In this episode of EcoJustice Radio, we seek to gain a broader understanding of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We discuss the fight for Armenian self-determination over the region known as Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh, with guests Vaché Thomassian, Glendale Board Member of Armenian National Committee of America and Dr. Djene Bajalan, Assistant Professor at Missouri State University. Though a Russia- and Turkey-backed ceasefire agreement was signed, the people of Armenia are unhappy as it cedes a significant portion of the southern part of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Conflict Over Artsakh
On Sept. 27, 2020 Azerbaijan attacked the disputed territory and a proclaimed independent region, the Republic of Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh). The historical and unresolved conflict over this mountainous region is long standing. To fully understand the issues and what is needed for resolution, we dive into the history of these countries and the land occupation, how Turkey and Russia have influenced and benefit from an ongoing conflict, and why there exists an inter-generational, emotional connection for Armenians around the world. We will also explore the rich cultural significance of the region and Armenia, the role of the international community, and the connection to Climate change and oil politics.
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The area of the Republic of Artsakh has an ethnic majority of 99.7% Armenian, which nevertheless lies inside Azerbaijan. The historical and unresolved conflict over this mountainous region is long standing between the two countries.
However, the latest escalation and attacks on civilians has gained international attention with much of the mainstream media reporting a “both-sides” or even an Azerbaijan-centric narrative. There are reports Azerbaijan is using combat drones purchased from Turkey and Israel, and Turkey sent thousands of jihadi fighters to take part in the ground invasion. These groups had been battle-hardened in the war in Syria, and many of them have received U.S. training, weapons, and funding. Amnesty International also reports Azerbaijan has used banned cluster bombs in civilian areas, though reports have claimed (with no international corroboration) Armenia has used these as well.
Moreover, the bombing and use of white phosphorus munitions has sparked cries of ecocide. According to Nune Sakanyan: “The Armenian Highlands have been recognized by leading international environmental organizations as one of the world’s hotspots in terms of biodiversity. And the forested areas, which make up about 36% of the territory of Artsakh, are home to endangered species, which are listed on the local and international red lists, such as bald and white-headed eagles, grizzly bears, Caucasian leopards, etc. Today, environmentalists’ joint alarm about the ecocide is aimed at preventing such crimes.”
Rich Cultural History of Caucasus Region Inflamed by Imperialism
Considering the strong cultural history of Armenia, one is drawn to consider Mount Ararat. Just over the Armenian border with Turkey, it is known as the “holy mountain” of the Armenian people. Pre-Christian Armenian mythology considered it the home of the gods. For Christians, some passages in the Bible indicate the mountains of Ararat as the final resting place of Noah’s Ark.
Following the Armenian Genocide of 1915 by the Ottoman Turks, their national symbol was taken from them, and Armenians were forced to seek refuge in countries all over the world in the diaspora that resulted. Moreover, pogroms have been carried out by Azeris against Armenians in Baku, Sumgait, and Ganja in the late 1980s and early 90s. For indigenous Armenians inside Artsakh, residents of Armenia, and members of the Armenian diaspora around the world, the repeated attacks over their homelands are a bitter reminder of this genocidal bloodshed and displacement.
The Caucasus highlands are a region of stunning natural beauty and tremendous ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity. Stretching from the Black Sea to the shores of the Caspian, it is home to a vast array of communities: Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Meskhetian and Akh?ska Turks, Kurds, Yezidis, Daghestanis, Abkhaz, Circassians, Chechens, Talysh, Ossetians, and Ingush, to name but a few. Regional powers through history, as a result, have attempted to control these peoples only peripherally. Local potentates have enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy, with the various ethnic and religious communities living side by side in relative peace. With imperial Russia unraveling and the brutalities of World War I, strife became central to existence there. The genocidal campaign against the Armenian community in 1915 left possibly as many as 1.5 million dead.
The Soviet Legacy
The seeds of this conflict were planted in the early 1920s, when the Soviet Union, in its internal land distribution, transferred Artsakh to the oil-rich ethnically Turkish Azerbaijan. At that time, the Soviets hoped to turn the Republic of Turkey into communists and this was a goodwill gesture, of sorts.
The people of Artsakh never acceded to this decision, and in 1987 petitioned to the Soviet government, demanding to leave the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and join the Armenian SSR. This led to pogroms in Sumgait and Baku, where Azerbaijani mobs targeted ethnic Armenian minorities.
With the breakup of the USSR, just like in the other Soviet Republics, the Armenians of Artsakh exercised their right to self-determination and, through an official referendum, voted to become an independent democratic state with its own parliament.
The newly formed Azeri state declined to recognize the results of the referendum and started the 1991–1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War between Artsakh and Azerbaijan. The latter was defeated, and with the help of Armenia, brokered a ceasefire with Artsakh, placing the conflict in a geopolitical freeze, which has lasted until now. Azerbaijan has never forgiven the Armenians for winning the war, and has been seeking a way to take the territory back.
Both our guests, Djene Bajalan and Vaché Thomassian agree, the bloody conflict isn’t merely the result of ancestral hatreds or deep-seated animosity between Muslims and Christians. It is the product of a long history of colonialism, nationalism, and authoritarianism, and Great Power politics including Turkey, Russia, the US and EU.
Serj Tankian, Armenian-American lead singer of System of a Down and more recently as a solo artist – Artsakh
Djene Rhys Bajalan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Missouri State University. His research focuses on Middle Eastern affairs and he has previously taught and studied in the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Vaché Thomassian, Glendale Board Member of Armenian National Committee of America, is a practicing attorney and international relations professional who has been an activist in the Armenian community for many years.
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Hosted by Jessica Aldridge
Engineer: Blake Lampkin
Executive Producer: Jack Eidt
Producer: Emilia Barrosse
Show Created by Mark and JP Morris
Music: Javier Kadry
Photo courtesy Vaché Thomassian
Updated 10 November 2020