Nagorno Karabakh – The Conflict in Perspective

Nagorno Karabakh – The  Conflict in Perspective

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is often wrongfully seen as another post-Soviet frozen conflict in both academia and in policy-making circles. Although the conflict is indeed a product of specific preconditions and deliberate Soviet policies, it differs from other protracted ethno-political conflicts like in Georgia or Moldova. Gaining a deeper understanding of how this conflict came about, and its underlying causes, is essential for understanding the current episode of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Violent clashes erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan on 27 September 2020, marking another episode of fighting since the 1988-1994 war. Martial law has been declared and the reported death toll quickly has quickly risen well into the hundreds, the majority of which is presumably on the Azeri side. At the centre of this ongoing conflict is the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but mainly inhabited and de facto controlled by ethnic Armenians. Although it is often portrayed as such, the nature of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is anything but frozen. To understand the conflict in its current form, a closer look needs to be taken at its wider history.

Ethnic Minorities in the post-Soviet Space

The Nagorno Karabakh conflict is often seen as part of a larger family of so-called frozen conflicts. The term ‘frozen conflict’ refers to a post-conflict situation in which active fighting has ceased, or has been scaled back to a relatively low level, without effective resolution of the underlying issues. The conflicts in Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia are historical examples of such conflicts, and some argue that the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is the newest addition to this family. An explanation for the prevalence of frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space can be found in the formative phase of the Soviet Union. 

In 1917, the People’s Commissariat for Nationality Affairs, headed by Stalin, was tasked with managing the part of the Soviet population that was not ethnic Russian. In a process called ethno-federalism, the largest ethnic groups were assigned a specific territory, which later developed into the fifteen Soviet republics. However, the borders of these territories were deliberately drawn through the historical homelands of smaller ethnic groups, as ethnic divisions within a republic would undermine a unified national movement against Moscow. Tensions were thus artificially instilled and  controlled by the Kremlin, as a safeguard against national uprisings.

Nagorno Karabakh and the Dissolution of the Soviet Union

When the Soviet Union took over Transcaucasia in 1919-1920, the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno Karabakh (NKAO) was created and included in Azerbaijani territory, even though its population was almost entirely ethnic Armenian. Although Armenia would sporadically raise this issue to Moscow’s attention, it was largely suppressed under the overarching Soviet structure. However, after Perestroika policies allowed for more political freedom, the decades-long lingering divisions quickly became relevant again. With nationalism on the rise, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious differences were no longer ignored. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating, interethnic tensions rose and skirmishes between Armenians and Azeris broke out from 1988. Communal violence between two Soviet republics developed into a full-scale war in 1992, after both had declared independence. Two years later, after approximately 25000 dead and over one million more displaced, a fragile ceasefire was brokered. Nagorno Karabakh would remain de jure part of Azerbaijan but de facto independent, as an extension of Armenia.

What Makes Nagorno Karabakh Different?

Firstly, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is between two sovereign nation-states, whereas other post-Soviet frozen conflicts are fought between a nation-state and a separatist region. Although it may have started as a struggle for self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh, it is now a full-blown conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, each equipped with a modern conventional army. Secondly, compared to its apparent frozen counterparts, the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh was initially less defined by external powers. Whereas the frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova can be characterised by an intersection of local and external interests, where ethnic divisions interplayed with geopolitical motives, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was mainly influenced by internal dynamics. The relatively latent role Russia played in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was significantly more indirect compared to the other conflicts where it acted as a patron state and intervened militarily. No Russian peacekeepers were deployed to enforce post-conflict conditions in Russia’s favour, as opposed to Georgia and Moldova.

Moreover, the ‘frozen’ moniker does not seem to fit the case of Nagorno Karabakh either. Unlike the Georgian and Moldova conflicts, in which the violence has largely ended, the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh remains fairly active with periodical violent outbursts. Implicitly characterising this conflict as relatively stable or static by labelling it conflict as frozen is therefore a mis-conceptualisation, and wrongfully overemphasises its likeness to other post-Soviet conflicts. 

What Does This Mean for the Recent Episode of Violence?

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict transcends the post-Soviet context it developed in, and must be understood as an interstate rivalry more akin to for example the conflict between India and Pakistan as opposed to the Moldovan and Georgian conflicts. The main driver of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict today is the enduring internal rivalry between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Notwithstanding the explicit role external powers like Turkey and Russia take on today, the conflict is first and foremost founded on mutual hatred fuelled by nationalist sentiments, the salience of which does not erode. 

The inherent incompatibility of Nagorno Karabakh’s claim for self-determination and Azerbaijan’s preservation of its territorial integrity is amplified by fierce rhetoric and deeply rooted animosity between the two. The contested territory plays an important part in the collective memory of both countries, especially for Azerbaijan as it lost control over Nagorno Karabakh in 1994 as well as seven other Azerbaijani districts outside the disputed territory to the better organised and motivated Armenian forces. 

This mutual hatred is not primordial, but rather the product of grievances and specific notions of nationalism that developed as the Soviet Union disintegrated. By now it has, however, become such an inherent component of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani identity that it encompasses almost all aspects of society. It determines the behaviour towards each other, and fuels the war that takes place today.

Categories: Europe, Security

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