The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The Black Garden of Caucasus

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“War and peace are not separate compartments. Peace depends on threats and force; often peace is the crystallisation of past force.”

(Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 1973)

I welcome you back once again,

In this part we will deal with what is properly called the Nagorno-Karabakh War, even if as we have seen, at this point the clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been going on with more or less intensity for about 70 years. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union will open a new chapter within the Caucasian scenario, differentiating this clash from those that occurred previously in the area.

First, the absence of the Soviet “gendarme” sparked the arms race in the region. From this point of view, Azerbaijan was in an advantageous position, since, in the defensive programs of the Soviet Union, the resistance to a possible attack by Turkey (a member of NATO) would be concentrated, while the Armenia was destined to be a “Combat Zone”: therefore the Azerbaijani military forces were more numerous, prepared, and supported by the aviation. In addition to this, the divisions sent to the Caucasus by the MVD (МВД, Министерство внутренних дел – the Ministry of Internal Affairs) were made up of poor conscripts from other regions of the Soviet Union, who quickly inaugurated a black market of all equipment in their possession, in order to be able to leave the Caucasus. Weapons also arrived in large quantities from abroad: Turkey, Israel, Arab countries and from members and organizations of the Armenian Diaspora, especially those in the United States.

The ranks of the two armies also began to swell, following the Operation “Ring”, volunteers and mercenaries lined up on one and the other front: in Armenia, in addition to the compulsory conscription, there were many volunteers who, inspired by the guerrillas of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of the beginning of the century, they formed autonomous squads called jokats, even if unlike the fedayi these men were mostly interested in the looting and profit they could make by reselling what they stole on the black market. A great many women also joined the Nagorno Karabakh army, both as fighters and as auxiliaries. Anatoly Zinevich, a former Soviet general, remain in the region and served on the armenian side for five years, becaming the Chief of Staff of the Republic of Artsakh armed forces.

As mentioned earlier, the Azerbaijani army was slightly better organized, with 30,000 regulars in addition to around 10,000 paramilitaries from the OMON militias and several hundred volunteers from the Popular Front. They were joined by the ultra-nationalist Pan-Turkish groups of the Gray Wolves, commanded by Isgandar Hamidov, and many mercenaries paid with the income that Azerbaijan obtained from the exploitation of its gas fields in the Caspian Sea. The Azerbaijani military was also assisted by Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, at the time leader of the Mujahideen and future Prime Minister of his country.

On December 31, 1991, with the official dissolution of the URRS, nothing could prevent Armenia and Azerbaijan from engaging in a large-scale war.

It will be the Azerbaijani troops to open hostilities after their government tried to cancel the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh in November 1991, obtaining in response a referendum from the local authorities in which the Armenian population overwhelmingly votes for the independence (later officially declared on January 6, 1992). Just in the winter of 1991-92 the army besieged Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, starting to bombard it with artillery and air force for several months, indiscriminately hitting military and civilian targets, such as hospitals and homes. , even in the areas surrounding the city. On some days as many as 400 GRAD missiles rained down on Armenian citizen.

“Anyone could just get up with a hangover, after drinking the night before, sit behind the Grad and fire, fire, fire at Stepanakert without any aim, without any coordinates.”

 Azerbaijani soldier Aiaz Kerimov, as reported in the book “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” by Thomas De Waal, NYU Press, 2003

The newborn Republic of Armenia began to feel the stranglehold around its territory, despite having joined the Commonwealth of Independent States created after the dissolution of the USSR, it was still at the mercy of the embargo operated by Azerbaijan and feared that from the West before or then the attack by Turkey would come, which openly supported the Azerbaijani cause.

he counterattack of the Armenian Forces focused on the only strip of land that connected the region to Karabakh, the “Lachin corridor”, and which could only be reached by helicopters. The Azerbaijani town of Khojaly was first targeted: firstly it was one of the artillery positions from which Stepanaket was daily bombed, and secondly it had the only airport in the region. On February 26, assisted by a contingent of the CIS, the Armenian Army stormed the city, conquering it and at the same time attacking the fleeing civilian population of Azerbaijani ethnicity, killing at least 161 people (an episode that became known as the “Massacre of Khojaly “).

The scent of impending war had led much of the Azerbaijani population to take refuge in the fortress-city of Shusha: from there, the Azerbaijani army organized attacks on surrounding Armenian villages and prepared the ground for a heavier offensive on Stepanakert, whose population lived now in the bunkers and undergrounds of the city. The resistance of the Armenian militias around Shusha prevented the Azeris from organizing an offensive: on the contrary, the military leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh took advantage of the situation to attack the last Azerbaijani outpost in the region.

On May 8, 1992, the Armenian Army attempted an assault on the city and, despite being outnumbered and outgunned compared to the Azerbaijani forces, their greater military preparation allowed them to take the city on the 9th, after a day of bloody street fighting, forced their enemies to retreat and abandon the city.

A small parenthesis: as we have said, the Azerbaijani armed forces were larger and better equipped, but, due to strong discrimination within the Soviet army, they had never fought a real war; the Armenian army of Karabakh, on the other hand, was made up for over half by veterans of the terrible Soviet-Afghan War. The only professional soldiers Azerbaijan could count on were the Chechen militiamen commanded by Shamil Basayev, trained by the Russians to fight in Abkhazia against Georgia, who will remember that as their “only defeat” and will soon begin to desert the fighting in as in their vision they had a “too nationalist and not very religious” connotation.

The capture of Shusha forced the Azerbaijani President Mutalibov to resign (just the time to find a scapegoat for the failure and be reinstated on May 15th), and worsened the relations of the Armenian Republic with Turkey, slightly improved in the period following independence from the Soviet Union. Although the then Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel said he was in favor of an intervention in favor of Azerbaijan, this never happened due to the tensions still present between NATO and the CIS: leading exponents of the former Soviet armed forces clearly stated that the intervention by a NATO country in the Caucasus would have brought everyone “to the brink of World War III” (curiously, the same situation will recur with the Civil War in Yugoslavia, but at that time the threats of the former Eastern Bloc could appear much more concrete compared to just a few years later).

On May 18, the Armenian army took the city of Lachin, thus achieving the goal it had set itself: obtaining a safe corridor to reconnect the Republic of Armenia with Karabakh. This put an end to the Mutalibov regime, which was overthrown by a coup organized by the members of the Popular Front, who elected their own President, Abulfaz Elchibey, and took control of parliament, with a view to distancing themselves from Russia and approach to Turkey.

With the cessation of internal conflicts, the Azerbaijani army organized its own counterattack: Operation “Goranboy” (named after a region in northern Karabakh) should have represented, in the minds of its creators, the one that would have sanctioned the final victory. about the Armenians. On June 12, 1992, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive in the direction of the Askeran region, in the center of Nagorno-Karabakh, managing to take control of several important settlements, and then marching towards the Goranboy region, defended by handful detachments of Armenian militias, which resisted until July 4, 1992, when the Azeris took Mardakert, the main city in the region.

The Armenian forces only had to retreat south towards Stepanakert, along with 30,000 Armenian civilians. On June 18, a state of emergency was declared throughout the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a call to arms of all those fit for combat, reunited together with the various militias in a single structure, the Defense Army of the Nagorno Republic -Karabakh.

The offensive of the Azerbaijani army was stopped by the Russian air force, which, given the pro-Turkish tendencies of the Azerbaijani government, decided to take sides, even if it never officially declared it, on the Armenian side, providing weapons in addition to the support of the airborne divisions . This gave the Armenian Army time to reorganize and launch a counter-offensive against the Azeris, whose “blitzkrieg” had run out of office and whose soldiers were exhausted: their general, Suret Huseynov, preferred to abandon the most precarious positions and retreat to Ganja, allowing the RNK Defense Army to reverse the situation by regaining lost ground, beginning to regain territories from February-March 1993.

Azeri tanks abandoned in Nagorno-Karabakh, photo by Nicholas Babaian

In the midst of all this, there were several attempts to broker some kind of peace: the first was Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsnjani, who convinced the two sides to sign an agreement known as the “Tehran Communiqué” on May 7, 1992: needless to say, the capture of Shusha and the Lachin ovvensive made the whole thing void in less than two weeks. Attempts were also made by the CSCE (the organization that would later become the OSCE) to try to bring NATO and the CIS to a table, with the idea of ​​creating a peacekeeping force that would include both and that could to intervene as a “Peace Force” also in Moldavia, Chechnya, Ossetia, Abkhazia and above all in the Yugoslav Civil War. Of course, none of this was accomplished, particularly due to strong opposition from Russia, which saw the intrusion of European countries as an attempt by NATO to enter the country’s affairs through the “Back Door”.

Despite the easing of hostilities during the winter of 1992 – 93, the material losses and the embargo caused great suffering in the Armenian population, both that of the Republic and that of Nagorno-Karabakh: the economy was collapsing and the he single pipeline was reduced to a minimum due to the renewed clashes in Georgia against the Ossetian and Abkhaz separatists. Numerous families even ran out of hot water. The country was helped by the organizations of the Armenian Diaspora, the European Union and Iran, the latter definitively antagonizing Azerbaijan. The latter was certainly not faring better: full of internal and external refugees living in desperate conditions, and also with a collapsing economy, due to the failure in an attempt to revive its oil industry, given that no company he intended to invest in a country in constant conflict.

“No wars are unintended or ‘accidental’. What is often unintended is the length and bloodiness of the war.” (Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 1973)

The winter sufferings, however, did not seem to be able to calm the spirits of the parties involved: despite the attempts carried out by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and American President George H. W. Bush, hostilities in the region began to grow again. Russia itself, which on the one hand tried to mediate peace, on the other hand financed the Armenian army with armaments for a billion USD, which allowed them to occupy again the Karabakh villages lost the year before and still in their hands. to the Azeris, who, for their part, were experiencing a troubled political moment: the military insisted that Azerbaijan also ask for support from Russia, but President Elchibey was immovable and the Azerbaijani generals were removed from their post.

To secure the northern border of Karabakh and prevent it from being used to install artillery positions, between 2 and 3 April the Armenian army attacked the neighboring region of Kalbajar, mostly Azero-Kurdish, wiping out the few and evil armed troops in his defense and taking possession of the region, as well as numerous armored vehicles in use by the Azerbaijani army. The conquest of Kalbajar was marked by indiscriminate violence, killings and the mass exodus of civilians from the area. President Elchibey could not help but declare a state of emergency and order the universal conscription, but on July 18 he was overthrown by a coup d’etat hatched by General Huseynov, who on July 1 was appointed Prime Minister, while the office as President it passed to the MP Heydar Aliyev.

Azerbaijani refugees from Kalbajar, photo by Ilgar Jafarov, 1993

Obviously the Armenians took advantage of the political chaos inside the Azerbaijan republic to launch a series of offensives during the summer of 1993: the Karabakh front was open and defenseless, and it was not difficult for the Armenian army to advance rapidly in the region. while the Azerbaijani army retreated without even fighting. At the end of June, the Azeris were driven out of Mardakert, thus losing their last settlement in the region. Given the right moment, the Armenians decided to continue the advance to the Agdam region, just outside Nagorno-Karabakh, with the intention of making it a “barrier zone” that would protect their cities from artillery fire. Azerbaijani. When the bombing began on the 4th of July, civilians and military began to evacuate Agadam, and President Aliyev, faced with political and military collapse, decided to turn to the international community for help, while the Armenians were preparing the offensive against the regions south of Karabakh, the Fizuli and the Jebrail.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Çiller, tried to threaten the Armenians, demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops from the territories of Azerbaijan and sending the army to the border with the Republic of Armenia. Her plan foresaw that, with the victory of the coup leaders during the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, the troops deployed on the border with Armenia would be withdrawn: in particular, it seems that she had made an agreement with one of the leaders of the revolt against Yeltsin, Ruslan. Khasbulatov, who, once he gained power, would have allowed Turkish forces to make raids in Armenia and northern Iraq, under the pretext of prosecuting Kurdish PKK guerrillas. But the coup failed and the Turkish army did not move, fearful of the confrontation with the 20,000 Russian soldiers stationed on the Armenian border.

At the beginning of September, the Azerbaijani military forces were in disarray, abandoning weapons and military means on the field that went to strengthen the counterpart. President Aliyev was so desperate that he recruited between 1000 and 1500 Afghans and Arabs Mujahadeen, while large foreign oil companies, such as MEGA-OIL, required the support of armed contingents of the US Army as a clause to continue their work in the Azeri oil fields.

In October, Aliyev, now formally elected President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, strove to restore order and organize the counter-offensive, managing to achieve some small successes: in January 1994, the Azerbaijani army, with the help of the Afghan guerrillas, recaptured some of the neighboring regions of Karabakh, but the offensive quickly died out in the face of the intervention of the Armenian Army. Moreover, it had a tremendous cost in terms of human lives: boys aged sixteen and up, without any training, werw recruited for completely ineffective “human wave” attacks. The small victories of the winter campaign cost the lives of 5,000 Azerbaijani soldiers. Likewise, the attempt to recapture the Kalbajar district proved to be a disaster: the initial success turned into carnage, with Azerbaijani divisions isolated and surrounded by Armenians, killing more than 1,500 in a single fight. From that point on, the Azerbaijani forces lost any desire to fight again.

In his 1997 book, On Ruins of Empire, Russian professor Georgiy I. Mirsky try to explain the lack of purpose and commitment to fighting the war by the Azerbaijan population, stating that “Karabakh does not matter to Azerbaijanis as much as it does to Armenians. Probably, this is why young volunteers from Armenia proper have been much more eager to fight and die for Karabakh than the Azerbaijanis have” and also the physicist and Nobel laureate Andrej Sakarov remarked that “For Azerbaijan, the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death.”

And so, after six years of war, both sides agreed on a ceasefire. Azerbaijan in particular, short of men and aware that the Armenians had a clear path to march directly on Baku, asked for the intervention of the OSCE or Russia (having also entered the CIS) to broker an agreement. On May 5, 1994, with Russia in the role of mediator, the parties agreed on a truce to be triggered starting at midnight on the 12 of the same month, signed by the respective defense ministers of the three principal warring parties: Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Republic of Artsakh.

The final borders of the conflict after the 1994 ceasefire was signed. Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh currently control almost 9% of Azerbaijan’s territory outside the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, while Azerbaijani forces control Shahumyan and the eastern parts of Martakert and Martuni.

Unfortunately, like other times, this too was only an “apparent” end to the conflict, which in fact remained as one of the many “frozen” high-tension situations in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and the Caucasus in particular. In addition to the enormous cost in human lives, and to a number of refugees of about one million people, the war (this one in particular, but it can be valid in general) has fueled an irrational and rooted hatred among the opposing sides, which has manifested in sporadic successive clashes but above all in the interethnic hatred still strongly found both in Armenia and in Azerbaijan.

But we will talk more about this in the last part, the one that will take us to the present day and the reasons that have, once again, rekindled the conflict in the region.

Thank you for reading this writing, and, hoping that beyond the story of a war it has also made you reflect, I greet you and I make an appointment with you next time. As usual, if you have any questions, you just have to write to me.

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