A Burning Frozen Issue: Nagorno-Karabakh, the New Quest for Power?

The Nagorno-Karabakh region located in the South-Caucasus is currently seeing an escalation of violence with severe fightings since last September after long being considered as a ‘frozen’ or ‘protracted conflict’. What do we call ‘protracted conflicts’? According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, “protracted armed conflicts are characterized by their longevity, intractability and mutability (…) they may fuel a cycle of revenge, undermining respect for the law”. While effectively frozen in the field, this issue never disappeared from people’s minds on both sides and this may partly explain the present situation. What is the origin of this conflict and what is at stake now? And most importantly, is the region becoming a new theatre for power(s)?

The roots of the conflict have to be seen through a territorial and ethnical prism: Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in the 1920s whilst the population was mostly of Armenian origin. As the Empire crumbled, clashes broke out and the territorial issue began in the late 1980s, where a bloody war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region causing 30.000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees The region has since been controlled by Armenian forces, though it is still internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. In 1994 a ceasefire was declared and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) established the Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States but a lasting peace remained far from reach. In 2016, the most intense fightings since 1994 took place and though a new ceasefire was agreed, tensions remained high and peace talks in a stalemate.

In this disputed territory, the inability to find a real compromise or a least to have a true dialogue between the two sides for decades led to a mounting anger and set the stage for a revitalization of old disagreements. A real change of scene appeared when Turkey, a strong and historical regional ally gave its full support to Azerbaijan’s cause these past few weeks. As an article of the Financial Times highlights : “This signals quite a big shift in Turkish policy (…) There has been a geopolitical equilibrium where no side has really backed one side over the other (…) Now suddenly one of the major regional actors is backing Azerbaijan.”

What is at stake is the potential consequences that this conflict can have in the next weeks. Up until now neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan have shown any sign of stopping the hostilities. Moreover, it is worth noting that Karabakh or the Republic of Artsakh has its own government since 2017 and as such will defend itself as its President Araik Haroutiounian recently declared.

In addition to the risks of internal flare-ups, the rise of Turkey as a regional power challenges Russia’s key role and hegemony. The question is how will Russia manage the situation? Given the fact that it is culturally close to Armenia and is part of a security alliance called the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), it already called up for a ceasefire. But what the Kremlin decides to do will count a lot in the future. Moscow apparently has been very diplomatic so far and would like to get back to the status quo since it wants to keep good relationships with both countries but because of the CSTO ties, it has obligations towards Armenia. On the other side, it remains to be seen how NATO and the EU will react to the provocations and to the humanitarian disaster and critical situation on the ground due to the use of heavy and explosive weaponry in populated areas such as the capital Stepanakert.

For its part, Turkey does not plan to discard its fellow and ‘brother country’ Azerbaijan with which it shares ethnic, cultural and linguistic roots. All the geopolitical factors indicate that Nagorno-Karabakh is in fact becoming a goal regarding the quest of power in the overall region. This is an explosive situation especially since the area is also a very strategic location at the heart of oil and gas reserves. Azerbaijan provides Europe with a gas pipeline which can be seen as an alternative to Russia’s supplies.

This conflict could also extend on a larger regional scale and if it spreads into places such as the autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan at the borders of Armenia for example, it can transform into a wider regional conflagration for Ankara has a 1921 treaty obligation to defend this exclave. With two other wars raging in Syria and Libya, this could trigger another chapter in Turkey and Russia’s relationships and also have unknown consequences for the entire geographical area.

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