How historical blunder led to Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict


By K.C.Reddy, IPS (retd), former Chief Security Advisor, United Nations

Last week, with Moscow’s intervention, a peace deal was signed by Azerbaijan President, Armenian Prime minister and the Russian President over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The peace deal created diagonally opposite reactions in both the countries. While jubilant scenes were noticed in Azerbaijan on their perceived victory, crowds of protesters stormed into Armenia’s govt buildings and the parliament over their perceived defeat.    The Russian   brokered ceasefire deal, though halted fighting for the time being, lead to the announcement of resignation by Armenia’s foreign minister and 17 opposition parties and their supporters mounting pressure on the ouster of the country’s Prime minister.  Two weeks prior to this cease fire deal ,  US brokered   truce in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict but it  was very  short lived as it was widely believed that the US  efforts   were more aimed at garnering  the  support of  sizeable  Armenian  population in US, in the presidential  elections , rather than intended to  establish a  lasting peace in the region  . This type of occasional cosmetic approach to the conflict may not yield desired   results unless sustained efforts are made to address the root cause of the problem.      

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh area , is dominated by  sporadic  border skirmishes ,  occasional  flare-ups  and  full scale war for the last three decades .  Recently ,  the role played by  external actors like  Turkey ,Russia, Israel  and Pakistan, acquiring of sophisticated   weaponry including drones   by Azerbaijan , internal pressures   within the states, pushed the conflict to   large scale battle , necessitating  appeals from  United Nations and  other countries,  to end hostilities  and maintain peace in the area . However , all these appeals did not have  any effect as both  Armenia and Azerbaijan  have pledged to continue fighting  and further  escalated tensions by switching from cross border shelling to  the use of long range artillery.        

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Is the conflict due to religious and cultural factors or the principles of territorial integrity and self determination are involved? What actually drove the dormant dispute to such a serious level? A brief history of the conflict and changed geo political scenario in the region would provide some answers.

When the Red Army conquered Caucasus in early 1920s, former soviet leader Joseph Stalin placed Nagorno Karabakh area into Azerbaijan but ninety percent of the population in that area were Armenians. Since then the area remained a bone of contention between the Christian majority Armenia and Muslim majority Azerbaijan.       

The Armenians living in 4400 sq km area of Nogorno karabakh   had declared independence in 1991 and some of them turned to guerilla warfare. Azerbaijan govt sent security forces to suppress Armenian militants and supported massacres which lead to ethnic cleansing. The Nogorno karabakh   soon declared that it was joining Armenia by its own will but Azerbaijan objected to it.        

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenians in Nogorno karabakh  ,popularly known as  karbakhi fighters aided and abetted  by Armenian regular troops  , Russian advisors  fought fierce battles with Azerbaijan  for four years  from 1991 till 1994 . Karbakhis not only gained control over 4400 sq kms area of  Nogorno karabakh   but  also seized adjoining  seven districts  territory  comprising of  7000sq kms area  and formed the Republic of Artsakh with capital Stepanakert which is often referred as Republic of  Nogorno karabakh .           

With revenues from rich oil resources, Azerbaijan has acquired Israeli drones and air defense systems, Russian surface-to-air missiles and other advanced weaponry. Inspite of its limited spending power, Armenia also   acquired additional heavy weapons and sophisticated missile systems from Russian. Russia committed to defend Armenia, Turkey   committed to protect Azerbaijan, Iran has border with both countries and has a sizeable Azeri population which outnumbers the population of Azerbaijan.   

Azerbaijan government insists that Nogorno karabakh    cannot be independent and it is part of Azerbaijan province as recognized by international community and it should vacate occupied territory.      

With newly acquired sophisticated weaponry and support from  external  agencies  , Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev  believes that territory can be liberated by force without real political cost .At present heavily  armed contingents are deployed in close proximity along the line of contact between  Azerbaijan and   Nogorno karabakh   and  between  Armenia and Azerbaijan.  There is no buffer zone and there are no peacekeepers between the warring groups. In such a precarious situation, even inadvertent military action can lead to renewed large scale clashes.        

International community is concerned as breaking of  large scale fight  between two rivals, trigger civil unrest ,humanitarian crisis , internally displaced persons, outflows of refugees which will effect  neighboring states besides  adversely affecting  their  economies .Azerbaijan, being main supplier of energy resources to neighboring  states  and Europe ,  intense fighting  could disrupt energy transportation net work . Moreover   Azerbaijan falls in the international North-South transport corridor route connecting India with Russia through central Asia.

The fluctuation in oil prices coupled with COVID pandemic, adversely affected economies of both states. Moreover, president Alike was criticized for restricting opposition parties, arresting activists and curtailing freedom of press.  It is believed that Azerbaijan authorities try to divert the attention of public from poor governance and declining economy by escalating conflict with Nogorno karabakh   and Armenia by arousing nationalism .Similarly, the economy of Armenia is no better and moreover   massive protests were organized in Armenia on the soft handling of issue of Nogorno karabakh     and even the Prime minister was changed. These internal pressures, prompted authorities in both states to maintain tough public stand on the issue.        

India, rightly, maintains a balanced approach by maintaining relations with both states. Due to the support extended by Armenia to India’s stand on Kashmir issue and other historical reasons, India maintains strong relations with Armenia -in fact India signed a friendship and cooperation treaty with Armenia in 1995. So far Azerbaijan is concerned, the ONGC made small investments in Azeri oil project and GAIL is exploring the possible cooperation in LNG .Ultimately it is the diplomacy and not military solution, which can pave way for lasting solution to the conflict.

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