Azerbaijan and Armenia have shared hostilities over various ethnic, religious and political reasons – but the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is the biggest hurdle that exists between the two.
Recent deadly clashes along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border have shown that old and new problems between the two Caucasian nations, carry the dangerous potential of sliding the two states into a fully-fledged regional war.
The two countries have serious historical differences that span issues including religion, ethnicity and of course, politics. Azerbaijan has a Muslim majority population that also houses a heavy Turkic presence. while Armenia is a Christian majority country predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians.
In the late years of the Ottoman Empire, an ethnic conflict emerged between the two nations, particularly in Caucasia and parts of eastern Anatolia, largely based on the territories of the respected regions.
During World War I, the Armenians, backed by Russia and some prominent Western countries, tried to get rid of the Muslim population from Caucasia and Eastern Anatolia in the hope of creating an independent state. This led to an armed confrontation between the Ottomans and Armenians.
Under the Soviet Union, a federative communist state, the conflict between the nations appeared to be paused when the Armenian and Azerbaijani republics existed side by side.
But the Soviet designation of territories between Azerbaijanis and Armenians created other problems, and sowed the seed for future conflicts.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a major international dispute – it sits among the likes of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, the one concerning former Yugoslavia, and Cyprus, but has not commanded the same level of international attention.
The origin of the conflict
After Azerbaijan and Armenia were subsumed into the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region was established within Azerbaijan by the Soviet Union in 1924.
During the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the question of the future of the region became a source of enmity once again and clashes began between ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians in November 1988. Clashes continued on and off until both countries gained independence in 1991.
Karabakh held a referendum in December 1991 over the creation of an independent state, which would mean unilaterally declaring itself separate from the Republic of Azerbaijan. The majority of those who went to the referendum polls voted in favour of independence, however, most of the Azerbaijanis living in Karabakh boycotted it by suggesting the referendum was illegitimate.
Most countries do not recognise the legitimacy of Karabakh’s declaration of independence. This is partly because only fifteen republics of the former Soviet Union could declare sovereignty from the union according to its constitution, and Karabakh was not one due to its status as an autonomous region. Further to this, unilateral declarations of independence are often rejected because they violate international law.
Following the referendum, the conflict escalated into a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This resulted in at least 30,000 casualties and displaced an estimated 1 million people from both sides by the end of the war in 1993.
Azerbaijan and Armenia reached an unofficial ceasefire in May 1994 through Russian mediation, while Moscow reportedly supported Armenian forces militarily and politically during the conflict.
Since then, occasional clashes, like the most recent ones, continue across the countries’ border and in the occupied-Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Matthew Bryza, a political analyst, who worked as an American mediator between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the 2000s under the auspices of the White House, finds Russian involvement and meditation in the conflict problematic.
He thinks the Russians, through politicians like Konstantin Zatulin – the first deputy chairman of the committee of the State Duma for the The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – are trying to provoke conflict.
“Zatulin is a firebrand and a provocateur. In my professional experience, he is always trying to steer the conflicts to create some discord so that Russia can always manipulate the two sides to keep its influence (intact over Armenia and Azerbaijan),” Bryza told TRT World.
“He came with a statement a couple of days ago, that was extremely provocative. He said ‘Well, it’s not clear to whom Nagorno-Karabakh belongs. The Armenian prime minister tells me it’s Armenian. Azerbaijanis say it’s Azerbaijani. Who knows?’”
“In fact, Russia like the US and even Armenia until recently agreed that occupied-Nagorno Karabakh is legally part of Azerbaijan. So that is a very provocative step taken by Zatulin, who is supposed to represent a country considered an impartial mediator,” he added.
Zatulin, born in Batum of Caucasia like Joseph Stalin, the communist dictator who drew the borders of many Soviet republics and autonomous regions including Azerbaijan and Armenia, has long been known for his pro-Armenian stance.
“As CSTO (The Collective Security Treaty Organization) member states we have obligations to each other. Russia views Armenia as an ally and in the event of an attack the mechanisms envisaged by the CSTO [Charter] will apply to Armenia,” said Zatulin in November 2019, after tensions escalated between Baku and Yerevan.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization was established in 1992 by some members of the CIS, led by Moscow, to create a kind of Russian NATO across Eurasia.
“I would like to note that our 102nd Military Base in the territory of Armenia is not deployed here in vain to solely serve as a ‘beauty accessory’,” threatened the Russian firebrand.
The same Zatulin made similar threatening remarks immediately after the most recent clashes.
Veiled threats toward Turkey
“If anybody now uses force in response to an initial Armenian attack on Azerbaijan, Russia will use force against it to protect its ally, which is Armenia,” Zatulin said, according to Bryza.
Zatulin also appears to threaten Turkey by saying this, a country that has proved Azerbaijan’s strongest ally since its independence.
Ankara has recently deployed technologically advanced armed drones, which have been battle-tested in the Libyan civil war on the side of the UN-recognised Government of General Accord (GNA) and in Syria against the Russian-backed Assad regime forces, across Turkish-Armenian border to show its support for Azerbaijan.
“Turkey will continue, with all its capacity, to stand by Azerbaijan in its struggle to protect its territorial integrity,” said a Turkish foreign ministry statement.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also proffered his support on Azerbaijan, saying, “Turkey will show no wavering to oppose any attack toward Azerbaijan.”
Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes have now created another front between Ankara and Moscow.
Turkey and Russia have recently been at odds in several conflicts across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, from Libya to Syria, and now Azerbaijan, too.
“The major players are Russia and Turkey,” says Bryza, referring to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict.