- Stephan Astouriandirector of the Armenian Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor of the politics and history of the Caucasus and Armenia.
- Roubina Margossianreporter and photojournalist with EVN Report, an independent media outlet based in Armenia.
As fighting continues between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, we look at the roots of the conflict that has already killed at least 700 people since fighting began in late September and which threatens to escalate despite two ceasefire attempts brokered by Russia. Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians, was the site of a bloody conflict in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This latest spike in violence is the worst since the 1990s and holds the risk of spiraling into a regional war, with Turkey openly supporting Azerbaijan while Russia has a mutual defense pact with Armenia. “You enter into the capital, Stepanakert, and the lights are off. The city is in complete darkness, and everyone is in bunkers and shelters,” says reporter Roubina Margossian, who has been reporting from the region. We also speak with UC Berkeley professor Stephan Astourian, author of the forthcoming book “At the Crossroads of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict: History, Territory, Nationalisms.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn now to the ongoing fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where hundreds of soldiers, dozens of civilians have been killed since the conflict erupted on September 27. The violence has continued despite two attempts at a ceasefire brokered by Russia. On Wednesday, the Armenian prime minister said a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is no longer possible.
PRIME MINISTER NIKOL PASHINYAN: [translated] We should realize that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, at least in this stage, and starting from this stage, for a long time has no diplomatic solution. … We should fight as long as it will be possible to find an acceptable diplomatic solution.
AMY GOODMAN: The Azerbaijani president — that’s Ilham Aliyev — said Tuesday his troops had made territorial gains in the region and that Azerbaijan would regain Nagorno-Karabakh using force. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia on Friday.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians. It was the site of a bloody conflict in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This latest spike in conflict is the worst since the ’90s, with new advanced weaponry. There are reports Azerbaijan is using combat drones purchased from Turkey and Israel. Amnesty International also reports Azerbaijan has used banned cluster bombs in civilian areas. Some fear a regional war is imminent, with Turkey openly supporting Azerbaijan, while Russia has a mutual defense pact with Armenia. Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries are also reportedly fighting in the region.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. In California, Stephan Astourian is the director of the Armenian Studies Program at University of California, Berkeley, professor of the politics and history of the Caucasus and Armenia. His forthcoming book is titled At the Crossroads of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict: History, Territory, Nationalisms. And in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, we’re joined by Roubina Margossian. She is a writer, a photojournalist with the nonprofit news outlet EVN News — EVN Report, where she has been reporting from Nagorno-Karabakh.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to start with the professor to get context here. Explain what was the trigger for this latest conflict. And explain the history of Armenia and Azerbaijan and how this has ignited at this point.
STEPHAN ASTOURIAN: The origin of this problem goes back to 1921. This was the period when the former independent republics of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan had been Sovietized. And Karabakh was inhabited by more than 90% Armenians. The Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party decided to attach Karabakh to Armenia. And then, on the night of the 4th to the 5th of July — that is almost the same day — Stalin came and changed that decision for political reasons. They were collaborating with the Kemalist Turks at that time. So, this is the key moment.
Now, why the conflict now? For a number of reasons, I believe. Azerbaijan probably thinks that it has reached the apex of its comparative advantage in relation to Armenia. It has bought more than $10 billion in armaments since 2014. It has problems with oil prices and reserves, various social crises, so diverting the attention is a good thing. But, first and foremost, the negotiations are at a deadlock. President Aliyev, you know, he’s not even accepting a referendum for Karabakh. He basically wants Karabakh itself, not the surrounding regions, to return to Azerbaijan. He made that statement just yesterday night, actually. I checked the sites, Azerbaijan sites.
As for the Armenian prime minister, he came to power in 2018 and inherited the negotiation process, was accused of selling out Karabakh. And then he found out that actually his predecessor had agreed, essentially, to what looks like a step-by-step process whereby they are going to return five regions, then Azerbaijanis are going to open the borders. Two other regions will be discussed, probably one very narrow internationalized, linking Karabakh to Armenia. And then there would be a referendum of Karabakh people, at an undetermined moment, to decide what they want.
Well, President Aliyev has just rejected that in the past and just yesterday. And as a result, Mr. Pashinyan has asked for a change of that negotiation position. So, we have essentially two totally divergent views of the negotiations.
And then there is the Turkish factor, that has pushed this war forward, encouraged it, and is leading it, actually. Turkey wants to have a foothold in the South Caucasus to have a say there. And this is a key element in the timing of this conflict.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Roubina Margossian, you, of course, have been reporting from the region, in Nagorno-Karabakh. Can you explain what the situation is there, and also elaborate on what Professor Astourian said about Turkey’s involvement, the Armenian president just telling the Financial Times that Turkey is creating another Syria in the Causasus?
ROUBINA MARGOSSIAN: Yes. A little bit about the situation. I went to Artsakh, Nagorno-Karabakh, on the first day, when the fighting started. That’s the 27th of September. And, you know, if there is a conflict zone, this is one. You enter into the capital, Stepanakert, and the lights are off. The city is in complete darkness. And everyone is in bunkers, in shelters, even though, at first, we didn’t hear the bombs or the shelling or the artillery at work. But we stayed there long enough to experience all of that. And we often hear “the so-called” or “Armenia’s accusation” or “Armenia says” that cluster bombs are being used and drones are flying over Stepanakert. We have experienced that over and over again, every day, when we were in Stepanakert.
Infrastructure has been hit. The city is without electricity right now. The communications were hit. The first day, there was a problem with the internet and communication. The city doesn’t have gas. And I’m not talking about — it’s not only Stepanakert. The major cities in Nagorno-Karabakh, Artsakh, are in the same situation. So, this has started — this has been the case since the 27th.
So, we have been reporting about this. We’ve been on the ground. However, now here I ask the question as to why hasn’t anyone been responding to this. Why is it only journalists that are there, and our voices, as you may well know, often not very audible, or we might be considered as a side of the conflict? Why aren’t there other observers and fact-finding missions in Artsakh to also report on the human crisis that’s happening there?
And I also kind of want to talk about that when we’re talking about the conflict and we’re talking about the negotiations and the history, we are often forgetting that there are 150,000 people living there currently. We’re forgetting that we’re talking about the fate of these people. And these are people who have been there for generations. These are not new settlers. These are the owners of the land. So, that’s a bit about the situation in [inaudible].
I mean, I talked about the infrastructure, but the targeting of a cultural heritage site in Shushi twice in one day, and second time when there were journalists there, international journalists. Russian journalists were hurt. Targeting of journalists — we came to a point where we decided to take off the sign that says “press” from our car, because the Azerbaijani communication was that when journalists go to Artsakh — well, they never use “Artsakh” — Nagorno-Karabakh, that’s basically Azerbaijan, and they do not have permission from us to be there, therefore they’re fair targets. So, so far, journalists have been injured — local journalists, French journalists, Russian journalists. So, this is what’s happening. And the reporting is not equal from the other side. A lot of journalists, even internationals, the few that have been allowed there in have not had the freedom to report as we have.
I’ve seen, to be more precise, hospitals, civilian hospitals, cultural sites, schools, buildings, cities being bombed, infrastructure being bombed. And that’s been going on since the 27th. Yeah, so.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Astourian, could you say a little bit more explicitly about Turkey’s involvement in the conflict? Of course, there have been reports of Syrian mercenaries, Turkey bringing in Syrian mercenaries to fight alongside Azerbaijan. But there have also been reports of Turkish officers and special forces being directly involved in the conflict. Do you know of these reports? Is there confirmation of these reports? And if true, what are the implications of Turkish special forces being directly involved on the side of Azerbaijan?
STEPHAN ASTOURIAN: Very precise information, including locations, numbers, level of participation and so on, was leaked to the established, reputable newspaper, Russian newspaper, Kommersant. It is clear that this is coming from the intelligence services of Russia. It is estimated that there are 600, approximately, military personnel, Turkish military personnel; at the level of a battalion tactical group, 200; instructors, 50; military advisers, 90, in Baku; 120 flight personnel at the Gabala airbase; 20 drones operators; and so on. I don’t want to lose too much time, but it’s very clear. And the whole operation was devised by the chief of staff of the land troops in Turkey and Mr. General Ümit Dündar and the minister of defense, Hulusi Akar.
So, Turkey’s participation is no secret at all. It’s not a mysterious issue. And they have been bringing in, essentially, Islamist terrorists, formerly known as moderates in some circles, as early as September the 28th. About 1,500 of them were brought in, and then more batches of these people. The groups included are Faylaq al-Sham, Sultan Murad Brigade, Furqat Hamza, Furqat Suleyman Shah, Jaysh al-Sham and a few others, including now people being brought from Libya. The key organizer of this is a private military contractor, a Turkish private military contractor called SADAT. The center for their activity is Afrin. And from Afrin, they are transported to Sanliurfa, formerly known as Urfa, and then transferred to Aizerbaijan.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor [Astourian], we’re just about out of time, but I want to make sure that we get to the level of arms sales, tens of millions of dollars — tens of billions of dollars, that Armenia — that Azerbaijan has bought weapons in the last 10 years. Where is it getting it from? And the level of support from Turkey? And finally, in Washington, the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia will meet with Pompeo on Friday, tomorrow. Can you talk about what you want to see come out of this, and the significance of Nagorno-Karabakh as a petrol-rich region?
STEPHAN ASTOURIAN: Yes, I will address that very concisely. The arms were brought mainly from Russia and Israel, about $4 billion or more from each, then Turkey, then a number of smaller states, for example, Chechnya, Ukraine, Belarus. These are the sources. But the main ones are Israel, Russia and then Turkey. The amount of money spent exceeds $10 billion. That is absolutely established. It might be a little bit more, I don’t know.
Regarding the meeting on Friday with Secretary Pompeo, he is already on record as saying that the agenda will be deescalation and return to the negotiating table, to the negotiation table. This is all fine, of course. The only issue that is left aside is how come a NATO member, Turkey, is involved in a war in which, of course, on the other side there is Russia, and nobody is talking about that. There is a kind of a free electron doing whatever it wants, and nobody is discussing that issue.
The stakes are quite important, because, for example, just yesterday, Azerbaijani troops have shelled Iranian villages on the other side of the border in Iran. Iran has already warned that, you know, it won’t tolerate this type of things. So, the conflict can degenerate.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we will continue to follow this conflict, Professor Stephan Astourian, at University of California, Berkeley. And thank you so much to Roubina Margossian of the EVNReport.com, where she has been reporting from Nagorno-Karabakh.
Again, Happy Birthday to Robby Karran! Wear a mask and vote. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.