As a follower of Armenian news for the past fifteen years now, the developments of the past week in Karabakh feel like a culmination of a long talked-about eventuality. Or perhaps like a train derailment in slow motion. Through the years of the early 2000s, we watched as Azerbaijan’s military budget grew and grew, as they bought more weapons from Russia, then from Israel, as their war drums grew louder. Article after article over the years spoke of the ominous threat of this military build-up, what disasters might come to pass when and if the “frozen conflict” ever thawed, but it was always a theoretical future situation. That time has finally come, perhaps not to the level of all-out war, but we are finally seeing a bursting of the dam which we all saw coming.
Nagorno-Karabakh is truly a Gordian Knot, in which both sides are vindicated by the dual internationally accepted principals of territorial integrity and self-determination. Not surprisingly, what can be seen now on Twitter are both sides screaming at each other from their opposing platforms, totally invalidating the other or particularly trying to understand it. If you walk it back to the Soviet era, with Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Karabakh in peace, albeit with some enforcement from on high, it is an obvious rebuke to the notion that these two people are somehow inherently not compatible, an argument which is sometimes made. The problem is that today we are looking at a Soviet construction and expecting it to fit into this post-Soviet system.
Nagorno-Karabakh was an oblast, a unique whim of the Soviet system which gave a local people some autonomy within their Soviet Socialist Republic. Yet ultimately, the Soviet Union was all one country which dictated from the top, and borders were meaningless, so much of these distinctions are irrelevant compared to the modern day. The fall of the Soviet Union was unforeseen, so there was no reason to ever consider the messy business of how these sometimes arbitrarily-drawn republics with all their cookie-cutout oblasts would hold up as independent states. Just look at the Armenian-Azerbaijan border itself, especially in the northeast Tavush region which looks more like Swiss cheese in which individual exclave islands of each country exist completely within the other. They were a result of trying to accommodate villages mainly populated by one ethnicity which ended up in the other SSR, but now that those populations fled as a result of the Karabakh war and subsumed into the nation which surrounded it, there is no reason for them to exist anymore. Yet they remain on maps as a point of deference to territorial security until this whole situation gets “figured out”, but it is all but certain that any settlement would not return these island’s to their internationally-recognized owners. This isn’t the Soviet Union anymore, and we need to adjust to that.
Which is exactly the reason I believe Karabakh should be recognized internationally as an independent nation (which would then join Armenia). If one takes territorial integrity into account for a country in another part of Europe, those borders are much more historic. They got back a few centuries and were independent throughout that period. They were drawn to be independent, and while there were certainly upheavals and changes through the years, they are what they are. This is not the case with the former Soviet republics, whose borders were not drawn to be independent and had far less practical meaning. To continue to insist that Karabakh is and must be Azerbaijan’s, that it always “was” Azerbaijan’s due to a whim of the Soviets in the 1920s, just doesn’t make practical sense today. There is a great deal of precedent for such a move of independence as well. While the West often blames Russia for its meddling in places like Georgia’s own oblasts, it was their decision to recognize Kosovo which struck the first and biggest blow to the principal territorial integrity. More recently, we saw a negotiated separation of South Sudan as well, proving that maintaining a country’s borders above all else is not vital. One must also consider what is a country really?
Based on their propaganda, Azerbaijan’s plan for Karabakh is planting gloating signs all over it reminding you that you are in Azerbaijan, reverting the village names to the Azerbaijani, and placing some of their patented Heydar Aliyev statues. Aliyev is mainly concerned with complaining how wronged he has been by the international community and that he is “owed” Karabakh. Yet what has he done to earn the trust and allegiance of the people of Karabakh? The 2012 release of Ramil Safarov and the hero’s welcome he received was the most painful reminder to date of the absolute disdain Aliyev has and encourages within the nation he dominates. Having disagreements with Armenians is one thing, but to celebrate the brutal murderer of his Armenian colleague at a peaceful gathering is absolutely unfathomable. Aliyev has never once made a positive statement about those who would be his Armenian subjects if he got his way, nor has made any contingencies on trying to incorporate them back into Azerbaijan. This has been about conquest, plain and simple, and one can only assume his plan for Karabakh would result in a total ethnic cleansing.
I agree that concessions need to be made on both sides, but at the moment I don’t know what the Armenian side can really do rationally. I was an advocate of returning some of the “buffer zone” around Karabakh, and still do when the time is right, but after the recent actions it is certain that such a time is a long way off. Yes, if Armenia had shown more political will in the 1990s, or if the H. Aliyev hadn’t quit the Key West talks at the last moment, perhaps a solution would have been possible, yet everything about the transition to I. Aliyev has been aimed at building his own credibility with his people on the Karabakh issue and that means taking a hard line. As has been apparent in the Twitter world, Azerbaijani hyperbolic propaganda has no connection to rationality or reality. Unfortunately, due to Karabakh Azerbaijan’s national identity as a state used the conflict and hatred of Armenians as a basis, which has now broken out into an all-out frenzy with the latest violence, which Azerbaijan blames on Armenia despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile Armenia has been subject to the gradually building frustration from periodic attacks and breaks in the cease fire, the horror of the initial Safarov incident, and the further insult-to-injury of the 2012 pardon with the immoral assist by Hungary. If one was to just examine the past decade, it is hard to blame the Armenians of today for their distrust and anger towards Azerbaijan, sad as it is to say.
I want there to be a swift resolution to this conflict, I want Azerbaijani refugees to be able to return to their towns (unfortunately Armenians from Azerbaijan will never have that luxury, nor is it even considered an option), but even the most dovish of people must concede how exactly this can happen anytime soon is unclear. Even before the recent attempt at conquest by Azerbaijan, giving up buffer zone land only made Karabakh more vulnerable to assault, unless as part of some utopian pact which made guarantees for the Armenian side. Now, with the occasional Azerbaijani attempt at infiltration turned into brazen fighting, what can be expected from Armenia in the face of it? The murder of elderly Armenian villages and beheading of captured Armenian soldiers is the latest of these heinous acts which leaves it impossible to imagine any Armenian safe under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. I am lost as to what a fair and sustainable solution would be- the status quo is not tenable and yet what else is there? Nobody wants war for Karabakh, but Aliyev most certainly doesn’t want peace. In fact, with his reign more unstable than ever, he can’t have peace, because peace means concessions and helped build a scenario in which those are impossible. As we saw with President Ter-Petrossian, Armenians were not open to compromise even back then, let alone now. I don’t want to despair, but this problem is more intractable than ever, and barring some major upheaval on either side, there is no way to peace. The lines are drawn, the pieces are set, and the barriers are higher than ever, and unfortunately the only way to break them down is through violence.