Today, one of the most contested areas from the global perspective, together with Kosovo-Metochia in the Balkans, is in South Caucasus – the landlocked region of Nagorno-Karabakh (the Mountainous/High Karabakh as opposite to the Lower Karabakh) as disputed land between the Armenians and the Azeris. A recently renewed military conflict over the land between Azerbaijan and Armenia brought to the agenda the question of its historical background as well as the focal claims over the land by both sides. The questions are: Are inter-ethnic conflicts inevitable? Is there fatal predestination for every ethnic entity to compete with other ethnic entities in a Darwinian struggle for existence, to see the only guarantee of its own ethnic reproduction, the expulsion, suppression or extermination of other ethnic groups? In general, given its patchwork of ethnic diversity (50+ languages and ethnic groups), perhaps no part of ex-USSR can provides more fertile ground for the inter-ethnic struggle than the Caucasus region followed by the Balkans.
The Caucasus is well-known in anthropology as a region that produced the Caucasoids – the fair-skinned “European” people, named after the Mt. Caucasus to be located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. They occupied Europe, Africa, as far as south as Sahara, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. During the last 500 years, the Caucasoids have spread worldwide. In some regions of Central Asia, they were replaced in historic times by Mongoloids. There was always admixture with, and incomplete differentiation from, neighboring races.
As a historical very fact, since the period of Antique, the lands of South Caucasus Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia (on the bridge between Europe and Asia) have been at the crossroads of civilizations where military detachments, nations, goods, religions, and ideologies non-stop influenced each other between Europe, China, and Central Asia. This road later gave for modern Russia after Peter the Great access to the Near and Middle East. In the region of both Caucasus (North and South) even today the historical tensions between the Ottoman-Persian-Russian rivalries for hegemony (especially in South Caucasus or Trans-Caucasus) are visible and they are partly rooted in the division between Russia and British imperial areas of influences in the 19th century and especially in the year of 1907 when Russia and Great Britain divided the territory of Persia (today Iran) into their own hemispheres.
The strategic significance that is attached to South Caucasus for some century and a half gained new geopolitical importance since 1990 by the convergence of international security, economic, financial, and political interests in the region following the dissolution of the USSR. It is true that even today, the Russian authorities are perceiving the separation of ex-Soviet republics in both South Caucasus and Central Asia as a heavy but probably reversible loss. The contemporary security problem of Karabakh is stemming from a personal J. V. Stalin’s decision in 1921 to annex the Armenian province of Artsakh to Azerbaijan.
The Soviet history of the conflict
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for sure has a long history as many similar interethnic and interstate conflicts around the globe. The conflict is not a product of the dissolution of the USSR or the collapse of the bipolar antagonism during the Cold War 1.0 as the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is much deeper and historically rooted in the past. However, it is commonly accepted by the scholars of modern history and security studies that the contemporary period of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict started during the Bolshevik Revolution followed by the 1917−1921 Russian Civil War when in 1921, Joseph V. Stalin and Vladimir I. Lenin (both of them have not been ethnic Russians), working through the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party, in order to geopolitically calm down the imperial ambitions of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who was at that time the political-military leader of the newly born Turkish Nationalist Army, assigned the contested land of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan but not to neighboring Armenia. However, such quite political decision very angered the Armenian Bolshevik leadership who, having been, in fact, forced into the state composition of the Soviet Union, learned that J. V. Stalin had little understanding for their standpoints over the land and keeping out the prospect of severe retaliation if some actions were going to be taken by them against the Azeris.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, therefore, remained frozen during the J. V. Stalin era (1924−1953), leading to a false myth of brotherhood and unity between the neighboring Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan as it was quite similar concerning Kosovo-Metochia during the time of the dictatorship by Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia (1945−1980). The USSR’s leadership transition from a Georgian J. V. Stalin to a Ukrainian N. Khrushchev in 1953, however, provided some political opportunities for the Armenian Communist leaders to express their national dissatisfaction with the current status of the district of Nagorno-Karabakh which was still in Azerbaijan. The central Soviet authorities in Moscow have been over-crowded with the political protests from the Armenian side followed by many petitions from thousands of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh who, in fact, supported an idea of the annexation of this province by Socialist Armenia. Nevertheless, although those Armenian political-national protests continued to be made to N. Khrushchev’s successors, they have not been taken into consideration similar to the Serbian protests from Kosovo-Metochia over local Albanian pressure and terrorism.
A new time, nevertheless, arrived with M. Gorbachev and his policy of semi-liberalization and the so-called Perestroika. In other words, bolstered by M. Gorbachev’s new policies, the Armenian protests took on a strong nationalist framework, preparing the way for an independent Armenia which would include the district of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Karabakh issue became acute when Moscow’s seriously made promises of Glasnost and Perestroika were rudely disappointed. Several resolutions issued by the Supreme Soviet of the Karabakh Autonomous District in 1988 demanding reunification with Armenia, however, fell not to be taken into consideration in Moscow, Erevan, and Baku. However, when in 1988 the Armenians of Sumgait, like those of Baku and other Azerbaijani towns in 1990, became victims of pogroms resulting in a massive exodus of the Armenians, this turned into the first inter-ethnic conflict to escalate during M. Gorbachev’s time in power (1985−1990). Both the Soviet and Azerbaijani military and security troops have been sent to prevent reunion of the district with Armenia which was in the meantime openly supported by Erevan.
In 1989, just before the Soviet Union was to be dissolved by personal decision of M. Gorbachev, serious and open conflict between Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, and Azerbaijan over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh started and very soon since December 1991 took dramatical path becoming at the same time both the initial and the most bloody military and inter-ethnic conflict between post-Soviet republics now internationally recognized as the independent states.
The post-Soviet history of the conflict
The unresolved inter-ethnic dispute and conflicts between Christian Armenia and Muslim Shia Azerbaijan over the majority Armenian (75%) populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan is the most unsolved bloody conflict in the Caucasus region (both North and South). It is true both because of: 1) Rising tensions between the two sovereign states of Armenia and Azerbaijan; and 2) The three focal regional powers fighting for their geopolitical influences in this part of Eurasia: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. However, Christian Russia, Shia Islamic Iran, and Suni Islamic Turkey have quite different viewpoints on how to solve the conflict. Although it passed a quarter of a century since an international cease-fire agreement was signed in 1995, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was certainly not frozen and erupted in summer 2020 once again. Even today, the fighting may have come to a formal end, but the fundamental issues are going to be unresolved and the threat of renewed hostilities between the Christians and the Muslims in this district, like in Kosovo-Metochia, remains very real.
An open direct armed military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh district started in December 1991 during the War of Yugoslav Succession in the Balkans. The battle by Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians for self-determination was reminiscent of Turkish-Islamic pogroms under the Ottoman rule with the resulting of West Armenia, which added to the bitterness of the warfare. However, the so-called “International Community” reacted quite faster, but, in fact, with little success on the ground. On March 24th, 1992, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe decided to set up an ongoing forum for the negotiation of a peaceful settlement to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The peace settlement proposal presented by the Minsk Group in 1993 was not accepted due to the irreconcilability of the parties involved in the military conflict. A fragile truce was eventually reached thanks to decisive mediation by the Russian diplomats on May 12th, 1994. Ever since then OSCE has tried in vain to accomplish a peaceful solution to this contained conflict by various summit conferences like in Budapest 1994, Lisbon 1996, or Istanbul 1999.
The efforts of diplomatic mediations
With the dismantling of the USSR, Russian President B. Yeltsin and President N. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan took the initiative in September 1991 to fill the leadership vacuum that each anticipated would follow. It is likely that the personal ambitions of these Presidents, more than the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, motivated them to diplomatically intervene in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Three months after the mediation, President M. Gorbachev of the USSR resigned from the post and these mediators turned their attention elsewhere.
The first mediation was soon replaced by the Iranian one from February to May 1992. Iran with some 77 million people of Shia Islam denomination and Persian language used its close historical ties with the Caucasus peoples and region to get its mediation efforts legitimacy. Iranian desire to maintain those historical ties, to bolster its standing as a regional power, and to prevent Turkey (Sunni Islam with 76 million people) from gaining regional dominance combined to motivate its team to intervene. However, when the discussions in Tehran collapsed, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the CSCE/OSCE) assumed the leading role in the intervention at the same time squeezing the Iranian team out as being a non-member of this security organization. Nevertheless, the process of mediation now was passing from Asia to Europe.
In the meantime, it was Kazakhstan’s President N. Nazarbayev’s diplomatic intervention in August 1992 who was by his religious denomination a Muslim. In other words, fearing a Russian incursion into Kazakhstan, President N. Nazarbayev vehemently defended the principle of non-alteration of borders (set up by the Soviet Bolsheviks) above national self-determination (this principle was not accepted by the West in the case of Kosovo Albanians after June 1999). Nevertheless, for this reason, his diplomatic intervention was perceived differently by the Armenians (as biased) and the Azeris (as fair). However, such asymmetrical perceptions about the conflict resolution led finally to the collapse of N. Nazarbayev’s short-lived mediation in August 1992.
The conflict over the district of Nagorno-Karabakh provided a good opportunity for the CSCE (today the OSCE) to try to represent itself as an effective conflict settlement security organization covering Europe. At the same time, the CSCE recognized that South Caucasus belongs to Europe but not Asia. The first step toward the conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh done by the CSCE was the creation of the Minsk Group that was composed of nine national representatives with the focal purpose to deal with the conflict as the mediators. However, the practical role of the Minsk Group was minor due to five main reasons:
1) Its a lack of experience to deal with such kind of conflicts.
2) Reduced solidarity among the members of the Minsk Group.
3) The regional ambitions of Russia.
4) The advocacy role of Turkey to weaken the intervention.
5) The CSCE’s Member States attempted to advance their own agendas and, therefore, the organization together with the Minsk Group became increasingly indecisive during the three-year intervention from February 1992 to December 1994.
During the unsuccessful CSCE’s intervention, it was Russian mediation from November 1993 to December 1994 to try to bring peace settlement to the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. A Russian representative to the Minsk Group, Vladimir Kazimirov, started the so-called “shuttle diplomacy” as a direct challenge to the CSCE’s role as the focal mediator. That was a time when Azerbaijan launched a great military counter-offensive with the purpose to drive out the Armenian troops from the district of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the rest of the members of the Minsk Group have been very suspicious about V. Kazimirov’s real intentions and, therefore, they became quite reluctant participants in the mediation process. For sure, the Russian competition with the CSCE was combined with perceived mistrust by the Azeri political leadership to finally undermine V. Kazimirov’s year-long diplomatic mediation efforts. The problem during the whole process of mediations even today was and is that Azerbaijan sees Russia as a natural Orthodox Christian supporter of Armenia while Armenians see Muslim Turkey as a natural supporter of Muslim Turkic Azeris with whom they have many ethnographic and linguistic common things. Finally, Islamic Shia Iran is considering Turkey as a regional competitor and potential enemy as the Turks are of the Sunni denomination in contrast to Shia (Shiite) Azeris.
The next phase of the mediations was Co-Chairs one which took place in January 1995. The Co-Chairs were appointed by the OSCE (the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), which replaced the CSCE, at the Budapest Summit in December 1994 in order to lead the Minsk Group. The chief roles have been occupied by three Great Powers: Russia, France, and the USA. However, exclusion of the principal parties in the planning process (Azerbaijan and Armenia) followed by the lack of innovative proposals and strategies by the Co-Chairs presaged further impasses in the coming years.
Azerbaijan and Armenia in May 1994 reached an agreement to a ceasefire. However, they did not resolve their different viewpoints concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and issue. The ethnic Armenians from the district of Nagorno Karabakh together with the Armenian Government insisted that the process of negotiations has to be within the framework of a “complete package” which is going to include the most significant point – the political status of Nagorno Karabakh. However, contrary to the Armenian side, the Azeris insisted that a “step-by-step” solution would gain focal points toward the final conflict settlement. The Government of Azerbaijan refused to talk directly with the Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians (differently, for example, with the case of direct talks between Belgrade and Priština over Kosovo’s status after June 1999). Baku argued in December 1997 that Armenia was a focal enemy to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and, therefore, the Azeri Government in Baku will not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as a separate territory from Azerbaijan and at the same time will acknowledge the Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians as an entity separate from Armenia. It is worth mentioning that when Armenian President Levon Ter Petrossian accepted the Azeri proposal for the “step-by-step” formula of the conflict resolution, the Armenian voters lost confidence in him causing him to resign. The newly elected Armenian President, Robert Kocharian, was an advocate of a tougher approach supporting the “package” solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.
To be continued