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Nagorno-Karabakh: The Crisis in the Caucasus

Author: Lionel Beehner
November 3, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s recent history

One of the former Soviet Union’s most intractable and longstanding conflicts is Nagorno-Karabakh. An enclave the size of Delaware wedged between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh has been a sore spot since 1988, when the region’s legislature passed a resolution to join Armenia. Legally speaking, the republic lies within Azerbaijan’s borders, but the majority of its inhabitants are ethnic Armenians. The region’s attempt at secession was rejected by Azerbaijan and sparked a bout of violence that created hundreds of thousands of refugees. Once the Soviet Unioncollapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh’s legislature decided to declare outright independence. The republic now enjoys a de facto independence, though neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan recognizes the republic’s territorial sovereignty.

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In 1992, full-scale war between Azerbaijan and Armenia broke out. By the middle of the year, Armenia controlled the bulk of Nagorno-Karabakh and pushed further into Azerbaijani territory to establish the so-called Lachin Corridor, an umbilical cord linking the breakaway republic with Armenia proper. By 1993, Armenian forces had occupied nearly 20 percent of the Azerbaijani territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris. That was followed up by a Russia-brokered ceasefire in 1994, which is how the situation has remained more than a decade later.

Today, Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding region remain under Armenian control. Nearly one-seventh of Azerbaijan is under Armenian occupation. Around 700,000 Azeri refugees—or just under 10 percent of Azerbaijan’s entire population—remain displaced in the region, in addition to some 235,000 Armenian refugees. All told, 25,000 lives were lost on both sides during the separatist struggle.

The conflict's effects on domestic politics

Throughout the 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh weighed heavily over both countries’ domestic politics. After Azerbaijan was occupied in 1992, Baku’s Communist president, Ayaz Mutalibov, was forced to resign. This paved the way for Abulfaz Elchibey, a nationalist of the Populist Front Party who drew Azerbaijan closer to Turkey but pushed Russian forces out. Elchibey refused to negotiate a settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh, insisting instead on a military victory. On his watch, Azerbaijan lost ground both economically and militarily. In 1993, when Colonel Surat Huseynov, a rebel army commander, overtook Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, Gyandzha, and looked ready to stage a coup in Baku, Elchibey fled to his native Nakhichevan, an enclave of Azerbaijan cut off from the rest of the country, but called on a former Communist boss and fellow native of Nakhichevan, Heydar Aliyev, to defend the capital. Aliyev instead assumed control of the country via a presidential election and made Huseynov his prime minister.

In Armenia, national politics are intermixed with that of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic, which technically remains part of Azerbaijan (the international community does not recognize the republic’s claim for independence). Its current president, Robert Kocharian, is a former Communist official and native of the republic, where he served as president from 1994-97. Kocharian, as head of Armenia, has taken a middle-of-the-road approach to the separatist conflict: He has refused calls from the Armenian diaspora to fully incorporate the republic within Armenia, fearing a rebuke from the international community, but he has also proved unwilling to give up Armenia’s—some would say illegal—occupation of the disputed territory.

Prospects for peace

Since 1994, there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to broker peace by the so-called Minsk Group, a subset of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chaired by Russia, the United States, and France. According to the United States Institute for Peace, “ceasefire agreements were routinely broken literally within minutes of their signing.” The more recent rounds of negotiations, called the “Prague Process,” have yielded no breakthroughs either, while groups like the International Crisis Group (ICG) continue to create new ways to end the conflict. ICG’s recent report recommends twenty possible solutions to settling the dispute. There has been muted talk of holding a plebiscite in Nagorno-Karabakh to determine the republic’s final status but the details remain to be determined.

One obstacle to peace is the issue of sequencing. All three sides—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh—refuse to budge until the others make a concession: Azerbaijan wants Armenia to end its occupation first and withdraw its forces before discussing the republic’s final status; Armenia is seeking a resolution first on the status question before pulling out its forces; Nagorno-Karabakh wants its independence officially recognized prior to all other negotiations.

Another obstacle to peace is geopolitics. Many of the international players involved in the negotiations have ulterior motives, experts say. Russia, for example, has no interest in seeing the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh resolved, says Elizabeth Fuller, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty expert on the Caucasus, because some degree of instability enhances Moscow’s hand in the region. Azerbaijan also suspects Russia of being too pro-Armenia; for instance, Russia’s Defense Ministry was caught supplying a large amount of military hardware to Armenia from 1994-96.

Azerbaijan also sees France as pro-Armenia, because of the country’s sizable—and influential—Armenian diaspora. Ditto the United States, which also has a powerful Armenian lobby, although in recent years, experts say Washington has begun courting Azerbaijan more because of its geo-strategic position as a partner in the war on terrorism and a global supplier of non-OPEC oil.

Finally, Turkey has a large role to play in the conflict. With a long history of poor relations with Armenia over Ankara’s refusal to apologize for the 1915 genocide of some 1.5 million Armenians, Yerevan sees Istanbul as too pro-Azerbaijan.Turkey’s refusal to reopen the Armenian-Turkish border to facilitate Turkish-Armenian trade—requested by a powerful Turkish business lobby interested in Armenian markets—further intensified Yerevan’s suspicions.

Overall, time is not onArmenia’s side, given thatAzerbaijan’s economy, due to its surge in oil exports, has outpaced Armenia’s, says Svante Cornell, deputy director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. “[The Armenians] are realizing they may have to settle and sue for peace,” he says. “The fact is they do occupy this territory.” Because of Azerbaijan’s influx of petrodollars, it will soon be able to double the size of its military, Fuller says. “The question is: How good are [Azerbaijan’s] armed forces? Armenia’s is a very professional force,” she says.

Eventually, Cornell envisions that Nagorno-Karabakh will remain, at least on the map, a sovereign part of Azerbaijan but will retain de facto independence. He says the outcome of Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections should have little effect on negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh. Bilateral talks are set to resume in December but no one expects a solution to the crisis anytime soon.

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