The Enduring Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh

Tensions are mounting in the South Caucasus as Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clash in the worst escalation of violence since the two countries agreed to a ceasefire in 1994. Hostilities over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh flared on 27th September 2020, resulting in two weeks of fighting and over 300 deaths. Moscow facilitated a truce on 9th October, however, violence resumed almost immediately after the agreement. Both sides have accused the other of breaking the truce, each claiming that they are only returning the fire. Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, has been under heavy shelling. Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, have also sustained damage (BBC, 2020).

The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is considered to be one of the longest protracted conflicts in the post-Soviet arena. During the time of the Soviet Union, the region was 94% ethnically Armenian (de Waal, 2016) and functioned as an autonomous oblast geographically situated in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. In what many considered to be a move to sway Turkey, a state with a historically close relationship with Azerbaijan, to adopt communism, Stalin officially allocated the oblast to Soviet Azerbaijan, despite a previous agreement to allocate it to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (Vaserman & Ginat, 1994). As the Soviet Union began to lose its power, conflict began in 1988 when Nagorno-Karabakh voted to join Soviet Armenia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its own independence. Azerbaijan claimed that this declaration of independence was illegal secession, and Armenia wanted to protect the majority ethnically Armenian territory, so the two states clashed in armed conflict over the region. The war concluded in 1994 with the Russian-brokered Bishkek Protocol, which remains the current ceasefire agreement between the two nations. Additional skirmishes have occurred since the ceasefire other than the most recent flare-up, most notably in 2016, which have contributed to the deteriorated situation today (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017).

Currently, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh functions as a de facto independent state as the Republic of Artsakh, which is the Armenian name for the territory. It is recognized as part of Azerbaijan by the United Nations and it is not recognized as independent by any sovereign state, including Armenia (de Waal, 2010). Armenian military forces have seized seven districts surrounding the disputed region, which, including Nagorno-Karabakh itself, account for approximately 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). The seizure of these districts has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris from the region. To further complicate the situation, ethnic Armenians have been moving into the surrounding districts, establishing settlements and starting families (International Crisis Group, 2019). Furthermore, Azerbaijan has expelled the majority of its Armenian population outside of the settled land, compounding the issue of the large number of displaced persons between Armenia and Azerbaijan (Beehner, 2005). The recent clashes have displaced many more in Nagorno-Karabakh (BBC, 2020).

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) formed the Minsk Group during the Armenia-Azerbaijan war with the aim of negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (OSCE, n.d.). Many solutions have been posed, yet none have been successfully agreed upon, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan hold the status of Nagorno-Karabakh as a vital national interest. Armenia views Azerbaijani authority over the region as a threat to the predominantly ethnically Armenian area, and Azerbaijan views Nagorno-Karabakh independence as a threat to its sovereignty. While the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh independence remains in deadlock, no progress is being made on other problems relating to the conflict, such as the large number of displaced persons. Now, these other issues are becoming further entrenched, making a solution increasingly difficult (International Crisis Group, 2019). Additionally, concern has been raised over a perceived bias among the Minsk Group, as the three co-chairs, the United States, France, and Russia, all have large Armenian diaspora populations (Beehner, 2005).

If the conflict continues to escalate without a lasting solution, there would be severe implications for the stability and security of the Southern Caucasus. Energy routes would be disrupted, as Azerbaijan exports 800,000 barrels of oil per day (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). Perhaps most concerning is that both states could invoke their security alliances. Armenia is party to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance between Russia and five other post-Soviet states (ODKB, n.d.). While Russia has called for a peaceful solution to the conflict, the alliance and close ties with Armenia indicates that Russia would come to its defense. Azerbaijan is allied with Turkey through the 2010 Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support (AZERTAC, 2010). With powerful allies in the regional and global context, there is alarm that a larger proxy war could occur if the situation continues to escalate (de Waal, 2016).

Author: Abigail Stoffer


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