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Nagorno - Karabakh, an unending conflict

After four years of armistice, at the end of September 2020, conflict broke out again in Nagorno-Karabakh, the decades long disputed area between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The two ceasefire agreements signed under Russian mediation were violated shortly by the two stakeholders. If the two sides cannot resolve the root of the conflicts, the conflict is unlikely to end.

A hot land

The fierce conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenian-backed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27, 2020 took the lives of more than 100 people. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia accuse each other of initiating the most terrible acts of violence in nearly 30 years. The fact that the two sides have deployed their heavy weapons for the war is an evidence of a comprehensive war with high intensity. However, this was not the only conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. In the past eight decades, along with the changes of history, this land has also experienced many ups and downs.

Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Nagorno-Karabakh covers an area of 4,400 km2, located in western Azerbaijan with more than 90% of the population being Armenians. In July 1818, the first Armenian Parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh declared self-governing for the region and formed its National Assembly and the Government. After Armenia and Azerbaijan were taken over by Bolshevik forces in 1921, on July 7, 1923, the leader of the Soviet Union officially declared the establishment of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region on the territory of Azerbaijan and assigned it to Azerbaijan authorities.

Conflict eased during the period of the Soviet Union's leadership, although the fire of “independence” was still smoldering in many Armenians. In the late 1980s, due to the influence of nationalism in the Soviet Union, the disagreement between the Armenians and the Azerbaijani began to intensify. At its peak in 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh voted to quit Azerbaijan and merge with Armenia. This action was, of course, rejected by the Moscow authorities.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 was a major turning point for the Nagorno-Karabakh region. On November 26, 1991, about one month before the flag of the Soviet Union was pulled down in the Kremlin, Azerbaijan abolished the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, rearranged the administrative area and placed the territory under the direct control of the central government. In response, in a referendum on December 10, 1991, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh chose to establish an independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) state and expressed their desire to unite with Armenia. Conflict broke out again. Negotiation efforts by international organisations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), failed to come up with a solution that meets the requirements of both parties. By early 1993, Armenian forces gained control of much of the area outside Karabakh besides annexing an additional 9% of Azerbaijan territory. The fighting ended only when a Russian-mediated ceasefire was signed on May 12, 1994, under which a demilitarised zone would be established in the disputed area. The United Nations still asserted Azerbaijan's sovereignty over all of Nagorno-Karabakh while Armenia did not recognise the government of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh but remained behind. Efforts to promote negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia to bring peace to the region mediated by the OSCE have been made ever since, but not many significant results have been yielded.

Uncompromising confrontation

Each announced ceasefire agreement only temporarily alleviates the fear of violence. As the roots of the conflict have yet to be resolved, any ceasefire commitment will be fragile, especially when Nagorno-Karabakh is vital to both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

To Azerbaijan, this land legally and historically belongs entirely to them. In fact, the international community also recognised this as an inseparable territory of Azerbaijan. Baku certainly has the impetus to change the status quo with the ultimate goal of restoring actual control over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijan government has considered giving Nagorno-Karabakh a high degree of autonomy in exchange for the area being a real part of its territory. Besides, President Ilham Aliyev has promised to take back the land since taking power in 2000 or at least Azerbaijan must be returned the buffer zone around Nagorno-Karabakh that the Armenian has occupied. In contrast, Armenia tends to maintain the status quo and resolutely protect the Armenian community here. Yerevan even declared that if the fighting in the disputed area did not stop, Armenia would recognise the independence of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The determination from both sides shows that neither side will compromise in this confrontation.

In addition to legal issues, the conflict between the two nations also stems from deep and serious hatred. Although Azerbaijan is an independent country, Azerbaijanis people speak Turkish and have close cultural ties to Turkey. Meanwhile, the grief of the massacre of ethnic Armenians living in Turkey by the Ottoman Empire during World War I still remains and represents the source of Armenians' deep hatred of Turkey. It is worth mentioning that this anger was spontaneously transferred to the Azerbaijani people, being the source of their hostility.

However, Azerbaijanis also have their own aggregates. To this day, they still recount stories of the horrible violent period following the fall of the Soviet Union, accompanied by accusations that Armenia occupied and carried out the so-called ethnic cleansing campaign, when deporting nearly one million Azerbaijani people out of the villages around Nagorno-Karabakh. It is reported that around 30,000 Azerbaijani people were slaughtered during this period.

The “arena” of international power

The complexity of geographical disputes and the overlapping relations make the Nagorno-Karabakh issue beyond the scope of a local conflict. Several external factors directly relating to the war are turning Nagorno-Karabakh into a node in international competition. The separatists in this land have the support of Armenia while Azerbaijan is backed by Turkey. In addition, Armenia has a close traditional relationship with Russia, along with Iran, which shares borders with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, tends to side with Armenia.

In many respects, Turkey - a descendant of the ancient Ottoman Empire has reasons to side with Azerbaijan because the two countries not only share their beliefs and religions but also stem from century-long, deep hatred with Armenians. However, that is not the most important reason. Behind President Recep Tayyiv Erdogan's pledge to fully support Baku is a long-term strategic plan of Ankara. Given its close geographical position, maintaining close relations with Azerbaijan through involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh war is of great importance to Turkey both politically and economically. First of all, supporting Baku strengthens President R. Erdogan's image in the country at a time when voters are losing faith in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Not to mention, this step will help him earn the support of the large Azerbaijani community in Turkey.

Economically, an energy-rich country like Azerbaijan has a special attraction, because having an ally like Baku means that Ankara can control the oil pipeline connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia to the city of Ceyhan (Turkey). According to a Turkish Energy Ministry official, this is a vital issue for the country's economy that is looking to take off. However, that benefit is not the ultimate goal for the country located in the two continents. Recently, the administration of President R. Erdogan has taken decisive actions in many regional and international issues in order to achieve the goal of becoming a power on the world political chessboard. So what's going on in the South Caucasus certainly cannot be out of Ankara's concerns. By supporting Azerbaijan in its war of territorial reclaim, Turkey can expand its influence in the region, thereby realising its ambition to become a new power, gradually asserting its role as a leader of the Islamic world. In particular, the presence in the South Caucasus, close to Russia, is also an important card to help Ankara gain an advantage in the power competition with Moscow in this and other battlefields from Syria to Libya.

For Russia, South Caucasus is not only a traditional sphere of influence but also a strategic buffer zone separating it from Turkey - a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). When the largest military alliance in the world does not stop the plan to move Eastward close to Russia, it is vital to keep this security barrier. This is the reason Moscow maintains close ties with Yerevan and backs Armenia militarily. In addition, the country is under the security umbrella of Russia as a member of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) and is still the home to about 5,000 Russian soldiers.

However, Moscow also advocates avoiding a direct confrontation with Azerbaijan and Turkey in order to maintain a strategic balance, while ensuring the safety of the post-Soviet space security system and drawing Ankara further away from the West. During the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia has always acted as a mediator and has an interest in keeping the violence in control. Therefore, the on going war canot spread beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh border. That not only overcomes the “limit” set by the Kremlin, but also affects the image of Russia - a security provider in the region. However, Moscow’s reaction in the early stages of the conflict sent another message from the administration of President Vladimir Putin. There are comments that this “fire” cannot explode so strongly if Russia really wants to “put it out”. So, Moscow's procrastination is purely a deliberate calculation. Although the alliance between Russia and Armenia remains constant, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power in 2018 through the Velvet Revolution with many Western-style reforms, a model that Russia dislikes. Thus, the latest event serves as Moscow's reminder to Yerevan of the possible consequences if leaving out of Russia's orbit.

As in the past, the war is going on, and most likely will end with a cease-fire, a scenario that fits the wishes of both Russia and Turkey. However, as it has become the “arena” of international power, finding an ultimate solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem is not a priority for the main sponsors. Therefore, even if the violence subsides, it is just like the “breaks” while waiting for the “new climax”. Up until the present time, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is truly an unending conflict.


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