“As usual, self-determination is the answer,” I find myself writing way back in 2006. On that occasion it was West Papua (still, of course, unresolved); this week it’s on the other side of the world. But the conclusion is the same.
The current flare-up is in the Caucasus, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. More than a dozen troops have been killed in the fighting, which began last week and is said to include “heavy drone, tank and artillery attacks.” It appears that the Armenians opened fire first, although the precise sequence of events is disputed.
Neither country is a major power, but Armenia is traditionally backed by Russia and Azerbaijan by Turkey. For the last few years Russia and Turkey have been drawing closer together; on a number of regional issues (the Syrian civil war is a conspicuous exception) they have similar interests. Conversely, the new government in Armenia, which came to power in a popular revolution two years ago, has been distancing itself a little from the Russian embrace.
The renewed conflict threatens to upend some of these relationships. It’s a further reminder that while in an ideological sense there is a global conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, no actual war is likely to turn out that way. Democracies may sometimes remember that they have a common interest, but authoritarian nationalists are just as likely to be hostile to one another; alliances between them are precarious at best.
But it’s also, importantly, a story about self-determination. While the fighting is taking place along the internationally recognised Armenian-Azerbaijani border, the underlying cause is the disputed territory of Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh: formerly an autonomous region of Azerbaijan but occupied by Armenian forces since the early 1990s.
Artsakh is ethnically Armenian; on the breakup of the Soviet Union its people made it clear that they wanted to leave Azerbaijan and be united with Armenia. The Azerbaijani government instead tried to abolish the territory’s autonomy and integrate it with Azerbaijan. War resulted, and by the time Russia succeeded in imposing a ceasefire in 1994, Armenia had control of almost the whole territory, plus some neighboring districts of Azerbaijan proper.
Recurring peace talks since then have failed to reach any settlement, and there have been periodic outbreaks of fighting – most seriously in 2016, when a four-day war left some two hundred people dead.
Artsakh has declared itself an independent republic, but both its leaders and Armenia’s make it clear that their goal is integration with Armenia. No other country (not even Russia) has recognised its independence; the international community regards it as part of Azerbaijan, despite a quarter-century of facts on the ground.
Many international disputes are susceptible to compromise: disputed territory can be partitioned, resources can be shared, monetary claims can be adjusted, diplomatic formulas can paper over various cracks. But sovereignty is an either-or matter. Either Artsakh (or West Papua, or Northern Ireland, or Palestine, or New Caledonia, etc.) is part of the country that claims it or it is not.
Yet even the most well-meaning observers avert their eyes from this fundamental question. When all else fails, when rivals are unable to reconcile their competing rights to some territory, who decides?
The world is full of this sort of local conflicts with the potential to spiral out of control. It’s in everyone’s interests, not just those directly involved, that they should be resolved on a peaceful and principled basis. Once again, self-determination is the way to go.