The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Who is right?

By: Deeba Ezedyar

For the past three decades, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has dominated the geopolitics of South Caucasus. Currently, as it’s known there are three sovereign states, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia within the boundaries of South Caucasian territory. The strategic region is located between the European and Asian oil export markets. Furthermore, the region is very sophisticated from the international relations aspect as Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. partially meet and compete over influence. The key player in the region is oil-rich Azerbaijan, which has the highest economic indicators and a significant demographic advantage in contrast to other South Caucasian states. Therefore, after the collapse of the Soviets, global players majorly NATO and Russia continuously attempted to dominate the oil-rich strategic region.

In the light of geopolitical controversies, the recent 30 years have been accompanied by skirmishes and battles in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is specified as de jure Azerbaijani territory that has been occupied by Armenian armed forces in the early 90s according to the resolutions of United Nations. In the last days, the “frozen conflict” had been exacerbated by the clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the passive conflict turned into a large-scale war. Due this day, some advancements in the battleground have been reported by Turkey allied Azerbaijan, meanwhile, Russia backed Armenia admitted that they were blindsided.

The seeds of a century-old controversy are assumed to be sprouted during the rule of the Russian Empire with the migration of Armenians (a community with a belligerent attitude to Turkic ethnicity) to South Caucasus from Persia with the Treaty of Turkmenchay (1828) and from Ottoman Empire with Treaty of Adrianople (1829). Till the first armed conflict between the First Republic of Armenia and the Azerbaijan Democratic Reسpublic, Armenian armed militias already committed ethnic cleansing in specific regions of Azerbaijan. For instance, only in March Genocide (1918), 12,000 Azerbaijanis were massacred in Baku by radical Armenians and Bolshevik troops. In the 20th century, however, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh was claimed by both the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the First Republic of Armenia when both countries proclaimed independence in 1918 after the fall of the Russian Empire, and a local war over the region broke out in 1920. After the Sovietization of both countries, the conflict entered a passive phase. In July 1923, an autonomous entity of NKAO (Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast) had been established within the borders of Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Audrey L. Altstadt, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst states that the borders of the NKAO have intentionally comprised Armenian and excluded Azerbaijani villages to artificially emphasize the Armenian identity in the region.

The emergence of NKAO reshaped the region. Namely, under Soviet rule, Armenians were induced to migrate to the territory of NKAO. This irregular migration disrupted the balance of the region and followed by a list of cataclysms. In 1987, the dispute shifted into a new phase by an assault on Azerbaijanis in the Gafan district of Armenia. Subsequently, in 1988, the mass deportation of Azerbaijanis from Armenia and the attempts of Armenians in Karabakh, to unify the NKAO with Armenia, oriented the flow of processes to an uncertain direction. Moscow has shown reluctance to solve the dispute due to the intensive work of Armenian lobbyists. All these factors led the controversy to transform into a large-scale war in the following years.

With the collapse of the USSR, the resurgence of the conflict was inevitable as the claims of the Armenian side caused further escalations in the region, and war broke out in 1992. In 2 years, 20% of Azerbaijani territory (Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent 7 districts) has fallen under Armenian occupation, more than 1 million Azerbaijanis were displaced including those from both Armenia and Karabakh, and Azerbaijani civilians had been subjected to ethnic cleansing in Khojaly, Aghdaban, and Garadaghly by Armenian armed forces. Consequently, Azerbaijan reported 30.000 death, 50.000 wounded and 4.120 missing. Moreover, the entire Azerbaijani population was forced to flee the region. The conflict entered to the passive phase with the Bishkek protocol of ceasefire in 1994.

Since the ceasefire, the conflict has maintained an asymmetrical balance. At the time, Russian presence in Gyumri, Armenia with a military base of 5.000 troops meant Russian guidance and guarantorship. This cardinal factor kept Azerbaijan from resuming the operations to provide the territorial integrity. Althought, in recent years the military and geopolitical balance have shifted in favor of Azerbaijan. Besides its relations with the U.S., as previously mentioned, Russia sees Baku as a more reliable and valuable partner in the long run in the bilateral economic cooperation context. Specifically, the latest political developments in Armenia which resulted in the change of the pro-Russian government supports this notion.

In 1992, a longstanding negotiation process has been initiated by several international organizations including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) but failed to solve the conflict. Till the end of 1993, Armenian forces occupied 7 districts adjacent to the Nagorno-Karabakh. Subsequently, a Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in May 1994 and the OSCE Minsk Group sponsored the negotiations since then. Besides, there were three settings in 1997, 1999, and 2007. The peace talks in 1997 and 1999 came close to peace settlement but for reasons such as the resignation of the Armenian president in 1998, and the Armenian Parliament shooting in 1999 derailed.

The noteworthy development was made in 2007 when another negotiation process took place with the proposal of the Madrid principles. The principles stipulated under Madrid principles were the revised version of the peace settlement proposal unveiled by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairing countries (France, Russia, and the U.S.). The Madrid principles comprised several elements such as the return of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance, a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will, the right of all internally displaced people and refugees to their former places of residence, international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation. But during Kazan Summit the negotiations hindered once again due to Armenian attempts to perpetuate the status quo.

Nonetheless, in 2015 Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov had proposed an updated version of the Madrid Principles which included Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent regions. According to these updated principles Armenia had to withdraw from five of seven Azerbaijani regions. In August 2016, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the U.S. Armenian lobby organization launched a campaign against the Madrid Principles, claiming the Madrid Principles based on Helsinki Final Act were “reckless” and “undemocratic” and calling for Obama Administration to reject them.

March 2020 was a culmination point when the Republic of Armenia officially rejected the Madrid Principles. The Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has instead attempted to revive nationalist debates. Throughout his term, Pashinyan as the head of state illegally visited occupied territories and repeatedly give public speeches that express hate. In 30 years, period, Azerbaijan took into consideration the international humanitarian law and universal declarations. Thus, a peaceful resolution was a priority. On the other hand, the latest developments have clearly demonstrated that the dubious actions of Armenians only serve to the destabilization of the region and this standpoint jeopardizes peace principles.

On September 27, 2020, after a longstanding process of negotiations, an Armenian harassing fire exacerbated the situation. Foremost, Azerbaijan Armed Forces initiated an operation. Today intense clashes are continuing in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan reported several strategic advancements, meanwhile Armenian side asked diasporas and lobbyists to establish diplomatic pressure to obscure its causalities. Numerous countries and organizations called for an immediate ceasefire. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan declared that armed forces holding an operation within the boundaries of Azerbaijan. In this context, Afghanistan as a state loyal to universal humanitarian law supported the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and called for the settlement of the conflict peacefully. Contrary to this point of view, the Armenian parliament addressed an appeal to the Parliamentary Assembly of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) to cancel the non-member observer state status of Afghanistan for supporting the humanitarian law and universal declarations.

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a genuine lesson for regional countries. It proves that the term “frozen conflict” doesn’t exist. Namely, a conflict might enter to passive phase, but this does not imply the settlement of that conflict. Furthermore, the latest developments proved that Afghanistan’s stance with its partners is totally right from the international relations aspect as the attitude of the international community towards this conflict is unambiguous as well. To conclude, the United Nations Security Council adopted four resolutions regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that confirms the occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenian armed forces. It is apparent that the international principles and the resolutions of international organizations are in favor of Azerbaijan. Additionally, there is a longstanding inefficient negotiations process. The sides are constructive Azerbaijan which relies on international laws and regulations and an acrimonious Armenia which is masterminded by lobbies and diasporas to destabilize the region.

The author is undergraduate student of Economics, Istanbul University, Junior student of International Political Economy, Paris School of Economics

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