As the world wrestles with COVID-19, a long dormant conflict in the Caucasus is unfolding having long-term consequences for the region. In the midst of COVID-19 pandemic, which has already taken a heavy toll on all aspects of human life, Armenia and Azerbaijan have locked horns over a territory which has been the remnant of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The article attempts to give a detailed analysis of the nature of the conflict, its various dimensions and international importance. It also explains the geopolitics behind the ongoing conflict and its potential to wreak havoc in the region.
Gazi Hassan and Sakshi Gemini
The imperial conquests, ethnic conflict, civil war and mass uprisings have been the narrative of Nagorno-Karabakh, the landlocked mountainous region that has been the centre of the conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, having a population of approximately 1,50,000, comprising Armenians (76.4%), 42,871 Azeris (22.4%) and several thousands of Kurds, Russians, Greeks and Assyrians.
Over the last few weeks, military confrontation between the separatists of Armenia and Azerbaijan has resulted in the death of more than 100 civilians and armed personnel of Armenia. Azerbaijan is yet to release the figures of its casualties. The ongoing skirmish is not anything the region has not witnessed before; however, the two countries have fought over this disputed region for decades. The conflict can be traced back to the pre-Soviet era when the region was at the confluence of three major empires of that time, viz Ottoman, Russian and the Persian Empire.
The current conflict is seen as one of the most serious one in recent years.
The region is controlled by Armenian separatists. Nagorno-Karabakh has been part of Azerbaijan territory since the Soviet era and when the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s Armenia’s regional parliament voted for the region’s transfer to Armenia which was turned down by the Soviets. The area remains in Azerbaijan, but it is governed by separatist Armenians who have declared it a republic called the “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.” The clashes are possibly a fallout of Azerbaijan’s bid to reclaim territories occupied by separatist Armenians since the end of the Cold War. While the Armenian government does not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state, it supports the region politically as well as militarily.
Strategic Significance of Nagorno-Karabakh
Several gas and oil pipelines across the Caucasus (the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea) to Turkey and Europe are built by the energy-rich Azerbaijan. Few of them include the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline having a capacity of transporting 1.2 billion barrels a day, the Western Route Export oil pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline, among others. Some of these pipelines pass close through this conflict zone. The energy supplies would get affected in an event of full-blown war between the two countries and the possibility of attack on pipelines is not far from reality.
Stakes for Russia and Other Countries
The conflict is getting worldwide attention because of the involvement of Russia and Turkey, the two regional rivals. Turkey backs and has declared unconditional support to Azerbaijan and has blamed Armenia for not resolving the issue through peaceful negotiations. Russia, on the other hand, sells weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has maintained normal relations with them. Russia has a military alliance with Armenia called the Collective Security Treaty organisation. So far Russia has taken a balanced position on the matter and has traditionally been on good relations with both countries.
Russia and Turkey back opposite sides in the civil wars playing out in Syria and Libya. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan is seen as an attempt to counter Russia’s influence in the region of the Southern Caucasus.
Other countries including the US have limited their participation to only appeals for maintaining peace in the region. For many countries in the European Union, the region is an important transit route for the supply of oil and natural gas.
Turkey: A Game Changer
Turkey has historically supported Azerbaijan (Muslim majority) and has had a troublesome relationship with Armenia since the time of the Ottoman Empire. During the war in the 1990s, Turkey closed its border with Armenia and severed diplomatic relations with the country. The main point of contention between the two was Turkey’s refusal to recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide in which the Ottomans killed approximately 1.5 million Armenians. On the other hand, the Azeris and Turks share strong cultural and historical links. Azerbaijanis are of Turkic ethnicity with language having roots from the Turkic family.
Turkey established strong relations with Azerbaijan after it became independent. The country has been ruled by a dynastic dictatorship. In July, after the first report of the border clashes, Turkey held a joint military exercise with Azerbaijan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Armenia for the most recent clashes and offered unconditional support to Azerbaijan. This fits well into Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy which seeks to expand Ankara’s interests to the former Ottoman territories.
As of now, both sides are standing their ground and the conflict and casualties continue. Armenian government lodged a request with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for an interim measure which will be applicable only when there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm to Armenia. A key stumbling point in addressing this crisis is the lack of security guarantees. It would be incredibly important if certain confidence-building strategies—not necessarily tied directly to Nagorno-Karabakh—with a broader objective of building trust in the Caucasus could be identified.
Gazi Hassan is Senior Research Associates and Sakshi Gemini is Research Intern at CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Featured Image source: Wikipedia, BBC