Rising up from the deep past of the last century, a long-feared war has flared again at Europe’s edge. For more than a month, in the highlands of the Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought fiercely over the heavily disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. At time of writing, officially at least 1,000 troops have been killed and more than 70,000 civilians displaced. The true tolls are likely higher.
Brief skirmishes in the borderlands spark off every few years, but this new war—and it is a war—has lasted much longer. It seems anarchic to outside eyes due to the blizzard of propaganda online. In Baku, an Azerbaijani dictatorship plump with plundered oil cash wields conflict to mobilise its public in support of reconquest of lost lands. In Yerevan, the threat of another genocide is cynically deployed to recruit volunteers (and diaspora donations) for an occupation the UN has declared unlawful. The hatred between the capitals is intractable; in the case of Armenia’s revolutionary Prime Minister Pashinyan and the Azeri strongman Aliyev, it is personal.
Yet Karabakh (which means “Black Garden”) wasn’t always a wild frontier of competing nationalisms. For a brief shining moment in the weaponised histories of both countries, unity emerged from chaos.
The mutual hostility can be dated to the First World War, which produced a barbarous crime and an invigorating opportunity. The slaughter of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 onwards created a humanitarian emergency which profoundly altered the demography of the Caucasus, upsetting the imbricated array of ethnic and religious minorities that call it home. In turn, the Russian Revolution of 1917 created a vast vacuum of power. The old order collapsed overnight. New authorities asserted themselves.
On one side was the Ottoman regime which suddenly stood unopposed and free to conquer its way to Baku. On the other was the people. It was not forgone that their struggles for independence should lead to discrete nations. For a while, as the dregs of the Ottoman army threatened in 1918, a Transcaucasian Federation was created, made up of Georgians, Azeris and Armenians, its cabinet representative, independent of foreign rule for the first time. Yet they could not meet force with force and the federation fractured into three ethnic republics with claims—and populations—on each other’s territories.