On the edge of empire: Armenians and the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in context

Oct. 12, 2020, 9:28 p.m.

A conflict with historical roots reemerges after nearly 30 years.

Two weeks ago, Azerbaijan restarted a military offensive to take back Nagorno-Karabakh, what Armenians call Artsakh, a region in the Caucasus Mountains disputed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Forces have attacked civilians, including the predominantly ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, during this offensive, raising numerous humanitarian concerns.

Now, when the world is distracted, Turkey is openly supporting Azerbaijan and escalating the fighting with the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. The response from other global powers to this humanitarian crisis has been slow. On Friday, Russia brokered a ceasefire, but the violence continues. The United States, amid an election and a president with COVID-19, has been largely silent. As a result, protesters have taken to the streets, demanding accurate media coverage and political attention. Many protesters are descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide — the massacres of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in 1915-1916 by Ottoman Turks.

Since 1991, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh — a de facto Armenian state but de jure region within Azerbaijan — have argued for the right to independence and self-determination on grounds equal to other post-Soviet republics. Azerbaijanis argue that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan, since 100 years ago Joseph Stalin had separated the area from Soviet Armenia, giving it to Soviet Azerbaijan.

Earlier this year, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan replied in jest to Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev’s historical justifications for claims over Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinyan points out that, if we go back to the first century BCE, we learn the Roman general Pompey allowed the Armenian Tigranes the Great to remain king of a territory which includes modern-day Nagorno-Karabakh.

The historical lessons over which Aliyev and Pashinyan spar selectively embrace and reshape history to elevate one angle over the other — encouraging the violence and brutality over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.

The misuse and abuse of history also inspires Turkey. Their support of Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh is the culmination of a series of recent acts of aggression that symbolize President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desires for a return to an Ottoman imperial past. In recent months, Turkey launched warships in Greek waters, drilled for gas off Cyprus’s coast and converted the Hagia Sophia from a heritage site into a mosque. These actions gamble Turkey’s relationships with Russia and NATO allies, including the United States.

The U.S. selectively appeals to Armenian history. Last December, the U.S. House and Senate voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. This is a major step toward historical justice for the Armenian people — including an estimated 11 million living in diaspora all over the world today. For the U.S., it was political punishment for Turkey attacking a U.S. ally — the Kurds living in Syria. This move infuriated Turkey, who has long denied the genocide.

Azerbaijan and Armenia on the one hand and Turkey and the United States on the other misappropriate history in attempts to settle political disputes, but in effect they invigorate division.

In the current fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, what else can history offer? 

Applying the history of Armenians’ long-lived position on the edge of empires to the current moment.

History can instead elucidate how Armenian people, since ancient times, have sat on the edge — both geographically and politically — between great powers and at the forefront of major geopolitical disputes. This current conflict is just one case in point. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan fight in a political game that involves some of the world’s strongest global players — Turkey, Russia, the United States, the European Union and Iran — with deep conflicts of interest.

In modern-day Armenia, Armenians refer to themselves as hay and the country of Armenia as Hayastan. Already in the second millennium BCE, Hittite texts referred to a people “hay” inhabiting the land of “hayasa” — a vassal state allied to the Hittite Empire that extended over modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus.

The Persian King Darius the Great mentions “Armenians” as imperial subjects on a sixth-century BCE inscription placed at a prominent crossroads of the Persian Empire in modern-day Iran. In the West, Classical Greek and Roman writers often describe “Armenians” with respect to their relations among the great powers of the West and East.

From the first century BCE, Armenia served as a strategic ally and buffer for the Romans against the Parthian Empire. The Romans grew eastward and the Parthians westward — with Armenia sandwiched between them in the Caucasus. Armenians negotiated with both and were careful not to test the bonds with their imperial overlords.

This all is not to say that Armenians are attested to have lived in the region for thousands of years and therefore claim land rights, nor that ethnic Armenians today are direct descendants of the ancient “hay” or “Armenian” people. Rather, the deep history highlights the positions of Armenians as pawns in a political game between some of the greatest geopolitical powers the world has ever seen.

This overarching political game is what the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is about. The Sept. 27 attack and ongoing fighting are not simply the result of a territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian people living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Larger powers are exploiting a decades-long conflict to serve their own ends. Armenians, and also Azerbaijanis, are caught up in the middle.

History is often misappropriated in geopolitical disputes, resulting in increased division and dehumanizing acts. In the ongoing events in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, history better illustrates how Armenians’ geopolitical position on the edge of empires has served the interests of these greater powers. It also brought the survival of Armenian culture long after the empires themselves disappeared. Now, the responses of the United States, Russia, Europe and others will determine the trajectory of not only the violence over Nagorno-Karabakh but more largely the influence and power of Turkey and other major geopolitical powers in the South Caucasus.

Contact Amanda Gaggioli at gaggioli ‘at’ stanford.edu and Hrant Gharibyan at hrant ‘at’ caltech.edu.

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