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The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Written by Pradanya Nagru


Nagorno-Karabakh is a region in the Caucasus. It is legally a part of Azerbaijan, but it is controlled by ethnic Armenians, who make up 95% of its population. Armenia and Azerbaijan were both a part of the Soviet Union, and the USSR officially gave control over Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum and voted to be a part of Armenia. This sparked a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory. A ceasefire was brokered by Russia in 1994. After the First Nagorno-Karabakh war, the region declared independence, although it was not internationally recognized as such. The land was then occupied by Armenia and has been governed by ethnic Armenians in the region ever since.

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and Analysis

The conflict resumed in 2020 after skirmishes at the border caused a massive wave of demonstrations in Azerbaijan to take back Nagorno-Karabakh. It is believed that Azerbaijan started the offensive, and populist statements by the Armenian prime minister claiming the region as Armenian worsened the situation. Tensions boiled over and the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out in September 2020, and, once again, a ceasefire was brokered by Russia in November of 2020. Azerbaijan was able to claim back parts of the territory it had lost in the first war. The war caused thousands of casualties and destroyed people’s homes and livelihoods due to the war crimes and atrocities committed by both sides, but mainly by the Azerbaijani state against the Armenians.

The Armenians living in Azerbaijan face a crisis of identity. A crisis of identity occurs when a group of people does not feel a part of a greater nation outside of their own regional or ethnic/ religious ties. Armenia is majority Christian while Azerbaijan is Muslim, and people from both communities have been living in Nagorno since before the Russian consolidation, so religious divisions have always been a source of tension. In addition, the majority of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh is ethnically Armenian, while the country they are legally a part of is majority Azerbaijani, leading to ethnic divisions in the territory. Thus when the USSR decided to place a territory with a majority Armenian population under Azerbaijani state control rather than giving it to Armenia, it was bound to create an identity crisis and everything that followed.

While the conflict is over a piece of territory, that territory also ties to aspects of culture for both sides and is quick to inflame tensions. For instance, Azerbaijan calls the region Nagorno-Karabakh, a word that has Russian-Azeri roots, while Armenia prefers to call the region Artsakh because of its Armenian heritage and population. The city of Shusha (known as Shushi in Armenia), which lies in Nagorno-Karabakh, is of cultural significance to both sides and has been under the control of either side over the years. Just before the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war, Armenia’s prime minister proclaimed (in Shusha) that Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenian which sparked anger in Azerbaijan. Thus, any outcomes regarding the fate of these places are tied to identity for both sides. The war is not just over territory but also about culture.

The Armenian community also faces a crisis of participation in Azerbaijan. Many of the internally displaced persons from Nagorno face “severe infringements on their economic and social rights and freedom of movement” and are “unable to participate in municipal elections.” Azerbaijan is an authoritarian country with a history of oppressing minorities, especially Armenians. This discrimination is due to their identity.

The Armenian community does not feel respected and the constant discrimination and repression pulls them closer to their Armenian ethnicity and to their Armenian neighbors. For Azerbaijan, the issue is about national pride and “territorial integrity” as no state wants to give up land in its territory to another state, especially if it has cultural significance. While both sides want the conflict and the suffering to end, neither side wants to concede to the other.

How are current relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

Armenia filed a case against Azerbaijan at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in September 2021, alleging discrimination and war crimes. These crimes were committed over the course of many years and continued during and after the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that took place in 2020. Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of illegally detaining and torturing prisoners of war, leading a campaign of cultural destruction of Armenian heritage, and of trying to encroach into Armenian territory even after winning the war. It also accused Azerbaijan of violating the International Convention on Eliminating All Forms of Racial Discrimination by subjecting Armenians to “racial discrimination ‘for decades.’”Azerbaijan denied these claims.

In October of 2021, Azerbaijan responded by filing a case at the ICJ, accusing Armenia of "ethnic cleansing" and of laying landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh even after the war is over. Azerbaijan alleged that Azeri citizens in the majority Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh face “racial hatred and violence” at the hands of Armenians. Armenia denied these claims and labeled them as a tactic created to paint the Azerbaijanis as victims rather than the perpetrators.

Over the years, and especially since the end of the war, there has been an increase in hateful rhetoric on both sides. Both sides perceive Azerbaijan’s recent victory differently and want more concessions from the other. Tensions started rising again in early October when reports of an Azerbaijani soldier killing an Armenian civilian in Nagorno-Karabakh emerged. Azerbaijan regaining parts of Nagorno-Karabakh -including Shusha- will further exacerbate tensions. It will also further strengthen a sense of identity on both sides, with Armenia wanting to legally gain control over Nagorno and Azerbaijan wanting to hold onto it.

Involvement of Outside Actors:

Other countries have also been involved in the region, namely Turkey and Russia. Beginning in 1915, Turks committed genocide against Armenians, ethnically cleansing and killing 1.5 million Armenians and displacing thousands of others. Since then, Turkey has aligned with Azerbaijan by providing military and political support to Azerbaijan due to its close ethnic ties to the country. Its influence and stake in the conflict have been limited compared to Russia, however. Russia is friendly to both countries but supports Armenia militarily. After it negotiated the cease-fire in November 2020, it deployed around 2000 Russian troops to the region in an effort to maintain peace, a mission intended to last until 2025. Russia’s involvement goes beyond peacekeeping. By publicizing its hand on efforts at peace and reconstruction, Russia hopes to gain influence and support in the region. There are speculations as to whether Russia’s intervention in the conflict was planned, or if its hand was forced by the involvement of Turkey and developments in the Caucuses, a region important to Russia.

What’s next?

For the conflict to be resolved, there needs to be accountability for the human rights abuses committed on both sides. No lasting peace is possible without justice and reconciliation, thus investigating the allegations from both sides and holding perpetrators accountable is necessary. The international community must also come together to increase the protection of Human Rights for the people caught up in the conflict. Additionally, it is imperative that the international community help resolve the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh to ensure the stability of the Caucuses and it must ensure that the decision made is respected by both sides. However, countries should let Armenia and Azerbaijan come to a decision on the issue and merely act as a mediator, rather than making a decision for them. Due consideration must be given to the cultural significance of some of the issues and to the voices of the people of Nagorno and what they wish for. In order to find a peaceful settlement to the issue, efforts need to be made to tone down the hateful language used on both sides so the parties can come together to resolve disputes without too much hostility and inflamed tensions. Lastly, allowing regional actors such as Turkey and Russia to use this conflict as their geopolitical chessboard to advance their own interests should be unacceptable, and efforts must be made to reduce their involvement in the conflict.

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