The Heritage Foundation gets it wrong on Nagorno-Karabakh.

April 3, 2019

"Conflict resolution isn't aided by think tanks who know nothing about the parties involved, or the historical basis of the nouns they use."


The Heritage foundation put out an opinion piece roughly three years ago in support of Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (referred to as NKR). I only discovered this piece a few days ago, but better late than never, right?


"The U.S. should continue to call for a peaceful solution to the conflict that includes the withdrawal of Armenian forces from all Azerbaijani territories."


 It was written by Luke Coffey from the Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy. Coffey was highly involved in the defense aspects of David Cameron's 2010 Election manifesto.  Although the author has tried to use neutral language, there are telling phrases which reveal the his lack of knowledge on the subject.


"The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan started in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims on Azerbaijan’s Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. This action resulted in a bloody war that left 30,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands more internally displaced."


First things first. Armenia made territorial claims in 1988? What the author possibly means is that the local Armenian council in Karabakh voted democratically to unify with Armenia, and then had a referendum. The Armenians living there had been unhappy about their situation since the 1920s. After the Bolsheviks won the Russian civil war they then set about restoring the previous borders of the Russian Empire. The problem they faced however, was the fact that many of these former imperial territories had declared themselves independent years prior. These independent republics were ethnically based, which for the most part was easy to maintain. But what to do with one ethnic group that is surrounded by another? To whom should this group belong? This is exactly what ended up happening with the Armenian population who formed the majority of an area known as Nagorno (highland) Karabakh. The Armenian Republic to the West had been fighting the local Tatar Republic of Azerbaijan over this enclave for several years before the Bolsheviks appeared on the scene. The British had also briefly acted as moderators in the area (not without securing themselves access to the Baku oil resources.) Once the Bolsheviks had finished annexing the independent republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia they transformed them into "Soviet Socialist Republics". The Bolsheviks then of course inherited the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh, and with some deliberation decided to give the territory to the Azerbaijani SSR, but with the condition that the Armenian enclave would be granted autonomy. This was completely against the wishes of the Armenian population who still wanted to be part of the Armenian SSR. This brings us back to 1988.




 Protests for separation from the Azerbaijani SSR had been made since the 60s but had all fallen on deaf ears. However, in the wake of Gorbachev’s promising liberalization reforms of the USSR, Karabakh-Armenians, Abkhazians and other autonomous minorities had the naiveté, nay, audacity to think that it would be applied to their own rights to self determination.  This appeal was rebuffed by Gorbachev, even after an anti-Armenian pogrom took place in Sumgait as a response to the vote. Does Coffey not think it is legitimate for one enclave of a country to be granted independence if the will of the people in that region is made clear? The Heritage Foundation have written pieces in support of Kosovo's independence from Serbia on the same grounds, even though they didn’t have a referendum like the Karabakh Armenians did. Do they frame this as Albania making “territorial claims” on Serbia?  Alternatively, if the author doesn’t appreciate the comparison with Kosovo, let me put it philosophically:  If it was legitimate for the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan to secede from the USSR in 1991, why was it not also legitimate for the Karabakh Armenians to secede from them? Do the staunch conservatives at the Heritage Foundation place such sanctity in boundaries drawn up by Stalin and Lenin?  If our worst fears are realized, and the Heritage Foundation are indeed covert Communists seeking to destroy the conservative movement from within then perhaps they will consider looking at this announcement that was once made by their comrade Stalin in December 20 1920:


“Armenia, so long martyred and tormented… how now found salvation by proclaiming itself a Soviet Land… On December 1, Soviet Azerbaijan voluntarily renounced its claim to the disputed provinces and ceded Zangezur, Nakhchavan and Nagorno Karabakh to Soviet Armenia… The age-old enmity between Armenia and the surrounding Moslem peoples has been dispelled at one stroke by the establishment of fraternal solidarity between the Working people of Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.”

[“Long Live Soviet Armenia!” - J. Stalin. Pravda, Dec 4, 1920]


The fact that Stalin was hesitant about giving Nagorno Karabakh and even Nakhchavan to the Azerbaijani SSR should give Coffey some pause about the sanctity of these borders. Robert Service in his biography of Stalin points out that these concessions to the Azerbaijani SSR were only made to avoid a war with their sympathetic cousins in the newly formed Turkish Republic. 

As we can see, it is highly misleading to say that the conflict "started" in 1988. The situation did not arise in a vacuum.

Someone new to this might then ask a reasonable question; "How did this enclave come to exist in a neighboring country in the first place?" To discuss why, we must go back roughly 200 years. In the early 1800s, the South Caucasus was not divided along the same borders we see today. Armenians lived within the borders of the Eastern Ottoman Empire, the Northern Iranian Empire, and the Southern Russian Empire. And these borders shifted back and forth for centuries. And when those borders weren’t changing, they were divided into various administrative zones which themselves changed from time to time. For example whilst subjects of the Iranian Empire the modern day Republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia were administered by various Khanates  ruled by Muslim Khans which paid tribute to whichever Empire happened to control the region at the time. Although they did not yet use this label, Azerbaijanis are the heirs to these Khanates, which were majority Muslim. However, within the Kharabakh Khanate there existed 5 Armenian Melikdoms (fiefdoms) closely grouped together, which roughly corresponded to the borders of the future NKR. These 5 Fiefdoms lived in Semi-Autonomy and preserved Armenian civilization for centuries after the fall of the Armenian Kingdoms further west.  On the eve of the Kharabakh Khanate's annexation to the Russian Empire, a survey was carried out for tax purposes. That survey concluded that the while the Khanate itself was roughly 75 percent Muslim, 25 percent were Armenians who resided within those Melikdoms (and constituted over 90 percent!). Furthermore, that 75 percent included all Muslim groups, not merely the Turkic speakers who would later identify themselves as “Azerbaijanis”.

 In other words, there has always an Armenian enclave in that spot, long before the 1920s when the borders of the Soviet Socialist Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan were carved up by the Soviet Union and Turkey, and long before those boundaries were arbitrarily accepted as gospel by the UN after the fall of the USSR. Therefore, we shouldn't so lightly accuse a post Soviet State of occupying "almost 20 percent of the territory that the international community recognizes as part of Azerbaijan", when it is precisely that recognition that should be called into question.


As an aside, there may be some who will rightly point out that the areas currently occupied by the local Armenians are not just the boundaries of the former NKR, and in fact go a little bit further. Even those who believe that the local Armenians should be independent will concede that the surrounding areas that were captured in the early 90s should eventually be given over to the Azeri side, especially the town of Aghdam which used to lie just to the east of the NKR. When I drove past Aghdam in 2018 I saw nothing but ruined buildings with not a soul in sight. The pain this causes for the former inhabitants notwithstanding, we need to think strategically. Those areas just outside the NKR provide a useful height for shelling. Suppose that the Armenian forces willingly signed a peace treaty and handed the surrounding areas back to the Azeris with the provision that the NKR itself would remain independent (or joined with Armenia). Does Luke Coffey know with 100 percent certainty that those heights won't be used for shelling by Azeris in a bid to retake the whole thing?  Or supposing the Armenians in NKR (or Artsakh as they call it now) accept autonomy within the Republic of Azerbaijan, does Coffey know with 100 percent certainty that the Azeris won't then proceed to ethnically cleanse the area? The fact that the Azeri state authorities have refused to allow the NKR representatives to have any say in the negotiations would imply that they have no interest in the people living there, and are only interested in territory. And since the Azerbaijani authorities were caught destroying a former Armenian grave site in Nakhchavan, it doesn't seem as if they are at all interested in living peacefully side by side with their Armenian brothers. If you cannot say how certain you are that this will not happen, then how can the NKR forces either?  But of course, none of this matters to Coffey, who advocates "a peaceful solution to the conflict that includes the withdrawal of Armenian forces from all Azerbaijani territories.", territories he has failed to justify. 


The Iranian and Russian question.


The author also laments the fact that Armenia’s ties with Iran and Russia are too close for comfort. This makes sense from an American point of view, and Coffey mentions the US accusations made in 2016 against Armenia that they sold arms to Iran, arms that then were used against Americans in Iraq. On the other hand, don’t Armenians have a right to be concerned that in that same year, America continues to ally with Israel who sold drone technology to Azerbaijan that was then used against Armenians in the NKR? Is any side innocent in this regard?  Perhaps Armenia wouldn't be forced to make such deals if the US and other Western powers provided them with more strategic partners as an alternative. Turkey and Azerbaijan both have economic blockades against Armenia. As a landlocked country it is hardly surprising that they will make trade deals where they can.  This seems to be a common theme in Western policy towards the Caucasus; Isolate/do not recognize a country with legitimate grievances, and then accuse it of being a stooge when it turns to someone else we dislike. 

Furthermore, Armenia's connections with Iran are not merely economic and strategic, they are also academic. In the dusty halls of academia (a place foreign policy "experts" seldom bother to tread) there is a battle over who is who, and who lived where first.

This is precisely the cause of that "underlying tension between Tehran and Baku over the status of ethnic Azeris living in Iran."  I strongly suspect the author has no idea what this tension is actually about and I will assume the same about the reader. In short, the river separating Iran and The Republic of Azerbaijan is known as the Araxes.  For as long as the word "Azerbaijan" has existed it was used to refer to the area south of the Araxes. When the first Independent Azerbaijan Republic was proclaimed it was met with alarm in Iran to the south, much like the name "Macedonia" was in Greece. I challenge anybody to find a map or a history book not produced in late 20th Century Baku that doesn’t confirm this. Even older Turkic writers prior to the 20th century never used such terminology. The strange story of how this people came to refer to themselves as “Azerbaijanis” is best explained with a metaphor.

Imagine a process by which millions of Indian people started moving into the south of Scotland. Now imagine that those Indians living in the South of Scotland proclaimed their own "Republic of Cumbria" and started referring to themselves as North Cumbrians, despite their newly named "southern" cousins having no inclination towards unity with them, highly questionable national ties to them, and everybody else in England being completely shocked by the strange choice of name for their new neighbor.

Love them or hate them, it is no surprise that Iranians and Armenians have found a common cause in the battle against state sanctioned altering of history.


But perhaps this is all ancient history, and far beneath a foreign policy expert such as Coffey. Never the less Coffey alludes to Iran’s attempts to influence The Republic of Azerbaijan. He doesn’t specify with any examples, but how far back in history is he interested to look? How about 1946? This is the year Iranian Azerbaijan was briefly annexed by Stalin who set up a brief puppet socialist republic until he abandoned the venture. Even to this day academics in Baku refer to themselves as “Northern” Azerbaijanis, as if to imply a connection with the Iranian province, and continue to print fraudulent history books to push their faux-irredentist claims to the south. It was precisely this supposed connection between Southern and Northern Azerbaijanis that was used to justify Stalin’s annexation. See one of these "history" books for yourself:



This above map can be found in "Historical Maps of Azerbaijan" printed in Baku. Notice that all of Armenia and the Northern third of Iran have been subsumed under this fictional state of 10th Century "Azerbaijan". 

 If Iran was really interested in influencing The Republic of Azerbaijan wouldn’t they be quick to embrace this label of “Southern” Azerbaijan and twist it to their own advantage too? In fact the opposite has happened. Iranian Azerbaijan has now been divided into three different provinces so as to avoid association with their northern “kin”. Coffey can worry all he likes about attempts by Iran to influence their northern neighbor but the 20th century paints the opposite picture.


In conclusion, conflict resolution isn't aided by think tanks who know nothing about the parties involved, or the historical basis of the nouns they use.


Original Article here.

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