May 9 is a public holiday in Armenia and is known as Victory Day. The day marks triumph over the Germans in the Second World War, where Armenians fought as part of the Russian Army, joining the allies to defeat Hitler. This year though, the commemoration in Yerevan was widened to honor those who fought for Nagorno-Karabakh 1988-1994, and again in the four-day war in April last year.
Nagorno-Karabakh? If you are British you may remember Sue Lawley carefully pronouncing the name when she read the BBC news at the time war broke out nearly 30 years ago. If you are American you have probably never heard of the place at all, unless you live in Glendale, CA, which is a sort of Armenia-on-Sea. If you are Armenian, you would likely die for N-K. You may yet have to.
My potted history of the conflict is bound to contain inaccuracies– it’s a complicated story by any standards, and my knowledge of the region is both recent and slight. Try not to get bogged down in the detail, but read this more as a story of identity, ethnicity, territory, heritage and geopolitical maneuvering: themes explored in my other Border Posts. Please know that my intention is not to criticize, meddle or upset. I am genuinely trying to observe, and to draw broader conclusions about the nature of all humankind from this particular painful dispute.
The gist seems to be this: back in the first part of the 20th century, an enclave of ethnic Armenians (Christian) in Soviet Azerbaijan were given some autonomy by Joe Stalin. I don’t know why: I don’t believe he ever said, and no one liked to ask. The set-up mattered not a lot for 70 years or so while all of the Caucasus were under Soviet rule. As things started to crumble at the end of the 20th century, the ethnic Armenians declared independence, and argued they should align with Soviet Armenia, not Soviet Azerbaijan, which is Muslim. They held a referendum. Not everyone liked or accepted the results. Think Scotland, think Brexit, think partition of Ireland…
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by newly independent Armenia, went to war with newly independent Azerbaijan. Everyone’s numbers are different, but it seems clear that some 800,000 Azeris and around 230,000 ethnic Armenians were forced to flee their homes. 20,000–30,000 people on both sides of the dispute died between 1988 and 1994. More than 3000 have died since, including those slaughtered in four bloody days of fighting last April; and young men on both sides now killed almost nightly in sniper attacks.
Across two thousand years, Armenia has not had much luck with borders and territory. It has been squeezed and re-shaped and trampled upon and invaded. Think Poland, but smaller and with no coal. Knowing this, it is easy to see why there is so much pride in having pushed back the Azeris 1988-94, helping N-K to stand its ground. As an Armenian friend said to me “We haven’t won anything since the 7th century, so this was a big deal for us”. Quite so. The problem is, it isn’t over, not by a long way.
Today around 150,000 people live in N-K. It is pretty and mountainous and no one can fly there because the Azeris won’t let anyone encroach on their airspace. You can drive there from Armenia at the one point where the borders touch, and the Armenian President did so this Victory Day, turning up to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the N-K defense army. If you look at the map, you will see how tiny N-K is –and how small Armenia is– compared to Azerbaijan (all the area shaded orange). Although Azerbaijan has had its own economic problems in recent years, it is still better off than Armenia. Azerbaijan has oil, which Armenia lacks. Azerbaijan thinks it should hang on to the land claimed as N-K because it’s within its current borders and therefore within its rights. Armenia argues that the land was once its sovereign territory and should be restored as such. Those people are its people, no doubt about it. France and America and Russia form what is known as the Minsk Group, holding ongoing but unsatisfactory talks with Armenia and Azerbaijan to try to keep the peace. N-K does not have a seat at the table. (Mistake? I would say so. But it would probably make more sense to ask George Mitchell, who has more experience in conducting Peace Talks than I do). It is fair to say that the whole issue is not a top priority for the French, the Yanks or the Russians. Russia sells old, cheap weapons to everyone involved in the fight. They’re fair like that.
When the four-day war broke out last year, Armenia of course sent troops to support their brethren in N-K. All over Armenia, and particularly in the southern regions closest to the Azeri border, volunteers– men who are veterans, schoolkids and women not required by law ever to serve– offered to join the fight. The army had way more volunteers than it could usefully deploy. Why? “If we don’t stand up to the Azeris they will come for us next” one of my teachers told me “we are not so much fighting for N-K as for our own children and the land that will be theirs one day”.
A look at that map shows that fear may be well founded. The Azeris have suggested to the Minsk Group that perhaps the territorial dispute could be resolved by a land swap. Azerbaijan will cede N-K and some surrounding disputed territory in return for a slice of Armenia that borders Iran and bisects two parts of Azerbaijan– the lighter beige colored territory on the map. Hmmm. Bear in mind that the Armenian/Azerbaijan border is closed, as is the Armenia/Turkish border. Passage to Iran is vitally important for Armenia. They don’t want another frontier hemmed by the Azeris. And then there’s the disruption involved in territorial manouvering. Sure, if part of Southern Armenia suddenly became Azeri the people who currently live there could move either to N-K or to other parts of depopulated Armenia where there is plenty of room. But people don’t want to. That’s how people are.
In Armenia, the government can use fear to whip up patriotic feeling, raise funds and boost support. This is helpful in terms of distracting from everyday economic and democratic woes. I saw the same thing in Northern Ireland in the ’60s and ’70s. A journalist colleague of mine used to say that in NI we were fighting each other for “the square root of F*** All”. While ordinary people are engaged in hating and fearing their neighbors, they are not asking difficult questions about taxes or development or governance. Powerful people grow rich and serve themselves while citizens are tilting at a different target.
I have no idea how the N-K issue should be settled, or how to restitch the quilt that is the Caucasus; or all of the former Soviet Union; or all of the world. I know identity and autonomy are important to human beings. I know territory is important to all animal life, of which we are a part. I know oil companies, and soda companies who now own water rights, and those with dominion over data are the world’s real rulers, and that they juggle power through mergers and acquisitions, hostile takeovers and buyouts. They pay politicians to get past arbitrary lines on a map. While we worry about our own little square on the chess board, and those it touches, they see the whole game and cheerfully leapfrog, zig and zag to their own advantage. I know too that tsunamis and earthquakes and ice-flows are no respecters of borders, and that therefore all the peoples of the earth might be better employed stewarding the whole planet, rather rather squabbling over their own little piece of the action. I don’t know what to do about any of those things. I will think about it, and let you know what I come up with.