By Andrew Halajian ’21
UPDATE: Azerbaijan’s parliament declared a “State of War” against Armenia on Sunday, September 27, 2020. Heavy fighting erupted in the morning of September 27, and Armenia has declared martial law and a full mobilization of its military. According to NPR, Armenian officials claim that Azerbaijani forces launched a “missile and aerial attack” on peaceful civilians in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, while Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims they were merely retaliating to Armenian shelling.
Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan had escalated once again in July for several days, with both sides experiencing their worst suffering in years. Sixteen people were killed on both sides, including one Azerbaijani general. The fighting has been attributed to the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an ethnic and territorial dispute dating back to the early 20th century.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region roughly smaller than Connecticut and located between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is a de facto independent republic with an overwhelming ethnic Armenian majority but recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
While Karabah’s status quo is not sustainable, Armenia and Azerbaijan are unwilling to make a compromise that the other side would be able to agree to. Azerbaijan wants the region as a home for its ethnic refugees and demands Armenia to respect the four U.N. Security Council Resolutions that deem Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijani borders. Armenia is reluctant to leave the majority-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh without economic and military protection and would only negotiate if the region attains international recognition as a state.
The controversy arose from after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, when Armenia and Azerbaijan had a series of wars over several areas, including Karabakh. The wars ended in 1923, when the Soviet Union took control of both nations, and Joseph Stalin assigned Karabakh, a region that had historically held a high Armenian majority, to Soviet Azerbaijan as an autonomous oblast.
The issue settled down for several decades but reemerged in the late 1980s with the downfall of the Soviet Union. The majority Armenians in Karabakh accused the Azerbaijani government of forced “Azerification” and wanted to be transferred from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. Once Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself a republic in 1991, a full-scale war broke out, with Armenia and the independent state on one side, and Azerbaijan on the other.
The war—which included ethnic cleansing from both sides and caused around 20,000 casualties and over 1 million displaced—ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994. However, the lack of a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan has left Nagorno-Karabakh as an internationally unrecognized independent state.
Today, the ceasefire remains intact but has been violated countless times. The most severe instance was in 2016—termed the Four Day War—when Azerbaijan threatened to take over the area, leaving 100 soldiers killed from each side.
Similar to many of their past feuds, both nations have accused the other of starting the clashes in July. Azerbaijan claimed that Armenia fired at its positions in the direction of Tovuz, Azerbaijan, and Armenia said that Azerbaijan attempted to cross its border in a military vehicle.
While Turkey and Pakistan had expressed their support for Azerbaijan in the recent clashes due to their close ethnic and religious ties, many leaders had voiced their concerns and condemned both sides for the violence. Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, has urged an "immediate end" to the fighting. The United States and Russia, co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, which was created to encourage peaceful resolutions for this conflict, have demanded both sides de-escalate the situation.
Before the July clashes, the two nations made attempts to reach advancements in diplomatic conversations over the past few years, but the productivity of these meetings is unknown. Most recently, the two nation’s leaders, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, held a public debate about their historical views of Karabakh during the Munich Security Conference in February.
The two countries have faced many disagreements in the processes of holding negotiations, such as whether to include Nagorno-Karabakh’s government in peace talks. Prime Minister Pashinyan wants the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership to be included in peace negotiations, while President Aliyev refuses to allow the self-governed state to represent itself.
Both nations have also made irredentist claims for Karabakh. The area is considered to have been historically Armenian, always possessing a majority Armenian population and once known as the Kingdom of Artsakh from the 9th century. Azerbaijani statements have claimed that the territories of Karabakh were lands that once belonged to Azerbaijanis in the 18th century.
Besides the ineffective ceasefire from 1994, no preventive measures have been implemented from either sides or mediators to prevent these skirmishes. Since both sides are not pleased with the current status of Karabakh, the two countries will eventually have to find a way to address the solution, which might cause one of the nations to be displeased about the outcome.