Nagorno-Karabakh

By Rachel Rochford (’23)

On September 27, 2020, fighting broke out between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan over a small area between the two countries known as Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is legally a part of Azerbaijan but 95% of its inhabitants are ethnically Armenian. Since its inception, the two countries, and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, have argued quite fiercely over the fate of the region. 

While the conflict has certainly gained momentum in recent months, it is by no means a new problem. In 1813, Russia first acquired the region. In 1923, the Soviet Union made the Armenian-majority region a part of the self-governing Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic, laying the groundwork for the conflict that exists today. This came to be when, in 1988, as the dissolution of the Soviet Union became more evident, the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh began their requests that their region be transferred to Armenian jurisdiction. 

Both the Azeris and Soviets strongly opposed this transition and Nagorno-Karabakh stayed as it was. This lack of action didn’t stop tensions from growing though. As the Soviet Union declined further, antagonization over the region grew between the two countries. And so, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and both countries gained their freedom, war began over the region. 

In this, the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh were aided by Armenia. Much of southwestern Azerbaijan was taken over by these forces. The area won by the ethnic Armenians included nearly 9% of Azerbaijan’s territory including Nagorno-Karabakh and land that connected it to Armenia. Nearly 1,030,000 people were displaced by the conflict and 30,000 were estimated to have been killed by this time. Russia began to mediate the negotiation process though a true solution to the problem was not found. In 1994 though, a cease-fire agreement was reached. The agreement, while occasionally broken, was quite reliable for a time. 

The first notable clash following this was in 2008 and there have been a fair number since. None of these reached the level of violence that is occurring today though. Instead, they were small escalations, each tearing a small piece of the uneasy peace away, heightening the tension, and making it quite explainable as to how the conflict reached the point we find it at today. 

Since the conflict broke out in September, 96 civilians have died. 729 Armenian military personnel have died. The number of military casualties from Azerbaijan is unknown as they do not disclose that information to the public. The region is in turmoil and many in the International Community worry that the conflict could easily turn into a full-scale war between the two nations over Nagorno-Karabakh. 

The problem itself is very complex. On one side, the area is 95% ethnically Armenian and those who are ethnically Armenian and living in Nagorno-Karabakh overwhelmingly wish for either self-governance or the ability to be governed by Armenia. On the other, the land is legally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. With each side feeling ownership over the region, an immediate and simple solution for all does not easily come to mind. 

Russia has again stepped in to mediate the conflict. The first cease-fire brokered by Moscow became active on October 10. This quickly came under serious pressure from each side though and another agreement was made one week later. This second agreement was put to the test mere minutes after its inception. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of breaking the second cease-fire just four minutes after it began by firing artillery shells and rockets. Azerbaijan later said that Armenia broke the agreement two minutes after it began. 

As if mediation efforts were not stressful enough, many also worry about the likely influence of other nations should this conflict continue to grow. Russia, for example, sells weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, though they have a slightly closer relationship with Armenia. 

Turkey is another nation many believe may step in if the conflict continues to escalate. Many in Azerbaijan are ethnically Turkish and, in both nations over 95% of the population identifies as Muslim while 97% of Armenians identify as members of the Armenian Apolistic Church which is an eastern Christian denomination. Further supporting the idea that Turkey would side with Azerbaijan are the poor relations between Turkey and Armenia. These stem back to the killing of 1.5 million under Ottoman rule between 1915 and 1923. Today, Turkey acknowledges that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed at the time but disagrees with the number and denies the killings were systemically orchestrated and that they amount to genocide. 

Another nation involved is France. The French government has been fairly involved in the mediation process between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Recently though, Azerbaijan has accused the nation of being biased towards Armenia. This follows French President Emmauel Macron criticizing Turkey’s involvement in the conflict which Azeri officials believe constitutes support for Armenia. 

While the United States has worked on the conflict before, it seems to have taken a less-active role thus far. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met briefly with representatives of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Appearing in Atlanta, on a radio talk show on October 15, Pompeo said “We’re hopeful that the Armenians will be able to defend against what the Azerbaijanis are doing, and that they will all, before that takes place, get the cease-fire right, and then sit down at the table and try and sort through … what is a truly historic and complicated problem set,”. When asked if the U.S. seemed to favor Armenia though, Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Suleymanov said that Azerbaijan has been assured of the United State’s interest in serving as an honest broker.

In the time to come, observers will be looking not only for a cease-fire that works but a more permanent solution to the problem. Whilst a great start, a solution that both sides can agree to is sorely needed lest we find ourselves here again when the next temporary solution expires.

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