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Hidden stories…The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

This conflict is a long standing and complicated one that has taken place since 1988 between Azerbaijan and Armenia but has not often been written about widely in western media and news. Its origins are that Armenia and Azerbaijan both contest that the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding regions belong to them. The region is de-facto controlled by the Republic of Artsakh backed by Armenia but internationally as de-jure part of Azerbaijan. With the fall of the Soviet Union imminent in 1988 Karabakh Armenians demanded the return of Karabakh from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. This led to a full-scale war in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s with ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis both claiming genocides and pogroms against them by the other side. This led eventually to a Russian-brokered ceasefire being signed in 1994.

Between 1994 and 2020 there have been a series of small clashes along the border led to the shooting down of a helicopter in 2014. Small clashes continued until 2016 when growing tension and a massive build up in Azerbaijan’s military led to full scaled war that lasted for four days and left 88 Armenian soldiers dead and a reported 31-92 Azerbaijani soldiers dead. The conflict is further complicated by geopolitics. NATO member-state Turkey was the first nation to recognise Azerbaijan's independence in 1991. Former Azeri President Heydar Aliyev once described the two as "one nation with two states". Both share a Turkic culture and populations, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged his nation's support for Azerbaijan. Moreover, Turkey has no official relations with Armenia.

In 1993 Turkey shut its border with Armenia in support of Azerbaijan during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia meanwhile has good relations with Russia. There is a Russian military base in Armenia, and both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance. However, President Vladimir Putin also has good relations with Azerbaijan, and Moscow has called for a ceasefire.

Talks have been opened after fighting erupted again on September 27th. The talks were the first diplomatic contact between the two since fighting over the mountainous enclave erupted again, leaving hundreds of people dead. The capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, has also been repeatedly bombarded. On Oct. 10, the countries agreed to a limited cease-fire brokered by Russia to exchange prisoners and collect the dead from the battlefield. However there have been reports of both countries violating the ceasefire mere minutes after it had been agreed. Since the ceasefire took place on October 10th Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that overnight shelling by Armenian forces on the country’s second-largest city, Ganja, had left at least nine people dead and 33 wounded including children, less than 24 hours after the halt to fighting was supposed to take effect. Armenia has denied targeting Ganja, and accused Azeri forces of shelling Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert, as well as other towns during the night in violation of the truce.

It is important to realise how much of an effect larger countries like Turkey and Russia who have both become directly involved in the conflict, can have an effect on these smaller countries. Russia and Turkey had coordinated at times in the past to tamp down tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But the uneasy cooperation between Turkey and Russia, an ally of Armenia, is starting to fade as both countries become increasingly assertive in the Middle East and as the United States steps back. In July and August, Turkey sent troops and equipment to Azerbaijan for military exercises. Armenia has said that Turkey is directly involved in the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, and that a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down an Armenian jet. Turkey denied those accusations.

After satellite images revealed F-16s parked on the apron of an Azerbaijani airfield, Azerbaijan’s president conceded that Turkish planes were in his country but said they had not flown in combat. Russia and France have also both supported Armenia’s claim that Turkey deployed Syrian militants to Nagorno-Karabakh.

This conflict has also caught the attention of religious figures around the world with Pope Francis supporting the fragile truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan and said he was praying for victims there. Speaking after the Angelus prayer in Rome, the pontiff welcomed the ceasefire, but added: “The truce proves to be too fragile,” the Vatican news service said. Francis urged regional leaders to resolve the conflict “not through the use of force and arms, but through the means of dialogue and negotiation,” it added.

It remains to be seen whether the two sides will be able to come to a point in negotiations where a ceasefire would stay in place for an extended period. Unfortunately, this appears to be unlikely as the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, said in a televised speech that he was happy to have talks but was making no concessions.

“We are winning and will get our territory back and ensure our territorial integrity,” Mr. Aliyev said. “Let them abandon our territory in peace.”

According to experts and analysts the most optimistic result would be a return to the position which they were in before with neither side completely but with a lack of fighting. This would avoid drawing in larger powers like Turkey and Russia which could result in a wider conflict leading to many more pointless deaths.


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