Captive of the Caucasus: The Long War Over Nagorno-Karabakh

How a little-understood war between Azerbaijan and Armenia threatens democracy.

Yerevan, Armenia—In his 1973 essay “Approaches to What?,” the French novelist Georges Perec made reference to the “infra-ordinary,” by which he meant the banal routines of the everyday. He suggested we reorient our gaze from the exotic to what he called the “endotic”; turn away from headlines and embrace the granular beauty of the ordinary. “Question your teaspoons,” he urged.

Perec’s essay may be read as an ode to peace because in order to be capable of paying attention to the footnotes of the everyday, people need to have a certain level of quiet and security. For Armenians, that calm was shattered on September 27, when Azerbaijan declared war on Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous, Armenian-populated enclave that was cheated out of statehood and put into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan thanks to the Bolshevik divide-and-rule policy and the machinations of the Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

The Caucasian Bureau conveniently ignored the fact that Armenians had long been an overwhelming majority in the enclave both during Russia’s czarist era, and even prior to that, when the region was under Persian rule. Armenian presence in the enclave dates back centuries. The Amaras monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh to Armenians) is where the theologian and linguist Mesrop Mashtots founded the first-ever Armenian school that used his alphabet in the fifth century. The print shop in the strategic stronghold of Shushi was opened by Swiss missionaries in 1827.

On the eve of the Russian Revolution, Shushi was home to 21 newspapers and journals—of which 19 were in Armenian and two in Russian. Shushi’s more affluent Armenian upper quarter was burned down before Azerbaijan joined the Soviet Union. In 1886, Armenians made up 85 percent of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh compared to 14 percent for Tatars, and by 1921, they represented 94.4 percent of the population, based on 19th century Transcaucasian family lists and official Soviet census data. During peaceful times, the two ethnic groups were more deferential. According to the 1979 Soviet census, which was the last one taken before the conflict, 37,000 ethnic Azeris, or 23 percent of the total population, lived in the enclave. It was only in Shushi where Armenians were a minority at the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Today, the enclave’s citizens are the target of cluster bombs banned under international humanitarian law. Demographics aside, the current war represents a head-on collision between democratic values, as represented by Armenia’s prime minster, Nikol Pashinyan, and tyrannical ones, as exalted by Ilham Aliyev, who has presided over Azerbaijan for the past 17 years. The autocratic leader took over the presidency from his father, Heydar Aliyev, who was in power for a decade right before him.

So far, the media and the international community have only made passing reference to this ideological divide. Yet the nature of Aliyev’s despotic leadership is crucial to understanding why Azerbaijan is currently attempting to “liberate” by force an enclave that was historically Armenian.

In 2012, Aliyev was named “person of the year” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a nonpartisan global network of investigative journalists. The redoubtable Albanian drug lord Naser Kelmendi was a runner-up and received honorable mention.

This struggle between open societies and hermetically closed ones has also been ignored by Azerbaijan’s arms suppliers and de facto allies such as Israel—whose suicide drones now fly over the region targeting the fledgling democracy of Artsakh, and by extension, Armenia. It is painful to see the Jewish state, whose citizens share a common history of genocidal attacks with Armenians, selling advanced arms to the Aliyev regime. Surely, matters of realpolitik are not the only consideration in foreign policy.

This new war has drawn in another regional power in open support of Azerbaijan. In a reckless gambit to project its power to the east, Turkey has supplied Azerbaijan with jihadi mercenaries. Armenians are understandably rattled by this revelation—especially coming just a century after Turkish authorities tried to annihilate them in the first genocide of the 20th century. Meanwhile, Russia, a supplier of weapons to both sides, sits on the sidelines, calling for de-escalation together with France and the United States.

This is not the first time that Armenians have faced an existential struggle against difficult neighbors. In the aftermath of Turkish genocide, they forged a short-lived democratic republic in 1918, and in 1922 became a founding member of the Soviet Union. For almost 65 years, there was no large-scale hostility between Azeris and Armenians. The dissolution of the Soviet Union changed that, when the autonomous administrative region of Nagorno-Karabakh (it was recognized as autonomous) strove to join Armenia, and then fought for self-determination.

This desire for independent statehood, not unlike modern-day Kosovo’s, has a number of other violent antecedents. In his book, The Caucasus, journalist Thomas de Waal documents a pogrom in February of 1988 against the Armenian population of Sumgait, an industrial city on the Caspian Sea located 19 miles from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. At the time, Sumgait had a population of more than 220,000, of which 17,000 were Armenians. None are left today.

What were the events that led to the pogrom? On February 20, 1988, tens of thousands of Armenians gathered in Stepanakert’s Lenin Square in the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh to demand that the region join Armenia. On that same day, the Supreme Soviet of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to join the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. The move was staunchly opposed by Azerbaijani authorities and condemned by state-run Soviet media. This began “the slow descent into violent conflict,” writes de Waal. The Sumgait massacre began a week after the council vote. “Roving gangs committed acts of horrific savagery.”

Many who organized or participated in the bloodshed went on to serve in positions of consequence in the Azeri government, according to United States congressional records. In the days leading to the massacre, Hidayat Orujev, a Communist Party leader, warned, “If you do not stop campaigning for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, if you don’t sober up, 100,000 Azeris from neighboring districts will break into your houses, torch your apartments, rape your women, and kill your children.” In a tragic twist worthy of a Kafka short story, Orujev went on to serve as Azerbaijan’s state adviser for ethnic policy, and later on, as head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations.

The pogrom led to wider reprisals against Azerbaijan’s Armenian minority. Sumgait was followed by ethnic targeting in Kirovabad, today’s Ganja, and, the 1990 Baku pogrom. Haunting stories of murder spread through a kind of samizdat among Armenian quarters. A war of liberation followed in the enclave and became increasingly violent. Atrocities were committed on both sides. One of the gravest was the Khojali massacre of 1992 by Armenian forces, in which more than 200 Azeri civilians were killed.

After Armenian forces won the war, and captured seven districts around the enclave, a cease-fire was signed in 1994, creating one of the many frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus. And while the enclave is still not recognized as an independent country, there is some legal precedent for recognition. In 2010, the International Court of Justice, the highest United Nations court, delivered its opinion on whether Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 was legal. By a vote of 10 to 4, the court declared that the adoption of the declaration of independence “did not violate general international law.”

Today, 116 countries recognize Kosovo, allowing Kosovars to turn from war to the daily routines of life. And that is how it should be. In his essay “Approaches to What?,” Perec urged the newspapers of the day to give up their obsession with sensational stories—volcanoes, car crashes, fires, and deaths—to focus on the poetry of the everyday. There is a message here that is particularly relevant to the war in the Caucasus: Peace is possible only when both sides acknowledge the other’s right to the everyday.

Yet in the on-again, off-again negotiations under the OSCE Minsk Group that have lurched to nowhere and back, Aliyev has always refused to listen to the central participants in the conflict—the Armenian majority population of Artsakh. The citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh never voted to be the subjects of his despotic rule, nor his persecution. They were never part of an independent Azerbaijan. They are just fighting for their freedom, for the right to celebrate the everyday.

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Viken Berberian