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Nagorno-Karabakh - From forgotten conflict to settled dispute?

The year 2020 has sprung numerous surprises and geo-politics has certainly not been spared. If you have been following the political affairs of the past two months, you may have come across the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict more than once. From escalated fighting to a new peace agreement, there is a lot about the conflict itself that has gone unnoticed for decades.    

Located in the South Caucasus region, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, with a majority of its inhabitants identifying as ethnic Armenians. Though the present conflict between Azerbaijan and the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh backed by Armenia officially began in 1988, the tensions in the region are a result of centuries old ethnic and religious differences, with regional politics thrown into the mix. While the region is more prominently known by its Russian name, ethnic Armenians call it ‘Artsakh’. Since 1988, when the first war between Azerbaijan and Armenia broke out, the region has been proclaimed as the independent Republic of Artsakh, controlled by an ethnic Armenian governing body, dubbed as a separatist group by Azerbaijan and supported by Armenia.

The struggle over the control of Nagorno-Karabakh is a centuries old contention between Muslim Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians. The Russian Empire controlled the region, also including present-day Azerbaijan and Armenia, until its dissolution in 1918. The dissolution of the Empire re-ignited the tension regarding Nagorno-Karabakh between newly independent Azerbaijan and Armenia. As the states were incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Soviet solution was to make Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous region within the Azerbaijani Socialist Republic, even though 94 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population was ethnic Armenian at the time.

From 1923 into the Cold War years, the Soviet Union managed to put a check on the protests over the control of the Karabakh territory that emanated from Armenia. As the era of Soviet control came to an end, tensions broke out into a full-fledged war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1988. Fighting and hostilities ensued until 1994 when Russia brokered the Bishkek Protocol between the now fully independent states of Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Protocol served as a provisional ceasefire agreement, signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan, the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Russia.

The humanitarian repercussions of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War were massive, with 30,000 dead and over a million displaced on both sides. Hundreds of thousands became refugees or were internally displaced, coupled with an economic breakdown of the entire region, as was the case with most erstwhile Soviet Republics. Allegations of ethnic cleansing were levelled against both parties, as an atmosphere of mutual hostility embittered the relations between two neighbouring states for decades to come.

In the absence of a peace agreement, the Bishkek Protocol established a ‘line of contact’ which turned into one of the world’s most militarized borders in the world, as the location of the border itself remained disputed. Skirmishes and escalated fighting over the years, most notably in 2008 and 2016 before the events of 2020, have broken out into a struggle of gaining control over different areas within Nagorno-Karabakh. The region, while officially considered a part of Azerbaijan, remained under the control of the appointed government of the Republic of Artsakh, backed by Armenia. The borders of the region have been repeatedly contested, with different areas falling under the de-facto control of different sides at different points in time, as the conflict has continued.

In July of this year, fighting broke out on the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, just 300 kilometres away from Nagorno-Karabakh. After a short-lived ceasefire, fighting resumed rather than restarted on 27 September. The fighting officially concluded on 9 November, as a peace agreement was finally signed.

The dynamics of the conflict are entangled with the geopolitics of the Caucasus. Azerbaijan and Armenia have never been the only two parties involved in the conflict. Turkey has long backed Azerbaijan, even providing military support, and Russia has demonstrated support for the Armenian side, though the latter has also been heavily invested in brokering ceasefires between the nations over the years, and was also extensively involved in negotiating the new peace agreement. 

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has spearheaded the peace campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh, through its Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, with Turkey as a permanent member. Ankara and Moscow have naturally dominated the negotiations, with diplomatic ties to their respective allies, their growing competition for regional dominance, Nagorno-Karabakh’s proximity to strategic gas oil and gas pipelines, and its strategic location between Russia, Turkey and Iran serving as ample motivators. Even the UN Security Council has always left the situation to be monitored by the Minsk Group, only ever discussing the Nagorno-Karabakh situation behind closed doors in private meetings, and choosing not to seek an active part in the negotiations.

The peace agreement signed on 9 November between Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia has been hailed as the deal that will finally end the military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The peace agreement is far from a compromise between both parties, but a clear victory for Azerbaijan. According to the terms of the agreement, Azerbaijan will retain control over the areas within Nagorno-Karabakh that it has recaptured since 27 September. Armenia, on the other hand, is expected to withdraw its military forces from the territories they still control with Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. For the next five years, Russian peacekeepers are expected to guard the Lachin corridor, the route linking Stepanakert in Karabakh to Armenia. 

Upon the conclusion of the agreement, the Azerbaijani capital Baku was engulfed in a mood of jubilant celebration, with crowds taking to the streets, waving their national flag, rejoicing at the prospect of going back to Nagorno-Karabakh, a home their parents were driven out of decades ago. In a stark contrast, Armenia has been plunged into political chaos, with protests erupting in capital Yerevan, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. 

With a delicate agreement balancing the status quo, the future of Nagorno-Karabakh is still undecided. This may have been the turning point in history where an on-again off-again conflict was finally settled, albeit the hefty price leaves two autocratic regional powers, Russia and Turkey, in charge of peace. The upcoming days and months will cement the viability of the achieved peace, as the population of Nagorno-Karabakh is once again left out of the narrative.

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