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  • Julia Maesaka

Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict: The Question of the Nagorno-Karabakh Region

Courtesy of BBC

Residents from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an autonomous region located within Azerbaijani territory, disarmed and surrendered to the Azerbaijani military on September 20, 2023. Samvel Shahramanyan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist leader, explained the decision was out of concern for the people’s security and interests. The local residents met with representatives of Azerbaijan’s government in the city of Yevlakh as part of the ongoing talks meant to provide stability to both Nagorno-Karabakh and the Caucasus region. 

Miroslav Jenča, the Assistant Secretary General for Europe, Central Asia, and the Americas for the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations of the United Nations, called the meeting a step forward and emphasized the need to come “together with full engagement in the normalization process” on September 21. The two groups addressed the question of reintegration into Azerbaijani control as Samvel Shahramanyan signed an agreement to end all regional institutions and therefore, the region’s efforts for independence. The order will become effective on January 1, 2024. Exemplified by recent events, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is the result of decades’ worth of ethnic tensions, political instability, ineffective mediations, and a mutual dissolvement of trust. 

Current negotiation efforts are a direct result of an Azerbaijani military operatives’ 24-hour “anti-terrorist” affair which caused a reported 200 casualties and 400 wounded, including 10 civilian deaths and 5 children. As of Monday, September 25, roughly 6,650 ethnic Armenians have fled to seek refuge in Armenia. According to the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur Morris Tidball-Binz, elderly, women, and children compromise a significant portion. Due to the blockade of the Lachin corridor, a route that connects the region to the Republic of Armenia, residents have suffered shortages of basic food, medication, water, and lost access to health services. Russian peacekeepers have initiated mediation efforts to maintain regional stability. However, the ethnic tension and hostility is a deep rooted multi-generational problem.

In 1923, the Soviet Union established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. The region had a population that was 95%  ethnic Armenians. However in 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional legislature passed a declaration with the intent to join the Republic of Armenia. This announcement elevated tension and escalated armed fighting between the two nations. Prior to Soviet dissolution in 1991, Russian presence limited conflict. After, both nations achieved statehood and violence erupted. There were 30,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Despite the passing of the Bishkek Protocol of 1994, ceasefire was repeatedly violated and Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-proclaimed government in Stepanakert relied heavily on foreign aid. It remained in force until 2000, but there has been use of drones, shelling, and special operatives.

The issue between the two has centered around ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, and territorial conflict. Historically, the residents of Nagorno Karabakh noticed the difference in standard of living between Armenians and Azeris and cited deliberate policies that targeted the region as the cause. The domination of government positions by Azeri people cemented suspisions of inequality. This power dynamic combined with the fact that the enclave of ethnic Armenians were surrounded by a majority Azeri population caused conflict along both socioeconomic and cultural lines. With limited access to Armenian news and nearby friendly communities, residents felt alienated.

In the 1990s, the deliberate effort to destroy churches, monasteries, and khachkars or stone crosses in the region highlighted the differences between the predominantly Christian Armenians and the Muslim Azeris. These deliberate acts are considered religious and cultural attacks. These pre-existing and longstanding tensions are exacerbated by the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh lacks its own nation state. They face limited legal status, representation, and feel disconnected from their homeland. The contradictory perspectives of territory have positioned the two as fundamentally opposing sides with insurmountable differences. 

Since then the situation has dramatically worsened with repeated violence, deployment of more destructive weaponry, and terrible harm towards civilians. Four days of armed fighting erupted along the separation line with hundreds of casualties in 2016. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War (2020) involved cross-border attacks and over 7,000 people died. The United Nations and United States pushed for resolution which resulted in a mutual pledge to continue fighting with the introduction of long-range artillery.

Russian peacekeeping forces managed to establish the Lachin corridor, but Azerbaijani forces occupied the corridor, prohibited travel, and opened a checkpoint to block Armenians despite Russian peacekeeping efforts and the hosting of a trilateral talk in May 2023. Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian Prime Minister proposed the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory if Azerbaijan recognized Armenian boundaries and guaranteed the rights of ethnic Armenians. Instead Azerbaijan banned Red Cross convoys, detained travelers, and suspended the transportation of critically ill patients. Special Rapporteurs called for an end to the blockade to “alleviate the suffering of thousands of people…to ensure the safety, dignity, and well-being of all individuals'.' Negotiations between the two countries resulted in an agreement to reopen roads between Armenia and Azerbaijan with the condition that Azerbiajan’s checkpoint would remain. 

There has been a complete loss of trust. The recent agreement to reopen the corridor did not reduce instability and Azerbaijan troops conducted anti-terrorist offensives. There were demands for the resignation of Pashinyan, but Armenia retains the belief that Azerbaijan’s forces failed to protect civilians from Nagorno-Karabakh and demand guarantees of security for the remaining 120,000 ethnic Armenians. In response, Miroslav Jenča reminded all concerned parties about their obligation to adhere to the 2020 Trilateral Statement that outlined a ceasefire. During a press release in Geneva, Mr. Tidball-Binz called for investigations concerning the claims of Azerbaijani human rights violations that occurred during the military offensive. He citied the Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death (2016), which outlines a state’s responsibility to protect life and respect investigative procedures outlined in international law. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh region has served as the focus for broader questions of autonomy, identity, and culture. For generations, ethnic Armenians and Azeris have fought in a cyclical conflict that continued to be further encouraged by Nagorno Karabakh’s fears of isolation and loss of culture. Azerbaijan’s military offensives, imposition of surveillance, and use of power has reaffirmed their preconceived beliefs, creating the current state of violence. With decades of dispute, armed conflict, and fear, the idea of creating stability seems impossible. For the sake of progress, genuine engagement with the Nagorno people must occur and claims of human rights violations must be investigated. Any effort of conflict resolution, such as peace talks, between the two will be fruitless unless the two can establish trust and stable relations. Without proper addressment of the community’s loss, rebuilding trust between the two is unlikely to happen. 

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