Prisoner of the Caucasus

T-72 tank on a plinth in Nagorno-Karabakh. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Marcin Konsek

Nagorno-Karabakh: a clash of civilizations?

March-April 2017

By the late spring of 1994, a mountain chain populated by fewer Armenians than can be found in Los Angeles had not only managed to withstand the assault of a country of over seven million people armed with considerably more advanced weaponry; they destroyed virtually every trace of one thousand years of Azeri existence in Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts beyond. One-fifth of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory fell to Yerevan’s nominal control. A land bridge was carved out to Armenia proper. A territorial wedge was driven between Azerbaijan and Turkey, severing Ankara off from the rest of the Turkic world. Nakhchivan, the native region of Azerbaijan’s ruling family, became a rump state accessible to the rest of the country only via airplane or Iran. So complete was Armenia’s victory, it turned Nagorno-Karabakh into a textbook study for would-be insurgencies and asymmetric conflicts against post-USSR regimes across Eurasia. In Dagestan, the Chechens attempted to replicate it, in Tajikistan the Gharmi and Pamiris.


NONE OF those other insurgencies succeeded. Examining how local elites grasped power in the post-Soviet space, the Russian political scientist Dmitri Furman determined that Armenia’s victory hadn’t just been improbable; Armenia itself was different. Once the most loyal of the Soviet republics, it had become their leading rebel. And while everywhere in the post-USSR imitation democracies flourished under various edifices—in Azerbaijan, a KGB chief had turned autocrat; in Moldova and Georgia, former apparatchiks had recycled themselves as party politicians; in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, strongmen had laid the way for quasi-hereditary rule—in Armenia the state had fallen into more curious hands: one Levon Ter-Petrossian, noted scholar of medieval Syriac manuscripts and the first non-Communist to take power in a former Soviet republic.

Furman turned to the first century BC to explain this. Armenian kings had carved out a buffer state courting both Rome and Parthia. Three centuries later, Tiridates III converted to Christianity, making Armenia the first state to officially embrace the religion. A century later, a monk called Mesrop Mashtots gave the Armenians a distinct alphabet. By Rome’s fall, Armenia had become a kind of proto-nation-state, a place where ethnic identity was inextricably fused to a homeland, a faith and a written language. For the next thousand years, Armenians masterfully played encroaching empires off one another; for the thousand after that, they were the people without a state, surviving repeated attempts at assimilation by non-Christian rulers and fanning out into an astonishingly prosperous mercantile diaspora. The result was a “chosenness,” a deeply perceived sense of superiority used to offset centuries of actual subjugation. For Furman, the Jews were the obvious parallel.

In the twilight of the USSR, the Armenians’ relationship to Russia as their historical Christian protector had evolved into something closer to symbiosis. Armenians disproportionately filled out the ranks of Soviet nomenklatura, the KGB in particular. The accumulation of power by a people of such acute ethnic consciousness—far and away, the oldest continuous national movement in the USSR—could not have stood in greater contrast to the almost-servile status of Muslim Azeris under Soviet rule. The strange nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting had thus already taken shape decades before arms were taken up. Armenian insurgents with deep experience in Soviet command structures fought with lethal efficacy against Azeri counterinsurgents whose military service had typically been spent cooking and laying tarmac.

There was also the matter of 1915. In the founding of their respective nation-states, both directly following national traumas, Furman detected a critical difference between the Armenians and the Jews. The Armenians were unable to put any geographic distance between themselves and their would-be destroyers. From the west, the first Armenian state in a millennium buffered a country that refused to acknowledge that it had perpetrated any sort of genocide, from the east a country that did choose to commemorate a “genocide,” albeit a rather different one: the murder of some ten thousand Azeris in Baku in 1918 by Armenian and Bolshevik vigilantes.

In 1989, after complete independence was finally wrested from outsiders, Armenian identity wasn’t so much recovered as hyper-activated. Other USSR states “opened up”; in many ways, Armenia shuttered itself down. Its two longest borders remain closed to this day. Overland, the country can only be reached via Georgia or Iran. Connecting Yerevan to the outside world is the filament of the diaspora, an almost exaggerated version of the phenomenon Benedict Anderson termed “long-distance nationalism.” Severed from national politics for decades, its unleashed spending power—approximately $900 million since 1989, propping up a third of Armenia’s GDP—has come with the contingency that Armenia not make any concessions to Azerbaijan in international peace talks.

But the greatest legacy of independence was the melding of the two historical struggles. The Ottomans of 1915 and the Azeris became one indistinguishable enemy, the “Turks,” a supposition inadvertently upheld by the recent “one people, two states” policy embraced by presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ilham Aliyev. Nagorno-Karabakh is an ipso facto continuation of the 1915 conflict, in which Armenians of course had no great opportunity to fight back. Today they do. Retrieving Mount Ararat and the old heartlands of western Armenia is a hopelessly distant prospect. But to the east, in Nagorno-Karabakh, there is an extraordinary chance to exact historical justice. Losing the region, even in the form of minor territorial concessions, would be catastrophic. Armenians might again become the people without a state.