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Why Europe should care about Nagorno-Karabakh: A civilisational and geopolitical perspective

The involvement of Turkey in this conflict with the use of Turkish-sponsored fighters from Syria and Libya transforms this local conflict into a regional one and communicates to its civilisational nature.

November 3, 2020 - Tigran Yepremyan - Articles and Commentary

Cathedral in Shushi/Shusha in Nagorno Karabakh. Photo: Yerevantsi (cc) wikimedia.org

Editor’s note: At New Eastern Europe we aim to bring to you information and analysis on all issues related to our region of Central and Eastern Europe, this includes publishing voices from the region itself. However, our region is one of many unresolved conflicts and war. The case of the Nagorno-Karabakh is one that raises high emotions on both sides of the conflict – Azerbaijan and Armenia – and it is nearly impossible to get an objective point of view on the conflict from either side.

Yet, we understand the importance of providing some context and local perspective, even in the case of conflict. That is why, we have asked independent experts from Azerbaijan and Armenia to comment on the situation from their perspective with the aim of being as analytical as possible. It is our hope that with these perspectives, you – the readers – can have a more informed understanding of the complex and serious situation faced in this part of the world.

Since the early morning of September 27th 2020, Azerbaijan backed by Turkey has launched a full-scale war against the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) Republic using its entire arsenal including missiles, heavy artillery, tanks and air force along the entire line of contact and targeting also the peaceful settlements, including the capital Stepanakert. Virtually, the Azerbaijani air force has been coordinated by the Turkish air command. Turkey has been directly involved in military actions through its F16 multirole fighter jets, attack UAVs, military advisors, special forces and many Turkish-sponsored fighters transferred from Syria, Iraq and Libya. This was reported by leading international media outlets and was confirmed and condemned by many members of the international community including President Emmanuel Macron of France, the official representatives of the US, Russia, Canada, Iran, Greece, and Cyprus. On the whole, Turkey has acted as a primary obstacle for the return to the ceasefire and peaceful negotiations. This was the case also with the brutal violation of the humanitarian ceasefire agreement reached in Moscow on October 10th.

The geopolitical dimension

The “two states, one nation”, Turkish-Azerbaijani long praised formula, represents a key geopolitical threat to peace and security not only for Armenia, but also for the entire Caucasus region, as well as for the European eastern neighbourhood, Russia and Iran. Due to the latter’s historic rivalry with Turkey and its tense relations with Azerbaijan over the potential secessionist issue in northern Iran with around 15 million Azeris, Iran has close relations with Armenia.

The Turkish involvement in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh surely is not limited to the protection of Azerbaijani interests but has far-reaching geostrategic objectives in line with the ideology of Pan-Turkism and Turanism. One can interpret this also as Turkey seeing itself as a leader of the Turkic-Speaking countries with Neo-Ottoman aspirations. In this regard, the territory of Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic (sharing 17 km border with Turkey) has a central geopolitical significance. And it is not a coincidence that the founding summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States took place there in 2009.

Hence, Armenia’s Syunik province and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic are seen as a wedge towards the geographical continuity of the Turkish world. Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan perceives the Armenian factor as a “pawn” on the grand chessboard of Eurasian geopolitics, which needs to be removed on the way to its Pan-Turkist dreams. However, the ongoing Turkish-backed Azerbaijani failed blitzkrieg and military aggression has shown that the Armenian factor is not a “pawn” but a “rook” on the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Hence, the European community should decisively condemn and stop Turkey both in the Greek exclusive economic zone in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the South Caucasus region of Eastern Europe. In this way Turkey poses a serious threat to peace and stability in the European neighbourhood and therefore to Europe. The “sick man of Europe” is back and it is a Pan-European responsibility to “treat” it and to ensure the peace and equilibrium in the South-eastern parts of the European peninsula.

The civilisational dimension

The ongoing war throughout the line of contact between the Azerbaijani armed forces and Nagorno-Karabakh’s defence army brings to question Europe’s general peace and security. The involvement of Turkey in this conflict with the use of Turkish-sponsored fighters from Syria and Libya transforms this local conflict into a regional one and communicates to it a civilisational nature. As the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated in his interview to The Globe and Mail,“The borders of Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh – editor’s note) have become a civilisational frontline. Artsakh is fighting against international terrorism, which does not distinguish between the geopolitical borders of its targets. Artsakh, Armenia, and Armenian nation are fighting for global security.”

Armenian leadership has constantly emphasised Nagorno-Karabakh’s belonging to the European international community and European civilisation as an additional prerequisite for the recognition of the right to self-determination. Virtually, Nagorno-Karabakh is a part of the European civilisation and is on the territory of the Council of Europe. And it is fighting for the very values that Europe stands for, as the right to self-determination is fundamental for all existential rights, as well as it is a matter of human rights. As Nagorno-Karabakh former President Bako Sahakyan famously stated: “Some even say that Europe ends in Artsakh, but Armenians say Artsakh is where Europe begins.” Hence, the protection of the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination is a protection of the civilisational frontiers of Europe.

The civilisational dimension of this problem has a long history. The history of Turkic threat to the European civilisation goes back to 1071, the defeat of the Byzantine army by the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert (a Medieval Armenian city located north of Lake Van), which can be considered as one of the milestones in the history of European civilisation. As it caused consequent shrinks of the European cultural frontiers, culminating at the end of the 17th century with Ottoman troops under Vienna and the European victory led by Polish King John Sobieski (1674-1696).

Historical and legal dimension

Nagorno-Karabakh has historically been an integral part of Armenia since the ninth century BC constituting a part of the Kingdom of Urartu (Ararat), the Kingdom of Greater Armenia, the Ostikanate of Arminiya, the Bagratid Armenia, and the Zakarid Armenia (12-13th centuries). In the subsequent centuries, although falling under the rule of various conquerors including Turkic nomadic tribes, it continued exercising its internal sovereignty in a semi-independent and quasi-state manner, first in the form of the Principality of Khachen (13-17th centuries), then in the form of the Khamsa Melikdoms of Karabakh (17-19th centuries) under the Persian Empire. In 1813, by the Treaty of Gulistan, Karabakh became a part of the Russian Empire. The self-determination initiatives of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh restarted following the Russian Revolution of 1917. The newly emerged Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918) launched a war presenting claims over the region, however, was never able to exercise its claims. On November 30th, 1920, after the establishment of the Soviet government in Armenia, Soviet Azerbaijan declared Nagorno Karabakh, as well as Zangezour and Nakhijevan as inseparable parts of Armenia.

However, on July 5th 1921, the Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party of Russia under Stalin’s direct interference ignoring the legal procedures decided to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh, 95 per cent of which were Armenians, into the Azerbaijani SSR as an autonomous oblast by drawing artificial borders and thus geographically cutting it off from Armenia.

Throughout history, Karabakh has always been with a predominantly Armenian population. In 1988, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh (76.9 per cent), still a part of the USSR, started initiatives for the right to national self-determination and reunification with Armenia per the USSR’s constitution, the Helsinki Final Act and the international laws. Hence, two states were formed in the former Soviet Azerbaijan’s territory: The Republic of Azerbaijan and the de facto state of the Artsakh Republic. The later defended its fundamental right to self-determination in a war (1988-1994) launched by Azerbaijan and at the end as a recognised part of the conflict signed the Bishkek Protocol (on May 5th 1994) establishing a ceasefire. Thus, Nagorno-Karabakh was arguably never truly a part of independent Azerbaijan.

Tigran Yepremyan is an assistant professor of European History at Yerevan State University, Armenia.

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