Vancouver Sun

A perfect 21st-century predicamen­t

Fight for piece of Azerbaijan will reverberat­e


When Muslim Azerbaijan­is and Christian Armenians went to war in 1992-94 over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, about 30,000 living in a territory the size of Prince Edward Island died, and as many as one million were displaced from there and from Azerbaijan.

The savage fighting presaged the intensely personal communal violence that was about to tear apart the Balkans, Chechnya and, eventually, eastern Ukraine and now nearby Syria and Iraq.

Round 2 of this obscure, intractabl­e battle for the remote, predominat­ely ethnic Armenian mountain enclave within Azerbaijan may have begun last week with an Azeri offensive that retook some of the territory it lost the first time around.

With more than 60 deaths during four days of renewed hostilitie­s, one of the many “frozen” post-Soviet conflicts — Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea, Transnistr­ia — may have suddenly become unfrozen.

Both the Azeris and the separatist Armenians have issued dire ultimatums to each other to stand down. Or else.

Azerbaijan warned it was prepared to attack Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanaker­t. The Armenians vowed to reclaim the land they held for 22 years and have just now lost.

Perhaps rememberin­g the ruthless pogroms and ethnic cleansing that took place then and during the Bolshevik Revolution, the two sides announced an immediate truce Tuesday that has not yet been tested.

The earlier iteration of this conflict in a breathtaki­ngly beautiful, but impoverish­ed corner of the Caucasus was where I witnessed deeply rooted ethnic hatred up close for the first time.

When I drove out from the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, to the Azeri side of the front near Stepanaker­t, there was a Second World War-vintage railway carriage converted into a hospital where surgeons were hacking off limbs in appalling conditions. Other coaches were packed with the cries, whimpers and stench of the maimed and the dead.

It was a mystery to me how the Armenians won a crushing victory in the post-Soviet period. The Azerbaijan­is outnumbere­d them by more than three to one. The Azeris also had lots of oil. The landlocked Armenians were far poorer and had a much lower standard of living.

After several decades of high energy prices and no longer having to share the lucre with Moscow, the Azeris have been rearming specifical­ly so that they can get Nagorno-Karabakh back. It is a developmen­t that may have already shifted the military balance forever.

As always, though, it is more complicate­d than that.

Turkey, which has had interests in the region for decades, has strongly aligned itself with the Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan.

Moscow has sold weapons to both sides, but Orthodox Russians have naturally sided with their Orthodox Armenian co-religionis­ts.

Muslim Iran and Christian Georgia are keenly in- terested in tilting the situation to their advantage, too.

It has often been said that much of the current tribal turmoil in the Middle East is the result of borders imposed by such imperial powers as Britain and France because it suited their interests at that time.

In the same way, a major reason for the troubles between Azerbaijan and Armenia stems from the fact that Vladimir Lenin arbitraril­y decided the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh must be part of the republic of Azerbaijan when the two sides were fighting amid the ruins of Turkey’s collapsing Ottoman Empire and British diplomatic and military intrigues.

It is also little different from how Nikita Khrushchev arbitraril­y decided one night — while rumoured to be on a drinking binge — that Russian-majority Crimea was to be part of Ukraine, creating grave tensions that still exist today.

With so much already on his plate in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere from the Black Sea and the Caucasus to Russia’s borders with the former Baltic states and Poland in the north, Vladimir Putin may have strong-armed the two sides into agreeing to this ceasefire. But with Turkey saying Baku must rule the enclave, it is an open question whether the truce can last.

Armenia wants a buffer between its kinsmen in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azeris, and still controls a chunk of Azeri territory outside the enclave. The Azeris want all that land back, plus what Lenin gave them in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1920.

A further complicati­on is that several hundred thousand Armenians were forced to leave their homes in Baku during the 1990s.

The Kremlin and Ankara are already dangerousl­y angry with each other over Syria, Bashar Assad’s regime and Turkey’s downing last November of a Russian warplane. Turks and Kurds are slugging it out in northern Syria and southern Turkey, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is fighting just about everyone in Iraq and Syria. With this state of affairs, Nagorno-Karabakh is another perfect 21st-century mess with consequenc­es far beyond the tiny enclave’s fragile borders.



 ?? VAHAN STEPANYAN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES ?? The fight for territory in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the latest example of one of the many “frozen” post-Soviet conflicts becoming unfrozen, Matthew Fisher writes.
VAHAN STEPANYAN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES The fight for territory in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the latest example of one of the many “frozen” post-Soviet conflicts becoming unfrozen, Matthew Fisher writes.
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