If 2020 marked the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic for most of the world, for Nagorno-Karabakh it was mostly remembered as a year of another tragic war. In a land that has known no peace for the past 25 years, the second war of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as the “44-days’ war,” raged from 27 September to 10 November. It was waged between Karabakh Armenian forces, supported by Armenia, and Azeri forces, supported by Turkey.
After three failed “ceasefires,” Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement that was enacted on 10 November. Although the end of fighting has not meant peace, this truce was aimed at ending the most aggressive clashes that the region has witnessed in almost three decades. Indeed, though the numbers are still being constantly updated and do not include missing persons, to date at least 6,000 people were killed, including approximately 150 civilians.
The end of the war has flipped the scenario in Karabakh: Azerbaijan, as the winning faction, has gained back control over seven districts in neighbouring Nagorno-Karabakh, including Shusha/Shushi, a strategic city and cultural centre for both Azeris and Armenians. About half a million Azeris, displaced for more than 25 years, can now return to their homes; even though it will take years before the regained territories are de-mined and rendered safe. On the other hand, approximately 30,000 Armenians have had to abandon their houses and the occupied districts. Shortly after signing the trilateral agreement, Moscow deployed in Karabakh and in the Lachin corridor – the only existing corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh – 1,960 peacekeepers tasked with monitoring the ceasefire’s observance. Their initial mandate is for five years, with the possibility of extension. The war’s conclusion has allowed Moscow to play a central geopolitical role in the area, while it is not yet clear what will be that of Turkey, Baku’s loyal ally during the conflict. Currently Ankara participates in the truce’s monitoring at the centre set up at Aghdam, a village located in one of the occupied Azeri districts returned under Baku’s control after the end of the war.
What is being fought for
In Nagorno-Karabakh, factions are fighting for control of a rather restricted territory in the Southern Caucasus mountains. It is not particularly rich, but it is located in a strategic area along energy distribution routes within a region that is increasingly important in connecting Europe and Asia. The origins of the conflict between Armenians and Azeris trace back to the period of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
The birth of the independent Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1991 reignited a clash that began when Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian majority endorsed by referendum the parliament’s decision to enter under Armenian influence. The ethnic tensions escalated in the “first Nagorno-Karabakh war,” fought between 1991 and 1994, which cost about 25,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. The fighting ended when the two factions signed a truce at Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, in May 1994, which guaranteed a difficult status quo of 26 years.
The de facto leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence, and Armenian forces took control of the seven Azeri districts surrounding the enclave. Hostilities between the two states have not yet ceased, escalating in the “four days war” in 2016 and in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war between September and November 2020.
Since the ceasefire was signed by the Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s leaders in May 1994, tensions between the two countries have never actually ended. The status quo following the first conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh benefitted Yerevan, which came out the winner and controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven neighbouring districts, a fact that was unacceptable to Baku, which claimed control. Nothing has come of the years of negotiations mediated by the Minsk Group – an organism of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – which, since 1994, has had the mandate to facilitate reaching an agreement between the parties. Growing hostilities between the states culminated in the “four days war” in April 2016 (which claimed about 200 victims), followed by violent clashes at the border between the two states in July 2020 (claiming 16 lives) and eventually in an actual war from September to November 2020. According to a study conducted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), signs of the impending war could be seen in Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s military expenses in 2020: 4.9% and 5.9% of GDP respectively, i.e., about three percent more than the global average. Another figure that emerges from the study is the asymmetry in the two states’ military investments. From 2011 to 2020, in fact, Baku invested about eight times more than Yerevan in military expenses, stocking up mostly from Russia (60%), Israel (about 30%), Belarus (7%), and Turkey (3%), while Yerevan General overview was supported mostly by Russia (90%) and Jordan (5%). Despite Moscow being one of the three permanent members of the Minsk Group, in charge of facilitating negotiations among the factions, and being bound to Yerevan by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), it has always maintained a balanced position in the conflict, becoming the main supplier of armaments for both Yerevan and Baku. As the SIPRI report underlines, Moscow supplies Yerevan at reduced costs or in the form of military aid becasue the two states have a relationship of broader military cooperation. At the same time, Baku usually pays full price for the Russian arms, making it a hard partner for Moscow to give up. So, while Moscow find itself once again playing a central role in the Caucasus and Aliyev benefits from the wave of popular support following his victory, Armenia faces one of the worst political crises of its history, and the Pashinyan government, born out of the “velvet revolution” in the spring of 2018, wavers.
The new status quo leaves important issues unresolved, including the future of Armenian prisoners-of-war who are still detained in Azeri jails, that of the Armenian cultural heritage of Karabakh and the drawing of new national borders. Regarding the prisoners-of-war, Yerevan claimed to have released all Azeri prisoners, while there are still many Armenians detained (the number is unknown) in Azeri prisons. At the end of March, a Human Rights Watch report denounced the inhumane conditions and torture to which Armenian prisoners are subjected in Azerbaijan, while on 20 May the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for the “immediate and unconditional” release of all Armenian prisoners-of-war and civilians held during and after the conflict. The fate of Armenian cultural monuments in Karabakh (some dating back to the 5th century) also remains uncertain. The United Nations Organization, which handles the protection of cultural heritage sites, has asked Baku for permission to send a mission to Azerbaijan, but Baku refused as it accuses the UN of paying insufficient attention to the fate of Azeri cultural heritage when it was under Armenian control. Finally, it is due to the above-mentioned issue – the demarcation of national borders, which have not been officially defined since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – that tensions between the two states have escalated since 12 May 2021. Currently, Armenia fears for its sovereignty after the incursion of Azeri troops in the Syunik region, in the south of the country. Baku denies this, claiming it was operating within its own national borders. Fear of an outbreak of accidental war is high and, despite repeated requests for aid by Armenia, Moscow remains silent.
Key figure or organisation: Artak Beglaryan
(5 July 1988, Stepanakert) Artak Beglaryan is the current chief of the presidential staff of the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. From October 2018 until December 2020, he held the office of the Republic’s ombudsman and, during the whole 44 days war in Karabakh, he documented human rights violations on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
At the age of 6, Beglaryan lost his sight due to the explosion of a mine dated back to the war in the 1990s. However, blindness has not prevented him from pursuing his goals – including climbing Ararat Mountain, one of the highest peaks of the Southern Caucasus and a symbol for Armenians. Since the outbreak of the second war in Karabakh, Beglaryan has repeatedly appealed the international community, launching the hashtag #Don’tBeBlind, to recognise war crimes committed against civilians in Karabakh by the Turkish-Azeri forces.