Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Nagorno-Karabakh: A Conflict Entrenched in Nationalistic Propaganda

Nagorno-Karabakh: A Conflict Entrenched in Nationalistic Propaganda

Armenia-Azerbaijan relations are all but stellar.  In fact, for those familiar with the region, this is a relationship known for its enmity, aggression, and hostility via a dangerous game of propaganda and nationalistic rhetoric. The two became enemies shortly after 1988, when the region of Nagorno-Karabakh – inhabited by a majority of ethnic Armenians – voted to secede from then Soviet Azerbaijan and unite with Armenia.

What are the implications of the tragic drifting apart of the Armenian and Azerbaijani societies caused by years of relentless nationalistic propaganda carried out by both governments? Could the arms race the countries have embarked on destabilize the entire Eurasian region if it transforms into a full-scale war? Is there a path towards reconciliation?

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Context

The bloody war in Nagorno-Karabakh that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union ended in the loss of more than 35,000 lives. About 1.5 million people were forced into becoming refugees and internally displaced persons: Armenians living in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia, Azerbaijanis in Armenia fled to Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other surrounding districts were displaced to other regions of Azerbaijan because of the conflict. The conflict also caused the occupation of about 20% of Azerbaijani territory by Armenian forces (see map below). As a matter of comparison, if the United States lost 20% of its sovereign territory, the loss would be equivalent to its entire Northeast region. The 1.5 million displaced individuals represented about 15% of the combined population of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1990 (which stood at approximately 3.4 and 6.8 million people, respectively, according to World Bank figures).

NKMap 1

A ceasefire signed in 1994 halted the combat, albeit only temporarily. To this day, the two countries continue fighting across the line of contact. And, since 2012, reports of incidents including the downing of helicopters and the use of heavy artillery in and around civilian areas have increased. There is little sign of progress in the ongoing fragile peace negotiation.

Intensified fighting has occasionally coincided with Western high official visits to the region. For instance, an episode of increased violence broke out during the visit of then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to the South Caucasus in 2012. These flair ups also tend to coincide with high level international meetings in which both Armenia and Azerbaijan participate. This was the case with the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. earlier this April, at the end of which occurred the latest and most worrying escalation of the conflict since the 1994 ceasefire.

A Peculiar Conflict for Today’s World

Even today, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a war of trenches – a classical confrontation between conventional forces composed of tanks and heavy artillery. By their physical appearance the Armenian and Azerbaijani trenches of today can best be compared with the trenches of the First World War. 


Trenches of Nagorno-Karabakh 


Trenches of WWI

What does Nagorno-Karabakh stand for? It certainly is a scenic region at the foot of the smaller Caucasus chain. Some observers might be reminded of Switzerland, or the German Black Forest when seeing pictures of it. But beyond its rugged foothills, the Nagorno-Karabakh region does not possess major natural resources and is, because of its geography, neither an essential causeway for pipelines nor any other type of strategic route. It is also a region only half the size of New Jersey, with a population of about 200,000 before the outbreak of the conflict in the late 1980s. It then was composed of about 76.9% ethnic Armenians and 21.5% ethnic Azeris. Today, its population has shrunk to around 100,000. While accurate figures are hard to obtain, the vast majority of the region’s population is Armenian.

However, Nagorno-Karabakh has great emotional value for both the Armenian and Azerbaijani national identities. The region serves as a historical center for their respective cultures, a site where both nations continuously thrived in the face of Russian, Persian, and eventually Soviet domination.

All the above renders the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a very singular case and one of Eurasia’s worst protracted conflicts with very meager hopes for resolution at this point.

A Nationalistic War of Propaganda

Perhaps the worst outcome of this conflict is, as Thomas De Waal  wrote in the New York Times on the onset of the recent escalation, “the bitter truth that leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan have become trapped by their own rhetoric, promising their publics total victory that can never be achieved. They have employed the status quo as a weapon to shrink hard questions about their own legitimacy or to divert people’s attention from socioeconomic problems.” 

Fighting the nationalist propaganda has been almost impossible for peace-seeking civil society organizations. In Azerbaijan, many initiatives, organizations, and individuals advocating for a peaceful settlement have recently been shamed for their reconciliation work. Peace seekers are often portrayed as enemies of the state — traitors who have betrayed their country’s values for the sake of international grants and fallen victim to Armenia’s influence.

In Armenia too, supporters of rapprochement between Armenian and Azerbaijani civil societies are rare and going against the official state position on the conflict is not well received. As Artur Sakunts, head of the non-governmental Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in the northern Armenian town of Vanadzor described in a recent interview with Eurasianet, “the lack of direct contacts between Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society members has only added to the animosity prevalent now.”

Online social media now carry their own share in this propaganda war. Twitter and Facebook are often used as weapons of Azerbaijani and Armenian online war and propaganda campaigns: “The Armenians or Azerbaijanis who befriend one another publicly on social networking sites such as Facebook or its Russian version,, are often attacked, insulted, and called traitors online by their ‘offline’ friends and peers from their own societies. Pro-democracy or pro-peace bloggers are also similarly attacked. Any public expression of alternative views, criticism of one’s own side, or simple public discussions of critical topics — all necessary components of a successful peace process and sustainable co-existence with other groups — are actively discouraged. Anything but repeating the silently agreed upon lines dictated by government propaganda becomes taboo, and progress within each society is held hostage,” wrote Philip Gamaghelyan, longtime supporter of track two diplomacy initiatives between the two countries and founder of the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation.

Moreover, little has changed since Gamaghelyan expressed these words in 2011. Contemporarily, a dialogue is almost non-existent, appeasing discourse is heavily criticized, and younger generations have little interest in challenging the deeply embedded attitudes groomed by this nationalist rhetoric.

A Relentless Arms Race

Another profoundly worrying aspect of this conflict is the arms race between the two countries. In 2014, President Ilham Aliyev boasted about Azerbaijan’s defense budget being twice the size of Armenia’s overall state budget. This is, however, widely due to the important gap between both countries’ Gross Domestic Products. In 2014, Armenia’s GDP was $11.64 billion while oil-rich Azerbaijan’s GDP reached $75.20 billion. While oil-money does fuel Azerbaijan’s military spending, it is important to understand that it does not actually outsize Armenia’s military spending to GDP ratio.

In reality, both countries have similar military expenditures in terms of GDP. In 2015, Azerbaijan’s military expenditures represented 4.6% of the country’s GDP, while Armenia’s spending amounted for 4.5% of its GDP. Both percentages are fairly large: the same year, Germany spent 1.2% on its military and the United States 3.3% according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has demonstrated the use of modernized warfare on both sides, particularly by the Azerbaijani military, thus increasing the chances of casualties and suggesting that both countries are eager to ensure their unequivocal military success should the war break out again.

The fact that both governments inflate military expenditures and divert resources from more fundamental societal concerns is the result of very successful propaganda machines working their way into the minds of Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens from as early as primary school – presenting the other as a major existential threat.

However, in reality, most visitors to Armenia and Azerbaijan would probably agree that these nations share much more than they are currently willing to appreciate. This is true in terms of both cultural and societal dynamics.

Moreover, rare are the places in this world where religious differences – Armenians being predominantly Christians and Azerbaijanis being Shia Muslims – matter so little, in fact, not at all. This is not a conflict based on religious differences.

This is a territorial conflict firmly rooted in the quest for national identity and international statehood recognition on both sides.

While the Armenian and Azerbaijani nations are strikingly unique, their shared traditions and legacies, shaped by centuries of multi-ethnic and multicultural dynamics in the South Caucasus, are just as striking. However, if nothing changes, it is most likely that the societies of both countries will continue to drift away from each other by continuing on the path of hatred, promotion of negative stereotypes, and engaging in an aggressive arms race.

Russian Military Presence in Armenia

Another concern that some external observers have had over time is the presence of Russian troops on Armenian territory and how this might influence the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This presence – composed of about 3000 soldiers, air defense missiles, and fighter jets – is part of a bilateral agreement between the two countries within the broader context of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of which Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are members.

With the Russian 102nd Military Base located in the town of Gyumri – 75 miles north of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and close to the Turkish border which is also one of the physical border between the CSTO and NATO – the Russian Federation is supposed to provide for the security of Armenia. With regards to external borders, Russian troops, however, patrol primarily the border with Turkey and Iran but not the ones with Azerbaijan – both mainland and the exclave of Nakhichevan to Armenia’s south (see map below).  


But after the events of this April, Russian official reactions suggest that Russian troops would not actually decide to intervene in favor of the Armenian side, should the conflict scale-up to a fully-fledged war yet again. In fact, the latest escalation has, instead, reactivated Russia’s motivation to serve as a mediator between the two parties. In addition, other CSTO countries, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, have distanced themselves from Armenia once the April events unfolded, while Azerbaijan’s strategic relevance for Russia has continued to grow.

Need for Political Reform, Education, and International Community Support

The resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict must start with profound political reforms towards democracy in both countries. Moreover, it must be strengthened with an actual will of elites on both sides to improve their citizens’ quality of life by making the region a secure place, free of conflict, through continued efforts towards reconciliation. Finally, a resolution of the conflict must be ensured by an effort to educate younger generations in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In this context, the international community has a great responsibility in helping to consolidate a very fragile thread of existing peace negotiations with the distant hope that perhaps, one day, the two nations can live in peace.

On Thursday May 5, 2016, the Armenian government has approved a draft bill recognizing the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh on which the Armenian parliament will vote next week (the week of May 9th, 2016). This move from the Armenian side, will most likely trigger reactions in Azerbaijan and from the international community. This renders the outcome of this conflict – towards either peace or war – even more uncertain.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was updated after publication. The final sentence originally read: “Otherwise, clashes of this magnitude cannot only become a norm but have the potential to morph into a broader regional conflict inevitably involving Turkey and Russia as the two countries are important regional powers in close alliance with Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively.”]