Detroit (GPA) – In this latest installment of GPA’s Armenians Speak series, Dr. Vahe Sahakyan of the Armenian Research Center answers our questions on the current crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Dr. Vahe Sahakyan is a research scholar at the Armenian Research Center, University of Michigan Dearborn. Positioned in the intersection of modern history and historical sociology, his research interests include studies of nationalism, population movements, and modern diasporas.
GPA: What is some of the history behind the Nagorno-Karabakh area and its significance to the Armenian community? Why has Azerbaijan been so committed to reclaiming the majority Armenian region?
Dr. Sahakyan: The region of what is known today as Nagorno-Karabakh has been populated by Armenians for centuries since antiquity. The first mention of Armenia is in the 6th century BCE inscription by Persian King Darius the Great on a rock called Behistun. Armenians have been referenced by ancient Greek historians as well—Hecateus of Miletus, Herodotus, Xenophon, Strabo among others. The centuries-old Armenian presence in Artsakh, as the Armenians called the region, has been marked by numerous Armenian Christian monasteries, churches, and chapels, and other Armenian cultural artifacts.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict emerged as the by-product of modernity, in the age of nations, when the principle of national self-determination became dominant in the political organization of societies and states in the aftermath of WWI. In the second half of the 19th century, since 1868, the region of what constitutes modern Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh was part of the administrative province of the Elizavetpolskaia Guberniia (Elizavetpol Governorate) in the South Caucasian periphery of the Russian Empire. Geography, natural boundaries, irrigation systems, transportation, and communication lines rather than the ethnic composition of populations marked the administrative boundaries between the neighboring governorates of Erivan, Elizavetpol, Tiflis, and Baku in the Caucasus Viceroyalty.
The Armenians lived in those lands—mostly peacefully—side by side with other ethnic groups, including the Turkic speaking Shi’a Azerbaijani Tatars. The inability of once-mighty empires to effectively deal with the growing discontent among the diverse population groups and social classes following the French revolution of 1789, and the mobilization of those groups around socialist and nationalist ideologies, often sparked violent clashes in various parts of those empires. Armenian-Tatar clashes at the turn of the 20th century, in 1905-1907, reflected the accumulated resentments, feelings of social injustice, the growing nationalist sentiments, and the overall crisis at the time of the first Russian Revolution.
The collapse of the Russian Empire after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution left the region at the discretion of the insurgent Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian nationalist, and socialist political parties. Elizavetpol governorate, alongside several other provinces, became part of the short-lived Transcaucasian federation—a federative state governed by a coalition of Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani parties during the first five months of 1918. The dispute over the region of Karabakh began after Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia became independent in late May 1918. As the national elites were faced with the problem of redrawing the boundaries of the former provinces of the Russian Empire— around ethnic and cultural lines—they found many incongruences between ethnic-cultural and administrative boundaries. The Azerbaijani leaders aspired to make the entire region of the former Elizavetpol Governorate part of the independent Republic of Azerbaijan. The leaders of Armenia insisted on redrawing the boundaries in a way that would make the Armenian populated territories of the former Elizavetpol Governorate—the Armenian lands of Karabakh and Zangezur—part of the Republic of Armenia. The presence of Russian-Bolshevik, Turkish and British interests and armies in the region further aggravated territorial disputes in 1918-1920. The dispute over the region of Karabakh between the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan lingered on for a few years, involving occasional clashes and violence, the most notable among which was the massacre of Armenians in Shusha/Shushi—the administrative center of Karabakh—in March 1920.
The Sovietization of these three republics provided only temporary, as it turned out, remedy to the boundary disputes. Once the Soviet borders were finalized with Turkey in the treaty of Moscow, on March 16, 1921, the Soviets embarked on redrawing the internal boundaries between the Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The exclusionary nationalist policies of the former republics were thus replaced with the Soviet engineered solution to the problem of nationalities. The People’s commissariat of nationalities, under Joseph Stalin, and the Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party were ultimately responsible for the creation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast’ (Region) within the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic in the summer of 1921. The decision to grant this region an autonomous status was predicated upon the fact that Armenians constituted the majority in the region, but the region was tied with the economy to the rest of Azerbaijan.
GPA: This dispute has been ongoing since before the fall of the Soviet Union, which some blame for today’s issues due to their division of Nagorno-Karabakh. What exactly did the soviet union change when they divided up these two nations?
Dr. Sahakyan: The Soviet nationality policies were based on the assumption that if nations received what they needed—namely self-determination and self-governing autonomies—the problem of nationalities would be resolved, and socialism could take root in national forms and languages. The Armenian population of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh received autonomy within the Azerbaijani SSR according to the principles of the Soviet nationality policies. The economic considerations behind the decision of creation of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region within Azerbaijani SSR, and the assumption that these boundaries would have only symbolic meaning once the Soviet identity established, however, did not override the national sentiments of the Armenians in the region. During the 70 years of the Soviet Union, the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh was brought to the attention of the Moscow officials several times in petitions and appeals to annex the region to Soviet Armenia.
GPA: What was the Soviet motive for giving Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan in 1921 in the context of Turkey’s relationship with the USSR and other nations in the region?
Dr. Sahakyan: The Bolshevik-Kemalist cooperation in the early 1920s certainly affected the boundaries of Soviet Armenia, which were finalized in the treaties of Moscow and Kars in 1921. If you look at the map of modern Armenia and Azerbaijan, the province of Nakhijevan, that is part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, is an exclave, landlocked between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran. Nakhijevan was another disputed region between Armenia and Azerbaijan before the Sovietization of both countries. The fate of Nakhichevan was decided in the context of the Bolshevik-Kemalist relations, finalized in the treaty of Kars, which made Nakhijevan an autonomous region, part of Soviet Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh, however, was an internal problem for the Bolsheviks. The creation of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region within the Azerbaijani SSR was a matter of internal politics, less related to the Soviets’ relations with Turkey.
GPA: The last violent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh was just four years ago in 2016 and lasted a few days. What was behind the timing of that dispute and why did the conflict calm down to its more regular low-intensity so quickly?
Dr. Sahakyan: Retrospectively, the four-day war in April 2016 could be seen as the prelude to the current full-fledged Azerbaijani offensive in Artsakh. Not once before the 2016 escalation, President Ilham Aliyev had expressed disappointment on the lack of progress in peaceful negotiations within the OSCE Minsk Group format. Not once he had used military rhetoric to imply and often state explicitly his intentions to regain the territories under the Armenian control by force. Azerbaijan’s military expenditures had increased significantly since 2010, the same year when Azerbaijan and Turkey signed an Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support. Azerbaijan had since been making large acquisitions of expensive modern military equipment from Russia, Turkey, Israel, and Belarus among others. Azerbaijan had long been preparing for war, building up a strong military. In that sense, the timing perhaps not, but both the 2016 flare-up and the current escalation were predictable.
Two reasons could be suggested as to why the flare-up ended relatively soon. First, in 2016 Turkey’s support to Azerbaijan was at best indirect and implicit. Moscow, instead, had more influence on both parties. The ceasefire brokered by Moscow on April 5, 2016, took hold even though some minor clashes lingered for several days. The second reason was, arguably, the lack of confidence on the part of Azerbaijan to make any significant breakthrough without jeopardizing relations with Russia, and without direct and explicit support from Turkey.
The current war is significantly different from the 2016 flare-up essentially in two ways: first, Turkey has become directly and explicitly involved, in a very destabilizing manner. Backed by Turkey’s political and military support, Azerbaijan has become significantly more emboldened to the extent that Aliyev has refused to accept the unconditional humanitarian ceasefire agreed in Moscow on October 10, reaffirmed in the joint statement in Paris on October 17, and once again reaffirmed in the U.S. on October 25. In his speeches, Aliyev has explicitly conditioned the ceasefire on the Armenian withdrawal from regions that he vaguely defines “the occupied territories.” If before 2020, Azerbaijan only expressed disappointment of the OSCE Minsk Group format, currently Aliyev is bluntly rejecting the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs’ individual and collective efforts to reach a cease-fire. Turkey’s direct involvement has only been destabilizing and continues aggravating hostilities. Secondly, unlike the four-day war in April 2016, the massive use of Turkish and Israeli made UAVs have been crucial in the successes of the Azerbaijani military campaigns in the initial stage. Predicting the outcome of the war is premature, however, despite the Azerbaijani advances in the south, alongside the Iranian border.
GPA: Turkey has poured $1,135,220 into Azerbaijan in Quarter 3 of this year alone, late this summer. This is 10 times the amount Turkey gave to it in Quarter 1 of 2019 and 100 times the amount given in Quarter 3 of 2019. Do you expect this to spark a prolonged conflict? What are Turkey’s objectives in doing so so suddenly and soon?
Turkey has also been hard at work shipping their mercenaries from Syria to Azerbaijan. While we know Turkey has always opposed Armenia and seen the Azeris as a check on them. However, Turkey is now involved at a high level in aiding the Azeri military with mercenaries and weapons. What do you make of Turkey’s sudden increased involvement in the conflict?
Dr. Sahakyan: Turkey’s policies in the region and the active involvement in the current escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh should be analyzed within broader contexts of the developments in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years. The American withdrawal from the Middle East—Iraq and Syria in particular—created a power vacuum that Turkey, already involved in Syria, felt confident and emboldened to fill, competing with other regional actors. Turkey was quick to establish a significant presence in Syria and Libya, in addition to its earlier presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is also trying to make inroads among the Sunnis in Lebanon. Turkey began exploring new energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, igniting tensions that involved Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey’s other NATO partners in the European Union. Erdoğan’s expansionist ambitions, that have been rightfully characterized as neo-Ottomanist, made Turkey an active player in the South Caucasian region as well. Turkey did not need any further pretext to make the most out of the relations with Azerbaijan. The chronology of these events—the American withdrawal from Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s expansionist aspirations in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Mediterranean, all happening between 2018-2020—expresses a certain consistency in Turkey’s policies that explain the significant increase in the support to Azerbaijan in 2020. These large investments in Azerbaijan, and the military support Turkey has been providing, were made, most probably, with a strong expectation from the Azerbaijani armed forces to make a quick military campaign against Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh and take control over significant territories or the entire region in a blitzkrieg.
Turkey’s motivation for supporting Azerbaijan has many other layers as well, which include the shared ideology of one nation, two states, the shared image of enemy and the problematic relations with the Armenians, and Erdoğan’s desire to gain some strategic advantage against Iran. More importantly, however, Turkey’s support to Azerbaijan is a challenge to the Russian presence in the South Caucasus, and it should be interpreted in the context of Turkey’s complicated rivalry with Russia in Syria and Libya. Some Russian political circles discuss the possibility that Turkey’s direct support to Azerbaijan in the current war in Nagorno-Karabakh is an act of attempted revenge for Russia’s involvement in Syria. Amid the strained relations with Russia and the raging war in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey signed Military Cooperation Agreements with Ukraine on October 16, 2020, that reinforce Turkey’s anti-Russian political pursuits. In this context, the Russian strike on a military training camp in Idlib on October 26, 2020, has been interpreted as a message to Turkey, and an attempt to stop Turkey’s transfer of Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan. The increasing presence of Turkey in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus is against the strategic interests of Russia and may cause a security threat to Russia. Should Turkey succeed in its increasing dominance in Azerbaijan, the Sunni Muslim populated Russian provinces of Chechnya and Dagestan in the North Caucasus could potentially become sites of Islamist terrorist attacks and anti-Russian mobilization. On the other hand, should Turkey, a member of NATO, succeed in establishing military bases in Azerbaijan while developing friendly relations with Georgia, the Russian security interests in the region will be significantly challenged, considering also Russia’s strained relations with Georgia.
GPA: While some pro-Syrian government militias and the PKK are allegedly fighting alongside Armenians (although this is all unclear) does Armenia actually have any state actors that could possibly step in to help them besides Russia?
Dr. Sahakyan: Your question has two parts: the allegations on the PKK and the pro-Syrian government militias, and the possible support of state actors to Armenia. Both parts need some clarifications.
Based on my extensive readings of the news and various articles on the current war in Nagorno-Karabakh in three languages—English, Russian, and Armenian—I have not seen any evidence for the alleged involvement of the PKK fighters and the pro-Syrian government militia alongside the Armenians in Artsakh. However, I can explain these allegations. The Armenians have a large diaspora, spread around the world. Diaspora Armenians are citizens of many countries. They are members and supporters of various organizations and political parties in their countries, both Armenian and non-Armenian. You will not be surprised if I tell you that there are Republican and Democrat Armenian-Americans in this country. Similarly, there are Armenians involved in politics in Syria and elsewhere. Regardless of their political affiliations and beliefs, Armenians all around the world have been supporting their people in Artsakh and Armenia since the first day of escalation. Most of the support comes in the form of large and small donations to various foundations for humanitarian relief. But a number of Armenians from the diaspora volunteered to go to Artsakh and fight alongside their people, to defend their ancestral homeland. Even if one finds among these Armenian volunteers supporters of the Syrian government, unlike the Syrian mercenaries transferred to Azerbaijan by Turkey, these fighters are Armenian and volunteers, standing in support of their people and their ancestral homeland. They are not mercenaries; they are not militias of other countries. They are the descendants of the Armenian genocide survivors, who have witnessed the ongoing denial by Turkey (and also Azerbaijan), who are afraid this is yet another attempt to exterminate the Armenians, whom Erdoğan has been referring to as “the leftovers of the sword”.
As to the state actors, a small clarification is due here as well. The current war is between Azerbaijan and the internationally unrecognized independent Republic of Artsakh. Armenia provides military support to Artsakh, but the war has not crossed Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. Armenia and Russia are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). CSTO has four other members—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan. Should Armenia’s internationally recognized borders be violated, the CSTO will activate, and Russia can also become directly involved. Currently, Russia is not providing any support to Armenia or Artsakh beyond its capacity as the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair and a negotiator. Russia is very cautious about the relations with Azerbaijan as well. Russia is wary of jeopardizing the relations with Azerbaijan over its strained relations with Turkey. At this stage, neither Russia nor any other state will want to step in to provide direct military support to Armenia or Artsakh. People in Armenia and Artsakh realize this, therefore in their minds, this is a war for survival. The Minsk Group co-chairs, Russia, France, and the United States, however, made some efforts to stop the war and bring the parties around the negotiations table, but this hasn’t worked so far. Numerous other countries have called for a cease-fire and peaceful resolution, that is an indirect support to the Armenians in Artsakh, who are fighting in a war imposed on them by Azerbaijan and Turkey.
GPA: As an Armenian-American, what do you think your role is here in the diaspora? What are the Armenian-Americans doing to help the people of Artsakh and is there anything anyone else who wants to help can do to assist you?
Dr. Sahakyan: Diaspora Armenians are helping primarily through financial donations to a number of foundations that support various humanitarian needs in Artsakh and Armenia. The Hayastan All Armenia Fund or the Armenia Fund—the largest pan-Armenian foundation—has collected more than $150 million in just a month. It’s important to note that this is the largest, but not the only foundation providing humanitarian relief. There are many other large and small foundations that have been providing humanitarian aid to the civilian population of Artsakh and to the refugees in Armenia.
Donations coming from all corners of the world are indicators of the unprecedented mobilization of the Armenian diaspora everywhere. This war has affected the lives of many Armenians across the world, who live thousands of miles away from the battlefields. Most Armenian-Americans start their days by following the news coming from Artsakh and Armenia, by reading various posts on social media. They make and sign various petitions, raise awareness about the conflict, participate in protests, calling upon our government to stop the Azerbaijani aggression, to stop the military assistance to Turkey and Azerbaijan, to impose sanctions on Azerbaijan and Turkey for violating the ceasefire and the basic human rights of the people living in Artsakh. The war and the atrocities against the civilian population instigated by Azerbaijan with the encouragement and support of Turkey, the shelling of Armenian towns and villages in Artsakh, the bombing of schools, kindergarten, hospitals, and an Armenian Cathedral in Sushi, are strong violations of human rights and evidence that Azerbaijan wants these lands without the Armenian population and without the Armenian cultural heritage. The security of the Armenian population of Artsakh will be precarious if left at the Azerbaijani discretion after the war. The Genocide Watch published an emergency alert a few days ago considering Azerbaijan to be at Stage 9—Extermination—in the 10 stages of the genocidal process, which ends with Stage 10—Denial. There is an urgent need for intervention in order to stop the killing of civilians, the humanitarian crisis, the casualties on both sides, in order to restore peace and to bring the conflicting parties around the negotiations table, in order to find a peaceful way to the resolution of the conflict.
The conflict that had started in the age when the principle of nationalities became the dominant form of the political organization of states, has remained unresolved primarily because the Armenian population of the region has been consistently denied the right to self-determination. Throughout most of the past century, they had to resentfully comply with the externally imposed autonomy in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh that had been abolished when Azerbaijan became independent. They had to fight for their right to self-determination in a war imposed by Azerbaijan in the 1990s, and now, in 2020, and they have been awaiting the international community to recognize their right to live on their ancestral lands in peace and security.
Individually, there are three ways in which Armenians and other interested parties can support:
- by making donations to Armenia Fund at armeniafund.org, to help with the humanitarian needs of the people of Artsakh and Armenia;
- by urging their senators and representatives to take actions, beyond words of support, against Azerbaijan and Turkey for violating the cease-fire and for the current war (in the forms of economic or financial sanctions);
- by standing in solidarity with Armenians in protests that are happening around the country for peace and security in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh.
Geopolitics Alert would like to thank Dr. Vahe Sahakyan of the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Armenian Research
Center for taking the time to participate in this project.
Image: pxhere – HovikPage
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.