Conflict in the South Caucasus

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 15th of October, 2020.

So glad you’ve joined us today for The World and Everything in It! Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, conflict in the South Caucasus.

A new chapter of violence has begun between two former Soviet republics. Azerbaijan and Armenia have disagreed for three decades about the status of a small enclave about the size of Delaware.

The disputed territory lies within the boundaries of Azerbaijan. But it’s home to a mostly Christian Armenian population and churches that date back to the 4th century. They declared their independence shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, but Azerbaijan rejected that claim. Since then, Armenia has served as its protector.

BASHAM: Azerbaijan’s leaders have repeatedly threatened to reclaim the land, and this time around, Turkey appears to be lending a hand. WORLD’s Jill Nelson reports on the latest violence and why regional powers are getting involved.

AUDIO: [Bombings]

JILL NELSON: REPORTER: In late September, Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited some of the worst fighting since the early 1990s.

KARAPETIAN: I was just walking on the street and I witnessed a young man getting a call that his brother just died in the war.

Shushan Karapetian is a professor of Armenian studies at the University of Southern California. She’s currently visiting the Armenian capital of Yerevan. She says prior skirmishes took place between troops in the border regions, but this time, civilians are dying and historical sites are being shelled.

KARAPETIAN: The fear now is that the kind of violence and discourse and nationalistic discourse on both sides which serve authoritarian needs have just made peace even more impossible.

At the heart of the conflict is a small mountainous enclave that is home to about 150,000 mostly Armenian people.

In 1922, Stalin gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan as a token of goodwill to nearby Turkey. That upset the Armenians, so he granted the territory autonomous status. This created a messy situation in a volatile part of the world. Iran lies to the south, Turkey to the east, and Russia to the north.

KARAPETIAN: So at the crux of the problem is this historically Armenian territory that is majority Armenian being placed within the boundaries of the Soviet Azerbaijani republic but given autonomous status.

Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum vote after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and declared its independence. Azerbaijan cried foul, and that led to war with Armenia. The fighting claimed 30,000 lives and displaced 1 million people.

The two countries declared a ceasefire in 1994 but the conflict remained unresolved. And 30 years of military buildup have earned both countries a top 10 ranking among the world’s most militarized nations.

This time around, Turkey has joined the fray.

Baroness Caroline Cox is a member of Britain’s House of Lords and WORLD’s 2004 Daniel of the Year. She has made 86 trips to the region and worries about the rise of rhetoric from Turkish authorities.

COX: The fear is that they are very aggressive in their statements. Extremely aggressive. And there is a fear that they could feel they have a military capacity—Azerbaijan and Turkey—to carry out a genocide. It was only a hundred years ago they carried out that first genocide when over a million Armenians were slaughtered and driven off their land.

AUDIO: [Erdogan speaking]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to stand with Azerbaijan until Nagorno-Karabakh is liberated from Armenian control. Azerbaijan has used Turkish drones to attack the enclave, and Armenia claims Turkey shot down one of its fighter jets.

Azerbaijan is predominantly Shia Muslim, and Armenia is a self-proclaimed Christian country. But Karapetian says religion isn’t the primary driver of the conflict. The two ethnic groups lived together peacefully until the 1980s. She says Azerbaijan wants its territory back, but Armenia argues that the enclave has a right to self-determination and protection from a country that has discriminated against Armenians.

Carey Cavanaugh is a former American ambassador who helped broker talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2001. He agrees, but says Turkey could be injecting religion into the conflict:

CAVANAUGH: One of the things Turkey has been doing, and France and Russia have both said there’s proof, is helping import mercenaries from the battlefields in Syria to help fight here. There’s a danger in that, that many of those people might be highly religious.

And Turkey’s meddling could draw Moscow into the conflict, according to Karapetian:

KARAPETIAN: Russia views this area as its back yard, and doesn’t want Turkey involved in its backyard.

The fighting has displaced 90 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh’s women and children according to some estimates. Baroness Cox is concerned about a looming humanitarian crisis.

COX: In the early day or two Azerbaijan seems to deliberately target key things like water resources and power stations so I think a lot of the infrastructure has been taken away. The humanitarian needs are legion.

Despite heightened rhetoric on both sides, Karapetian challenges the narrative that both sides are responsible for the renewed fighting. She says Armenia had no incentive to stir up trouble.

KARAPETIAN: This was obviously a military aggression from the Azerbaijani side. For Armenia, the status quo was desirable. It has the territory occupied, it has extra territory occupied…

Armenia gained Azerbaijani territory around Nargorno-Karabakh during the war in the 90s to create a buffer zone. Azerbaijan wants that land back, but with Turkey’s aid, it could also try to conquer the entire enclave.

And with nearly 600 dead on both sides, Baroness Cox says world leaders need to act before the conflict escalates.

COX: And what I think they can do is put great pressure on the political leaders to put pressure on Turkey and Azerbaijan to accept a cease fire. If we go on waiting at the negotiating table, they can achieve their military objectives. There’s no more time for waiting.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

(Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool) Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, talks during an event in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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