A 21st Century Existential Threat to Armenians
Border Flags by David Stanley
Article by Pream Akkas,
On September 27, conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), also known to Armenians as “Artsakh.” The NK/Artsakh region is a disputed territory recognized under international law as the occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan. However, to Armenians and the Armenian-majority population of the region, “Artsakh” is a de facto self-governing state that has been independent from Azerbaijan since 1994. Over the past three weeks, military clashes and missile strikes have killed over 700 people and have marked the biggest escalation of the conflict since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, known to Armenians as the Artsakh Liberation War, in 1994.
Turkey’s recent direct military intervention in support of Azerbaijan has further escalated the level of violence and created calamitous political and humanitarian implications. Shortly after the conflict erupted at the end of September, President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called on Azeris to expel Armenians from the NK/Artsakh region and pledged that “Turkey continues to stand with the friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all its facilities and heart.” Armenia’s foreign ministry also delivered a statement claiming that “[t]he Turkish military experts are fighting side by side with Azerbaijan, who are using the Turkish weapons, including UAVs and warplanes. According to credible sources, Turkey is recruiting and transporting foreign terrorist fighters to Azerbaijan.” With the support of a significant military power like Turkey, the current attacks on Armenia and the NK/Artsakh region are likely to have devastating consequences on the Armenian population if international actors do not intervene to ensure a successful ceasefire.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are both former republics of the Soviet Union. In 1923, then Soviet Commissar of Nationalities Joseph Stalin decided that NK would become an autonomous administrative region of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, even though over 94 percent of the region’s population was ethnically Armenian and protested that Azerbaijan discriminated against them. As the Soviet Union was coming to an end in 1988, the majority of ethnic Armenians living in the region demanded that the territory be transferred from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. But Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s subsequent refusal initiated the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh Liberation War. After Azerbaijan’s proclamation of its independence in 1991 (after the fall of the Soviet Union), The Republic of Artsakh declared its independence in a referendum, and has since practiced self-determination under rule by a democratically-elected president and parliament and its own flag (which resembles the Armenian flag, without a white line to symbolize separation from Armenia).
In 1994, Azerbaijan ceded control of the NK/Artsakh region as well as seven Azerbaijani neighboring districts, creating a land connection to Armenia. More than one million people were displaced with ethnically Azeri people fleeing Armenia and the NK region and ethnically Armenian people fleeing Azerbaijan. Russia then warned Turkey not to intervene with support for Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan supplies Turkey with natural gas and crude oil via pipelines that pass within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the Azerbaijan-Armenia border and 30 miles of the conflict zone. As a result, Turkey has long sided with Azerbaijan on the NK/Artsakh region dispute. Additionally, Turkey has closed borders and does not have any diplomatic relations with Armenia, partly due to the conflict over the NK/Artsakh region, and partly because of tensions resulting from the 1915 Armenian genocide.
Anti-Armenian Sentiment in Turkey and Azerbaijan
Turkish support furthers the Armenian argument that the recent attacks are a continuation of Turkish and Azeri efforts from the twentieth century to “ethnically cleanse” Armenians. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan expressed during a call with U.S. officials that Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan “is a continuation of the genocidal policies carried out by Turkey against the Armenians.” Such claims of systematic violence against Armenians are well-grounded in historical precedent. Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. In 2014, President Erdoğan offered his condolences to descendants of victims of the atrocities, marking a significant departure from previous leaders of Turkey who were silent on the genocide against Armenians and even criminally punished Turks for referencing the atrocities. Nevertheless, President Erdoğan continues to deny that the killings were systematic and constitute a genocide and has refused to meet demands for an apology.
Similarly, Azerbaijan carried out a series of pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, many in the form of Azeri-organized mob violence against Armenians living in Azerbaijan. It is important to note that Armenians have carried out similar acts of violence against Azeris in Armenia, in the NK/Artsakh region, and in provinces between Artsakh and Armenia, where the Armenian populations were negligible prior to 1994, but increased as a result of the displacement of the Azeri population during the 1988-1994 war. As a result of the ongoing conflict in the NK/Artsakh region, anti-Armenian sentiment in Azerbaijan continues to be very high and pro-Azerbaijan statements over the dispute not only target Armenians living in Armenia, but also portray Armenians living in Azerbaijan as enemies and traitors. This past July, during a pro-war rally in Azerbaijan with tens of thousands of participants, protestors chanted, “Death to the Armenian” and “we are not going without Karabakh,” conveying anti-Armenian sentiment and refusing to recognize Armenians as legitimate citizens of Azerbaijan. Accordingly, if Azerbaijan were to regain control of the NK region, the ethnically Armenian population would face dire consequences. While officials in Azerbaijan have defended their recent attacks as a defensive response to Armenian attacks, they have also stated that “Azerbaijan will continue to fight for its occupied territories until their liberation.”
The international community widely continues to assert Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the NK/Artsakh region and surrounding territory and denounces “occupation” by Armenians. In March 2008, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted Resolution 62/243, which reaffirmed “continued respect and support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Azerbaijan “within its internationally recognized borders,” demanded the “immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan,” and emphasized that “no state shall render aid or assistance” to maintain the occupation of Azerbaijani territories.
In 1992, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group (OSCE) was founded to develop a peaceful solution to the NK conflict but has yet to do so. The group is co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation, and the United States, and its members include Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Earlier this week, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs delivered a joint statement “call[ing] on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan to take immediate steps to execute in full the obligations of the sides according to the October 10 Moscow statement, in order to prevent catastrophic consequences for the region.” While the leaders of France and Russia have denounced Turkey’s intervention, President Trump has been silent. Prime Minister Pashinyan, during a call with U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’ Brien, raised the issue of America’s silence in response to a longtime U.S. ally, Turkey, not only attacking ethnic Armenians, but also using American-made F-16 jets to do so. Despite being a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk group, the U.S. was the last major international actor to issue a statement on the crisis, alluding to the administration’s disinterest in the issue and foreshadowing the unlikelihood that the Administration will denounce its ally, Turkey’s involvement.
A failure of international actors to take action to stop Turkey’s intervention and develop a resolution will likely have catastrophic political and humanitarian consequences because the Azeri forces have the potential to instigate a large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population. The population of Armenia is only about 3 million and the population of the NK/Artsakh region is only about 150,000 (a small fraction of Azerbaijan's population of over 10 million). Even without military intervention from Turkey, Azerbaijan’s military spending is more than five times that of Armenia. While Turkey and Azerbaijan have denied Turkey’s intervention in the recent conflict, Turkey’s military exports to Azerbaijan surged to $36 million in August and $77.1 million in September (compared to a total of $20.7 million in 2019) following clashes in July over the NK/Artsakh region and before the recent fighting began. Moreover, the potential role of Russia (which has strong relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan), the proximity of Iran, which is allied with Armenia, and the presence of major oil and gas pipelines in the region are all factors that can cause this conflict to escalate on an international scale.
A successful resolution of the dispute where the international community recognizes the rights of the Armenian people is long overdue. Earlier last week, Hagar Chemali, former spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the UN, stated in an interview with MSNBC, “[t]his isn’t about two sides fighting over a piece of land...it’s about a group of ethnic people, a community, that is worried about the wiping out of their race.” It is imperative for international leaders to recognize the pattern of violence against Armenians as more than a territorial dispute and to take action to prevent a repeat of the atrocities of 1915.
S. Pream Akkas (J.D. Candidate, Berkeley Law Class of 2023) is interested in international humanitarian law and immigration and refugee law. Pream holds a B.A. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies from Columbia University. She is fluent in Bengali and conversational in Spanish and Arabic.