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

Later, at the front lines, teenage soldiers were barbecuing snakes and spitting contempt for the Republicans. Why was it that Azerbaijan could attack, attack, attack and all Armenia could ever do was hold its line? It was obvious that the offensives wouldn’t stop until the stakes of the conflict had equaled out. How did they suggest doing that? Marching on Baku, of course. Aliyev wanted war; give him war. Out in the village of T’alish, a few soldiers showed me where an Azerbaijani reconnaissance drone had been brought down by Moscow-supplied rocket systems. One of the more curious aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that, for each and every offensive weapon it sells to Baku, Russia sells the corresponding defensive equipment to Yerevan. The only problem was that many of the new Azerbaijani drones weren’t Russian-made. They were Harop models—kamikaze drones, the first of their kind ever deployed on a battlefield—from Israel; last April, one dematerialized a bus transporting Armenian volunteers, killing seven. The Armenian soldiers pointed to their antique assault rifles and Soviet-era boots. Until now, the balance of war had more or less held. It was unclear how much longer it would.


NAGORNO-KARABAKH has become an increasingly fragile last prop for two regimes that have relentlessly stymied the democratic development of their respective nation-states. As those regimes begin to buckle, the prospect of all-out war increases. To those manning the front lines, the Soviet Union and the Russian language have disappeared as shared legacies. To the political elites who draft them, Nagorno-Karabakh has become a relentless instrument for mobilizing nationalism. When an Armenian minister was mentioned in the Panama Papers, he was nearly forced to resign from office—not for tax evasion, but for being mentioned in the same document as President Aliyev. When the Azeri writer Akram Aylisli addressed the 1980s pogroms of Azerbaijan’s ethnic Armenians in his fiction, the regime revoked his ability to travel to international literary festivals, burnt his books at state-sponsored bonfires and offered $13,000 to any Azeri who would slice off his ear. Not Bosnia, not Cyprus, not even Transnistria are faced by the prospect of the stances of both combatants become more and more extreme with the decades.

Still, the most intriguing aspect of Nagorno-Karabakh is its almost uncanny ability to assume the contours of successive conflict narratives. It began like the other wars of post-USSR succession—metonymy for the collapse of centralized power and the reemergence of local nationalisms. It lasted long enough to be consumed in the “ancient hatreds” narrative popularized by the wars of Yugoslav succession. In the 2000s, the conflict was still simmering, only now with European Union enlargement and Putinist expansion providing the backdrop: with Armenia emerging in the forefront of accession talks with Brussels, Nagorno-Karabakh became a front line between a supposedly Western democracy and a Eurasian authoritarian state.

Speaking to villagers in Nagorno-Karabakh, I noticed that the war had taken yet another shape in their minds. In the village of T’alish, Azerbaijani forces entered a house and mutilated the corpses of two elders. Photos surfaced on social media of an Armenian soldier who had been beheaded after capture. Human-rights observers in Yerevan were feverishly drafting reports to be sent to Brussels. Azerbaijan has a radicalization problem! Islamist cells were already working the Northern Caucasus. Wahhabis had now made their way into the Azerbaijani top brass. Those who had actually joined ISIS were given immunity if they went to Nagorno-Karabakh as vigilantes. Brussels, Moscow, Washington: none could afford to ignore this new front against radical Islam.

Alexander Clapp is a journalist based in Istanbul. He is working on a book about Romania.

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

​Editor's Note: This piece has been updated from its original version.