Nagorno-Karabakh (also spelled Nagorny-Karabakh, to respect Russian transliteration) is a landlocked secessionist region of the South Caucasus officially located in Azerbaijan. It is inhabited today by around 94% of Armenians. Nagorno-Karabakh authorities have been wishing to secede from Azerbaijan for several decades now. They unilaterally proclaimed their independence in 1991 and became a de facto republic, which is not recognised by any country in the world today. Tensions remain very high with Azerbaijan seeking to recover its territorial integrity, Nagorno-Karabakh pushing for international recognition and Armenia supporting the self-determination of the region.
A territorial dispute taking its roots in the Soviet era
The history of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of fierce controversy between Azeri and Armenian historians. While Armenian historians argue that the region was part of the Armenian kingdom already back in the fourth century BC and that it kept its Armenian heritage despite being ruled by different empires throughout its history, Azeri historians claim that the autochthonous inhabitants of the region are descendants of Caucasian Albanians (ancestors of Azerbaijanis), and that the region shifted to Armenian majority because of the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay that enabled Persian Armenians to resettle massively in the South Caucasus. These history incompatibilities come from the fact that each party to the conflict interprets the common history of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the region in a way that satisfies their own territorial claims. What is certain however is that Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been intimately mixed in Nagorno-Karabakh – and in the South Caucasus in general - until the nineteenth century. Nagorno-Karabakh thus represents an important part of both Azeri and Armenian national identities.
Nagorno-Karabakh claimed its independence for the first time during the first Congress of the Armenians of Karabakh in 1918, following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. Following the sovietization of Caucasian Republics, Stalin put the region of Nagorno-Karabakh under the control of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan in 1921 and the region became known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) in 1923.
From then on, disputes emerged between Armenians and Azerbaijanis about the way the autonomy of the region was exercised. In 1988, the conflict came out of its latency with Nagorno-Karabakh authorities asking for their reunification with Armenia, to anticipate the soon-coming dismantlement of the Soviet Union. This request was denied by Moscow on the grounds of Azeri territorial integrity. This same year, anti-Armenian pogroms occurred in Sumgait and Armenians started being expulsed from Azerbaijan. In 1990, the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan abolished the NKAO and integrated it in the neighbouring Azeri administrative regions.
In response, Nagorno-Karabakh unilaterally declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1991. This same year, the conflict escalated to a full-scale war. In 1992, the war also led to the massacre of Azerbaijanis in Khojaly and their expulsion from Nagorno-Karabakh. After reaching a mutually hurtful stalemate, a ceasefire was finally signed in 1994. The conflict cost the lives of 25,000 people from both sides and one million people were forced to leave their homes. Today, around 20% of Azeri territory is under the control of Armenians, including 10% outside Nagorno-Karabakh that is occupied by Armenian military forces.
Since 1992, the OSCE Minsk Group has been mediating the conflict but no final peace agreement has been reached due to the unwillingness of Armenians and Azerbaijanis to make compromises on controversial issues such as the status of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, the Armenian occupation of Azeri territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh and the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the war, Azerbaijan has maintained a blockade against both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and the countries do not have any diplomatic relations. Today, the territorial situation is very complex. The self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic recognises its own administrative divisions although it is still internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan. Officially, the region today is split up amongst the Azeri regions of Kalbajar, Tartar, Khojali, Shusha, and Khojavend. The Azeri regions outside Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces occupy since the war are Agdam, Lachin, Qubadli, Zangilar, Jabrayil and Fizuli. In addition, Nagorno-Karabakh also claims a part of the Goronboy region.
Primary parties: Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Authorities
In focusing on teach of the parties in the conflict, views can diverge about whether it is made of two or three primary parties. As far as ethnicity is concerned, it is a two-party conflict opposing Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh authorities have a clearly cooperative relationship and the key role of Armenia, through its active involvement in the armed conflict against Azerbaijan, tends to suggest a fusion of both entities. Azerbaijan has also demonstrated its unwillingness to negotiate directly with Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan emphasises the international characteristic of the conflict with the necessity to put an end to the violation of its territorial sovereignty by Armenia and seems reluctant to also highlight the internal roots of the conflict, i.e. the desire of Nagorno-Karabakh authorities to be independent. Nagorno-Karabakh authorities claim their right to participate in the negotiations as an independent party. Since there have also been divergences between Nagorno-Karabakh authorities and Armenia in the past about the terms of the peace process, it is fairer to qualify this conflict as tripartite.
The goals of each party are clear: Nagorno-Karabakh wants its independence; Armenia supports the principle of self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh while Azerbaijan struggles for the recognition of its territorial integrity and is only willing to grant a high level of autonomy to the enclave.
Secondary Parties: Turkey, Russia and Iran
Beside the primary parties of the conflict as summarised above, several other countries play an important role in its dynamic, countries that can be considered as secondary parties. One of the most important is Turkey which also has very conflicting relationships with Armenia because of the Armenian genocide issue. Turkey and Azerbaijan also share a ‘one nation-two states’ doctrine because of their cultural similarities. Consequently, the Turkish government has been participating in the conflict through military cooperation with the Azerbaijanis and declared a blockade on Armenia in 1993 in support to Azerbaijan. Turkey has been refusing to re-open diplomatic relations and its border with Armenia until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved.
Another very important secondary party in the conflict is Russia. As the largest power in the region, Russia has important historical ties with the Caucasian republics and was a key actor in the negotiations of the 1994 ceasefire. Its active involvement can be understood through its necessity to maintain its domination in the region, in order to counter Western influence. Armenia and Russia are linked to each other by cooperation treaties, especially the 1997 treaty of friendship between both countries, which guarantees the support of Russia to Armenia in case the latter is subjected to foreign attacks. However, despite this apparent pro-Armenian approach of Russia, it has provided arms to both Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the conflict.
Iran is also a major actor in the region and has shown its willingness to take part in the resolution of the conflict. Like Russia, Iran's desire to be a mediator in the conflict mainly results from its will to keep the region out of the influence of Western countries, especially the United States. Old tensions between Western and Eastern countries have their repercussions in the resolution of the conflict. In addition to this, Iran has economic interests in the region. Since both Turkey and Azerbaijan declared a blockade on Armenia, Iran has been a major partner for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh as it has helped both entities avoid economic chaos. Despite tensions with Azerbaijan on issues such as the settlement by the US of a radar on the Iranian-Azeri border, Iran maintains a neutral position in the conflict as it seeks to enhance its economic collaboration with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Third parties: The mediation of the OSCE and the European Union
Third parties in the conflict include the OSCE Group of Minsk, created in 1992, which is aimed at finding a mediated solution to the conflict. It is composed of the United States, France and Russia. The conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh attracts the attention of the international community because of the importance of Baku's oil and the threat of another armed conflict in the region. In the prospect of a renewed war with Azerbaijan, Armenian forces have been simulating missile strikes on oil and gas facilities in Azerbaijan. The destruction by Armenia of Baku's oil stocks could have dramatic consequences on the international supply of oil. Despite the fact that the Minsk Group has managed to maintain the status quo in the region, no treaty of peace has been signed to date by the main participants in the conflict as there is a strong tendency to stick to party political lines. The Minsk group is trying to make parties agree on the Madrid principles of 2010 which would include that (1) Armenian forces leave the occupied territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh, (2) an interim status is granted to Nagorno-Karabakh until a self-determination referendum, (3) the return of IDPs and refugees, (4) the establishment of a corridor linking Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Lachin with the presence of peacekeeping forces.
The European Union has also been willing to join the Minsk group and take part in the resolution of the conflict without much success. The EU fears that a renewed armed conflict in its neighbouring region might have destabilising effects inside the EU. Although the EU might have some leverage on Armenia due to the latter’s willingness to integrate the EU at some point, the EU has absolutely no leverage on Azerbaijan which economic power makes is insensible to the potential financial gains of collaborating with the EU in the latter’s neighbouring policies. Russia and France also appear reluctant to the participation of the EU: France might see its influence as an individual country be reduced with the emergence of the EU in the negotiation process and Russia considers that the intervention of the EU in the former USSR region is the manifestation of Western intrusion in its “backyard”.
Beyond the dramatic human cost of the 1991-1994 war which cost the lives of 25,000 people from both sides, the unresolved characteristic of the conflict is still today an open door to violence. There are several reasons that make analysts fear a soon-coming re-militarisation of the conflict. Despite the 1994 ceasefire, there are still frequent skirmishes at the line of contact between Armenians and Azerbaijanis that cost the lives of many soldiers each year. The increased war rhetoric of Armenian and Azeri leaders, combined to years of state propaganda and biased media, have contributed to creating extreme conflict attitudes in both societies in which peace is not so much considered as an attractive option. Both countries are also conducting an arm race, favoured by Azerbaijan’s oil revenues, and the military on both sides is carrying out numerous war simulations to show an armed conflict is no longer a feared option. In 2012, President Aliyev also pardoned Ramil Safarov, an Azeri citizen responsible for the killing of an Armenian man in Hungary. This has further damaged the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and questioned the continuation of the peace negotiations.
The lack of interethnic contact has left a knowledge gap which is filled by state propaganda and biased media. The extreme conflict attitudes that are created as a result have a negative bottom-up effect at the negotiating table as compromises are equated to national treason. In 1998 for example, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian had to resign because of massive discontent in Armenia and amongst the Armenian diaspora due to his willingness to compromise with Azerbaijan. There is consequently the need to work at the grassroots level, to change attitudes on the ground as a way of creating a pro-peace civil society in both countries that could have positive bottom-up effects at the negotiation table. Several organisations are consequently working today at the grassroots level to change the attitudes of Armenians and Azerbaijanis on the ground. The Internet also works as a safe haven where pro-peace citizens of both societies can freely express themselves and try to influence their peers. However, these movements still have limited visibility especially towards the governments. Changing attitudes by favouring interethnic contact, peace education and peace media, as well as increasing the visibility of pro-peace citizens towards the governments remain the most important steps to promote pressure for non-violence in both countries.