The Caucasus is the cradle of many protracted ethnic conflicts which mainly take their roots in the Soviet past of the region. One of these conflicts involves the Nagorno-Karabakh region, officially located in Azerbaijan but inhabited by a majority of ethnic Armenians who have been wishing to secede for several decades now, with the support of the neighbouring Republic of Armenia. The conflict takes its roots in the 1920s when the countries of the region became Soviet Republics and started being submitted to the central government of Moscow. Stalin, under a divide-and-rule logic, started redrawing internal borders and then assigned the majorly Armenian-inhabited Nagorno-Karabakh to the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. With the soon coming collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict came out of its latency in order to ensure the region’s post-soviet future. In 1988, the region asked for its reunification with the Republic of Armenia, a petition which was rejected by the central government of Moscow. The conflict dramatically escalated and turned into a full-fledged war in 1991, the same year Nagorno-Karabakh unilaterally declared itself independent. The 1994 ceasefire put an end to the armed part of the conflict which cost the lives of around 25,000 people from both ethnic groups. Despite the ceasefire and the OSCE Minsk group mediation, parties to the dispute still have not signed a final peace agreement that would determine the status of the region and the conflict remains frozen today, with Azerbaijan still holding a blockade against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and with borders remaining closed.
Current Deadlock and Fears
Despite the current status-quo, many issues are worrying analysts and are making them dread a soon-coming re-escalation of the conflict. Similar conflicts in the region and especially the 2008 Russian-Georgian war highlighted that frozen conflicts can be interpreted as ticking bombs or dormant volcanos we forget about but that are ready to explode and wreak havoc in case of any faux-pas from parties to the conflict. Despite the 1994 ceasefire, soldiers from both sides tightly keep an eye on each other and skirmishes on the border occur frequently. War rhetoric from both Armenian and Azeri leaders underline that the military option is more than considered by both parties, whose arm race - especially favoured by Azerbaijan’s increased oil revenues – highlights that these are not just empty words. The peace-making process, led by the OSCE Minsk group’s mediation, has reached a deadlock situation because of the impossibility of making parties agree on compromises as they both firmly stick to their lines. The Republic of Armenia – which is the only party that Azerbaijan recognises – will not agree on anything but self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh while Azerbaijan is only ready to consider a high level of autonomy for the enclave. And this is just one of all the issues that divide them. On the list of controversial topics also figure the status of Armenian-occupied territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh and the fate of refugees from both ethnic groups.
Geopolitics of the Region
There are some geopolitical possible explanations to the deadlock. The status quo favours Armenia due to its current positional advantage in the conflict. Since the end of the war, Armenian forces have indeed been occupying 20% of Azeri territory, which includes the surroundings of the enclave as well as a corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. A peace agreement would of course imply that Armenia leave most of these territories, something they are reluctant to do for security reasons. The status quo also favours Russia as the resolution of the conflict in favour of either of the parties would be detrimental to its domestic issues and regional influence for several reasons. Although Russia has been mediating the conflict since the beginning of the war, its intentions to bring about peace into the region have been questioned as its involvement has been analysed as a way of maintaining a hold on a region it sees as its backyard. The independence of Nagorno-Karabakh would bode ill for Moscow as this would pep up the separatist movements on its own territories. An Azeri Nagorno-Karabakh would debilitate Armenia, its main ally in the Caucasus, and even a peaceful solution to the conflict would threaten its economic position as Russia provides arms to both parties and benefits from the Azeri blockade, as this means it has an exceptional position in Armenian markets.
Development of Extreme Conflict Attitudes
Beyond these geopolitical issues, analysts highlight the extreme nationalist climate amongst the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as their hard-line Diasporas according to which compromises at the negotiating table are equated to national treason from leaders. See for example the case of former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian who was forced to resign in 1998 due to his conciliating position towards Azerbaijan. Both peoples consider Nagorno-Karabakh as part of their identity and history and have developed fierce hate towards the opposite side due to years without interethnic contact. This lack of contact leaves a knowledge gap that is being filled by educational propaganda and hate media, which practice historical distortion and promote nationalist resentment.
Although Armenians and Azerbaijanis used to live together in the past, the armed conflict caused around one million refugees from both sides. The youngest post-war generations have thus grown up separated and know the other side only through what they have learned at home, school or through TV. In a few decades, Armenians and Azerbaijanis went from being close friends to being distant enemies and a nationalist amnesia has erased from its history the time where they used to live together in peace. In Armenian homes, families are used to calling Azerbaijanis ‘Turks’, due to the ‘one nation, two states’ doctrine applied by the Turkish and Azeri governments. This is problematic due to the historical conflict also existing between Armenia and Turkey. Calling Azerbaijanis ‘Turks’ thus increase the resentment and the crimes associated with them. The media of both Armenia and Azerbaijan are not independent and are accused of spreading misinformation and misconceptions about the opposite side, something which is also done by the education programmes of both countries. Because so often the likeliness of interethnic peace is not mentioned and because both people are only presented as enemies without any common ground, extreme conflict attitudes are favoured and are detrimental to the peace-process.
The governments thus negatively influence people’s perceptions which then have a negative impact on a possible exit to the conflict through the negotiating table. However, this vicious circle could be abandoned if the people from both sides, tired of being submitted to decades of conflict and uncertain future, decided to unite, hand in hand, in order to demand peace. Current conflict attitudes impede this situation from happening but nothing impedes these attitudes from evolving. However, this requires profound changes such as by promoting interethnic contact as well as unbiased media and education. Like Martin Luther King, I have a dream which is to see both people unite to put a final end to this never-ending conflict. It is time for a Caucasus spring to demand the respect of the right to live in peace, the right to live without the threat of an armed conflict.
By Anaïs Chagankerian.
Written by Anaïs Chagankerian and published on 05-November-2012