Nagorno-Karabakh: Yesterday’s Sorrow, Tomorrow’s War

The first weekend of April saw the reopening of old wounds in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh, only about half the size of Corsica, has long been an infected issue as both countries claim it as their own while the area itself wants independence. The last few years has seen rising tensions and many fear a repeat of the massacre that took place in the early 1990s – or worse.

Nagorno-Karabakh has a motley history. The area that today make up Armenia and Azerbaijan has under different periods been occupied by the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires. The territorial dispute concerning Nagorno-Karabakh, a stretch of land situated between them, started when the two countries experienced brief independence 1918-1920, but this dissipated with the Soviet Union’s incorporation of them both.

The issue was reopened in the 1980s, as a consequence of the Soviet dissolution which assigned Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azerbaijani government. The region’s 95% Armenian population rebelled against the decision and demanded either independence or Armenian inhesion. Friction between both sides became increasingly more violent and in 1988 a full-scale war enveloped the region.

It is estimated that up to 30 000 people died and a million were forced to flee from their homes before a cease-fire was brokered in 1994. By then, a large part of Azerbaijani territory had become occupied by Armenian forces, which still continues through to today.

Since the cease-fire, Nagorno-Karabakh has become recognised as part of Azerbaijan, making the Armenian occupation widely frowned upon by the international community. Both sides continue to display hostility towards one another and Azerbaijani nationals in Armenia as well as Armenian nationals in Azerbaijan have been subjected to inhumane treatment, such as forced displacement, attacks on the civilian population and being taken and kept as hostages. Tempers began to flare in 2012, causing an escalation of the conflict, when Azerbaijan pardoned and welcomed back home an army officer who had been jailed in Hungary for killing an Armenian officer.

The ceasefire between both countries ended the 2nd of April 2016 and before a new one was agreed upon by the 8th of April 90 people were killed. Meanwhile the international community has not taken the conflict’s resurgence seriously, writing it off as a trivial conflict between post-Soviet states grappling over a barren piece of land and largely only symbolically important region. The number of deaths in just a six day absence of ceasefire indicates that any reopening of the conflict may have dire consequences.

The conflict is exacerbated by Armenia and Azerbaijan seeking different international security allegiances following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. In 1999, Armenia joined Russia along with four other countries in the 1992 Collective Security Treaty, an agreement that binds its member states to cooperate on security, military and terrorist issues. The Treaty was transformed into an organization in 2003 and granted observer status in the United Nations General Assembly in 2004.

Azerbaijan on the other hand entered a Strategic Partnership with Turkey in 2010. The partnership is extensive and covers many fields from economic to humanitarian issues. The most important clause in the agreement is the promise of military cooperation should one of the partners be attacked by one or more third party.

Russia and Turkey have been at each other’s throats throughout the Syrian civil war in the wake of an alleged shoot-down in November 2015 of a Russian plane by Turkish forces, who claimed it violated Turkish air space. Both states also view themselves as the major powers in the area surrounding the Caspian Sea and are reluctant to acknowledge each other’s influence. Russia and its president Vladimir Putin have suffered a large amount of international criticism following the country’s annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea peninsula. And as of March 2016, Turkey has entered a partnership with the European Union concerning refugee management and other issues. A worsening of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict might escalate quickly on an international scale by pulling more states into the conflict because of each side’s alliances.

Other than its new-found friendship with Turkey, the European Union has another interest in keeping the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict under control. Azerbaijan is one of the most oil- and natural gas-rich countries of the world and the European Union has been importing the country’s resources in order to try to cut back on European dependence on Russian energy supplies. The conflict has so far only caused a few minor disruptions to this source of energy and many Eastern European countries are eager to keep it that way. Otherwise, much of the EU’s sanctioning power against Russia would be made void.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has for its entire duration been estimated to have caused 35 000-45 000 deaths. This time around the stakes are higher for everyone involved, not just for people in the affected area but because this time it might pull more states in and become part of the greater confrontations that exist in the international community. The past ceasefire lasted for 22 years and many are wondering if, and for how long, this new agreement will hold.

Erica Allison

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