What’s all this about?
11 Azeri soldiers, including a general, have now died as a cross-border battle between Armenian and Azeri armed forces enters its third consecutive day. Both sides accuse the other of shelling civilian areas near the border, and Armenia claims that a 76-year-old civilian has been killed.
The two countries claim the province of Nagorno-Karabakh, shown below. Both formerly part of the USSR, they have disputed possession of the territory since before their independence, and fought a bitter war between 1990-1994, which claimed 20,000-30,000 lives. A Russian-brokered ceasefire was agreed to, ending the war, but periodic border clashes continued until 2016, when an escalation brought the two countries to the brink again. The 2016 conflict, referred to as the ‘April war’, was a bloody 4-day clash that left at least 200 dead, with an inconclusive result.
So there’s a fair bit of bad blood between these countries. What’s happening to resolve all of this?
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) established the Minsk group in 1992, in an attempt to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Consisting of representatives from Russia, France and the United States, it has been trying to create a lasting settlement to end the conflict. However, they have been unsuccessful so far.
The two countries are both part of NATO, but their membership of the alliance has yet to have a tangible effect on the conflict between them. In fact, in 2004 an Azeri army officer murdered an Armenian counterpart while both were training with NATO in Hungary. Upon his transferral back to Azerbaijan to serve the remainder of his sentence in 2012, per the request of his government, he was granted a presidential pardon, receiving both backpay and a promotion to the rank of major.
Thus far, the most active mediator has been Russia, who brokered the 1994 ceasefire, and Putin’s government has expressed a desire to help find a solution to the present crisis. The BBC reported that President Putin’s spokesman said that Russia was ‘deeply concerned’ by the conflict, and urged ‘both parties to show restraint and comply with their obligations under the ceasefire.’ The US State Department has released a statement, calling on both sides to halt the use of violence, ‘use existing links for communication’ and ‘strictly adhere to the ceasefire.’ The statement also said that the US would ‘remain actively engaged’ in the search for a resolution to tensions between the two countries.
The spokesman of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement supporting the work of the OSCE, calling for an end to the fighting and urged both sides to refrain from ‘provocative rhetoric.’
Why is this so difficult to resolve? Is there any chance of a solution any time soon?
Essentially, what’s happening in the Caucasus today is the result of Soviet policy in the 1920s. When the USSR expanded to take over the region having won the Russian civil war, it was originally going to make Nagorno-Karabakh part of Armenia – the region’s population is 95% ethnically Armenians – but decided at the 11th hour to make it an autonomous district of Azerbaijan. In 1988, the region attempted to secede, leading to war. It still maintains its own government, but depends heavily on the Armenian state.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Russia backs the Armenians, while Turkey has pledged its support to Azerbaijan. Iran, which has borders with both countries, has a substantial minority of Azeris in its population, further entangling the regional web. And, as the World Politics Review puts it, this conflict sits ‘deep within the public national consciousness’ of the two countries. For a whole generation of Armenians and Azeris, fighting the other country has been the backdrop to their entire lives.
As to the chances of a solution, no one really knows – it certainly doesn’t seem likely. Conflict in the region has been endemic since Nagorno-Karabakh attempted to secede, but whatever happens next, we may not see a permanent end to violence any time soon.