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The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict: Hotspot in the Caucasus (2/6)     Print Email

By Armen Sahakyan, European Affairs Editorial Assistant

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the commencement of Nagorno Karabakh uprising, which continues as an unresolved major conflict in the Caucasus.

In 1988, the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), an enclave (see map below) within the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic began rallies demanding reunification with Armenia. Peaceful protests in Stepanakert, the NKAO capital, soon developed into a large-scale war between the Armenians and AzerbaijaNagorno-Karabakhnis. The shooting stopped when Russia imposed a tense ceasefire agreement in 1994. No peace treaty has been signed. Nagorno Karabakh Defense Army, composed of 20,000 mainly Armenian troops, serves as the official army of the country.

Since 1992 the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) co-chaired by the United States, France, and Russia has unsuccessfully tried to mediate.  January 28, 2013 officials from Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Paris for another round of negotiations, again without substantial agreement.

Nagorno Karabakh (NK) (Artsakh in Armenian) remains one of the major conflict hotspots in the world, and it may also be one of the least publicized. Military tensions run high and the resurgence of war, not unlikely, has the potential of spilling into the neighboring states. The conflict poses a threat for the EU and others because of the critical pipelines passing through the South Caucasus near the NK territory. (See pipelines marked on map below.)

Recently both sides have been making incendiary statements. Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot down civilian airplanes flying out of the newly-refurbished Stepanakert airport. Armenia has countered with claims that its air defense systems are willing and capable of securing a safe air transit between Nagorno Karabakh and connecting airports.

The NK conflict began with the “Sovietization” of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1920, after a brief independence period of both states from 1918 to 1920.  Stalin forced the transfer of NK under the administration of Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh pipelines

NK natives repeatedly appealed to the Supreme Soviet of USSR for reunification with the Armenian republic culminating in the 1988 disturbances, which escalated into a large-scale bloody war by 1991.

After the Soviet Union collapse, Azerbaijan declared its independence on August 30, 1991. NK proclaimed itself a republic on September 2, 1991. (Current Russian position, by virtue of its mediator status, is complex because it has interests both in Armenia and Azerbaijan and has an interest in maintaining hegemony in the South Caucasus.)

December 10, 1991, an overwhelming majority of referendum participants voted for the independence of NK Republic. (Azeris in the territory boycotted the referendum). On January 6, 1992 the Declaration on State Independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic was adopted. These actions further intensified the conflict, which eventually claimed 30,000 lives and hundreds of thousands of displaced people both Armenians and Azeris.

The people of NK are relatively prosperous with a steadily growing economy and have free and regular elections highly praised by the international observers. Between the years 2001 and 2011 GDP of the country has grown from about $62 million to $363 million (in current US dollars). No other state has officially recognized NK’s independence yet, not even Armenia, which holds recognition as a chip in the high stakes game with Azerbaijan.

Today, NK Republic maintains Representation Offices in several major world capitals, including Washington, DC. Representative of NK to the United States, Mr. Robert Avetisyan, recently told European Affairs, “The people of Artsakh have long struggled for their rights— the same rights that have allowed the United States and other freedom-loving nations to live and develop in dignity, under government of own choosing”.

Armen Sahakyan, editorial assistant at European Affairs, is an Armenian student in the U.S.