Haunted by war: Nagorno-Karabakh

No formal or international recognition of sovereignty, no peace and no solution in foreseeable future. The international importance of territory and the whole region leading to unsuccessful involvement of international organizations, neighboring countries and world powers is reality that describes Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Ethnic “frozen” conflict between the formal Soviet countries Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan has been going on since the year of 1988 with the region’s legislature passed to join Armenia, and resulted in full-scale war in the 1990s. Occupation of Azerbaijan territories happened during the time of gaining independence in both of the countries. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is self-declared independent republic with primary ethnic Armenians. Nagorno-Karabakh was established as an autonomous region inside Soviet Azerbaijan way back in 1923. In 1992 with the declaration of independence and with the help of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh occupied over 20% of Azerbaijan internationally recognized territories, the war began. The overall war resulted in over 20.000 Azerbaijanis deaths, around 5.000 missing persons, more than 100.000 wounded and half of formal number disabled. Ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population on the entire territory of Azerbaijan began and also virtually all ethnic Azeri’s had fled or been forced out of the region. More than one million were Internal Displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees. Based on international Crisis Group reporting around 30 people die every year because of the conflict. End of the fighting did not bring an end to the conflict.

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Mediation initiatives and different proposals to resolve pivotal problems and to achieve peace came from different countries, politicians and organizations over different timeframes. Four United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions were passed demanding withdrawal of Armenia from Azerbaijan. Beside the neighboring countries and the West one of the international organization is also Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that has been meditating with OSCE Minsk Group ever since the conflict erupted, from the year 1992 on. The group was created in order to resolve the conflict, but so far no improvement has been seen. In OSCE Minsk Group Russia, USA and France proposed several options of proposals, but none has been accepted by all sides. One step towards solution could be uphold of the International community to the non-binding UN and OSCE arms embargoes on Armenia and Azerbaijan. Some progress was made in May of 1994 when Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia signed a ceasefire, which is still effective regardless the everyday violations. All initiatives are fruitless since each side has its own claims and views on how the conflict should be resolved. Azerbaijan considers Nagorno-Karabakh as illegally occupied territory by Armenia and does not recognize it as a state since the enclave has not even been by the end of 21. Century internationally recognized. Azerbaijan is striving to perused world opinion that Nagorno-Karabakh is just aggression of Armenia not a struggle for self-determination. Meanwhile, Armenia believes that conflict must be resolved with recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh people’s right to self-determination. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan recognizes the republic’s territorial sovereignty. The formal and Russia does not regard Nagorno-Karabakh as a full negotiating partner. All three sides have different expectations. First Nagorno-Karabakh with a population of about 14.000 persons, wants recognition of its independence before the negotiations. Second Azerbaijan wants Armenia to end its occupation of the territories and withdraw of forces before discussing the republic final status. And third Armenia wants resolution first on the status before backing out of disputed territories.

The conflict had, has and could further have consequences on the broader regional situation with diverse actors involved. Broad regional relations between countries must be taken into an account. The most important actor that has influence in this region is Russia, which supports Armenia, while Azerbaijan forged alliances with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with Partnership for Peace program (PFP) in 1994 and the West. It is also true that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are politically and economically recovering from war and another escalation would bring no benefits to the either of opposing sides. Despite being members of the Minsk Group, Russia and the US are among the main suppliers of military equipment to both countries. In the region we can see that world leading states such as Russia and US have also other strategic issues and goals that should be considered while looking for a solution. Armenia on one hand is very depended of Russia also because of closed border with Turkey. The Turkey-Armenia border was closed in 1993 when Armenian forces occupied districts of Azerbaijan surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan based on the International Crisis Group even threaten Turkey’s preferential price for its Shah Deniz natural gas supplies and chances of greater volume to feed the planned Nabucco transit pipeline to Europe. Increased trade would result in Yerevan less depend on Moscow. Even though Turkey had officially proclaimed its neutrality in the conflict, it sides with Azerbaijan. We need to have in mind that the South Caucasus region is crossed by major oil and gas pipelines which represents great importance for Europe’s and also Central Asia energy security. The BP-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs through territory less than 100 kilometers from the cease-fire line. Therefore territory is an important energy corridor and whole region is growing in importance in oil and gas sector. United States Department of Energy data shows that the proven reserves in the Caspian Basin for oil reserves of the entire region are equal to those of Iran or Iraq and proven gas reserves are about half as much as Qatar’s, but much has been unexplored. Neighboring countries, including Iran try to influence on or resolve the conflict. Also neighboring country Georgia is a strategic partner of Azerbaijan and upholds the preservation of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Standpoint and pro-Azerbaijan stance has roots in problems that it has on its own territory and disputes involving Abkhazia and South Ossetia and also plans of making a transit route for Caspian oil through its territory. Both are clinging to NATO, but Georgia as one of many failed states in the world has no influence on resolving the conflict. The Western states and the US access to Caspian oil and gas resources serves as minimization the West’s dependence on Middle East oil. There are activities that are leading to minimize Iran’s and Russia influence in the region.

Stability in the South Caucasus cannot be achieved without finding a lasting solution for Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh maybe has no future as a part of Azerbaijan and whatever the solution is, it must emanate from the will of the Karabakh people. Maybe meeting of the Azerbaijan and Armenia in Saint Petersburg in June this year will shine a new light into long lasting problems and conflict. Even though a conflict escalation is in many ways seen unlikely and the chances of war are not high, the tensions and distrusts between Armenia and Azerbaijan continue. The danger of escalation persists to this day and potential of increase in casualties on the frontlines is growing. Both states can with its armed forces, Azerbaijan with around 95.000 and Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh 70.000 personnel, hit large population centres, communications and critical infrastructure. Regional alliances could pull in Russia, Turkey and Iran, which all play an important role in keeping the region stable. Furthermore, important oil and gas pipelines near the front lines could be threatened. Instead of peace based on Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)we see growing military expenditures, state-fuelled propaganda, and political ineffectiveness to achieve permanent solution, ceasefire violations and lack of diplomatic progress.

Teja Palko
Teja Palko
Teja Palko is a Slovenian writer. She finished studies on Master’s Degree programme in Defense Science at the Faculty of Social Science at University in Ljubljana.