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Nagorno-Karabakh: The frozen conflict from the Black Sea

A very dangerous war threatens to break out again at the gates of Europe: the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which in the early 1990s caused over thirty thousand deaths and one million displaced persons.
On 12 July there were, in fact, violent armed clashes with gunfire and use of artillery along the Nagorno-Karabakh border in the province of Tavowš, in the northeast of Armenia, to be precise in the Tovuz district, between Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers.
At the end of the violent clashes, two Azerbaijani soldiers died and five were wounded while the Armenian army would not suffer any losses.

These events represent a very serious violation of the 1994 ceasefire and a huge obstacle to the resumption of negotiations that have been deadlocked for some time.

The government of Azerbaijan denounces military provocations by the Armenian side and states that the government of Yerevan, which supports the Nagorno-Karabakh separatists, has been blocking all negotiations for some time.

Many European Chancelleries have appealed for respect for the ceasefire and UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 of 1993. These resolutions, which are in defence of international law and the national integrity of Azerbaijan, call for the withdrawal of pro-Separatist Armenian troops from districts occupied by Armenian forces and Nagorno-Karabakh separatists.

Clashes like the one that occurred yesterday are far from rare, followed by the traditional reassignment of responsibilities: the Ministry of Defence of Azerbaijan has reported in a ministerial note that: “The Army of Armenia has resumed artillery bombardment of Azerbaijan’s army positions, such as the village of Agdam in the Tovuz district, with 120mm mortars.”

He went on to add that: “During the night battles, thanks to the precise fire of our units with artillery, mortars and tanks, a stronghold, artillery installations, automotive equipment and enemy fighting forces were destroyed. A soldier of the Azerbaijani army died in battle. Operations are currently under the control of Azerbaijani troops and decisive measures have been taken against the enemy”.

On the Armenian side, on the other hand, it was made known, through the Defence Ministry spokesman Shushan Stepanyan, that the Azeris would “try to take guard points at the border using artillery shots, but were repelled, without suffering loss of life”.

But what is the conflict in question? What’s his story?

The conflict in question has a long history that began when the region declared independence from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in 1988 and was occupied by the Armenian military.

Since 1988 the conflict has seen two armies facing each other in a kind of trench warfare, with military operations limited to periods of more or less intense skirmishing, where snipers play the leading role.

The bloodiest years were those between 1990 and 1994 when a cease-fire coordinated by the OECD seemed to have ended a crisis that exploded just as the Soviet giant was dissolving.

Geographically and politically speaking, the Nagorno Karabakh region is considered Azerbaijani territory, even if it has always been inhabited by Armenians.

What is certain is that Azerbaijan and Armenia are two nations that have certainly never loved each other and whose coexistence has been forcibly anaesthetized by the influence of the Soviets since Stalin’s time. Between 1920 and 1923, he decided to create the autonomous oblast of Nagorno Karabakh, assigning the region to Azerbaijan.

Strengthened by the institutional earthquake that would lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the birth of fifteen former republics in independent states (including Russia), between 1991 and 1992, the Armenian population of the region (98% of the total) decided to found the autonomous Republic of Artsakh.

At that time the armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia had already begun, in fact, the real spark that triggered an endless and unresolved crisis erupted precisely in 1990.

January 1, 1990, was a Monday.

In the streets of Baku, the former capital of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, a crowd of tens of thousands of people sang anti-Armenian songs: “Glory to the heroes of Sumqait” and “Long live for Baku without the Armenians”.

This announcement could have been a warning of what would happen in the near future. In fact, the Pogrom of Baku had begun, the final solution to free that territory from the “inconvenient neighbours” (the Armenians).

In particular, it was triggered what the witnesses of the time called “Black January”.

In the two years before 1990, 250,000 citizens of Armenian origin living in Baku had left. This began when sectarian ideology had produced the violence in the city of Sumqait, north of the current Azeri capital.

So it was that in Baku, as well as in other cities such as Sumqait, Ganja and other centres close to the disputed border of the autonomous region, including the ghost-town of Agdam, tens of thousands of ethnic Armenian people were forced to leave their homes and take shelter in Nagorno Karabakh. Other people chose different destinations, including Yerevan itself, which would soon become the capital of Armenia, but also Stepanakert (Xankendi), the current capital of Artsakh, Shusha and Goris.

In order to force the Armenians to leave Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani leadership had formed teams whose aim was to enter Armenian homes without any respect, quickly evacuating those who lived there and forcing them to sign a document granting the sale of the property.

To these officials, people had to hand over all their money and valuables, and every empty house was branded on the outside with the word “clean”.

These repressive methods seemed to get some idea from the raids the Nazis were carrying out in Jewish ghettos in the 1930s and 1940s.

The powerful Red Army, now at the end like the entire Soviet system that fell definitively on Christmas Day in 1991, tried in vain to restore normality, but by then the damage had been done.

The decisive spark of the conflict between the two contending countries is linked precisely to the pogrom of January 1990.

Since then, despite the cease-fire of 1994, the war has not known the word “end”.

Since the beginning of the third millennium, the year with the most deaths was 2014 (72, mainly military, very few civilians).

The recrudescence of the bloody events is repeated with punctual drama.

The analogies with other international crises are wasted.

In many ways, the situation in the Caucasus resembles the Balkan war in the early 1990s, but it also resembles the troubles in Northern Ireland in terms of the number of casualties and the religious clashes and, finally, the Palestinian question.

Returning to the outbreak of war, Nagorno-Karabakh on September 2, 1991, taking advantage of Moscow’s weakness, this region proclaimed its independence from the newly formed Republic of Azerbaijan. Thus, an escalation of clashes between the two countries began: in January 1992, the Azerbaijani army attacked the newly-born Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

The war that had begun as a war of secession, de facto, soon became a confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as the last one began to support Nagorno-Karabakh militarily and economically.

In general, the fighting took place on a “de facto border” just over 250 km long between Armenian-controlled territory and Azerbaijan.

The city of Khojaly, Azerbaijan, was the scene of the worst episode of the war, where Human Rights Watch estimates that 613 Azerbaijani civilians were massacred by the Armenian army.

During the war actions, the Armenian forces of Karabakh occupied 16% of the Azerbaijani territory. More than 900,000 Azerbaijani citizens were displaced by the conflict, while about 300,000 Armenians fled from Azerbaijan.

In order to prepare the ground for peace negotiations, the Minsk Group was created in 1992 behind the OSCE action: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Italy, Belarus, Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, Turkey, Sweden and Finland.

The aim of the Minsk Group was to prepare a peace conference in the Belarusian capital in 1994. Thanks to the efforts of this group, the war ended in May 1994 with an agreed cease-fire in Biškek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

But what were the results of this deal?

The results of this agreement were basically two:

  • The de facto independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, which established the seat of its self-proclaimed government in the city of Stepanakert.
  • The takeover by Armenian forces of 7 Azerbaijani regions bordering Nagorno-Karabakh (5 of which are still under Armenian control).

However, the positions of the two countries competing for this strip of land (Azerbaijan and Armenia) have become more radical due to the tightening of their respective nationalist positions and Armenian irredentism. The Minsk group still exists and is led by a co-presidency currently composed of France, Russia and the United States. In addition, in November 2007, as part of the OSCE work in Madrid, a recommendation document was produced with the aim of reaching a final peace agreement.

The principles outlined in this document can be summarized in three points:

  • An interim independence status for Nagorno-Karabakh, providing security and guarantees of self-government;
  • International recognition of this status guaranteed through a legally binding expression of the popular will;
  • International security guarantees, including an effective peace-keeping operation in the region.

The principles of Madrid, considered at the time as the basis for future negotiations, did not have the success expected among the parties in the struggle. To date, in fact, these points have not yet been fully realised.

An important event to underline regarding this issue took place in 2017.

In fact, in 2017, following a referendum, Nagorno-Karabakh adopted the official name of Artsakh Republic and changed its institutional structure into a presidential republic.

Although it is not yet recognized by any member state of the United Nations, it has obtained various international recognitions from other actors and has a network of diplomatic missions active in Armenia, Russia, France, United States, Germany and Australia.

Moreover, after the post-war crisis, Nagorno Karabakh has become the protagonist of a very fast economic growth in recent years, favored also by economic aid from the Armenian diaspora and Armenia itself.

Thanks also to market-oriented reforms under the leadership of President Bako Sahakyan. These neoliberal reforms have found broad consensus among the liberal voices in the region, who have begun to define Karabakh as “the Caucasian tiger”.

Who are the actors involved?

In recent years Armenia and Azerbaijan have continued to take provocative action and to clash along the borderline between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.

Armenia has continued to provide political, military and financial support to the separatist region, which Baku still regards as an Azerbaijani occupied territory.

In April 2016, tensions increased significantly between Azerbaijani and Armenian Karabakh forces. It is estimated that in four days of combat, hundreds of soldiers from both sides were killed, although the exact figures are not known to date.

Moreover, since that year the geopolitical balance of the region has become even more unstable. This was caused not only by the two protagonists of the dispute, Armenia and Azerbaijan but also by the interventions of other neighbouring powers in the Caucasus region.

Starting from the two main countries at the centre of the dispute, it is good and interesting to define the various positions and therefore the dynamics in place:

As far as Armenia is concerned, the Velvet Revolution (April-May 2018), which led to a peaceful change of government leadership, has prompted many Caucasian observers to ask themselves whether it is possible to give a new start to the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh. The revolution brought to power a new Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who replaced Karen Karapetyan native of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Armenian Prime Minister then argued at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019 that Nagorno-Karabakh should be represented by its de facto elected rulers and therefore free to determine their fate.

This statement is an absolute novelty, as Armenia has always tried to influence the situation. Pashinyan’s approach is, therefore, one of compromise.

Compromise is, therefore, possible, according to the vision of the Armenian Prime Minister, if Azerbaijan puts aside its war rhetoric and recognises the right to self-determination of the Karabakh people.

According to the Azerbaijani vision, on the other hand, following the transition of power in Armenia, Azerbaijan believes that it has the opportunity to obtain more concessions.

Furthermore, on 9 February last, “cosmetic” parliamentary elections were held in the country, in an attempt to give a new face to the old regime of Ilham Aliyev. This “metamorphosis” could lead to further changes of strategy in the resolution of the conflict with Nagorno-Karabakh.

What is certain is that since the official end of the conflict (1994) things have changed a lot. Azerbaijan, in particular, is no longer the country it was at the time, especially in economic terms, while Armenia has remained essentially static.

The leadership of the Azerbaijani political-business dynasty of the Aliyev family has passed from Heidar to Ilham, the latter from 2003 to today at the head of a state considered backwards, even poor, has become, in a few years, a world power. In fact, modern Azerbaijan has become a sort of emirate, like Bahrain and Qatar, and Baku has become a “forbidden dream city” like Dubai.

The discovery and exploitation of huge oil and natural gas deposits in its portion of the Caspian Sea have made the former Caucasian republic a business destination, unlike neighbouring Armenia.

This gap, at the moment unbridgeable, between Azerbaijan and Armenia risks increasing the tenor of the crystallized conflict in Nagorno Karabakh.

As for other strong players present to play a geopolitical role in the area, we certainly find Turkey, Russia and China.

Starting with Turkey, the Republic is a firm supporter of Azerbaijan, for reasons related to the cultural and linguistic ties between the two countries and the mutual energy exchange, with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. The two countries have therefore also signed a treaty with mutual defence obligations.

It is also true that for a short time, Armenian-Turkish relations seemed to have improved in 2008, thanks to “football diplomacy”; unfortunately this détente lasted very little because of Turkish insistence on Armenia’s departure from Azerbaijani territories.

With regard to the clashes that took place a few days ago, in a statement issued on 12 July Turkey immediately condemned the escalation and declared its support for Azerbaijan “in its struggle to protect its territorial integrity”.

Russia played an important role in international efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the 1994 war. Moscow also exerts a strong economic influence on Armenia which, because of its two closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, would find it difficult to support the Karabakh economy on its own.

This is one of the main reasons why Armenia decided to join the EEE Eurasian Economic Union (with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and the CSTO Collective Security Treaty Organization.

At the same time, Russia remains an important economic partner for Azerbaijan, particularly in the area of the arms trade.

Through these relations and actions, Moscow tends to exercise a careful balance when it comes to supporting Armenia and Azerbaijan in the conflict.

With regard to the current situation, through a statement given on Monday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sergei Viktorovič Lavrov called the situation “unacceptable” and condemned any “further escalation” as it could “threaten the security of the region”. He added that Russia is ready to “provide the necessary assistance to stabilize the situation”.

Another important actor who has begun to play a role in the dispute, although recently is China. Indeed, recent diplomatic and economic exchanges between Beijing and the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia have provided a favourable ground for deeper Chinese involvement in the South Caucasus.

The region in question has gradually begun to capture Beijing’s attention in the wake of the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013.

During 2019, frequent meetings between leaders led to the signing of some substantial trade contracts between China and Azerbaijan.

As for China and Armenia, the two countries are working on a multimodal transport and transit corridor to connect Iran to Europe, via Armenia and the Georgian Black Sea.

At the moment, therefore, there are many variables that play a role in the stabilisation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The lack of a shared strategy by the various powers such as Russia, Turkey and China to support peace-keeping in the region may not be a coincidence, given the economic and strategic interests that these powers maintain in the Caucasus.

Only Armenia and Azerbaijan, therefore, remain in a direct confrontation on the issue, and they are still struggling to take into account the voice of the Republic of Artsakh.

On 15 February last, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev held a brief debate on Karabakh at the Security Conference in Munich.

However, the meeting did not produce any real proposal or negotiation process.

The recent opening to revitalize the dying peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue risks to be closed if the confrontation continues on the nationalist ground.

The hope is that the two countries will start negotiations as soon as possible on the concrete issues at the root of the impasse.

The issues can be summarized in three points:

  • The future of the territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenian settlers have built their homes.
  • The potential role of international peacekeepers.
  • The independence status of the newly formed Republic of Artsakh, which is basically the central issue.

What could stop a military escalation between the contending countries in that area are mainly economic reasons, in fact, that border region includes valuable infrastructure, including roads and pipelines, which are essential for both countries.

Another reason to underline, as a motive for an unlikely conflict, is that in that area the civilian population is very close to the military bases, even if this motivation, historically speaking, has never been so much taken into account by those who had to wage war.

Finally, there is the possibility of both Russian and Turkish intervention, and this last point is particularly important to highlight.

By Michele Brunori

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