As the world wages a reluctant war against coronavirus, the pandemic has not seemed to put a hold to old tensions. Starting in July, deep in western Asia, guns which had mostly been silent for the past decade roared again, spewing death and fire across the fields of the Caucasus. Armenia and Azerbaijan, old soviet brothers, ancient religious adversaries, are now truly again at war.
As of the start of October 2020, it remains difficult to objectively report on the situation on the ground. Both sides claim to be emerging victorious with grandiose propaganda campaigns showing their forces destroying their foes. However, a few snippets of veridic information can be extracted from the constant flow of reports coming from the front lines. Videos spreading through social media show towns on both sides of the border coming under heavy artillery fire, as the use of drones and other advanced weaponry causes large casualties among conventional forces. The exact number of dead is unknown, but the Armenian defense ministry’s daily casualty reports, which aim to sway public opinion with enhanced levels of transparency, sharply contrasting their enemy’s bombastic press releases, indicate that daily military casualties could number in the hundreds. What does seem clear is that the escalation in fighting arose from an attempt by Azerbaijani forces to capture various towns under Armenian control in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Ever since that initial incursion, heavy fighting involving armored and aerial attacks has taken place, with Turkish air power allegedly intervening on behalf of the Azerbaijani side.
Even though both countries have democratic constitutional regimes, neither has a particularly meticulously track-record when it comes to democracy. The collapse of the USSR in the early nineties saw the birth of the two republics, as strong men on either side of the border took control of their nascent nations. However, ever since the Velvet revolution of 2018, which toppled the decrepit government, ushering in a new era of growth and prosperity, Armenia has increasingly outperformed its neighbors on every significant freedom and liberty metric. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, remains engrained in a post-soviet paternalistic regime. In fact, many commentators have repeatedly warned throughout the last decade of a sharp decline in press freedom in the Azerbaijani nation, which seems to be following in the footsteps of its Turkish allies. Moreover, initial economic growth stemming from the liberalization of the economy during the first decades of this century has begun to slow, showing the cracks in the corrupt and inefficient regime. Could this new aggression by the Azerbaijani military be a desperate attempt to distract its population from the increasingly difficult situation the mismanagement of the country has caused? Only time will tell, but the coinciding timing with the coronavirus crisis, which has put most executive authorities to the test, seems to indicate so. Moreover, lest we forget, in 1915, as the Ottoman empire crumbled under the weight of its own decadence, Turkey blamed the Armenian people for the debacle, praying on their minority status and their Christian religion and roots, systematically exterminating up to 1.5 Million in the first modern genocide. Thus, it would not be the first time that the Armenian people, of Christian majority in a Muslim area, find themselves blamed for the shortcomings of their neighbors. To this day, Turkey refuses to admit their genocide, which is taught as a corroborated historic fact in the rest of the developed world. Unfortunately, this insistent denial, coupled with the nationalistic and hawkish nature of Erdogan’s regime, opens the door to further crimes by the Turkish state against the Armenian people, under the guise of helping Azerbaijan recuperate lost territories.
Most will question the importance of the conflict on a wider scale. Why should Europeans and Americans worry, as their own countries traverse enormous crises, of a territorial conflict in the east? Beyond the actual human loss, which threatens to turn into a humanitarian crisis when compounded with the effects of the virus, the intricate web of geopolitical ramifications reigns supreme in importance. So far, only France, which has a large Armenian diaspora among its population, seems willing to stand by Armenia’s side, even if only diplomatically, while it still calls for a ceasefire and the start of negotiations. India and Iran are also sympathetic to their cause, but have not shown any willingness to engage militarily. Russia and the USA, the two main players on the world stage, have called for a stop to the violence, but have of yet to take any concrete action. However, although most countries seem wary of intervening, both Iran and Russia have great interest in an Armenian victory, as the contrary would see Turkey emboldened by a strengthened ally, helping to spread its sphere of influence, which already threatens to become dominant in the middle east.
Worryingly, no EU country seems to be willing to stand up to Turkey’s aggressiveness in the conflict, probably due to the longstanding commercial agreements which bind the neighboring powers. Not only could this passivity allow Turkey to militarily intervene in Armenia, causing high casualties among the civilian population, but also give Erdogan the power to strong-arm other countries in the area into joining his cause. Moreover, Turkey being a member of NATO poses a significant problem for the already struggling Alliance. How can an organization claiming to defend western democracy stand by and let one of its members invade its neighbor on ethnic and religious grounds? Not only have Europeans largely overlooked the military occupation by Turkey of half of Cyprus, a member state, but also let the ottoman nation violate Greece’s sovereign waters as it extorts the union of vital economic resources to handle a refugee situation they helped create and actively perpetuate. The list of Turkey’s offenses begins to be a burden too heavy for the mantle of European patience to bear.
Thus, Europe must ask itself, as Turkey continue age-old anachronistic tendencies, whether remaining allied to the increasingly authoritarian nation is wise. Perhaps, in the distant battlefields of Armenia, the north-Atlantic alliance, and Europe in particular, can find the courage to vanish a state that no longer deserves its place among the champions of freedom.