The Disputed yet Prized Region
Tensions have mounted between the two former Soviet Republics over the disputed territory in the South Caucasus region. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been continuously embroiled in a territorial conflict for decades. The dispute stems from the control of the Upper Karabakh or Nagorno-Karabakh region which is ethnically Armenian but internationally recognized as Azerbaijan-controlled territory. Home to 150,000 people, Nagorno-Karabakh is a region inside Azerbaijan, but it is de-facto controlled by the Armenian forces backed by the Armenian government.
Armenia has not explicitly incorporated the disputed region into its territory, but rather implicitly maintained it as an independent republic. The puppet state of Artsakh in the Karabakh region remains unrecognized by anyone. About 4,400 square kilometers — almost the size of the U.S. state of Delaware — the region is 50km away from the Armenian border. In the post-1919-20 Bolshevik Revolution, the “mountainous black garden” — Nagorno-Karabakh — was allocated to the Azerbaijan Republic, despite having a majority of the Armenian population.
A History Lesson
During the Soviet era, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived coherently under the umbrella of the Moscow-led rule since most decisions were made by the Soviet Empire. However, as the two ethnically distinct populations couldn’t stand their religious affinities, the tensions brewed between the Christian Orthodox Armenians and Sunni Muslim Azerbaijanis in the 1980s when religious protests began to be considered acceptable.
The decade proved fatal for the region when in 1991, the Empire collapsed leading to a vacuum of authority over the republics. The tensions between the two republics, over the reviled ‘Azerification’ of the Armenian population, erupted into a full-blown bloody war in late 1991. This resulted in more than 30,000 deaths and a million displaced through ethnic cleansing on both sides.
After the demise of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR), entanglements began to grow exponentially. The halt to this war only came after Moscow brokered a cease-fire in 1994. In February 2004, both Armenia and Azerbaijan forces sent their officers in a three-month NATO-led English language training course in Budapest, Hungary. Motivated by hatred, Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani officer, killed his counterpart, Gurgen Margaryan, an Armenian officer, in his dormitory with an axe.
During his trial, Safarov blatantly confessed his crime upon which the Budapest court sentenced him to life imprisonment. However, in 2012, when Hungary sent Safarov back to Azerbaijan for continued life imprisonment, not only was his punishment pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, but he was also welcomed as a hero and promoted to a higher rank in the Azerbaijan forces.
An Ebullition of Anger
Another brutal episode of the intense tussle was observed in 2016 when heavy weapons, artillery, and tanks were used by both sides to establish control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region that resulted in over 30 deaths as both sides accused each other of starting the fight. According to the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan, there were 130 ceasefire violations from Armenia’s side on the night of the attack. Since the 1994 truce, this was the close standoff that prompted international players to ease the tensions.
The then EU’s Foreign Policy chief, the then U.S. Secretary of State, and the then UN Secretary-General had asked for swift measures on the basis of the Minsk process that was institutionalized under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1992, particularly for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Multiple meetings between the two Caucasian countries under the Minsk group have finalized peaceful agreements such as the Madrid Principles but, unfortunately, both sides failed to relinquish their control over the region.
A Conclusion in 2020?
The recent scuffle between the two nations was rescheduled after a fair fight in July 2020 when scores were killed on both sides, stimulating international efforts for peace. For over a week now, the continued shelling and attacks on civilian settlements have left more than 130 deaths with hundreds injured. Statements indicate that both sides faced heavy losses in terms of armed personnel and heavy military arsenal.
Azerbaijan’s parliament has declared a curfew in major cities close to the disputed region, whereas Armenia has mobilized its forces to combat the heavy brunt from the opposing side. Tartar and Barda regions are under heavy military attacks since October 1st, 2020, and for the first time, civilian settlements have been targeted with missiles and bombardments. Baku has also claimed to have killed 550 separatist troops but such has been denied by Armenia.
Turkey being the close aide of the Azerbaijan regime, particularly due to ethnic affinity and regional proximity, has publicly vowed to stand with Azerbaijan “to the end” in this conflict with Armenia. Armenia and Turkey have not established diplomatic relations, mainly due to the mass killings of the Armenians by the Turks in the close of the Ottoman Empire. Additionally, Turkey has made no secret of its dislike of Armenia’s durable relationship with Russia.
Moreover, Azerbaijan, a geostrategic partner of Turkey, has received Turkish drone technology for use against Armenian forces. Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, claims to have found daunting evidence that the Syrian mercenaries were imported into the enclave by Turkey in support of Azerbaijan forces.
The President of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, verified these claims by Yerevan about the recruitment of mercenaries by Turkish security companies. Yerevan also claimed to have its SU-25 aircraft shot down by Turkish forces on 29th September, 2020. Ankara, the capital of Turkey, nullified both these claims by calling them nothing but false attempts to drag Turkey into the warfare.
The International Actors
On similar grounds, Russia has been an active member of the OSCE Minsk Group that has had proposed to mediate between the ongoing confrontations and had brokered a ceasefire in the 1990 war of the concerned republics. Although Russia has a military alliance with Armenia, it has enjoyed closer ties with Azerbaijani rulers. Likewise, the oil reserves of Baku have allured U.S. oil companies into its fold, which, in turn, has made the mediation efforts quite weak on the part of both U.S. and Russia.
Nevertheless, the efforts of international players have perpetuated the diplomatic ease on both sides, with Qatar, Georgia, and Iran offering to mediate. A meeting of the UN Security Council on 29th September 2020 has also been called upon primarily to find a resolution for this dispute and to reaffirm the position of the Minsk Group, chaired by France, United States, and Russia, in mediating between Armenia and Russia.
French President, Emanuel Macron, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, have also pushed Azerbaijan and Armenia for an “immediate ceasefire” to mollify the conflict. Countering this narrative by the Armenian allies, Azerbaijan President, Ilham Aliyev, vividly televised that the only solution to this fight would be if Armenian armed forces “unconditionally, fully, and immediately leave our lands.” The question then populating in everyone’s mind is if there is any solution to this decades-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
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