The history of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh was ended in the old manner of conflict resolution: siege, conquest, expulsion. After a 10-month blockade, Azerbaijan launched an attack on Sept. 19, claiming the enclave in a day and causing nearly the entire ethnic Armenian population to flee. Give war a chance, as the saying goes.
For Armenians, a classic relic ethnic minority whose Christianity and peculiar alphabet date to the epic struggles between the Romans and the Parthians, it was another genocide. For the Azerbaijanis, Turkic in language and historically Shia Muslim, a great triumph. Yet despite appearances, the conflict is not a Samuel Huntington-style clash of civilizations. Instead, in its emboldening of traditional regional powers like Turkey, scrambling for geopolitical spoils after the retreat of superpowers, it’s a harbinger of the coming world disorder.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in the South Caucasus, is perennially contested. Ceded by Persia to Russia in the 19th century, it fell into dispute with the emergence of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan both claiming it. In 1921, Stalin attached the enclave to Azerbaijan, home to oil resources and a thriving intellectual culture. Yet the thin crust of Azeri modernist intelligentsia was eliminated in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and replaced by corrupt functionaries overseen by the formidable K.G.B. general Heydar Aliyev. (His son, Ilham Aliyev, is the dynastic president of Azerbaijan.)
In 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev’s dreams of achieving a more rational, humane Soviet Union emboldened Armenian intellectuals to start a tremendous popular movement for uniting the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh with mainland Armenia. This seemed deceptively easy: transfer a province from one Soviet republic to another. But the Armenian demands ran into protests in Azerbaijan that almost immediately turned violent. Gorbachev looked impotent in the face of disasters he had provoked. From there to the end of the superpower, it took just three years.
In the chaotic aftermath of Soviet collapse, the Armenians undertook to defend Nagorno-Karabakh by force. Instead of poetic intellectuals, the wartime generation of Armenian leaders became militia commanders. They proved earthier and, soon, brazenly corrupt. Defending the country became their sole means of legitimacy, ruling out the concessions that peace would require. By 1994 the Armenians, mobilizing around the traumatic memories of genocide, succeeded in expelling scores of Azeris from the enclave. Last month, Azerbaijan got more than even.
In that project, it had a powerful backer: Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a master of vertiginous visions, has already tried Islamic liberalism, joining Europe, leading the Arab revolts, challenging Israel and negotiating peace in Ukraine. He now has another dream: opening a geopolitical corridor from Europe through Central Asia, all the way to China. This is the “Zangezur corridor,” a 25-mile-long strip of land to be carved through Armenia as part of a peace deal imposed at gunpoint.
Unsurprisingly, Iran is not happy with Azerbaijan’s victory. As openly as the Iranians ever do, they’ve threatened to use force against any changes to the borders of Armenia. Iran, a millenniums-old civilization central to a whole continent, cannot tolerate being walled off behind a chain of Turkish dependencies. India, similarly, is on Armenia’s side and has been sending a regular supply of weapons. One spur for such support, no doubt, is Pakistan’s joining the Azeri-Turkish alliance. In the jargon of American lawyers, this opens a whole new can of worms.
Then there’s Russia, whose absence from the denouement in Nagorno-Karabakh was striking. Even after the 1990s, Moscow still remained by far the biggest supplier of weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Their economies and societies, above all the elites and their corruption networks, were until very recently molded together. What we are seeing now, as both nations slip out of Russia’s orbit, might be the second round of Soviet collapse.
Once again, Armenia started the shift. In spring 2018 a tremendously hopeful uprising, reminiscent of 1989 in Central Europe, forced the post-communist elites to surrender power. Vladimir Putin was visibly displeased to meet Nikol Pashinyan, the anticorruption journalist and street rebel elected Armenia’s premier by an overwhelming majority. Mr. Pashinyan admittedly had neither political team nor experience; he is learning statesmanship on the job, often at great expense to his nation. Yet he managed to significantly reduce corruption, helping to unlock the legendary entrepreneurship of Armenians. Amid all the grim news, the Armenian economy, led by the I.T. sector, is registering impressive growth.
All that, to Moscow, is punishable. When in September 2020 Azerbaijan launched a massive offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh lasting 44 terrible days, Russia effectively allowed Azerbaijan and Turkey to nearly destroy its Armenian ally, under the pretext that Karabakh was outside the mutual defense treaty. At the cusp of Azeri victory, however, Mr. Putin personally brokered a cease-fire and ordered a crack force of his peacekeepers into the enclave.
That brought nearly all the perimeter of the former Soviet Union into Russia’s sphere of influence. Rebellious Belarus, its dictator dependent on Russian support, was in hand; so too the war-torn Caucasus. The large and oil-rich Kazakhstan itself requested Russian peacekeepers during a bewildering bout of street violence in January 2022. Strangely, the elite Russian troops soon departed from Kazakhstan. A month later, the whole world realized that they had been dispatched to Ukraine, the last sizable piece of Mr. Putin’s post-Soviet gambit. And there his plan broke down.
History has a habit of serving the same lessons with changed variables. In 1988, it was the dreamer Gorbachev stumbling over Nagorno-Karabakh that unwittingly shattered the world order. Today, Mr. Putin could become the second, much darker incarnation of the Kremlin aggrandizer going awry on all fronts. The consequences — from emboldening international aggression to reanimating the West under the banner of NATO — will be profound. As events in Nagorno-Karabakh show, the fragile post-Cold War order is giving way to something else entirely.
The Caucasus might seem strange and distant. Yet it might prove the wedge that turns the fortunes of world order. Trieste, Smyrna, Sarajevo, Danzig and Crimea were all such places. Let us not have to relearn history at the cost of yet another ethnic cleansing.
Georgi Derluguian is a professor of social research and public policy at New York University Abu Dhabi and the author of “Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus.”
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