Strife and Autonomy: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one a deeply rooted dispute that has plagued the South Caucasus region for decades. It can be traced back to the early 20th century when the South Caucasus region was part of the Russian Empire. Following the Russian Revolution and the subsequent breakup of the empire, the region’s status became a flashpoint of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The region, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, emerged as a focal point of dispute as it tried to declare its autonomy and independence from the larger republic.

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December 4, 2023

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Overview

On September 19, separatist authorities announced the demise of the ethnic enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh by January 1, 2024. As the prospective future of the region seemed to fall under the hands of Azerbaijan, the majority of the Armenian people in the region chose migration. About 80% of the population chose to leave the region and fled to Armenia within a week. While Baku has promised the integration and strong economic development for the region, civilians have turned back as their humanitarian aid has been blockaded by “anti-terrorist” offensives through the Lachin Corridor. 

Azerbaijan claimed that such attacks were aimed at neutralizing Armenians’ security and combat forces; however, soon after Azerbaijan claimed full control over the region and Russia once again stepped up to mediate the conflict and begin negotiations between the region, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan received criticism from the country’s public for failing to protect his people from the atrocities and continuous attacks.

Throughout the two escalations of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2016 and 2020, Russia remained a vital mediator of conflict and peacekeeper for the region. However, conflict has disproved the country’s role as negotiations have pointed towards surrendering the region to Azerbaijan effectively. 

A. Pointed Summary

➢ Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnic enclave of Armenians.

➢  The autonomy of the region has been broken by a series of attacks and warfare.

B. Relevance

With the recent attacks leading to a declaration for the region to demise, this conflict has left a lasting impact on the migration of civilian and Armenian aid reaching Nagorno-Karabakh. With its deep historical roots and complex dynamics of self-governance, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a challenging issue to resolve. Conflict resolution remains tenuous, with many unresolved issues, including the return of displaced populations and the ultimate status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The path toward a comprehensive and lasting solution to this conflict continues to be fraught with difficulties.

History

In 1923, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, drew the boundaries of the South Caucasus, placing Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani control. However, he granted the region autonomy by creating the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). Though ostensibly an administrative decision, this move sowed the seeds for future conflict.

Tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in the NKAO flared in the late 1980s, driven by rising nationalism and demands for self-determination. The conflict escalated into a full-scale war in 1988, following the declaration of independence by the NKAO, and this war continued until 1994, resulting in thousands of deaths and significant displacement.

In 1994, a ceasefire brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States, ended the active fighting. However, it did not bring a definitive solution to the conflict. The Nagorno-Karabakh region and several adjacent territories remained under the de facto control of Armenian forces.

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, occasional flare-ups of violence demonstrated that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remained unresolved. Diplomatic efforts continued within the framework of the Minsk Group, but the core issues, including the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the return of displaced persons, remained contentious.

The most recent and significant eruption occurred in September 2020, when hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated into war. Backed by Turkey, Azerbaijan made substantial territorial gains, retaking control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and adjacent areas. With over 7,000 military and around 170 civilians killed and many more wounded, this was the deadliest skirmish this region has seen in over thirty years. The ceasefire agreement reached in November 2020, known as the “Moscow Statement,” was facilitated by Russia and marked a significant turning point.

However, tensions persist along the border, and disputes on border demarcation and transport routes remain. Thousands of refugees fled to Armenia after Azerbaijan claimed control of an Armenian enclave inside its territory and bombed a petrol station where hundreds were waiting to collect fuel to flee. On September 26, the Armenian government said 19,000 forcibly displaced people had entered Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia said in a speech on September 24 that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh were facing “the threat of ethnic cleansing” unless “effective mechanisms of protection” were created in the enclave under Azerbaijani rule.

Domestic concerns may pressure Pashinyan to change course. Azerbaijan’s restrictions on access to Nagorno-Karabakh worsened the humanitarian crisis, leading to casualties and protests. An agreement to reopen the Lachin Corridor briefly raised hopes, but in September 2023, Azerbaijan launched an operation to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, sparking protests in Yerevan. The situation remains complex, with the fate of ethnic Armenians in the disputed region hanging in the balance, demanding security guarantees before disarmament.

A. Tried Policy

In 1992, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan with the intention of remaining an independent state or unifying with Armenia. This built up tension that led to a war for most of the early 1990s, which eventually ended in a ceasefire in 1994. The ceasefire left Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories under the control of Armenia. Then, the ceasefire ended in 2020, and in a six-week war, Azerbaijan was able to restore its control over Nagorno-Karabakh. A ceasefire was negotiated by the Russian Federation, where about 2,000 Russian troops served as peacekeeping forces and guaranteed the security of the land corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Regrdless, the Azerbaijani government made efforts to secure their military gains and retain control over the region. At the same time, since 2020, Azerbaijani President Ilhan Aliyev has insisted that they would protect “the rights and security of the Armenian population of Karabakh,” including their “religious, educational, cultural, municipal, [and other] rights.”

However, it appears these reassurances were false, as since December 2022, Azerbaijan has placed a blockade obstructing the land corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, restricting the movement of people, food, medicine, and services, putting the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh at risk. More recently, Azerbaijan has begun to use anti-terrorist operations in the region. The Azerbaijani presidency stated it was willing to stop the anti-terrorist measure but “illegal Armenian armed groups must raise the white flag, surrender all weapons, and the illegal regime must dissolve itself.” Otherwise, anti-terrorist measures will be continued until the end.

There have been several attempts to hold trilateral peace talks to ease tensions in the region. For instance, European Council President Charles Michel stated that the council has offered to continue EU-led negotiations to reconcile the territorial dispute. The Minsk Group co-chairs also met with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Geneva, Switzerland, to agree on a set of measures, such as agreeing to facilitate the recovery and exchange of remains and prepare for an exchange of prisoners of war. Since then, the president of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Samvel Shahramnyan, signed a decree to dissolve all state institutions by January 1, 2024.

B. Current Stances

Internal

The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) passed a resolution to join Armenia in 1988, but it was never formally recognized. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as a territory of Azerbaijan, but a de facto Armenian separatist government has assumed control of the region since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since then, there has been an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the area. The First Karabakh War (1992-94), the Second Karabakh War (2020), and the most recent attack in 2023 have been accompanied by massive waves of migration, which has led to a steady uptick in refugees of primarily Armenian descent. 

In 2022, Azerbaijan blockaded a crucial road in the Lachin corridor, a pathway that facilitated the flow of food, medicine, and fuel, causing Nagorno Karabakh to suffer​​ severe shortages. This was seen as a failure on Russia’s part, as one 2020 ceasefire agreement occurred under the terms of Russia ensuring road transport between Armenia and Karabakh stays open. When Putin held trilateral talks to attempt to reopen the Lachin corridor, no agreement was reached. The passage continued to be closed amidst Armenian and Russian calls for reopening. Armenia has not released a specific protocol to manage the influx of refugees from Karabakh.  

Under the guise of what the Azeri army has called “antiterrorist operations,” the army killed over four hundred people and displaced tens of thousands in September 2023. After this Azeri victory and 30 years of Armenian rule in Karabakh, the local Karabakh government announced in September that it would disband. Karabakh President Samvel Shahramanyan decreed that all state institutions would dissolve by the first day of 2024. This surrender marked the end of the bloody conflict and cemented a future of Azerbaijani rule. 

The forced transition to Azerbaijani customs, government, and culture was a poor prospect for ethnic Armenians. After Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, 100,000 inhabitants fled the region when Azerbaijan reopened the Lachin Corridor, which it previously blockaded in 2022 on accounts of Armenian “smuggling.” This turned the humanitarian situation dire. While Azerbaijan offered aid, it was rejected by Armenia, as they said they would not accept assistance from the country responsible for the crisis. This instance and many other actions by Azerbaijan have caused Armenia to see this large-scale exodus as an ethnic cleansing. 

The diplomatic position of the Armenian Prime Minister is perceived as not firm enough by Armenians and Karabakh, as he has both vowed to protect ethnic Armenians and has been willing, in recent months, to recognize Karabakh as Azeri territory. This announcement came as a shock and was quickly denounced with outrage by the Artsakh government. Although the report may have been expected to reduce tensions with Azerbaijan, pressure continued over disagreements on boundaries and transport routes.  

International

The influx of refugees has led to increased instability in the region. Armenians expected a revival of the weak and unstable Armenian government when Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan assumed power in 2018. His leadership promised a democratic shift in 2018 after an anti-corruption revolution in the country. However, as Pashinyan attempts to shift to the West for support, protests and uproar within Armenia have erupted. 

While previous Russian security involvement has assisted in brokering peace deals between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Pashinyan cites Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as restricting its ability to maneuver in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The loss of Nagorno-Karabakh from the Armenian grip has caused a widespread question of Pashinyan’s authority in managing the refugee crisis and Azerbaijani aggression. With 95% of the oblast’s population being ethnically Armenian and a heavy economic, political, and military reliance on Armenia, many Armenians consider Nagorno-Karabakh a crucial piece of national identity. 

While Armenia claimed to be open to peace talks, Azerbaijan and Armenia initially refused to engage in peace talks after September 2020 saw an outbreak of fighting. After Russia, France, and the US attempted to negotiate a ceasefire, Russia successfully brokered a deal that effectively ended the Second Karabakh War. The agreement led Azerbaijan to reclaim much of the territory that Armenia previously had autonomy over and established the Lachin corridor,  which served as the passageway between Armenia and Karabakh and was to be monitored by Russian peacekeepers. 

Additionally, the Minsk group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was created in 1994 and chaired by the United States, Russia, and France to organize negotiations and resolve the conflict. The group was able to negotiate certain ceasefires but has yet to do much for long-term conflict resolution. 

The US has historically sided with Armenia in the conflict. When Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia, she condemned Azeri attacks. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijan president “to adhere to the cease-fire, disengage military forces, and work to resolve all outstanding issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan through peaceful negotiations.” In further support of Armenia, Joe Biden declared Azerbaijan’s killings of ethnic Armenians in Karabakh genocide. The United States has been a critical player in assistance and disaster response in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Since 2020, The US has provided over 24 million dollars in humanitarian aid to Armenia to assist in the war over Nagorno Karabakh.

Policy Problem

A. Stakeholders

Since the start of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s, Azerbaijan and Armenia have become more militarized, turning the region into a globally funded arms build-up. Russia is a dominant arms supplier to both sides and a significant peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh. In the ceasefire that ended the conflict in 2020, an estimated 1,960 Russians were stationed as peacekeepers in the region. Russia has, however, remained quiet amidst Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19. Many cite Russia’s inaction to the fact that Russia used up the Moscow Kremlin’s military resources in its invasion of Ukraine. 

Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan also expressed discontent at the lack of action from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at large to support Armenians. Other than Armenia, this organization includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Tajikistan.

France, however, aims to allocate €7 million to refugees and displaced individuals in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh on top of the €5.5 million they have already provided. On the other hand, Turkey has been giving their full support to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has also felt the support of Israel, who supplied weapons to Azerbaijan ahead of the lightning offensive.

In September, the EU provided €5 million to help people in the region and those displaced to Armenia with healthcare, food, shelter, and other humanitarian needs. Since 2020, the EU has provided €25.8 million towards the conflict. The European Commission, an executive body of the EU, spearheaded this effort. 

B. Nonpartisan Reasoning

Countries remain hesitant to take action regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict due to struggling to navigate the sheer depth of the conflict and potentially hurting political ties with its allies who are connected to the conflict in some way. Russia and Turkey’s support lies on opposite sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Even though both countries have wanted influence over the Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia regions, they do not want to intervene heavily right now in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In the case of the United States, a country that often involves itself in international affairs, it has also remained inactive in the conflict. The Armenian diaspora has called for US intervention in the conflict. Ian Kelly, a former US ambassador to the country of Georgia, believes that the lack of action from the US is caused by diplomats and administrations disagreeing on the question of whether or not to intervene. The US also does not want to become intertwined in a complex conflict where finding mutual ground or making agreements proves to be difficult.

Many European countries consider the area to be a part of Europe, and thus want to help the people affected on both sides of the conflict, but have not wanted to instigate any military presence there. As a provider of hydrocarbons to Europe, Azerbaijan has trade connections with Europe as well. In May, Charles Michel, president of the EU, discussed a plan to increase Armenia’s stability with French and German policymakers alongside Azerbaijan and Armenia’s leaders. Given the tension and conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in recent months, the meeting in May seems to have been ineffective.

Russia’s lack of involvement in the conflict has supposedly created a power vacuum that European policymakers want to leverage. Ever since Russia’s peacekeeping efforts turned out to be unsuccessful, Russia’s power in the Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia regions has declined. Russia’s role as a security guarantor for Armenia has also been in question, among other things.

Policy Options

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute suggests that Azerbaijan has emphasized that in the Helsinki Final Act, signatory European states pledged to refrain now and in the future from assaulting borders or from any seizure of part or all of the territory of any OSCE member state. According to Azerbaijan, the conflict is the result of an aggression committed by Armenia that has led to an illegal occupation of the territory.

Armenia, for its part, has emphasized the obligation to respect the right to self-determination that is also codified in the Helsinki Final Act, which states that “all peoples always have the right, in full freedom, to determine, when and as they wish, their internal and external political status . . .” To Armenia, the conflict reflects the failure of Azerbaijan to recognize the legitimate call for the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh made by the local population in a vote of the local parliament and in a subsequent confirmatory referendum.

Both sides attach extremely steadfast emotions to the region. It is, therefore, paramount to resolving such past grievances that the opinions of locals be heard, democracy be instituted, and that both sides should respect each other’s ethnic minorities residing in the large number of enclaves in the region of Nagano-Karabakh. External pressures, such as active backing from Ankara toward Baku under the so-called “One Nation, Two States” notion, would no doubt exacerbate tensions and worsen historical grievances it had over Yerevan over the Armenian Genocide, which Turkey denies even today.

Russia’s declaration that the conflict is outside the mandate of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — the NATO equivalent to ex-Soviet states, could be an obscure start. On the one hand, it ruled out possibilities for Russian and CSTO intervention. On the other hand, it means external peacekeepers could not react to enkindled conflicts fresh in the region.

According to Caucasus Edition, Azerbaijan “tied the return of the detained (POWs) to Armenia’s withdrawal from territories controlled by Russia’s peacekeeping mission,” both are included as obligations in the ceasefire agreement. Therefore, the solution to these problems was likely to be political rather than legal.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict represents a prolonged historical wound that was inadequately reconciled. It reminds people of Armenia as the most recent epitome of the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, whose successor, Turkey, was an ardent supporter of Azerbaijan and frequently denies genocide allegations. The conflict represents the waning influence of Russia, whose global and regional power is proven waning with the ongoing grind over Ukraine and international isolation. Among ex-USSR Republics from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan, Moscow finds itself less significant as a player despite efforts to be a key broker for peace. For the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan, historical grievances were not effectively settled, as the Caucasian power keg has the potential to be ignited again in the future, generating further instability in Russia’s southern front. For Turkey, hardline nationalist president Rycep Tayyip Erdogan could turn the conflict into another proxy war and expand Turkic influence in the region against Russia and the West by backing Azerbaijan over Western–supported Armenia. The future of the conflict remains obscure, and foreign interference would only accrue more uncertainty and pressure on the war-prone region.

Acknowledgment

The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Michelle Liou, Nolan Ezzet, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.

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Chanhee Joy Park

Director, Policy Media

Chanhee (Joy) Park is a Foreign Policy Co-Lead based in Texas and Michigan, specializing in the history and politics of East Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Rusmiya Aqid

Policy Analyst

Rusmiya is a freshman at the University of Rochester. She is interested in international development and policy, and draws inspiration from social entrepreneurs like Runa Khan.