One of the world’s oldest ongoing conflicts flared up late last month when hostilities erupted anew between Armenia and Azerbaijan after simmering for nearly three decades.

Not since 1994 have the two former Soviet republics fought so intensely over Nagorno-Karabakh, the predominantly ethnic Armenian statelet that the international community recognizes as part of Azerbaijan. Hundreds have been killed in the latest fighting, and while Russia is hosting truce talks between the two, it’s unclear what will come of them.

What’s made this conflict so protracted, according to journalist, author and former ICWA fellow Thomas Goltz (Turkey, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Iran, 1990-92), is that it’s “fundamental and central to the psychology of both countries.” The fate of the territory, which is only slightly larger than Rhode Island, is so deeply engrained in the social and political fabric in Baku and Yerevan that neither side is prepared to stand down.

Goltz—who openly supports Azerbaijan’s quest to reassert control over its internationally recognized territory—acknowledges elites in both countries have exploited the conflict for nationalistic purposes. “We like enemies, don’t we?” he said. “They’re very convenient.”


Having witnessed wartime atrocities while based in Azerbaijan in the early 1990s—his book Azerbaijan Dairy was published in 1998—he’s frustrated by attempts to characterize the conflict as a clash between fundamentally opposing Christian and Muslim societies. “Everybody’s eating the same food, drinking the same homemade moonshine, signing the same songs,” he said.

But the common cultural experiences have done little to foster understanding between the two bitter enemies.

Now, the standoff based around two conflicting principles—the right to self-determination and territorial integrity—is getting more dangerous and threatening more than ever to drag in outside actors. Turkey, which supports Azerbaijan, could find itself facing Russia, a formal military ally of Armenia, in yet another regional showdown. And Iran, which shares a border with both warring parties, will be harder pressed to successfully balance relations between the two.

“This development carries the danger of turning the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into a truly intractable proxy war, a type that we have seen in Syria,” said Philip Gamaghelyan, a professor of peace studies at the University of San Diego.

Paradoxically, the on-again, off-again conflict had previously been the most solvable among the regional conflagrations that erupted amid the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Gamaghelyan says. Unlike in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example, where Russia has been a central player, both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have had enough independent agency to hash out a solution through direct negotiations.

But political calculations in Armenia and Azerbaijan, where successive governments have made total victory in Karabakh a priority, have trumped all efforts at meaningful diplomacy. “Any sustainable negotiated solution would require long-term efforts that prepare the populations for peace and coexistence,” Gamaghelyan said. High-level diplomacy may be the only instrument left.


Photo: Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, October 5, 2020 (ԶԻՆՈՒԺ MEDIA, Wikimedia Commons)