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The Fight for the Mountains: Article One

By Samuel Ruiz Flanagan, UCL student at SEES

Article One: The Origins

Over the first weeks of October, more than 70,000 ethnic Armenian refugees crossed the border into Armenia. They are fleeing the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the South Caucasus, following Azerbaijani military operations targeting the de facto independent ‘Republic of Artsakh’ and a subsequent ceasefire agreement which essentially marks the total capitulation of the breakaway state. The agreement stipulates the Republic must immediately and completely disband its standing militia. Furthermore, it’s expected to dissolve its state institutions before the end of the year as part of Azerbaijan’s ‘reintegration’ process. This is the end of a 35-year-old standoff which arose from several complex overlapping factors. The abrupt “resolution” will have a number of significant consequences which, I believe, much of Western media are struggling to see.

Over the coming weeks, I will publish a series of articles presenting and analysing the conflict. I lived in this region for two years, during which, lost in its vast, imposing landscape, I was taken in by the warm hosts which make up its people. I became captivated by the heartfelt, deep-rooted cultures, the tight-knit communities, and the strong characters it produced. Friends and families with an instinct for welcoming strangers into one’s house and opening a window onto the joys of their day to day. Because of my time there, I am also very aware of the weight this conflict carries in the minds and bodies of these people. The changes it has caused in their personal connection to the land, and the holes it has left in its communities. For this reason, I believe it is essential to raise awareness about this critically underreported conflict, and give the region a voice on the international stage. In this article, I will explain the complex circumstances that set the stage for the current conflict.

Map of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh during the Soviet Era, Al-Jazeera

The mountains of the South-Caucasus have been hotly contested throughout history, prized for both their strategic importance and their location on a trade artery connecting Europe and Asia. In more recent history, the area has served as a much-disputed contact-point-cum-buffer-zone between the cultures of the Russian empire (later USSR), and those of the Turkish and Middle Eastern world. Simultaneously, however, the region’s protracted history and particular geography led to the formation of relatively isolated communities with an exceptionally rich heritage and tradition. These groups, though influenced by the many cultures around them, were nevertheless keenly aware of the potential danger. For the Armenians, this danger was made abundantly clear by the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Azerbaijanis also, though not as severely, were often victims of disdain and marginalisation by the Russian Empire and the USSR. For instance, up ‘until 1908, regulations… prevented Muslims in Baku from holding more than one-third of the seats in the city council though as property owners they constituted 80 percent of the electorate’. The paradox created by these antagonistic circumstances brought the region an extraordinary degree of multiculturalism, but also fostered an innate sense of self-preservation amongst its various peoples.

This attitude’s impact on the situation today is not absolute, nor does it mean that Armenians and Azeris are fundamentally incapable of living together. This attitude should be understood within the wider set of factors which dictated the USSR’s national politics, influencing before and after its collapse. To fully grasp the situation it is crucial we understand these three key points.

First, the USSR’s policies on nation-building, which were unreliable and self-serving, created an exacerbated nationalist sentiment amongst its member states, and eventually led to the Union’s collapse. In the South Caucasus, these policies led the Soviet central government to draw up new administrative structures designed to undermine anti-Soviet resistance, following the Bolshevik takeover of the region in 1920. In Nagorno-Karabakh, they created the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast in July, 1923. This kept the region within the newly formed ‘Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan’, but granted local Armenian leadership a significant degree of self-governance. This upset ethnic Armenians, many of whom had been openly calling for independence or unification with Armenia, but also upset Azerbaijanis, who felt their national sovereignty was being challenged by the central Soviet leadership. Despite various attempts to revisit the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly by Armenian representatives, this administrative compromise would remain in place until 1988, brewing the tensions which would lead to the ‘First Nagorno-Karabakh War’.

Second, as the Union began to collapse and nationalist sentiments within the USSR became more overt, the USSR’s central government remained more concerned with its state’s loyalties than averting conflict and humanitarian catastrophes. In the South-Caucasus, the tensions referred to in the previous paragraph manifested themselves relatively gently in 1988. Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh began peaceful protests demanding the unification of the autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh oblast with the ‘Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia’. By 1992, however, various atrocities had been committed on both sides, and the conflict blew up into a full-scale war. This was largely due to the Soviet government’s ‘inaction and incompetence’. Notably, the use of ethnic tensions as the ‘pretext to crack down on the Azerbaijani independence movement’, and ‘Soviet military action in Nagorno-Karabakh’, both ‘contributed greatly to the intensification of the armed conflict’.

The third and final point one must consider is the identity crisis many former Soviet states faced following the collapse of the USSR. Their raison d’etre was virtually stripped away overnight as the Socialist reality,a fundamental pillar of the Soviet world, crumbled. The newly independent states were forced to find a new identity at a time of substantial social, political, and economic uncertainty. Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances laid out above, many chose the modern world’s flagship rallying call: nationalism.

The amalgamation of these three factors amongst the historically wary Armenian and Azerbaijani populations put too much pressure on the proverbial dam. As both Republics battled internally with their post-Soviet reality following the collapse of the USSR, the pressure proved to be too much. In early 1992 Armenian militias began large-scale military operations to take the city of Khojaly, from which Azerbaijani forces had been bombarding Stepanakert since October 1991. This marked the beginning of a bloody conflict which killed, and displaced thousands.


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