On Sunday, both sides of the Azerbaijani and Armenian conflict blamed the other for the breakdown of the new truce. It is tragic that the truce, only a few hours old, collapsed. Continued conflict is of benefit to neither side. Since the conflict began on 27th September, almost 800 people are already confirmed dead in the deadliest outbreak of violence in the South Caucasus since the 1990s.
The Azeris accused Armenia of shelling a region, Aghdam, that is adjacent to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians have accused Azerbaijan of artillery fire and refusing to allow the recovery of wounded soldiers from the battlefield.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region is ethnically Armenian and has been for some time – indeed many in the area have begun to refer to the region as Artsakh, its ancient Armenian name. The region was taken from Armenia and put into Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan “territory” as part of the systemic and foundational plan of the Communist empire to divide its territories in such a way as to pacify otherwise unruly populations. A strategy much like the way colonial empires behaved to ensure control.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s elected regional Parliament voted to join Armenia in the 1980s. This is a democratic exercise and decision that by any other stretch would be respected. For example, if the majority of the Wallonian parliament voted for independence, you would expect that vote to be respected – you would not expect the outbreak of armed conflict.
This ethnic Armenian region then unilaterally declared independence from Azerbaijan following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This led to an escalation of the ongoing conflict that, until the truce in 1994, is estimated to have cost between 20,000 and 30,000 lives and led to around 1 million people fleeing their homes – it is vital that this new outbreak does not lead to the same levels of violence and displacement. Since then discussions had been ongoing, led by the OSCE Minsk Group, to achieve a formal peace treaty between all sides involved. It is my hope that the continued mediation by the Minsk Group will be able to solve the dispute peacefully or at very least return the region to a more stable level of quiet.
This new outbreak of violence appears to have started with an attack on the de-facto independent region – after all, what benefit would there be for a territory that has been politically independent and self-governed since 1988 to attack the nation it was allegedly still part of?
There is a history of majority ethnic groups seceding from nations in which they are a minority into nations where they are a majority – especially upon independence from an empire. You could draw rough parallels, if not in scope, between the situation of independence from the USSR for the region to the Indian subcontinent in the 40s. Perhaps you could go further. Nagorno-Karabakh was already de facto separate from Azerbaijan, and had been for three years at the fall of the USSR, and was fully prepared to continue, and indeed did so, the struggle for freedom.
On a similar theme and much closer to home, what makes Nagorno-Karabakh’s desire for freedom from Azerbaijan that much different to Kosovo’s desire and then successful bid for freedom? It seems that a requirement of international support is repression and systemic discrimination of an ethnic group. I would argue that a nation that goes to war against an ethnic minority region that expresses its wish to secede should be an example of this – again this is highly similar to the early Kosovar independence efforts in the 1990s.
Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of peace in 2008 received international support and yet Nagorno-Karabakh continues to “belong” to Azerbaijan. Indeed, in the same year, a UN General Assembly passed a resolution (introduced by Azerbaijan) that affirmed their Soviet era “right” to Nagorno-Karabakh – just imagine the outcry if Serbia had tried the same ploy for Kosovo. Moreover, there were more than twice as many abstentions – as many as 100 nations – on the resolution as there were in favour. On top of this, Russia, France and USA all objected to the resolution – these are the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group, the group that has been attempting to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis since the truce in 1994.
There is a clear case to be made that Nagorno-Karabakh citizens should receive international support for or at the very least recognition of their independence. I would argue that there is no reason to continue to allow the region to be considered nominally Azeri territory, after all they have not controlled the area for over 30 years, had no claims to the region before the USSR tinkered with its territorial regions to weaken opposition, and has essentially continued a war against those who are theoretically still its own citizens.