2020 has been a rather tumultuous year, especially in comparison to last few years. Whether it be the outbreak of the coronavirus, the social unrest that occurred in cities across the country, or the 2020 presidential election, there are many things on the minds of Americans and the screens of our televisions. But due to the chaotic nature of this year, several big events in the news have gone relatively under the radar. One affair in particular is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
On Sep. 27, 2020, open warfare between the Azerbaijani military and Nagorno-Karabakh began, reopening the conflict that officially ended decades ago, and invigorating the tensions that have existed for centuries. Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as the Republic of Artsakh, is a region of Azerbaijan but is almost entirely inhabited by ethnic Armenians. As a result, Armenians want to unify the region with sovereign Armenia, while Azerbaijan wants the region to remain part of their territory. Ethnic division and tensions have existed for years, and after a spike in violence and border skirmishes, Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkey, responded with military action last month.
In order to fully understand this conflict, you have to go back in history to get the full view. The Middle East, the East Mediterranean and the Caucasus are regions that are characteristically known for volatile ethnic conflicts, and the disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan are a prime example of that.
During World War I, while the majority of this part of the Earth was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian Genocide occurred. In what can be described as the first genocide of the 20th century, the Ottomans enforced a strict systematic policy of ethnic cleansing ending in the deaths of around 1.5 million Armenians. The Ottoman government or the subsequent nation-state of Turkey has never been punished for these war crimes and they have yet to even acknowledge it happened to this day, even though many nations across the world officially recognize its existence.
Due to their shared cultural heritage and Islamic faith, Turkey considers itself a “brother-nation,” of Azerbaijan, much to the distress of Armenia, which lies directly between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Being of a completely different ethnic group and being heavily Christian has resulted in Armenia being historically oppressed by their neighbors for centuries.
However, following the first World War, both Armenia and Azerbaijan were incorporated into the Soviet Union. The state of Artsakh is a valuable piece of land due to the oil pipelines that cross it. Despite being over 99 percent ethnically Armenian, according to Russian census data, Joseph Stalin gifted the state of Artsakh to Azerbaijan in the 1920s in an effort to please Turkey, planting the seeds of the conflict we have today. In the early 1990s, after the USSR collapsed, the ethnic tensions led to the Nagorno-Karabakh War. And while the war officially ended in a ceasefire, the hatred remained, coming to a climax last month.
I am not Armenian, but as a history major, and specifically someone who loves to study military history and foreign policy, this ongoing conflict is of great interest to me. However, it is a bit more personal than that, as while I am not Armenian, I am a practicing Catholic, and my Christian faith is very important to me. Armenia is a heavily Christian country — in fact, it is the first-ever Christian state. It officially accepted Christianity in 301 A.D., and its people are devout Eastern Orthodox. Seeing all this in the news, I felt that it is important to bring attention to my Christian brothers and sisters who have been continually oppressed and discriminated against for their faith by their belligerent and mostly Islamic neighbors for centuries.
In order to do this, I reached out to my good friend, Ashot Balasanyan, who is an Armenian-American, and he gave me links to virtual pro-Armenia protests that are occurring across the country as well as agreeing to do an interview in which he explained the entire history of the conflict in detail to me. The purpose of this article is not to take a side in this conflict or tell people who they should support, but rather to give an accurate representation of how Armenian-Americans view this current conflict, and what it means to them. I believe, as a Christian, it is important that we raise awareness of my brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering and that we elevate their voices.
After Ashot gave me a link to a virtual protest, I watched a live stream of an event that occurred in Washington, D.C. on the night of Oct. 8. At an intersection between several tall buildings, the streets were packed with Americans of Armenian descent and others who support the cause. Since I was not there in person and the camera mostly stayed stationary the whole time, I could not tell how far down the street the protest extended, but from the position where the camera was, there were so many people it was impossible to see the opposite side of the street. Swarming the road was a sea of people of all different ages. Seemingly floating through the ocean were massive red, blue and burnt-yellow flags of Armenia along with signs that read “No More Genocide” and “Armenian National Committee of America.”
From when the live stream started, several concrete road barriers were put together in order to form a de facto podium. On this podium stood a young woman wrapped in an Armenian flag alongside a young man with a large traditional-style drum. The young lady had a microphone that was connected to several large speakers up and down the street and she would hand the microphone to different speakers who gave speeches. The first speaker that I was able to see in the live stream was an Armenian man who stood up and gave a passionate speech completely in his native Armenian tongue. This man wore a shirt that had a picture of a fist on in with the colors of the Armenian flag, and the words “Artsakh Strong” underneath. As the live stream went on, I noticed that almost every speaker had this shirt on as well many people in the crowd. A few other people came up on the podium and gave their speeches in Armenian, including a few more men and a woman who gave a rather animated and fiery speech which really lit up the crowd.
While I did not understand the words they were saying, one does not need to speak Armenian to feel the anguish and pain that has been living in the Armenian spirit after continual oppression. At the same time, there is also a great sense of national pride and a strong family-like bond that can be seen among this community which shows that they are not afraid to speak out and defend their heritage. In between each speaker, the young woman wrapped in the flag would lead a powerful chant while her friend would bang the drum next to her. Among the chants was this particular phrase that was repeated over and over again, “Haxtelu enq!” which Balasanyan said translates to “We will win.” This phrase is much more than just a simple patriotic tune. As Balasanyan put it, “We chant that as our only path to peace is victory. We can’t afford an invasion, we’re literally fighting for our existence.”
One man did give a speech in English however, and I thought what he had to say was especially interesting. I did not hear the man’s name when he introduced himself so I am not aware who is he is, but he went into a story about how at this very event he met a friend who was from Israel, who was asked him about the Armenian cause. He said to the Israeli man “Imagine if Germany went unpunished after the Holocaust and started killing Jews again 105 years later, because that is exactly what is happening to Armenians today.” Later on, he finished his short speech with a particularly powerful quote, in which he said “While many of you weren’t born in Armenia, Armenia is born in you.” This speaks volumes considering a study conducted in the book “Encyclopedia of Diasporas: Immigrant and Refugee Cultures Around the World” claimed that the total population of the country of Armenia only constitutes about one-third of the total Armenia population in the world. This is due to the multiple genocides and massacres that have occurred throughout history forcing many Armenians to flee their homeland and escape the violence.
After watching the live stream, I interviewed Balasanyan, who gave an in-depth and concise history of the historical conflict. Afterward, I asked Balasanyan some more personal questions in order to figure out how this conflict affects the everyday Armenian, whether they are living in Artsakh or America.
One specific aspect of this conflict that I had many questions about was how the current outbreak of COVID-19 has affected it. While the virus is thankfully nowhere near as deadly as we initially thought, it is still obviously a serious global issue. So what boggles my mind is why in a time when a global pandemic is facing the world, that Azerbaijan would pick this particular moment to rehash a territorial dispute, especially when both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been hit hard by the coronavirus. Balasanyan told me that this very reason is why Azerbaijan chose to attack now because the rest of the world is distracted with other issues. However, especially in Artsakh, the conflict has made the outbreak even worse. Because the Azerbaijani military has bombed many civilian villages, people have been forced out of their homes and into shelters. Obviously, large masses of people in buildings are the opposite of what health officials would advise for coronavirus prevention and safety.
As for the people experiencing the violence and warfare firsthand, Balasanyan explained how dire the situation is. Once the conflict started in late September, the Azerbaijani military, with heavy Turkish support, has attacked numerous civilian targets in Artsakh such as villages and churches. They also have been committing several war crimes such as the use of cluster bombs, which is a type of ordinance dropped from a plane that explodes into a cluster of smaller munitions. Sometimes not all the munitions explode once they hit the ground, making the entire area extremely dangerous for a long time. Turkey has also hired Syrian mercenaries to fight on the front lines for Azerbaijan, many of whom are suspected to be trained ISIS fighters. According to what Balasanyan has seen, the Artsakh Republic’s troops, which are supported by Armenia itself, have tried to defend themselves by conducting counterattacks. At the beginning of this month, a ceasefire was brokered by Russia, but almost immediately after, Azerbaijan violated the terms of the agreement and the fighting resumed.
I asked Balasanyan what the motivation behind this attack was, and what both sides want out of this conflict. He said that it differs depending on the individual Azerbaijani citizen, given that their country is an authoritarian state run by the dictator, Ilham Aliyev, who controls what information the public can access. Some Azerbaijanis want peace, and they don’t want to continue fighting, but they view Nagorno-Karabakh as their land, and they want Armenians off of it. Other Azerbaijanis, though, have said they want to “increase the 1.5 million number” referring to the 1.5 million killed in the 1915 genocide. As for the governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey, they have adopted policies of “Pan-Turkism” and Islamization where they seek to geographically unite the ethnically Turkish and religiously Muslim people of Turkey and Azerbaijan. However, this would mean the elimination of Christian Armenia which resides in between.
As for Artsakh and Armenia’s goals, they would like to unite the Armenian people and incorporate Artsakh back into their nation in the long term, but right now the priority has been protecting the Armenian people in that region first and foremost while also trying to increase international pressure on Turkey and Azerbaijan. However, this is particularly hard, as many powerful nations like the U.S. and Israel sell weapons and buy oil from Turkey and Azerbaijan, not to mention that Turkey is a member of NATO.
Balasanyan said that he personally hopes that one day “everyone in these three countries can coexist peacefully,” but what he realistically sees happening is another ceasefire occurring, only for Azerbaijan to violate it again, forcing Armenians to continue fighting until Azerbaijan stops.
As for Balasanyan himself, he was born in Armenia but moved here to the U.S. at the age of seven with his parents, while many of his cousins remained in Armenia. Military conscription laws mean that he has not been able to return to his birth nation, but that does not deter him from keeping his heritage close to his heart, as many Americans of Armenian descent do as well. One person who is seen as a hero among the Armenian community is a man named Monte Melkonian, an Armenian-American born in California who traveled to Artsakh in the early 90s to fight in what was the first iteration of this conflict, where he died fighting Azerbaijani forces in 1993. I asked Ashot if he ever contemplated traveling to Armenia to enlist in the military, to which he said that he seriously did. But after a long conversation with his parents where he weighed what is at stake, he decided to stay here in the United States, as he is an only child and there a good chance he could not come back. He also realized that there are many ways to help the Armenian cause here. However, Balasanyan did state that if the sovereign nation of Armenia is directly and officially attacked by Azerbaijan, then he will make the decision to travel to his birth-nation and fight. This is a sentiment that I would say, most patriotic Americans can relate to.
Balasanyan and I also briefly talked about how the Armenian people have been treated by their neighbors throughout their history, whether it be the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Soviet Union or others. There are also comparisons that can be made with the Armenian Genocide to other genocides or mass systematic discrimination, such as the Greek Genocide, the Assyrian Genocide (also carried out by the Ottomans), the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis or even the mass murder of Christians that continues to occur across the Middle East and Central Asia today. I told Ashot that it is fascinating but also deeply saddening how history repeats itself, to which he agreed but followed up with a statement that I think summarizes this current conflict really well: “History is repeated when the aggressor goes unpunished.”