Peter Merrill, Campus Carrier news editor
On Sept. 12, troops from Azerbaijan violated the terms of a ceasefire and advanced into the Syunik and Gegharkunik regions of Armenia. The fighting, which lasted for two days, resulted in nearly 300 deaths, and both countries blamed the other for the aggression.
Assistant Professor of History Kelsey Rice, who conducts much of her research on Azerbaijan, said that in 2020, while the world was distracted by the pandemic, Azeri forces reclaimed much of the Karabakh region, which had been occupied by Armenia since a ceasefire in 1994. Karabakh is a culturally significant region to both Azeris and Armenians, although it has an Armenian majority.
“Armenia is saying that [the attacks] are fairly unprovoked and that Azerbaijan is testing Russia’s commitment to maintaining the ceasefire and they’re trying to push their lines deeper into Armenian held territory,” Rice said. “Azerbaijan says that there have been Armenian provocations, from Armenian soldiers, and that Armenia has been dragging its feet on fulfilling some of the components of the ceasefire and handing over certain territories and responsibilities to Azerbaijan.”
Rice said that Russia considers any former Soviet states part of its sphere of influence, and because both Azerbaijan and Armenia were both Soviet republics, Russia has an incentive to stabilize the region.
“When the Soviet socialist republics were created, there was a dispute between Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan as to whether Karabakh would be Azerbaijani or Armenian,” Rice said. “An agreement was made that Karabakh would be part of the Soviet socialist republic of Azerbaijan, but it would be [able to act autonomously].”
Because the region was autonomous under the Soviet Union, Karabakh became contested again in the late 1980s as Soviet power began to unravel. This dispute culminated in a war that lasted from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to 1994. Armenia succeeded in holding the territory, and a ceasefire was enacted until 2020.
Although Russia, the regional power, has mostly remained impartial and the United States has not acted, another country has become very involved, on behalf of Azerbaijan: Turkey.
“Azerbaijan and Turkey are very close,” Rice said. “There’s a saying in Azerbaijan, ‘iki dövlət, bir millət,’ which means ‘two countries, one nation.’ Azerbaijanis identify very strongly as Turks. Since independence, the two nations have had a very close relationship. And Turkey has long had a very bad relationship with Armenia.”
John Hickman, professor of international affairs, explained the connection between the Ottoman Empire and modern-day Turkey.
“[Turkey] and the [Ottoman Empire] are not that distinct,” Hickman said. “You may have heard Donald Trump and some other conservatives talk about the deep state. This is the idea that a conspiratorial group of people in the security services conspiring somehow. That’s silly in the U.S, but the deep state, that term comes from the Ottoman Empire, from the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. It was people in the security services, Turkish nationalists around Ataturk. They did in fact, organize the transition, and saw themselves as the saviors of Turkey.”
The Ottomans were the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide in 1915, and so it is important to note the continuity in their government and how that might affect their foreign policy in the Caucuses.
“Many people have talked about Erdogan’s foreign policy as ‘Neo-Ottomanism,” Hickman said. “So, the current president of Turkey is very interested in reasserting Turkish power where Turkey had power before like in Libya, Azerbaijan, Iran and some islands in Greece.”
The Armenian genocide, which is still not acknowledged in many parts of the world like Israel and Turkey, was committed in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.
“The Ottoman Empire was rattling apart for a very long time,” Hickman said. “It was very weak. It loses World War One, and they are freaked out about losing more territory. They were very worried about losing territory in the east, where the big Armenian population was next to Russia. [They were worried that] Russia would come in and take territory or create an autonomous state. They launched a pre-emptive genocide, and seven years later they did the same thing to their Greek population in Smyrna.”
Hickman said that the reason why this invasion has not received as much press as others is because it is in a far-flung part of the world that Americans are not familiar with. Michael Papazian, professor of religion and philosophy, added that because the region has little strategic importance, excepting Azerbaijan’s oil, Americans are less likely to care about the issue.
Papazian said that Azerbaijan may try to take more land.
“[Karabakh] was under Azeri control until the 1990s when Armenia was able to gain control over it,” Papazian said. “And then the war started in 2020, where the Azeris conquered it. At that time, they were saying that it was sovereign territory of Azerbaijan and that it was within their rights to get it back. But now they’re beginning to conquer southern Armenia, or trying to conquer it, because there’s a wedge that separates Azerbaijan from one of its provinces. They’re claiming that that territory should belong to Azerbaijan, given the fact that Azerbaijan has much more miliary power and also much more economic strength.”
Although the conflict is in an unfamiliar region of the world to most Americans and Europeans, it is by no means a local conflict. According to TRTworld, the Azeri embassy in Paris was attacked on Sept. 18 by over forty protesters attempting to set fire to paintings of Azeri and Turkish officials. Because the Armenian diaspora is so large, these kinds of demonstrations are not uncommon.
According to Rice, there is a large Armenian population in California, although it is unlikely that their voting power would affect national politics.
Because most Americans are unfamiliar with the region and the Soviet history which molded it, many people are unfamiliar with the situation or do not even know that there is strife in the Caucuses.
“It’s okay to recognize the limitations of your knowledge and not have an opinion,” Rice said. “But try to at least understand some of the facts as they’re unfolding.”