This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu. This commentary was first published on the electronic newsletter Karabakh Concise on 28 September 2023.
The dramatic events of the last days in Karabakh brought to a climax decades of political crisis, confrontation and war that, since 1989, has resulted in tens of thousands of people dead, even more, injured, and hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people. Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought a war in the early 1990s that resulted in an Armenian victory, and another one in 2020, that resulted in an Armenian defeat. In between, and since, there were many skirmishes, and untold animosity that expressed itself in all sorts of ways. The Karabakh conflict has destabilised the entire South Caucasus region, preventing regional cooperation, frustrating economic development and exposing the region to the manipulation of outside forces. On 19 September, Azerbaijan appeared to finally put an end to the problem through a short but sharp military operation that essentially wiped out the military capability of the Karabakh Armenians. Yet again hundreds died on both sides, and the world is now watching the latest wave of South Caucasus refugees on the move, as almost the entire Armenian population of Karabakh seeks refugee in Armenia. Many consider that the problem has not been resolved – it has simply changed.
To understand why events unfolded as they did, and why efforts over decades by the world’s leading countries and statesmen failed to find a solution to this problem it is essential to understand that Karabakh is not one issue, but three: each with its own narrative, and quite persuasive justification.
Karabakh – the territory
Karabakh is a territory. It existed largely undefined for centuries as a vassal of larger neighbours. The modern Karabakh however was clearly defined by the Soviets when they carved out the map of Transcaucasia in the 1920’s. Nagorno-Karabakh was carved out as an Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. It was not a decision without controversy. In the new Oblast, the majority population was Armenian-speaking. They wanted the Oblast as part of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Kremlin disagreed, and thus NKAO existed, sometimes happily, sometimes less so, as part of Azerbaijan SSR until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. With that collapse, the fifteen Union republics became independent states, with their borders as existed in the USSR, i.e. with Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. The entire international community, then, and since, have stuck to this position.
The Armenians of Karabakh rejected this, and violently seceded from Azerbaijan triggering a bloody war that was suspended by a cease-fire agreement in 1994. Azerbaijan – defeated, humiliated, in chaos, and weak – licked its wounds but swore to reverse this injustice and never to accept the loss of Karabakh. Oil revenues brought in huge financial resources. It built its army and economy; a changing international context weakened Armenia’s links with Russia; Under Erdogan, Turkey became a regional superpower, fully supporting Azerbaijan. After decades of failed negotiations Azerbaijan took back by force, what it had lost by force, first in 2020 when it regained all the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh it had lost, and more recently a few days ago, Karabakh itself.
For Azerbaijan, justice and international rule of law have been restored. But is Karabakh only about territory?
Karabakh – The Armenian political project
The history of Armenians is dominated by episodes of past glories, and more recent tragedies. The Armenian nation over the centuries dug deep within its own collective memory to protect its national identity and not be overwhelmed by larger, stronger, often hostile neighbours. In the Soviet Union, many Armenians thought they had found their protection. But once the USSR weakened Armenians started to reflect again about their identity and place in the world. Some questioned the borders of the Armenia SSR and considered them inadequate. Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia, was now in Turkey – but Turkey was too strong to take on; Large Armenian communities lived in Georgia, including tens of thousands compactly in the border region of Samskhe Javakheti. Georgia was a weak, nearly failed state in the early 1990s, but the Armenians of Georgia were largely well-integrated within Georgian society, especially in Tbilisi. In the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, however, the situation was different. Here a majority Armenian-speaking population had to endure many humiliations as a result of its submission under Baku. Armenians felt discriminated against. And equally relevant, Azerbaijan was going through a period of internal chaos that appeared to offer a window of opportunity. The Armenians of Karabakh seized the moment, declared their secession from Azerbaijan, and soon after their independence. Armenia and the Armenian diaspora spread all over the world, rallied to the support of the newly created Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The humiliating Azerbaijani defeats of the early 1990s, which saw Azerbaijan losing not only Karabakh but large swathes of land around it, appeared to justify the endeavour. After the 1994 cease-fire, the Armenians dug in. Their approach was that they would withstand the Azerbaijani pressure, and by time, Azerbaijan and the rest of the world would get used to their existence and would accept it. This was a strategic mistake, for neither did, and the changed international context, and the enormous new strength of Azerbaijan derived from its oil revenues, meant that the people in Stepanakert should have realised they were sitting on a time bomb. Any sober analysis could have easily come to the conclusion that it was not a question of “if” but “when” will the bomb explode. Many question why Armenia, and the Karabakh Armenians, did not try to find a peaceful solution with Baku when they held all the cards? There have always been in both those that wanted to, but they were silenced by a vicious nationalist circle that sought a maximalist approach.
The scene of the tens of thousands of Armenians leaving Karabakh this week is hugely upsetting. So is this the end of the Armenian political project in Karabakh? It seems so – for some time at least. The decision of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (Republic of Artsakh) to self-dissolve on 1 January 2024 is proof of that, but that does not have to mean the end of the Armenian community of Karabakh, nor of the specific Armenian characteristics of Karabakh.
Karabakh – The multi-ethnic community
Between the two maximalist narratives, there has always been a third alternative: the acceptance of the reality, that Karabakh is a multi-ethnic space where Armenians and Azerbaijanis have long-lived, if not exactly together, at least in close proximity of each other. For some time after the 1994 cease-fire, there were still those in Stepanakert who considered themselves “internationalists”. Their voices were soon muffled, but that does not mean they do not exist.
Baku is now preparing to start the return of the Azerbaijanis of Karabakh – a community that is often conveniently forgotten – back to their homes. About 20% of the population of Karabakh according to the 1989 Soviet census, were Azerbaijanis. They also have a right to live in the territory.
The big question however remains, will there be Armenians living in Karabakh going forward, and under what conditions?
Conditions need to be created for Karabakh to become a multi-ethnic community within Azerbaijan. Its specific Armenian linguistic and cultural characteristics should be preserved. All those displaced since 1989 should have a right to return to build together this community.
The onus now depends on Azerbaijan to create the right conditions for this to happen, and they will be well-advised to work with credible international partners in doing so.
Karabakh is never going to be peaceful, and it is never going to be complete, until its Armenian and Azerbaijani populations are back and living together in peace and prosperity.
This commentary was prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu.