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Nagorno-Karabakh: Just A Territorial Dispute, or the Fallout of Imperialism and its Borders?
In a new round of peace negotiations that took place on March 29th of 2019, both Armenia and Azerbaijan expressed their interest in ending their long-disputed territory claims over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and finally establishing peace between their people. This territorial dispute has roots dating back to well over a century involving competition between Christian Armenian, Muslim Turkic and Persian influences. The Nagorno-Karabakh territory was populated for centuries by Christian Armenian and Turkic Azeris, and became part of the Russian empire in the 19th century (BBC 2016). Following the implementation of imperialistic boundaries between Armenia and Azerbaijan, this conflict over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory heightened massively and has lasted for almost three decades, resulting in war, mass displacement and state of ongoing instability. I argue that it was firstly, the influence of the Ottoman Empire and their absorbance of Armenia in the 15th century, and secondly, the Soviet implementation of imperialistic boundaries, that led Armenia to be involved in the bloody, and persistent struggle over claim of Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan.
The land of Artsakh, or known in the 20th century as the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, is one of three ancient provinces of Armenia located in the eastern end of the Armenian Plateau. It is strengthened by mountain systems, with diverse flora and fauna, and is topographically made of “upland and foothill regions, much of which are covered with thick forests” (NKRUSA). While this may be a vacationer’s dream, there is also a hidden gold mine that runs near the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave: oil pipelines. Currently, there are two oil pipelines that transport both oil and gas from Azerbaijan westward though the Caucasus- the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, occupied by Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both pipelines pass near Nagorno-Karabakh, as the “Caspian region has rich oil and gas reserves that regional countries want to export to Europe” (Recknagel 2016). However, hopes of more pipelines can be ruled out while the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict stands unresolved. It is likely that these pipelines will eventually be shut down for safety reasons to avoid any threat of environmental damage due to oil spills or gas leaks if the pipes become damaged during combat, thus forcing Europe to be even more reliant of Russia for crude oil supplies, as they are somewhat reliant now, but not likely affecting oil prices for the rest of the world because of excess supplies of oil in other previously established oil-rich countries. (Recknagel 2016).
Threatened Bordering States
Another threat growing due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the potential for other neighboring states to become involved in the struggle over this territorial claim. Azerbaijan and Turkey “signed an Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support in 2010 under which both parties agree to support each other ‘using all possibilities’ in the case of military aggression against either” (Recknagel 2016). The two countries conduct annual joint military exercises, and what poses an even greater threat is the fact that there is potential for Russia to join Armenia and team up against Azerbaijan due to the 1992 Tashkent Collective Security Treaty formed between the two countries. (Recknagel 2016). Through its support of Armenia, where five thousand troops remain permanently stationed, Russia has made it clear it still has its claws deep in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and considers the Caucasus a region where they very much still have influence (Recknagel 2016).
Figure 1. Map of Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Disputed Territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (www.rferl.org)
Armenia Under the Ottoman Empire
The Armenian people have lived in the Caucasus region for around three thousand years, and during some of this time, the kingdom of Armenia was an independent entity (History 2019). At the beginning of the 4th century, Armenia became the first nation in the world to make Christianity its official religion (History 2019). During the 15th century, Armenia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, whose rulers were Muslim. They permitted religious minorities like Armenians to maintain some autonomy, but they also subjected them to unequal and unjust treatment. Armenians were denied basic civil rights and were deprived all forms of political participation (Adalian). This ultimately led to the Armenian Genocide in 1915, and the aftermath was devastating. It is estimated that there were about two million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire when the massacre began, and in 1917 when the genocide came to a halt, between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians had been murdered with many more exiled from the country (History 2019).
The Soviets Step In
While the Armenian Genocide was in full effect, Armenian regions of the Ottoman Empire fell to Russian forces during World War 1, and in 1918, an independent Armenia emerged from the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. At around the same time, Azerbaijan also declared its independence as Azerbaijan, in the form we know it to be in today, was part of the Russian Empire and southern Azerbaijan was part of Persia. Following independence, conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh began as this territory was formally in Azerbaijan’s borders but inhabited by Armenians, however this dispute was cut short. Ironically and shortly thereafter the proclamation of the two independences, the Red Army invaded both Armenia and Azerbaijan, declaring them both Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922 (McLaughlin 2016). This invasion occurred because in the previous year of 1921, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin chose to respond to “economic blackmail from oil-producing Azerbaijan and threats from Turkey” (NKRUSA). He forcibly placed Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani rule, which was 75% Armenian at the time, as part of the divide-and-rule policy in the region (NKRUSA). This became the “world’s only Christian territorial autonomy inside the largely Muslim nation” of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (NKRUSA). The newly formed Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast under imperialistic borders put the territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan to rest for several decades. However, Nagorno-Karabakh became a minority community within Azerbaijan following its disassociation with Armenia, where Azerbaijan bombarded the Armenians who resided in the oblast with “various forms of ethno-religious discrimination, economic mistreatment and intentional demographic abuse in an attempt to eliminate its Armenian Christian majority and replace it with Azerbaijani Muslim settlers” (NKRUSA). This would inevitably lead to further future disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
A Second Wave of Independence and Impending War
In 1988, following the wrongdoing in Nagorno-Karabakh that the largely Christian Armenians blamed on the largely Muslim Azerbaijanis (and vice versa), the predominantly ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh began campaigning for the territory to officially become part of the country of Armenia. Ethnic oppositions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis grew over the issue, and conflict over the territory become seemingly inevitable yet again. This demand for Nagorno-Karabakh to become part of Armenia was strongly opposed by both the Azerbaijan S.S.R. and the Soviet government. Following the successful vote that took place by the region’s parliament to join Armenia, the area exploded into violence. When Armenia and Azerbaijan gained their independence (for the second time) following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh region declared itself to be an independent republic, which further escalated the conflict into a full-scale war without the de facto status being recognized. The war officially lasted from 1988-1994, and resulted in the deaths of over 30,000 people and the loss of 14% of Azerbaijan’s territory (Kucera 2019). More than one million people fled their homes, and both the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations who lived there not has been able to return home since (BBC 2016). To this day, seven districts of Azerbaijan remain occupied by Armenian forces. While Armenia itself has never officially recognized the region’s independence, it has become its main financial and military backers (BBC 2016).
Geopolitics Still at Work
A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in 1994, following the creation of the OSCE Minsk Group by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to encourage a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The OSCE Minsk Group is co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and, big surprise, the United States (OSCE 2019). The ceasefire that was established left Nagorno-Karabakh as well as a large amount of Azerbaijan territory around Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian control, yet this region is still functioning as a de facto independent state that is not recognized by the rest of the world but is closely intertwined with Armenia. In addition, Turkey and Azerbaijan closed its borders to Armenia, leaving this country landlocked and causing severe economic problems. However, Russia still holds great interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh territory because powerful countries like Iran and Turkey in the south could pose a threat to Russia’s territory in the north (Snyder 2019). Therefore, this not-so-frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan benefits Russia because it inhibits any single country from laying claim to Nagorno-Karabakh without Russia having to provide substantial resources for its protection. To ensure this conflict remains at a “stand-still”, Russia continues to keep both Armenia and Azerbaijan dependent on its weapon, equipment, and artillery systems for defense, especially Armenia as it is the economically weaker of the two (Snyder 2019). Geographically, Armenia is highly vulnerable due to its location between Turkey, whom Armenia holds responsible for the Armenian Genocide, and Azerbaijan, with whom they are essentially still are war with. The five thousand Russian troops stationed in Armenia act as a “deterrent against Azerbaijani attempts to take control of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as Turkish incursions into Armenia” (Recknagel 2016).
Nagorno-Karabakh Now, Peace Talks and the Future
In a December 2006 referendum, Nagorno-Karabakh approved a new constitution though it was declared illegitimate by Azerbaijan (BBC 2016). Progress was reported at talks between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, but progress stalled and ceasefire violations became common in Nagorno-Karabakh. Soldiers are regularly shot and killed, and civilians face danger as many are killed by stepping on old landmines that remain scattered about (Engelhart 2014). Nagorno-Karabakh is a popular place for drug smuggling, petty crime and human trafficking, with those who live there find themselves in squalid conditions. In 2016, the worst flare-up of hostility in Nagorno-Karabakh occurred and killed dozens on both sides of the conflict during a four-day war. That same year, clashes broke out on the border with Armenia, killing four Armenian troops and one Azerbaijani soldier (BBC 2018).
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Recent peace talks that occurred earlier this year between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev under the support of the OSCE Minsk Group seemed optimistic. The two foreign ministers “‘agreed upon the necessity of taking concrete measures to prepare the populations for peace’” (Rzayev 2019), and negotiations were described as both “positive and constructive, noting that both sides agreed to reinforce the ceasefire and undertake measures in the humanitarian area” (Rzayev 2019). Following Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in 2018, they seem to have reached a democratic breakthrough and with this comes the probability of conflict and aggression decreasing. However, peace talks seem to have been stifled once again following an outburst from Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan, in which he declared the “Armenian government will replace a ‘territories for peace’ formula with a ‘new war for new territories’ approach” (Rzayev 2019). In response, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the outburst “provocative” and did not reflect the efforts of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, nor that of the international community (Rzayev 2019). What has been termed “bellicose rhetoric” is now being heard on both opposing sides of the conflict, creating a “war of words,” and peace seems just as far away as it always has. What lingers now is the potential of a full-blown war, with multiple neighboring countries becoming directly involved in combat such as Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over claims to the Nagorno-Karabakh region is a tragically perfect example of how ignorant and rash imperialistic decisions can heavily impact the future of countries and their people. Joseph Stalin’s choice to make Nagorno-Karabakh, and its predominantly Armenian population, a part of Azerbaijan under his divide-and-rule strategy “kept local conflicts simmering long enough to ensure no challenges to Soviet rule could accumulate” (Snyder 2016). The politicization of this territory caused the conflict to evolve from a mere territorial dispute that could have potentially been resolved with peace talks and agreements (in due time), into one of violence, extreme loss and an everlasting struggle over ownership. The supply of arms to Armenia and Azerbaijan by Russia coupled with the anger of injustices performed on both sides has left Nagorno-Karabakh a desolate warzone. The consequences for Stalin’s imperialist actions have strongly stood the test of time (the conflict is still simmering), and as more time passes, an all-out war seems to be more inevitable and could potentially draw in multiple countries. Turkey and Azerbaijan may indeed team up against Russia, Armenia and Iran, and this could open the door for other countries to take part (*cough, cough, the U.S. who loves to play God*). To describe this situation as messy is an understatement, and both Armenia and Azerbaijan are tainted in their history of handling this conflict thus making resolution a difficult task. A permanent settlement to this conflict remains elusive, but, there is always hope. As much as the damage has accumulated and will act as a scar in the histories of Armenia and Azerbaijan, recovery is possible and I do hope that compromise can be achieved sooner rather than later.
- Azerbaijan profile – Timeline. (2018, January 02). Retrieved May 26, 2019, from www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17047328
- Editors, History.com. Armenian Genocide. 1 Oct. 2010, www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/armenian-genocide. Accessed 26 May 2019.
- Engelhart, K. (2014, May 12). The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Is Another Unknown Country with an Uncertain Future. Retrieved May 26, 2019, from www.vice.com/en_uk/article/qbe34b/nagorno-karabakh-republic-katie-engelhart
- Heydarov, T. (2017, August 17). The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Retrieved May 27, 2019, from www.theeuropean-magazine.com/tale-heydarov–2/12630-the-conflict-between-armenia-and-azerbaijan
- History: Nagorny Karabakh Conflict. 3 July 2015, www.c-r.org/where-we-work/caucasus/history-nagorny-karabakh-conflict. Accessed 26 May 2019.
- Kucera, J. (2019, April 1). After peace negotiations, threats of war break out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Retrieved May 27, 2019, from eurasianet.org/after-peace-negotiations-threats-of-war-break-out-between-armenia-and-azerbaijan
- McLaughlin, Eliott C. Armenia, Azerbaijan Violence Decades in Making. 3 Apr. 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/04/03/asia/armenia-azerbaiajan-nagorno-karabakh-explainer/index.html. Accessed 26 May 2019.
- Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh): Historical And Geographical Perspectives. www.nkrusa.org/country_profile/history.shtml. Accessed 26 May 2019.
- Nagorno-Karabakh profile. (2016, April 06). Retrieved May 27, 2019, from www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18270325
- OSCE Minsk Group. (n.d.). Retrieved May 27, 2019, from www.osce.org/mg
- Recknagel, Charles. Explainer: Why The Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis Matters. 8 Apr. 2016, www.rferl.org/a/nagorno-karabakh-explainer-conflict-azerbaijan-armenia/27656158.html. Accessed 26 May 2019.
- Rzayev, Ayaz. Karabakh Peace Talks after the Vienna Meeting. 7 May 2019, neweasterneurope.eu/2019/05/07/karabakh-peace-talks-after-the-vienna-meeting/. Accessed 26 May 2019.
- Snyder, Zander. A Brief History of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. 19 Apr. 2019, geopoliticalfutures.com/brief-history-nagorno-karabakh-conflict/. Accessed 26 May 2019.
 See Map 1 for reference.
 Today, most historians call this event a genocide. However, the Turkish government still does not acknowledge the enormity or scope of these events, and the extent of the death toll is widely controversial (History 2019). The Turkish government argues that the slaughter of Armenians was a necessary war measure as they were an enemy force, and it is currently illegal in Turkey to talk about what happened to Armenians during that era.
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