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Opinion Why Stalin's 'fatal decision' means tens of thousands in Karabakh now live in terror

Armenians and Azerbaijanis have for many years found themselves at war over the destiny of Nagorno-Karabakh, writes Donnacha Ó Beacháin.

AZERBAIJAN IS A dictatorship built around a family dynasty. The current president of 20 years standing, Ilham Aliyev, is the son of his predecessor, Heydar Aliyev. The vice-president of the country is Mehriban Aliyeva, wife of Ilham.

By contrast, Armenia has developed an imperfect democracy with intense political competition. The current premier, Nikol Pashinyan came to power in 2018 on a wave of popular protests. His popular democratic credentials mean he is viewed with suspicion by many post-Soviet autocrats, not least in the Kremlin.

For many years Armenians and Azerbaijanis have found themselves at war over the destiny of Nagorno-Karabakh – a mountainous territory approximately the size of Co Tipperary and home to 120,000 Christian Armenians.

Yesterday, Azerbaijan launched an all-out assault to bring an end to a separate Armenian-populated Karabakh and impose a final military solution.

A ceasefire was announced this morning ahead of talks planned for tomorrow – but Armenia says at least 32 people have been killed and more than 200 wounded since the shelling by Azerbaijan began. 

Stalin’s fatal decision

How did we get to this point?

Even though the vast majority of people (94%) in Nagorno-Karabakh were Armenian when the USSR was established, in 1923 the then Commissar of Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, reversed an earlier leadership decision and placed the region within Soviet Azerbaijan. Long after the dictator’s death, Stalin’s handiwork wreaked havoc, as his cartography cost the lives of thousands.

During the communist era, the Kremlin refused to entertain periodic representations from Karabakh Armenians who complained of discrimination and lack of autonomy.

The Soviet empire kept a lid on the conflict, but Gorbachev’s reforms led to increased calls from Karabakh Armenians to unite with their ethnic kin, efforts that were brutally suppressed by the Azerbaijani leadership.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union and then promptly fought each other over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

As the USSR imploded, fifteen new republics quickly gained international recognition. Azerbaijan – Nagorno-Karabakh included – was one of them.

The war ended in 1994 with a decisive victory for Armenia, which expelled hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis from neighbouring areas to create a buffer zone to insulate Karabakh Armenians from attack.

Embittered and vengeful, Azerbaijan nursed its grievances for a generation. The conflict appeared frozen to many observers but it merely simmered.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan spent billions of euro building up huge military resources and preparing for war.

Weddings Karabakh2 Worried about demographics in Karabakh, the Armenian diaspora raised money to encourage young people to marry and have children. About 1,400 people got married at a football stadium on 17 October 2008 (approximately 1% of the local population). Donnacha Ó Beacháin Donnacha Ó Beacháin

2020 war

In September 2020, as the rest of the world managed the COVID-19 pandemic, Azerbaijan finally ignited large scale military operations.

Armenia’s Soviet-era arms and strategy proved no match for the rapid, flexible, high-tech war that Azerbaijan waged with Turkish support.

We will never know for sure how many died during that 44-day war but estimates run as high as 10,000 people with multiples of that number displaced.

So great is the enmity between the two nations that fleeing Armenians dug up the remains of their relatives, for fear their graves would be desecrated, and brought them to be reburied elsewhere.

Azerbaijani forces quickly gained the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and a complete rout seemed inevitable.

However, as they edged closer to the Armenian stronghold of Stepanakert, a city of some 50,000 people, Russia finally intervened and brokered a hastily agreed ceasefire.

Without committing – let alone losing – any of its own troops during the war, Russia came away with a settlement that greatly enhanced its military presence in the Caucasus. Its role as a regional hegemon had been affirmed.

But what had emerged was a ceasefire, not a peace settlement. Azerbaijan and Turkey resented Russia’s role. Rather than promising an end to the conflict and a new beginning it seemed merely to be a pause.

The 2020 war was hugely popular in Azerbaijan but it had ended inconclusively.

Why now?

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has tilted the balance further in Azerbaijan’s favour. Not only is the Kremlin preoccupied with its calamitous war, but the EU – eager to replace Russian energy with alternative suppliers – has increasingly warmed to the Azerbaijani regime.

For the last nine months the people of Karabakh have been blockaded as Azerbaijan prevented the free movement of people to Armenia, contrary to the agreement struck in 2020.

The international community stood by as reports filtered out of Armenians suffering from all sorts of deprivations. The lack of an effective response – not least from Russian troops in the region – no doubt convinced Ilham Aliyev that the rewards that would come from renewed war outweighed any risks.

And so, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale attack against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The term used to justify the invasion – “anti-terrorist measures” – has all the deceitfulness of Putin’s “special military operation”. The phrase is meant to de-emphasise the enormity of what is been done and to conceal the real objectives.

Armenian leaders in Karabakh have said these attacks were aimed at wiping out the local population. The word “genocide” resonates strongly amongst Armenians given the mass killings and ethnic cleansing that took place in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

They are under no illusion that Azerbaijan wants the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh but not the Armenians who live there.

Videos have been circulating of Armenians fleeing the area in the last few hours. 

a-girl-embraces-her-relative-sitting-in-a-shelter-during-shelling-in-stepanakert-nagorno-karabakh-azerbaijan-on-tuesday-sept-19-2023-declared-that-it-started-what-it-called-an-anti-terrorist-op A girl embraces her relative sitting in a shelter during shelling in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, yesterday. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The Russian and Turkish response

Wary of being dragged into an unwinnable war, and conscious of the domestic and foreign adversaries who want him replaced, Prime Minister Pashinyan did not try to militarily reverse the Azerbaijani attack. The Armenians have dedicated foes and relatively indifferent allies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday offered Azerbaijan his full support, saying “we act under the motto ‘one nation, two states’”.

Frustrated with Russia’s failure to secure the safety of Karabakh Armenians, Pashanyan recently spurned military drills with the Kremlin-sponsored Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) alliance in favour of joint military drills with NATO.

Earlier this month Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, met with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife in Kyiv. Consequently, many in Russia’s political elite now relish Pashinyan’s predicament.

The former President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, who currently sits on Russia’s Security Council, wrote that Pashinyan had “decided to flirt with NATO, and his wife demonstratively went to our enemies with cookies. Guess what fate awaits him…”.

The Editor-in-chief of Russia Today facetiously asked Pashinyan where his help from NATO was now? She added:

“An Armenian who comes to power with anti-Russian slogans is a traitor by definition. A traitor to Armenian interests, not Russian ones. Russia will manage without Armenia. Armenia without Russia – no.”

The Azerbaijani- populated city of Agdam - which neighbours Karabakh - was destroyed during the war of early 1990s before Azerbaijan regained control in 2020. Donnacha Ó Beacháin Donnacha Ó Beacháin

What now?

It was announced this morning that ethnic-Armenian forces in Karabakh had agreed to terms for a ceasefire – committing to “full dismantlement” of their forces. 

In short it is a complete and unconditional surrender. It signals after three decades in existance the end of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh).

The two sides said talks would be held tomorrow in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh. 

However, many Armenians would rather die than live under Azerbaijani rule and many survivors are likely to flee Karabakh for nearby Armenia.

This isn’t simply a matter of leaving a house. Rather, it involves abandoning a homeland where Armenians have predominated for centuries and is considered an integral part of their national culture and identity.

Most people focus on the geopolitics of the region, not least when large-scale conflict erupts.

But while we talk of the role of Russia, Turkey, the EU, and other powers, we should not forget that right now there are 120,000 souls in Karabakh who are living in a state of uncertainty – many in paralysing fear of what will become of them.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University. For more than two decades he has worked and researched in the post-Soviet region and has been published widely on the subject. 

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Donnacha Ó Beacháin
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