A low-intensity conflict in the southern Caucasus, involving the now independent nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been escalating of late. It concerns the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While Armenia and Azerbaijan were both full-fledged union republics in the former USSR, Nagorno-Karabakh was an Armenian-majority enclave within Azerbaijan, with the status of an autonomous oblast, or region.
According to the British academic Robert Service, in 1921 Joseph Stalin included the area under Azerbaijani control to try and coax Turkey into joining the Soviet Union. Had Turkey not been an issue, Stalin would probably have left it under Armenian control.
With the Soviet Union firmly in control of the entire Caucasus by the 1920s, the conflict over the region died down for decades. But with the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, only the union republics gained international recognition as independent states. So Nagorno-Karabakh, along with other Soviet entities such as Chechnya, Moldova, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, was out of luck.
On Nov. 26, 1991, the parliament of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic abolished the autonomous status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and its territory was split up and redistributed amongst the neighboring administrative districts in Azerbaijan.
In turn, the region’s Armenians, who comprised three-quarters of its population, declared their independence in 1991 and then, with the help of Armenia, defeated Azerbaijan in a war that lasted until 1994.
The new entity gained additional territory during the fighting, ignoring UN Security Council resolutions on the inviolability of international borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force for the acquisition of territory.
Armenia now effectively controls the narrow strips of land to the west and south of Nagorno-Karabakh, giving the unrecognized state direct borders with its patron Armenia, as well as with Iran.
An estimated 15,000-20,000 people, including civilians, were killed during the fighting and hundreds of thousands displaced. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh is almost entirely Armenian.
Even apart from this, Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis have had a tense relationship, including bloody massacres, that predates Soviet times. The two countries have now both built up arsenals of ever more powerful weapons, and January saw an upsurge of fighting between them, with repeated gun battles and volleys of artillery and rocket fire. Azerbaijan also shot down a drone not far from Agdam, a formerly Azerbaijani city now occupied by Armenian forces.
President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, which has an economy seven times larger than Armenia’s, has announced that he plans this year to spend more than double Armenia’s entire annual budget of $2.7 billion on strengthening his military. His Armenian counterpart, President Serzh Sargsyan (who is originally from Nagorno-Karabakh) countered with his own threats.
Aliyev also made reference to the influential Armenian diaspora, formed largely after the Armenian genocide of 1915, when hundreds of thousands of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were slaughtered by the Turks, while others fled.
Today there are major Armenian communities throughout the world, including in Australia, Canada, France, Lebanon, Russia and the United States.
“The truth is that the continued occupation of our lands is not just the work of Armenia,” he remarked. “Armenia is a powerless and poor country. It is in a helpless state. Of course, if it didn’t have major patrons in various capitals, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would have been resolved fairly long ago.”
Neither side seems prepared to step down. As Abdulla Qurbani, a senior official in the Azerbaijan Defence Ministry told a New York Times reporter, “When water mixes with earth, this is mud. When blood mixes with earth, this is motherland.”
Nagorno-Karabakh’s unresolved status remains one of the most potentially explosive issues in the volatile southern Caucasus region.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.