Interethnic Violence & Forgotten Massacres: The Complicated Legacy of Nagorno-Karabakh
Readus Shalehen Zawad, Md Ahad Al Azad Munem, Md Rubayet Alam
On November 10th, the Nagorno-Karabakh war finally came to an end when Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a Russia brokered peace resolution. Due to the ongoing pandemic and the US presidential election, the world may have seen it as an insignificant regional conflict. But for millions of Armenians and Azeris, this was the end to a historic war which forged their nations. The war and the subsequent peace deal will have lasting effects on the Caucasus and shape foreign policies of Russia, Iran and Turkey in the region for the foreseeable future.
Nagorno-Karabakh bears a bloody and violent history which dates back to the end of the first world war. Originally, the region was a part of the Russian Empire and was dominated by its Armenian majority. But in 1917, when the Empire collapsed, the three nations of the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) created the Transcaucasian Federation which lasted for three months. Border disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan soon turned into the Armenian-Azerbaijani War in 1918. After two years of fighting, Armenia was emerging as the clear winner but the British intervened and insisted the disputes be settled at a peace conference. But this fragile peace predictably did not last. In retaliation for a failed Armenian rebellion, Azeri soldiers killed at least 500 civilians and destroyed the Armenian part of Shusha, the then capital of Nagorno Karabakh.
Even though both Armenians and Azeris condemned it, the Shusha Massacre foreshadowed the indiscriminate violence yet to come. The disputes were not settled through a treaty either. The Red Army invaded the Caucasus in 1920 and annexed the region within two months. The Caucasian Bureau was created to restructure the region which allocated Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Even though the bureau cited economic reasons, many scholars believe that the decision was taken to permanently divide Armenians and Azeris. But none dared to question the arrangement under Stalin’s rule.
Tension began to surface immediately after Stalin’s death. Armenians began to voice their discontents and accused the Azerbaijani government of eradicating Armenian culture from Nagorno-Karabakh.
The sporadic violence continued for almost two years. After Operation Ring, a joint Soviet-Azerbaijani offensive to disarm Armenian militants, these bursts of savagery became more intense. As the Soviet Union disintegrated around them, both Armenians and Azeris began to build armies to fight the inevitable war.
The violence started to peak during the winter of 1991-1992 when Azerbaijani forces bombarded civilian targets in Stepanakert from Shusha and Khojaly. When an Armenian force managed to capture Khojaly, they committed the largest massacre of the war where at least 161 Azeri civilians were killed. Azerbaijanis were also targeted and killed in Maliyabeli, Gushchular, Garadaghly and Shusha. On the other hand, Azeris massacred Armenians in both Baku and Maraga during the war.
After six years of intense fighting, Armenia was projected to win. The country had virtually taken control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and had set up the Republic of Artsakh to govern. By contrast, Azerbaijan had exhausted its manpower and was open to an Armenian offensive. As a result, both countries agreed to a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia. Even though Azerbaijan did not officially cede the disputed region to Armenia, the Republic of Artsakh became the default authority of the sector.
The human cost of the war was enormous. Along with almost 30,000 military deaths, 16,000 Azeri and almost 1,500 Armenian civilians died while almost a million people were displaced. (Wikipedia, n.d.)
To create a peaceful resolution, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created the Minsk Group, which proposed the Madrid Principles. (Wikipedia, n.d.) According to the Madrid Principles, Armenia had to return the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh would gain interim security and self-governance, a corridor will be open to establishing a connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, the legal status of the territory will be decided through a legally binding expression of will, refugees will return to their places and a peacekeeping force will be present. But Armenia would not negotiate without the guarantee of a free Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan will not have it. So the proposals never came to life. (Wikipedia, n.d.)
Even though both countries skirmished at the border, the territory remained firmly in Armenian control, although Armenia itself went through a politically tumultuous time in recent years. Sergh Sargsyan was deposed and Nikol Pashinyan became the Prime Minister of the country through the Velvet Revolution of 2018. Azerbaijan maintained a stable government and expanded its military budget steadily. It also established closer diplomatic ties with Turkey and became the largest gas supplier for Turkey’s burgeoning industry.
In 2019, Nikol Pashinyan visited Nagorno-Karabakh and reiterated Armenia’s claim to the region. On the other hand, Azerbaijan conducted military exercises with Turkey in July and August while Azeris were calling for blood on the streets of Baku. It’s believed that the recent war started with an Azeri offensive on 27th September.
The war is characterized by the heavy usage of drones and artillery, especially by Azerbaijan who acquired the aforementioned equipment from Turkey and Israel. Both sides brought accusations of war crimes against each other. Azerbaijan was able to destroy Armenian tanks and artillery with impunity and began to take ground. Multiple attempts at ceasefire failed. On 8th November, the Azerbaijani forces captured Shusha, the second-largest city in the region and on the next day, Armenia capitulated. (Wikipedia, n.d.)
The aforementioned peace deal was published by the Kremlin according to which Azerbaijan will annex the areas it has captured during the war. Armenia will withdraw troops from the surrounding districts. Refugees will be rehabilitated under the supervision of UNHCR. A peacekeeping force of 1,960 Russian soldiers will be deployed along the line of contact for five years. Armenia will also give Azerbaijan a corridor to its Nakhichevan enclave. (BBC, 2020)
The war has vast geopolitical significance too. Even though Russia has a military alliance and a military base in Armenia, it stayed out of the conflict as the war did not threaten Armenian territory. Pashinyan is a pro-EU leader and since his election, the relationship between Armenia and Russia has been strenuous. Russia already has troops in both Georgia and Armenia. With the peacekeeping force of Nagorno-Karabakh, it will have forces on all three Caucasus nations. These troops are not likely to leave soon. This arrangement confirms Russia’s status as the most powerful nation in the Caucasus. As almost no European nation intervened in the conflict, the recent pro-NATO sentiment in the region has also been curbed. (Afrasaiabi, 2020)
The conflict also showcased a Turkey that is willing to get involved in the Caucasus. It has always enjoyed an amicable relationship with Azerbaijan while Pashinyan’s call for enforcing the Treaty of Sevres, which would allow Armenia to lay claim to Turkish lands did not help Armenia-Turkey relation either. In recent years, Azerbaijani gas has enabled the nation to overcome its dependency on Russia. Therefore, Turkey will do anything to secure its gas lines with Azerbaijan and is now free to meddle in the region without being dependent on Russia for fuel. (Avdaliani, 2020)
The war has created a wave of ethnic pride for Azeris everywhere. As they are the second-largest ethnic group in Iran, it can rejuvenate their push for self-determination and autonomy in northern Iran. The country will now share borders with Azerbaijan and therefore, will have to devote a considerable amount of resources to guarding it. (Coffey, 2020)
The treaty has a total of 9 clauses and has far-reaching geopolitical and geopolitical significance. Let us know in detail about the clauses of the agreement and their significance.
According to the first article of the agreement, a full ceasefire will take effect in the conflict zone of Nagarno-Karabakh from 12 midnight Moscow time on November 10, 2020, and Armenian and Azerbaijani troops will remain in their current positions. As a result, all military operations on the battlefield have been suspended, and as a result, all territories occupied by Azerbaijan so far will remain under Azerbaijan's control. From 26 September until the end of the war, Azerbaijan occupied 5 large cities, 4 small towns and 240 villages controlled by Artasakh, and established full authority over the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. In addition, Azerbaijani troops have occupied parts of Artasakh-occupied 7 Azerbaijani districts (including the cities of Fuzuli, Gabriel, Jangilan and Kubadli) and parts of the original Nagorno-Karabakh (including the strategically and culturally important city of Shusha). According to the agreement, Artasakh / Armenia will not get these territories back. The Shusha right of the Azerbaijani troops in particular is a big defeat for the Armenians. Part of the Lachin Corridor, which connects Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, passes through Susa. That is why the city is strategically important for both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The second article of the agreement states that Artasakh-occupied Agdam district will be handed over to Azerbaijan by November 20, 2020. It may be mentioned that the total area of Agdam district is 1,094 sq. Km., Of which 742 sq. Km. Artasakh is in control.
The third article of the agreement will allow Russia to deploy a peacekeeping force along the Nagorno-Karabakh Link and the Lachin Corridor. The force will have 1,960 troops, and will be equipped with light weapons, 90 armored personnel carriers and 360 automobiles and special equipment. It is pertinent to note that the line of communication between Azerbaijan and Artasakh, which existed before the recent war, has been canceled as a result of the war. At present a new line of communication has been created between the Artasakh / Armenian and Azerbaijani troops which is in favor of the Azerbaijanis. In addition, the Russian troops 5 km. The wide 'Lachin Corridor' will also ensure security. Part of the corridor passes through the town of Shusha, but Shusha is now under the control of Azerbaijani troops. To this end, Armenia will build a new road from Stepanakart, the capital of Artasakh, along the Lachin Corridor within the next three years.
This condition is beneficial for Armenians because it allows them to maintain contact with Nagorno-Karabakh. On the contrary, the deployment of troops in the region is somewhat risky for Russia and will increase Russia's costs. But overall, the trend is particularly lucrative for Russia.
Russian peacekeepers will be deployed in the region in parallel with the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the battlefield, according to the fourth article. Russian peacekeepers will stay in the region for up to five years. If a party does not show interest in revoking this clause of the agreement six months before the end of the five-year period, the Russian peacekeepers' position will automatically be extended for another five years. Apparently, this clause of the agreement gives both Azerbaijan and Armenia the freedom to take whatever action they want. Theoretically, six months before the end of the five-year period, Azerbaijan could offer Russia and Armenia the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the region and launch another offensive against Artaxerxes after the Russian withdrawal. Similarly, from a theoretical point of view, Armenia could make a similar proposal five years later, and try to recapture the territory lost in the recent war by continuing the attack after the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region.
Theoretically the above two possibilities exist. But what if Russian troops do not leave the region at the request of Azerbaijan or Armenia? If the Russians do not leave the region at the request of Azerbaijan, it will not be possible for Azerbaijan to remove them by force and Azerbaijan will not want to take that risk. On the other hand, if the Russians do not leave the region at the request of Armenia, they will not try to force the Russians, their only supporters in the region, out of the region. Instead, they want to attack Azerbaijan with Russian support.
Moreover, a pattern becomes apparent when reviewing the activities of previous Russian ‘peacekeeping’ missions. The Russians have deployed "peacekeepers" in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and Tajikistan at various times since the fall of the former Soviet Union, and none of them have been withdrawn. A similar situation may arise in Artasakh. On the positive side, however, this may greatly reduce the likelihood of a new Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
The fifth article mentions a "peacekeeping center", which will be deployed to enforce the agreement signed between the two warring parties and to monitor the ceasefire. It is pertinent to note that the direct and extensive cooperation of Turkey has made it possible for Azerbaijan to achieve success on the battlefield. But the Russian-brokered agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia signed on November 9, does not mention Turkey. In other words, Turkey has succeeded on the battlefield but failed to secure its presence on the diplomatic front.
According to Article 6 of the agreement, Armenia will return Azerbaijan to the Kalbazar region by November 15, 2020 and the Lachin region by December 1, 2020. 5 km wide Lachin Corridor, which confirms the connection of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia will remain under the control of Russian peacekeepers and will not apply to the city of Shusha. A new road will be built along the Lachin Corridor to ensure communication between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh within the next three years, and Russian peacekeepers will be deployed along this new route. Azerbaijan will ensure the safety of citizens, vehicles and goods traveling through the Lachin Corridor.
The 7th article allows refugees to return to and around Nagorno-Karabakh, under the auspices of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During the Armenian-Azerbaijani War of 1961-1994, about 500,000 Azerbaijanis were forced to flee Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts to seek refuge in Azerbaijan. These refugees have always pressured the Azerbaijani government to retake Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the agreement, they will have the opportunity to return to Nagorno-Karabakh
The eight article of the treaty states that both sides will exchange prisoners of war, hostages and other prisoners, and both sides will exchange the bodies of fallen soldiers on their respective sides.
The ninth article of the agreement ensures that all economic and communication links in the region will be opened. Armenia will ensure the security of communication between the western part of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and people, vehicles and goods will be able to travel from both sides of the region. The Border Guard Service, controlled by the Russian FSB, will control the route. With the consent of both sides, a new communication route will be built between the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and the western part of Azerbaijan.
This clause of the agreement is particularly beneficial for Azerbaijan. Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic covers an area of 5,502.75 sq km. An Azerbaijani region of size that is separated from the mainland of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory. During Soviet rule, Azerbaijan and Armenia were part of the same state, and for this reason there was uninterrupted communication between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan.
But after the Azerbaijani-Armenian War of 196–1994, Armenia severed this connection, and as a result Nakhchivan was completely cut off from the mainland of Azerbaijan. The region has suffered severe economic losses due to its isolation from the mainland of Azerbaijan. Now that a corridor will be established between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, there is an opportunity for rapid economic development in the region. The acquisition of this corridor is a great benefit for Azerbaijan.
According to Armenians, this clause of the agreement is very beneficial for Turkey. Through this agreement, Turkey will be directly connected to Azerbaijan via Nakhchivan by land and to the Central Asian republics via the Caspian Sea on behalf of Azerbaijan. According to Thomas de Wall, a British analyst and senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, it will provide direct access from Istanbul, Turkey, to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In addition, it will create the possibility of establishing Russian rail links with Turkey. Analysts believe that this will greatly increase Turkey's influence in Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics. According to German Sadulayev, a Russian analyst of Tatar descent, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen to establish a "neo-Ottoman", "Islamic" and "greater Turkish" empire at the same time. In this context, the corridor between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan is a great geopolitical achievement for the Turks. But the reality may not be so simple.
Wars are portrayed as stories in popular imagination with simplistic narratives of good and evil. But complicated conflicts like Nagorno-Karabakh defy such binary judgements. Both sides committed war crimes, oppressed the other and failed to acknowledge people’s right to self determination. There is not a good side we can root for in this conflict. But we can contemplate the role of violence and war in building nations and the human cost of the process.
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