Two decades of international community-administered talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijani territory, have failed to reach a resolution. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s petro-dollar-aided exponential increase in defence expenditure amid pitched rabble-rousing and frequent sniper skirmishes in the region has led many to fear that the disputed landlocked mountainous enclave in the Greater Caucasus could be one of the most likely sites of Europe’s next war. The sense was reiterated on March 28 by Arayik Haroutiounian, the secessionist enclave’s prime minister, who said in Paris that Azerbaijan and Armenia are unlikely to reach a deal this year and there is a risk of the region sliding towards war.
But is peace such an imminent casualty in Nagorno-Karabakh, and by extension in the Greater Caucasus?
The Caucasus is largely a mountainous region lying between the Black Sea in the west and the Caspian Sea in the east, and is situated where Europe and Asia converge. Running from the west-northwest to the east-southeast are two parallel mountain chains: the Greater Caucasus and the Lesser Caucasus. While the mountainous terrain in itself impedes navigable waterways for trade and continuous stretch of arable land for large societies, the Caucasus region on the whole offers as much natural and strategic advantage as any comparable region in the world.
High peaks with glaciers and permanent snow nourish river streams that water plains both to the north and the south, where a variety of crops can be grown and livestock grazed. The ample river activity cut innumerable deep valleys into the Greater Caucasus range, resulting in those distinct, protected shelters getting occupied by a host of minority groups. Over a period of a couple of centuries, socially cohesive groups of countless ethnicity got firmly entrenched in their respective – and self-sufficient – valleys and fiercely resisted any outside interference.
But outside interest, and the resulting conflicts, could not be avoided by the region because of a host of reasons. The Caspian Sea on the east provides an easy waterway to Central Asia and, via the Volga, to the heart of Russia. The Black Sea provides a sea link to Turkey, Ukraine, the Balkans, and through the Turkish Straits to the Mediterranean region. Importantly, vantage position in the region allowed both opportunity for and defence against transcontinental (Central Asia-Europe) expansionist designs of the powers that were – like the Ottoman Empire and Russia.
That strategic aspect gets exploited even in the present era.
Currently, the region is critical to the United States and NATO’s military interests.
For example, the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) played an important role in transporting the United States and NATO supplies out of Afghanistan when in November 2011 Islamabad closed supply routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan following a United States airstrike that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops.
The Caucasus has also been noted for its mineral wealth since ancient times. In the previous century, Azerbaijan’s oil fuelled much of the USSR’s economy during the Soviet period. Today, the region is a critical energy corridor for hydrocarbon resources en route to Europe from the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Three of the four major pipelines that transport Azerbaijani oil and gas to Europe lie close to the front line positions of Armenian and Azerbaijani forces stationed along both the Line-of-Contact between Azerbaijan and the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. In the event of a fresh war over Nagorno-Karabakh, these pipelines could become early targets for Armenian artillery, hitting Europe’s goal of diversifying its energy supply.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked secessionist enclave in the Greater Caucasus that is a subject of dispute between Azerbaijan, in which it lies, the Armenian ethnic majority of the enclave, and neighbouring Armenia.
With the roots of the conflict said to be dating back well over a century into the rivalry between Christian Armenian and Muslim Turkic and Persian influences, the history of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of furious argument between Armenian and Azeri historians about the original inhabitants of the region.
Nagorno-Karabakh claimed its independence for the first time during the first Congress of the Armenians of Karabakh in 1918. Following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Soviet Union’s leader Joseph Stalin in 1921 put the region of Nagorno-Karabakh under the control of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. The region came to be known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) in 1923.
Though disputes were commonplace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis about the way the autonomy of the region was exercised in the NKAO, the smouldering frictions exploded into violence only in 1988 when the enclave’s legislature cited historical and ethnic reasons to pass a resolution in 1988 to join Armenia – a request that was swiftly denied by Moscow on the grounds of Azeri territorial integrity. In the same year, anti-Armenian pogroms occurred in Sumgait, and Armenians started getting expulsed from Azerbaijan.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh’s legislature unilaterally proclaimed their independence in 1991 and the enclave became a de facto republic (which no world body recognises as yet) – leading up to a full-scale war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1992. Within months, the Armenian army controlled the bulk of NagornoKarabakh and pushed further into Azerbaijani territory to establish the so-called Lachin Corridor, an umbilical cord linking the breakaway enclave with Armenia mainland. By 1993, Armenian forces had occupied nearly 20% of the Azerbaijani territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris. A year later, Russia brokered ceasefire between the two countries, which is where things stand at the moment.
As per a 1994 study by Human Rights Watch, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in an estimated 25,000 dead as well as around one million refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDP) on both sides.
NAGORNO-KARABAKH: THE REGIONAL ASPECT
Apart from Armenia and Azerbaijan (and the geographical areas of Nagorno-Karabakh), Turkey, Russia and Iran play a significant role in the dispute.
Turkey, which is accused by Armenia of the ‘Great Crime’ (the 1915 massacre of over a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks), shares a ‘one nation-two states’ doctrine with Azerbaijan because of the cultural similarities between the two. 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 of Azerbaijan. Turkey has been refusing to re-open diplomatic relations and its border with Armenia until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved.
On the other hand, Russia is linked to Armenia 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.
The remaining major regional actor in the dispute is Iran, which has economic interests in the region and which, like Russia, wants to keep Western countries away from the region. Despite being an Islamic state, Iran has been a major partner for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and has helped the two fight the economic blockade enforced by Azerbaijan and Turkey after the war.
NAGORNO-KARABAKH: PEACE PROCESS AND THE CHALLENGES
Since 1994, there have been a number of attempts to broker peace by the so-called Minsk Group, a subset of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chaired by Russia, the United States, and France. The Minsk group is currently working towards making the warring sides 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.
One of the biggest obstacles to the signing of a peace treaty is the issue of sequencing: Azerbaijan wants Armenia to end its occupation first and withdraw its forces before discussing the republic’s final status; Armenia is seeking a resolution first on the status question before pulling out its forces; Nagorno-Karabakh wants its independence officially recognized prior to all other negotiations.
NAGORNO-KARABAKH: FORECAST 2013-14
While stubborn stances of the warring actors based upon ethnic and historical arguments and applicable competing principles of international law – the right of self-determination and territorial integrity – promise to make the coming years equally difficult for a negotiated agreement, the oft-repeated talk of a fresh war may not match up with the realities of limited abilities of the warring states to win a war outright, and dependence of external actors, notably the United States, Russia and Europe, on continued status-quo, if not negotiated peace, towards serving their economic and geopolitical interests in the region.
Given that hypothesis, there is a possibility of the following scenarios developing in the coming year (2013-14):
⇒ The United States, Russia and Europe expand their cooperative efforts in facilitating the resolution of a conflict towards pre-empting any threat to their respective interests in the Greater Caucasus. The efforts could rescue the U.S.-Russian ‘reset’, and signal a new era of European-Russian cooperation.
⇒ Sustained pressure at home in the wake of opinion surveys showing high levels of discontent in Armenia about corruption, poverty, and abuse of power could force Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to divert (at least a tiny) part of the military and economic resources from Nagorno-Karabakh – without changing the official stance on the dispute – to public welfare schemes in Armenia.
⇒ President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan could up the rabble-rousing ahead of the October presidential elections, without walking the talk on the ground – both because of the dangers of getting into a war that he cannot win at the moment, and the prospects of a harsh response from the international community making his own position vulnerable at home.
⇒ As a lead up to the 20th anniversary of truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan, international rights groups could lead a sustained campaign at world bodies to force the two-nation take more action on the issue of the internally displaced people.
The ‘frozen conflict’ of Nagorno-Karabakh presents itself as an ideal case study for the Greater Caucasus region – and indeed other conflict zones of similar nature in Europe and elsewhere – to understand the conflict between ethnic minority groups’ fierce attachment to their socio-historical and geographical identities and modern world’s need for enforcement of legal principles. The conflict in this case is not about resources but is about identity – something that cannot be divided.
There are no easy political solutions to such complex disputes. While all-round mediation efforts by neutral parties should be encouraged, the effectiveness of those efforts is hostage to a host of internal, global, political, ability and intent issues. On the other hand, the welfare of the affected people – directly, as opposed to a trickle effect via the state – in a visibly unbiased and meaningful manner could provide the healing that functions as the foundation for a negotiated agreement.
Currently, the talk is more about the “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA). For Azerbaijan, it is war, and for Armenia, it is status-quo.
The future of Nagorno-Karabakh would tell the Greater Caucasus region what to do in such complex situations — or, what not to do. That future, however, may not arrive this year.