Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has seen tensions escalate with new fighting this week. The Azeri defense ministry says several soldiers were killed while repelling Armenian attacks in the Agdam and Tartar districts, northeast of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a region of Azerbaijan, but under Armenian control. Azerbaijan and Armenia are former Soviet republics, and each side accuses the other of ethnic cleansing. Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh are aligned with the government in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The region has been part of a separatist war prior to the end of the Soviet Union.
The current conflict began in 1988, when Armenia prosecuted territorial claims against Azerbaijan. Both nations are located in the South Caucasus mountains, south of Russia, and north of Iran. The Nagorno-Karabakh region, along with seven surrounding districts, constitutes about 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory. The region came under Armenian control during the war, and today these areas are occupied by the armed forces of Armenia.
Russia negotiated a truce between the factions in 1994, but the area has remained a hot spot, with tensions flaring periodically. Yesterday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova issued a warning to both sides saying, “Further escalation is unacceptable.” The UN Security Council has formulated four resolutions for the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh, yet those have not yet been carried out by Armenia.
At the end of World War I, the British established a provisional government, and gave Azerbaijan control over Nagorno-Karabakh, causing tensions to escalate in the disputed territory, especially among the ethnic Armenians who are a majority of the regional population. Armenians call the area, Artsakh, as it was the region’s name when it was an important province in the ancient Kingdom of Armenia.
The conflict can also be traced back to the Soviet practice of creating separate republics by mixing ethnic populations, as this assured control by Moscow. It was also a common practice utilized by the Russian Imperial monarchies, prior to the communist revolution. The Bolsheviks conquered Azerbaijan and Armenia in the early 1920s, so to make peace with the new communist masters in Russia, Armenia agreed to the Red Army occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Joseph Stalin was the acting Commissar of Nationalities for the new Soviet government, and he initially promised that Armenia would retain control of the territory. However, the Bolsheviks were courting Turkey as an ally at the time, and Turkey had closer ties to Azerbaijan. Stalin eventually assigned the region to the newly formed Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. It became a part of the Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic (AzSSR) in July of 1923.
Last Friday, after four days of reconnaissance and probing exercises, Azerbaijani forces began shelling Armenian defensive positions with rocket launchers. Reports say the Armenians suffered between 15-20 losses. Current efforts to broker a resolution are led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, commonly called the OSCE Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States. The OSCE is made up of 57 separate nations, and is headquartered in Vienna, Austria.
Armenia recently joined the Customs Union, a trade bloc and defense arrangement among several post-Soviet republics. The Customs Union is led by Russia and includes Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. Until recently, Russia had high hopes for Ukraine to join the Customs Union, but the current Russian-backed fighting in eastern Ukraine has all but extinguished those plans. Armenia is one the few countries to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea. Azerbaijan has aligned itself with the West.
The conflict divides residents not only along ethnic lines, but also with regard to religious beliefs. Most Armenians, including those in the disputed region, consider themselves as followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia is the oldest state recognized Christian nation in the world. Azerbaijan is organized as a secular Presidential republic, although over 95 percent of the Azerbaijani population follows the religion of Islam.
The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has proved costly to both sides. It is estimated that over a million people were displaced, and over 30,000 killed in the fighting, until the Russian-brokered truce in 1994. In recent days, Nagorno-Karabakh residents have seen tensions escalate in this disputed territory, yet with no lasting resolution in sight.
By Jim Hanemaayer