A Trying Time: The Impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict on Armenian Tufts Students

CW: Violence 

The six-week war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory ended with a Russian brokered deal on November 9. Though the territory has been recognized by the United Nations as part of Azerbaijan, it has been governed as an autonomous zone by ethnic Armenians, who make up 95 percent of the population and consider it part of their ancestral homeland. Consequently, in response to the treaty, Foreign Policy reported that angry Armenian protesters stormed the Armenian parliament, cursing Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for signing the treaty and even going so far as ripping Pashinyan’s nameplate off his door. 

Armenia’s forces surrendered after Azerbaijan captured Susha, the second largest city in the region and an important strategic stronghold. As part of the deal, both armies kept the territory they held at the war’s end, leaving Azerbaijan with strategically significant areas and the land they lost in the previous war. Further, according to the New York Times, Russia will be deploying around 2,000 peacekeepers for five years, increasing its influence over the region. Lastly, the UN will oversee the return of Azeri citizens who were displaced from the region during the first war. 

Adam Pidedjian, an Armenian-American Tufts student, explained that “Armenians are devastated about the treaty,” and not only because “the concession of a great portion of Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] and surrounding territories is a loss of indigenous Armenian lands of 2,000 years.” 

Before the conflict ended, many Armenians expressed that their adversaries’ objectives and rhetoric were worryingly reminiscent of previous attempts at ethnic cleansing. Anna Minasyan, a Tufts sophomore from Armenia, said that she and her family were asking themselves: “Are we going to have a country to go back to [and] are our people going to be safe?”

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh started in 1920 when the USSR established the region, historically inhabited by Armenians, as part of Soviet Azerbaijan. In 1988, the majority Armenian population voted to become a part of Armenia and in the following years, the autonomous region officially declared independence from Azerbaijan. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, tensions boiled over and war broke out. By the time Russia brokered a ceasefire in 1994, Armenia controlled the region and several adjacent Azeri districts. However, tensions remained in what Pidedjian described as a “frozen conflict.” 

For Minasyan, who has several family members in Armenia, the conflict hit particularly close to home. She explained that everyone in Armenia read the government-published lists with the names and birthdates of those who died on the frontlines. The soldiers on those lists were often close to her age. “Seeing those birthdays and knowing that, oh, that could have been my brother [or] that could have been my cousins if they had stayed in Armenia…it was really scary,” Minasyan said. “When you read the names you see your last name…and you know that your literal blood is out there, fighting for your freedom, and you can’t do anything but sit at home and pray for the best.”

In addition to concern for family members, Armenians, including Tufts students, have been worried about Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan given the nation’s role in the Armenian Genocide. Between 1914 and 1923, the Armenian Genocide killed and expelled approximately 1.5 million Armenians from the Ottoman Empire,in what is now modern-day Turkey. As a result, 70 percent of the world’s 10 million ethnic Armenians live outside of Armenia. Many members of the diaspora still feel strongly connected to Armenia and have a deep collective memory of the horrors their ancestors faced. Elysse Karozichian, the president of the Tufts Armenian Club, explained that “having a history of always being pushed off somewhere else, having pogroms against us, [having] families killed, torn apart…you don’t move on from that.”

For instance, Pidedjian recounted his great-grandmother witnessing her father being decapitated at five years old and not being able to bury him because “she was too weak to pick [the body] up because she was too small.” Pidedjian underscored that almost every Armenian not living in Armenia is descended from a genocide survivor, who consequently passed down “some crazy story with how they survived.” 

According to Karozichian, the recent rhetoric of both Turkey and Azerbaijan has made “a lot of Armenians afraid of a new genocide.” For instance, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, tweeted, “Armenia is not even a colony, it is not even worthy of being a servant.” Further, in a recent statement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey was going to “continue to fulfill the mission of their grandfathers.” As Minasyan puts it, “[What] their grandparents started was the genocide of the Armenians.” 

Armenians aren’t the only ones concerned about the actions and rhetoric of Turkey and Azerbaijan. On October 31, members of the International Association of Genocide Scholars issued a statement warning of an imminent genocide against Armenians based on the “current political statements, economic policies, sentiments of the societies and military actions by the Azerbaijani and Turkish leadership.” The scholars demand that the international community takes action to ensure “that the Azerbaijani aggression immediately ceases, and that anti-Armenian state propaganda and hatred in Azerbaijan and Turkey ends.”

Despite these concerns, governments around the world refused to intervene in the conflict. For instance, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that the US saw it as “a longstanding conflict between these two countries in this particular piece of real estate” and discouraged “internationalization.”

Pidedjian expressed that this lack of a response from the international community has been incredibly frustrating. Explaining that he grew up learning about the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, Pidedjian thought that “it could never happen again in 2020. We all have social media, [and we all thought] the world would see what’s happening and would do something and then it’s happening right before our very eyes. It’s playing out again and the world is doing nothing.” In a recent email, he wrote, “we Armenians find ourselves in 2020 as alone as we were in 1915.”

This inaction and perceived lack of awareness surrounding the conflict spurred Armenian students at Tufts to act. On campus, the students have been trying to raise awareness about the conflict through social media, plans to paint the cannon, and informational events. Minasyan explains that as an Armenian-American, she feels it is her responsibility to advocate for Armenians inside the country who “don’t really have a voice,” noting that the members of the Armenian diaspora “really have the power to change that.” 

Now that the conflict has ended, Pidedjian said over email that he “never imagined such horrific injustices could be possible in this age of digital connectivity and international peacekeeping and human rights organizations.” Consequently, he feels that “Armenians did not lose this war—humanity did.” 

Similar to Pidedjian, Karozichian stated that “many Armenians feared that exactly what happened would happen.” For instance, an October Wall Street Journal article reported that approximately 60 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh population had fled to Armenia, “raising concern among many Armenians that if the offensive succeeds, they could eventually be completely swept out of the South Caucasus enclave.” According to Pidedjian, this fear has been realized, and “over 100,000 ethnic Armenian civilians have been forcibly displaced from the region,” leaving only 30,000 Armenian residents in the region. Karozichian expressed that though it “is a repeat of history for our people to be driven from their homes,” she believes that “Armenians will find a way to overcome this as they always have.”

Further, unlike Pidedjian, Karozichian feels relieved that the treaty was signed. She said that “there was not much of an alternative” because “Armenians have to protect their own, and unfortunately it came to a point where it was time to stop protecting our honor in a losing battle and protect our nation of people instead.”

Moving forward, Pidedjian hopes that “the international community recognizes the independent republic of Artsakh,” as he feels it “is the only solution that will protect the Armenian civilians and cultural heritage of the region.” That being said, he feels that if they are “to survive and prosper in the future, Armenians must continue to demand better from the international community but also learn from this sobering moment the necessity of self-reliance.”