The Nagorno-Karabakh Dilemma

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been raging for nearly 23 years, and there is hardly a glimmer of hope for straight-forward resolution.

At the 23rd Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which took place in Hamburg on the 8-9th December this year, Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov, said that the prolonged situation in the Caucasus Region was volatile and could become deadly at any moment. “The April escalation of the conflict was a vivid reminder that today’s situation existing on the line of contact of Armenia and Azerbaijani troops is dangerous and has a potential to worsen at any time with unpredictable consequences,” Mammadyarov said, according to Sputnik. Although the minister was referring to one particular outbreak this year, these words are not surprising for anyone monitoring the situation – for the last two decades civilians have lived in a region on the brink of war, and are familiar with precisely these circumstances.

Nagorno-Karabakh is situated in the rugged, western region of Azerbaijan, but has historically had an ethnic Armenian majority representing roughly 95% of the population. Although located near the Armenian border, the region is mountainous and cut-off from efficient transport facilities, as well as being separated from Armenia by a sliver of Azerbaijani country. This separation has been a plague of calamity for Armenia, however, Azerbaijan upholds that politically, the region is theirs. It does not help that both sides are remarkably biased about the situation.

The Nagorno-Karabakh region has long been volatile. Since the early 20th century, ethnic clashes have broken out between Armenians and Azeri. Transcaucasia was divided into nations by ethnicity: resulting in the drawing of the borders of the two nations and Georgia. In 1918, war broke out within the Karabakh region, (known in Armenian as Artsakh) between the two nations over Azeri land disputes and in 1920, thousands were killed in conflict in Karabakh, particularly throughout the Shusha massacre during which the city of Shusha and the Armenian population within it were destroyed. Further conflict was halted by the invasion of Soviet forces into Azeri territory, which resulted in Azerbaijan’s surrender and difficult transition to Soviet rule. During this period, conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh died down due to the firm rule of the Soviet regime.

In 1988, several years before the fall of the Soviet Empire, Armenian demonstrators in the territory’s capital, Stepankert, expressed their desire to join with the main Armenian nation. Many more Armenians joined the demonstrations in Yerevan. Requests were rejected by Moscow and Azeri supporters protested against the idea of merging. Azerbaijan declared independence from the USSR during the empire’s fall, after which the newly declared nation took the opportunity to abolish the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast and restructured Azerbaijani regions for better administration from Baku. However, full-blown violence erupted after a number events caused Nagorno-Karabakh to declare unilateral independence in 1994. In the same year, Russia imposed a ceasefire after 30,000 deaths across each side made outside intervention necessary. In the years since, occasional skirmishes and attacks in the region have marked it as one of the most volatile warzones in the world today. Armenian forces guard buffer zones around the territory, a serious threat to security for Azerbaijan.

Today, Azerbaijan has allowed Nagorno-Karabakh to maintain de facto autonomy. Mirroring other zones of ethnic conflicts around the world, such as Kosovo, there is a butting of heads between Armenian supporters who assert that the land should belong to the traditional ethnic majority of the Nagorno-Karabakh population (the Armenians are by far the ethnic majority), and those who emphasize the importance of politically-designated state borders that determine the national government to administer to the region (Azerbaijan has held this power since 1918).

However, in the case of an ongoing and deadly conflict in which the centuries-old traditional lands of an ethnic group clash with modern-day political structures, it is essential that the discussion includes the ruling out of physical violence and threats of violence.

Azerbaijan is a developed country, with quietly increasing human development rankings on par with those of European nations. With a desire to move towards a Euro-Atlantic structure of foreign policy and membership and active involvement in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, (including notable involvement in peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, it is evident that Azerbaijan as a nation sees a future where peace is a priority.

Armenia’s reasons for taking leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh trace back to Pliny the Elder’s mention of Artsakh as part of Armenia. This point, along with the statement that Azerbaijan was rejected from the League of Nations due to ‘internal border issues’ is commonly-repeated rhetoric that strengthens the Armenian argument. It seems logical that the region merge with Armenia. But it is not practise for a country to simply give up land to a neighbouring country on a whim. After a century of struggle, Armenia has come closer to war with Azerbaijan than ever and Armenian military currently occupies, illegally, the far western corner of Azerbaijan.

But to what extent does Azerbaijan tolerate a foreign army advancing through its politically-recognised borders to reclaim territory?

It’s a dilemma. Nagorno-Karabakh has declared autonomy and the people side with Armenia. However, this autonomy is not recognised because it remains within Azerbaijan’s borders. With advancing forces, unpredictable breakouts of violence, confusion over facts of historic events (including vastly differing numbers of casualties in skirmishes and wars), a stubbornness to concede land or change borders, it seems like the situation is a stalemate.

In order for peace to become commonplace, demilitarization must be agreed upon by both sides, through a treaty or otherwise. At the very simplest, a vote for independence must be taken under guidance of foreign observers. Currently, all foreigners who enter into Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia are designated persona non grata in Azerbaijan. They are blacklisted with the list published online due to the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh is “out of control of the government”. This secretive nature needs to be eradicated so the region is ‘open’. After demilitarization, the Azerbaijani government needs to regain control of the region and initiate talks between ethnic groups. For this purpose, a group of nations known as the Minsk Group was established by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to mediate and eventually determine an outcome, however, Azerbaijan has voiced concerns over Armenian interests presiding in countries involved such as Russia and USA, and the group has proven unable to adhere to a solution as of yet.