The Fight for Nagorno-Karabakh
Emma Milchunes | Nov 27, 2022
War, borders, identities – these are three factors that have increasingly taken center stage in modern global conflicts, from Ukraine and Russia, to Israel and Palestine. However, there is another ongoing conflict unfolding with great uncertainty, despite not being as well-covered in the media.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are currently pursuing peace talks after having been locked in a boundary dispute along the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh since last May. This most recent engagement between the two sides resulted in about 286 people being killed throughout September 2022. This most recent scuffle is just one scene from a multi-decade dissension over the ownership of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a conflict which involves differing interpretations/definitions of ethnicity, global alliances, geography, and religion.
The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has been a constant source of uncertainty and violence in Central Asia for centuries. Christian Armenians originally settled the region, forming a large initial population. It is noted by author Thomas De Waal – an expert on the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan – that the area is strongly composed of ancient Armenian architecture such as castles, graveyards, and mausoleums. While Armenian culture flourished throughout the 18th century, Muslim Azeris from Azerbaijan would found an important city which would be named Shusha, building a citadel there that would serve as a significant piece of Azeri pride for decades.
The role of 20th century global affairs on the long standing tension over the shared cultural lands would erupt with the influence of Russia. Russian rule over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Armenia, and Azerbaijan would begin in 1823, and after its fall from empire to communist regime, the two countries would become incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Originally, Nagorno-Karabakh was decided to be a part of the Armenian Soviet State, however, under direction of soon-to-be dictator Joseph Stalin in 1923, the majority of the Armenian populated region was instead formed as an "autonomous administrative region" of Soviet Azerbaijan. The Soviet Union consistently ignored calls for ethnic nationalism within its conglomeration of communist states, including that of the ethnic Armenians now included into Azerbaijan.
The sudden collapse of the USSR brought the most change, despite the boundaries decided during its communist reign. In 1988, the region’s large ethnic Armenian population proposed via referendum that Nagorno-Karabakh be adopted from communist Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan responded to the proposal by crushing the ethnic Armenian separatist movement, which was heavily and indiscreetly supported by Armenia. It was not until 1992 that both countries were officially declared independent from the USSR, as the once large and powerful country lost its grip over its satellite states in the Caucasus region and Eastern Europe. The simple rebellion occurring in the disputed territory would evolve with independence into a war riddled with ethnic cleansing attempted by each side against the opposing ethnicities. 1994 would be the end of this first conflict, with the signing of the Bishkek Protocol, a temporary agreement brokered by Russia with the end result of Azerbaijan primarily holding Nagorno-Karabakh and a ceasefire. The lack of finality and path for future peace within the document created an unstable environment, and no answer as to Nagorno-Karabakhs’s future.
The Bishkek Protocol would come to only incentivize both sides to militarize further with little communication, with no peace truly having been reached – simply a temporary solution. The particular lack of ties between both sides, made the proliferation of armies and weapons dangerous as neither knew the plans nor intentions of their hostile neighbor, causing artificial suspicion. On September 27th, 2020, this problem would result in reignited war with the most brutal fighting of the Nagorno-Karabakh ownership feud. Civilian areas were targeted by both sides, leading to the loss of over 100 innocent lives while thousands of service members further died. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, as it would become known, would end with an Armenian surrender and major defeat, with a ceasefire signed in November 2020. This peace would again be brokered by the Russians by way of negotiations and implementation of a small peacekeeping unit. The end result would be Azerbaijan gaining a significant portion of Karabakh territory yet again. Smaller conflicts occurred throughout the early 2010s, but with no major consequences or territory gains
Since the war that occurred in the late 80s and into the 2020 war, Armenia has held international support from the likes of Russia, while Turkey– though a distant ally of Armenia, has actively been part of a close alliance with Azerbaijan. This places the conflict in an interesting sect of global politics and in relationship with NATO, which both countries joined after their independence from the USSR. NATO has not gotten involved in the conflict, and has publicly encouraged a peaceful ending.
This history is relevant to the news cycle and understanding of the state of the border today when considering conflict broke out again only a few months ago on September 12, 2022. Depending on which country you ask,a different answer is given as to the cause of the recent attacks: Armenia states that Azerbaijan suddenly attacked, while Azerbaijan conversely stated its measures were retaliations against Armenian inducement. ِIn addition to the fighting occurring at the border of the countries, it was reported by the U.S State Department that there was evidence of Azeri violence within the country of Armenia, beyond the border. Following a mediation by the European Union on August 31, 2022, and the recent fighting, further talks have begun between the countries’ foreign ministers– Azeri Jeyun Bayramov and Armenian Arrat Mirzoyan– this past September. with U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Though what was discussed in these talks is relatively unknown and the future of a peace beneficial to both countries seems unlikely with conflict so recently ending, one can only hope that a mutually satisfying solution is on its way for the people affected in both countries and within Nagorno-Karabakh.