What the U.S. Can Learn From a Tiny Republic in the Caucasus
If my UCLA students are representative of the country at large, virtually no one outside of the Armenian diaspora has ever heard of the Republic of Artsakh or the geopolitical conflict surrounding its existence. This is probably unsurprising; millions of Americans have little interest in matters that have no direct impact upon their lives or those of their families, and generally pay scant attention to events in the Caucasus. But perhaps they should.
During a recent visit to Artsakh (formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh), I spoke to governmental officials, current legislators, diplomats and former acting President Georgi Petrosyan, all of whom offered unique insight into the fledgling democratic republic. Between presentations for government and university officials, I also had the opportunity to experience some of the vibrant culture the beleaguered young nation has to offer.
The history of the now independent, if still unrecognized, country traces to the early days of the Soviet Union. Artsakh has long been an integral part of Armenia, and its population is almost entirely Armenian. But Josef Stalin ceded its lands in 1921 to the administration of Soviet Azerbaijan.
Stalin had been commissioner of nationalities before laying claim to full dictatorial powers in the Soviet Union. His reasoning in carving up Armenia was to foster closer relations between Turkey and the Bolshevik regime following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Armenia and Azerbaijan would soon become constituent parts of the Soviet Union, but the latter remained tied to Turkey through religion and language. Delivering Nagorno-Karabakh—now Artsakh—to Azerbaijan was no more than a calculated political decision that discounted the will of the region’s people.
Throughout the Soviet era, Artsakh maintained semi-autonomous status within Azerbaijan. Still, its Armenian residents overwhelmingly desired reunification with their mother country. Armenians in Azerbaijan were regularly subjected to discrimination and violence, but conflict between the Armenian people and the Azerbaijani authorities remained largely dormant up until perestroika—the restructure and reform policies promoted by Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.
Gorbachev’s embrace of glasnost—the airing of the nation’s social and economic problems—catalyzed Armenian attempts to bring the persecution of their people to the attention of the international community. The Karabakh movement’s massive demonstrations in the city of Yerevan in February 1988 were part of a larger push for independence throughout Eastern Europe as the Soviet empire began to crumble. Its ultimate goal? To unite the region with Armenia.
On Dec. 10, 1991, Artsakh held a referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Armenian independence. Less than a month later, its democratically elected leaders declared the region an independent republic.
Azerbaijan responded with all-out war, a conflict that lasted for the better part of six years, from 1988 to 1994. The Republic of Armenia backed the Armenians of Artsakh as Azerbaijan failed to curb the secessionist movement. A Russian-brokered cease-fire ended the hostilities, but only after a staggering amount of blood had been shed. Talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan are currently being mediated by OSCE Minsk Group (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), which seeks a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the issue. But neither side trusts the other. Since 1994, skirmishes have broken out on the border, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries. As uncertainty between Azerbaijan and Artsakh has increased, so has the probability of major armed conflict.
On April 2, 2016, full-scale conflict resumed. Known as the Four-Day War, Azerbaijan initiated the hostilities, possibly to divert from socioeconomic unrest stemming from declining oil prices in the international market. The fighting was heavy, and dozens of soldiers and civilians were injured and killed. Azerbaijan managed to shift the front lines of the conflict very slightly in its favor before a cease-fire was announced on April 5. Perhaps the greatest effect of the truce was that Russia reinforced its position as the dominant power in the region.
So why should any of this matter to a U.S. population with its own pressing problems? After all, the Trump administration appears bent on eradicating the final vestiges of New Deal protections and implementing a racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-labor agenda. Young people face staggering debt, health care is unraveling in real time and the federal government’s immigration policy is plumbing new depths of depravity. The list goes on and on.
Artsakh’s population of 150,000 is hardly bigger than Pomona, Calif., but its struggle is one Americans would be wise to observe. It is a democratic country, with its own strengths and flaws, living in a state of neither peace nor war; it has held free and open elections, certified as such by international observers. On this criteria alone, the country deserves Americans’ recognition and support.
Artsakh is also under threat by a hostile regime that is in many ways its antithesis. Beyond its ethnic and religious differences, Azerbaijan is a deeply authoritarian state ruled, in effect, by a family dictatorship with a long history of corruption. The president, Ilham Aliyev, is the son of the former President Heydar Aliyev, who served as a former Soviet KGB operative before Azerbaijan declared its independence (the Aliyev regime is reminiscent of the Kims in North Korea and the Assads in Syria). This is perhaps the central reason Artsakh can never “rejoin” a nation that Stalin artificially and cynically cleaved out nearly a century ago.
Azerbaijan’s chief sponsor on the world stage is Turkey, whose authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Donald Trump has admired for his “strength” and “decisiveness.” In truth, Erdogan has ruthlessly imprisoned his political opponents and extinguished civil liberties. Azerbaijan under Aliyev is remarkably similar, with its extensive crackdown on journalists, human rights advocates and others deemed threatening to the government, all of whom routinely face harassment, violence and imprisonment. The fate of Armenians in Artsakh under such a regime would be unthinkable. Americans should be keenly concerned with such a prospect, and take every step to ensure it never meets such a fate.
Moreover, Azerbaijan joins Turkey in formally denying the 1915 Armenian genocide. A dutiful client state, Azerbaijan is complicit in a monstrous historical crime that continues 103 years after it began. The civilized world knows that Armenia was the victim of the first holocaust of the 20th century, as approximately 1.5 million people were slaughtered, starved, raped and tortured by the Ottoman Turks.
In both Armenia and Artsakh (as well as the Armenian diaspora communities across the world), descendants of the victims still grapple with the trauma of these events and the pain of Turkey and Azerbaijan’s denial. I have seen the expression of this suffering in Armenia, and it would be cruel beyond imagination to return Artsakh to a nation that denies a people’s deepest historical anguish. That is something that the United States should care about most profoundly.
In May, I spoke informally to a handful of young diplomats at the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Artsakh. Afterward, some colleagues and I listened to an informal presentation by Artsakh Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Armine Alexanyan. Not only did she offer a cogent overview of the recent history of the Artsakh-Azerbaijan conflict, she made a compelling argument for the republic’s independence and its dynamic leadership.
At the end of her presentation, I asked whether the country should join Armenia and become a constituent part of that nation. Her answer helped illuminate why Americans might want to pay closer attention to the region. She replied that the decision is truly up to the people of the republic.
The United States should vigorously applaud such an expression of self-determination and autonomy. What happens to the 150,000 people of Artsakh is a matter for them to decide, and a choice of democracy over authoritarianism is one we might all stand to emulate.