Written by Fakhrul Islam
[The latest escalation of tensions and the subsequent fallout appears to have been driven by Azerbaijan, which advanced beyond the line of contact to seize new territories in an effort to bolster its hold by gaining a few “strategic heights”]... ...
Senior veteran anti-Soviets, who lived and ‘reigned’ during the tumultuous and yet adventurous times of the decades long ideological conflict of the Cold War used to say that most of all the problems in this world can be traced back to either Lenin or Stalin.
They couldn’t have been more right when we look at the conflict that is being raged for decades in the landlocked mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The present-day conflict has its roots in the decisions made by Joseph Stalin when he was the acting Commissar of Nationalities for the Soviet Union during the early 1920s. In April 1920, Azerbaijan was taken over by the Bolsheviks; Armenia and Georgia were taken over in 1921. To garner public support, the Bolsheviks promised Karabakh to Armenia. At the same time, in order to placate Turkey, the Soviet Union agreed to a division under which Karabakh would be under the control of Azerbaijan. With the Soviet Union firmly in control of the region, the conflict over the region died down for several decades. In August 1987 Armenians residing in Karabakh, sent a petition for union with Armenia with tens of thousands of signatures to Moscow. The struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated after both Armenia and Azerbaijan attained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. By the end of 1993, the conflict had caused thousands of casualties and created hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides. A ceasefire was brokered by Russia by forcing both the sides to draw an end to this bloody conflict in 1994, which as present circumstances have proven, was a futile exercise buried in failure.
During the fighting, in which more than a million people were displaced in both the sides; the ethnic Azeri population - about 25% of the total before the war - fled Karabakh and Armenia while ethnic Armenians fled the rest of Azerbaijan. Neither population groups had been able to return home since the end of the war.
The conflict has roots dating back well over a century into competition between Christian Armenian and Muslim Turkic and Persian influences.Populated for centuries by Christian Armenian and Turkic Azeris, who were once part of the greater Persian Empire, Karabakh became part of the Russian empire in the 19th century.
The word Karabakh has its root in both Turkic and Persian, meaning, "black garden", while "Nagorno-" is of Russian origin, meaning, "mountain-". The ethnic Armenians prefer to call it Artsakh, an ancient Armenian name for the area.
Since the 1994 ceasefire agreement, both sides have violated it at their own discretion and had each other’s soldiers killed in sporadic breaches of the ceasefire. Turkey and Azerbaijan, both being belligerent towards Armenia, has closed their borders to Armenia and this has caused landlocked Armenia severe economic problems.
The latest escalation of tensions and the subsequent fallout appears to have been driven by Azerbaijan, which advanced beyond the line of contact to seize new territories in an effort to bolster its hold by gaining a few “strategic heights” — this is an unprecedented escalation since the 1994 ceasefire agreement.
The assault began with both the Azeri and Armenian presidents in Washington for a security summit, which implies that it was no impulsive action triggered by some accidental or sporadic violation rather a planned and calculated one. Discontent with the stalled diplomatic effortsmight have fueledthe Azeri to try to change the facts on the ground.
For the Azeri, at home, the political dividends were instantaneous. The government bragged about their oil-rich state’s expansion of defense spending resulting in their new found military superiority, which increased from a mere $177m in 2003 to an astounding figure of $3 billion in 2015, thus the casualties were seen as justified as the common people longed for victory, even in a very small magnitude.
This desperate move against Armenia may help Azerbaijan’s president, IlhamAliyev, cushion the pain of falling oil prices as oil and gas accounted for 94% of the country’s exports in 2013. The Azeri central bank burned up more than two-thirds of its reserves supporting the currency before allowing it to devalue sharply due to the falling oil prices over the past two years. In desperation, the government imposed a 20% tax on foreign-exchange transactions and sounded out an alarm to the International Monetary Fund about a possible loan in January of 2016. Rising living expenditures and unemployment stimulated protests in several smaller towns earlier this year, which is very uncommon under Mr. Aliev’s tight watch.
Many of the Armenians suggested that Turkey, a longtime ally of Azerbaijan, which followed the old saying of “Enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine”, and new foe of Russia, helped provoke the violence. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fueled the speculation by declaring earlier that he would stand by Azerbaijan “to the end”, therefore suggesting that even though this was a local conflict, it had a regional build-up.
In the meantime, Moscow has closer ties with Armenia and it has a military base there along with a treaty obligation to defend the country against attacks on its territory, which excluding so very brilliantly excludes Nagorno-Karabakh. It is also to be noted that Russia sells large quantities of arms to the Azeri of Baku too. Therefore, when the worst fighting since the 1994 ceasefire broke out on the night of Friday April 1, Russia’s foreign and defense ministers were hastily dialing to their Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts within hours in an effort to calm the situation and a return to the status quo and as a result a few days later it was in Moscow that a truce was hammered out — at a trilateral meeting between the Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijani army chiefs and to further consolidate their efforts in making the peace stay, days later the Russian foreign minister and prime minister were in Baku and Yerevan to talk to the Azeri and the Armenians.
Throughout the years the EU states had tried to forge closer ties with the former Soviet states in the Southern Caucasus region, which is also strategically vital to the EU collective as an energy supplier. The oil pipeline linking Azerbaijan and Turkey at one point runs less than 30 miles from Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia has always looked out to strengthen economic and political ties with both the Azeri and Armenians in the wake of the flare-up. In the week before the flare up, Gazprom agreed to extend a gas supply contract with Armenia and cut already low gas prices. The Azeri in Baku were assured by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, as he discussed a proposed railway line from Russia to Iran via Azerbaijan.
So and therefore Russia is not a wholly stabilizing influence in the region as Moscow will continue to sell arms to both sides — as Russia in no way wants to decrease its earnings and wants to continue the legacy by being the largest supplier to both the Azerbaijani and Armenian militaries. The people involved in the settlement process say that neither side would have faith in a lasting peace brokered by Moscow alone. This outburst of frustrations reveals that the 1994 ceasefire framework, with no peacekeepers and only a handful of unarmed monitors, “no longer fits” to stop this recurring enmity between the Azeri and the Armenians.
Fakhrul Islam is a Student of Computer Science at North South University