Stratfor – The Nagorno-Karabakh Dispute: Then and Now
Stratfor, an American global intelligence company, has issued a report on Nagorno Karabakh.
There has been a burst of diplomatic activity in recent months over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have disputed for decades. Russia, the strongest power in the Caucasus, has become more engaged in the issue in light of Azerbaijan’s growing leverage in the region, raising the possibility of a shift in this conflict. It is the changing positions of larger regional players such as Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United States, more so than Azerbaijan and Armenia themselves, that will drive the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the months and years to come.
As Russia and the West continue their confrontation over Ukraine, there is a subtler yet potentially equally significant competition occurring in the Caucasus. While Georgia attempts to move closer to the West and Armenia strengthens ties with Russia, Azerbaijan has attempted to maintain a careful balance between the two sides. Azerbaijan thus serves as the pivot of the Caucasus, and the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is a crucial aspect in shaping Baku’s role.
The Historical Backdrop for the Conflict
Nagorno-Karabakh is a small yet strategic piece of territory located in the center of the South Caucasus region. Despite its small size (4,400 square kilometers, or about 1,700 square miles) and population (fewer than 150,000 people), Nagorno-Karabakh historically has been an ethnically and religiously mixed region because of its mountainous terrain and location at a crossroads between continents, although the population now is over 95 percent Armenian.
Nagorno-Karabakh, along with much of the rest of the Caucasus, was contested by the Ottoman Turks and Persians for hundreds of years. The emergence of the Russian Empire as a major player in the Caucasus during the 18th century culminated in Russia’s annexation of the region, including Nagorno-Karabakh, in the early 19th century. The Russian Empire would be the dominant power in the region until the Russian Revolution of 1905 weakened the empire and the subsequent revolution of 1917 brought about its collapse.
Both of these periods marked significant turbulence in the Caucasus culminating in a war over control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider region in the midst of a vacuum created by Russian weakness and distraction. By 1921, the Bolsheviks had taken over the entire region, and the Caucasus was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic in 1922. The Soviet republic was then reorganized in 1923 into three separate republics: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh was placed under the jurisdiction of the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic by then-Soviet Nationalities Commissioner Josef Stalin. This redrawing of borders and territorial lines, which were designed to create territorial disputes among the republics in order to keep them weak, set in motion the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
With the introduction of the glasnost and perestroika movements in the late Soviet period and the easing of public discourse and political participation, Nagorno-Karabakh became one of the first and highest profile issues to come under dispute. Starting in February 1988, numerous public demonstrations were held in the Armenian capital of Yerevan supporting the incorporation of the majority-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh into the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Next, the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast Committee of the Communist Party held an unprecedented unofficial referendum to rejoin Armenia. Azerbaijan appealed to Moscow to condemn such actions, but when Moscow’s response was slow and not to Baku’s liking, ethnic violence erupted against Armenians in Azerbaijan and against Azerbaijanis in Armenia.
This violence quickly spread into a full-scale military confrontation in which all Azerbaijanis were expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to the territory’s current Armenian-dominated ethnic balance. Armenian forces decisively defeated Azerbaijan in the conflict, leading to the de facto independence of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian control of several provinces abutting Nagorno-Karabakh as a corridor into the region. After mediation by numerous external players including Russia, Turkey and Iran, a cease-fire was reached to end the conflict in 1994.
Geopolitical Alignments and the Elusiveness of Peace
With an end to the war, a formal peace process was launched by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1994, with Russia, the United States and France serving as co-chairs along with Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, 20 years and countless meetings and summits later, there has been no substantial progress made on a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There are fundamental geopolitical drivers for why this is the case.