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Nagorno-Karabakh: An Ontology?

Samuel Ruiz Flanagan


In recent months, Azeri military operations forced the government of the de facto ‘Republic of Artsakh’ to disband their militias immediately, and dissolve their institutions before the end of the year. Soon after, 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled the region to Armenia, leaving empty cities in their wake - but what is a city without its people? And why, if its inhabitants matter so little, does this region matter so much to each of the countries involved? 



The answer to our question, as ever, is as complex as it is nuanced. But a good place to start is understanding Nagorno Karabakh as a conflict of the 21st century. A conflict which, for the most part, remains frozen in place, fought off the battlefield, and contested instead in the realm of symbolic abstractions. A conflict that serves as a unifying call for the countries’ people, and a cause for sympathy on the international stage. And, crucially, a conflict justified by appealing to metaphysical concepts, instead of ‘traditional’ territorial incentives such as strategic value. 


In the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting for more than the land - they are debating the ontological nature of Nagorno-Karabakh, for its importance to each country’s national identity and its role in their perceived historical trajectory. Below, I expand on this idea, and argue that this conceptual wrangling touched ground in a very real way in its impact on domestic politics, social sentiment, and crucially, policies and attitudes towards peace. 



Birth of Fire:


The ‘1st Nagorno-Karabakh War’ was fought within the wider context of the USSR’s gradual collapse, and Azerbaijan and Armenia’s independence declarations in late 1991. The immediate impact of this was quickly felt on the frontlines. For example, following their independence in August and September 1991, states were freed from the legislative framework of the Soviet Union. This opened up various opportunities for escalation such as the Republic of Artsakh’s de facto independence declaration from Azerbaijan in 1991, and Armenia’s move to back Artsakh as a sovereign, independent state. This led to a rapid escalation of the fighting in the first months of 1992. HOWEVER, it would soon become clear that independence from the Soviet Union represented much more than a move towards military autonomy and legislative sovereignty – it was a rejection of the Socialist ideals that had guided the Republics’ raison d’etre


The implications of this are difficult to measure, for here we stand at the border of symbolism and perception. However, research - and personal experience living in the post-Soviet world - has taught me a great deal about the profound impact the fall of the USSR had on the way individuals understood the world around them. This especially true of the relationship they had with the state, which until that point pervaded most areas of their daily lives. The fall of the USSR represents a schism between one world and another, between a region of an interconnected communist sphere and a nation on a violently capitalist world stage. And so, in this context, and during a time crackling with economic and political uncertainty, the newly independent  Republics of the former Soviet Union were forced to find a narrative to unite their people under a convincing national identity. 


From time immemorial wars have served as a popular prerogative and a convincing foundational myth. It should be of little surprise then that in Armenia and Azerbaijan the ‘1st Nagorno-Karabakh War’ played a central role in their identity-building process. First, as a call for independence at a time of emergency; later, as a rallying call to unite a people threatened by war; and finally, once the ceasefire had been agreed and the countries had a chance to breathe, as a foundational myth which would determine their purpose and self-conception. It was a birth of fire that would cause many problems in the years to come. 


1994: Peace?


It is midnight, May 12th, 1994. The ‘Bishkek Protocol’ comes into effect. Finally, a ceasefire agreement. A ceasefire to stop four years of brutal fighting. A ceasefire to protect civilians and avoid future bloodshed. Crucially, a ceasefire that would lay the foundations for dialogue and opened the possibility for a prolonged peace. Right?


No. It wasn’t to be. 


The ceasefire was only a ceasefire. It gave no resolution to either side, and it didn’t tackle the source of the flame. Instead, it simply ‘froze’ the conflict, establishing arbitrary international borders at the frontlines of the time. 


In fairness, the situation in both countries at the time was critical and an armistice is a necessary first step toward peace.  However, the varying military situation of each state and the territorial changes the ceasefire provoked had a decisive impact on the socio-political foundations of each country, and put Nagorno-Karabakh at the centre of their national narratives. This would seriously complicate any discussion on compromise. 


The Need for a Ceasefire:


At the time of the ceasefire, Armenia and Azerbaijan were socially and economically exhausted. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 had brought many of the administrative frameworks designed to run the Republics crashing down with it. From local governance, to infrastructure, to foreign policy, Armenia and Azerbaijan were forced to start afresh, often having to make do with the remains of the Soviet state. This process was made a lot harder by the ‘1st Nagorno-Karabakh War’ as it (a) captured much of the state’s budgets and manpower, and (b), ‘surprise, surprise’, discouraged most foreign investment. Furthermore, the political turmoil which engulfed the territory of the former USSR left the young states isolated from the international allies they would’ve traditionally relied on. The early years of independence inflicted heavy shortages on both state’s people, strained their socio-political frameworks, and ground down their infrastructures. 


A good example of this is Armenia’s critical energy crisis which, following the closure of the outdated Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant in 1989 and constant attacks on natural gas pipes by Azerbaijani saboteurs, put most Armenians in the dark (literally) for much of the early 90s. The prospect of sabotage and a ‘not-very-stable’ economy snuffed out much needed investment, while attempts to redirect natural gas supplies through Georgia fell through as Georgia struggled to contain its own home-grown secessionists. In these circumstances, and in light of the wider human cost of the war, the need for a ceasefire was clear. There was, however, a key difference in the Armenian and Azerbaijani situation at the time of the ceasefire which caused markedly different interpretations of what it represented: Armenia’s absolute military superiority in Nagorno-Karabakh.


Differences:


Despite being poorly equipped and outnumbered for much of the war, by May 1994 the Armenian army had largely secured the disputed region and held most of Nagorno-Karabakh firmly under their control. Additionally, during the various phases of the war, Armenian forces had occupied large areas of Azerbaijan proper, mostly in the region separating it from Nagorno-Karabakh (see map below). Azerbaijan’s military, on the other hand, was incapable of sustained operations following years of heavy losses and leadership crises and, at the time of the ceasefire, few pockets capable of genuine opposition remained. Some argue, in fact, that the Armenian army could’ve at that point marched on Baku relatively unopposed. In these circumstances, many Armenians saw the ceasefire as a recognition of their superior military position and a de facto Azerbaijani surrender. Essentially, it was a complete victory for which terms were to be agreed. There are several reasons for this. 



Nagorno-Karabakh as historic Armenia?


At the most basic level, was the socio-political context of the time. Above, we saw how the collapse of the USSR brought about a significant degree of uncertainty. The USSR’s territorial system was an administrative nightmare - a Kafkaesque web of cells with varying degrees of autonomy, often led by powerful local leaders. Managing it was the administrative equivalent of making a puzzle while simultaneously playing monopoly. Unsurprisingly, following the Union’s collapse many of these units began demanding more representation, requesting more privileges, or straight up seceding. Some played their cards right, and realised their objectives. In this politically ambiguous landscape, Azerbaijan’s ‘surrender’ was understood to some extent as a de facto recognition of the Republic of Artsakh independence, and the ‘Armenian-ness’ of the land. 


This view was reinforced by Armenians’ developing national identity, which was heavily influenced by the war and the historical significance attributed to Nagorno-Karabakh. In particular, in relation to the Ottoman expulsion and ensuing genocide of hundreds of thousands ethnic Armenians in the early 20th century. This was a defining episode in Armenians’ national collective memory and, for many, “the removal of Armenians from many towns (then)... had a direct association to the events surrounding Nagorno Karabakh”. In other words, Azerbaijan’s continued refusal to recognize the ‘Armenian-ness’ of the Karabakh region and its violent opposition to any form of autonomy was associated with this horrifying precedent, and seen as a dangerous first step towards genocide. Thus, the young nation sought to widen its flag to include various expat ethnic Armenian communities, and protect them from any form of territorial compromise. In this context, victory in the war was understood as a successful defence of their historic land and Nagorno-Karabakh, therefore, a legitimate ethnic Armenian territory. 


This interpretation of the ‘Bishkek Protocol’ would significantly influence Armenian early domestic politics, and condition the nation’s approach to the peace-process over the years to come. With regard to the former, the victorious ‘conclusion’ of the war pretty much cemented the concept of a historic Armenian nation, largely legitimising the state’s government and its independence from the Soviet Union. The defence of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenians and for Armenians was exalted as an example of their communitarian bond and it would serve as the symbolic foundations for their (relatively) democratic progression. This jubilant feeling, however, would often fly around Armenia in the form of a much loved red herring, diverting attention from various critical developments the country urgently required. Furthermore, and with regard to the peace process, the existential importance of this red herring meant that any talk of trimming its feathers was immediately seen as a rung below serving it with an apple in its mouth. The effects of this can be seen, for example, in the political makeup of the country’s early political elite, largely sourced from the political heavyweights of Nagorno-Karabakh’s wartime government. 


Or Sovereign Azerbaijan?


Below the tall peaks of Karabakh, in the plains of Azerbaijan, the reactions to the ceasefire were predictably different. The abysmal performance of Azerbaijan’s military, the loss of territory, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands ethnic Azerbaijanis was seen as a ‘humiliation’ and an ‘injustice’. These feelings sparked explosive reactions even before the war ended,  in June 1993, when colonel Surat Huseynov led a military coup to oust president Abulfaz Elchibey following a series of embarrassing defeats and, crucially, a glaring inability to unite the nation. Ambitious democratising reforms, conceptual appeals to a vague idea of pan-Turkism, and constant disagreements with corporate and military elites proved unpopular policies in the young worn torn state. 


Plagued by weak and fractured leadership, the new state had ultimately failed to deal with its most pressing challenge, and the ambitious narrative of the independence movement was quickly snuffed out by the tall flames of war. The consequences of this were felt in their peoples’ physical trauma, and experienced in the violation of their borders. In response, Azerbaijanis modelled their national identity to one defined by its insufficiency, with Nagorno-Karabakh as the material embodiment of that loss. In the realm of symbolic abstractions, the country’s poetic epithet, popularised across a series of  campaigns designed to attract tourism and promote industry, provides an unintentionally dark metaphor for the traumatic circumstances surrounding the country’s birth, and the construction of its national identity: “Azerbaijan: Land of Fire”, 


The man to take up Azerbaijan's torch, following overwhelming support in the 1993 general election, was Heydar Aliyev, a member of Azerbaijan’s Soviet era politburo and the current president’s father. And so, following the injustice and humiliation of the war and ceasefire, Azerbaijanis returned to the tried-and-tested - but very much distrusted - Soviet-era elites whose decisiveness and familiarity provided enticing allures during such uncertain times. And though these elites represented unequal power structures and blatant corruption, they also brought about a renewed sense of national prestige and, crucially, a belief that justice would be restored.


Aliyev, an experienced politician, took strong steps to win over the country’s elites, and stabilise Azerbaijan’s situation. For example, he quickly ‘polished’ Azerbaijan’s political landscape (*cough*,*cough*), and reached economic agreements with strategic commercial partners. With regard to Karabakh, Aliyev saw the writing on the wall and signed the ‘Bishkek Protocol’ early in his tenure to avoid any further loss of land. Despite the anger at the loss of territory, Azerbaijanis continued to support Aliyev who, keenly aware of the danger posed by a divided nation, engaged in political rhetoric that emphasised the primacy of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, and encouraged intra-Azeri solidarity through ‘territorial nationalism’. For Azerbaijanis, who’s hopes for a refreshed independent state had quickly been snuffed out by the tall flames of war, this discourse was like music to their ears. And so, dismissing his semi-authoritarian tendencies as strong leadership required to take the country forward, the people of Azerbaijan rallied around their ‘fireborn’ president. 


This socio-political reality would have a profound impact on the peace process years later, in 2003, when it facilitated Ilham Aliyev’s rise to power following Heydar Aliyev’s (father) death. Ilham, enabled by his father’s grip on the country’s political structures and justified by his promise to recover Nagorno-Karabakh, quickly militarised, transitioning to a full-blown authoritarian regime. In the decades to come, under Ilham Aliyev’s direction, the ‘Land of Fire’ metaphor would take on a new, more perverse meaning, as his authoritarian turn ultimately broke the peace processes’ proverbial back. I will explore this further in future articles. 


Empty Cities?


So why, then, do Nagorno-Karabakh’s empty cities matter? 


The ‘First Nagorno-Karabakh War’ was a foundational event that charred Armenia and Azerbaijan’s early experience of independence. Like a black spot, this ugly birthmark would play up in the years to come, determining many of the developments in their early lives. The war played a decisive role  in the formation of a new, independent, post-Soviet national identity, which became inextricably linked with Nagorno-Karabakh. In doing so, it heavily conditioned both countries’ domestic politics, and seriously curbed any opportunity for peace. With regard to this last point, Samadov & Grigoryan, 2022, put it beautifully: 


Karabakh’... (became) the primary object, which had been essentialized as an organic part of the national communities. The commonly shared spaces and the very possibility of future togetherness were excluded from nationalist imaginaries. This exclusion had resulted in horrifying pogroms and their de-facto negation through conspiracy theories… neither side glorified offensive violence or explicitly called for it. Instead, both sides expressed themselves as victims of the perpetuator-other.” 


I will stop here, for I have already written more than I intended. Please, if you have a moment, think about the phrase above, for I believe it says a lot about most modern conflicts, though especially about the one at hand. In the next article I will explore specific developments in the international relations surrounding the conflict, and relate these to the intensification or, at times, loosening of frontline tensions. 

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