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

TUCKED IN the borderland between Europe and Asia sits a nation-state recognized by seven American states, New South Wales, the Basque parliament, Abkhazia, Ossetia and Transnistria, but by no country—its chief financier and defender, Armenia, included. Six hours’ drive southeast of Yerevan, you reach it through a series of dry ochre canyons that give way to rolling green steppe. At the immense skyline of the Lesser Caucasus, you cross a passport control governing no official border and a time-zone change that goes unacknowledged. You drive up the most expensive strip of pavement in Transcaucasia, joining a winding trickle of minibuses and T-72 tanks chained to the beds of semitrucks. Between mountaintops stretch nets raised to ensnare attacking helicopters. Billboards claim that the crimes of 1915 may yet be avenged. A giant statue of a grandfather and grandmother hewn out of volcanic tufa is captioned with the motto of the republic: “We Are Our Mountains.” Descending into Stepanakert, the capital, you check in with authorities and observe the trappings of statehood—parliament, police force, postal system—developed over more than two decades of sitting within Grad rocket range of Azerbaijani forces, which make regular claims that they can capture Stepanakert in four days and threaten to shoot down any planes, commercial or military, that attempt to use its airport.

Comparable to the wars of Yugoslav disintegration in terms of fatalities and military expenditure, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, the “black garden in the mountains,” is among the world’s longest ongoing conflicts—and perhaps the least reported. Each year, Armenia and Azerbaijan—the former Europe’s third most impoverished nation; the latter the world’s fastest-growing economy for most of the 2000s—allocate some 6 billion euros to its upkeep. It is responsible for a generation of Armenians and Azeris having never entered one another’s countries. Separating them is a one-hundred-kilometer-long dead zone composed of gutted villages and roaming cattle. The “self-regulating” peace over Nagorno-Karabakh is a lie posing as euphemism. Since the end of the war’s main phase in 1994, the seventy thousand troops entrenched on each side have engaged in steady, low-simmering conflict, primarily through snipers.

On April 2, 2016, Azerbaijan launched its most severe attack on Nagorno-Karabakh in more than two decades. From the south and north, a nighttime missile barrage preceded a large ground assault on frontline villages. “There were six explosions,” Kegham Aghajanyan, the principal of the Madagis village elementary school, told me, gesturing to a crater the length of a pickup truck several meters from the school’s doorway. “Most children were evacuated by truck.” The Armenians pushed back. In Yerevan, I met Marat Petrosyan, a nineteen-year-old sergeant who successfully knocked out three Azerbaijani tanks before passing out midfire; by the time he came fully to, he’d been declared a national hero in Armenian neighborhoods around the world. Heavy fighting ceased after four days and some four hundred casualties. Both governments took to state TV with pronouncements of victory, but only the Armenians had any genuine case for it. An Azerbaijani invasion twenty-two years and $30 billion in the making had the capture of three brambly hillsides near the Iranian border to show for itself.

 

IN ANTIQUITY, Nagorno-Karabakh marked the easternmost frontier of the mountainous Armenian watershed. The arrival of medieval Turkic nomads from Central Asia turned it into an ethnic borderland: Muslim shepherds from around the Caspian Sea brought their flocks to the Nagorno-Karabakh highlands during summer months. From 1920 on, the Bolsheviks “solved” the ethnic dispute through top-down divide-and-rule, making an autonomous republic of Nagorno-Karabakh situated entirely within the borders of Soviet Azerbaijan. The effect was a Karabakh republic populated thickly with Armenians, in a halfway state of recognition as Armenian, but lacking any physical connection to Armenia itself. That similar autonomous regions—Crimea, Karakalpakstan—had been transferred from one Soviet republic to another confirmed, in the Armenian imagination at least, that all this was an error that could be corrected. Petitions demanding unification between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh were made to Moscow in 1945, 1967 and 1977.

Skirmishing between Armenians and Azeris began in February 1988. For six years, each side attempted to box the other out of the mountains. The ongoing collapse of Communism turned Moscow, initially intervening on behalf of Azerbaijan, later on behalf of Armenia, into an altogether powerless observer of the conflict. One irony of this was that its underlying cause—the integration of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast into the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic—became unachievable by its end; there remained no soviets to integrate. Armenia and Azerbaijan became instead nation-states, each equipped with an historical enemy-in-waiting around which their elites could mobilize grievances that had been dormant under eight decades of Friendship of the Peoples. For its part, Nagorno-Karabakh became—and remains—a pawn, a “nation-state” to be recognized and incorporated by Yerevan only in the event of renewed all-out war. Last April, this very nearly happened.

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.

 

THIS, AT any rate, is very much the argument pushed by the men who rule Armenia today, a collection of military figures known formerly as the Republicans, informally as the “Karabakh clan.” Most come from Nagorno-Karabakh or began public life there. They gained prominence in the war not as regulars but guerillas. Their leading members are Robert Kocharian, one-time leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, later president of Armenia, and Serzh Sargsyan, Kocharian’s defense chief and current president of Armenia. A veterans’ movement that seized on the precarious security situation of the 1990s, it entered into close cooperation with a chaebol of some two dozen oligarchs who lorded over Armenia’s privatization, rendering it into the most monopolized economy in the former USSR. What little wealth the country possesses—agricultural lands, cognac distilleries, mines—was compounded with diaspora funds, but mostly Russian arms deals that on paper consume 10 percent of the annual state budget, in practice several times more; Moscow provides Armenia with Russian loans to purchase Russian weaponry, a profit loop in which Sargsyan and his epigones skim enough kickbacks to have personally annexed some 40 percent of Armenia’s GDP. “And you still can’t take the peasants out of them!” runs a popular Armenian joke regarding the Republicans’ baggy three-piece suits.

In early 1998, after Ter-Petrossian proposed conceding parts of Nagorno-Karabakh to secure a lasting peace, the Republicans overthrew him. A string of dubious elections has preserved their power since. Travelling around Armenia, you see a makeshift mix of hard-fist rule and patronage politics. In Yerevan, there are the parades of black military-grade Humvees transporting the khmbapets, “chieftains,” and their entourages of armed bodyguards. Many towns have a “military-patriotic club” where members are updated on the state of Miatsyal Hayastan, “Greater Armenia.” In the countryside, Republican mayors secure their rule by distributing sacks of potatoes to pensioners and patching up roads in highlands otherwise marked by starvation wages and electricity still faltering from the disastrous 1990s, when nearly every national resource was diverted to Nagorno-Karabakh’s defense.

Azerbaijan is ostensibly a very different place from Armenia. Historically, it has been the state—the Muslim world’s first democracy, even—without any certain people, Azeris having been variously called Caucasian Tatars or Shia Turks; the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh shattered much of the Azeri national identity it initially aroused. Like Armenians, most Azeris actually live outside of their country—in Iran, a country nominally aligned with Armenia. Armenia’s population is 97.9 percent ethnically Armenian, making it one of the world’s least ethnically diverse nations. Azerbaijan, by contrast, is a virtual preservatory of minorities, with 115 different groups comprising a tenth of the population.

Power in post-Soviet Baku initially fell to the same group that currently rules in Yerevan—a deeply nationalist collection of Nagorno-Karabakh veterans—until it was destroyed by fear of military rule and a bloody 1993 civil war; in its place came a nomenklatura combining at once a recycled Communist vanguard and an historically Turkic regionalism based on allegiance to the hoj, or the blood-kin clan. Its leader was the head of the Nakhichevan clan, Heydar Aliyev, an intellectual who could trace his family’s roots back to Yerevan, the former head of the Azerbaijani KGB and first secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee.

To the degree that it gives Armenia an outsized sense of historical retribution, Nagorno-Karabakh has never ceased undermining the narrative of Azerbaijan’s success. It is the embarrassment hounding a regime capable of spending twice Armenia’s annual state budget on weapons alone, though to absolutely no effect; the relentlessly virile statements about Nagorno-Karabakh—Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov repeatedly claims that “the Karabakh land will burn under the feet of the Armenian invaders”—become more and more ridiculous the longer the status quo holds.

Oil, of which Armenia has absolutely none, offered Azerbaijan an historic opportunity to build the kind of durable nation Armenia can almost certainly never become. No sooner was the “boom of the century” realized than it was squandered: following a decade in which Azerbaijan became the fastest-growing economy on earth, GDP per capita remains barely above that of Jamaica, largely because of extravagant military expenditure and a shadowy accumulation of state assets and international properties that, as made clear by the meticulous investigations of journalist Khadija Ismayilova, have allowed the Aliyevs to run Azerbaijan very much as their own family firm. Controlling interests of five major state banks went to Ilham after Heydar’s death; his teenage grandson assumed control of three more; his granddaughters have been put in charge of state telecommunications; Ilham himself has overwhelming control over every state-owned port, mine and major construction project. The “paradox of plenty” was doubly compounded by an unwillingness to acknowledge that Nagorno-Karabakh had been lost in the first place. Old problems were never addressed, much less solved. To this day, nearly 7 percent of Azerbaijan’s citizens are so-called IDPs, internally displaced persons, a percentage of the population surpassed only recently on the world stage by Syria. Providing them with government housing would be a tacit acceptance of Armenia’s victory. And so today, nearly thirty years after they were driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh, many continue to live in railway cars and makeshift shanty camps like Saatli, just several hours’ drive from the glistening marble skyline of Baku.

 

THE IRONY of the Nagorno-Karabakh situation is that, over the last two decades, two states brandishing almost civilizational differences have turned into uncanny mirrors of one another. Their political developments haven’t been so much paralyzed by the conflict as altogether hijacked by it: electorates in Baku and Yerevan are hostage to mimicking narratives claiming that national prosperity will come only when Nagorno-Karabakh is under their country’s own undisputed control.

The basis of authority for these respective regimes would, of course, entirely collapse were that to happen. It is extraordinary even by the standards of post-USSR states that neither Baku nor Yerevan has ever had an incumbent government voted out of power at the ballot box. The situation in Azerbaijan is more dire—Heydar Aliyev’s handover of power to his son Ilham in 2003 marked the first dynastic transfer of power in the post-Soviet space—but state capture in Armenia is no less pervasive. Replace Aliyev’s totalitarianism with the Republicans’ legislation of a parliamentary system that has turned Armenia into a “one-and-a-half-party state” with an all but nonexistent opposition. Perhaps more strangely still, Armenia’s scant pro-EU civic society has been overwhelmed by groups that are in fact more unrelenting than Sargsyan on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. The most manifest example of these are the armed gangs that, last July, paralyzed the country by storming a Yerevan police station and holding hostages in response to—unsubstantiated—rumors that Sargsyan has been contemplating territorial concessions.

Claiming to be the war’s chief mediator, Moscow is its perpetuator. Insofar as electorates of both Armenia and Azerbaijan are hostage to authoritarian regimes, these governments are themselves hostage to the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin not only profits fantastically from weapons sales to both combatants; he dangles those weapons before each regime as incentives to preserve their power. No weapons, no war, no basis for authority. This not only acts to prevent any Western-minded, democratic government from coming to power in either Baku or Yerevan; it also undermines the claims that both governments genuinely want the war to end.

One story you hear about the Four-Day War points to the steep devaluation of the manat and the recent decline in oil prices. Aliyev hoped to buoy his flagging support through military victory. The more spurious speculation points to Russia. Putin had already watched one Caucasus nation—Georgia—slip from his orbit. Now Azerbaijan was following suit. There was Aliyev’s neighborhood entente with Turkey and Israel, a strange trio of bedfellows brought together by energy agreements and common opposition to Iran. There was also the West, which Aliyev had courted relentlessly in recent years with bread and circus spectacles: the European Games in 2015, the Chess World Cup in 2015, the 2015 World Tennis Cup, the 2016 European Grand Prix in downtown Baku. Putin, the narrative runs, gave Aliyev four days to take Nagorno-Karabakh. It began while both Aliyev and Sargsyan were in the United States at a nuclear summit; Aliyev could claim it was out of his control. If he succeeded, he’d be beholden to Putin. If he didn’t, as the case would be, Putin could push the OSCE out of the peace talks, impose a resolution on the warring parties that only Moscow could guarantee and reassert Russia’s historic suzerainty within the Caucasus—all of which it has virtually achieved.

Policymakers in Yerevan told me they were prepared to deal with any potential duplicity on the part of Moscow, their alleged ally. They unironically cited their revival of ancient Armenian statecraft. Azerbaijan had oil; Armenia had influence. The three Minsk chair nations—France, Russia and the United States—held the world’s three largest Armenian diasporas, some three million people and billions of dollars in lobbying power. Yerevan leveraged financial aid from the West and defense pacts from the East. It played Shia Tehran against Sunni Ankara, the Sunni Turks of Kazakhstan against the Shia Turks of Azerbaijan. It was in the Eurasian Customs Union but still conducted the most trade with the EU, its primary investor. To appease Moscow, it offered a military base at Gyumri and refused to recognize Kosovo; to appease Washington, it let Peace Corps volunteers into the country and refused to recognize Abkhazia.

To see how well this worked, you only had to look at Azerbaijan: it had still never managed to achieve the unambiguous support of the United States, NATO or the EU, this despite decades of military-political agreements between Armenia and Russia. Better yet still, you could look at Armenia: apart from Belarus, which is nothing but a dependency of the Kremlin, it is the only nation of the Eastern Partnership with its territory fully intact. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine: all had suffered dismemberment for their myopia.

Year after year, the screws of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict turn tighter without providing any corresponding clarity to its resolution. Its combatants, meanwhile, scour political developments from Mongolia to the Atlantic for whatever may bolster their case. For Armenia, Washington’s recognition of Albanian statehood in Kosovo in 2008 all but confirmed the Armenians’ right to Nagorno-Karabakh. Paradoxically for Azerbaijan, it was Russia’s refusal to acknowledge Kosovo that confirmed its stance on the region. For Azerbaijan, their ally Mikheil Saakashvili’s blitzkrieg attempt to take back South Ossetia in 2008 was an encouraging example of a mass offensive against a mountainous breakaway state. For Armenia, Saakashvili’s humiliation at the hands of Russia five days later was more encouraging still. For Armenia, Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed that its chief international backer also believed in reuniting an ethnic enclave with its motherland. For Azerbaijan, it all but confirmed that former Soviet republics ought to be restored to their pre-1920 nation-states. And so forth.

 

I ARRIVED to Nagorno-Karabakh expecting to find an impoverished Black Sea statelet where the endless prospect of invasion had eroded any semblance of civilian life. It was nothing like this. Nagorno-Karabakh wasn’t an Armenian protostate. It was almost everything Armenia itself aspired to be. One night, three Armenian Americans from Cleveland checked in to my hotel. They weren’t tourists; they’d come to make sure that diaspora funds weren’t lining local pockets. “Armenia is a finished project,” they said. But Nagorno-Karabakh was a chance to build an honest state uncrippled by post-Communist graft—“to get it right.”

And so it was. Highways were immaculately paved. A healthy civil service cleared the parks of trash each morning. Lining valleys were orderly, prefabricated towns donated by the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund. Row upon row of houses lay in wait for settlers from the west. Streets took the names of prominent diaspora Armenians of days gone by: Alexey Ekimyan, the Russian-based composer; Tigran Petrosian, the chess champion from Georgia. The local Artsakh Bank offered 9 percent interest rates. Business was good. The police, a symbol of relentless corruption in Armenia, were considered generally honest figures. “We don’t fight a war in order to live like them,” a Nagorno-Karabakhian mechanic called Ani told me. Like the Azeris? “No! Like the Armenians.” The fear wasn’t so much Baku making war as Yerevan making good on its promise to one day incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. It wouldn’t be long before the princeling generals and corruptocrats moved in.

Shushi, once the largest city in the Caucasus, still lay crushed to rubble. But new life was trickling in. Hayk, a former car salesman from Kuwait, had opened a wine bar. Arthur, a former hotelier from Paris, had opened a kickboxing studio. (“Every preparation counts.”) Ruben from Yerevan published accounts of Azerbaijani atrocities for NGOs in Brussels. Needless to say, all had immediately signed up for the volunteer battalions in April. They would caravan supplies out to the trenches—or man them—as required. A pair of minarets poked disjointedly out of the old town, but it was becoming possible to forget that three hundred thousand Azeris had once called Shushi home.

Down the mountain in Stepanakert, a four-story hospital had been financed by Samvel Karapetyan, an Armenian real estate mogul from Russia. A new elementary school came courtesy of Kirk Kerkorian, builder of the MGM Grand Hotels in Las Vegas. Here, too, a deep state was in control, but it had been stripped of all pretenses. I stopped one day at a new cathedral being built by Ruben Vardanyan, the Moscow-based entrepreneur. A lanky warrior-priest with a wild grey beard greeted me. Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan has a black belt in karate and frequently leads Armenians out to the front lines. “The Turks attempted a second genocide here,” he said, gesturing to the highlands. “Karabakh was the second baptizing of our people.”

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.