Foreign Currents: Crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh

Foreign Currents Columnist Cole Warren ’24 calls attention to the ongoing crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.

My goal “Foreign Currents” is to encourage deeper engagement with international events and their histories, realities that are often relegated to the periphery or excluded from discussions at  Amherst College.

The main difficulty is overcoming apathy and cynicism. That is because at a fundamental level, international events operate in an anarchic system. No institution, organization, nor nation will ever be able to have total control over all the affairs in the world, and as such, tragedy and suffering can seem like an inevitable conclusion. When calamity strikes and direct power over the situation is lacking, influential actors across the globe are simply left to ruminate over the decisions they should or shouldn’t have made, aware that attempting to pick up the pieces and repair a fractured social structure often only results in more chaos.

For a school like Amherst College, which is imperceptibly small when compared to the nation-states and world powers that dot the globe, any effort to effectively impact global affairs is essentially non-existent. As such, if material change is impossible to enact from our little campus on the hill how should we as an educational institution approach the most sensitive and tragic events occurring today?

This question has been gnawing at me over the last few weeks, especially in regard to the current crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave. Over the past weeks, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians have fled from Nagorno-Karabakh in the wake of military operations conducted by the Azerbaijani government challenging the autonomy of the region.

The ethnic Armenians who have remained are likely to face political persecution, as the Azerbaijani government attempts to assert sovereignty over what it considers to be its lawful territory. This forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people is unequivocally an act of ethnic cleansing, which itself is part of a violent and bloody conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has lasted over thirty years.

Since 1992, Armenia and Azerbaijan have either been in full-blown war or intermittent combat with each other, producing tens of thousands of casualties and millions displaced as both nations committed acts of ethnic cleansing and massacres against each other. Most recently, tensions have been centered around the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the autonomous Armenian-majority enclave within Azerbaijan’s recognized territory. Although de facto independent, the unrecognized republic’s close political, economic, and military ties with Armenia have been a major geopolitical concern for the Azerbaijani government.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has become increasingly violent since 2022. Autocratic Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev led the first significant return to conflict in nearly a decade, recapturing the Armenian-occupied territory surrounding the enclave in six weeks of fighting that left 7000 people dead. Although Russian peacekeepers, technically allied with Armenia, put an end to the conflict, the possibility of ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh has loomed for three years. As of Tuesday, Sep. 19, 2023, it appears that that possibility has become a reality.

On Sep. 19th, the Azerbaijani military began an “anti-terrorist” operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, a rhetorical ploy that has been used to justify intervention regardless of the validity of a terrorist threat. By that evening, it appeared that 26 civilians in Karabakh had been killed after heavy artillery fire. Hundreds have died in the days since.

Although a ceasefire was agreed to on the 20th, the Karabakh government ultimately agreed to the disarmament of their defense forces and the removal of Armenian troops from the region. This de facto surrender ensures that it is only a matter of time before the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh is rescinded.

Armenia has currently stated that over 100,000 people have fled from Karabakh to Armenia out of a total of an estimated 120,000 people living in the region. Unconfirmed reports of Azerbaijani atrocities have circulated across the Internet, and while it is impossible to currently verify the veracity of these claims, history has shown that this has not been uncommon in the region.

Given preexisting geopolitical conditions in the South Caucasus, international assistance has been slim. The EU continues to rely on Azerbaijan for natural gas, the U.S. has historically been closer economically and militarily with Azerbaijan, Russia’s “peacekeepers” in the region have failed given their focus on the war in Ukraine, and Turkey, arguably the most influential NATO country in the region, is infamous for committing the Armenian genocide during World War I and has provided significant military support to Azerbaijan.

This is a devastatingly tragic moment in contemporary history, and there appears to be no solution on the horizon to either stop or mitigate this catastrophe. Even if multilateral institutions such as the U.N. organize a response in the coming days, which is a possibility, the past cannot be undone. Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes, likely never to return, and those remaining in Nagorno-Karabakh face the possibility of persecution as the Azerbaijani government enforces its sovereignty over the territory. On a national level, the United States appears to be indifferent to the crisis.

Regarding our community, it would be easy to remark that this event, although tragic, is something that is completely disconnected from Amherst College. This statement does have some truth, it would be ludicrous to suggest that any institution of higher learning would be able to realistically alter the current situation, and in our case, any possibility for effective material engagement is reduced even further given the relatively small size of Amherst College. However, our inability to directly solve the crisis  cannot be an excuse or justification for ignoring it. I believe that as an educational institution, the college community has a duty to expand awareness on campus and provide opportunities for further understanding of the crisis to the public.

This would not be the first time that Amherst has done this: After the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the college not only issued a statement of solidarity for the victims of the invasion and the students who could be affected but also conducted several forums with current and former faculty members to provide a better understanding for the motivations of the conflict. Amherst College is privileged to have some of the foremost scholars on Eastern-European and post-Soviet nationalism, and a public discussion would provide invaluable insight for both academic and general analysis of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

Most importantly however, institutional recognition of the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh would ensure that the campus at large doesn’t lose sight of the global tragedies that occur each day,  which can be all too easily brushed off or forgotten due to their seemingly distant nature.

Amherst College prides itself on not just the value of a liberal arts education, but also on the fact that it has been able to cultivate a diverse and international community of dedicated scholars. If the school is to live up to those values, an active effort to educate on contemporary issues that have been largely ignored or remain unknown to vast amounts of people is the minimum requirement.