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A War of Narratives: Armenia-Azerbaijan Border Dispute

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

In the dying days of the USSR, two breakaway nations of the caucuses, Armenia and Azerbaijan, went to war for two years over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave’s majority population is ethnic Armenians and with the wars ceasefire in 1994 the province became a de-facto part of Armenia.

The region has never been exactly stable; what has now erupted is an iteration of the same conflict that claimed 30,000 people in the 90s. Shelling has ensued from both sides and although both nations deny involvement, thousands of people have died through direct and indirect fighting in the last month. Both nations have restricted journalistic access and so the majority of reporting has been based on information churned out by the Azeri and Armenian defence departments. A key point of interest has been the plethora of rumours that have contributed to a constant war of narratives. It must also be noted that Turkey has entered the fray, backing Azerbaijan’s claims and dubbing them as their ‘Turkish Brothers’. This was a polarising move from Erdogan’s administration, shaking the status quo that saw Russia as the traditional regional arbiter.

A visceral social media war of information has accompanied the intense shell fire, triggering intrigue as to what the motives and intentions of the Azeri are. Navigating through truth and rumour is difficult in the modern world, and this case is no different. Armenia’s president has also been extremely vocal, providing a weighty narrative to an already complex conflict, especially regarding Turkey. During the first weeks of October there emerged extensive rumours about Turkish-backed extremist fighters from Syria starting to arrive in Azerbaijan. Turkey has not yet openly backed the Azeri militarily, yet many are taking Ankara’s ‘full’ backing of Azerbaijan's cause as confirmation of their covert involvement.

With Turkey (at least diplomatically) involved it has triggered a new narrative, one centred around the 20th century Armenian genocide, an event that killed 1.5 million ethnic Armenian’s. Turkey still denies that such an event occurred, which only deepens the chasm between the two nations. The Armenian president has used social media to develop the genocide into a current phenomenon. A piece of music written by a genocide era composer was used to back up a propaganda video of a bombed-out village, during which one interview saw a woman quote her fear of Azeri led ethnic cleansing if they won. The fears and tensions around the issue of ethnic cleansing flared when a video of 2 Armenian POWs being shot dead emerged. The provenance of the video is disputed but several human rights watch dogs confirmed its reliability. The political climate is such that the videos genuineness unfortunately no longer matters, tensions are fuelled regardless. The act of Azeri, and most likely Turkish, forces fighting to re-claim the N-K enclave is therefore seen by Armenians as an attempt to carve out, reclaim and ethnically cleanse the area.

This rhetoric is the reason that peace will be so hard fought. Indeed, since the fighting began there has been three ceasefires on the 12th, 18th and 26th of October, all of which collapsed inside 24 hours. This is hardly surprising when the political climate in Armenia has been stoked by panicked reports of war crimes, invasion, Turkish reinforcements and ethnic cleansing on the horizon. The efforts of Russia, France and the USA to broker peace has understandably been fruitless in the face of the frenzied information wars. While Azeri designs, with Turkish backing, has reinvigorated efforts to take back the N-K enclave from Armenian control it is Armenia who is increasing the chance of an all-out war. The frantic torrent of reporting that has come out of Armenia’s government has created a dangerously extorted view of the conflict. Without discrediting the fears of the Armenian’s, which are based on historical events, the wall of propaganda and fear-mongering is making the chance of peace seemingly impossible.

The escalation is also in part attributable to Turkey’s distortion of the balance of power that has existed between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia, since the 90s, has been the regional mediator of this conflict, and typically supported Armenian claims. As Turkey has now backed the Azeri government’s claim the chances of conflict has risen exponentially. With the support of a major regional power they now have the confidence to reassert their claim. This has been drawn upon by the Armenian president who argued Turkey was trying to ‘create a Syria in the Caucuses’. Behind this accusation the link to Syria is a painful reminder of how the conflict is only speeding up, growing and diversifying. Russia and Turkey now stand on opposite sides of an armed conflict for the third time in a decade.

Armenia and Azerbaijan currently stand mired in stalemate. With many images, videos and reports already having been disproved (one actually being video game footage) it bodes badly for the ever-growing narratives of distrust and war crimes. The N-K enclave is worryingly on track to become more and more entrenched in a warring mentality, lost in aggravating asymmetric information.

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