Unresolved Geographies: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict & Left Realism

Image by Vaghinak Vardanyan.

In this interview, exclusive for CounterPunch, professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nerses Kopalyan, breaks down the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. After providing a historical context for the conflict from a political science point of view, he analyzes the ways in which the media unpacks the region and presents historical and contemporary analogs. Kopalyan is the author of World Political Systems After Polarity (Routledge, 2017).

Daniel Falcone: Can you provide a historical context and give us a brief background of the region following Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive?

Nerses Kopalyan: As a political scientist, the framework I have in studying this is different from that of historians. International law and contemporary developments per the international system largely remain indifferent to history. Russia and countries like Azerbaijan are authoritarian regimes weaponizing and revising history to meet a certain weaponized narrative. After 1918, Armenia and Azerbaijan became Soviet socialist republics. Nagorno-Karabakh was made an autonomous oblast in the Soviet Union within the administrative territories of the state of Azerbaijan. It was, however, 90% Armenian. It has a historical Armenian presence; the evidence is indisputable.

Throughout the Soviet period, especially in the 1960s and beyond, you had this whole process of de-Stalinization and Moscow’s approach was very different. Things started coming to a head in 1988 when the Soviet Union started disintegrating. With glasnost and perestroika, you saw nationalist movements. New forms of identity construction developed where you were no longer a Soviet citizen. You were a Ukrainian first. You were a Kazakh first. You were an Armenian first. You were Georgian first, etc., etc.

And with these movements the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians basically started their whole self-determination movement saying that “Nagorno-Karabakh has no reason to be part of Azerbaijan, and therefore, we are seeking to basically detach ourselves and be independent.” The result was international violence; it broke out between local forces, Azeri forces and Soviet forces that initially tried to mitigate the conflict.

In 1991 full-out war broke out between the indigenous population of Nagorno-Karabakh seeking independence from Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani state. The Republic of Armenia got involved in the sense that a lot of volunteer units and troops from the Republic of Armenia went and joined to support, protect, and participate in the protection of the Armenian community. What was a conflict between the Nagorno-Karabakh population seeking to secede from Azerbaijan ended up being an interstate conflict because Armenia got sucked into it. Armenia said that Nagorno-Karabakh needed to be an independent state.

Daniel Falcone: Can you talk about how the geopolitical configurations around the world are impacting the conflict? How are the more powerful nations impacting the region and what does that mean for human rights and the Armenians?

Nerses Kopalyan: The United States does not have tunnel vision so they’re not forgetting Taiwan or Ukraine just because the Palestinian-Israeli issue is there, and they’re not forgetting the South Caucasus. The Israeli conflict has been getting a lot of attention in the United States for obvious domestic reasons, but I would caution not to conflate the broad rhetoric and the political emphasis on it from the highly diplomatic, technocratic, and military components involved. America’s priority remains the defeat of Russia in the Ukraine War because that is more specific to the broader global and geopolitical configurations. Israel’s component in that context is getting a lot of international attention, but I don’t think it’s shifting policies as far as other parts of the world and other conflict zones are concerned. Israel is engaging in extreme and preemptive behavior, essentially the Bush doctrine on steroids.

The United States preaches human rights, but human rights matter until they conflict with America’s strategic interests. Foreign policy then, is based on prioritization, so human rights are prioritized until this priority conflicts with the ultimate priority, the national interest.

We see this play out in the South Caucasus. There’s a large body of evidence of the human rights violations that Azerbaijan continues to engage in. It is an authoritarian predatory regime.

And the approach of the United States and the West is: “We hope Azerbaijan isn’t too egregious with their human rights violations so we can somehow justify basically sweeping it under the rug due to our own (1) oil interests, (2) European energy security interests, and (3) ‘the Iran factor.’”  Azerbaijan is presented as a buffer against Iranian interests, so the U.S. position is always “this abuser has important characteristics that are consistent with our strategic interests.”

This is the Western posture when human rights conflict with strategic interests. And so, when we saw the entire ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh taking place, the West didn’t come out and cite crimes against humanity. The European Parliament did of course, but not the European Commission, not many European countries, and certainly not the United States. If they said it’s forced removal, that’s a violation of international law. It might force their hand to take diplomatic steps.

Daniel Falcone: It’s been said that oil flows freely in Azerbaijan, but information not so much. Could you comment on how Western media outlets cover this situation? Could you offer some sources that people could use to get a better handle on this conflict without corporate or establishment interference? Further, do activists for the Palestinian cause identify with the Armenians in this conflict in your estimation?

Nerses Kopalyan: I would encourage access to local journalism. EVN Report, for example, stands out. Further, Hetq in Armenia does a lot of investigative reporting, so there’s solid content there. Anything outside of that, as you noted, it’s either an issue of corporate interest or towing the line with respect to state policies. Now, why am I not mentioning Azerbaijan? When you have one of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world, where there is no independent media, I can’t speak of local journalism. There, everything from think tanks to academics to pundits receive directives from Baku. Authoritarianism and the misinformation utilized by authoritarians create this false parity in information.

If you don’t have a domestic audience that is intrinsically invested in the human rights violations that are happening outside of the country or other parts of the world, news outlets are only going to cater to the local and domestic audience. So those factors also remain important.  And, of course, the positions of government are very important.  We can’t deny that. As a result, the perception is that The United States has a very neutral position on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

I think at the basic human level, absolutely, the Palestinian activists understand the human suffering that the Armenians are going through. But when it gets to the political level, their sympathy becomes a lot more complicated. When we see the social justice movements in the United States, many of them are expressing solidarity or sympathy with the Palestinians, but this is a byproduct of entrenched ideational perspectives, such as decolonization. Those configurations are not so applicable to the South Caucasus and developments in Armenia.

When we study human rights organizations as institutions, they become forces of their own, in need of self-reproduction or self-perpetuation. This is known as path dependency. So, when institutions develop in size, structure, and modality thinking, they tend to prioritize self-preservation as opposed to covering every issue that they’re supposed to address.

Powerful human rights organizations have turned a blind eye to certain human rights violations because from their lens they are detrimental to their institutional interests. As a matter of fact, in the United States, do not expect any robust modality of activism to the suffering of any international people unless you have a huge constituency in the country.  Not that many people, for instance, discuss what’s been going on in Myanmar.

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.