Explained | The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the status of peace talks

The breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus has been at the centre of three wars and multiple clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia

May 28, 2022 03:43 pm | Updated 03:43 pm IST

Opposition supporters block the Armenian Foreign Ministry building during anti-government demonstrations in the capital Yerevan on May 24, 2022.

Opposition supporters block the Armenian Foreign Ministry building during anti-government demonstrations in the capital Yerevan on May 24, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev announced on May 23 that their respective countries would be setting up border security and delimitation commissions, signalling a step towards resolution of a decades-long conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh Enclave. The announcement was made after trilateral talks initiated by European Council President Charles Michel. Both leaders also agreed to start working on a peace plan. 

The talks between the two leaders have triggered protests in the Armenian capital of Yerevan and other parts of the country. Protesters and the Opposition believe that Mr. Pashinyan is conceding too much ground in the peace talks and have demanded his resignation.

How did the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh begin?

Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked, mountainous and forested region with a population of around 150,000, falling within the boundaries of Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh, called Artsakh in Armenian, hosts a predominantly ethnic Armenian population with an Azeri minority. It is located in the South Caucasus region, which straddles the border between eastern Europe and western Asia and spans the southern part of the Caucasus mountains. It is roughly made up of modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The capital of Nagorno-Karabakh is Stepanakert, with Susha being another major city in the region.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which was once a part of the Armenian Kingdom, has been ruled by several empires over the centuries — the Ottomans, the Persians, and the Russians. Tsarist Russia ruled over the South Caucasus for most of the 19th Century but its influence lessened post the 1917 Russian Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power.

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia later became separate Republics, with the Azeris incorporating Nagorno-Karabakh into their Republic. During the First World War, the Ottomans, aided by Azeris, attacked the south Caucasus, especially targeting ethnic Armenians. As the Ottomans retreated at the end of the World War, Azerbaijan and Armenia descended into a full-blown war in 1920, which had a devastating effect on Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Azeri-Armenian war of 1991

Soon, the Bolsheviks took over south Caucasus to expand Soviet influence and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia became Soviet Republics. The Soviets officially placed Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous Oblast (administrative region) in Azerbaijan’s territory, despite the chiefly Armenian population. As Soviet power began to wane in the 1980s, the ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh expressed a desire to be reunited with their roots and become a part of Armenia, organising a vote for the same in 1988.

This did not go down well with Azerbaijan and military clashes ensued. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries, and this time, Armenian rebels in Nagorno-Karabakh declared it an independent territory, which was not recognised internationally. This led to an open war between Armenia and Azerbaijan which lasted till 1994. The war killed nearly 30,000 people and caused numerous ethnic Azeris to flee Karabakh and Armenia. Some Armenians in parts of Azerbaijan fled too.

By 1993, Armenia had taken control of most of Nagorno-Karabakh, along with 20 per cent of adjoining Azeri territory, which in total amounted to around 13 per cent of Azerbaijan’s territory.

The war ended in 1994 when both countries entered into a ceasefire brokered by Russia but the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan were not demarcated. Peace talks were also initiated by the Minsk Group but peace treaty could not be brokered.

What happened to the peace talks organised by the Minsk Group?

The Minsk Group was created by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in early 1990 to facilitate talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Minsk Group was co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France.

The Group came up with three peace proposals in the 1990s. The “package deal” proposal of 1997 envisaged simultaneous removal of Armenian forces from occupied areas and the determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status. This was rejected by both Yerevan and Baku.

The “step-by-step approach,” also suggested in 1997, proposed gradual steps starting with Armenian withdrawal, return of displaced refugees, and ending of hostilities followed by talks for a future resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. This was rejected too.

In 1998, a third, “common state” proposal was presented by the Minsk Group which would endow Nagorno-Karabakh with the framework usually given to a sovereign state, with a separate passport, law enforcement and currency, but within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised borders. The entry of Azeri forces would be barred without Nagorno-Karabakh’s approval. The Armenian people of this region would also have the right to vote in Armenian elections. This, while initially accepted by both sides with several reservations, was eventually rejected as well.

Then followed the Madrid Principles of 2007, later modified in 2009. These principles proposed giving control of seven Karabakh districts to Azerbaijan, self-governance to the region, a corridor link with Armenia, giving the region’s inhabitants an opportunity to express their will, return of refugees, and setting up of a peacekeeping operation. The Madrid Principles, modified again in 2011, failed to gain acceptance.

The Minsk Group held another meeting in Geneva in 2017, after a four-day war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2016, but peace talks did not produce any concrete outcome. The role of the Minsk Group declined during the 2020 war between the two countries, as other negotiating groups entered the scene.

The four-day war of 2016 and the 2020 war

A ceasefire signed in 1994 could not prevent multiple flareups between the Nagorno-Karabakh rebel armed forces backed by the Armenian military, and the Azerbaijani military. Some skirmishes turned into direct clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the conflict has resulted in several casualties over the years.

In 2016, a clash between the rebels and the Azerbaijani military transformed into a four-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Baku alleged continuous Armenian shelling of civilian targets in Azerbaijan and commenced a military operation.

Azerbaijan’s military retaliated using heavy artillery, suicide drones, and tanks over a four-day period. A ceasefire signed in Moscow put an end to the war but the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was far from resolved.

Fresh clashes erupted on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in September of 2020, which turned into a fierce six-week war in which more than 2,000 people died. The fighting began after Azerbaijani President Aliyev launched an offensive vowing to take back Nagorno-Karabakh and other Armenian-occupied districts.

In six weeks of fighting, Azeri forces cut through Armenian defences and took back territories, including 40 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Both parties entered a ceasefire brokered by Moscow in November 2020. ​​Armenia agreed to withdraw its troops from much of the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh. The capital and the core areas of the enclave with ethnic Armenians would, however, remain outside the control of Azerbaijan. Baku would build a road linking the newly captured territories, and as the broker of the ceasefire, Russia would send around 2,000 peacekeepers to the region.

The roles played by Russia and Turkey

The conflict, initially a local one between Azerbaijan and Armenia, turned into a regional one in the years following the 2016 war, with the entry of Turkey into the picture. The Azeris and Turks share strong cultural and historical links as Azerbaijanis are a Turkic ethnic group of mixed heritage, speaking a language belonging to a branch of the Turkic family.

In the 2020 war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Armenia for the clashes and offered his support to Azerbaijan, supplying armed drones, ammunition and defence equipment. This was seen as being in line with Ankara’s foreign policy, with Turkey seeking to expand its interests to the former territories of the Ottoman empire.

This reportedly caused alarm in Moscow as Russia saw a new influence gaining ground in its backyard. Russia remained neutral in the early days of the war but later established small military outposts along the Armenian border, supposedly to prevent the conflict from extending into mainland Armenia, but also sending a message to Baku.

Simultaneously, Russia conducted a massive airstrike in Syria’s Idlib region against Turkish-backed militants, seen as a warning to Turkey.

In 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin, while accepting Azerbaijani victory, prevented a total loss for Armenia by ensuring Azeri forces remained out of major Nagorno-Karabakh territories. Turkey also managed to send its security experts to maintain a joint patrol facility with Russia.

Who is organising the current peace talks and where do they stand?

Despite the 2020 ceasefire, clashes have not stopped. In November last year, seven Azerbaijani and six Armenian soldiers were killed in border clashes. With the efforts of the Minsk Group remaining largely unsuccessful and Russia devoting most of its attention to the Ukraine incursion since March this year, Baku saw an opportunity to introduce its own peace proposal, which calls for the mutual recognition of each state’s territorial integrity, meaning the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijani territory.

The European Union, meanwhile, has emerged as a potential peace broker. European Council President Charles Michel spearheaded meetings between the leaders of both countries for the beginning of peace talks twice in April, and again more recently on May 22.

However, Armenian President Mr. Pashinyan has been facing civilian unrest and protests wanting to oust him for agreeing to peace talks, even as one of Azerbaijan’s preconditions for peace is that Nagorno-Karabakh remains within its borders. Armenians are also asking Turkey, which has allied itself to Azerbaijan, to recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide in which the Ottomans are estimated to have killed between 60,000 to 1.5 million Armenians. Turkey, meanwhile, refuses to do so.

Mr. Pashinyan last month told the Armenian people that the international community wanted Armenia to scale down its demands regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. He also faced backlash when he agreed to concede multiple Armenia-controlled areas in the disputed territory to Azerbaijan.

While both countries have now agreed to formulate border security and delimitation commissions and start talks for a peace deal, a permanent solution for the Karabakh issue remains out of sight.

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