For most people in the West, even the name ‘Nagorno-Karabakh’ sounds stereotypically foreign and remote. For the people of the Caucasus, however, it’s another leftover conflict from the Soviet era that is still taking lives today. Over the weekend 30 people have been killed in fighting between the Azerbaijani army and ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh forces. While in recent hours the Azerbaijani president has announced a ‘unilateral ceasefire’, this is a conflict that is not going away. So what is it all about? And why are the consequences of a potential war as bad as ever?
As the map above shows, Nagorno-Karabakh is a separatist region within Azerbaijan which is effectively independent, though it is also surrounded by a section of Armenian occupied Azeri territory. The reason it is separatist, and guarded by Armenia, is that its population is majority Armenian. During the Soviet era, when both countries were ruled from Moscow, this wasn’t as much of an issue. But as the USSR began to weaken, the obvious potential for conflict grew. The Soviet Republic of Armenia campaigned to have the region transfered to them, while the Azeris continued population transfers designed to reduced the Armenian majority. An anti-Armenian pogrom in Azerbaijan in 1988 helped lead to escalating tensions, and full scale conflict broke out just as the USSR fell. The war only ended in 1994 with tens of thousands dead, and over a million forced from their homes through ethnic cleansing on both sides.
Two things separate this conflict from the many separatist conflicts that took place around this time. The first is the level of ethnic hatred. Before the abovementioned pogrom, one Azeri politician told the Armenians “If you do not stop campaigning for the unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia…100,000 Azeris from neighboring districts will break into your houses, torch your apartments, rape your women, and kill your children.” The current Azerbaijani president – on his official twitter account – still insults Armenia in an almost internet troll kind of way. An Azeri soldier who murdered an Armenian soldier in his sleep while they were both attending a NATO course in Hungary was even given a hero’s welcome upon his return to Azerbaijan. While there’s hatred on both sides, and the fact it’s Azerbaijani territory in question explains why one side is a little more ‘vocal’, the rhetoric is especially chilling considering Armenia’s history of genocide.
This hatred has led to the second unique aspect of the conflict, and that is the extreme high level of tension at which it has been frozen. Since 1994 peace talks have come to nothing, and both sides have built up their military strength. Both sides have also declared their willingness to fight if necessary, and as this weekend shows, it is all too easy for this to break out into combat. That military strength, by the way, is thanks in large part to Russia, which provides weapons to both sides. As I’ve said before, frozen conflicts like this work well for Russia, allowing them to retain influence in their near abroad.
The potential today for escalation is as clear as ever. Turkey – not a state Armenia remembers kindly – has made it clear that they stand fully beside Azerbaijan. With Russia backing and arming Armenia, and relations between Russia and Turkey at an all time low, this is not a good mix. Whether or not the current fighting truly calms down, a long term solution to this frozen conflict is as far away as ever.