Friday, October 23, 2020

Karabakh Conflict at Risk of Becoming a Religious War, Goncharov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 21 – The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a territorial dispute but one that risks becoming a religious and thus broader one if the fighting continues much longer, according to Oleg Goncharov, the head of the Russian Association of Religious Freedom (

            “Up to now, this conflict does not have a religious coloration,” he says; “but there are already dangerous signs like the shelling of the church in Shusha that point to the danger that if this conflict continues further, it could grow into a religious conflict, which would expand it from one between two sides and acquire a global character.”

            That is because there are people involved in the conflict on each side who are confident that they could attract their co-religionists – Christians in the case of Armenians and Muslims in the case of Azerbaijanis – and perhaps as a result gain the upper hand. But such efforts will exacerbate other conflicts elsewhere.

            That is a fundamental insight. Three Russian journalists surveyed by the Snob news agency offer others about this conflict that have sometimes been lost sight of in the press of news about the troop movements, battles, casualties, and wins and losses of each side (

            Ilya Barabanov, a correspondent for the Russian Service of the BBC, agrees with Goncharov that “this is not a religious war of Christians against Muslims or the reverse. This conflict is the result of the very strange geographic cutting up of territory carried out in the USSR. Then it seemed that the Soviet Union would exist forever.”

            As a result, he continues, it seemed “completely unimportant in which republic was put Karabakh, Abkhazia, Crimea or Transdniestria.” But “all local conflicts which have taken place on the post-Soviet space over the last 30 years show that [the Soviet leaders] were mistaken.”

            But they also show something else: People aren’t coming to accept what the Soviets did but rather becoming more angry about it. As a result, they are prepared to adopt more violent means to correct the situation. In 2016, for example, no one bombed Stepanakert. Now, that is tragically happening.

            Dmitry Yelovsky, deputy chief editor of the Dozhd television channel, says the most frightening things he has observed in Karabakh have been the calmness with which local people are reacting to the sound of weapons and the anger which Armenians feel about the Azerbaijanis, an anger which they feel is justified by centuries of violence against their nation.

            And Aleksandr Chernykh, a Kommersant correspondent, says it is often hard to know what Armenians in Karabakh think because most of them are prepared most of the time to repeat whatever officials in Yerevan say. But it is possible to distinguish among them “hawks” and “doves.”

            The former say there is no chance for an armistice and that Yerevan must call all the Armenians of the world not only to come to the defense of Karabakh but also to seize Nakchivan “in order once and for all show Turkey its place.” These people are certain that “Azerbaijan does not exist and that historically all Azerbaijanis are Turks.”

            “Those who speak against the war,” he says, “consider that there shouldn’t be fighting over the disputed districts, that these should be handed over to Azerbaijan if Baku recognizes the independence of Artsakh and promises not to aspire anymore to these lands.”

            But both the one and the other are “certain that the time has come to finally solve this territorial dispute so that their children will not have to go to die on the frontlines ten or fifteen years from now, Chernykh says.

            Both sides are also surprised and angry that Russia hasn’t done more. They can understand why Moscow “doesn’t like Pashinyan.” But that shouldn’t constrain Russia from helping Armenia and Armenians defend against the numerically and militarily superior forces of Azerbaijan.

            The only place where such patriotic sentiments don’t predominate, the journalist says, is at cemeteries. There, “grief overwhelms all other feelings and emotions.”

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