Referendum In The Caucasus Risks Reigniting Tensions

On Monday 20th February, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh – a region in the Caucasus which rarely gets news coverage –  voted in a referendum which may decide the future of their nation. The 100,000 ethnic Armenians who live in the region were voting on whether to change the name of their state as well as deciding if their constitution should be altered. The latter would give their president greater powers on matters of security. Though the population of Nagorno-Karabakh is 95% ethnically Armenian, and is a de facto independent state, it is internationally recognised as being part of neighbouring Azerbaijan.

This referendum is, therefore, unlikely to be given a positive reception in many other countries. Hans-Jochen Schmidt, Germany’s former ambassador to Armenia, suggested in a statement to EUobserver that ‘almost everyone outside Nagorno-Karabakh’ would consider the referendum as illegitimate, and that Azerbaijan “will consider it as a provocation.” Even the proposed new name for the region, “Artsakh,” could stoke tensions, as it is an old Armenian word.

Conflict erupting over Nagorno-Karabakh is nothing new. There has been a history of animosity due in part to sectarian differences between Christian Armenians and mainly Muslim Azeris. Tensions over the area were muted when both countries became part of the Soviet Union, but flared up again in the late 1980s, following the collapse of communism in the region. A six-year war followed, which resulted in the loss of around 30,000 lives and the displacement of over one million people. Despite a ceasefire being declared in 1994, violence has erupted sporadically over the years, with each side blaming the other for violating the peace. The situation was at its worst last April, when 64 people were killed over the space of four days.

Given the disputed nature of the region, it would be unsurprising if tensions rose again following the referendum. It has the potential to be especially provocative though, given the political situation in Azerbaijan. Ilham Aliyev, the country’s president, may seek military action against the region as a way of shoring up his slipping popularity in the run up to the 2018 presidential elections. A display of democracy within Azeri borders might also provoke repercussions as Aliyev’s rule becomes ever-more totalitarian.

A greater international effort needs to be made to prevent conflict erupting once more. The “Minsk Group,” a body including US, Russian and French diplomats, has mediated on peace in the region, helping to remedy the situation last April. Yet, in a statement made by the co-chairs on the 17th of February, they regard the “so-called constitutional referendum” as illegitimate. If more countries were to recognise the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, then it would not be forced into potentially provocative acts like this referendum in order to uphold their sense of identity. Tevan Poghosyan, an Armenian MP, suggested last Saturday that without international help, war in the next few years would be “inevitable.” It is imperative for other countries to act on behalf of Nagorno-Karabakh to prevent this from happening, and at the very least, the international press could give more coverage to the conflict in this little-known region.