It is almost a yearly tradition: since 1994 tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, both formerly part of the Soviet Union, have regularly exploded into brief military conflicts, leaving soldiers and civilians on both sides wounded and dead. The most recent clashes erupted in July 2020. With about a dozen casualties on both sides so far, peace still is not in sight. The fighting usually centres on the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked strip of mountains and forests that factually belongs to Azerbaijan. However, it is easy to see why the area is problematic – it is the home of a predominantly Armenian population and claims political autonomy as the Republic of Artsakh, which still awaits international recognition from most countries. This combination of ethno-political factors lies at the heart of the conflict, despite the region´s geography making it economically unimportant. Instead, it is a clash between the mostly Christian Armenia and the dominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, between the respective allies´ interests (Russia on Armenia´s side and Turkey in support of Azerbaijan), between two different languages, ethnicities, and ideologies. Foremost, it is the result of a long and complicated historical process of domination, the struggle for autonomy and nationalism.
Anyone who looks back into history will quickly recognize this conflict extends much further back than 1994. The Transcaucasus has long been a region of ethnic tension, with claims to the territory from Georgians, Armenians, Azeris and bigger forces such as the Russian or the Ottoman Empires. The fight for Nagorno-Karabakh first escalated into a series of conflicts from 1918 to 1922. With the creation of the Soviet Union and the incorporation of both nations into the union, the conflict seemed to subside for the next decades. However, it could be argued that this situation in fact had a negative effect on the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In an article on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, the historian A. N. Yamskov identifies different scenarios of ethnic conflict in the region, notably ‘territorial-status conflicts that have flowed from the national-state structure of the U.S.S.R’. He associates these with the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh. In most of his definitions, Yamskov includes a struggle against governmental structures as a factor, which in this context of course refer to the Soviet regime that in many instances suppressed national and individual ethnic struggles for independence. Thus, the decades of Soviet rule merely masked the conflict and even amplified it. This is exemplified by the fact that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the clashes turned once more into a war, which lasted for six years and took an estimated 30,000 lives.
It would perhaps be over-simplistic to argue the Soviet past of the Transcaucasus is the only root cause of all its current problems; other factors and events, both historical and modern, also influence the conflict. The Armenian Genocide, for instance, perhaps plays into this situation to a certain extent. It was the Ottoman Empire – now mostly modern-day Turkey – that murdered and displaced approximately 1.5 million Armenians during the First World War, an event of which both Azerbaijan and Turkey remain in denial, despite it being recognized by the majority of nations. The fact that Azerbaijan is continuously being supported by Turkey in the conflict therefore does nothing to ease the tension, especially not with the most recent clashes, in which Russia has so far maintained silence, and while Turkish politics contribute to anti-Armenian sentiments, as the German newspaper Die Zeit found.
Whether it is in 1994 or in 2020, it seems ultimately unlikely that peace will be achieved any time soon. The ethnic struggles in the Transcaucasus will continue until the region has come to terms with its heavy historical burdens.