The aim of this article is to contextualise the ongoing geopolitical tension and recent military engagement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Disputed, irredentist claims to land are problematic when considering standards of nationhood and state structure. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and transition to market bases economies, the economic trajectories of these states have unravelled in opposing directions. Armenia currently bears political and trade relations with the EU, Georgia, Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (union of former Soviet states), with strong historical, military and cultural ties to Russia. Azerbaijan has capitalised on its immense oil wealth since 1991, which has seen the state establish relations with global powers with some leverage. The US has notably upheld the autocratic Aliyev government as a guarantor of favourable relations. Turkey and Israel, as allies of the US, maintain strong military relations with Azerbaijan, while Russia has reoriented itself as an ally to assert itself as an impartial actor in the region. The lack of political will and lack of economic cooperation and incentive for peace render geopolitical tensions between these two states as almost inevitable. Meanwhile, the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh arguably endures a constant state of insecurity and stifled self-determination.
The land currently known as Nagorno-Karabakh was first mentioned as the territory of Urtekhini belonging to the Armenian kingdom of Urartu by an inscription dating back to roughly 700BC. However, by the 19th century and through a history of numerous invading forces, the land was ruled by the Russian Empire after being conquered from Persian rule in 1813. The land had come to be inhabited by a mix of Armenian and Turkic (Azerbaijani) villages, however Armenians held a vast majority at 90.8% across the districts of Khachen, Jalapert, Dizak, Gulistan and Varanda according to an 1823 survey by Russian imperial authorities (Bournoutian 1994, p 18). Beginning in 1915, over 1 million Armenians and other Christian minority Assyrians and Greeks in Anatolia were systematically killed or displaced, allowing the Ottoman rulership to cement its territorial grasp during the decline of the greater empire (De Waal 2010, p 53). Armenia proper had been under the rule of Tsarist Russia, but this regime collapsed in 1917. The complexity of the historic Armenian-Russian relationship is relevant here as Russia was considered a ruler but also a protector in light of Ottoman Turkish expansionist ambitions (Dudwick 1997, p 476). The violent dispossession and land acquisition by Ottoman forces continues to go unacknowledged and these territorial concessions occurred with a large measure of support from Azerbaijan, considered a brotherly Turkic nation. This history forms the backbone of present-day nationalism and territorial tensions.
The concept of nationhood within the South Caucasus bears inherent irredentist claims amongst the territories. These are overlooked in questions of economic outlook and development. The Russian Revolution gave way to the establishment of independent states in May 1918, including the Democratic Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which were then overtaken by Soviet control. The two nation-states fought for control of Nagorno-Karabakh but, despite its Armenian demographic majority, the Bolsheviks headed by Joseph Stalin transferred the region to Azerbaijan in a long-term strategy of appeasement to Turkey (Dragadze 1989, p 56). This arbitrary decision has arguably locked the regional into a perpetual struggle as both states hold their claims to the land and Armenia has actively contested the decision ever since.
In the early 1990s, while Azerbaijan was in the throes of political infighting, the Armenian side had consensus on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh and was eager to retrieve this land through military means. By 1994 a cease fire had been brokered by Russia, though Armenia occupied 14% of the Azerbaijani state (in accordance with the state borders stipulated at independence) and the war had seen 22,000 to 25,000 casualties and roughly half a million people displaced (Crisis Group 2011, p 2; De Waal 2005, p 17). Azerbaijan responded by imposing a blockade of Armenia’s eastern border and thus an economic stronghold (Radnitz 2018, p 158). These conditions have persisted and have shaped the states’ outward trajectories in trade, alliances and transnational relations in the post-Soviet transition period. This has also reaffirmed the precariousness of the region as trade relations, developmental policy prescriptions and integration have unfolded removed from the ongoing militarism and looming threats of violence.
Since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in ongoing negotiations largely facilitated by the OSCE Minsk Group and Armenia has exerted extensive influence over Nagorno-Karabakh. This is documented by Human Rights Watch as, “from the beginning of the Karabakh conflict, Armenia provided aid, weapons, and volunteers.” (Human Rights Watch 2012). Nagorno-Karabakh was involved in bilateral and multilateral talks up until 1998, when the territory’s representatives began to be formally excluded from peace talks (CSS 2013; RFERL 2009). The then President of Armenia and first President of Nagorno-Karabakh, Robert Kocharyan, continued Armenia’s role in the negotiations as representative of the Nagorno-Karabakh region itself (CSS 2013; RFERL 2009). This has been a large concession favourable to Azerbaijan, as they can symbolically reject Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence in negotiations.
In April 2016, tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia led to the largest military clashes since 1994 (Meissner 2018, p 232). This emphasises the fact that failures to attenuate glaring realities of territorial tension have seen hostility cemented into processes of economic development and pursuits of growth. In response to these clashes, in 2017 the Nagorno-Karabakh government transformed from having a semi-presidential to a fully presidential model through a referendum held on February 20th (Rettman 2017). In addition to this, the name of the republic was formally changed from the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh to the Republic of Artsakh. This name implied a new claim to the land and the new governing system was aimed at establishing increased efficiency in decision making during security matters (Rettman 2017). The fallout of a contrasting constitutional change to the model of government in Armenia in 2015, led to the 2018 movement by the Armenian public; calling for the former two term president and then newly appointed prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, to resign along with many other ministers of the Republican Party of Armenia in May.
Through past negotiations, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been a great source of dispute. Azerbaijan has stated its preparedness to grant Nagorno-Karabakh broad autonomy comparable to the Russian republic of Tatarstan (Regnum 2012). Meanwhile, Armenia calls for a popular vote in which the people of Nagorno-Karabakh may be granted self-determination (Tamrazian 2006). Whilst continuing to call for the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, the government of Armenia under Serzh Sargsyan also put forth a rather contradictory strategy. In 1989, the Soviet Armenian Socialist republic expressed the will for reunification of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. However, since the territory’s independence Armenia has built relations with Nagorno-Karabakh as an established de facto state and the Republic of Armenia has not added any territory as a result of the conflict (Kocharyan 2016). Despite this, Armenia continued to negotiate on Nagorno-Karabakh’s behalf without exerting more pressure to have Nagorno-Karabakh presented in bi-lateral and multi-lateral talks as an independent party. Sargsyan did seek the participation of the representatives of Nagorno Karabakh, but Azerbaijan was opposed to this (Mkrtchyan 2018).
A False ‘New Start’
The incumbent Pashinyan government initially announced a change in the accepted approach to Armenian negotiations with Azerbaijan over the contested territory. On the 9th of May 2018, a day after Prime Minister Pashinyan was sworn in, he took his first official trip in office to Karabakh and joined President Bako Sahakyan of Karabakh and Barkev Srpazan in the commemoration of the Liberation of Shushi (Abrahamyan 2018). This day additionally coincided with celebrations of the founding of the army of Artsakh and World War II Victory Day. Beyond attending at the celebrations, the leaders met to discuss Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh’s ongoing relations (Abrahamyan 2018). Since then, Pashinyan adopted a more hard-line approach to Azerbaijan. On May 9th Pashinyan stated his determination to continue talks with the rival state but has also expressed an intention to have representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh present at further talks aimed at conflict resolution and mediation (Abrahamyan 2018). Nagorno-Karabakh representatives have, in the past, voiced their frustration at the de facto independent state and main party in the negotiations being excluded from official proceedings, however this was essentially unheeded (RFERL 2009).
Pashinyan effectively made this a pre-condition for further negotiations stating that, “Azerbaijan not only failed to protect the rights of the Armenian population of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, but also directly jeopardised their existence.” (ARKA 2018). In addition to this, he expressed condemnation of Azerbaijan’s militaristic and threatening rhetoric to the state of Armenia itself, stating that such rhetoric is ‘only detrimental to the peace process and brings the states further from reaching consensus’ (Abrahamyan 2018). Pashinyan has stated that, “It is impossible to negotiate under this situation. Unless I see Azerbaijan’s willingness to recognize the right of the population of Artsakh to self-determination, there will be no concessions from our side.” (ARKA 2018). The PM has attempted to introduce a new foreign policy trajectory of “Armenia-centrism”, which is viewed as a “starting point for an effective pursuit of Armenia’s national interests” (Abrahamyan 2018).
This overall perspective regarding Karabakh’s self-determination and inclusion in negotiations contrasts to that of Azerbaijan, as over the years they have criticised the OSCE Minsk Group for lacking impartiality. Representatives claim that the main co-chairs France, Russia and the US each have reasons for bias in favour of the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakhi cause (Abilov 2018). In 2015, there was a push for the inclusion of Turkey as a fourth co-chair in the Minsk Group (Azertag 2015). Simultaneously, while the inclusion of Nagorno-Karabakh, a factual party to the conflict, in the Minsk Group is seemingly impossible, it has continued to be absent from talks on a bi-lateral and multi-lateral level. The parties met most recently in January 2020, but again came to no real political resolutions. In fact, both state leaders have expressed their doubts about the value of continued negotiations. PM Pashinyan posited an end goal of voting on the final legal status of Karabakh based on the territory’s Armenian majority population, while in early July President Aliyev has stated that the “conflict must be resolved within the territorial integrity of our country” (Kucera 2020; Mehdiyev 2020). This points to overall impasse of the current dispute and the failure of the OSCE Minsk Group to make real political progress.
Geopolitical backdrop and current developments
The ongoing tensions have also reflected a greater geopolitical backdrop of regional actors vying for influence and material benefit (Dawes 2018). These parties include Russia, Israel, Turkey, the EU, the US and Iran. Generally, Russia has been historically tied to Armenia through culture, religion and common values, while Turkey bears cross cultural and economic ties with Azerbaijan. However, these relations are complicated by Russia’s aims of impartiality in dealing with the region. In 1994, the Aliyev government signed a 30-year energy deal that was worth $10 billion USD with nine foreign companies from six different countries, including BP, Unocal, Amoco, and the Russian company Lukoil (De Waal 2010, p 172). The motive for these international agreements was not solely for the purpose of gaining mass revenue from oil output, rather the Azerbaijani government wanted to give foreign governments “a stake in Azerbaijan’s statehood”, in the wake of Armenia’s military occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh (De Waal 2010, p 172).
The US is considered a vital investor in Azerbaijan’s energy sector as well as a mediator in the Karabakh conflict, however, the US maintained a market oriented and geostrategic outlook on the region and imposed an externally derived military alliance between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel, which put the state at odds with its immediate neighbour, Iran (Simão 2018, p 188). The result of this alliance had implications for the continued fragmentation of the South Caucasus region. Through the support of lawmakers and the Israel lobby, the Freedom Support Act, which had previously limited US aid to Azerbaijan due to their blockade on Armenia, was amended in Azerbaijan’s favour (Simão 2018, p 188). Hence, external economic actors, including the EU and the US, have sidestepped issues of hostility and uneven development in the South Caucasus region in the pursuit of a ‘stability’ guaranteed by Aliyev, which secures their capital interests such as oil and gas.
In July 2020, military escalations broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, however developments this time are proving more dangerous to the stability of the region than prior escalations. On the 12th of July, an attack was launched in an area of Armenia proper, targeting a PPE mask factory and other civilian targets in the Tavush region (Asbarez 2020). According to reports at least 4 Armenian and 12 Azerbaijani soldiers, including a general, were killed (RFERL 2020). Moreover, the Armenian military accused Azerbaijani forces of another attack and attempt to infiltrate the Armenian Anvakh military outpost on July 21st (RFERL 2020). This is unprecedented in this conflict as Azerbaijan has attacked the internationally recognised Armenian border as opposed to the Armenian positions in disputed Karabakh.
The attacks employed artillery, tanks and drones and occurred 300 kilometres from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory (Yackley 2020). On July 21st, Armenia showcased downed Israeli made drones utilised by Azerbaijani forces (Stronski 2020). Additionally, Azerbaijan threatened that their missile system could reach Armenia’s nuclear power plant and it was reported that Turkish-backed mercenaries occupying northern Syria would be employed to join the battle against Armenia (Yackley 2020; Zartonk 2020). Armenia currently hosts a Russia military base within its territory and holds a defence pact with the country (Edmunds 2020). This recent clash threatens to embroil Russia and Turkey in a greater regional war and extension of their ongoing military confrontation in Syria.
Overall, the expectation of a new chapter in the negotiation process regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, including a firmer stance by the Armenian side and the pledge to include representatives of territory in future talks has resulted in a standstill. Azerbaijan has maintained their claim to the territory with the backing of Turkey, refusing to acknowledge the region’s independence or voice in negotiations and intermittently threatening to take military action to retrieve the land by force. While this is so and the South Caucasus is locked into a state of economic and political fragmentation, conflict over contested territory is bound to reoccur. However, the most recent military escalations on the Armenian and Azerbaijani border demonstrate that this is hardly a frozen conflict and greater geopolitical tensions are being expressed through this relatively small-scale but dangerous, post-soviet dispute.
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Mia Shouha is an Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Her Honours thesis was on the south Caucasus.