The Irresolvable


The contentious region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the centre of a conflict between two ethnic groups, Orthodox Christian Armenians, and Shia Muslim Azerbaijanis. The longstanding hatred concerning the respective populace has three periods of conflict which will be relevant, in which each period replicates the last, going through cycles of uneasy truce and outright war. The timeframes are the pre-soviet and soviet attempts at the repression of nationalism, Gorbachev’sGlasnost and the revival of war, to an ongoing precarious ceasefire. It is these events that represent the regions unresolved issues, and how it is unlikely to be stabilized in the short, medium or long terms.

Pre-Soviet and Soviet Interventions

This historic hostility dates back as early as 1818, when the two sides entered a war lasting two years, leaving what is believed to have killed or displaced a third of each community. These animosities continued into the twentieth century, when in 1918 British forces were invited by the Baku Soviets to defend against potential Turkish assault (which proceeded to withdraw and left vengeful Turks to kill an estimated ten-thousand Armenians).1

After the First World War the occupying British decided in 1920 to place a Muslim governor in charge of Shusha (then the main city of the province) which led to Armenians leading an armed uprising resulting in a heavy repression of the revolt by Azeri troops.2 Nagorno-Karabakh provided the colonial power with an unwanted responsibility and a failure to understand the ethnic division only inflamed tensions and brought them into the twentieth century (however the British preoccupation with the events of the First World War provides an extraordinary exoneration to ignore these divisions).

The recurring theme of Azeri de jure rule was continued as the Soviets provided partitions in territorial borders and the creation of the Mountainous Karabakh Autonomous Region (oblast).3 The establishment of the autonomous governing body provided the first and only sense of stability in the twentieth century, as the Soviet Union formally created the ‘autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh’ in July 1923; and the Soviets proceeded to quash ethnic tensions across the USSR for decades.4 It seems that both great powers in seeking to reconcile the mutual hatred between Armenian and Azeri, attempting different methods of rule only seems, at best to repress the anger, at worst to inflame undercurrents of hostility leading to repeating series of devastation and massive loss of life. The relative success of Moscow to quell nationalist sentiment in the Caucasus under the international revolutionary banner is probably attributable to Stalin’s policy of forceful coercion and propaganda, than it is to providing a successful government-led resolution of inter-communal struggles.

Yet this overt intimidation of nationalities points to the irresolvable nature of the conflict between Armenian and Azeri. The events of the early twentieth century show that only an overwhelming sense of limitless monitoring and supervision from an external actor appears capable of stabilizing the hostility, if never managing to explore and execute a permanent conclusion to the resentment.

Glasnost and the Returning Malevolence

The driving motivation for escalating hostilities in the most recent war between the two communities can be traced to two major factors, the overarching effects of the USSR’s President Mikhail Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms ofperestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), and to Azerbaijan’s deliberate policy of exhausting the Nagorno-Karabakh administration and its population.

The rapid decent of Soviet order following the announcement of programmes of liberalization under Gorbachev did much to reignite nationalist sentiments across the USSR, and with a new wave of nationalism sweeping much of central Asia, Nagorno-Karabakh did much to epitomize the complexity and explosive nature of such sensitive divisions. The first major voicing of ethnic grievances was a demonstration in Yerevan (Armenian’s capital) on 18th October 1987, demanding the support of rights of the Karabakh Armenians, and of Armenians across Azerbaijan in general. Particularly these protests began as a result of changes to the school curriculum which left devoid the teaching of Armenian history.5 The intentional minimization of cultural ties between Nagorno-Karabakh to the homeland, created resurgence in ethnic animosity, which a previously domineering Soviet state might have been able to moderate.

The localized tensions began to escalate in 1988 following a failure to resolve the issues raised in the previous year; the Karabakh Armenians were now deprived of adequate resources from Baku, denied cultural recognition and rights, and a proactive programme of diluting the demographic predominance of Armenians in the autonomous region with a steady influx of Azeri (94% Armenian in 1921, 76% Armenian in 1979). This mistreatment was the immediate cause for the subsequent announcement in December 1989 of a union between The Supreme Soviet of Armenia and the National Council of Karabakh;6 however this was scaled back in 1991 to a call for an independent republic in light of the potential opening of a second front with Turkey.7 The rising tensions between the two are evidently spurred on by the weakening and dissolution of the Soviet dimension of control in the Caucasus region, thus the return of hostilities can be traced to the lack of superpower oversight and reinforcing the view that an internal resolution seems implausible.

The beginning of the war is an uncertain history, with many inter-communal conflicts penetrating periods of conventional war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, spanning from 1988 to 1993. Yet the definitive end of open aggression came in May 1994 when Russia brokered a ceasefire between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Karabakh, and whilst there have been minor infractions none have been allowed to escalate into major confrontation.8 This mediation provided by the newly formed Russian Federation signs the fate of continuing unease between the two rival states, whilst it may have been impossible for either side to be the first to open negotiations for peace; the failure that a bilateral agreement cannot be achieved highlights the position that peace is an impossible goal without external pressure and assurance.

Continuing Tensions

The war had chaotic effects on the diplomatic and economic relations on both nations, well beyond the physical destruction incurred by the war; these burdens being shared unequally by the three parties in the conflict.

The region of Nagorno-Karabakh is still no closer to a settlement with its Azerbaijani neighbours, seeing a reassessment and passing of the unrecognized republics constitutional rights and a breakdown in renewed negotiations. In December 2006 a referendum to enshrine a new constitution of Nagorno-Karabakh was approved, with Azerbaijan declaring it illegitimate; and despite progress in peace talks between Armenian and Azeri Presidents, 2010-2011 saw once again multiple and serious violations of the ceasefire agreement and the collapse of talks.9 As recently as the 15th November 2013, the newly appointed Azerbaijani Defence Minister, Colonel-General Zakir Hasanov met with the Turkish Ambassador Ismail Coshgun, saying that Azerbaijan fails to accept the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenians and stressing the importance of liberating this region.10 Such rhetoric from a defence minister to an ambassador, in which Azeri and Turkish governments already have trade blockades in place11 on the aforementioned occupiers, indicates a still ever present hostility in a regional context. The repeating cycle of tenuous negotiation and shattered ceasefires is sure to create instability that must act as a deterrent to potential foreign investment and inclination to involvement to the entire Caucasus area. Thus the isolation of the region from outside influence bars the one route with which previous deals have been struck, the lack of international (not inter-regional) dialogue seeks to escalate short and medium term tensions, and prolong even further any long term resolution.

1 O’Ballance, E. ‘Wars in the Caucasus, 1990-1995’ (Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1997) p.32
2 O’Ballance, E. ‘Wars in the Caucasus, 1990-1995’ (Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1997) p.34
3 Herzig, E. ‘The New Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia’ (London, A Cassell Imprint, 1999) p.65
4 O’Ballance, E. ‘Wars in the Caucasus, 1990-1995’ (Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1997) p.34
5 O’Ballance, E. ‘Wars in the Caucasus, 1990-1995’ (Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1997) p.35
6 Herzig, E. ‘The New Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia’ (London, A Cassell Imprint, 1999) p.66
7 Dawisha, K. and Parrott, B. ‘Russia and the New States of Eurasia: The Politics of Upheaval’ (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994) p.87
8 Herzig, E. ‘The New Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia’ (London, A Cassell Imprint, 1999) pp.67-68
9 BBC News, ‘Nagorno-Karabakh profile’ (30/11/13) []
10 News AZ ‘Azerbaijan will never accept occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh – defence minister’ (30/11/13) []
11 BBC News, ‘Armenia profile’ (30/11/13) []

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)