Nagorno-Karabakh: A Local Conflict with Global Implications

Commentary by Kirsten WILLIAMS

Background to the conflict

Nagorno-Karabakh, a 1,700 square-mile region which theoretically lies in Azerbaijan, has been contested for hundreds of years. Controlled at various points by Armenians, Persians, Turkic groups and Russians, Nagorno-Karabakh has a long and rocky history.

The area is largely populated by Armenian Christians, but became an ‘autonomous oblast’ within Azerbaijan under Soviet rule in 1923. With this decision from above, the centuries-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh died down until the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in the late 1980s. In 1988, Karabakh Armenians voted to become part of Armenia, but their demands were denied by Moscow. Violence broke out and continued to erupt periodically until 1991 when a full-scale war was mounted between Azerbaijan and its restless autonomous oblast. Thousands of Azeris and Armenians were forced to flee their homes.

That same year, Azerbaijan and Armenia achieved independence from the Soviet Union, but fighting only intensified. Within three years, Armenia controlled almost 15% of Azerbaijan’s territory, after thousands had been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced: before the war, Nagorno was an ethnically mixed area with a 25% Azeri contingent. After the war, almost no ethnic Azeris were left. Meanwhile, Armenians across Azerbaijan fled persecution and attacks. Armenia has been in de facto control of Nagorno-Karabakh ever since.

Oleg Litvin - PhotoHomeless as a refugee -  Probably Spring / Summer 1993
Internally displaced Azeris in the Spring / Summer of 1993 – By Oleg Litvin, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The by now entrenched situation has periodically escalated into violence since. Now, Nagorno-Karabakh is again the scene of major clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Though Azerbaijan claims it acted in self-defence after Karabakh troops attacked them, most observers agree that Azerbaijan began this offensive. Either way, hundreds of soldiers have been killed, and no territory was regained.

Both countries are strategic for their geography and their political affiliations, and this latest flare-up has dragged neighbours from the region as well as the US, Russia and Turkey into the mix.

Neighbourhood tensions

The countries surrounding Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a difficult predicament. Kazakhstan, for example, has close ties with Azerbaijan, but is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, a Russia-led group of states which includes Armenia. In the wake of the recent violence, the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has openly supported Azerbaijan. In part, this has to do with the rumoured animosity between Nazarbayev and his Armenian counterpart, Serj Sargsyan. But the reaction has not been limited to the personal level. Indeed, Kazakhstan vetoed a proposal to hold the next EEU summit in Armenia’s capital of Yerevan. Kazakhstan’s perceived lack of support for its EEU partner has provoked outrage in Armenia.

Eurasian Economic Council
Meeting of the Eurasian Supreme Economic Council, attended by (L-R) Serj Sargasyan, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Vladimir Putin, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Almazbek Atambayek. Armenians are said to be angry at the lack of support from Lukashenko and Nazarbayev despite their common membership of the EEU – By Kremlin.ru, licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Belarus, too, has pledged support for reinstating the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, despite its EEU membership. Minsk finds itself in a very difficult position. Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ long-time president, took a loan from Azerbaijan last summer in an attempt to prop up his struggling economy. Azerbaijan remains a major trade partner for Belarus and provides legitimacy for Lukashenko, ‘Europe’s last dictator’. This was not always the case; until the early 2000s, Armenia and Belarus were close diplomatic partners. Lukashenko continues to insist on good relations with Sargsyan and claims the two recently spoke to discuss the conflict. However, Belarus is seeking to reduce its dependence on Russia, and Azerbaijan is not in Moscow’s thrall. Baku is thus an important new ally for Minsk.

The big brothers

In contrast to Azerbaijan, Armenia enjoys the open support of Russia, which has a military base in Armenia and a treaty obligation to protect it. Russia has been instrumental in calming the violence of last week, after Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and his deputy Dmitry Rogozin visited the area. However, Armenian officials were furious to discover that the Azeri army was firing on Nagorno Karabakh with Russian weapons and demanded that Moscow cease weapon deals with its nemesis. Yet Russia has defended it position and refused to stop trading with Azerbaijan. It thus finds itself in the odd position of ‘arms broker-cum-peacebroker’, as one commentator would have it. Some argue that Russia’s involvement in the crisis has been used as a way to restore its reputation as a regional power after damaging sanctions and isolation from the West.

Further, it gives Russia an excuse to move more ‘peacekeeping troops’ into Armenia, as it continues to build its military presence outside of its own borders. According to some critics, this allows Russia to destabilise its neighbourhood and reinstate its oil hegemony over the region. In addition, the arms race between the two sides generates huge profits for Russia as the main supplier.

Dmitry_Medvedev_2_November_2008-3
Dmitri Medvedev, then-President of Russia, holds peace talks with Ilham Aliyev (R), Azerbaijan’s President, and Serj Sargasyan of Armenia (L) in 2008 – By Kremlin.ru, licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Russia is not the only ‘big brother’ on the scene. Turkey, Azerbaijan’s firm ally, allegedly fought with the Azeri army from the onset of the most recent attack, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan endorsed Azerbaijan’s attempt to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Turkish-Azeri alliance goes back centuries, with the two countries often being described as ‘one nation, two states’. Linguistically and ethnically similar, Turkey and Azerbaijan are also bound by important oil routes. As such, Turkey will continue to support its ally in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The region also serves as the perfect theatre in which Erdogan and Putin can indulge in thinly veiled threats against each other; Turkey’s firm support for Azerbaijan could be read as a hint that Ankara is ready to become a major player in the region: Russia’s future rival, perhaps.

What of the West?

Given the massive diplomatic tensions between Russia and Turkey at present, the Azerbaijan-Armenia rivalry has taken on truly global proportions. That is further complicated by Armenia’s large and powerful diaspora in the US, where over 30 members of Congress are pressing for American support to Armenia. The US, originally involved in negotiating the 1994 ceasefire, must tread carefully in order to de-escalate future violence. At the same time, it must maintain its criticism of Russia and its careful diplomatic relations with Turkey – a key ally against ISIS.

For the EU, the picture is even more complex. Europe is desperate to move away from Russian energy sources. For this, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline and the South Caucasus Pipeline are crucial. Both pipelines are directly threatened by the Nagorno-Karabakh clash. Should the ceasefire break again, the energy supplies could well be destabilised, not to mention other countries in the region.

The EU’s potential engagement with Nagorno-Karabakh is muddied by Brussels’ controversial relationship with Ankara. Turkey’s original accession to the EU was frozen after the Turks refused to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide of 1915. However, the failure to cope with the recent migration crisis and the need for Turkey’s help in the matter led the EU to reopen accession talks with Turkey – a highly unpopular move among Armenians. To become involved in a remote conflict pitting Russia and Turkey against each other would thus be highly risky, but the alternative is a potential war in the Caucasus, controlled by Putin and exacerbated by Erdogan. ‘The West’, that elusive grouping of states, must strive to find a political solution to this border conflict of global proportions.

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