Image: Thomas de Luze (Unsplash)

Decades-old conflict has flared up once again between hostile neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflicted has erupted in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh also known as Artsakh. This region is a landlocked region which lies in the south Caucasus within the Lesser Caucasus mountains. The area lies within Azerbaijan but is governed as a de-factor independent state within Azerbaijan. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh consists of ethnic Armenians who make up the majority of the population and have been running the region independently from Azerbaijan. This, with the support of the Armenian government since the early 90’s.

History of the Conflict 

The region has been disputed since 1918 when Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent from the Russian empire. In the 1920’s, however, Soviet rule was imposed upon the south Caucasus and the predominantly Armenian populated region became an autonomous area within the Soviet controlled state of Azerbaijan with authority coming from Moscow. Due to the geographical distance, other strategic interests of the Soviet Union and the matter of the Cold War, the Nagorno-Karabakh and its ethnic population of Armenians were not high on the list of priorities for Moscow. This resulted in the area being able to self-govern itself with some directive being issued from the central government in Moscow. As the Cold War rumbled on and it became evident by the early the 90’s that the Soviet Union would lose the war and many satellite states like Armenia and Azerbaijan would become fully independent states.

This independence pointed in the direction of Nagorno-Karabakh becoming integrated within the state of Azerbaijan and directly ruled by Azerbaijan which the ethnic majority of people in said region, did not accept. This led to a vote in 1988 in which the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature voted to join Armenia instead of Azerbaijan which was supported by neither the Soviet Union nor Azerbaijan. Once the Soviet Union completely collapsed in 1991, Armenia separatists backed by the Armenian state sized the area of Nagorno-Karabakh and claimed it as a part of Armenia. Numbers vary but around 30 000 people were killed in these clashes as well as thousands of people were displaced from their homes. It should be noted that Nagorno-Karabakh also has a minority population of ethnic Azerbaijani’s and the area of Nagorno-Karabakh is surrounded by several districts of Azerbaijan with a majority of ethnic Azerbaijani people. The conflict continued for a few years until an internationally-brokered ceasefire was agreed on in 1994. Since 1994, peace talks have stalled and there have been sporadic outbursts of mini conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh and on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

Recent Conflict 

As mentioned there have been sporadic cases of conflict between the two neighbours over the years. Up until now, 2016 has been the most violent of clashes, with dozens of people including civilians being killed in the conflict. The latest clashes (as recent as Sunday the 27th of September) have become the most violent and violence has broken out again, on the days following Sunday’s initial clashes. This has left both sides with casualties which include civilian casualties. The conflict as a whole is extremely complicated to unpack. The case of Nagorno-Karabakh and the general unease between Armenia and Azerbaijan reflect a modern problem of how borders are formed and whose interests they include and exclude. This type of conflict is not new and is something we see all over the world from examples like India-Kashmir-Pakistan to Israel-Palestine and many others. Borders are human constructs which creates the “us” and “them” narrative.

Additionally, the raise of right wing nationalistic policies globally, has further catalysed these kinds of movements whereby people are fighting for their own identity within a state if theirs is not recognised. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, we can easily deduce that due to geographical, historical and political reasons the citizens of this majority Armenian population have lived in a region which for the most part of its history belonged to Armenia. They are thus entitled to the right to be Armenian and part of the Armenian state, even though the way in which the borders were drawn up after the disintegration of the Soviet Union did not take this into account. This is a similar issue experienced by Africa, Asia and South America when the colonilisers drew up borders. These borders did not take into account the historical and cultural backgrounds of people who lived in these lands which has an impact on modern day conflicts in these regions. The exact causes of the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has historically ties but there are no clear reasons as to why they are fighting, yet again.

Information is currently scarce, with state propaganda from both sides trying to deflect blame and shift the narrative of the conflict to make the other side look worse. One thing is for sure, conflict in this area is not in the best interest of it’s people. It threatens to destabilise a region which serves as a global corridor for pipelines to take gas and oil to world markets. The world does not need another border dispute. To solve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, there needs to be exceptional leadership from both sides, understanding and reconciliation, and support from the global community. The Nagorno-Karabakh region once again highlights the issue of borders and how we construct them. How “simple lines” on a page can lead to a major conflict and the loss of human lives.  

Jervin Naidoo is the founder of The Art of Politics and works as a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Politics Science at the University of Pretoria.

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