Nagorno-Karabakh: Tensions escalate in the Black Garden

A senior US government official has described unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus including Nagorno-Karabakh as one of the “most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region”. Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair was speaking to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at the open Hearing on “Current and Projected Threats to the United States”. While events in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have media attention in recent times, the “frozen war” between Armenia and Azerbaijan has fallen off the radar.

(photo: Matthew Collin)

Blair said the war (dormant since 1994) may heat up again due to the complications of local international relations. There has been progress in the past year toward Turkey-Armenia rapprochement, however this has affected the delicate relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and increases the risk of a renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Blair said. There was hope the Turkey-Armenia border would be opened for the first time since 1993. Turkey is baulking at Armenian calls to recognise the 1915 genocide and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has boxed himself in by proclaiming the protocols for reconciliation will not be implemented until Armenia withdraws from occupied Azerbaijani territory.

That seems unlikely. A surreal announcement this week from The Moscow Times said Armenia and Azerbaijan have “agreed on a preamble to an agreement” on the conflict. The principles of the agreement, first proposed in 2007, would see Armenia returning territories occupied by its troops outside Karabakh proper to Azerbaijan but leaving a corridor linking Armenia with the disputed enclave on Azeri soil.

The original name for the area in Armenian and Azerbaijani was Karabakh (or Garabag) which meant “black garden”. Long a melting pot of Turkic, Armenian, Persian and Azeri influences, the area was subsumed into the Russian Empire in 1828. The Muslim population declined as Armenians moved into the province. After the Russian Revolution, the region descended into wars involving the Armenians, Azerbaijanis and British (who had defeated the Ottomans). Eventually the Red Army took over. Despite promises to give the province to Armenia, Stalin awarded it to Azerbaijan to placate a hostile Turkey. Under Soviet rule the appellation “Nagorno” meaning highland or mountainous was added to the name.

Nationalism rarely floated to the surface but tensions remained through the 20th century. As the union broke up in the late 1980s the Azeri government took advantage by beginning ethic cleansing in the town of Askeran. When the local legislative body voted for a union with Armenia, the area erupted in conflict. Over five years, more than a million Azerbaijanis and Armenians were driven from their homes and 30,000 people died.

The Russians negotiated a ceasefire in 1994 which holds tenuously to the present day. Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts (20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory) remain occupied by Armenian armed forces. The capital Stepanakert has been rebuilt, with financial support from Armenia and the huge Armenian diaspora. Peace talks have been the responsibility of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by Russia, US and France. The Group has been attempting to broker an end to the dispute for over a decade. In 1997 they tabled settlement proposals seen as a starting point for negotiations by Azerbaijan and Armenia but not by the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh. When Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan tried to encourage the enclave to join the talks he was forced to resign amid cries of betrayal.

In 2006 Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum to approve a new constitution and referred to itself as a sovereign state. Azerbaijan declared the poll illegitimate but continued to talk peace. Tensions rose in recent months after tough statements from Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s long-term dictatorial president. Aliyev has been growing in confidence as energy-rich Azerbaijan uses its huge revenues from oil and gas sales to fund massive increases in defence expenditure. He warned if peace talks don’t deliver results, he could order a new offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and the areas around it. Aliyev told euronews.net military action was “a fundamental right of Azerbaijan”.

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