The violent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is another round in the war that has been conducted on and off for more than three decades over the control of Nagorno-Karabakh. So far, at least 84 soldiers from the separatist region have been killed, along with 12 Azerbaijani civilians. Thousands have abandoned their homes, hundreds of buildings have been destroyed and the United Nations Security Council is already hurrying to examine the possibilities of a cease-fire, and even a long period of calm through the intervention of Russia, Turkey and European countries.
The parties are refusing to discuss a diplomatic agreement. This is a much too deep and pustular abscess, too historic, with nationalist roots. Any solution would require Azerbaijan and Armenia each to give up territory it sees as an inseparable part of its nation and its legitimate sovereignty – at a time when the question of legitimacy is the heart of the conflict.
Nagorno-Karabakh may be recognized as an inherent part of Azerbaijan, but with the fall of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence of the two warring countries, Armenia took over Nagorno-Karabakh and conducted a bloody campaign against Azerbaijan, in which over 30,000 people were killed and some 1 million people were uprooted from their homes. Only in 1994 was a cease-fire reached with Russian mediation, after Armenia seized control of the region – which was populated mostly by Armenians, and another seven districts around it, most of which are populated by Azerbaijanis and Kurds. They remained in the hands of Azerbaijan, but local rule was passed over to a separatist local government supported by Armenia.
A temporary lull in the fighting was achieved in 2018 after a civil revolution in Armenia, which removed Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan from power and put in his place Nikol Pashinyan.
Pashinyan, 45, was a professional journalist who spent time in prison for “anti-government activities.” He led the public protests against his predecessor and is considered to be a liberal who has expanded civil rights and freedom of expression, and has succeeded in promoting economic development of the country.
When he was elected prime minister, he proposed to Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev, who has a Ph.D. in history and political science and has ruled his country since 2003, to hold peace talks and prepare the public in both countries in advance of a permanent reconciliation. As a result, a conference of the foreign ministers of the two countries was held in Paris in January 2019, under the auspices of the Minsk Group, which was established as part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) back in 1992 to discuss peace arrangements and the division of the region between the two rival countries. A possible summit meeting between the countries’ two leaders was even discussed, but nothing developed since except for additional confrontations – while the agreeable declarations heard at the conference remained unfulfilled. The hoped-for summit never took place either.
This all came after the demographics of the Armenian districts in Azerbaijan had changed. The economic crisis in Armenia has led to a wave of migration by citizens looking for new ways to make a living in Nagorno-Karabakh and its neighboring districts. The previous president of the Republic of Artsakh, as the region calls itself, Bako Sahakyan, who served in the past in the Russian security services, allocated plots of land and construction grants to the new immigrants, along with the rebuilding of ruined houses. A modern access road was paved between the region and Armenia, and new factories built in the districts offered job opportunities.
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Along with the immigration and the return of thousands of people who fled the districts during the period of the wars, new political terms were developed to define the national relationship with the districts. While Azerbaijan calls these districts “occupied territories,” in Armenia they're known as “liberated territories.” In an interview conducted in 2018 by the eurasianet.org website with residents and researchers in the Armenian districts, one told how “10 years ago, only about 30 percent of people in Karabakh would have refused to consider territorial concessions to Azerbaijan in the name of peace. Now, he said, the number is 100 percent.”
Harut Mnatsakanyan, the de facto governor of one of the seven regions surrounding Karabakh, Kelbajar, said “proudly that the birthrate of Kelbajar is among the highest in the contested territories – of the region’s 800 families, one-eighth have more than five children. And there are a lot of families with six, seven, eight children.”
“Our fathers, the older generation, liberated part of Karabakh. And if for them, somehow, it was acceptable to give up some of this territory, because in their understanding it didn’t used to be part of Nagorno-Karabakh, in exchange for peace so that their children don’t experience war, because human life has a higher value – well, their generation is passing,” said Mnatsakanyan. “I was born in and live in a Nagorno-Karabakh where Karvajar and the other regions are a part of Nagorno-Karabakh. For my generation – and we are already taking official jobs – not one territory is under discussion.”
This is a generation that uses the word “residents,” or in Israeli terms “settlers,” to describe the new immigrants and those “returning to their homeland.” Cultivating the national narrative of the region presents, as in Israel, the “historical evidence” of the connection of the Armenians to the disputed region. An ancient Armenian church, buildings and archaeological remnants are adequate proof to the Armenian claims of ownership of the region.
These nationalist feelings also have political implications inside Armenia. Pashinyan, who at first seemed to be a placatory prime minister who was interested in promoting peace, is now immersed in a political struggle with his nationalist rivals, who portray him as “weak” and an “appeaser,” someone who might be willing to give up territory in return for peace. In response to being framed this way, Pashinyan is now presenting a much harder and aggressive line, which is expressed in his refusal to conduct negotiations with Azerbaijan – and his demands for Russian intervention in the campaign as fulfillment of the defense pact signed between the two countries.
It is doubtful whether these periodic clashes between the region, which is run as an independent government, and Azerbaijan forces would have aroused much interest if not for the involvement of superpowers and countries trying to advance their own strategic and economic interests at the expense of this lethal rivalry. This matrix of connections and interests is complicated and sometimes even contradictory. For example, Turkey, which aids Azerbaijan and according to Armenian claims shot down an Armenian plane in its own airspace last week – a claim Turkey denies – looks as if it is a partner with Israel concerning Azerbaijan.
Israeli arms exports to Azerbaijan are estimated in the billions of dollars and this week another shipment of weapons and equipment was reported, which will certainly be used in the war in Karabakh. Among the items Israel sold were drones, small arms, advanced technology for information gathering and ammunition, as part of the “military alliance” in which, according to foreign sources, Azerbaijan allows Israel to collect intelligence on neighboring Iran. In the past, published assessments have said Israel could use Azerbaijani territory as a base for carrying out attacks on Iran.
For its part, Turkey sees Azerbaijan as part of its sphere of influence, which includes some Muslim countries in Central Asia and the Caucuses, such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that have an affinity with the culture and history of the Turkish peoples. The historic enmity between the Ottoman Empire, and later the Turkish Republic, and Armenia and the Armenians – whose peak came in the Armenian Genocide over 100 years ago, is still alive in Turkey and has also contributed significantly to its close relations with Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is one of the only arenas where Israel and Turkey see eye to eye on their joint strategic interests. The country supplies about 40 percent of the oil that reaches Israel through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline beginning in Azerbaijan and ending in Turkey. This pipeline, over a thousand kilometers of which is located inside Turkey – and who receives royalties for it – is capable of transporting 1.2 million barrels of oil a day, which is about 1 percent of global oil production.
Russia, Turkey’s ally in Syria and its rival on the Libyan front, is conducting a two-faced policy toward Azerbaijan and Armenia. On one hand, it is signed on a defense pact with Armenia, and on the other hand it conducts military and economic cooperation with Azerbaijan. Russia is trying to bring Azerbaijan into an economic alliance, which for now Baku has rejected in favor of an alliance with the West and China – mostly because of the economic and military advantages that these relations provide it. China sees Azerbaijan as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, whose goal is to build a fabric of strategic and economic links with countries that can help the economy of the communist superpower, and which has the means and capital to carry out its plan – as opposed to Russia.
Azerbaijan, which hoped in the past that its close relations with Moscow would help it in solving the Nagorno-Karabakh affair in its favor, has sobered up from this illusion in the face of Moscow’s shuttle diplomacy – because it seems Russia is actually reaping huge strategic capital from the continued existence of the crisis, which provides it with regional leverage and influence. An example of this is the attack Armenia carried out against Azerbaijan in July in which 16 Azerbaijanis and 5 Armenians were killed. There was no immediate explanation of this attack, and one assessment said the Armenian president wanted to divert public opinion in his country from the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the drastic reduction of trade with Iran as a result of the American sanctions.
Another explanation attributed encouragement – and maybe even the initiative behind the attack to Russia – in order to send a threatening message to Turkey, Azerbaijan’s ally, because of the dispute between the two countries on the Libyan front. In the conflict that broke out this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin prefers for now to take a position of looking on from the side, and he has made do with just joining in the international appeal to reach a cease-fire. Moscow’s declarations sound almost identical to those coming out of Washington, which years ago distanced itself from direct involvement in this conflict.
It is hard to expect that this new conflict will lead to a new and final agreement to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, or alternatively that it will deteriorate into a war of everyone against each other. It seems that in the near future this dispute will continue to serve as the table on which diplomatic arm-wrestling tournaments are held between all the countries in the region, and especially between Turkey and Russia. So far, not even world oil prices have taken notice of the latest round of the conflict: Azerbaijan has announced that its oil facilities and pipelines are continuing to operate as usual, so even Europe can remain calm – at least until the next round.