The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has surprising similarities to the dispute between Israel and Palestine, and equally disturbing strategic implications. The region provides a toxic mixture, combining oil, Islamic fundamentalism, old-fashioned cold-war alliances, a religious holocaust, claims of genocide and an irredentist movement by ethnic Armenians, stranded on a Christian island, in an Islamic sea. Azerbaijan claims Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K) is an integral part of Azerbaijan, Armenia has declared N-K part of Armenia and N-K has declared independence from all. Meanwhile, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the U.S. lurk in the background, supplying financial and military backing in pursuit of their own national agendas.
Azerbaijan is located along an ancient trade route between Europe and Asia, nestled between Armenia to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east, with Iran to the South and Russia due north. Modern-day Azerbaijan was formed in 1922 as the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Within Azerbaijan is the predominately Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K) that is totally isolated from neighboring Armenia.
Armenia is wedged between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran, and within Armenia is an isolated Azeri enclave called Nakhichevan, that borders on Turkey and Iran. In 301 AD Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the national religion. Centuries later Armenians were victims of genocide at the hands of Turks seeking to purge the region of Christians.
The ancient ethnic and religious differences of this region have taken on new importance resulting from independence movements following the break-up of the Soviet Union, coupled with plans to tap into the rich petroleum resources of the Caspian Sea basin. The smell of oil has wafted all the way to Washington, attracting American interest in this otherwise Russian sphere of influence.
Through most of the 19th Century Russia was at war with either Turkey or Persia with Armenians, caught in the middle. Armenian territory was incorporated into the lands of these larger powers. During World War I, the Turks slaughtered over 1 million Armenians, more starved in the Syrian Desert and many others fled. After the Russian revolution, Turkey attacked Armenian lands, annexing still more territory.
In 1922, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan formed the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic and joined the USSR. When Armenians commemorated the genocide in 1965, a movement began to reclaim their lost lands, including reunification with Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Armenian people completely within Azerbaijan. The disagreement between Armenians seeking reunification and Azeris opposing it eventually turned violent.
In the spirit of Glasnost and peristoika preceding the break-up of the Soviet Union, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh voted in favor of unification with Armenia. In September 1989, Azerbaijan became an independent, sovereign state within the USSR, increasing long-standing ethnic tensions between Azeris (Muslim) and minority Armenians (Christian). Violence flared in 1989 and 1990 when Armenians were massacred at Sumgait and in Baku. The government declared a state of emergency and Russian troops were brought in to restore order. Nevertheless, guerrilla fighting continued and the Autonomous Region of Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan, prompting Azerbaijan to impose an economic blockade and sparking serious conflict. No states have yet recognized the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In December 1991, both Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that replaced the Soviet Union. The new Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K) declared independence from both Azerbaijan and Armenia. In a referendum within N-K, citizens voted for independence and CIS troops withdrew shortly thereafter, as guerilla fighting intensified. By mid 1992, fighting spilled into Nakichevan (the Azeri enclave within Armenia’s borders), threatening to draw Turkey into the fighting. Accusing Armenia of supporting N-K rebels, Turkey has provided support to Azerbaijan, however the threat of Russian intervention in support of Armenia deters deeper Turkish involvement.
As fighting intensified and Armenia enjoyed military success, Azerbaijan lapsed into political infighting. Exploiting the situation, Armenian forces captured the key cities in N-K and established a land bridge connection between Armenia and N-K through the city of Lachin.
The conflict has also created tensions with Iran, which is home to some 15 million, mainly Shi’a Azeris. Azeri leaders have reportedly suggested that Azeris in Iran should have autonomy. Iran would like to see the conflict resolved to quell prospects of an Iranian-Azeri independence movement and to avoid possible regional intervention by the U.S. or Turkey. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan, with a secular government, fears the potential of an Iranian-style fundamentalist movement.
In May 1994, the adversaries agreed to a ceasefire and negotiations under the auspices of the Minsk Group. UN Security Council resolutions calling for withdrawal of Armenia rebels have been ignored and negotiations have generally remained at an impasse. Since 1999, Russia has been reinforcing its military positions within Armenia, increasing tensions with Turkey and within NATO. In April 2002, despite the stalemate in peace negotiations, and as a reward for maintaining the ceasefire, the U.S. announced it would authorize weapons sales to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Iran beware.
Azerbaijan is staunchly opposed to any autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh, believing that this would undermine its territorial integrity. Azeris argue that Armenia covets Azeri territory in Karabakh, Nakichivan and charge Armenians with attempting ethnic cleansing in the disputed territories. They believe the boycott of N-K and Armenia is justified by Armenian rebel aggression and refuse to negotiate with the unauthorized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). Azerbaijan has warned that diplomatic recognition of NKR by Armenia will constitute a declaration of war. Azerbaijan, like its ally Turkey is an Islamic nation with a secular government.
Since passing a resolution in 1989 declaring that N-K is part of Armenia, Armenia has done nothing to enforce or rescind this resolution, nor has Armenia recognized the NKR government, fearing that such actions could provoke war. Although Armenia declared N-K part of Armenia, N-K has declared its independence from any other country. Armenia is concerned that Azerbaijan will launch pogroms to drive Armenians from N-K and has undoubtedly provided military and financial support to Armenian insurgents in N-K. To help protect it from surrounding Islamic countries (Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran) Armenia has develop close ties with Russia. Armenian rebels also receive substantial financial support from the Armenia Diaspora, including substantial numbers in the U.S.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh overshadows the competition for access to Caspian Sea oil and oil distribution pipelines. This competition involves two competing blocs; a western bloc including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and the U.S. and an eastern bloc comprised of Russia, Armenia, Iran, Greece and Turkmenistan. Reportedly other rebel groups tend to ally with one or the other blocs, with Kurdish, Abkhazian and Armenian and Ossettian rebels supporting the eastern bloc and Chechnya and Azeris favoring the western bloc.