So we learn this week that the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan are involved in a real shooting war with missiles, aircraft and tanks. It’s all over a disputed territory ('country') called by them Nagorno-Karabakh.
Where? What? Nagorno-Karabakh I learn means ‘mountainous black garden’ but the ethnically-Armenian people living there prefer to call the region by the ancient Armenian name of Artsakh.
My quick geography lesson places Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh at the southern end of the Caucasus Mountains, lying south of Russia and Georgia, north of Turkey and Iran, and just to the west of the Caspian Sea. Not an area we habitually think about much.
My quick history lesson found that the mountainous area used to lie entirely within the borders of Azerbaijan. It has a population which is predominantly ethnic Armenian and Christian, as opposed to the predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the creation of Azerbaijan as a separate sovereign state, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh rebelled in 1990, and set up what they claimed was an independent country of its own, called The Republic of Artsakh. But this remains unrecognised by the United Nations. The Armenians helped with the revolution, and opened up a corridor of land linking Armenia with their cousin not-quite-so-official country. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh celebrated their 30th anniversary of ‘independence’ earlier this month. Perhaps that was the provocation for the Azerbaijan military strike, and the Armenian response.
All of which begs the question: when should a country be a country? Or more specifically, (and perhaps controversially) should an ethnic nation become a separate country just because of that?
The United Nations was founded after the Second World War on the principle of honouring the internationally-recognised sovereign states that existed before the war – with some notable exceptions. The creation of the State of Israel was one. Since then, the injustice and plain administrative hassles of some hybrid ex-colonial states has resulted in the creation of new countries. East Timor and South Sudan come to mind.
The break-up of the Soviet Union created a bunch of ‘new’ countries, including Azerbaijan in August 1991. But it had been an independent country before in 1918, the world’s first secular Muslim-majority state, before being invaded by the Soviet Red Army in 1920. Lots of oil there, you see. A further geographical complication is that Azerbaijan has a land-locked island province, Nakhichivan, to the west of Armenia.
Earlier, Armenia became its own country too, in 1918 after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It was also subsumed into the Soviet Union, and became one of its founding states in 1922. Armenia also achieved a subsequent independence in 1991. They’ve got their own unique alphabet there.
So, it’s complicated. These are three ancient, or very new, or unrecognized countries – depending on how you look at them.
And that’s what intrigues me. How do we look at countries? Generally, they are those that fit within borders we recognize. But is that always right and proper? In the north of Somalia, for instance, roughly corresponding to the area that was the old Italian colony, lies the unrecognized country of Somaliland. Now Somalia is generally recognized as a failed state, with widespread lawlessness and an extensive almost-terminal breakdown of most systems of government – and has been so for some time. Somaliland, by contrast, has functioned peacefully, in autonomy, since 1991 (a date which co-incidentally seems to have spawned a number of new, independent states). Somaliland has its own money, runs democratic elections, offers hospitals and social services, and generally runs as a country should. Entirely unlike Somalia. But nobody wants to know. Least of all the United Nations. Why? That I just can't figure out.
Same with Taiwan. Which, by most definitions, is a relatively successful, independent island country. And most recently, very successful in combatting the Covid-crisis. It declared its independence in 1949, after a Nationalist (not Communist) Chinese government was established there. The island was inhabited already by an ancient indigenous people, who some academics posit were the progenitors of the Polynesians, way back.
But here’s the curious thing. The Republic of China (Taiwan) was a founding member of the United Nations in the immediate post Second World War years, and held the seat of China on the Security Council and other UN bodies until 1971. But then the threat of the much larger Communist China got Taiwan booted out of the UN (resolution 2758), and it’s been in the wilderness ever since, officially ‘unrecognised’ by the UN. But operating on its own, and trading normally with the world, including with New Zealand.
So, what’s fair for a country to actually be a country? At the moment, there are around 50 unrecognised states like Artsakh, Somaliland, Taiwan and Tibet. A lot of them, like the Lakota Nation, which declared its independence in 2007 to supreme indifference from the USA, are based entirely on a single ethnicity and that people's historical range. But there are many functioning mixed nation states among them too.
All I can figure out, after this brief incursion into complicated histories, is that it is not quite so simple to call a country a country. Among all the other things that are uncertain out there. Good luck to us all – including the Artsakhians.