Nagorno-Karabakh: A reporter’s regretful recollections

The Armenians huddle in a basement while Azerbaijani missiles rained down on the city of Stepanakert. Armenian forces strike back and refugees flee while fighting rages across the region. Armistices almost collapse before they even begin. A war fueled by the struggle for influence between Turkey and Russia in the oil-rich Caucasus threatens to cross borders.
Those headlines surfaced today in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region over which Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war. In fact, however, they are eerily similar to the reports I submitted to The Christian Science Monitor from there almost 30 years ago.
When I watch current events in the Caucasus, I am struck by a sense of déjà vu. A war that I treated pretty closely for several years began almost unchanged from where I left it. The two sides and the international community have failed to resolve the conflict and a new generation is paying the price.
When I arrived in Moscow in 1990, my and the world's attention focused on the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist efforts to save the Soviet Union's 70-year experiment with communism. But very soon I realized that another massive structure was also facing an existential challenge - the sprawling Russian Empire that the Bolsheviks had recreated as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
I have traveled to all but one of these republics, from the Muslim countries of Central Asia to the trio of European nations in the Baltic States. I found the same thing everywhere: Gorbachev's policies of glasnost or openness had sparked long suppressed movements of national identity and independence.
The first such outbreak occurred in Armenia with the establishment of the Karabakh Committee in 1988. A mass movement sought redress for a long and passionate complaint about Joseph Stalin's incorporation of the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh into the territory of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.
Behind the Karabakh movement was the deep historical conflict between the Armenians in one of the oldest Christian nations in the world and the Turks, the ethnic brothers of the Azeris. The Turkish Ottoman Empire had conquered much of the territory of Armenia and in 1915 carried out a brutal genocide of the Armenian people within its borders. The Russians acted as protectors of what was left of Armenia within their empire.
When problems arose in the early 1990s, the Azeris enjoyed the support of Turkey, which cooked with nationalistic zeal for a new pan-Turkish sphere that would unite the Turkish peoples of the former Soviet Union as far as Central Asia. The Russians were eager to defend their traditional power in the region, but were unable to wield much authority in the face of the post-Soviet turmoil.
When I first visited Karabakh in March 1992, the local Armenians, with the support of the newly independent Armenian Republic, waged a desperate war for survival. They were only connected by a slim airlift, and the regional capital Stepanakert was without electricity and without food and medicine. I took refuge in the basement of a sturdy stone building when rockets rained down from Soviet launchers in the heights above.
Armenia proper was now completely isolated and its supply routes through neighboring Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia were cut off. During a cruel winter, I wrote, the capital of Yerevan “receded into a village. With daily snowfall, the city's 2 million people crowd into icy apartments with no heat or running water. The electricity runs for two hours a day, if at all. The industry has stalled. According to one estimate, two thirds of the workforce are unemployed. "
Determined Armenian fighters, supported by funds and volunteers from the large Armenian diaspora, have finally turned the tide. By 1993 they had linked Nagorno-Karabakh with the Armenian Republic via a narrow corridor and had taken control of almost the entire enclave.
In the fall of 1993, the Azeris launched a counter-attack that recruited thousands of Afghan Islamist fighters to try to reverse their fate. (I was the first Western reporter to find hard evidence of their presence in captured documents.) Then the Armenians invaded Azerbaijan and seized a strategic area that gave them a buffer.
The conflict forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes to ethnic cleanse on both sides. I visited the conquered Azerbaijani city of Agdam in December 1993 and wrote:
“Ripe apples and persimmons hang heavily on the branches of the trees in the garden at 18 Hycjev Street, but only the sparrows and crows are here to enjoy the harvest.
The residents of this merchant's house, like everyone else in this once prosperous center of the Azerbaijani wine-growing region, fled an Armenian attack last July. As a result, their houses were looted and burned; The window glass melted and the tin roofs collapsed from the heat of the fire. "
Eventually the outside world awoke to conflict. Mediators from Russia, France and the US have signed a ceasefire, but have not been able to push the warring parties to a diplomatic agreement. Little has changed in the quarter of a century since then.
Now Azerbaijan seems intent on recapturing land that Armenia captured during the war but did not settle in in hopes of using it as a chip for trade recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh's right to self-determination.
The current fighting, which began in late September, is by far the worst since the war I witnessed in the early 1990s. The Azeris have used their oil wealth to buy weapons, including modern drones and missiles, from Russia, Turkey and Israel, and they are using them with good success. As 30 years ago, civilians on both sides are the main victims of this war; The number of victims is hundreds and growing rapidly.
Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has courageously intervened, trained Azerbaijani troops, dispatched advisors and - in an impressive echo of the past - dispatched thousands of Islamist fighters from Syria. With the Trump administration largely incapacitated, only Russia can really stand up to the Turks, and while the Russians have brokered shaky cease-fires, they are cautiously trying to play both sides in the conflict.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many observers noticed the peaceful nature of its disintegration. What they ignored were the small wars that flared up in the ruins of the empire from Chechnya to Crimea. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of those wars; Unfortunately it was never resolved for me. Now the region and its people are feeling the sting in the long tail of this failure.
Daniel Sneider is a lecturer in international politics and East Asian studies at Stanford University. You can find a selection of his broadcasts from Nagorno-Karabakh under the following links:
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