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Armenia's and Azerbaijan's battle for Nagorno-Karabakh: the war that no one can win


In the Caucasus, the Armenians and Azerbaijanis are irreconcilable. Your conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has deep historical roots in the times of the Soviet Union and the Tsarist Empire.

Icon: enlarge

Azerbaijani soldiers (1992): The Nagorno-Karabakh war has now reignited


Maximov / AFP

Armenian positions are under artillery fire, tanks explode, an Azerbaijani helicopter is shot down - the war in the South Caucasus broke out again last weekend.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The long-disputed region between the two states has declared itself independent, but has never been recognized internationally. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic lies on Azerbaijani territory and is closely linked to Armenia, with the clear majority of the population being Armenian.

She could always rely on support from Armenia.

Its president was Arkadij Gukassjan from 1997 to 2007.

"We have no future in Azerbaijan," he said in an interview with SPIEGEL in July 2007 and warned: "A war against our republic is also a war against the Republic of Armenia." 

European diplomats once invited Gukassjan to the Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea, where Swedes live and enjoy autonomy rights.

He replied sarcastically: "We would join Finland immediately. But we have to do with Azerbaijan."

What Gukassjan started with: The authoritarian ruled Azerbaijan has never shown that it is ready for a genuine, safe autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Both sides are too unforgiving of each other.

Now the conflict, which goes back a long way, is being conducted militarily again.

When young soldiers shoot each other in Nagorno-Karabakh now, they will only see the enemy on the other side.

This is how Armenians and Azerbaijanis have known it for decades.

Their ancestors lived peacefully in one country for a long time and served in the same army.

Nationalists and pogroms

The historical roots even branch out to Württemberg and Prussia.

In the South Caucasus, Tsar Nikolai I once ruled - the son of Princess Sophie Dorothee of Württemberg and husband of Charlotte of Prussia, the daughter of the Prussian king.

Russia received what is now Armenia in 1828 at the end of the Russo-Persian War.

The peace treaty established the border between Russia and Persia;

today it is the border between Azerbaijan and Iran. 

From then on, Muslim Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians learned Russian in schools and served together in the Tsar's army.

Tensions grew as nationalist currents grew stronger in the early 20th century.

From 1911 onwards, the Müsawat party propagated a union of all Muslims among the Azerbaijanis and showed affinity with pan-Turkish nationalists.

From 1890, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Daschnakzutjun) gathered supporters among the Christian Armenians.

Both parties exist to this day and, although a minority in elections, strike nationalist tones.

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Soviet soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh (1989): The crumbling state lost control

Photo: JTD / AP

Many Armenians lived on the territory of the Ottoman Empire at that time.

During the First World War, nationalist Young Turks committed genocide against the Armenians;

between 300,000 and 1.5 million people died.

This trauma shapes the political attitude towards life of the Armenians up to the present day.

When the tsarist empire collapsed in 1917, nationalist sentiments grew among Azerbaijani as well as Armenians.

The Soviet state committed itself to internationalism and found it difficult to deal with the nationality problems in the Caucasus.

The communists created an Armenian and an Azerbaijani Soviet Republic and initially hesitated to whom to hand over the controversial Nagorno-Karabakh.

It was mostly populated by Armenians, but economically closely linked to Azerbaijan.

The Soviet leadership decided on a compromise: Nagorno-Karabakh was incorporated into the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic as an "autonomous region" in 1923.

The fact that Armenians were given leading positions in the administration was not enough for them.

But the Soviet regime secured the status quo.

Soviet loss of control

In 1926 Nagorno Karabakh's population was almost 90 percent Armenians.

Their share sank to 77 percent by 1989 because the Azerbaijani birth rates were higher than those of the Armenians.

In the course of the liberalization under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union lost control of the conflict.

In 1988, Azerbaijanis massacred the Armenian minority in the city of Sumgait;

at least 31 people died.

The Soviet police did not intervene.

After further mutual attacks, the Soviet Union fell apart.

When both countries declared their independence in 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh war began after the first skirmishes.

The Armenians there proclaimed their own republic;

Internationally, it is still not recognized by any UN member, not even by Armenia.

Nevertheless, the armed forces of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic are closely linked to the Armenian army.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh war, more than 11,500 Azerbaijani soldiers, around 6,000 Armenian fighters and countless militants died up to May 1994.

About 50,000 soldiers were wounded.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees left their homes.

A ceasefire agreement, largely brokered by Russia, put a temporary end to the war in 1994.

But there were always incidents with dead and injured.

Poor house with barracks

Almost 150,000 people live in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

The region is economically shattered by the war.

It resembles a poor house with an attached barracks.

Modest bazaars in the state capital Stepanakert reflect a meager life.

As the successor state to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation is faced with a dilemma: it is allied with Armenia in a collective military alliance.

But Russia is de facto neutral and does not want to wage war against Azerbaijan under any circumstances.

There President Ilham Aliyev is now claiming, with echoes of Soviet jargon, that he is fighting against "Armenian fascism".

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Destroyed building in Nagorno-Karabakh: The war up to 1994 left devastation and the region shattered economically (photo from 2015)

Photo: Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

Russia's leadership is unfazed by this rhetoric.

Moscow military experts hope that the momentum of the Azerbaijani offensive will soon be exhausted.

Both sides have "no resources for a long war," a Moscow colonel who worked in Karabakh during the Soviet era told SPIEGEL: There could be no victor, the armed conflict might end soon, the retired colonel believes.

However, the conflict is drawing other powers into its destructive dynamic.

The announcement by Turkish President Erdogan that he will support the Azerbaijani "brothers" is extremely dangerous;

Arms deliveries and mercenaries could fuel the fighting.

Russian diplomats suspect that President Putin will soon seek talks with Erdogan on "issues of mutual interest".

Moscow is betting on a role as mediator of a new armistice.

Interpreters are not needed: the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan speak - legacy of the Soviet empire - both fluent in Russian.

Icon: The mirror

Source: spiegel

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