17/10/2020

NAGORNO KARABAGH, A CONFLICT INVISIBILIZED BY HISTORY

The Azerbaijani offensive along the border of Nagorno Karabakh (or its historical name Artzaj) with Azerbaijan started on September 27th rekindles a “frozen conflict” that originates from the geopolitical changes in the Caucasus region, as a consequence of the dissolution of the ex-USSR. We are referring to the attemps of Azerbaijan to dismiss the right to self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabaj, which resulted on the resistance of the local defense forces as well as the refusal of the inhabitants to leave their land. On February 20 of 1988 emerged, on the one hand, the identity and territorial claims of the Karabakh Armenians, whose presence in the region dates back to more than three thousand years of history, and, on the other, the claims of the Azeri Turks favored by the "divide to reign" policy of the former USSR at the beginning of the 20th century; both confronted positions that come to light today were kept silent for seventy years.

Some media present the Armenians as "separatists" maliciously or ignorantly omitting that the Armenians of Artsakh are natives of that territory. They are not Armenians because they were from Armenia; They are Armenians because Artsakh was always part of geographical and historical Armenia. They also ignore the constitutional process and especially the right of peoples to dispose of themselves, associated with the principle of self-determination, included in different international texts such as the United Nations Charter, signed at the end of the Second World War. On its behalf, Azerbaijan is based on the principle of territorial integrity even though Armenians have lived in that territory since ancient times, arbitrarily annexed in a tense context such as the Caucasus region. The violation of the national integrity of a country cannot be carried out by the inhabitants of that land, but by a foreign state.

The multi-ethnic character of the region promoted various conflicts that have not yet been resolved, favored by its mountainous geography and its location at the crossroads between peoples that clashed but that also had moments of commercial interaction. There are located the Republics of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Republic of Artsaj, not yet recognized, without omitting the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with a common past that dates back to the 18th century when the Tsarist Empire advanced on territories of the Persian and Ottoman Empires. The region was affected to a greater or lesser extent by these three empires and the three countries that emerged from them, Russia, Turkey and Iran are present today, each with its own objectives, to guarantee their own interests. To understand this complex present it is necessary to take a step back to its historical origins.

Armenians, with a strong identity burden in the region, focus their claim on their presence since ancient times, which is majoritarian today. However, in 1921, the People's Commissar for Nationalities, Josef Stalin, in order to neutralize the populations of the Caucasus between each other, assigned the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) to Azerbaijan as an autonomous region (oblast), despite its Armenian-ethnic composition. Thus, on July 7 of 1923, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region was officially created in the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan, which since then has applied the policy of “ethnic cleansing” of the Armenian population of the place.

Although the strategy of creating autonomous enclaves surrounded by different peoples or even enemies notably affected the Armenian population of Artsaj (15 km from Armenia), they lived in a tense peace, according to the principle of the "friendship of the peoples" imposed by the Soviet regime whose centralizing policy was intended to grind down national differences without success.

The latent aspiration of the Armenian population of Artsakh not to submit to the Turkish yoke of Azerbaijan found its opportunity in February 1988 when, wielding the principle of self-determination, it requested by referendum, as allowed by the Constitution, its inclusion in the Republic of Armenia. Baku not only rejected this request but responded by organizing the pogrom of Armenians living in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. An armed conflict then arose because of Baku's claim that the Armenian population should leave not only the territory of Azerbaijan but also Artsakh. The Armenians did not leave this territory as they considered it their own, but did flee Sumgait, one of the main cities of Azerbaijan, and also Kirovabad, Baku and several other cities such as Artsvashén, Getashen, Janlar, Shahumyan, as a result of the persecutions and killings. From then on, tensions were exacerbated, giving rise to the first armed clashes in Artsakh.

The decline and subsequent dissolution of the former USSR in 1991 gave place to profound changes in the region, clearing the way to the proclamation of the independence of the Republics that comprised it; Azerbaijan, on August 31 and, the following month, on September 21, Armenia did so by referendum, although its constitution as a Republic dated from August 23 of 1990. On September 2 of 1991 Artsakh declared its independence, which on December 10 was ratified by a referendum of its population, according to the principle of self-determination of the peoples. Baku's response was the dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region on January 2 of 1992, that is, the infringement of its rights and the beginning of the offensive against the capital, Stepanakert, promoting a war that lasted until 1994.

The disadvantageous situation of Artsakh with a population of one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants, compared to Azerbaijan, with more than seven million, was decisive in the organization of its self-defense, managing not only to stop the offensive but also to free the territory to establish territorial continuity with Armenia, which was of vital importance, and a strategic space to guarantee its survival.

In 1994 the Minsk Group OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), created for the peaceful resolution of conflicts, intervened as a mediator in every conflict in the region. After thirty years of ceasefire, on September 27 (as it had already done in April 2016 and last July) Artsaj suffered the attacks of Azerbaijan, this time more prepared and strengthened by the open support of Turkey.

The Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, faces today a more complex panorama due to the intervention of Turkey, which aspires to have greater interference in the region. The co-chairs of the Minsk Group have made statements in favor of the peaceful resolution of the conflict; but as Folleboukt [1] argues on the importance of the active intervention of Russia for its solution: "Frozen conflicts find their origin in the expansion of Russia and cannot be resolved without its participation".

At the end of September, Azerbaijan embarked on the “reconquering” of territories that it considers its own with the explicit military support of Turkey, which intervenes with impunity not only in conflicts in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean over gas resources but also in the Caucasus by recruiting and sending mercenaries and Islamists from the Syrian city of Afrin to their allied country. Several are the motivations of the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in this direct involvement in the war; in particular, it offers the control of oil flows and the expansion of its military influence zone, obvious objectives that can be explained by its dispute with Russia for leadership. But the deeper historical reason, beyond any political rationality, is the common Turkish ethnic identification, which Erdogan and Aliev, president of Azerbaijan, express when they present themselves as “one nation, two states”.

The current plan of Azerbaijan and Turkey to empty the historical Armenian territories of their inhabitants is part of the old Panturist project of territorial unification of the peoples of Turkish origin from Central Asia to the Mediterranean, whose visible proof was the genocide of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire and the appropriation of their territories during the First World War. For this reason, both in Artsakh and in Armenia and in the diaspora, the Azerbaijani offensive is perceived as an existential threat of a new genocide.

 

Nélida Boulgourdjian is a Doctor in History and Civilization, teacher and researcher at the Institute for Studies on Cultural Diversity of the National University of Tres de Febrero (UNTREF).

 


[1] Xavier Follebouckt (Les conflicts gelés de l’espace post-soviétique. Genese et enjeux, Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2012)

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