The Fight for Nagorno-Karabakh

by Bryson Durst

In late September, with many Americans focused on COVID-19 and the election, conflict erupted between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Armenia and Azerbaijan, located in the Caucasus Mountains, both claim the small region of Nagorno-Karabakh (called Artsakh by local Armenians). Though the region has long been ruled by foreign empires and members of both groups have lived in the area for centuries, the conflict is a relatively recent result of Soviet policy.

When drawing internal borders, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azeris despite its Armenian majority. 

Dr. Glen Duerr, Associate Professor of International Studies at Cedarville, said Stalin “was trying to divide the ethnic groups against one another, so they’d be fighting each other rather than the Soviets.”

As the Soviet Union unraveled in the late 1980s and 1990s, the newly independent nations of Azerbaijan and Armenia fought over the territory before signing a ceasefire in 1994. Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has been an unrecognized but self-governing republic with ties to Armenia, though, under international law it is considered part of Azerbaijan. Armenia also controls corridors of Azeri land connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenians have lived in Nagorno-Karabakh for more than two thousand years, explains Alicia Davis, Vice President of Ohio State University’s Armenian Students Association. Today, 97% of the region’s population is Armenian.  

On the other hand, Duerr says that during the region’s long period of foreign rule, many Azeri Turks settled there as well. Because Nagorno-Karabakh is considered Azeri territory under international law, many Azeris believe Armenia took their territory.

Armenians respond, says Davis, by arguing that the land was originally Armenia’s, and only made part of Azerbaijan because of Stalin’s policies in the twentieth century. Armenians also argue that their military has not taken Nagorno-Karabakh from the Azeris, but rather defended the majority Armenian population.

While there have been low-level skirmishes since the 1994 ceasefire, Duerr says the current fighting is the worst since the 1990s. Azerbaijan has been building up its military for years. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan is also unpopular and facing an economic crisis at home.

Davis points out that historically, “waging a war is a distraction to domestic issues.”

Azeris who wish to take Nagorno-Karabakh benefit from various global distractions: the world is dealing with COVID-19, and the United States is focused on the approaching election. 

Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey, which Hannah Karayan, a Cedarville Global Business major with Armenian heritage, says concerns many Armenians. 

During World War I, the Turkish Ottoman Empire was responsible for the Armenian Genocide, murdering 1.5 million Armenians. The Turkish government today refuses to acknowledge the genocide.

Davis also points out that Turkish involvement on the Azeri side leads to an imbalanced fight. Using the latest data from the CIA World Factbook, Armenia had just over 3 million people in July 2020. At that time, Azerbaijan had 10 million people and Turkey 82 million. There is also evidence that Turkey has been sending Syrians to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan.

Because Azerbaijan and Turkey are allies and both share Turkic heritage, Karayan, whose great-grandmother lost relatives in the genocide, says that “a lot of Armenians see this as…a continuation of that genocide.” If the Azeris win Nagorno-Karabakh, many Armenians fear “they’re going to force us out of the land, whether that be violently or not.”

According to Davis, the nonprofit organization Genocide Watch has declared a Genocide Emergency for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh (Stages 9 and 10), arguing that the Armenians are at risk of extermination and denial by the Azeris.

Genocide Watch has also placed Nagorno-Karabakh’s Azeri population under a Genocide Warning (Stages 8 and 10), writing that the Azeris are at risk of persecution and denial by the Armenians.

Amnesty International has accused both sides of using cluster bombs on civilians, which is a violation of international law.

Davis also mentioned that the Azeri government has restricted access to media in Azerbaijan throughout the conflict.

Russia and Iran are close to Armenia, but Duerr says both have tried to remain relatively neutral. Davis adds that Iran has a large Azeri minority, preventing it from more openly supporting Armenia. Finally, Davis says that Israel and Azerbaijan have ties, the former selling weapons to the latter.  

Duerr says that ambassadors from both countries are trying to shape American public opinion, while the U.S. government is trying to play the role of neutral arbiter. Due to the Armenian Genocide and resulting diaspora, the U.S. is home to many people with Armenian heritage. Davis adds that Armenian-American groups have also raised money and protested to bring attention to the conflict.

A ceasefire negotiated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has failed, as have ceasefires negotiated by the Russians. Davis says Iran is currently attempting to negotiate a ceasefire.

Bryson Durst is a junior Communication major. He enjoys theology, history, playing strategy games with friends, and anything “Star Wars” related.

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