In the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan aims at recovery of its Soviet-era integrity, while people in Karabakh and Armenia see it as a return to Stalin’s era with grave consequences for their way of life and existence.

Disclaimer: The article expresses the views of the author. It does not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Visegrad Insight. In the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, we have opted to present both Armenian and Azerbaijani perspectives on recent events in the South Caucasus.

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It is no secret that the South Caucasus and generally post-Soviet space are fraught with conflicts. These conflicts are а heavy legacy of a collapsed empire—the USSR.

When on 27 September 2020, a new war erupted in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), an unrecognised Armenian republic situated in the South Caucasus, international media headlines depicted it as yet another stage of ‘frozen conflicts’ in the post-Soviet space and a clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Furthermore, most international experts and journalists portray it as a clash of interests between Russia, Turkey, Iran and other geopolitical actors in the region. Indeed, Armenia is within the same Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) with Russia, and Azerbaijan enjoys unconditional backing of Turkey. In fact, apart from Turkey, the remaining big players and regional countries keep a low profile, contrary to what was expected by many analysts.

Communist legacies

However, competition in the South Caucasus is not mainly on the geopolitical level. The entire region still struggles with communism legacies. Back in 1921, the Caucasus Bureau of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, under the Commissar of Nationalities Joseph Stalin’s pressure, decided to attach Armenian populated Artsakh (Karabakh) to Azerbaijan as an autonomous region.

Whereas it is a common knowledge that Artsakh has been Armenian for thousands of years, Stalin’s strategic calculation was justified—by not attaching it to Armenia and also refusing to totally integrate it to Azerbaijan he kept both Yerevan and Baku dependent on Moscow.

In 1988 during Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost, people in the Autonomous Region of Nagorno-Karabakh petitioned to Moscow to reunite with Armenia but no avail. In 1991 simultaneously with other Soviet Republics, Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum of independence from Soviet Azerbaijan. For the ensuing three years, Karabakh and Armenia had to rebuff an all-out war by Azerbaijan, attempting to conquer the region.

The 1994 trilateral Armistice agreement between Armenia, Karabakh and Azerbaijan brought some normalcy to the region. However post-war realities greatly impeded democratisation of the region. Armenia gradually embraced semi-authoritarian features in the late 1990s, which was also justified in the name of ensuring Karabakh’s security against Azerbaijan.

In two decades, however, Armenian society toppled the semi-authoritarian regime as a result of 2018 ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Armenia and held unprecedented legitimate and transparent elections. Whereas this seemingly benign move raised high hopes for the prospects of the entire region, Armenia’s democratic transformation posed a threat to existing authoritarian regimes in the Former Soviet Union space.

One recent example of it might be the awakening of Belorussian society and Lukashenko’s crumbling regime.

In this context, the clock started ticking for the Azerbaijani regime. President Ilham Aliyev, who inherited his father’s post in 2003, had to act in a manner of self-defence for his own regime. Pandemic related social discontents, falling oil prices, regional democratisation prospects were all significant factors why the Azerbaijani leader declared to the UN a few days before hostilities that he was withdrawing from the OSCE-sponsored format of negotiations.

Reshaping the future

Thus, geopolitical powers aside, the conflict in Karabakh has a dimension of a clash between a nascent democracy and an authoritarian regime. The Armenian sides have so far kept open access to social media in the country, while Azerbaijan blocks those means during the war. All sides obviously hope to make use of their chosen methods to conduct a war.

Whereas Armenia and Artsakh have mostly been supported by Cyprus, Azerbaijan has garnered the support of authoritarian and repressive regimes in Turkey and Pakistan. According to international reports, Turkey has relied on Syrian mercenaries to fight against Armenians in Karabakh.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan aims at recovery of its Soviet-era integrity, while people in Karabakh and Armenia see it as a return to Stalin’s era with grave consequences for their way of life and existence. Hence, the ongoing hostilities will not only shape the future of Armenian people in Karabakh but also the balance and relationship between Stalin’s legacy and people’s rights, communist legacies and modernity both in the South Caucasus and wider post-Soviet space.

 

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Read our scenarios for the renewed hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh here. For a broader perspective on the future of the Eastern Partnership region, take a look at our scenario-based report Eastern European Futures.

Andranik Israyelyan, PhD in History, Master in Russian and East European Studies (Oxford University). Previously he has worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia.


Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Download the report in PDF