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SREBRNIK: Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Genocide

Henry Srebrnik
Henry Srebrnik - Contributed

Armenia, a small country in the Caucasus, faces hostile neigbours and has been involved in wars with some of them.

The Armenians view these conflicts from the lens of a pre-existing trauma: the genocide that killed some 1.5 million of them during the First World War. They also came under the rule of foreign powers for centuries.

The independent Armenian state that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is just a rump state, in the words of one historian, “a mangled bit of land.”

Most of medieval Armenia now belongs to Turkey, including such national symbols as Lake Van and Mount Ararat. Many “heritage maps” illustrate a territorial reach much wider than that of contemporary Armenia.

To add to this feeling of dispossession, under Moscow’s rule the largely ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, east of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, but physically separated from it, came under the control of Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. It was known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (Region).

What made this more galling was the fact that a part of Azerbaijan, too, was physically separated from the rest of that republic, by Armenia.

However, since Nakhchivan was a full-fledged part of Azerbaijan, rather than subordinate to Armenia, it remained under Baku’s control, and did not have to fight to extricate itself from Armenia. However, one small area, Karki, is occupied by Armenia.

There was no love lost between Armenians and Azeris, who prior to Soviet rule were periodically involved in physical confrontations, including wars in 1905 and 1917-18.

But the new USSR clamped down on such “un-socialist” manifestations of enmity and kept a tight lid on potential trouble spots.

By the late 1980s, though, it was clear the Soviet state was a crumbling empire, so restive peoples began to seek their own national destinies, even prior to the final 1991collapse.

Suddenly, Armenia and Azerbaijan were about to become sovereign (and hostile) states – but the Armenians in the Oblast naturally wanted to join an independent Armenia.

Of course, citing territorial integrity and the sanctity of international (as opposed to internal) borders, the Azeris would have none of it. And so, a war would ensue.

In 1991 a referendum held in the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast resulted in a deceleration of independence based on its right of self-determination. Large-scale ethnic conflict led to the 1991–1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War.

The Armenians in the Oblast, supported by Armenia, not only prevailed, but considerably enlarged the territory of the old Soviet region. They captured seven Azerbaijani districts that had not been part of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the Lachin Corridor, so they are now physically connected to Armenia proper.

Their state, now the Republic of Artsakh (an old medieval name), is dependent on, and to all intents and purposes, is part of Armenia – though Yerevan has not gone as far as recognizing it as a sovereign entity. Other than three similar de facto breakaway entities in the old USSR, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, no one else has either.

The people of Artsakh see its independent status as temporary, since in reality they wish to be integrated into Armenia. In fact, the third president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, in office from 2008 to 2018, was born in Stepanakert, now the capital of Artsakh.

What complicates the matter is this: Azeris are culturally, ethnically and religious close to the Turks, who have supported them in their struggle with Armenia, providing military support and closing their own frontier with landlocked Armenia.

The close association of Turkey and its identification with Azerbaijan in the conflict has influenced the way Armenians perceive it.

It brings up very unpleasant memories, because the Ottoman Empire was the country that carried out the genocide, and its memory has remained the cornerstone of Armenian identity and activism. (Indeed, many Armenians refer to Azeris as “Turks.”)

Enormous numbers of Armenians were massacred across the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and hundreds of thousands more were deported and sent to die in rudimentary camps in the Syrian deserts. In 1918, Ottoman troops entered Russian territory and murdered Armenians there also.

April 15 marks the 104th anniversary of the start of the genocide, and it forms a backdrop to the current “frozen conflict” between Armenia and Artsakh on one side, and Azerbaijan and Turkey on the other.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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