June 12, 2024

By the tip of September 2023, the ethnic cleaning of Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh had shortly light from the eye of the world’s media. The final of the 120,000 Karabakh Armenians had streamed out of their ancestral homeland, abandoning the much less lucky to face the potential of present trials in Baku or, worse, potential pressured disappearance. A number of Russian peacekeepers, together with rating officers, additionally died through the offensive in a hail of ‘stray’ bullets, leaving no survivors. Was Azerbaijan disposing of inconvenient witnesses? Baku readily apologised; Moscow accepted. Russian army bloggers grumbled ‘betrayal’ by way of clenched enamel.

In truth, this was not the primary time Moscow had enabled Azerbaijani forces to clear Armenian villages in Karabakh. Within the fateful summer season of 1991, Soviet paratrooper forces hunted down Armenian guerrillas within the area, earlier than Azerbaijani riot police evicted native Armenian inhabitants. Mikhail Gorbachev was apparently hoping that still-Soviet Azerbaijan would help his revamped model of the USSR towards the rebellious and more and more pro-western Armenians. From there to the collapse of Soviet energy, it was only some months.

#ArtsakhStrong slogan in Yerevan, Armenia, 2020. Picture: Garik Avakian / Supply: Wikimedia Commons

Stalin’s logic

Any encyclopaedia is obvious on the details: Armenia is the oldest Christian nation with its personal church and alphabet. After formally adopting Christianity in A.D. 301, Armenia performed an outsized position in late Antiquity. St. Servatius, the patron saint of Maastricht, was an Armenian. However because the waves of conquering migrant peoples flooded the Roman realm, the Armenians had been lowered to a leftover minority — just like the Celts, the Basques, the Coptic Egyptians, or the defeated Greeks and Balkan Slavs.

With the appearance of modernity, students grew to become conscious of the traditional pedigree of those nations. Subsequent got here the dream of nationhood. The outcomes, nevertheless, turned on western geopolitics, beginning with the Greeks within the 1820s, and ending with the Irish. In 1915, the Armenians confronted genocidal extermination within the unravelling Ottoman Empire. Like many such minorities amidst the decay of the previous order, the Armenians had been accused of being concurrently capitalist exploiters and socialist revolutionaries. In brief, too pro-western and trendy.

Simply a few slivers of the traditional Armenian homeland survived the carnage to seek out themselves elements of the newly fashioned Soviet Union after 1920. The bigger piece grew to become the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). The lesser chunk, known as Nagorno (i.e. mountainous) Karabakh, was connected to the Azerbaijani SSR with its predominantly Muslim and Turkic-speaking inhabitants.

Stalin, as Soviet Commissar for the Nationalities, adopted a materialist logic. To him, ethnic hatreds had been an indication of backwardness. Baku, the capital of newly-created Azerbaijan, was a significant centre of oil trade and referred to on the time because the ‘Chicago of the East’.

In truth, Baku on the flip of the twentieth century boasted a splendidly cosmopolitan ambiance the place the modernist Muslim elites switched to the Latin alphabet and established a republic even earlier than Turkey. Azeri educators even dared lampoon Islamic traditions within the illustrated journal Molla Nasreddin, which was extensively learn from British India to Morocco.

The skinny crust of Azerbaijani westernisers perished in Stalin’s purges of the Thirties. Changing them had been the likes of Heydar Aliyev, a protégé of the NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria within the Nineteen Forties, and the founding father of Baku’s ruling dynasty since 1969.

The Aliyevs now appear set to outdo the satirical fantasies of Sasha Baron Cohen. President Ilham Aliyev awards the Order of Heydar Aliyev to the vice-president, his partner Mehriban Aliyeva. They pose for selfies in fight fatigues, standing over conquered Armenian positions. Different Azerbaijani struggle heroes are rarely talked about. Personalistic energy permits for no competitors, even when overtly loyal.

Battle unfrozen

The grotesque particulars, nevertheless, make the façade. Historical past is made by the interaction of construction, company, and contingency. The secret is timing. Why did the Karabakh battle lastly unfreeze exactly now? What can we anticipate subsequent?

The forgotten expectations of Gorbachev’s perestroika within the late Nineteen Eighties promised a extra humane and rational world order, beginning with the USSR itself. These hopes supplied super impetus to the intelligentsia, the writers and scientists who, by definition, are the custodians of all issues rational and humane. The executive map, on which the Armenian SSR was separated by a slender strip of mountain from the autonomous Armenian space in Karabakh, seemed irrational. However on the time that appeared irrelevant, since each Azerbaijan and Armenia had been merely Soviet republics.

Because the USSR neared collapse, nevertheless, this cartographic anomaly ignited a sequence of horrible occasions that are actually coldly dubbed a ‘inhabitants change’. In 1990, 1000’s of ethnic Armenians, principally city and educated, had been violently expelled from Baku. In 1992–94, Armenian detachments, decided to avenge the trauma of genocide, secured Nagorno Karabakh and a big buffer zone round it, from the place Azerbaijani villagers had been expelled.

In Baku, after a short chaotic interregnum underneath the native democratic intelligentsia, order was restored by the robust hand of Heydar Aliyev. In Karabakh, and shortly in Armenia itself, energy fell to victorious guerrilla commanders, sometimes small-town social gathering careerists. This cursory sociology helps clarify why neither aspect severely sought peace between the ceasefire of 1994 and Azerbaijan’s resumption of struggle in 2020. Each nations had been dominated by former Soviet officers having fun with the corrupt fruits of energy, though Heydar Aliyev was a KGB basic of legendary shrewdness whereas his Armenian counterparts had been less complicated varieties.

Publish-Soviet Azerbaijan grew to become an oil-rich presidency for all times. Heydar Aliyev averted dangers and punctiliously cultivated his regime, which he finally handed on to his son and the in-laws. The Armenian regime remained instable, with a number of presidents succeeding each other, earlier than a profitable common rebellion in 2018 swept it apart. The rebel chief, Nikol Pashinyan, was a journalist of populist bent who needed to study the artwork of statesmanship on the job, at nice expense to his nation. Nonetheless, to a big majority of voters, he appeared an enchancment upon his predecessors. Turbulent authoritarianism gave method to a turbulent democracy in Armenia. Moscow didn’t cover its displeasure.

Warfare reignited

The Karabakh struggle reignited in 2020, whereas the West was preoccupied with Covid-19 and the Trump circus. The Armenian forces in Karabakh, with their Soviet-era weapons and techniques, stood little probability towards Azerbaijani armies outfitted with superior weapons from Israel and Russia and stiffened with Turkish advisors.

Nonetheless, in November 2020 the second Karabakh struggle got here to an odd finish, on the very level when Azerbaijani victory appeared imminent. Russian peacekeepers, a few of the nation’s best-trained troops, arrived on the scene with a imprecise mandate of undetermined length. The Armenians had definitely misplaced. However Azerbaijan ended up with Russians and Turks brazenly stationed on its territory. The presence of Israelis was extensively suspected however by no means proved.

Evidently, Baku needed to settle for this weird consequence as a result of Putin and Erdogan had develop into ‘rival companions’, as Moscow commentators put it. Nonetheless, in 2020 Putin was on the rise. Karabakh gave the impression to be merely a chunk in a a lot bigger design. A reminder: in summer season 2020 Aleksandr Lukashenko, the perennial dictator of Belarus, almost misplaced energy within the face of large protests. Putin stepped in and secured Belarus.

The inconclusive struggle in Karabakh made each Armenia and Azerbaijan awkwardly depending on Russia. As for Georgia, acquiescence appeared a foregone conclusion underneath its present faceless management. Then in January 2022, an surprising (all the time surprising) common rebellion in Kazakhstan, the biggest nation in Central Asia, almost destroyed the regime and the state. Russian peacekeepers once more got here to the rescue — and, bewilderingly, left nearly as quickly. In fact, they had been wanted for the shock assault on Ukraine. However that gambit failed within the face of Ukrainian resistance.

The destiny of Karabakh was then sealed. Baku, ever risk-averse, circled over the goal for one more year-and-a-half whereas watching the waning of Russian energy. Furthermore, Russia itself grew to become critically depending on Azerbaijan and Turkey for circumventing western sanctions and connecting to its newly valuable Iranian associate.

What about Armenia? For Moscow, presently struggling on all fronts, a regime change in Yerevan will surely be fascinating. The Russian army base in Armenia stays Moscow’s final outpost within the South Caucasus. The tip of the Armenian presence in Karabakh might but consequence within the demise of Pashinyan’s populist democracy.

But many Armenians now painfully realise that, after two centuries, Moscow is not an ally. This realisation first emerged throughout Gorbachev’s well-intentioned reforms and finally ruined the USSR. Mockingly, Putin’s geopolitical scheming may now spoil the Russian place. Historical past is stuffed with such tragic ironies. Small wars in distant locations can show to be World Wars.