The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, from 1988 to 2020
Gaia De Salvo
24 September 2023
3 minutes, 51 seconds
With the return of violence and now with the ongoing peace negotiations, the focus returns to the clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, one of the most lasting conflicts in the region, with deep roots in Caucasian history and culture.
Armenians and Azeris:
The Nagorno-Karabakh region, annexed by Russia in 1813, approximately a century ago, became an Autonomous Oblast within Azerbaijan as part of the Soviet Union. Despite its geographic location, the area is predominantly inhabited by an ethnically Armenian population, which differs significantly from Azerbaijanis in terms of culture and religion. Armenians have deep roots in the Christian faith, while Azerbaijanis mainly belong to a Turkic culture and follow mainly Islam.
These ethnic-cultural differences have historically provoked hostility between the two neighboring countries, especially regarding the enclave, which is culturally and ethnically Armenian. Ethnic tensions between these two groups remained relatively contained until the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, with the beginning of the decline of the Soviet Union, friction emerged again, leading to the emergence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which became the most prolonged of those in post-Soviet Eurasia.
The First Conflict:
In 1988, the Armenian population residing in Nagorno-Karabakh demanded the transfer of the then Autonomous Oblast from Soviet Azerbaijan to Armenia. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Armenia, managed to take control of a significant portion of southwestern Azerbaijan, including the enclave itself and the territory connecting it to Armenia.
In reaction to the bitter conflict, mediation efforts were made through the former hegemon and the so-called Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), created in 1994 to address the dispute. However, these efforts did not lead to a permanent solution, but only to an intermittent truce that lasted from 1994 to 2020.
The search for a political solution to the conflict was complicated by the declaration of independence of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in early 1992, with independent elections and a referendum in 2006 that approved a new constitution. These actions did not receive international recognition.
The Second Conflict:
In November 2008, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who hails from Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a historic agreement, the first in 15 years, committing to intensify efforts to resolve the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Despite occasional signs of rapprochement between the two countries, there were occasional clashes in the 10’s and the efforts to resolve them found themselves at a standstill.
A new government in Armenia in 2019 raised hopes of new negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh, but in 2020 diplomacy failed, leading to clashes in July. These clashes, although short-lived, have increased the possibility of escalation. Russia, responsible for Armenian security, conducted unilateral military exercises near the Caucasus only a few days after the truce. Subsequently, Turkey organized joint military exercises with Azerbaijan.
As tensions increased, new clashes erupted on September 27th. Both sides were prepared for a more prolonged conflict compared to July, and Azerbaijan was supported by its Turkish ally. The conflict quickly escalated, becoming the most serious since its inception in the 1990s. The ground war, characterized by the use of cluster munitions and ballistic missiles, has caused serious losses and damage. The use of drones has also played a significant role, as well as a vast media war on social media.
The 2020 Agreement:
More than seven thousand soldiers and civilians were killed, while hundreds of Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers were injured. Initially, both parties rejected the pressures from the United Nations, the United States, and Russia to engage in talks and end hostilities, choosing to continue fighting. Tensions escalated further when both sides began using long-range artillery and other heavy weapons.
After several failed attempts to negotiate a ceasefire by Russia, France, and the United States, Russia managed to mediate a ceasefire agreement on November 9, 2020. The agreement was further secured by the presence of Russian peacekeeping operations and ended the six-week-long Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijan regained much of the territory lost two decades earlier, leaving Armenia with only a portion of Karabakh. The agreement also established the Lachin Corridor, a narrow strip of land monitored by Russian peacekeeping forces, which serves as a transit route between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
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