The Nagorno Karabakh conflict Explained

Image source: TASS

On 27th September 2020, there were clashes between Azerbaijan and the locals of Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian) where the locals of the disputed territory stated that Azerbaijan had shelled the capital of Nagorno Karabakh Stepanakert. In retaliation to the shelling in Stepanakert Armenia who is in close proximity to the disputed territory declared martial law and asked for total mobilisation towards Stepanakert. This was followed by partial mobilisation in Azerbaijan in the 28th of September. This rise in the conflict was the worst seen since the war of 1991-1994.

Over the weeks there have been constant clashes with Armenians stating that parts of territory alongside Nagorno Karabakh has been attacked by Azerbaijan whereas Azerbaijan has stated Armenia has attacked its territory particularly Ganja. There have been also accusations of involvement of Turkey in favour of Azerbaijan and reports from various media outlets of involvements of militants from Syria.

There has been appeals for peace from the international community and Russia a powerful neighbour to both nations and big brother in the region has also appealed for peace. There was a ceasefire agreement on the 10th of October which didn’t last long with both nations accusing each other for breaking the truce.

The Minsk Group under the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which has been tasked with a solution to the conflict has requested for ceasefire and a period of peace.

After long period of turmoil there has finally come up with a peace process which though feels permanent will be a temporary solution since it favours the Azeris more than the Armenians. The peace process seemingly looks like a fractured peace agreement and would only limit the violence not end it.

In this image taken from a footage released by Armenian Defense Ministry on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, Armenian army destroys Azerbaijani tanks at the contact line of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan. Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has broken out around the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian Defense Ministry says two Azerbaijani helicopters have been shot down. Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan also said Armenian forces hit three Azerbaijani tanks. (Armenian Defense Ministry via AP)

Historical Background

Nagorno Karabakh, a disputed territory consisting of a large Armenian population. Historical evidences state that the region is part of Armenia who came to the region in the 2nd or 4th century. The territory has been involved in the politics of the region for various annals of history with the Russians, the Ottomans, the Armenians all being a part of the territory.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1918 the Caucasus became a part of the Soviet Union with both Armenia SSR and the Azerbaijan SSR being established.

 During this period the year 1920 is of major significance, in 1920 under the Commissioner of Nationalities Joseph Stalin the territory of Nagorno Karabakh was given to the Azeris in order to gain support of the Azeris as well as improve relations with the new formed Turkish Republic.

In return Stalin and the Soviet Leadership under Lenin promised to bring the region back to Armenia in a year time but this never was fulfilled. Under the control of the Soviet Union the conflict died down and was settled until the 1988 when the Soviet Union was weakened and the collapse began.

In 1988, Armenians in the territory decided to revolt against the leadership of the Azeris and wanted to return to the Armenia. The population stated that Azeris were trying to conduct a forced Azerification of the territory and with the ideological and material support of the Armenians the population decided to revolt and form an autonomous oblast which would be a part of the Armenian SSR.

The first step taken was signatures of citizens wanting to join Armenia which was sent to Moscow followed by demonstrations in Stepanakert and Yerevan as well. This was rejected by Moscow and was followed by Azeri population marching to western side of Agdam for a direct confrontation with the Armenians.

After the clashes direct rule in Stepanakert was removed and was under the leadership of Azerbaijan and in 1991 with the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse the Azeris abolished the autonomous status of the oblast and brought it direct under Azerbaijan rule.

This was not received well by the Armenian population which in return began a referendum declaring the territory as independent void of Azeri rule. The Soviets on examining the situation felt that it would be preferable with the territory gaining autonomous powers in Azerbaijan which was not something both wanted thus leading to an all-out war and with the backing of Armenia.

Soviet Monument in Armenia/ Image source: The Bohemian Blog

Post-Soviet evolution of the Conflict

 The collapse of the Soviet Union lead to a vacuum in the region which further escalated the conflict between the state of Azerbaijan and the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The vacuum was present but there was indirect Russian involvement with the Russians providing military supplies.

There was also the involvement of mujahedeen from the Azeris side and also fighters from Chechnya seeking its own independence from Russia whereas some Russian military weaponry and tanks were provided to Armenia. By the end of 1993, there was a large number of losses from both sides both human and territorial the Azeris decided to make the Nagorno Karabakh a third party to the discussions and thus leading to a period of ceasefire.

Though there was a ceasefire there has been many instances where it has been broken many a times by both sides particularly in 2016 and now in present in 2020.

 One of the major developments in the post-Soviet sphere when it comes to the conflict has been the formation of the Minsk Group, which was founded with the sole purpose of finding a solution to the Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. The ceasefire and peace keeping efforts since 1994 has been maintained under the leadership of the Minsk Group.

Armenia Azerbaijan Debates

The debate over the conflict has been mainly on one side the people of Nagorno Karabakh feeling that given the majority of the population is Armenian they would feel more safer with Armenia. The fear that what happened in Sumgait in 1988 where Armenians were massacred by the Azeris would also extend to them. The massacre had occurred during the earlier stages of the Karabakh movement.

This view of the people has been also endorsed by Armenia and further adds that what is happening in Karabakh has the support of Turkey who wants to complete the genocide of the Armenians which happened in 1915 under the Ottomans. Therefore, the Armenians provide support both political, economic and military to the territory with the aim of protecting the civilians.

There has also been a strong involvement of the diaspora particularly in the Armenian side who view the conflict and its memory as a part of their history and the homeland. The diaspora involvement is strongly seen in the current scenario with Armenians from various parts of the world going back to protect their homeland.

 Azerbaijan on the other hand debates on a less historical aspect and more present day where it states that the international community has recognised the region as part of Azerbaijan and therefore it belongs to them and what is happening in the region with the self-governance and particularly the involvement of Armenia is going against the international norms. The main focus for Azerbaijan has been the oil and gas in the region and the connection the region provides for it. The region has pipelines which are important for the Azeris since it is dependent on the oil imports particularly to Turkey.

Involvement of Outside Powers

The conflict mentions only three parties however it is not short of involvement of third parties particularly Russia and Turkey. Turkey due to its historical and cultural linkages has a strong connection to Azerbaijan and due to its strained and almost non-existent relation with Armenia due to its refusal to recognise the Armenian Genocide has further led it closer relations with Azerbaijan.

The involvement of Turkey complicates the conflict particularly its constant support for the Azeris during the conflict and the fear of Armenia that the Turks are using the Azeris for completion of the Armenian genocide. Turkey an important player in the region has been accused of providing fire power and military assistance to the Azeris.

Russia on the other hand has been involved in the region with a sense of neutrality due to realpolitik (needing both nations). The presence of a Russian base in Armenia does make the situation difficult in the region particularly if Azerbaijan attacks Armenian mainland which would lead to Russian direct involvement in the conflict. Russia has been mainly advocating to peace in the region and would prefer a situation of ceasefire.

Other parties involved are Iran, Pakistan, France and Hungry with all having direct or indirect support of one of the two nations involved in the conflict. Iran and France are leaning more towards the Armenian side whereas Pakistan and Hungry prefer to support the Azeris claim over the region.

The presence of Russia to mediate the peace agreement shows how involved the other powers are with regard to the conflict. The return of lands to the Azeris would seem like a loss for Armenia and would still create an animosity which could erupt in the near future.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Jason Wahlang

Jason Wahlang is a Research Scholar, Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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