By TBY | Azerbaijan | Jun 24, 2014
The garden of the Caucasus remains under illegal occupation, though ongoing negotiations by the OSCE Minsk Group hold the promise of reconciliation.
The stalemated Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is one of the most serious ethnic conflicts to have emerged from the fall of the Soviet Union. While the bulk of the military combat took place more than 20 years ago, the issue remains a foreign policy priority for Azerbaijan, which is assiduously working on finding a peaceful resolution.
The tensions that started in 1988 and escalated into a full-fledged military conflict between 1991 and 1994 left an estimated 25,000 fatalities, 60,000 wounded, and a million refugees and internally displaced persons on both sides, and resulted in the occupation of 20% of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory by Armenia. It also cut off the autonomous and resource-rich region of Nakhichevan from the rest of Azerbaijan, thus dramatically hampering its development.
The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the early 1920s, when the newly-established Soviet Union occupied first Azerbaijan and then Armenia and Georgia. In order to appease Armenians, the Kremlin initially promised that the Karabakh region, of which Nagorno-Karabakh is a part, would be annexed to Armenia. However, for geopolitical reasons, in 1923 the Soviet Union decided to assign the region to the Azerbaijan Republic as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). Under strict Soviet rule, the issue did not surface again until more than six decades later, when the NKAO was already cemented as an important part of the economy of Azerbaijan, and was proven to host some of the country’s largest reserves of precious metals and minerals.
In 1988, under an ailing Soviet Union, the NKAO Parliament voted for unification with Armenia and held a referendum, which was boycotted by the region’s Azerbaijani residents. The ethnic tensions gradually evolved into violence, fuelled by skirmishes in different villages and regions, pogroms, and protests in Baku and Yerevan, which only worsened after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Interventions launched by the Soviet Union at first and Russia later in the conflict were incoherent, ranging from violent military actions such as the one in Baku on January 20, 1990, which left 128 fatalities, to failed efforts to mediate the conflict. Overall, the Soviet Union contributed to an escalation of the conflict by condoning atrocities on both sides and by providing a source of weapons, as its retreating soldiers left behind weapons that were used in the conflict.
During the conflict, Armenian forces occupied not only the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which was the initial center of dispute, but over 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory, including the Azerbaijani districts of Kelbajar, Lachin, Kubatli, Jebrail, Zangelan, Agdam, and Fuzuli, which remain under illegal Armenian occupation to this day.
In 1994, after two intense years of fighting that left hundreds of thousands of dead as a result of clashes in places like Khojaly, Shusha, Lachin, Agdam, Fizuli, Jabrail, and Zangilan, representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic signed a ceasefire in May 1994. The latter paved the way to peace negotiations, which have been mediated by a group specifically established within the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), called the Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by Russia, France, and the US.
After two decades of peace talks, the results are inconclusive, mainly due to Armenia’s repeated refusal to reach a mutually beneficial compromise. While representatives of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have been included in the talks all along, the territory legally remains a part of Azerbaijan under international law and its independence is not recognized by any nation in the world.
Armenia’s attitude toward the peace negotiations, despite the negative economic impact the status quo is having on its economy, can be explained by two main factors. The first of them is the strong Armenian lobby in Moscow, which interferes with the progress of the peace negotiations. The second is the numerous internal difficulties the country is facing, such as a dwindling population, currency devaluation, a reduced export base due to the blockade of its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, underdeveloped infrastructure, and a high dependence on Russia, remittances, and foreign aid. The poor performance of its economy means that its continued occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory is a useful tool to divert the population’s attention from domestic problems.
In contrast with Armenia, Azerbaijan has gone from strength to strength in the past two decades. In the past decade alone, it has managed to more than triple its GDP. It has also stayed true to its commitment to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict and to integrate the almost 1 million refugees and IDPs that the conflict created.
Reflecting on the issue in an April 2014 interview with TBY, President Ilham Aliyev concluded that “The Armenian leadership has to understand that Azerbaijan will never tolerate the establishment of a second Armenian state on its soil. The conflict should and will be resolved on the basis of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. As long as the conflict remains unresolved, the Armenian state will remain sidelined from all transnational and regional projects, the plight of the Armenian people will continue to deteriorate and the already frugal potential of the country will be completely exhausted.”