Nagorno-Karabakh: Trapped In Perpetual Conflict
December 28th, 2020
By: Mara Rotaru
On September 27th, 2020, Armenian and Azeri forces clashed along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, ripping the bandaid off of a centennial wound. This marked the most severe outbreak of hostilities in the separatist region since the late 1990s and has a rising death toll.
The recent confrontation represents just the tip of the iceberg of conflict over claiming this disputed enclave. Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris have been dissenting over the governance of their shared home for decades. Currently, the mountainous region located in the South Caucasus is legally a part of the Azerbaijani territory despite being self-recognized as The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh; a de facto independent state since 1988. Known as the Artsakh region to its majority Armenian population, the Nagorno-Karabakh had long been under iterative Russian rule, stemming in 1823 with the rise of the Russian empire up until the last years of the Soviet Union and its ‘satellite states’. Under the Soviet rule, the 1700-square-mile territory became an autonomous region of the Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic in 1923. Major world powers have once again manipulated borders while neglecting the large Armenian ethnic population, scarring history, and fueling conflict.
Outrage rippled throughout the region. Ethnic Armenians protested that they were marginalized and that Azeri influence was depriving them of their independence. Nevertheless, these grievances were shunned and silenced by the regime, which condemned ethnic nationalism. Hence, pervasive frustrations began to bubble quietly. As the USSR was beginning to disassemble, the dissatisfied Armenians appealed for the region to join Armenia, provoking Azeri military retaliation in attempt to suppress the separatists in 1988. In 1991, the autonomous region declared its independence as the Republic of Artsakh, otherwise known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Armenia and Azerbaijan, who were now liberated from the USSR, locked horns in a conflict over the republic that engendered a casualty figure of 30,000 along with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Both armed forces were involved in the ethnic cleansing of their opposition and the creation of propaganda against each of their “enemies,” which persists today on platforms such as Twitter and even in history textbooks studied in their national education systems.
Despite the harsh humanitarian crisis, negotiations weren’t successful until 1994 when the contending nations signed the Bishkek Protocol, a ceasefire brokered by Russia that left the region within the Azeri borders. However, for the past two and a half decades, both sides have been militarising the thin ‘Line of Contact’ that divides them, to the point where it is currently the third most militarized border.
After years of frozen conflict and minor attacks, the events of 2020 depict a manifestation of the failure of cease-fires and peace talks between the two states. We have witnessed three unsuccessful cease-fires in a month alone. The most recent attempt was brokered by the US on the 26th of October 2020, and just ten minutes after the implementation of the cease-fire, Azerbaijan claimed that Armenian forces bombed the town of Terter and surrounding villages whilst Armenia’s defence ministry announced that Azeri artillery had targeted military positions along the frontline. Both states have violated cease-fires over the years and continue to do so as a response to the shortcoming of the OSCE Minsk Group, in charge of “find[ing] a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is trapped in a vicious cycle.
Distrust deepens, hostilities are at an all-time high, negotiations are at a standstill. Over the years, makeshift peace talks have stalled effective conciliation, restraining communication between the neighbouring embattling forces. Cease-fire violations went unpunished, and the involved parties no longer recognize infringement as a risk. The two unreliable forces are therefore more likely to cheat on any consensus. They have little reason to enter into any deal, which they have concluded would be unfruitful regardless. The diplomatic deadlock is further cemented by the powerful allies backing the conflicting nations. Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey, which supplies it with a significant fleet of drones. Meanwhile Russia is allied with Armenia, having a military base in the country. This assigns the mountainous enclave as another front in the Russo-Turkish proxy war, foreshadowing a lengthy dispute. Furthermore, crippling conflict adds more pressure to the intricate geopolitics of the Middle East, with strategic oil and gas pipelines as well as borders with Iran, Russia, and Turkey in the area. Peacemaking is a Herculean feat.
To tackle a Herculean issue, one must take Herculean action. To halt the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh, the gap of trust must be bridged between the two nations; otherwise, peace is unachievable. The jabs between the apprehensive Armenian and Azeri forces have gone under the radar for too long, rendering pacifying efforts today incredibly arduous. Both combatants should be held accountable for their actions and, at a standard, definitive of retaliation. The mediation of this issue should be supervised closely by a mediator nation that would be engaged in proactively clamping down on the aggression in the area. This intermediary nation could impose more effective cease-fires, and talks as the disputing nations could trust their rival would be equally punished if they do not keep up their end of the discussion. Nonetheless, considering the isolationist tendencies of the US foreign policy as well as the economic interest and indirect involvement of Russia and Turkey in the conflict, it is unlikely constructive peace-making would be fulfilled soon enough to prevent any further loss.