In this article, I am not going to analyse the details of the conflict or make an assessment regarding the validity of the claims that both sides put forward. Rather, I want to draw your attention to three details of this article: first, I used the Turkish spelling of Azerbaycan, which is spelled Azerbaijan in English. Second, I put its name before that of Armenia. Third, I also used the Turkish spelling for the Karabağ region, which spelled Karabakh in English and internationally referred to as the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The reason for this is that although the world refers to the people in Azerbaycan as Azeri, they are essentially Turks. It may be known that Azerbaycan and Turkey are allies, but beyond the borders the international community knows little about the deep bond between the two countries, which are among themselves are often referred to as: “One People, Two States”. Accordingly, I do not believe that there would be any added value for the informed reader, if this article would treat anything along the lines of the validity of territorial and political claims, because I fear that my impartiality is impaired, due to my Turkish heritage.
However, this opens the window for a very interesting discussion around the topic of ethnic conflict and political philosophy. As we can see in the past and also today, ethnic conflict is omnipresent. Although equally tragic, it is one of the more rational types of conflict, compared to economic or religious wars. In an ethnic conflict, two or more ethnic groups claim that a certain territory belongs under their rule. Usually, the sides argue that the territory has historically been theirs and the other group(s) intruded it. Often, it is also argued that the opposite group tries to gradually overtake the territory by expanding settlements or using similar practises. Looking at the map of the contested region, we can see that the borders are very intertwined; a part of Azerbaycan is an exclave, separated from the mainland by Armenian territory. Further, a significant portion of Azerbaycan is controlled by Armenian militia. That alone is an unusual situation. In the middle of this territory lays the contested Karabağ region.
Now, we could debate whether it is right for the Armenian militias to take control of a territory that belongs to another state. On the other hand, one could ask why Azerbaycan is so keen on holding on to the region, although it is mainly populated by Armenians. The answer to these questions will heavily depend on the socio-cultural background of a person – therefore, there is no right answer.
Nevertheless, this shows us, once again, that identity and culture are extremely important aspects of politics. One might argue that cosmopolitanism would be the answer to eliminate ethnic conflicts, but cosmopolitanism is not universal, either. Many people see themselves as ‘world citizens’, but only if the world is shaped within acceptable borders of their socio-cultural understanding. Realists, one the other hand, would probably suggest that armed conflict between the countries is not bad at all, as it would resolve the conflict based on the military strength.
The resolution of ethnic conflict is highly complex. Think of it this way: imagine that you live in a house with strangers. If you all speak the same language and have similar hobbies, interests and habits, then you will likely get along for a long time. However, the greater the differences between the occupants are, the greater is also the potential for conflict. Because you are at home, you also identify yourself with the space you live in, which fuels the agony. We can think about ethnic conflict in a similar way and this is what makes it so complex. Armenians in Azerbaycan have different ideas about societal life and want this to be represented by the ones governing them and the same goes for Azerbaycan Turks in Armenia. One could say that they should resettle to their respective countries then, but people are reluctant to leave their homes behind. Often, these families have been living in their towns and villages for centuries.
From a political standpoint, the question arises how to tackle these issues. If nations are relatively similar, resolutions are significantly easier, compared to situations where fundamental socio-cultural differences are present. Here, the differences between the two sides are very significant. As it can be seen, the territorial split between two nations did not end in a satisfactory solution. Now, there are three options left. For example, one could think of a ‘joint administration model’ where both parties agree to split the governing responsibilities, but I do not think that this would work out, because it is too close to a ‘two-territory solution’ where the two countries’ differences are just too stark. Over time, one side will try to gain a political advantage. A failed example of a ‘joint administration state’ is Cyprus.
Second, there is a way to move to the sub-national level of administration by granting more autonomy to regional leaders and expanding local governance. Usually, this can be applied in regions where both parties trust the integrity of the population and the local leaders. In this case, Azerbaycan would not favour this solution as the probability is high that the predominantly Armenian population will gradually strengthen ties with Armenia, in order to join their state. Opposed to the sub-national approach, there is a supra-national approach, as well. This approach favours an upward movement on the vertical power scale, meaning that the countries would, again, become part of a greater state structure, such as the Ottoman Empire or the Soviet Union – both phases in which there was only very little conflict between the two nations. But who is going to be the ruler? If it is Turkey, then Azerbaycan will receive favoured treatment. Also, Azerbaycan enjoys the sympathy of most of the states in that region.
In the end, there is no resolution to this, or any other, ethnic conflict without one side getting the better side of the deal. Additionally, the assessment of those conflicts are heavily dependent on the relations to the parties and, hence, seldom objective. Accordingly, the international community is currently very reluctant to take a stance on the issue in the Karabağ region; except for the allies of the two sides. There is also no blueprint for the resolution of ethnic conflicts; not only are they complex by nature, but there are always different specifics to them (for example, resource considerations).
As unsatisfying as it is, the best solution, for the time being, is to achieve an acceptable status quo.
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