Unfrozen Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

Why Violence Persists

An ethnic Armenian soldier walks in a trench at their position near Nagorno-Karabakh's town of Martuni, April 8, 2016. Reuters

The early April clash between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh was the bloodiest since Russia brokered a cease-fire between the countries to end the fighting in the region in 1994. The fighting in April left some 30 people, soldiers and civilians, dead. And it did nothing to resolve a conflict that has simmered since the Russian intervention.

The dispute’s intractability stems both from present-day complications and from incompatible historical narratives, conceptions of justice, and feelings of victimization on both sides. Emotion-laden issues of land, identity, and honor have made it nearly impossible over the last 20 years for mediators to nudge the adversaries toward the compromises essential for any durable political settlement.

It was Stalin, the Bolsheviks’ chief expert on the regional nationalities, who oversaw the crafting of the borders of the union republics that would eventually make up the Soviet Union. During two years of independence between the collapse of imperial Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union, 1918–20, Armenia and Azerbaijan had fought over three territories with mixed populations along their purported border. Under Stalin’s oversight, one region went to each of the new Soviet republics: Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan and Zangezur to Armenia. The third, the mountainous Karabakh, was awarded to Azerbaijan but as an autonomous region with cultural and administrative rights for its Armenian majority. The resulting mismatch between national and administrative boundaries was not unique—similar zones were created in Georgia and elsewhere, and most produced discord between ethnic groups striving to defend their “historic” patrimony.

Not surprisingly, Stalin’s decision on Karabakh sowed the seeds of conflict. Rumblings of discontent were quashed when the central Soviet government was strong. But as it weakened under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, nationalist rhetoric demanding the transfer of Karabakh to Armenia heated up and armed conflict soon followed. When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan proclaimed independence. Within days, the Armenians of Karabakh proclaimed secession from Azerbaijan based on the right of self-determination. Azerbaijan rejected the move, invoking

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