Republic of Artsakh

Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh, is a disputed territory in the southern Caucasus. While officially part of Azerbaijan, it has self-governed since 1994. Its ethnic Armenian population contest Azerbaijani rule. In October 2020 Azerbaijan mobilized to retake the region. Neighbouring Armenia supports Nagorno-Karabakh while Turkey supports Azerbaijan. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War is the first international conflict of the 2020s.

Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, between Russia and the Middle East, Nagorno-Karabakh is a green and mountainous land home to over 4,000 ancient monasteries and forts. Its name roughly means ‘Upper Karabakh. While Christian Armenians have the oldest presence in the region, Arabs, Persians, Turks, Azeris and Russians have also ruled. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia claim it as their own.


  • < 180: Indigenous states
  • 180 – 387: Great Armenia
  • 387 – 600s: Sassanian Empire (Persian)
  • 600s – 821: Arab Caliphates
  • 821 – 1261: Kingdom of Artsakh (Armenian)
  • 1261 – 1500s: Principality of Khachen (Armenian)
  • 1500s – 1806: Five Melikdoms (Armenian governors ruling under Persian and Turkic overlords)
  • 1806 – 1918: Russian Empire
  • 1918 – 1991: Soviet Union
  • 1991 – 1994: Disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia
  • 1994: Republic of Artsakh (de facto)

The Soviets ended fighting between Armenians and Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh when they took over in the 1920s. To divide-and-rule, they made Nagorno-Karabakh a part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. By 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh was 25% Azeri and 75% Armenian. 

In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh voted to join Armenia, then still a part of the Soviet Union. Both Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union rejected the move and when the latter collapsed in 1991 both Azerbaijan and separatists took arms. Armenia backed the rebels and a bloody war ensued. Both sides committed atrocities and over 40,000 died. In 1994 they called a ceasefire. Azerbaijani forces withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving it under rebel control but officially Azerbaijani. Low-level conflict continued for the next 25 years.

On September 27th 2020 Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev launched a surprise rocket attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia retaliated and immediately called the draft. President Erdogan of Turkey promised to aid Azerbaijan by whatever means necessary. For the past nine days, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh exchanged rocket fire with Azerbaijan. Civilians have been the main victims and both sides have used cluster bombs, which international law prohibits.

Armenia is not without allies of its own. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Russia is its greatest ally. Said nation has pushed for a peace settlement but has allegedly deployed mercenaries to Armenia’s aide. Russia does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh however and therefore will likely only intervene if Armenia itself is attacked.

Turkey is already engaged in proxy conflicts with Russia in Syria and Libya and is pushing territorial claims against Greece and Cyprus. They have deployed Syrian Jihadi mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey shares an old rivalry with Russia and a bitter relationship with Armenia ever since the genocide of 1916. Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria have also rallied to Armenia’s side. Israel supplies weapons to Azerbaijan, including high-tech ‘kamikaze drones’.

Iran is pulled by both sides. On one hand, Iran has 2 million Azeri citizens and Azerbaijan is a fellow Shia Muslim country while Armenia is Christian. On the other hand, Iran and Armenia have long been close while ally Russia backs Armenia and rivals Turkey and Israel back Azerbaijan. At worst, this conflict could spin out of control and put regional powers Turkey and Russia into direct confrontation. 

Nagorno-Karabakh dispute: Armenia, Azerbaijan standoff ...

No countries officially recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s statehood except the fellow Caucasian disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Transnistria and North Ossetia. It shares close ties to Armenia and animosity with Azerbaijan.

Karabakh Armenians plead their right to self-determination. Azerbaijanis, meanwhile view Artsakh as an illegitimate rebel state who unlawfully displaced its Azeri inhabitants in the 1990s. As the international community sees Nagorno-Karabakh as an Azerbaijani province, they have every right to take it back. While this may be a repeat of the first Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both sides now have stronger militaries and regional politics are far more fraught.

Sources: Ahval News, BBC, Lonely Planet, Mountainous Karabakh, The Nation, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

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Democratic Federation of Northern Syria - WikipediaRojava (2016-) is the unrecognised Kurdish state in Syria. Officially ‘the autonomous confederation of North and East Syria’, it governs 3 million Kurds and 2 million Arabs, Assyrians, Syriac Christians, Circassians, Turkmen and Armenians. Rojava spans a third of Syria and is a key player in the Syrian Civil War. Abandoned by its US allies last weekend, it currently faces a Turkish invasion.

The Kurds are a Western Iranian people living in the highlands of the Middle East. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918-23 divided their homeland between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have struggled for independence ever since. Kurds are 20% of Turkey and 10% of Syria. Most are Sunni Muslims.

Rojava’s ideology follows the teachings of Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), a Kurdish rebel group based in Turkey. Their Social Contract advocates a secular, decentralised system, governed by democratic assemblies, that enshrines women’s and minority rights. Their libertarian socialist experiment puts them at odds with both Syria’s Baathist dictatorship and the Islamists fighting it.

In 2012 overextended Syrian troops withdrew from the country’s northeast, letting Kurdish militias fill the vacuum. In 2014 ISIS seized the Kurdish city of Kobani. The Kurds retaliated with help from the PKK. With American air support, they spearheaded the fight against ISIS and in 2016 established Rojava across Kurdish and Arab lands that include Syria’s oilfields.

Strong Toward the Powerful: A Warrior Path for Radical ...

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is Rojava’s army. It encompasses a Kurdish core and allied Arab militias. As US allies, the SDF proved better organised and more reliable than the ‘moderate’ rebels previously supported. Volunteers from around the world flocked to their banners like the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. Their female fighters terrified ISIS, who believe they will not go to heaven if killed by a woman. In March 2019 the SDF destroyed the last ISIS stronghold in Syria. Thousands of prisoners fell into their hands.

Turkey, though allied with the US, considers Rojava a terrorist entity. This is due to their ties with the PKK, whom Turkey and the USA deem terrorists. A Kurdish state at Turkey’s borders will embolden the PKK and possibly support their 40-year struggle. Turkey dared not strike Rojava while US troops were stationed there, however allied Syrian rebels fight on its behalf.

In October 2019 Donald Trump announced full American withdrawal from Syria. Their objective – to destroy ISIS – was complete. As soon as they left, Turkish troops invaded. Turkey seeks to establish a ‘safe zone’ along the border in which to resettle two million Syrian refugees and separate Rojava from the PKK. That safe zone contains much of the Kurdish population and key cities the SDF pledges to defend.

Trump, Erdogan discuss creating U.S. Turkish ‘security ...

Rojava stands no chance on its own. Despite their experience and drive, SDF foot soldiers are no match for NATO’s second-largest military, fully equipped with aircraft and tanks. Since Sunday, 104 fighters and 60 civilians have died, with casualties mounting. With the US gone, their only hope is to ally with the Syrian regime, the same one that has denied Kurds civil rights for decades. Should their 12,000 prisoners of war escape, ISIS will rise again.

Mazlam Abdi, SDF commander-in-chief:

Kurdowie nie wykluczają połączenia swych sił z Damaszkiem ...“We know that we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al-Assad if we go down the road of working with them. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”

Sources: Associated PressAl Jazeera, BBC, Democracy NowThe Economist, Foreign Policy

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Flag of the Republic of China.svgTaiwan is a disputed territory in the South China Sea. Whilst Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, functions as an independent nation-state with its own government, the People’s Republic of China considers it a renegade province rightfully theirs. Given Beijing’s greater strength and international clout, few countries recognise Taiwanese statehood. It is the world’s most populated non-UN member state.

Taiwanese aborigines - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Formerly known as Formosa, Taiwan is the ancestral homeland of the Austronesian people, a linguistic family which today dominates Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Polynesia and Madagascar. It is a land of fertile valleys, tropical jungles, dramatic elevation and picturesque mountains.

Starting with the Dutch and the Spanish in the 1620s, Taiwan witnessed a series of foreign rulers. In 1662 Koxinga, a Ming Dynasty loyalist, conquered the Dutch colonies and established the island’s first Chinese state. Twenty years later Koxinga’s kingdom acquiesced to the Qing, China’s new rulers. Slowly but surely, Han Chinese immigrants replaced the aboriginal tribes, who retreated to the island’s mountainous interior. Comparable to the displaced natives of Australia or the USA, today aborigines make only 2.3% of Taiwan’s population.

The Japanese ruled Taiwan from 1895 – 1945. They aggressively subdued the remaining aboriginal tribes and industrialised the island. Japanese rule was harsh and resented by Han Taiwanese and aborigines alike. Taiwan returned to China after WW2.

Image result for chiang kai shekThe new rulers were the Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, who had overthrown the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and established the Republic of China (ROC). The ROC was plagued by unrest, however, and their hold on China tenuous. After the Japanese defeat in 1945 civil war resumed with Mao Zedong’s Communists. Despite American financial support the Nationalists, under generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, lost the war. In 1949 the ROC’s leadership and two million nationalists fled to Taiwan.

Like Koxinga before him, Chiang dreamed of one day retaking the mainland. Taipei was established as the ROC’s ‘wartime capital’ and a Chinese identity asserted over a Taiwanese one.  Mao would have invaded Taiwan too was it not for US president Harry Truman who, in the context of the Korean War, signed a mutual defence pact with Taipei. Thus two rival governments prevailed, the communist Peoples Republic of China in the mainland, the nationalist Republic of China in Taiwan.

The Kuomintang ruled Taiwan as a dictatorship under martial law until 1987.  Despite brutal suppression of dissent, during the 1960s and 70s, the Taiwanese free-market economy boomed, ranking it one of ‘Four Asian Tigers’ alongside Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. It became a global manufacturing hub.Image result for tsai ing wen

Taiwan democratised in 1992. Politics today are dominated by the ‘Green’ and ‘Blue’ coalitions. Blue parties, like the Kuomintang, emphasise the Republic of China and maintaining the status quo while Green ones assert a distinct Taiwanese identity and seek formal independence from China.  This would, however, mean war. Beijing operates on the One China Policy’ and denies Taiwan the right to secession. The incumbent Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic People’s Party is of the Green.

As both Beijing and Taipei claim to be China’s sole legitimate government, other nations can only recognise one or the other. The ROC held the Chinese seat on the United Nations until 1971 when President Nixon opened diplomatic relations with Beijing. Today only 19 governments, mainly poorer nations in Central America and the Pacific, recognise the Republic of China. Beijing is steadily isolating Taiwan diplomatically by buying off its allies. On April 30th 2018 the Dominican Republic switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in exchange for 3.1 billion dollars in aid, with Burkina Faso following suit on May 24th. Beijing is currently enticing Haiti and Eswatini to do the same.

Recognition of the ROC.png

Now only the following 18 15 nations recognise Taiwan, most of which are too small to be shown:

  1. Belize
  2. El Salvador
  3. Guatemala
  4. Haiti
  5. Honduras
  6. Kiribati
  7. Marshal Islands
  8. Nauru
  9. Nicaragua
  10. Palau
  11. Paraguay
  12. Saint Kitts and Nevis
  13. Saint Lucia
  14. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  15. Solomon Islands
  16. Eswatini
  17. Tuvalu
  18. Vatican City

The annexation of Taiwan by the Peoples Republic would be a critical blow to democracy.  Today Taiwan is a proudly democratic and progressive state, which allows freedom of thought, expression and speech unknown in mainland China. As of June 2018 Taiwan, Singapore, Burma and Nepal are the only countries in Asia ruled by females and Taiwan is the only state on the continent to recognise same-sex marriage. Whilst the People’s Republic flag in Taiwan might raise a few eyebrows, flying the ROC banner in the mainland would likely put you in jail.

Update 22/08/2018: El Salvador has cut ties with Taiwan, and now recognises the People’s Republic of China instead. It is the third country to do so this year.

Update 17/08/2019: The Solomon Islands cut ties with Taiwan.

Update 20/08/2019: Kirbati cuts ties with Taiwan.

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Modern Kosovo

Kosovo flagNestled in the centre of the Balkans, the Republic of Kosovo is Europe’s youngest country, both politically and demographically. Alongside Bosnia and Albania, it is one of only three majority Muslim states in Europe. It is a small country of only 1.8 million; mostly ethnic Albanians and an Orthodox Serb minority. Like Bosnia, Kosovo emerged from the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, governed by a UN mandate until 2008. This week marks its tenth birthday. 

Kosovo is recognised by only 113 of the 193 UN states.  This puts it in the ambiguous category of ‘partially recognised state’, alongside Taiwan, Palestine, Western Sahara and Northern Cyprus. Serbia’s fellow Orthodox Christian nations like Greece, Romania and Russia, and the former USSR do not recognise Kosovo while the Muslim world is split. Kosovo is neither a member nor observer of the UN.

kosovo recognition

Green countries recognise Kosovo. Crucially security council members Russia and China do not.

Yugoslavia’s sectarian strife of the 1990s was a legacy of Ottoman imperialism. The divide and rule policy of empires breeds ethnic hatred wherever it is implemented. Most conflicts since WW2, from the partition of India to the Rwandan Genocide result from old imperial policies that kept subject populations divided and favoured one group over another. This leaves deep seated hatred and mistrust along ethnic and religious lines, particularly when land rights are involved.

The Balkans, though under Muslim Turkish, not Christian European, rule was no different. The Ottomans favoured Muslims while taxing Christians higher and stealing their boys to raise as devout soldiers. When the Ottoman Empire retreated from the Balkans in the 19th century, the Austrians and the Russians took their place. The Austro-Hungarian Empire favoured Catholic Croats while the Russians favoured the Serbs. The nationalist zeitgeist which had united Italy and Germany only divided and ‘balkanised’ ethnoreligious lines further.

Kosovo was a tricky case. The small territory is dear to the hearts of many Serbs, being the centre of their old kingdom and the site of the heroic Battle of Kosovo in 1389 against the invading Turks. Despite this, by the 20th century, the majority population were ethnic Albanians, a non-Slavic folk who adopted Islam under Ottoman rule.

kosovo balkans.png

Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were formerly a part of Yugoslavia

Broz Tito united the region after WW2 through his magnetic personality and the internationalist appeal of Pan-Slavism and socialism. Each state in the federation had equal rights and the promotion of nationalism was banned. After Tito’s death, however, Yugoslavia became increasingly Serb dominated. Beginning in 1990, its constituent republics seceded.

In the following wars Kosovo was the last dispute to be settled. Slobidan Milosevic, who rose to power on a Serb nationalist platform, installed a Serb administration and clamped down on Albanian Kosovar rights. In 1996 the Kosovo Liberation Army took up arms. Milosevic responded with a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, massacring  10,000 Albanians and expelling a million others. The KLA committed war crimes too, but firepower was on the Serbian side. It was only after NATO aircraft bombed Serb targets into submission that Milosevic relented. Peace was ratified in 1998 and Kosovo gained independence a decade later.

Image result for kosovo bill clinton

Bill Clinton Boulevard, Pristina. The US President is a hero in Kosovo for guaranteeing  independence from Serbia in 1998

Ten years on and Kosovo is the second poorest nation in Europe after Moldova. Mistrust between Serbs and Albanians remain high, most of the former still yearning for reunification with Serbia. Unemployment stands at 57% and the country struggles to attract foreign investment. Kosovo’s diplomatic status does not help either. Foreign travel is virtually impossible: even the Prime Minister was recently denied visas to Britain and the USA.

Despite this, there are glimmers of a brighter future. Kosovo is debt free and in the capital of Pristina a cultural scene is booming. Power outages, which were common in the early days of independence, are now rare. In a continent plagued by low birth-rates, Kosovo’s young population just might be its saving grace.

Sources: BBC, CIA Factbooks, Kosovo Info, New York Times

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