Nagorno-Karabakh: ‘Frozen Conflict’ to Regional Flashpoint



The contentious status of Nagorno-Karabakh – an unrecognised nation of around 150,000 ethnic Armenians situated between Armenia and Azerbaijan – has produced a chronic reluctance among representatives of national governments and the media to treat the region with the seriousness it warrants.

The prevailing attitude is that resolving the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is not worth jeopardising relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. In reality, disregarding the region not only risks the security of one of the world’s most crucial trade routes, but also sets a dangerous humanitarian precedent that extends far beyond the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh existed as an Autonomous Oblast of the Soviet Union from 1923, when the Bolsheviks separated the territory from Armenia in an attempt to entice the expanding Republic of Turkey into joining the Soviet Union. The modern conflict arose when Azerbaijan seceded from the Soviet Union, dismantling Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomy and taking full control over the historically, culturally and ethnically Armenian territory. Irregular conflict devolved into a full-scale war in 1991 after the newly independent Azerbaijan retaliated violently to Nagorno-Karabakh’s renewed calls for independence. After a decisive strategic and military victory by the Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh, a ceasefire – brokered by the OSCE Minsk Group (Russia, France and the U.S.) – came into effect in 1994.


As if to make jest of the Minsk Group’s consistently ineffectual efforts, on 1 April 2016 Azerbaijan initiated what has become the largest outbreak of violence since the end of the war in 1994. Only myopia can explain the international community’s inattention to this recent flare up.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the South Caucasus has been a contentious region of perpetual instability. This instability is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Russia’s failure to project its power in the region first led to war with Georgia in 2008 – on the surface a humanitarian mission to protect oppressed Abkhaz and Ossetian minorities in Georgia’s north, but at its core an attempt to confront the growing Western presence in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Russia’s fears of growing Western influence were warranted. In the years preceding the intervention, BP started operating three pipelines transporting oil and gas straight through the Caucasus. This marked a major foreign incursion into Russia’s economic sphere of influence. Russia’s wariness only intensified as the stakes in the Caucasus were raised. With China and India’s increased trade with Eurasia, the Eurasian Economic Union reshaping regional order, and the opening of Iran to the global economy, Russia has been eager utilise the South Caucasus’ potential as a bridge linking East and West. Russia’s North-South ship, train and road route to both India and Iran is crucial to its future economic and strategic posturing.

Situated in the heart of the South Caucasus, stability in Nagorno-Karabakh is critical. The failure to condemn Azerbaijan’s most recent incursion into Karabakh’s territory sets a dangerous precedent for an already unstable region.

Russia’s attempts to demarcate South Ossetia’s territory have allowed Russia to control sections of foreign pipelines. The resumption of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has led officials to recognise that, should Azerbaijan continue its attempts to control ethnically Armenian territory, the BTC and South Caucasus pipelines will be necessary targets of military action.

It would not take much for one of these potentialities to play out – creating a flashpoint like the 1 April confrontation. Until formal recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence occurs, there remains the potential for what was once a relatively contained conflict to envelop the region. The strategic and economic implications of this would be far reaching.

Economic strategy aside, the credibility of the international community’s commitment to humanitarian and democratic norms is also at risk. Karabakh exemplifies the intended outcomes of democratic self-determination, having managed (despite centuries of imperial occupation and recent decades of political insecurity) to construct, maintain and develop democratic institutions more open and transparent than all of its neighbours. As Azerbaijan regresses further into totalitarianism, and as human rights abuses compound, the international community - which once so fervently defended the principles of liberty and democracy - has the chance to prove that its commitment to self-determination remains. Failure to do so not only alienates a people for whom the memory of genocide casts a long shadow, but affirms the dangerous precedent that economic interests trump the responsibility to protect those most at risk. The consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict extend far beyond the South Caucasus.

We must recognise that Nagorno-Karabakh represents more than resolving a seemingly irrelevant fringe conflict. The failure to adequately resolve this crisis leaves open the risk of it metastasising and jeopardising not only the economic bridge between East and West, but also the vision of democratic development and self-determination for which the Western world has fought many a war.

Alexander Galitsky is an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs (NSW) and Assistant to the Permanent Representative of Nagorno-Karabakh in Australia.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au for more information.

Image credit (map): Andrei nacu (English Wikipedia: Creative Commons)

Image credit (photo): Michele Finotto (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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