The recent history of Armenia is one of a people who have endured repeated occupation, genocide, mass migration, and constant border conflicts. Today, this Caucus nation once again finds itself at the forefront of a major geopolitical conflict as a decades-old territorial dispute with neighbouring Azerbaijan is reinvigorated. The conflict threatens to become yet another proxy war between regional superpowers, with Armenia caught in the crossfire.
Armenia’s troubled past garners many questions for scholars and civilians alike. Why has such a small and inconspicuous nation been through so much throughout the last century and a half? Why don’t more than two-thirds of all Armenians live within Armenia’s borders? Why does Armenia once again find itself in an unfavourable situation with its neighbours? Why is such a rich historical legacy so often ignored?
To learn the truth about Armenia, one must become acquainted with its population. Currently, about 3 million people reside in Armenia yet there are also approximately 7 million more Armenians living outside of their ancestral homeland. The Armenian tongue and adherence to the Armenian Apostolic Church define the majority of its people, both inside and out. Being one of the first Christian nations in the world, Armenia regards its religion with high standing. Yet the ethno-religious homogeneity of Armenia has, in equal parts, proven to be both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.
The minuscule and landlocked nation finds itself at the heart of the Caucuses, bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran to its south. However, in the early 20th century, Armenia, although not an independent nation at the time, was much larger than it is today. Consisting of East and West Armenia, it was divided between the Russian and Ottoman Empires respectively. West Armenia was greater in population and size and ruled by a non-Christian regime. This raised the risk of conflict here based on the mismatch between state and society.
In addition, both Armenian states were perpetually engulfed in wars between Russia and the Ottoman empire. During the first World War, these two regional superpowers faced off in their most gruesome conflict, the severity of which led the Ottoman Empire to seek to rid the Caucus region of the influence of non-Muslims, specifically that of the Christians. Ethnic Armenians were rounded up all over West Armenia. What followed was the nearly decade long struggle (from 1914 to 1923) now recognized as the Armenian genocide. This atrocious event was headlined by forced deportation and the deaths of about 1.5 million Armenians. This was the leading factor in the creation of the Armenian diaspora.
Meanwhile, many of those who died, did so in abysmal conditions. Death followed Armenians from their native homeland to the desert depths of Asia Minor. This parallels events seen in Africa today, where many migrants are forced by their own governments to cross the Sahara in seek of refuge in Europe. Although today’s migrant crisis features heavily in conversations on geopolitics, for many, the Armenian genocide has been forgotten.
While West Armenia was absorbed by the newly formed Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, East Armenia enjoyed a period of short-lived independence before quickly being overrun by the Soviet Union. East Armenia, which would later become the Armenian nation we recognize today, had a tumultuous history with the Soviets. Under Joseph Stalin, the Armenian economy was modernized and the state enjoyed relative peace and stability. However, the 1930s marked yet another perilous time for the Armenian people. In what is known as ‘The Great Purge’, Stalin executed or deported tens of thousands of Armenians, while removing many of their political leaders. He suppressed all expressions of nationalism in order to discourage any forms of revolution. He even intended to force the population under 700,000 to justify the annexation of the nation into neighbouring Soviet Georgia.
Fortunately, a revival was experienced under the rule of Nikola Krushchev, who loosened the government’s harsh subjugation of the populace. After Krushchev, came Brezhnev, and finally Gorbachev in 1985, who sparked the conflict that Armenia finds itself dealing with today.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a region with a majority Armenian population that had previously been transferred to Soviet Azerbaijan under Joseph Stalin. In 1988, the region voted to leave the grasp of Azerbaijan and unify with Armenia. The ensuing ethnic fighting amongst Azeris and Armenians over the region, prevented any possibility of a smooth unification. Gorbachev’s rejection of a subsequent petition for unification triggered the Nagorno-Karabakh War which, in turn, led to Armenian and Azerbaijani independence. This 6-year war saw a decisive Armenian military victory, and the de facto independence of the Republic of Artsakh, though the region legally remained a part of Azerbaijan. This amalgam of contested territories has seen several minor skirmishes over the years, with a second four-day war happening in 2016.
Recently, conflict has reignited. Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has the potential to become much worse than a mere territorial altercation. Turkey has already announced full military support for Azerbaijan, and Armenia holds a security agreement with Russia. If the conflict escalates between these two sets of long-time rivals, proxy war, and possibly even pitched warfare, may arise with dire implications. As a NATO member, Turkey’s involvement would broaden the scale of such a conflict, no longer limiting it to a mere regional showdown. The people of Armenia may again find themselves in the midst of a tragedy, this time much larger than anticipated and even further out of their control.
Armenia has been through a lot in the past 150 years, and continues to endure yet more. From petty disputes to mass genocide, the people of Armenia have been forced to watch their nation fall under constant fire from the world around them. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian military is engaging in what could produce another existential crisis for the nation. As of recently, a peace deal has been brokered between the two nations. However, considering Armenia’s history, one wonders if there will ever be a lasting peace in a state that has experienced such inexhaustible tragedy and conflict.
Edited by Marshall Zuckerman.
Photo Credits: “Armenian protest in Hadrut, Nagorno-Karabakh, early 1988″ by Armenian Museum of Photo and Video, published on February 1988, licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0. No changes were made.