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Bringing light to the Upper Dark Forest

The story of the Republic of Artsakh

by Noushin Darya Framke | Special to the Presbyterian News Service

“They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance.” (Micah 2:2)

LOUISVILLE — What do you think of when you see the word “Caucasian?” If you are not of Southwest Asian descent (Middle Eastern), it is probably the now-outmoded usage of referring to white people of European descent.

“Caucasian” actually refers to the people of the Caucasus, a region located at the southern part of where Europe and Asia meet, east of the Black Sea and west of the Caspian Sea, a region dominated by the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountain Ranges. The Caucasian peoples inhabit some of the oldest human settlements, dating back to the Bronze Age, at least 7,000 years ago. They are heirs to ancient languages, many still spoken today in some modern form.

Nagorno-Karabakh, or the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, is an ancient indigenous Christian community living in an enclave surrounded by Turkish-speaking Muslims. In recent weeks, war has broken out between the two peoples, with one completely overpowering the other. Armenia is a Christian republic of 3 million and the Republic of Azerbaijan, who are Muslims, is a country of 10 million, allied with the 90 million in Turkey with common roots and culture.

Nagorno-Karabakh, the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, is an ancient indigenous Christian community in an enclave surrounded by Turkish-speaking Muslims.

The broad stroke is that the two are warring former Soviet republics: Armenia, a landlocked mountain nation with a GDP of $13 billion, is home to an ancient Christian community who declared itself the first Christian nation in 301 CE. It is the inheritor of what was left of a people after the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923 by the Ottoman Turks in which 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated. Azerbaijan, an oil-rich Muslim nation with a GDP of $45 billion, is to the east of Armenia on the coast of the Caspian Sea and has Turkey and Iran as natural Muslim allies.

Last week the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), issued a statement calling for an end to the violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Read Nelson’s statement here.

The two countries are also heirs to the chaos after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, which led to what is known as a “shatterbelt” in geopolitics, defined as “a region caught between stronger colliding external cultural-political forces under persistent stress, and often fragmented by aggressive rivals.” This kind of collision can lead to what has come to be known as Balkanization, or fragmentation of a region into smaller countries, as in what happened in Yugoslavia in the Balkan Peninsula. In the Caucasus region after WWI, areas that were under Ottoman and Russian control were squeezed into a shatterbelt and eventually into a form of Balkanization, including partially recognized areas such as Chechnya, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, etc.

In the wake of WWI in 1918, Armenian peoples declared nationhood in what is now Armenia, but as a concession to Turkey, in 1920, Russia ceded a highlands region that was ethnically Armenian to the also newly declared Turkic state of Azerbaijan. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were incorporated into the Soviet Union by 1922. The Armenian highlands of Karabakh, however, were incorporated into Soviet Azerbaijan rather than Soviet Armenia. This caused an uproar, but the problem of having those Armenians not within the borders of Soviet Armenia remained dormant until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In that aftermath, there was a war between the two republics over the enclave, now known as Nagorno-Karabakh. Its name is in fact a good illustration of its multilayered history. “Nagorno” is Russian for highlands, or “upper,” and “karabakh” is a combination of Turkish and Persian for “black gardens” or “dark forests.” The people who live in the enclave call it Artsakh. They are 90% Armenian and Artsakh refers to the area’s royal heritage of Armenian princes. It is home to ancient churches dating back more than 1,500 years, as well as to important Christian historical sites.

In September 2020, with the world’s attention focused on the global pandemic and the U.S. election, Azerbaijan seized the opportunity to attack military and civilian targets in Nagorno-Karabakh in an attempt to seize control of what it sees as Armenian-occupied land. But regional powers Russia, Iran and Turkey all have a stake in the outcome of this so-called local war between these two neighbors. It is folly to ignore the clashes between the two, as there is a very real potential of a proxy war unfolding in the way of the tragedies in Syria with another catastrophic refugee crisis.

Turkey, a powerful member of NATO, has already stepped in by sending military assistance to Azerbaijan. Russia has historically supported Armenia as they share Christian culture and are in a security pact. It is yet to be seen where Iran will come out, because it has deep cultural, religious and geo-political ties to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. (Iran ceded the Southern Caucasus to Russia in 1828 after centuries of control of the region). Israel, who depends on Azerbaijani oil and is hoping to pull Iran into a regional war, has already supplied cluster bombs to the Azeris, giving them a further advantage. And we cannot discount Western powers, particularly France and the U.S., who have active Armenian diaspora lobbies. The risks of another proxy war are high and perilous.

The historian Tony Judt  outlined in his seminal book, “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” that after WWI, the winning powers redrew maps by moving borders and created a new world. But that redrawing resulted in even more issues and led to another world war. Judt points out that Europeans could not abide ethnic minorities living within their borders, so at the end of WWII, based on the lessons of WWI, rather than move borders, they moved people instead. Judt wrote:

The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ did not yet exist, but the reality surely did — and it was far from arousing disapproval or embarrassment … With certain exceptions, the outcome was a Europe of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before …. Poland, whose population was 68% Polish in 1938, was overwhelmingly populated by Poles in 1946. Germany was nearly all German … Czechoslovakia … was now almost exclusively Czech and Slovak … A new, ‘tidier’ Europe was being born.

The exception, of course, was the Balkans, which was not handled this way after WWII, and as we know, shattered into tiny countries based on ethnicity, and even came to genocide in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Another tragedy has been unfolding in slow motion in the Caucasus. The current borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, drawn 100 years ago, do not work for the people today. Supporting a claim to land based on artificially drawn borders and not based on people who live there is tragic. We are witnessing a war that goes back to a decision made 100 years ago when Joseph Stalin “gifted” Artsakh to Azerbaijan to placate Russia’s rival Turkey. It is time to support the people who actually live there and support them in their efforts for self-determination, a right enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights. The people must not be sacrificed yet again at the altar of politics and “might makes right” ideology.

Learn more:

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, explained — Turkey is making the deadly situation much worse. By Alex Ward on, Oct. 7, 2020.

Russia is the only country able to stop the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Will it step up and do so? By Nick Paton Walsh on, October 5, 2020.

Infographic: Military arsenals of Armenia and Azerbaijan — A side-by-side comparison of the defense budgets and military capabilities of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Oct. 1, 2020, on

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict precipitates a new regional order  — The shifting framework of the conflict, from a Euro-Atlantic endeavor to a regional one, is indicative that neither Russia nor Turkey consider the West a relevant player in their backyard any longer. By Asbed Kotchikian on on Oct. 8, 2020.

Noushin Darya Framke (Contributed photo)

Noushin Darya Framke is an Armenian/Iranian-American who has lived in the United States since 1978 when she arrived as a college student. Her inspiration for speaking out for the voiceless is her maternal grandmother, who was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide and who walked into Iran in 1915 as a 10-year-old refugee. She is a ruling elder at a PC(USA) church in New Jersey.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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