Nagorno Kara-what? It is a fairly common response when one mentions the remote, mountainous region at the centre of the recent hostilities in the Southern Caucasus. Yet during six weeks of intensifying violence, which erupted in late September, the international community was rudely awoken to a geopolitical nightmare four decades in the making in this blighted and largely forgotten corner of the world.
A disputed territory and longstanding flashpoint in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh as it is known to its ethnic Armenian majority, has been at the centre of a diplomatic storm for the past 40 years. To understand why, it helps to step back a little further in time, behind the Iron Curtain and into the former Soviet Union, by which both Armenia and Azerbaijan were swallowed up after Joseph Stalin’s Red Army marched into the Caucasus in the early 1920s.
To garner local support for Moscow and placate local governments, Stalin made a series of contradictory territorial promises to both republics. Nagorno Karabakh, despite its largely Armenian, Christian population, was ceded to neighbouring Azerbaijan, a Muslim majority republic of ethnically Turkic people. Whilst this move was unpopular, under Moscow's rule, the hot water surrounding the issue remained relatively tepid in the following decades.
In the late 1980s this changed. Tensions simmered as the Soviet Union began to crumble, and powerful nationalist movements emerged in the two republics. By 1988, Nagorno Karabakh’s Armenian population advocated overwhelmingly for unification with Armenia, a move rejected by both Moscow and the government in the Azeri capital, Baku. Nationalist sentiment grew, as did the hostility between the region’s Armenian and Azeri communities. These ethnically charged tensions eventually boiled over into riots and violent clashes, with Nagorno Karabakh’s local government declaring its independence from Azerbaijani rule as the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh in 1991.
The move provoked a furious response from the government in Baku, keen to suppress the separatist movement. Tensions eventually gave way to a brutal full-scale conflict for control of the territory, fought between 1991-1994, in which as many as 30,000 people are thought to have been killed and a million displaced in the wake of violence and atrocities committed by both sides.
Armenia poured military support into Nagorno Karabakh, and by 1994 had successfully forced the Azeri troops out, securing Nagorno Karabakh's status as a self-declared territory. Mercifully, a ceasefire was eventually brokered by Russia, ushering in an uneasy peace, though a treaty was never signed. Today, the region remains a self-declared autonomous region, though it is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Indeed, no UN member states recognise the territory's claims of sovereignty, and its status remains a contentious issue in the Caucasus, itself an area of significant strategic importance.
The conflict had remained frozen since 1994, the Russian brokered ceasefire largely holding bar some sporadic clashes in the troubled border territories, notably including four days of fighting which erupted in April 2016, resulting in dozens of casualties on both sides.
However, amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic, the ceasefire finally collapsed in September, as once again the contentious territory was thrust into a state of all-out war, though the catalyst for this latest round of clashes remains unclear. There has been no shortage of finger-pointing on both sides, all the while, the situation continued to rapidly spiral out of control. Grim estimates widely suggest the number of fatalities has climbed into the low thousands, with as many as 130,000 people thought to have been displaced once again.
The number of dead includes a significant number of civilians, caught in the crossfire as the conflict spilt over into towns and cities throughout the wider region, with fatalities reported in numerous settlements now bearing the fresh scars of heavy artillery fire and rocket attacks. This includes Stepanakert, the regional capital of Nagorno Karabakh, whilst in Azerbaijan, the countries second city, Ganja, and the city of Terter were struck by attacks from Armenian positions.
The conflict had been steadily escalating since September 27, despite numerous appeals for calm from the international community and a series of failed attempts to establish lasting ceasefire terms. As Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to trade blows, international observers expressed concerns of an escalation in which the surrounding regional powers could be drawn into the fighting, with Russia to the North, Turkey to the West and Iran to the South, all of whom have a vested interest in regional geopolitics. This undoubtedly includes the vast oil reserves of the Caspian Sea, much of which is transported across the Caucasus to international markets via Azeri pipelines, some of which pass close to the conflict's frontlines.
This was until November 9, when it was announced that a peace deal had been signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Russia, a major regional player and co-chair of a diplomatic conference set up in 1992 as an effort to bring about a peaceful, negotiated resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, known as the Minsk Group.
For now, the agreement brings about an end to the fighting in the region, however, it has been greeted with polarised reactions in Baku and Yerevan. It comes as Azerbaijan, aided by its close strategic and cultural ally, Turkey, made significant territorial gains into Nagorno Karabakh, occupying large areas, including the second-largest city Shusha, (known in Armenian as Shushi). Indeed, the ceasefire was signed two days after the city fell to the Azeri troops, with the Armenian leader of the region, Arayik Harutyunyan acknowledging that after the loss of Shusha, a ceasefire was necessary to prevent further losses of territory and lives.
The scenes in Azerbaijan meanwhile were those of jubilation. Azeris took to the streets in Baku, as renditions of the countries national anthem erupted among a sea of people and flags, an outpouring of patriotism following what it sees as a major and overdue victory. The armistice agreement will be overseen by a peacekeeping force of 2000 Russian troops and sees Azerbaijan gain control of vast swathes of Nagorno Karabakh, retaining the areas captured in the previous weeks of fighting. Armenian forces will be required to withdraw their military personnel from three adjacent areas to the Azeri territorial gains by December 1, whilst retaining control of Stepanakert and most of Nagorno Karabakh’s north.
In the Armenian capital, there was anger at what its citizens see as a capitulation and crushing defeat. Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan described the agreement as “incredibly painful both for me and our people” many of whom took to the streets in protests the following evening, with a large crowd breaking into government buildings and ransacking the countries parliament.
Whilst many of those displaced by the fighting in recent weeks are now returning to Nagorno Karabakh in an attempt to rebuild what they can of lives shattered so suddenly by conflict, the peace agreement has also triggered an exodus of Armenians in the opposite direction, such is the case in the Kalbajar district, one of the areas that are to be ceded to Azerbaijan under the new peace deal.
Kalbajar was previously populated by an Azerbaijani majority until its population was expelled after falling under Armenian control in 1994, and in a depressing reversal of fates, its current residents, many of whom have grown up in a generation without conflict, have been ordered out by November 25. Many have saved what belongings they can and bid their homes goodbye, some even resorting to a scorched earth policy of burning their homes to prevent their use by any Azeri settlers.
Whilst the fighting has ceased for the time being, only time will tell if there is the will on both sides to normalise relations, and ensure the newfound peace can be enduring in this most complex of regions, so wracked by ethnic, religious and geopolitical divisions.