It is very likely that Americans are too distracted to have noticed the recent flare-up of an old conflict between the nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan. We do have a Presidential election in its final stages and a Supreme Court hearing going on concurrently, among other things. This piece is to explain what the roots of the conflict are, and how to think about what our options are, for those Americans who might be interested.
Like many intractable conflicts, this one involves a mountainous region with a proud population and a storied history facing larger imperial pressures. Like the Scots or the Kurds or the Basque nationalists, the Armenians in this region are ensconced in a highland region whose neighborhood became controlled by a different ethnic group during times of widespread conquest. In this case, the larger and more widespread group are Turkmen. The people of Azerbaijan are Turkmen of the same sort that founded the Ottoman Empire, and spread as far west as the gates of Vienna and as far east as China. The Uighur, against whom the People’s Republic of China are currently waging a genocide, are also part of this Turkmen group.
The Armenian claim in the area is of great antiquity. The Armenian people had a kingdom in the region for at least centuries before the birth of Christ, although the exact dates are disputed by scholars. The Armenians adopted Christianity early, and were at one time a widespread Christian power: to this day, one of the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem is the Armenian Quarter, full of Armenian Rite churches and separate from the Latin Quarter where Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox practices are more common. When the period of Islamic expansion began, the lowland areas were conquered by Arabs and then Persians, Turks and then the Mongolian Khans. In the highlands, however, the Armenian leadership remained unconquered, trading its alliance to its favorite of the lowland overlords in return for their recognition of Armenian power on high.
The surrounding land eventually came under control of the Russian Empire, which of course fell into Communism in 1917. With the fall of the Russian Empire, the Ottomans attempted another invasion, which Armenian forces resisted. 1918 brought the fall of the Ottoman Empire as well, and the Soviet Union asserted broad control over the area. During Lenin’s time the Soviets attempted to organize the area in several different ways, but the real influence of the Soviets came with Stalin.
Stalin decided to locate the ethnically Armenian stronghold, which is called Nagorno-Karabakh (one English interpretation of which is ‘mountains of the black garden‘), inside of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. He might instead have drawn the lines so that it fell under the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Historians debate why Stalin made the particular decision that he did. I side with those who believe that Stalin intended to create a zone of ethnic conflict along a divide-and-conquer policy toward the region. In other words, he drew the lines to ensure that rather than resisting the rule of the USSR, young men with local ethnic ambitions would instead be contesting other young men with local ethnic ambitions.
Whether or not that was Stalin’s ambition, that is how it has played out. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenian forces in the highlands have tried to reunite with Armenia proper. Azerbaijan has resisted the breakaway of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. There was an outright war as recently as 1994, and the recent flare-up is over the disputed lines that are unresolved from that conflict.
All that might not be clear from the unhelpful media reporting on the current fighting. That report, for example, refers to this as a “decades-long” clash; it is in fact many centuries in the making. The report also suggests that Nagorno-Karabakh is “a region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994.” In fact it is an unconquerable region only notionally under the control of, sequentially, Azerbaijan, the USSR, the Khans of Mongolia, Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, Persian dynasties, and Arab Caliphs.
American options here are very limited, and definitely do not include a military option to resolve the conflict. Many empires with more regional commitment have conceded that the mountains need to be left to the Armenians. Several great empires have risen and fallen claiming to control this area, but the Armenians are still there.
Could Stalin’s work be undone? Possibly Azerbaijan could be persuaded to surrender the region to Armenia, which it borders. Diplomats have failed to persuade the Azerbaijani of that for decades. Negotiations towards that end are probably doomed to failure, although the opening of such negotiations might be successful at creating space for a ceasefire while the negotiations are underway.
A second option would be to pursue regional independence, just as the Kurdish regions in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey might be joined into an independent Kurdistan. This option has the same drawbacks as the Kurdistan option. The state, if created, would be landlocked and economically disadvantaged; and it is very hard to convince existing states to surrender territory for the creation of a new state that they might view as a potential military threat.
Nevertheless, this second option strikes me as the best diplomatic approach. Perhaps it can be combined with an initiative to create a fellowship of such states, with an eye toward resolving several similar such conflicts. The Kurds would have obvious reasons to befriend an independent Nagorno-Karabakh, and transit agreements between Armenia and the Kurdish regions might not be too hard to negotiate. Perhaps Azerbaijan might be more willing to let the region go if it were not conceding it to an ancient enemy, and if it were not the only nation in the region being asked to make such a concession. The United States could offer economic incentives to nations that signed on to a broad-based liberation concept, whereby mountainous regions like these (or Tibet) could be freed to pursue their own way of life.
Even diplomatic approaches in this area will be sticky and difficult. A third option, for America, would be to mind our own business. Think tanks do not develop large endowments by recommending this course, but it is a live option all the same.