The current conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not about ethnicity as much as three dictators attacking to destroy a thriving democracy in their midsts.
Despite having previously been pushed into the sphere of Russian influence, in 2018 the Armenian population rose up to end a corrupt regime, much like the population of Belarus is doing today, and since then Armenian democracy has been solidifying. It is no wonder then that three dictators, Putin, Erdogan, and Aliyev, who have basically eliminated democratic processes in their own countries, and who suppress minority peoples within their own territories, would collude together to undo a people’s movement for democracy founded in self-determination and human rights.
The history of the conflict is simple. In 1988, human rights dissident Andrei Sakharov stated publicly what everyone knew: that the internal Soviet borders divided nations in an imperialistic policy of divide and rule. The Armenians of Karabakh used both domestic and international legal process to reunify with Armenia proper, but the Communist Party blocked the first, and the international community failed to recognise the second. Germany reunified, but Armenia’s reunification, well founded in self-determination, isn’t recognised because bigger actors continue the same policy of divide and rule. As every state in the world is a manifestation of self-determination, it is impossible that any one state’s territorial claim can ever be superior to the self-determination principle. This is especially true of a territorial claim, like the Azeri one, based on internal Soviet borders which were specifically created to pursue divide and rule. Self-determination always trumps a territorial claim.
The inaction of the West is also revealing. In 2018, Armenians ousted a corrupt regime and held pristine elections. This fact questions the self-proclaimed, “civilising” role of the West because Armenian democracy is not under the auspices of anyone, and so no Western intergovernmental organisation can claim credit, nor did Armenia leave the Eurasian Economic Zone to join the EU. Armenian democracy thus challenges the dominant narrative that the West is democratic, and the East is the opposite. Edward Said’s “Orientalism” - that the West defines itself in opposition to an “other” it creates - holds true today as ever before. Power structures don’t like an anomaly that messes with their storyline. Thus, the international media, in its cutting and pasting fury, reduces Armenian reality to some typical “ethnic conflict” that can be easily dismissed, in order to ignore the broader realities of democracy and human rights.
The motives of the dictators are simple. Armenia is a bad precedent for them. As regards democracy, could their own populations be inspired to demand their rights (Armenia 2018, Belarus 2020)? Also, there are strong claims for self-determination by ethnic groups in each of the dictator’s territories. Moreover, the dictators offer nothing to their own people, whose economic security worsens. Dictators serve only their own oligarchs. So, to subdue their populations, Erdogan and Aliyev conjure up the illusion of a foreign enemy and offer the glory of victory and empire: an old narrative spruced up in modern rhetoric. In the meantime, Putin waits for Armenia to weaken and then submit itself to stage one in what will later be akin to a Crimean annexation.
The Armenian struggle for survival today is a struggle for self-determination and democracy in opposition to authoritarianism - and much like the Spanish Civil War, it is a crucible of what is to come. There are two ways to be in the world: equal as per rights, or hierarchical as by power. Know that a rights perspective offers a chance at peace, and a power perspective guarantees violence. Today a collective choice is placed before the world and each and everyone of us is called on to chose and to act, or to accept a future subjugation. Authoritarianism is necessarily expansive by nature.