. Armenia’s official request was immediately refused in Moscow, where the Soviet leadership worried that any such deal would set off a domino effect of over a dozen similar requests elsewhere in the USSR. However, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) policies meant that the authorities were no longer sure how to stop the popular demonstrations that followed. Of course, only part of the NKAO population was ethnic Armenian. Ethnic Azerbaijanis in the region, and in Armenia itself, now started to feel threatened by the turn of events. The first skirmishes were hushed up by the secrecy of the Soviet system. Still, the rumoured rape of Muslim women in the NKAO educational institute and waves of Azerbaijanis fleeing Kapan led to a fiery spiral of inter-communal violence – and even more significantly, the implied threat of such violence. Large numbers of ethnic Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, taking refuge in Azerbaijan proper. Thousands found themselves in the dystopian industrial city of Sumqayyit where, in three days of fury, vengeful mobs set upon the town’s Armenian community leaving over 30 dead. Although many positive stories retell how neighbours of ‘opposing’ ethnicities helped each other survive the violence, things were now spiralling even further out of control. The result was that over a relatively short period, virtually all of the ethnic Armenians left Azerbaijan and vice versa. On some occasions, communities even organized complete ‘village swaps.’
In 1991, to the world’s general astonishment, the USSR essentially collapsed. Suddenly, the idea of uniting the NKAO with Armenia became more problematic: with the former SSRs as newly independent states, annexing the enclave from Azerbaijan would now be against international law. So the idea of ‘independence’ for a self-declared Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR) offered a sleight of hand alternative. In reality, the process was to be a de facto unification in all but name.
Q: How did Armenia & the NKR manage to grab so much territory?
A: Earlier in 1991, though ravaged by the 1988 earthquake, Armenia had been politically united, heading towards independence. It rapidly mobilized remnants of the USSR’s Red Army stationed in Armenia into a workable force. Though never officially admitting it, Armenia was widely believed to have helped the Nagorno Karabakh Armenians capture swathes of territory. Azerbaijan, in contrast, had had its first wave of popular opposition crushed by Soviet tanks in January 1990. The man who’d been put in power in Baku as the USSR imploded was a pro-Soviet hardliner who was widely delegitimized when he publicly backed the anti-Gorbachev coup of August 1991. He was later toppled by a contrastingly anti-Moscow nationalist regime, and the result was great instability in Baku for the first years of independence, making a coordinated defence of the greater Karabakh region very tough.
Q: It sounds like Azerbaijanis and Armenians are always fighting. What’s their problem?
A: Actually, that’s a dangerous misunderstanding. There had been serious inter-ethnic clashes in the early 20th century, but for most of history, both peoples have got along as amicable neighbours. There have been far more wars between England and France. Though it’s doubtless an oversimplification, it’s worth looking more closely at when the various ‘ethnic conflicts’ have occurred. The most significant have always been linked to border delineations and revolutions in more substantial powers. You can say the same of the Balkans. And of Ireland. And of many other historical upheavals. The dates of the terrible Armenian-Azerbaijani massacres all coincide with much larger geopolitical convulsions: 1905 and 1918 – the Russian revolutions, and 1988-1994, the collapse of the USSR.
Current state of Azerbaijan's deoccupied territory.
Q: OK, back to the recent war, why did it take Azerbaijan nearly 30 years to get its lands back?
A: Again, that’s complicated. Although Azerbaijan was bigger and more populous, the Armenian army was generally reckoned better organized and battle-ready. The bulk of the occupied territories (self-declared NKR) were on high lands that made for comparatively difficult military assaults. And most importantly, the Armenian regime maintained close relationships with Moscow with Russian troops still stationed there – with an implied threat that any attack on Armenian land could trigger a Russian response. From 1994 onwards, the conflict had become ‘frozen’ but unresolved and with fairly frequent exchanges of fire that continued to cause casualties. The OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) set up the Minsk Group, ostensibly to find a solution to the conflict: however, being co-chaired by Russia (with its Armenian bases), and the US and France (which both have sizeable Armenian diasporas), Azerbaijan doubted that the process would do any more than prevaricate and allow the status quo to continue. Azerbaijan made it plain that if peace negotiations failed, it would eventually consider all necessary means to liberate its occupied territories. Over the last 15 years, Azerbaijan’s economy boomed with a flood of new oil revenues, allowing the country to annually invest in its military almost as much money as Armenia’s total GDP. International reactions were tested with occasional sorties – most significantly in 2016 when a village and strategically valuable hill was re-captured. However, the peace process continued to produce no results while analysts appeared to believe the Armenian self-perception of invincibility.
In 2020, however, things changed rapidly. Perhaps the time looked right. After years of relative inaction, pressure for action had been building in Azerbaijan and was all the stronger with the frustrations of the COVID-19 Lockdown. When the dam broke in 2020, each side claimed that the other had fired first. But geopolitically, there was also a unique window. For the first time in decades, the new Pashinyan regime in Yerevan was not drawn from Karabakh Armenian stock. It tested the last reserves of Azerbaijani patience by declaring that it might annex the occupied territories. Yet, at the same time, it had chilled relationships with Moscow through an attempted rapprochement with Western powers. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s ‘brotherly’ ally, Turkey, had become more active in its support. The US was distracted by an inward-looking Trump regime. The time would never be more auspicious.
 From Thomas DeWaal’s Black Garden, pg. 16, Interview with Erif Yunusov 27 Nov, 2000 (https://www.amazon.ca/Black-Garden-Armenia-Azerbaijan-Anniversary/dp/0814760325)