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Why Nagorno-Karabakh matters

Even if leaders will manage to reach some compromise, the most difficult part will be to present the result of the final negotiation to the publics. The leaders in both Armenia and Azerbaijan have become trapped by their own rhetoric.

April 14, 2020 - Anzhela Mnatsakanyan - Articles and Commentary

View over Stepanakert - Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo by Adam Jones (CC) www.flickr.com

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia faced the challenge of building a new country out of the ruins of the Soviet Union. In 1991, the newly independent Republic of Armenia had inherited a country that had not yet recovered from the earthquake of 1989, had two closed borders, experienced a transport blockade, experienced a decaying economy, had a strong memory of the Armenian genocide and Sumgait massacre, and a de facto-war in Nagorno Karabakh․ In these circumstances the country aimed to create a foreign policy that was mostly based on Armenian identity linked to the pan-Armenian movement for the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Here it is worth noting that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to the period of the collapse of the Russian Empire after the October Revolution of 1917.

The following shows the development of events:

  • Between 1918 and 1920, the Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh exercised legislative power in Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • On August 22nd 1919, Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh and the Government of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan signed the Provisional Agreement according which the Karabakh`s issue should be resolved at the Paris Peace Conference.
  • On April 23rd 1920, the Ninth Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh decided “Nagorno Karabakh is declared as an inalienable part of the Republic of Armenia”.
  • On November 30th 1920, the Government of Soviet Azerbaijan recognized Nagorno Karabakh, Zanghezour and Nakhichevan as an integral part of Soviet Armenia.
  • On December 4th 1920, Joseph Stalin made a statement according to which “on the 1st of December the Soviet Azerbaijan voluntary refused to have any claims on the disputed regions and declared the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh, Zanghezour and Nakhichevan to Soviet Armenia”.
  • On July 4th 1921, in Tbilisi, Georgia, the members of the Caucasian Bureau declined the Azerbaijani suggestion to “leave Karabakh in the Azerbaijan SSR” and decided to “include Nagorno Karabakh in the Armenian SSR and to conduct a plebiscite in Nagorno Karabakh only”.
  • July 4th and 5th, 1921, a new decision dictated by Moscow was accepted “… leave Nagorno-Karabakh in the Azerbaijan SSR, granting it wide regional autonomy with an administrative center of Shushi, included in the autonomous region”.
  • Decision “On the Status of the Autonomous Region of Nagorno-Karabakh” was issued on November 24th 1924.
  • On August 30th 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR accepted a declaration on the “Reestablishment of the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan” as it existed in 1918-1920.
  • On September 2nd 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh, according to the domestic Soviet Law, adopted the “Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh”.
  • At the beginning of the 1990s, war produced more than a million refugees and killed about 20,000 people. In 1994, after Armenia defeated Azerbaijan in a battle over the territory, the two countries signed a truce – but not a peace agreement.
  • Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted again in April 2016, Hundreds of soldiers from both sides were killed before the proclamation of a ceasefire.

Today Nagorno-Karabakh is an internationally unrecognised para-state with almost 150,000 inhabitants, which receives military and financial support from Armenia. The territory remains in the Armenian collective memory as an inseparable part of the Armenian national identity[1] and an integral part of historic Armenia. Some researchers think that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is destroying Armenia, but the military doctrine of Armenia states that “The Republic of Armenia is a guarantor and supporter of security for the population of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic and the course of development it has chosen”, and the National Security Strategy of the Republic of Armenia states that “The key issue of the National Security of the Republic of Armenia is the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict”.

Why are Armenians ready to give their lives for defending Artsakh?

Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) is too important for Armenia from the perspective of identity-building.[2] According to Armenia, Artsakh is the last outpost of their Christian civilisation and a historic haven of Armenian princes and bishops before the eastern Turkic world began.[3] During the war of 1992-1994, Armenia lost almost 10,000 soldiers and during the four-day war in April 2016 almost 100 soldiers, the latter were mostly from the generation born after 1994․ The population in Armenia is nearly three million, and almost every family had lost someone during the wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and the phenomenon is that instead of hating this place Armenians started adore this land.

Artsakh has become kind of a holy land for Armenians, even in academic works we can see this kind of description “Artsakh: Armenian Jerusalem”. Serzh Sargsyan, the third president of Armenia, mentioned in one of his speeches that: “Artsakh became the Armenian stronghold of our modern history, the symbol of the Armenian people’s ambitions, an emblem of endurance and victory. Just 30 years ago, the people of Artsakh stood upright, straightened their back, striving for freedom in a bid to shake of the yoke of alien bonds”.

In light of the rampant discontent with the stagnating political and economic situation, any territorial concession in the framework of the conflict over Artsakh would, from the perspective of the ruling elite, be equivalent to political suicide and for Armenians and Armenian Diaspora would be betrayal of the national self-conception.[4]

What is Azerbaijan’s position?

Similar to the Armenian case, Nagorno-Karabakh has a special place in the Azerbaijani collective memory. It is remembered as the birthplace of Azerbaijani identity, the centre of Azerbaijani culture and the home to many Azerbaijani poets and musicians. The loss of Nagorno-Karabakh equated to the loss of a big part of national identity. For many Azerbaijanis Nagorno-Karabakh’s permanent loss would mean that their cultural heritage would be torn away.

The Azerbaijani narrative for Nagorno–Karabakh contends that: “The creation of the Armenian Nagorno–Karabakh autonomous region by Russian communists was a result of Armenians’ strong ties with Moscow and the continuation of its old imperial politics of ‘divide and rule’.” The official position of Azerbaijan is also illustrated in the tweets of the president, Ilham Aliyev. Almost every month we can see a tweet with such a message: “Armenia is the aggressor, Karabakh has always been will be an integral part of Azerbaijan.”

Is there any chance for compromise?

A fair solution to the conflict would take a strong effort from both sides to make sacrifices and work together. Considering that both countries have excessive military spending, sophisticated weaponry, constant training exercises, and the fact that neither country is ready for any compromise, there is a real danger that the conflict could escalate further.

The current situation can be described as “No war, no peace” in Nagorno-Karabakh. Negotiations in the format of the OSCE Minsk Group continues in line with the violation of the ceasefire on the front lines. Even though 2020 started with an unprecedented public debate of the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the content of the debate showed that instead of looking ahead the leaders are looking back by trying to demonstratewhose country is older.

Even if leaders will manage to reach some compromise, the most difficult part will be to present the result of the final negotiation to the publics. The leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan have become trapped by their own rhetoric, promising their publics total victory that can never be achieved. Entire generations have been raised on the propaganda of this rhetoric and the level of mutual mistrust and hatred is so high in both countries that no politician can suggest any concession without producing public outrage. Every politician who will speak about a compromise solution will be labelled as a national enemy by the public.

Anzhela Mnatsakanyan is a postgraduate student at the College of Europe in Natolin (Warsaw) and a PhD student at Yerevan State University.

[1] Tobias Schumacher, “Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: why the ‘black garden’ will not blossom any time soon”, Security policy brief No. 71 2016, 2.

[2] Tobias Schumacher, “Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: why the ‘black garden’ will not blossom any time soon Security Policy Brief, 2016.

[3] Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, New York University Press (New York and London: 2003).

[4] Tobias Schumacher, op. cit., 3.

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