Azeris resent the loss of land they regard as rightfully theirs while Armenians show no sign of willingness to give it back
Clashes erupted between the two Central Asian States of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the South Caucasus belt that provides crucial transit routes for gas and oil to the global market. These clashes could disrupt oil and gas exports from the region, since Azerbaijan is a significant oil and gas exporter to Europe and central Asia which produces about 800,000 barrels of oil per day. This may even lead to higher oil prices globally. International concern is growing over rapidly escalating turmoil in the South Caucasus threatening to draw in regional powers prompting fears of an all-out conflict and destabilize the global energy corridor.
Russia and Turkey vie for influence in Caucasus region. Any military escalation would draw them more deeply into the conflict. Russia has closer ties with Armenia while Turkey supports Azerbaijan. Turkey has strong cultural and economic ties with Azerbaijan and has threatened to stand with it in any conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a statement posted on Twitter that Armenia had “once again showed that it is the biggest threat to peace and tranquility in the region” and that Turkey stood by Azerbaijan “with all its means, as always”.
The contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, a mountainous and heavily-forested patch of land, with an area of about 4400 sq Km (1700Square Miles), is at the heart of a decades-long armed standoff between neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan. Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh is recognised as part of Azerbaijan but ethnic Armenians who make up the vast majority of the population reject Azerbaijani rule. They have been running their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan’s forces were pushed out in a war in the 1990s.The ethnic Armenians prefer to call the region Artsakh, an ancient Armenian name for the area.
Karabakh became part of the Russian empire in the 19th century. After the end of World War I, the new Soviet rulers, as part of their divide-and-rule policy in the region, established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, with an ethnic Armenian majority, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in the early 1920s.
In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh legislature passed a resolution to join Armenia despite region’s legal location within Azerbaijan’s borders. In 1991, the autonomous region officially declared that it would not join either of the countries after a referendum which was boycotted by Azerbaijan.
War erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region, Yerevan-backed Armenian separatists seized the territory, home to a significant Azerbaijani minority, as well as seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts. At least 30,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes in the fighting. The ethnic Azeri population fled Karabakh and Armenia while ethnic Armenians fled the rest of Azerbaijan. Neither population group has been able to return home since the end of the war.
A Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement signed in 1994, left Karabakh as well as swathes of Azeri territory around the enclave in Armenian hands. Azeris resent the loss of land they regard as rightfully theirs, while the Armenians show no sign of willingness to give it back. Despite an internationally-brokered ceasefire agreed in 1994, peace negotiations have stalled and clashes erupt frequently around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Azerbaijan-Armenia border. In April 2016, the region was particularly tense because of violent fighting between the two countries, which was known as the Four Day War. Armenia and Azerbaijan have traded accusations of blame for the current outbreak of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “extremely concerned” over the clashes and called for both sides to stop fighting. France which has a large Armenian community also called for an immediate ceasefire and dialogue. Iran which borders both Azerbaijan and Armenia offered to broker peace talks. President Donald Trump said the US was seeking to stop the violence.
In October 2017, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Geneva under the auspices of the Minsk Group, an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) - led mediation group, beginning a series of talks on a possible settlement of the conflict. However, the negotiations have so far failed to produce a permanent peace agreement and the dispute remains one of post-Soviet Europe’s “frozen conflicts”. The failure of mediation efforts led to increased militarization and frequent cease-fire violations.
Effect on India
In recent years, Indian-Armenian bilateral cooperation has seen rapid growth. Armenia bought the India SWATHI military radar system in March 2020. For Armenia, close relations with India are vitally important as India provides a counter balance to the rival strategic axis between Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey.
India is a part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a multimodal network of ship, rail, and road route for moving freight between India, Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe. Also Azerbaijan is a dialogue partner of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which India is a member of. India’s ONGC-Videsh is an investor in ACG oil fields and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. However, Azerbaijan supports Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue which is disliked by India.
China has grown increasingly active in the Caucasian region, conducting a number of programs and signing economic, political and military agreements with Armenia. Armenia has also agreed to participate in the Chinese Belt and Road project. However, China is an ally of its rival Azerbaijan and Armenia is also aware of its support to Pakistan. Growing Pakistan-China-Turkey’s influence in the south Caucasus region is a source of concern for India. It is important for it to strengthen its ties with both the countries in line continuing its non-aligned stance, and call for peace in the region.
Author is Assistant Professor, Political Science, Higher Education Department, Government of Jammu and Kashmir