Every now and then geopolitics has the tendency to show up uninvited in our every day lives. Whether that be South Park commenting on China’s relationship with western culture, or Dreamworks movies being pulled from cinemas over a South East Asian territorial dispute, sometimes there just isn’t any avoiding it. This was perhaps most poetically demonstrated earlier this month, when a Europa League football match between Luxembourg’s Dudelange and Azerbaijan’s Qarabag was delayed by an invading Armenian-flag bearing drone. The event clearly hit a nerve with Qarabag’s players, who kicked balls at the flying object in an attempt to knock it out of the sky.
This wasn’t the first time in recent months that tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia had spilled out onto the world stage. Arsenal FC’s Armenian player Henrik Mkhitaryan was unable to travel to May’s Europa League final in Baku – the Azerbaijani capital – out of fears for his safety. An Arsenal fan who travelled to watch the match was stopped by local police simply for having Mkhitaryan’s name printed on the back of his shirt. So, what’s the deal?
Well, it all centres on a disputed territory known as Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh depending on which side of the fence you’re on. While internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, the region has a majority-Armenian population and has been under Armenian control for more than 28 years. Azerbaijanis see the region as an ancient and inseparable part of their country, while Armenians feel broadly the same. You can see the problem here.
Regional tensions in the modern context really began in the dying days of the Soviet Union, within which both Armenia and Azerbaijan were Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR). Within Azerbaijan SSR was the Nagorno – Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). The oblast had a primarily ethnic-Armenian population, which could tolerate forming part of Azerbaijan as part of a suzerain system with ties to Armenia and an empowered Moscow. As Moscow’s power wained in the late 1980s and it became clear that Armenia and Azerbaijan would eventually become independent states, debate over the future of Nagorno-Karabkh and its Armenian population caused tensions which would later escalate into war.
February 1988 saw the NKAO vote to unify with Armenia, while counter-protests were held in Baku. Upon Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the NKAO declared its own independence in another attempt to unify with Armenia. Azerbaijan however declared direct rule over the region. Political tensions were reflected on the ground, as inter-ethnic violence spread. Azerbaijani sources estimate that 216 Azerbaijanis were killed in pogroms in Armenia between 1987 and 1989. Panic caused a mass migration, as Azerbaijanis living in Armenia and Armenians living in Azerbaijan fled across the border. War broke out in early 1992, with both sides supplied by the Russian military. Armenia quickly gained a foothold in Nagorno-Karabakh, and eventually expanded their control to 14% of Azerbaijani territory. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994, but not before more than 30,000 had died and over a million civilians had been displaced.
The ceasefire left Armenia in control of a large portion of Azerbaijani territory, despite international pressure to withdraw. Violence has flared up semi-constantly post-ceasefire, most commonly along the so-called ‘line of contact’ which divides the two forces. In 2008 political turmoil in Armenia led to fighting on its border with Azerbaijan. The clashes became known as the Mardakert Skirmishes, and left multiple dead on both sides. Fighting occurred in the same region in 2010.
Between 2008 and 2010, an estimated 74 soldiers were killed collectively as a result of the conflict. Sporadic incidents continued in the following years – including the shooting down of an Armenian helicopter by Azerbaijani forces in 2014 – until heavy fighting broke out in 2016. The violence in 2016, which became known as the Four-Day War, left 92 and 88 Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers dead respectively.
The conflict permeates all aspects of each respective nation’s culture and diplomacy. The words “Armenian” and “Azeri” are used as insults in the respective countries. The aforementioned Qarabag FC – Azerbaijan’s premier football team – despite being based in Baku originally hail from Nagorno Karabakh (Qarabag=Karabakh). Any foreigner who enters Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh is permanently banned from entering Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also does not officially recognise the Armenian genocide. Armenia meanwhile attempts to wipe any remnants of the once extant Azeri culture within its borders. This includes demolition and renaming of mosques, one example being the Blue Mosque in Yerevan, which has been colloquially renamed the “Persian Mosque” to distance it from any ties to the city’s former Azeri inhabitants.
So what’s the solution? Well, nobody really knows. No country has officially recognised Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence, however the region is effectively ruled directly from Yerevan. Armenia meanwhile denies supplying weapons to fighters in the area. International mediation has helped broker ceasefires in the past, but these have done nothing to change the deep-seated ideological differences at the root of the issue. While European Council President Donald Tusk urged in June that a solution cannot come militarily, the lack of obvious alternatives means sporadic skirmishes along the Line of Control will likely remain the status quo for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, signs of the conflict will continue to rear their head every now and then when we least expect it. That could be by another flag-bearing drone invading a football match, or the Armenian entry singing another ‘politically charged’ song at the Eurovision song contest. Armenia still have an outside chance of qualifying for the European Championships, several games of which are being played in Baku, Azerbaijan. Surely not.