Born in Belfast, I don’t like to write about disputes over territory; conflicts where opponents have different religions; and fights where no-one can agree when history starts. I despise situations where power-brokers act only in their own economic or strategic interests, without thought for the value of human life and dignity. I have seen the pain and chaos all of this causes.
Unfortunately, an upbringing in Northern Ireland in the 1970s is a horribly good preparation for discussing what is now happening in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh. (You see: this part of the South Caucasus uses the back slash just as it is used in Derry/Londonderry–to respect two names used by stakeholders with different points of view). You may not wish to know, but there are good reasons for people in Stroke City and far beyond to care what is happening now in a small enclave far away.
Let’s start with a map:
Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh is the land coloured lavender on this map.
Just over thirty years ago, the 150,000 ethnic Armenians who live on this beautiful, fertile land declared independence from Azerbaijan. A bloody war ensued, with the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh supported by their kinfolk in neighbouring Armenia. Azerbaijan did not want to let go of land gifted to it by Soviet Administrators not even one hundred years before. Ideally, the people of the self-styled republic wanted to become part of a sovereign Armenia, a country which, like Azerbaijan, was newly free from Soviet rule. Independence was seen as a short-term solution.
Size isn’t everything
You see how much bigger Azerbaijan is than Armenia and Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh combined? It is also much richer, endowed with oil and gas important to customers in Europe and beyond. Common sense would say that Azerbaijan would have won in the war in the early 1990s. They did not. The ethnic Armenians strategy was better, and the people of the enclave and Armenia itself cared passionately about the fight in a way neighbouring soldiers did not. More than 30,000 people died. Ethnic cleansing ensued. Today, there are no ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan. There are no Azerbaijanis in Armenia.
Why two names?
Armenia and the people of the enclave prefer Artsakh, a name for this land dating back more than two thousand years, to a time when Greater Armenia stretched between the Caspian, Mediterranean and Black Seas. Azerbaijanis call the territory by a Turkish name: Nagorno-Karabakh. The name means black garden, a reference to the dark loam of the terrain. Over millennia, as the shape of Greater Armenia shrunk and changed, today’s disputed land was claimed at different times by different armies, including in their time the Persians and the Turks. Did I mention that Iran lies to the South of the area in the map above, and Turkey to the West?
What is happening now?
In the last four days, Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, has been attacking the enclave. The ethnic Armenian death toll of civilians and Armenian soldiers is 90. Many of the dead soldiers are not even 20 years old. Reports today say that there have been 400 Azerbaijani losses. In the Armenian town of Goris where I lived 2017-19, people are taking in refugees and the hospital is treating casualties from the enclave. There are reports that a Turkish F-16 has been flying in Armenian airspace, and that Syrians are being paid as border guards by Azerbaijan– Aliev knows that deaths will not be popular in his own population and mercenaries were commonly used by Azerbaijan in the 1990s.
Armenia did not seek this fight, does not believe there can be a military solution, and seeks the support of the OCSE Minsk Group and other international bodies to stop the fighting and restore international law. Just like Northern Ireland. But if they have to, every Armenian will fight to the death for Artsakh’s right to self-determination. Why? Because if the republic falls and its people are killed or scattered, Armenia itself will be next. Look at the map, and imagine the squeeze between Turkey and Azerbaijan.
A century ago, as Azerbaijan got control of Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey launched an attack on ethnic Armenians living on its sovereign territory to the West of today’s fight–families who had lived there for many generations. 1.5 million were killed and many more fled. Today there are many millions more Armenians living outside the region, than there are in Armenia itself–a country of only 3 million people. Armenians are terrified and angry, fearing that another genocide is underway.
What’s it to You?
Destabilization in the area is dangerous for us all. Turkey seeks to be a superpower. Russia, selling arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, is an ally of Armenia in order to keep Erdogan in check–but Putin has yet to make a move. Macron spoke out today in favour of a ceasefire–France, like the U.S. and Russia is a key member of the Minsk group. Trump has said and done nothing–yet. Iran waits and watches. The South Caucasus is where the Christian and Muslim worlds meet.
I have called both WV Senators’ office and my representative. A mix of Democrats and Republicans, their staffers were polite but mystified. All the other calls they are getting are about the Debate and the Election, I bet. I care about those things, and many more, but I do not think any of us can afford to turn our back on Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh. Please do what you can to support a return to peace in the region, and the well-being of the people under fire.
I am not an historian, or a politician. I believe what I have written above is factual, and I have done my best to be even-handed in my language. If I have made a mistake, please do let me know.