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Why Are Armenia & Azerbaijan Fighting, & How Can the Conflict End?

Fresh clashes have erupted over the longstanding Nagorno-Karabakh dispute since Sunday.

Published
World
3 min read
Fresh clashes have erupted over the longstanding Nagorno-Karabakh dispute since Sunday.
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The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has erupted once again, with dozens (including civilians) killed and hundreds wounded in the most serious violence in the region since 2016, according to The Guardian.

Both sides have accused each other of “using heavy artillery, targeting civilians and deploying mercenaries,” the newspaper reports.

Tuesday, 29 September, marked the third day of clashes, and saw the first civilian casualty outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh region itself, of an Armenian citizen in Vardenis, Armenia.

The UN Security Council will hold emergency talks at 5 pm US ET on Tuesday (1:30 am IST on Wednesday) on the issue.

But what exactly is this conflict between the two nations about? And why are other countries so worried about a war breaking out between these two former Soviet republics?

WHAT IS THE NAGORNO-KARABAKH DISPUTE ABOUT?

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous territory that technically falls within the internationally-recognised territory of Azerbaijan. However, the vast majority of the population of the region is made up of ethnic Armenians, who have resisted Azeri rule for nearly a hundred years.

In 1991, they declared independence and drove out Azeri troops, and formed the ‘Republic of Artsakh’. The breakaway ‘country’ has survived with Armenian support, even though it is not recognised as an independent nation by the international community.

According to Reuters, it is almost totally dependent on budget support from Armenia and donations from the worldwide Armenian diaspora.

Armenia and Azerbaijan found themselves at war after the breakaway of Nagorno-Karabakh from the latter, which ended in a ceasefire in 1994. At least 200 people were killed in fierce clashes in 2016.

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WHAT HAS LED TO THE CURRENT FIGHTING?

The ethnic tensions at the heart of the conflict over the region have never really gone away, with the longest suppression of them taking place during Soviet rule.

According to Reuters, tensions between the two sides had been building over the summer, and the current escalation, which started on Sunday, 27 September, can be tied to the lack of attention paid to it by those who otherwise mediate it.

Russia, France and the US have all been “distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming US presidential election and a list of world crises from Lebanon to Belarus.” Reuters also notes that there had been clashes of lesser magnitude in July which saw a “muted international response.”

Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, including large military exercises in July and August, has also stood out as part of the current tensions, with Armenia alleging it is supplying the Azeri side with military experts, drones and warplanes (which Azerbaijan denies). On Monday, 28 September, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged support for Azerbaijan.

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WHAT ARE THE MAJOR CAUSES FOR CONCERN OVER THE DISPUTE?

As the death toll, including of civilians, continues to mount, including outside Nagorno-Karabakh itself, there are obvious humanitarian concerns over the escalation of the conflict.

In addition, there is concern that this may develop into a proxy conflict between Turkey and Russia. As already mentioned, Turkey has declared its support for Azerbaijan, while Russia has traditionally had close ties to Armenia, with which it has a mutual defence pact and a military base. Russia’s recent good relations with Azerbaijan would normally be a pathway to resolving the issue.

However the Turkish involvement, including by allegedly bringing in Syrian rebel fighters with a Turkish private security company to assist the Azeri, complicates the situation, and drags Turkey’s simmering tensions with Russia in Syria into the equation.

The dispute also has energy security implications for Europe, with 5 percent of Europe’s oil and gas demands met by supplies from Azerbaijan, according to The Guardian.

The 2016 clashes reportedly “came close to a number of these pipelines”, meaning any escalation of the crisis, particularly if it spills over outside Nagorno-Karabakh itself, has the potential to become a wider problem, especially with winter approaching.

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WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY DOING TO RESOLVE THE CRISIS?

While the UN Security Council has begun consideration of the matter, the Minsk Group likely holds the key to resolving the conflict. This is a body set up for resolving the conflict by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the 1990s, and is co-chaired by the US, France and Russia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to “stop the violence”, Reuters reported. He also asked the countries to return to negotiations with the Minsk Group.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s office also called for talks with the Minsk Group to clear up what happened and find a solution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already spoken to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Sunday, but according to Reuters, it is unclear if he has made any overtures to Azerbaijan.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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