Why are Azerbaijan and Armenia fighting again?
The centre of the conflict is the Nagorno-Karabakh region
Fresh clashes erupted on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border on Sunday, threatening to push the former Soviet republics back to war 26 years after a ceasefire was reached. Dozens have been killed so far as the violence is entering the third day.
Roots of the conflict
- The largely mountainous and forested Nagorno-Karabakh, home for some 150,000 people, is at the centre of the conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan but is populated, mostly, by those of Armenian ethnicity. The conflict can be traced back to the pre-Soviet era when the region was at the meeting point of Ottoman, Russian and the Persian empires. Once Azerbaijan and Armenia became Soviet Republics in 1921, Moscow gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan but offered autonomy to the contested region.
- In the 1980s, when the Soviet power was receding, separatist currents picked up in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1988, the national assembly voted to dissolve the region’s autonomous status and join Armenia. When Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the clashes led to an open war in which tens of thousands were killed. The war lasted till 1994 when both sides reached a ceasefire.
- By that time, Armenia had taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh and handed it to Armenian rebels. The rebels have declared independence, but have not won recognition from any country. The region is still treated as a part of Azerbaijan by the international community, and Baku wants to take it back.
- Despite the ceasefire, there were occasional flare-ups on the border. In July this year, at least 16 people were killed in clashes. After Sunday’s violence, Azerbaijan and Armenia blamed each other. Baku said it was forced to respond after Armenian attacks killed and wounded Azeris. Armenia, on the other side, blamed Azerbaijan for launching the “large-scale” attack targeting peaceful settlements.
- The energy-rich Azerbaijan has built several gas and oil pipelines across the Caucasus to Turkey and Europe. This includes the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Western Route Export oil pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline. Some of these pipelines pass close to the conflict zone. In an open war between the two countries, the pipelines could be targeted, which would impact energy supplies.
- Turkey has historically supported Azerbaijan and has had a troublesome relationship with Armenia. In the 1990s, during the war, Turkey closed its border with Armenia and it has no diplomatic relations with the country.
- On the other end, the Azeris and Turks share strong cultural and historical links. Azerbaijanis are a Turkic ethnic group and their language is from the Turkic family. After Azerbaijan became independent, Turkey established strong relations with the country, which has been ruled by a dynastic dictatorship. In July, after the border clashes, Turkey held a joint military exercise with Azerbaijan. On September 28, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Armenia for the most recent clashes and offered support to Azerbaijan. There were reports that Turkey was recruiting mercenaries from West Asia to fight for Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. This fits well into Ankara’s aggressive foreign policy, which seeks to expand Turkish interests to the former Ottoman territories.
- Moscow sees the Caucasus and Central Asian region as its backyard. But the current clashes put President Vladimir Putin in a difficult spot. Russia enjoys good ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and supplies weapons to both. But Armenia is more dependent on Russia than the energy-rich, ambitious Azerbaijan. Russia also has a military base in Armenia. But Moscow, at least publicly, is trying to strike a balance between the two. Like in the 1990s, its best interest would be in mediating a ceasefire between the warring sides.