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The 100-Year-Old Strife in the Caucasus 

Recently, an old and renowned region in Caucasia reminded us of the complex history and fragile peace in the area. This region is Nagorno-Karabakh, located within Azerbaijan, yet de-facto ruled by its own pro-Armenian government. But why is it not ruled by Azerbaijan and why is it a hot political topic nowadays? Let us examine the situation by digging into its roots.

As the Bolshevik revolution succeeded, the Soviet Union started to determine the borders of the republics and autonomous territories that it contained. One of the areas that needed its borders to be drawn was the Caucasus. Although the first option was to form the united Transcaucasian Republic, the ethnic diversity in the area was too deep for such a union. Therefore, USSR created three Soviet republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. But the Nagorno-Karabakh region, located between Armenia and Azerbaijan was demanded by both respective republics. Because of the region’s roughly 90% Armenian majority population, the Soviets intended to include the region within Armenian borders. However, as these decisions were being made, USSR held a much more important agenda.

The Soviet agenda was to spread the revolution worldwide. Turkey was one of the most suitable regions, to begin with since there was already an anti-imperialist war of independence going on in the early 1920s. The Turkish-Soviet border was drawn with the Treaty of Moscow (16 March 1921) and afterward, USSR started to aid the Turkish independence movement. But bigger compromises were needed if the revolution was to be spread to Turkey. In order to do this, the Soviet Union agreed to a border adjustment under which the Karabakh region and the Nakhchivan exclave would be under the control of Azerbaijan SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic). If Turkey were not among the Soviet concerns, Stalin would most likely have left Karabakh under Armenian control. As a result, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was established within the Azerbaijan SSR, on 7 July 1923.

Under the firm Soviet regime and anti-nationalist Soviet ideology, the tensions in the area soared low for decades. This status-quo started to change as the USSR began to dissolve and its SSR’s stood up for their independence. The people of the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast, who were still mostly ethnic Armenian, claimed that Azerbaijan SSR was forcefully assimilating them. They sent a petition to Moscow in August 1987, demanding to be transferred to the Armenian SSR. Furthermore, on 13 February 1988 demonstrations began in Stepanakert, capital of Karabakh. The demonstrations quickly spread to Yerevan, Armenia. On February 20th, the Soviet of People's Deputies in Karabakh voted in favor of requesting the transfer of the region to Armenia, however, were denied by the Moscow government.

In late 1989, the Armenian Supreme Soviet and the National Council of Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. At that time, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh was 76% Armenian and 23% Azerbaijanis. As a reaction to the Armenian proclamation, on 26 November 1991, Azerbaijan abolished the status of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, bringing the territory under the direct control of Azerbaijan. Only 2 weeks after the rearrangement, an independence referendum was held in Nagorno-Karabakh. This referendum was boycotted by the local Azeris, and consequently, the result was 99.98% in favor of independence.

In 1991, both Armenia and Azerbaijan attained independence from the Soviet Union. This provoked the conflict furthermore turning it into an armed conflict. Many third parties such as Russia, Ukraine, and Chechnya supported one side over the other by sending mercenaries or weapons. In addition to the involvement of third parties, the conflict saw humanitarian tragedies, too. One such event is the Khojaly Massacre/Genocide, in which 161 Azerbaijani civilians were killed by ethnic Armenian forces, although the number is 613 according to the Azerbaijani authorities.

As the armed conflict progressed, Armenians gained control of 14% of the territory of Azerbaijan by May 1994. At that time, the government of Azerbaijan recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a party in the war. Shortly afterward, direct negotiations with the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities began. A ceasefire was reached on 12 May 1994 with the help of Russian authorities.

by Kaan ERTAN

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Since then, the ceasefire is still in place. However, it does not prevent occasional conflicts and casualties, both civilian and military. The discrimination and reports of ethnic cleansing against the Azerbaijanis living in Armenian occupied territory is a topic that is usually brought up in international conferences. On 14 March 2008, the UN General Assembly adopted “Resolution No. 62/243” which "demands the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan". Yet, status-quo kept going on only to be disrupted by occasional conflicts.

Negotiation efforts, primarily led by the Minsk Group, have failed to produce a permanent solution to the conflict. The Minsk Group was created in 1994 to address the dispute and is co-chaired by the United States, Russia, and France. The group has negotiated cease-fires successfully, but the territorial issues remain unresolved.

Since both Azerbaijani and Armenian military forces are positioned close to each other among the border and have little to no communication, there is always a high risk of conflict among the border. Additionally, both sides also have domestic political interests that could cause their respective leaders to launch an attack.

Recently, conflicts started again on 12 July 2020, when Armenian forces reportedly fired upon Azerbaijani artillery positions. This has led to further conflicts up until today. Although the death toll of these conflicts is hard to verify, it is certain that tolls will rise until a permanent peace deal is reached. (1) (2) (3)

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