The Caucasus has a long history of political instability that for the most part has been disregarded by the West. The protracted nature of the conflict and the relatively small geopolitical significance of these countries have rendered the region almost invisible in the last decade. Since the 1990s, when separatist movements started waging violent wars against the establishments in a quest to achieve independence, the Caucasus has been given little international attention. De facto independent states like Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria have all failed to gain international recognition. Decades of neglect and popular discontent with their politically ambiguous status means these regions lie under a thin veil of peace.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region in South-Caucasus is the scene of the world’s longest on-going conflict, dating back to 1918. However, since 1988 the tiny enclave has seen bloody armed confrontations between the predominantly Armenian population and the Azeri forces whose control over the region had been granted by the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. As with many other regions in the Caucasus, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh arose out of incorrect border-tracing by the Soviets in the creation of the short-lived Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. After its dissolution, Stalin turned Karabakh into a constituent of the Azerbaijan SSR, to great discontent from the Armenian population.
In view of the fall of the Soviet Union, the Karabakh region declared independence prompting a violent response from Soviet-backed Azerbaijan. In 1991, tensions escalated into a full-scale war between the separatist army of Karabakh, supported by Armenia, and Azerbaijan’s forces.
UNHCR estimates that around 500,000 Azerbaijani left their homes between 1991 and 1994. A fifth were relocated in 12 emergency camps scattered around the Azerbaijani border, where for more than 14 years they lived in squalid conditions, facing dire prospects and few chances of ever returning home. In 2008, Azerbaijan closed the last remaining refugee camp and resettled the people in new facilities.
Decades of failed negotiations have caused casualties and losses on both sides of the conflict. Film-maker Tsevatana Paskaleva recorded the Armenians’ plight during the 1991 war in a film called Wounds of Karabakh. In it she reveals instances of mass deportations, indiscriminate firing on civilians and a chilling record of human rights violations perpetrated by the Azeri army. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that around 30,000 ethnic Armenians are currently regarded as internally displaced persons living in Nagorno-Karabakh, while more than 8,000 have found refuge in Armenia. These communities are largely disregarded by authorities and face extreme poverty, unemployment and inadequate housing conditions.
Despite agreeing on a ceasefire in 1994, both sides have continuously violated the agreement. According to Iranian news network Press TV, between August and November 2010 around twelve people were killed – a 53% increase from previous years. The majority were soldiers who had been shot by enemy fire at the border with Azerbaijan. These incidents suggest that tensions are likely to flare up at the smallest sign of provocation.
In 2010, 4,000 Azerbaijani troops conducted its largest exercise so far, based on a scenario of ‘counter attack to restore territorial integrity’, a jab at what can only be Armenia’s stance at the occupied territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia on the other hand, has significantly helped the settlement programme in Karabakh, prompting criticism from Azerbaijan for meddling in the disputed territory.
Since 2010 both countries have performed military drills in and around the Karabakh area, prompting retaliatory discourse to flare up on the diplomatic scene. Armenia’s oil revenues are forecasted to decline in 2014, which could provoke military clashes in the near future in the form of a pre-emptive war. Armenia wants to ensure that should a new conflict arise, it has the economic capability to defend itself.
On 28th February this year, Azerbaijan announced a $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel which would enable the army to develop drones and military hardware. The move comes at a time when Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan’s southern neighbour, Iran, is particularly tense. However, Azeri ambassador to Israel, Javanshir Akhundov, commented to Agence France Presse that the arms would be used in Nagorno-Karabakh, in what seems to be a clear provocation.
In the event of a new war, NATO Special Representative for The Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, warned in February that such escalations would not benefit either part. He explained that the losses would be too great to incur and that the only valid solution lies at the negotiation table. ‘There can’t be a military winner or a military solution to this conflict. We do believe that all parties will lose as a result, and most of all, the average person in both countries will lose because of the conflict itself and the loss of economic opportunity. It would set back all the progress that has been made over the past few years,’ he said in an interview with ArmInfo.
It seems however, that the affected half-a-million Azerbaijani who continue to live in squalid conditions as refugees, see negotiations as a waste of time. A New York Times reporter found that in 2011 internally displaced communities in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, are demanding more action and less chatter. Following the death of nine-year-old Fariz Badalov, who is alleged to have been shot by an Armenian sniper in the latest round of border skirmishes, a worrying youth radicalisation has taken place amongst the displaced communities in the capital.
For many of the young adults born of refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an armed solution seems to be the only way to escape the life forced upon them after decades of meaningless negotiations. These communities are hoping to fight their way out of the 20-year-old stateless limbo and view the possibility of engaging in a new war as tempting.
Officials in Azerbaijan seem to agree that the current situation is unacceptable. In an address to the OSCE Minsk Group in 2010, Azerbaijani envoy Fuad Ismayilov said ‘the Republic of Azerbaijan shall never accept the fait accompli-based solution, which the Armenian side is trying to impose. The conflict in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan can only be solved on the basis of respect for territorial integrity, sovereignty and inviolability of internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan’. He continued by asking the Armenian government to ‘cease its destructive policies’ and engage in more productive negotiations in the near future.
This continues our series of articles looking at the independent regions and de facto states battling for nationhood in Europe today. Read the rest of the series here.