Nagorno-karabakh, a mountainous region within Azerbaijan located near the country’s western border with Armenia, was a disputed territory long before it was part of the USSR. Despite being in Azerbaijan the majority of the population is Armenian by ethnicity and historically was part of Armenia. But it was not until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the mid 1980’s and early 90’s that the conflict intensified. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia were incorporated by the USSR in the early 1920’s and the Russians used the underlying tension in the region to their advantage: “as part of their divide-and-rule policy in the region, established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, with an ethnic Armenian majority, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan”. (BBC, 2013)
In 1988, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an attempt to reunite the Karabakh region with Armenia which led to unrest in the region. Azerbaijan and Armenia became officially independent from the USSR in 1991, Karabakh then declared independence from Azerbaijan and became known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. However its independent status was not recognized by most countries. (BBC, 2013)
Not long after its declaration of independence, a large ethnic conflict known as the Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out. At the beginning of the war Russian forces fought alongside the Azeris, but later shifted sides in favor of the Armenians. By the time the war ended in 1994 with a ceasefire, Armenia had seized control over Karabakh and seven provinces surrounding the area belonging to Azerbaijan. Karabakh now shared a border with Armenia and Iran. (OSW, 2011)
Despite the ceasefire there has been no permanent peace agreement in the region. To the rest of the world the dispute does not attract a lot of attention as it is seen as being a frozen conflict, a remnant from the immediate post-Soviet era.
Since 1992, the OSCE Minsk Group has been mediating the conflict in order to reach a peaceful resolution. Not a lot of progress was made, as both sides impose conditions that the other side is not willing to accept; Armenia will not remove its army from the occupied provinces until Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence is recognized and Azerbaijan is only willing to discuss the issue once it has its territory back – territory which makes up 20% of the country. (United States Institute for Peace)
The actual source of the dispute has been the object of some debate. Some say that it is an ethnic dispute powered by nationalism, whilst others say that the underlying source has to do with geopolitics that involve other international actors, such as Russia sustaining its influence in the region and Turkey, which had previous conflicts with Armenia, and played a major role during the Armenian genocide. Turkey also supported Azerbaijan during the war and cut its ties with Armenia in 1993. (United States Institute for Peace)
But according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), circumstances in the region are not that predictable. Clashes, provocations, and ceasefire violations between Armenia and Azerbaijan happen quite frequently, and in recent years both countries entered into an arms race: “ Oil-rich Azerbaijan’s defence budget for 2013 is $3.7 billion, almost one billion more than Armenia’s entire state budget. Armenia increased its own defence spending by 25% this year, to $450m.” (The Economist, 2013)
One example of these provocations occurred in 2012 when Azerbaijan organized the extradition of army Lieutenant Ramil Safarov from Hungary where he was serving a prison sentence for killing an Armenian army Lieutenant during a NATO sponsored language course. Once Safarov arrived in the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, he was pardoned and greeted by President Ilham Aliyev. As a result, Armenia cut its diplomatic relations with Hungary. (Jabarian, 2012)
Armenia retaliated by declaring that it would revive the airport in Nagorno-Karabakh so that flights could be held. In recent years the provocations between Azerbaijan and Armenia have become more intense. Both countries feel skeptical about the Minsk group when it comes to solving the conflict, mainly because Russia has geopolitical interest in the region and is also a co-chair of the group, not to mention that it has been supplying arms to both sides. During a G-8 summit it came to light that “apart from the large-scale Russian military deployments to the Russian base at Gyumri, Armenia after 2010 and support for Armenia, Russia had also sold Azerbaijan a reported US$ 1 billion in weapons”. (ICG,2013)
This is reminiscent of Russia’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics used during the USSR era, using duplicity to maintain its influence in the region by supporting both sides. In doing so both countries will be more focused on the conflict instead of Russia’s influence and interest in the region which continue to interfere in the resolution of the conflict.
In the meanwhile many people are being displaced from their homes and economically the conflict is costly for the territory. Recently the relationship between Russia and Armenia has become strained as Serzh Sargsyan, the president of Armenia, declined Moscow’s proposed Eurasian Union in favour of the European Union. But this was short lived as once again Russia exhibited its power over the region by providing arms to Azerbaijan and increasing the price of gas delivered to Armenia, which then had little choice but to repeal its EU aspirations. (The Economist, 2013)
The frozen conflict between the two countries has been in stalemate for 19 years and their stability has been shaken by provocative actions on both sides. Russia, with all its influence in the region, should reaffirm its position as a mediator and stop supplying arms to both sides as it only intensifies the tension between the neighboring countries and does not contribute at all to the resolution of the conflict; assuming that it is serious about resolving it.
*Cover image ‘At the “border” of Nagorno Karabakh‘ by ale_speciale