It’s probably Azerbaijan that started the shooting in this latest round of fighting with neighboring Armenia. Which is not to say that it’s all Azerbaijan’s fault.
The killing that started on Sunday is the biggest clash since the cease-fire of 1994: helicopters shot down, tanks blown up, and dozens of soldiers dead already. It could go the distance – the 1992-94 war cost 30,000 lives and drove a million people from their homes – or it could die down in a few days. But it won’t settle anything.
In the Caucasus, neighboring countries can be wildly different: Azerbaijan is Shia Muslim and speaks what is really an eastern dialect of Turkish, while Armenia is Orthodox Christian and speaks a language that has no known relatives within the Indo-European family. But the two countries share a long history of oppression.
They both spent almost a century in the Russian empire, got their independence back briefly during the Revolution, and then spent another 70 years as part of the Soviet Union. When they both got their independence again in 1991, however, they almost immediately went to war.
That was Joseph Stalin’s fault. When he was Commissar of Nationality Affairs in 1918-22, he drew the borders of all the new non-Russian ‘Soviet Republics’ in the Caucasus and Central Asia according to the classic imperial principle of divide-and-rule. Every ‘republic’ included ethnic minorities from neighboring republics, to minimize the risk that they might develop a genuine national identity.
In the case of Azerbaijan, Stalin gave it the district of Nagorno-Karabakh (‘mountainous’ Karabakh) even though that area was four-fifths Armenian in population. When the Soviet Union began crumbling 70 years later, the local minorities in both countries started fleeing to areas where they would be safely in the majority even before the war got underway.
The actual war in 1992-94 was a brutal affair involving active ethnic cleansing: 600,000 Azerbaijanis and 300,000 Armenians became refugees. On paper Armenia should have lost, for it has only 3 million people to Azerbaijan’s 9 million, but it actually won most of the battles.
When post-Soviet Russia brokered a cease-fire between the exhausted parties, Armenia wound up holding not only Nagorno-Karabakh but a large amount of other territory (now emptied of Azerbaijanis) that connected Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia proper. And that’s where the border – more precisely the cease-fire line – remains to this day.
I haven’t been near the front line since shortly after that war, so why would I claim to know that it’s Azerbaijan starting up the war again this time? Three reasons.
First, Armenia already controls all the territory it claims and more. However, in terms of international law it has no legal claim to it, and the UN Security Council has four times called for the withdrawal of Armenian troops. Why would Armenia draw further unwelcome attention to the fact that it has been illegally occupying ‘foreign’ territory for 26 years?
Secondly, Armenia is much weaker in military terms. Not only has it far fewer people but it is poor, whereas Azerbaijan has enjoyed great wealth from oil. Both countries buy most of their weapons from Russia, but in the past two decades Azerbaijan has consistently outspent Armenia on defense nine-to-one.
Finally, Azerbaijan’s ‘elected’ dictator, Ilham Aliyev, has a strong political need for a war right now, while Armenia’s new leader, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, does not.
Pashinyan came to power in 2018 in a free election, after non-violent protests forced out his long-ruling predecessor, who was trying to ‘do a Putin’. (That is to say, stay in power when he hit the two-term limit as president by moving real power to the prime minister’s office, and coming back himself as prime minister.) Armenia now has free media and a popular president.
Aliyev is fighting to prolong his family’s dynastic rule for a third generation in the face of popular protests. His father, Heydar Aliyev, was a career KGB officer who became leader of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and took over as dictator after the Soviet Union collapsed. (This happened in most of the Muslim ex-Soviet republics.)
Heydar managed to pass power to his son Ilham before he died in 2003. Ilham changed the constitution to scrap presidential term limits in 2009. In 2016 he even lowered the age limit on the presidency, to smooth the path to the throne for his then 19-year-old son.
Azerbaijan’s opposition parties, despite oppression, jail and torture, are resisting Ilham Aliyev’s tyranny, and their most effective rallying cry is Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Mobs of anti-regime demonstrators took over central Baku last week demanding action, and this mini-war is Aliyev’s attempt to placate them.
It will all die down if Armenia can hold on long enough for Russia to impose another cease-fire. Otherwise, it may get very ugly again.*