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Nagorno-Karabakh: an Unexpected Ending to a Decades-Long Conflict

By October 2, 2023 No Comments

Nestled in the picturesque valleys of the Caucasus Mountains, the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has since the 1990s been home to the self-proclaimed pro-Armenian Republic of Artsakh. Despite functioning as an independent state for 32 years, the Republic never gained international recognition, remaining Azerbaijani territory in the eyes of the international community. The ethnic enclave, situated in modern-day Azerbaijan but until recently inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians, has had breakaway tendencies dating all the way back to the Soviet Era. The region has long experienced elevated tension punctuated by wars and hostilities, the intensification of which we witnessed just this month. On September 28, the unrecognized government in Stepanakert pledged its commitment to dissolve the Republic of Artsakh by January 1, 2024, leading to the exodus of tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians. This begs the question: how did we get here? And will this bring a definite end to a decades-long conflict?


The roots of armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh run deep. The first and bloodiest war between Azerbaijan and the local Armenian population broke out in the late 1980s and lasted until May 1994. As Azerbaijan declared its independence from the USSR in 1991 and removed the autonomous status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian majority voted to secede from Azerbaijan in a referendum. This effectively led to the creation of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh).

For 32 years, the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh existed in a state of constant tensions and unresolved conflicts. Full-scale fighting between Russian-backed Armenia and Turkish-backed Azerbaijan broke out in 1992. International organizations’ attempts at mediating the conflict failed. Armenian forces managed to seize control of the entire enclave as well as some surrounding regions. Although a Russian ceasefire was brokered in May 1994, Artsakh formally remained part of Azerbaijan. The war took the lives of some 30,000 people and uprooted the lives of over a million Armenians and Azeris.


As Azerbaijan grew aggrieved with the status quo, tensions rose in the 2010s, eventually leading to the second Nagorno-Karabakh war from September to November 2020. Backed by Turkish supplies of drones and other weaponry, Azerbaijan’s forces prevailed, outnumbering Armenia’s several times over. Numerous countries as well as the UN denounced the fighting, but to no avail. Ceasefires brokered by Russia, France, and the US proved to be similarly ineffective. A ceasefire was only signed after the Azerbaijani capture of the city of Shusha, granting Baku jurisdiction over the seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that were previously occupied by the separatists.


Finally, on September 19 of this year, a third war broke out. Azerbaijan took over the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh within a day. Fearful of a potential Azerbaijani counter-offensive on their home soil, the considerably weaker Armenian forces chose not to intervene. On September 20, a ceasefire agreement was reached. Soon after, on September 28, President Samvel Shahramanyan of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) declared the dissolution of all its institutions and organizations by January 1, 2024, putting an astonishingly sudden end to Artsakh’s long fight for self-determination and independence.


Azerbaijan’s recent victory has triggered an exodus of the ethnic Armenian population amidst fears of possible ethnic cleansing. Azerbaijan’s President Aliev reassured the population they could stay under the condition they accept an Azerbaijani passport, a statement supported by the Azerbaijani Ambassador to the UK’s claim that Azerbaijan “doesn’t encourage” anyone to leave. Despite these promises, the vast majority of Artsakh’s approximately 120,000 residents have already relocated to neighboring Armenia, reflecting their refusal to be governed by Azerbaijani authority. The last remaining individuals are likely to follow suit in the coming days.


As Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan scrambles to provide sufficient humanitarian assistance to the refugees and the government of Azerbaijan attempts to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh with the rest of the country, the question arises of whether this is a definite end to the conflict. The Azerbaijani consensus that the conflict is “definitely” over is not one shared by the Armenian populace.


Opinions on the causes of the fall of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh vary, with many experts believing it was inevitable due to changing demographic trends, insufficient military strength, and corruption, while others point to Russia reducing military supplies to Armenia and Azerbaijan’s employment of Syrian mercenaries.


Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh itself may be over, but tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain as tense as ever; Azerbaijan remains intent on creating an extraterritorial land corridor to Nakhchivan – an Azerbaijani exclave – through Armenian territory. The dissolution of Stepanakert’s unrecognized government might signal the end of the conflict in Artsakh, but it certainly doesn’t mark the end of antagonism between the two hostile nations, let alone theCaucasus region at large.



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