Nationalist hatred in Armenia and Azerbaijan

Soldados armenios

2020 is being a year loaded with bad news. In recent weeks we have seen the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Artsaj in Armenian, reopen. The confrontation has already left many dead and terrible, unusual and viral images shared at full speed on social networks: from Armenian soldiers, practically teenagers, recording their own death under Azeri fire, to propaganda music videos recorded a few kilometres from the front, to official infographics celebrating the destruction of various military targets. The war of the 21st century is a media and dystopian spectacle, in which unarmed soldiers and almost teenagers crammed into rudimentary trenches have to cope with suicide drones and precision weaponry. 

Disinformation and propaganda are also, of course, an inseparable part of the conflict, and social networks are one of its battlefields. It is curious that thousands of users who have nothing to do with either country choose one side, celebrating victories as if they were sporting triumphs. This trivialisation of the war is part of what some specialists call the "fifth generation war", in which cyber-propaganda and public opinion are almost as important as the confrontations on the ground. A large part of the propaganda on the Internet is spread by automated bots and paid "trolls", but there is also a considerable amount of information spread on a voluntary basis. On Spanish-speaking networks, the tendency seems to be to describe war as a kind of religious conflict between a Christian country, Armenia, and a Muslim country, Azerbaijan.

This characterisation, despite being very popular and widespread, does not stand up to the slightest analysis. It is not a religious war, although the leaders of both countries have attempted to obtain the blessing of their respective spiritual authorities. It is enough to check the international support of each side: Azerbaijan, an energy power, is supported by Erdogan's Turkey, but also by Israel, which provides it with weapons and intelligence reports. Iran, a country that shares religion and culture with Azerbaijan, supports Armenia, on the other hand, which is an ally of Russia. Nor is this a conflict with millennial roots: until 1828 the southern Caucasus was controlled by the Qakhs, Iran's ruling dynasty, which lost territories to Russia in a series of wars that ended with the Treaty of Turkmenchay.

Nationalism, rather than religion, seems to be the main driver of violence. The conflict in High Karabakh - or Artsaj - is more one of the many ethnic and territorial conflicts that resulted from the disintegration of the Soviet Union and which have been frozen in time. The animosity between Azeris and Armenians, however, already existed before the formation of the USSR. At the end of the First World War and during the Russian Civil War there were several massacres of Armenians by Azeris, and vice versa. The Soviet period did not succeed in eliminating the differences between the communities - some authors even speculate that this was a deliberate strategy to facilitate government from Moscow; for years representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh complained that despite being an Armenian-majority region education and cultural products were in Azeri.  In the late 1980s, inter-communal violence broke out in a global context of rising nationalism. The conflict escalated significantly after the dissolution of the USSR: the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed its unilateral independence from Azerbaijan and applied to join Armenia. This eventually led to a war between the two newly independent former Soviet republics that ended with tens of thousands of deaths and over a million refugees, as both sides carried out ethnic cleansing operations. 

Armenia won this first war and occupied both Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding Azeri territories that separated Karabakh from the Armenian border. Since then, the occupied territory has been administered by the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsaj, supported militarily and economically by Armenia but not recognised by any other country. According to international law, Artsakh and Nagorno-Karabakh are part of Azerbaijan, a factor which, added to the huge Azeri energy resources, explains why this country is gaining so much international support in 2020. This year, unlike 1992, the country that is launching a military offensive and has the greatest warfare capability is Azerbaijan. Both countries accuse each other of having initiated the hostilities and of being responsible for the escalation. The fact is that both are right: the clash appears to have been sought by both sides, similar to what occurred in 2016-on that occasion the confrontation was brief, though it claimed two hundred lives. 

Indeed, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been skilfully instrumentalised by the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to distract from other issues and rally support. Thus, both Nikol Pashinián, the prime minister of Armenia, and Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, have raised the tone with respect to Karabakh over the past year. Mr Pashkin, who came to power in 2018 in the wake of a wave of protests, has seen his popularity fall over the past year, particularly as a result of the management of the pandemic. In a very harsh interview with the BBC in mid-August, the British journalist Stephen Sackur accused the Armenian prime minister of taking advantage of the supposed fight against corruption to persecute the opposition and of escalating the conflict in Karabakh with grand nationalist declarations and the construction of infrastructure in the occupied lands of Azerbaijan. The strategy, despite the terrible human and material losses Armenia is suffering, has enabled the president to regain the support of a good part of society.

Armenia, however, has many more mechanisms of democratic control than Azerbaijan, where the Aliyev dynasty has been governing since before the dissolution of the USSR. Despite its iron grip on the media and networks and the climate of fear in the streets, a year ago the Azeri opposition managed to demonstrate in Baku to protest against corruption and unemployment, which had reached historic levels. Since then, hundreds of activists have been arrested, while the president denounced the opposition as foreign agents and raised the tone with Armenia. Tension continued to rise during the summer, to the extent that in July the Azerbaijani police broke up a protest in Baku calling for a war against Armenia in response to the death of several soldiers in a border skirmish. The Azerbaijani government has taken advantage of the situation to be more assertive, to the extent of launching an offensive that seems to be very successful. The success is not only military but also internal: those who do not support the conflict are described as unpatriotic, and the popularity of the regime has increased.

Two weeks after the upsurge in hostilities, it seems that both sides are willing to talk and reach an agreement with Moscow's mediation. This will not solve the conflict, but it may lead to a temporary cessation of hostilities.The most delicate position is that of Armenia: its military inferiority vis-à-vis Azerbaijan means that if Russia does not offer its unequivocal support, its positions in Artsaj will be indefensible in the medium term. What is more, Artsaj is regarded by most Armenians as an integral part of their nation; leaving the region is not an option, much less bearing in mind that Azerbaijan is even bombing historical monuments-replicating part of the Armenian strategy in the 90s, when dozens of mosques and Azeri heritage elements were destroyed. Russia, for its part, appears to want to act as an arbiter. Its influence in Azerbaijan is still notable: not only does it supply them with weapons, but a good part of the elite and upper-middle class speaks Russian and sends its children to study in Moscow. Turkey's weight in Baku has increased in recent years-as evidenced by Ankara's support for Aliyev's government-and Russia cannot allow Turkey, which supports its adversaries in Syria and Libya, to become the main partner of the government of Azerbaijan, a country with which it shares a border. 

Given this scenario, especially bearing in mind Azerbaijan's military superiority, it is possible that Moscow will press Armenia to sit down to negotiate and reach some kind of agreement. This agreement will most probably be a temporary ceasefire, as neither country is willing to relinquish what it considers an integral part of its territory. Nationalism and resentment towards the neighbouring country will undoubtedly continue to be a powerful unifying force in both republics. The wounds of the conflict, which grow deeper with each bombing, will take decades to heal. It is understandable: many Armenians and Azeris lost relatives during the war of the 1990s, and many young relatives are being mobilised to fight in the current conflict. The trauma of the current bombings will add to the memory of the massacres and ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, making it very difficult to resolve the conflict.

From the outside, we can only wish the best for both countries and an end to the conflict as soon as possible. For many people it seems natural to take a position in favour of one side or the other, but I cannot share this feeling. I know people my own age from both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and I just hope nothing happens to them or their families. Some of my friends, the least of them, share their pain on social networks and ask for humanity from their compatriots, but their voices are drowned out in a sea of nationalistic exaltation. Asking for empathy towards the enemy nation is seen in both countries as a sign of low patriotism. Criticising the government - be it Armenian or Azerbaijani - is perceived almost as treason. And amidst cheers for enemy casualties and cries of revenge for one's own, nationalism and the desire for revenge kill off the sense of criticism, mercy and humanity.