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OP-ED: The South Caucasus in turmoil

  • Published at 12:11 am November 20th, 2020
Photo: Reuters

What are the lessons of the Nagarno-Karabakh conflict?

A few weeks back, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and its eastern neighbour Azerbaijan broke out again after a relative calm of nearly four long decades in the southern Causasus region. 

But a lot of analysts predicted that the contentious issue has not been resolved, and there had always been a potential for another armed conflict. That has just happened in the last few weeks. Recently, a Russia-brokered peace deal has been enforced, and Russian peacekeepers have rushed to the line of contact between the belligerent forces. 

The problem of Nagorno Karabakh (NK) is complex. Both history andethnic nationalism of the late 1990s are attached to it. It’s a small hilly enclave populated by ethnic Armenians inside Azerbaijan. However, from its south-western tip, the Armenian border is just 25km to 30km away. A bigger part of Azerbaijan is in the west of Nagorno Karabakh.  

When Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, the ethnic Armenians of the enclave wanted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. War broke out between the two nations on this. When ceasefire came to force in 1993, Armenia had a clear upper hand in the war. The Armenians and NK militias not only occupied NK, but also took seven Azeri districts surrounding NK.  

It turned out that the size and population of these districts is much bigger than NK itself. Armenians occupied about 20% of Azeri territory, including NK. Russian military help was key in the success. Several hundred thousand Azeris became refugees in other parts of Azerbaijan, as Armenian and NK forces forced them out of the occupied territories. 

However, the international community never recognized NK or the occupied Azerbaijani districts as part of the Republic of Artsakh, which NK Armenians declared as an independent state with direct support from Armenia. In the last decades, some attempts were made by key international players and bodies to make a permanent peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but in vain. Armenia indicated that it would relinquish the Azeri districts surrounding NK which it calls security belt, only if Azerbaijan accepts the independence of the Republic of Artsakh on NK. 

On the other hand, Azerbaijan wanted a return of the adjacent districts for the start of the talks, but with no precondition of NK’s independence. Arrogance of both the parties has allowed the matter to linger for so long. 

In the longer term, it was impractical for Armenia to continue the dispute with Azerbaijan for a few reasons. Firstly, as per the existing international laws and conventions, they are unlikely to get the recognition for the independence of NK, and probably subsequent joining of it with Armenia by strength of its long occupation of Azerbaijani territory including NK. 

Secondly, Azerbaijan is three times bigger than tiny Armenia, both by population and economy. The losses of the 1991-1993 NK war was a big shock to their national psyche and Azeris never accepted it. Also, the fact that there was no permanent settlement on the matter struck out, the country kept quietly preparing for long for a final offensive to regain its territories from Armenia. 

It has always been an issue of national prestige for Azerbaijan. Moreover, the Armenia-Russia relationship dynamic and other regional equations involving Russians, Turkey, etc have also evolved a lot. Azeris ethnically belong to the Turkic family, and Erdogan’s Turkey, which is a powerful player in the region, has fully backed recent Azeri military measures to retake their territories and even helped the Azeris with military armaments, especially drones.  

Russia has found a new big friend in Turkey with regards to the geopolitics of the region. Turkey is not objecting anymore to Russia’s direct help for survival of Syria’s Asad regime. Turkey is embracing some Islamism and gradually drifting away from NATO and EU. It has even placed an order to buy Russian armaments like the highly sophisticated S-400 air defense system. Northern Iran is also ethnically Azeri, and Azeris of both Azerbaijan and northern Iran are Shiites.  

In the war of last few weeks, much stronger than before, Azeri forces made substantial gains. They retook the districts south of NK and made a maneuver towards the centre of NK from the south. Then they took the second city Shusha of NK and threatened to cut off the highway connection of NK proper to Armenia. 

Armenia had no other choice but to accept the Russia-brokered deal, which will reverse all their gains, which eventually were untenable, over last few decades. Azerbaijan will not only keep all the territories of NK and Armenia-occupied Azeri districts that they retook, Armenia will also hand over other occupied Azeri districts to Azerbaijan except Lechin corridor linking Armenia to NK. 

But Azerbaijan will still have no obligation to recognize independence of NK as any precondition. NK’s final status will probably be determined through future negotiations. Russian peacekeepers will oversee military disengagement, and hand over of territories. 

Several thousand people died in past and recent NK wars. Several hundred thousand became refugees. A whole generation grew up with uncertainty and ethnic hatred. Many accepted permanently the displaced status. In addition to more than 300,000 Azeri IDPs, another 250,000 Azeris were expelled out of Armenia proper in 1991-93 who later took Azerbaijani citizenship. About 65,000 Armenians went the other way. 

Wars, in the end, are not the stories of winners or losers or politics -- they are the stories of immense human suffering. Agendas made by politicians or jingoistic military leaders ultimately lead to the pain of the common people. NK should be an example on the matter of buying too much into ethnic cleavages that result in disasters. All communities should learn to coexist peacefully with others, as we, the human race as a whole, keep living in the same planet under the same sun.

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune.

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