Prisoner of the Caucasus

Prisoner of the Caucasus

Nagorno-Karabakh: a clash of civilizations?


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.