Armenia vs. Azerbaijan: Nagorno-Karabakh
Hello! Welcome to the Global Thread podcast. I’m your host, Yasmin Aliya Khan, and today we’re talking about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
While I was working on the previous episode on the Biden administration’s bombing in Syria, I bumped up against this particular adjacent conflict quite a bit. I chose not to discuss Armenia in that episode at all because it would have meant veering a little further off-topic than I wanted to, and honestly, it needed its own episode. This is why I always recommend doing your own further research and reading on a topic because there’s only so much anyone can fit into a video or podcast about anything. Cuts, unfortunately, have to be made.
Geographically, it makes sense that I would have encountered Armenia, specifically, while discussing Turkey and Russia. They’re all right there in or near the Caucasus region which separates the Black Sea from the Caspian. Historically it makes sense because there was a lot going on between these nations, especially between the Turks and the Armenians. We’ll start somewhere back then and work our way up to the current conflict.
Alright, we’re dealing with two countries here, so let’s take them one at a time, starting with Armenia.
It’s a landlocked nation that is bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran… and Azerbaijan again. There’s a bit of land east of Armenia that belongs to Azerbaijan, so Armenia’s got them on the east and the west. We’ll get into why that is later. Armenia is north of the Arabian Peninsula, belonging to the Caucasus region of Eurasia.
If you look on a map of where Armenia is located, it’s easy to see why it has distinct geopolitical significance. Actually, it’s also got religious significance as it’s said to be the land where Noah’s ark ended up after the flood! But anyway, geopolitically, it’s located in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. The Greater Caucasus Mountains are north of Armenia, straddling the land that separates the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea and acting as a geographic border between Russia and Georgia. I think people sometimes forget not only how big Russia is, but how far-reaching it is. It goes so far south that it nearly hits the Arabian Pensinsula - crazy. The Lesser Caucasus runs through the majority of Armenia, which has been both a detriment and a benefit to the nation at various points in its history.
The people of Armenia are ethnically Armenian - they’re not Russian, Arab, Roman, Persian, whatever - they’re their own thing. I suppose you could get into the historical demographics of the region if you really wanted to, but for now, this is more than sufficient. They have their own church, their own language, even their own alphabet.
The history of Armenia and the Armenian people is a very long and convoluted one, going back millennia. With modern-day Armenia being situated just above the Middle East, it’s not too far off from the literal “Cradle of Civilization,” which is primarily in modern-day Iraq and Syria. Over the course of its history, the Armenians have become subjects of several major empires, sometimes going back and forth between different ones in relatively rapid succession. This is likely attributed to their geographic location, again, occupying the apex of where various different empires came to a head in their expansionist efforts. The area had fertile farmland and was rich in mineral resources, and the mountains provided some kind of natural barrier from invaders. Additionally, Armenia sits betwixt a few notable spaces, such as two seas, two mountain ranges, east and west, north and south, Muslim and Christian - you get it.
The struggle for control of this region goes all the way back to the Hittites and later the Roman Empire in modern-day Turkey, the Assyrians in the modern-day Middle East, the Parthian-Iranians, the Muslim caliphates, the Mongols, the Iranians again, the Ottoman-Turks, and of course, the Russians.
The Russo-Persian Wars
And that’s where we’ll start our story.
By the 1500 and 1600s, the Ottomans and the Persians had been fighting each other for control of the region until they eventually split it in half, the western portion going to the Ottomans and the eastern portion going to the Persians. This kept up until the 1800s when following the last of the Russo-Persian Wars, Eastern Armenia came under Russian rule.
Meanwhile, on the west side, the Armenians living under the Ottomans were fine for a bit, but issues started to arise when the Christian Armenians started to feel oppressed under strict Muslim rule. At this point, the Ottoman Empire was on its way out and would only survive another few decades, but that doesn’t mean they were going to go down without a fight. Unfortunately, the Armenians bore a great deal of the brunt of this.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was weakened from war with Russia, suffering economically from a depression, losing lands to other nations, and struggling to maintain a cultural and religious identity. This was all occurring around the same time that the Christian Armenians started demanding better treatment and recognition within the empire, even seeking help from European leaders in their quest. Instead of listening to their grievances and attempting a diplomatic solution to what came to be known as “the Armenian question,” the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II decided to quell any anti-Islamic or pro-Christian sentiment - decisively. He villainized the Armenians, blaming them for the Ottomans’ failures, and from 1894-1896, he massacred them.
In what would come to be known as the Hamidian Massacres, or the Armenian Massacres, death tolls are estimated to have been between 80,000 and 300,000 Armenians, with an estimated 50,000 children being made orphans. Due to international outrage, the massacres finally stopped. To be fair, Armenians weren’t the only ones targeted during these massacres as Hamid later included other Christian groups amongst his enemies. Churches were either burned or converted to mosques, Christians left alive were forcibly converted to Islam, villages and towns were burned down, and humanitarian crises inevitably followed, further exacerbating the death and devastation.
Unfortunately, this was not the last nor the worst that the Armenians would suffer.
The Young Turks and Armenian Genocide
If you thought a massacre was bad, genocide is worse.
I’ll preface this by saying that this is a controversial topic, so I encourage you to explore this further on your own. I have no personal bias here, at least none that I’m aware of, so I’ll just do my best to give it to you as I see it from an outsider’s perspective.
First, let’s talk about The Young Turks - the actual Young Turks.
Toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, there was an ideological shift taking place. As the empire was noticeably failing and its means of governance were proving unsuccessful, many citizens, particularly the educated youths, saw this as an opportunity to shift to a more progressive constitutional government. They called themselves the Young Turks, though for the record, they weren't just Turks, not initially. For the most part, this movement arose in response to the sultan reverting to authoritarian governance after previously agreeing to function within the constraints of a constitution.
From this ideological movement, a political party was born, the Committee of Union and Progress, or the CUP. In 1908, in what came to be known as The Young Turk Revolution, CUP members and other like-minded individuals ushered in the Second Constitutional Era and a multi-party democracy. It’s important to understand that the revolution wasn’t about completely overthrowing or dismantling an empire. It was more anti-authoritarian, which is a concept that I think most people can get behind, and it was about protecting the Ottoman people, lands, and identity.
Well, that’s where it started. Unfortunately, movements are fickle and power corrupts, as we’ve seen time and time again in both history and in the modern era. Within those ranks of victorious rebels, there was disagreement on how to proceed following the fall of the sultan and the increasingly pending fall of the empire. Thus, two separate parties emerged - the CUP, and also the FAP, or “FAP”, which is an unfortunate acronym that stands for the Freedom and Accord Party. Can I say “FAP” on my podcast and still call it kid-friendly...? We’ll just call them the Liberals.
The Liberals defected from the CUP and were pro-Ottomanism, which is the opposite of nationalism in that they sought to create a sense of cohesion and unity amongst the soon-to-be ex-Ottoman states while also advocating for the autonomy and rights of ethnic minority groups. Furthermore, they believed in laissez-faire economics and a more decentralized government.
On the other hand, the Unionists, or what was left of the CUP, were pro-nationalism and pro-social Darwinism, seeking to maintain the unity of the empire while ridding it of any that would threaten that unity. Just to put this all into context for you, the Nazis, who were barely a thing at the time, were also nationalistic and socially Darwinian.
The Liberal movement was short-lived, thanks in part to the CUP strangling and silencing them out of power. By 1913, the CUP had taken over control of the empire, creating the first single-party state. The CUP’s eyes were set on rapid progress and modernization, which meant more secular leadership and the abandonment of Sharia law. Over time, though, those goals became secondary behind the Turkification of Anatolia, the idea that the empire should be run by a nationalistic Turkish majority, and all others, who inherently posed a threat to that majority just by virtue of their otherness, should be dealt with accordingly.
During World War I, the Turks sided with the Germans, committing atrocities that would later be mimicked by the Nazis during the Holocaust - large-scale ethnic cleansings of minorities, specifically the Armenians and other Christian groups living within the borders of the empire. Anti-Christian sentiment had been brewing for years within the empire, though up to this point, it had been generally directed towards non-Ottomans. That sentiment festered with time and propaganda, and the Ottoman defeat by Christians in the Balkan Wars didn’t help. Leading up to the genocides, the Christian Armenians were singled out as potentially destabilizing actors against the Ottoman Empire to which they belonged.
The now single-party Ottoman Empire, ruled by a select few called the Three Pashas, decided to do something about the Armenians, lest they side with the Christian Russians and attempt to dismantle the Ottomans from within. They rallied up ex-criminals and created a special organization, which they just called the Special Organization, to destroy the Armenians. They were raped and killed, often by being burned to death, and they were forcefully deported to very inhospitable areas where they weren’t expected to survive, such as the Syrian desert and the sea. I mean, they loaded up literal boat-loads of Armenians and tossed them overboard into the sea. They were gassed, lethally injected, and left to die from rampant disease in concentration camps. Their property was taken from them and redistributed to Turkish Muslims, and Armenians serving in the Ottoman army were disarmed and killed. Again, I want to emphasize that the Armenians were not the only targets of the Special Organization, but they were a major target. For example, the Greeks, while affected, were less affected than they would have otherwise been because the Ottoman’s allies, the Germans, didn’t want to upset the Greek government.
Yeah… they’d come a long way from the idealism of the Young Turks.
Now, I said this was all controversial, the reason being that the Turkish government does not officially recognize the genocide. It never has. It’s not even taught in Turkish schools, at least not in any way that paints Turkey in a bad light. You could probably draw some strong correlations to how American students aren’t explicitly taught about the atrocities we inflicted on native populations, livestock, and lands in our pursuit of Manifest Destiny. In fact, the US Congress only officially recognized the Armenian Genocide in 2019, previously declining to do so in an attempt to politically play nice with the Turks. A hundred years later… I guess, better late than never.
Anyway, Turkey claims that genocide was never its official mandate or goal, choosing to instead refer to it as the justified deportations of perceived political enemies. Of course, as I mentioned, the deportations weren’t exactly merciful or humane. This explanation fails to account for why the Special Organization was assembled specifically using violent criminals, nor does it explain why so much evidence of the genocide [that never happened] was destroyed afterward. Another source of denial is that it wasn’t technically Turkey that carried out the deportations - it was the Ottoman Empire. The modern-day nation of Turkey wasn’t even a thing back then, so how could it be held responsible? I’ll tell ya - arguing over obviously inane semantics is one of my least favorite parts of discussing political ideology, history, and context. It rarely does more than just distract from the actual point that’s being made, in this case, that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were ordered to be systematically killed and/or deported by Turkish leaders. That’s the point. You can’t just change your name and deny your past, especially when that past is very much still a part of your present - we’ll get into that later.
Additionally, deniers attribute the genocide’s high death toll to various other factors, asserting that while some Armenians may have died during the deportations, they weren’t the sole source of the declining Armenian population. Some even opt to blame the Kurds for Armenian deaths, another group that has historically been at odds with the Turks. The Jews have been blamed. Others who at least acknowledge the Armenians’ steep decline in numbers over the course of a few years argue that the killings went both ways. The claim is that the Armenians did, indeed, side with the Russians to kill a bunch of Turks, but that would have been an act of war amidst a conflict that had already been ongoing, which is distinguishable from the deliberate extermination of civilians belonging to a specific minority group. Also, comparing numbers, 60,000 Turks would have died at the hands of an Armenian-Russian alliance, while up to 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been targeted and killed by the Turks, not to mention the ones who survived only to be displaced from their homes or forced to marry and reproduce with Muslims. And speaking of numbers, some argue that the “1.5 million” figure is inaccurate, so the whole thing must be a lie and those who fall for it are falling for anti-Turk propaganda.
Finally, going back to semantics - and this might be my favorite one - some claim that yes, many Armenians were killed, but it’s not technically genocide because the word “genocide” wasn’t actually coined until decades later. Do with that what you will, but issues arise when discussing what actually constitutes a “genocide” as opposed to just a bunch of people being killed, and whether or not the CUP intended to ethnically cleanse their lands.
And wouldn’t you know it? After all that outright denial, they sort of got away with it, which many believe led the Nazis to believe that they would also get away with their subsequent attempt to exterminate the Jews. Honestly, you can’t really blame them for thinking that...
Apart from the Turks, guess who else, to this day, a century later, actively denies the Armenian Genocide?
The Azeri government! We can finally talk about them.
To say that the fallout from and the denial of the Armenian Genocide is still a factor in today’s conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is an understatement. It’s all connected!... or else I wouldn’t have talked about it for so long.
First, let’s set the scene. Azerbaijan is east of Armenia, bordered by Armenia, Iran, Georgia, Russia, and the Caspian Sea. Part of the Caucasus region, it’s got a lot of the same factors at play as the Armenians regarding its strategic location between Europe and Asia, but it’s also got a ton of rivers running through it, access to the Caspian Sea, and an abundance of both mountains and plains. Speaking of abundance, Azerbaijan is a critical player in the world of oil and gas, but it’s also got big farming and fishing industries. It also once had a decent tourism industry, but it’s taken some hits since the 1990s for reasons that will soon become apparent.
The people of Azerbaijan are mostly ethnically Turkic, and the Azeri language is very, very similar to what’s spoken in Turkey. Its population is over 95% Muslim, most of them Shi’a like their neighbors in Iran, but Azerbaijan is considered to be the most secular of all the Muslim-majority nations in the world. These strong ties to Turkey are a key factor here, as Turkey still backs their own in keeping with its all-but-institutionalized nationalism.
How did ethnic Turks end up in Azerbaijan? Over the course of several centuries, the area was occupied at different times by a few different empires, including the Ottomans, the Iranians or Persians, and the Russians, so previous Ottoman rule was a big factor in getting Turks to the region. Iranian occupation would also explain the large Shi’a Muslim population. Later, there was a large Turkic population living in Georgia, but Joseph Stalin had them forcibly deported out east to the “-stan” countries on the other side of the Caspian Sea because they were basically just in his way. After the deportation, which of course resulted in thousands of deaths, some of the Turks in Uzbekistan started to clash with the locals, leading to many of them eventually resettling in Azerbaijan.
Prior to that, though, the land had been under Iranian rule before the Iranians lost a chunk of territory to Russia following those Russo-Persian Wars we talked about earlier. The Azeri Turks then found themselves split between Russia and Iran, but they didn’t really identify as their own thing yet. The land they occupied had never been its own nation up to that point, and the people had always been aligned with another major power.
Caught in the middle of so many things, by the early 1900s, the Azeris living within the Russian Empire started to view themselves differently. Maybe we can call this an identity crisis of sorts. They became less religious and more secular, though many still identified as Muslim and sought to maintain their place within the Muslim world. Simultaneously, they started looking more westward than eastward, hoping to modernize along with the western European nations while being located pretty far out east. On top of those already seemingly contradictory ideas, they aligned themselves more with Turkey and its nationalistic endeavors, since they were, after all, Turks. Remember - the Turks and the Russians weren’t friends. At this time, the Russians were actively orchestrating the downfall of the Ottoman Empire.
In the coming decades, Turkey would come to support the Azeris based largely on their Turkic lineage. Gotta protect your own, ya know?
In the midst of the Azeri Turks contemplating their place in the world, they began to clash with the local Armenians, most of whom were Christians. Because of the way society had been set up, the Muslim Turks were made second-class citizens while the Armenians and Russians became more wealthy and politically influential in the region. The inequality became a problem, with many Azeris coming to resent and even fear the Armenians.
Following the collapse of the Russian Empire, Azerbaijan was briefly declared independent in 1918. With the help of their friends in Turkey, the Azeris were able to wrangle the capital city of Baku away from the Armenians, who were still hanging onto it. By the way, Baku is way out east, jutting out into the Caspian Sea. For the Armenians to try to keep it was a little silly, but Baku was the place to be back then. Once they got their capital back, the Azeris returned the favor and helped the Turks with their genocidal ambitions.
Another region that was contested during this time was the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It was technically in Azerbaijan, but it had a majority Armenian population… so they fought over it.
Azeri independence was short-lived, though, as the Russians were soon back and better than ever. Azerbaijan was now a Communist Soviet state, and they remained as such until the fall of the USSR. During this time, tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh were largely quelled, but they never completely went away.
The 1980s were rough for Azerbaijan. Armenians were still living within the country, specifically in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, as well as Baku. The late 80s and early 90s saw a marked increase in fighting between the two groups, with each becoming more nationalistic. Over the years, each group would massacre the other here and there in a series of pogroms, including the Khojaly Massacre, which saw anywhere from 200 to 1,000 Azeris killed by Armenians. But, the big conflict arose when the Nagorno-Karabakh region tried to unite with Armenia.
Real quick, the disputed territory is well within the borders of Azerbaijan, specifically the part of it that’s currently being peace-keeped by the Russians. You can get into who put the border where it is in the first place and why, but at this point, that’s neither here nor there. That said, there already is a weird border between the two nations. Remember how I mentioned that Armenia had Azerbaijan on both its eastern and western borders? That’s Nakhchivan, another contested region that was given to Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union. Once it fell, the region was made a part of Azerbaijan, even though geographically, it doesn’t make the most sense. Actually, Nakhchivan had originally been promised to Armenia, but at the last minute, the decision was switched and it was given to Azerbaijan instead. There’s not really a well-documented reason for why this was done, but the most prominent reason given is just that Stalin changed his mind, possibly because he saw some kind of political or military benefit for doing so.
In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, the population is mostly Armenian, so naturally, the Armenians wanted to become a part of Armenia. In 1988, as the Soviet Union was beginning to crumble, the parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast voted to secede from Azerbaijan and rejoin Armenia. As the Soviet Union continued to dissolve, diplomatic tensions between the two nations escalated into warfare in the early 1990s until Russia stepped in to negotiate a ceasefire in 1994. For the most part since then, things were relatively quiet, or as quiet as they were going to be in a disputed territory.
2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War
Man, remember 2020? That was crazy, huh?
As with everything else that year, this conflict decided that 2020 was the perfect time for it to spark back up. Up until this point, diplomatic solutions were being mulled over by leaders from both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Russia. Meanwhile, Turkey promised military support to Azerbaijan, so once diplomacy failed and the renewed peace talks broke down, Azerbaijan was ready and able to launch a military offensive against the Armenians.
There are a few things going on here. The Turks are allied with the Azeris, based largely on the fact that many Azeris are ethnic Turks. On top of that, though, Azerbaijan has oil money, as well as that desirable location in the Caucasus region along the Caspian Sea. With its oil money, Azerbaijan has been able to arm its military with bigger and better weapons and equipment than what the Armenians have. Armenia, on the other hand, is technically allied with Russia, though Russia has sold weapons to Azerbaijan. They seem to be attempting to play both sides, keeping the peace as best as possible.
The two nations, apart from the territorial disputes, have each been getting more and more nationalistic over the years. While the conflict itself has been muted for decades, the issue never went away. It was never addressed, so for it to flare back up eventually was more or less inevitable. Additionally, both nations have implemented some form of martial law leading up to the 2020 conflict, limiting freedoms of speech and press and dictating what can and cannot be reported regarding the conflict. From that, of course, came propaganda campaigns aimed at citizens to either further vilify the other side or to demonstrate the strength of their own side.
Then you have Turkey and Russia. They’re still not really friends, and they’re still fighting against one another in other conflicts. Also, they both want a strong presence and influence in the Caucasus region as well as the Middle East. If it weren’t for Turkish aid to Azerbaijan, it seems unlikely that Azerbaijan would have been as successful as it was in reclaiming some of its occupied territories from Armenia, but by the end of 2020, the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia negotiated another ceasefire.
This time, Armenia would withdraw its troops from disputed territories in Azerbaijan, and they would open a corridor through Armenia that connected Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan. Azerbaijan would have to contend with Russian peacekeeping troops in their country. This peace deal puts Armenia in a precarious position. They’re surrounded by hostile Turks and Azeris, they’ve lost a chunk of their territorial claims and occupancies, and they’re relying heavily on protection from the Russians, who aren’t *not* also helping Azerbaijan. As a result of the deal, Armenians protested its terms and the government that agreed to them.
Turkey and Russia both have a decent foothold in Azerbaijan, now. For Turkey, this allows them to not only continue to support their brethren in Azerbaijan, but it gives them access to the ‘Stan countries on the other side of the Caspian. It also puts them very close to Iran, another major power in the Middle East that’s keen on asserting and expanding its own dominance. Iran, by the way, is backed by Russia. While the US explores ways of removing itself from certain conflicts abroad, such as those in the Middle East, the other powers there are hoping to do the opposite.
Doing this podcast as a born-and-raised American, I try to remain aware of any implicit biases I may have, notably in my discussions of Russia. Russia, for the better part of my own life, has always been positioned as the anti-America, the one nation that does everything completely differently from how we would; the nation that epitomizes numerous antitheses of our own ideals, virtues, and values. We’re capitalism, they’re communism. We’re freedom, they’re shackles. And that’s it.
But when you dig into these conflicts, you realize that Russia functions in much the same way the United States does, at least in this context. They occupy lands in which they seek to control either the people, the resources, or both; they offer military aid and protection to the groups they deem strategically beneficial to support; and they use their superpower status to influence those around them, sometimes acting as a mediating force, sometimes as an antagonistic one. I want to reiterate and emphasize that I’m only making this argument regarding this specific context, but once you understand this, I think it makes it a lot easier to understand Russia’s overall role in this region. They’re not there as a force of evil against anyone else’s force of good. They’re just there with an agenda, like the rest of us.
Something else that I think is important to be wary of when learning about these conflicts is that while things play out on a large geopolitical scale, the majority of the people living in the involved nations are not the ones at fault, though they are the ones suffering the consequences. You’re welcome to form your own opinions regarding foreign governments, leadership, religious beliefs, and the perceived wills of the people, but remember that the average citizen just wants the fighting to stop. Even in situations where there are citizen protests or citizen-led militant groups that form, there are still families just trying to stay together and stay safe amidst a chaos that most Americans, including myself, can’t really comprehend, let alone relate to.
That’s it for this episode of Global Thread. Thank you so much for being here! If you’d like to read a transcript of this episode or if you’d like to contribute to this podcast, you can do so at globalthread.org. Alright, I’m out.