Two universally recognized principles are at play, one favoring the Azerbaijanis, the other the Armenians.
The world is looking away. The United States in its confusion and lack of focus and Russia with a cold calculation of costs and benefits wait to see what will become of Armenians and Azerbaijanis dying, killing each other, under artillery and the dreadful eye of murderous drones. From far away the conflict appears eternal, the inevitable outcome of ancient tribal struggles, while those closer to the scene, and analysts who know the history, understand that it is a bitter political conflict over territory and self-determination.
Victorious in war a quarter of a century ago, and the beneficiaries of the armistice brokered by Russia in 1994, Armenians could live with the status quo ante bellum, but the Azerbaijani rulers were no longer able to tolerate their enemies holding what international law sanctioned as their territory. Mountainous Karabakh (Artsakh to the Armenians) was inconveniently inside the Republic of Azerbaijan, as it had been for the seventy years of Soviet dominion, autonomous and demographically overwhelmingly Armenian.
As the empire of the Soviets disintegrated at the end of the 1980s, Armenians marched and petitioned for unity with the neighboring Republic of Armenia, but they were met by pogroms in the Azerbaijan town of Sumgait and its capital, Baku. Thirty thousand died in the years of conflict and the cold peace that followed, punctuated by clashes along the armistice line. On September 27, backed by Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan’s Turkey, Ilham Aliev, the autocratic chief of Azerbaijan, decided to settle the dispute over Karabakh by force of arms. Armenia, which had turned two years earlier from a mafia-like oligarchy to a popular democracy, was caught by surprise and now is paying the price for its long unwillingness to compromise and find a solution while it had had the upper hand.
Two universally recognized principles are at play, one favoring the Azerbaijanis, the other the Armenians. Independent states as well as the United Nations recognize the principle of territorial integrity, that is, that every sovereign state is guaranteed the inviolability of its national territory, which cannot be seized by force or traded between states without mutual agreement. That principle, while violated by Europe and the United States in the war over Kosovo, was reasserted when Vladimir Putin’s Russia unilaterally annexed Crimea without the agreement of Ukraine. Borders are not to be changed by war.
The principle of territorial integrity has repeatedly been asserted by Azerbaijan, but for Armenians another principle is paramount: the right of peoples to national self-determination. As the inhabitants of Artsakh (though not of the seven outlying Azerbaijani districts that they seized in the course of the conflict), Armenians aspire to govern themselves and are convinced that they cannot tolerate the suzerainty of Baku over this part of their “homeland.” After all, they made up 75 percentage of the population of the autonomous region of Mountainous Karabakh before the fall of the USSR, and today, with the expulsion and migration of local Azerbaijanis, they are in full control of the Republic of Artsakh.
It appears that the two principles cannot be reconciled. But that is an illusion created by militant nationalists, who on one side want the land with the people, independent or linked to Armenia, and who on the other side are prepared to ethnically cleanse Karabakh and return hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced from the lands taken by Armenians.
Each nation in this war has hardened images of the other. Azerbaijanis refer constantly to “Black January” (1990), when the Soviet army entered Baku to stop the killing of Armenians, and the Armenian massacre of Azerbaijanis at Khojaly (1992). They construct Armenians as arrogant imperialists with insatiable appetites for restoration of what Armenian books and maps declare were historic lands of Greater Armenia and now are held by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Armenians see Azerbaijanis as “Turks,” who, like the Ottoman Turks of a century ago, are out to commit a genocide, the physical and cultural elimination of the Armenians. Aliev and Erdoğan have encouraged their countrymen to seek a final solution to the conflict. Books and maps printed in Baku show the Armenian Republic to be historic “Western Azerbaijan.”
History has been no friend to either nation. While the peoples of the South Caucasus were living within the Persia, Russian, and Soviet empires, they moved easily in a land without internal borders, from country to town, from plain to mountain. Empires are places where peoples of different religion and ethnicity mix together under the severe imperial eye of their foreign rulers. Historical claims to territory are ubiquitous and ultimately irresoluble, for at one time or another peoples and places shifted from one identity to another. But nation-states, in contrast to empires, often seek to nationalize their territory, to homogenize their inhabitants, either through forced assimilation or ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are more ethnically homogeneous than they had ever been before in history. The question is how will they live, two distinct nation-states, next to each other in peace.
The only way out is compromise. As in most negotiations, no one can get everything they desire; they must give up something to gain something else. This war can end by both sides recognizing that Mountainous Karabakh is de jure part of Azerbaijan, thus satisfying the principle of territorial integrity, while protecting, with international peacekeepers, the de facto self-government of the Armenians of the region, thus satisfying the principle of national self-determination. Territories outside of Mountainous Karabakh would be returned to Azerbaijani control with a guaranteed free land passage from Artsakh to the Armenian Republic. The key player here is Russia. If Putin means to maintain his authority as the principal mediator in the countries of the South Caucasus, a region in which Moscow not Washington has genuine security interests, he must solve the Karabakh problem by stepping up to protect Armenians and Azerbaijanis from further bloodshed and the pretentions of Ankara.
Sometimes it takes intervention from outside
The years of imperial rule, as in the Soviet decades, when Armenians and Azerbaijanis managed, however uneasily, to live together demonstrate that coexistence is possible. Sometimes it takes intervention from outside. Negotiations between covetous neighbors who have grown to fear and hate each other have never been easy. Compromise is often seen as betrayal. That is why Moscow has to act decisively as peacemaker.
Nothing in history is inevitable or indelible; identities and attitudes change with changing situations. Before more young men and women die, before more towns and cities built by these two peoples are destroyed, choices can be made – sensibly, rationally, by leaders who in crisis strive to be statesmen. War, it is said, is politics by other means, and politics has often been seen as war by other means. But when has war ever been preferable to peace?