Why Armenia and Azerbaijan clash in Nagorno-Karabakh

Civilians in a shelter in Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic, September 28, 2020.

For the third day in a row, deadly fighting took place on Monday, September 28, between the forces of Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Armenia, and the troops of Azerbaijan, in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, populated by 150 000 inhabitants, mainly Armenians.

As in the outbreaks of violence in recent years (2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018), neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan, which is fighting over this mountainous territory enclosed in the Republic of Azerbaijan, has gave details of the clashes.

Despite calls for restraint, there is no sign of appeasement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics that have been at odds for decades over this 4,400 square kilometer area, as large as the Upper Upper -Savoie.

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  • Ethnic conflict of the end of the USSR

Azerbaijan and Armenia (in the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic of Transcaucasia) joined the USSR in the early 1920s. Stalin then decided to attach Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mostly by Christian Armenians, to Azerbaijan, predominantly Muslim.

Thanks to perestroika, the “opening” initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, which offers more autonomy to the Soviet republics, the leaders of Karabakh voted, in 1988, to unify the region with Armenia. In particular, they denounce the attempt by the Azerbaijani authorities to increase their influence in Nagorno-Karabakh. For months, the Skirmishes are increasing, forcing the majority of Azerbaijani Armenians to take refuge in Armenia and the majority of Armenian Azeris to do the same in Azerbaijan.

At the end of summer 1991, the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became a reality, and Azerbaijan declared its independence on August 30, 1991. On September 2, 1991, the Armenian majority voted to separate from the Azerbaijan and proclaims the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Independence which is not recognized by any member state of the UN.

Read also Armenia launches procedure for recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh independence

From sporadic, incidents between Armenians and Azeris escalate. Between 1992 and 1994, large-scale fighting left nearly 30,000 dead. Armenian forces are seizing areas outside the enclave, raising threats of intervention from other countries in the region.

In May 1994, a ceasefire was obtained, negotiations for the resolution of the conflict were organized within the framework of the Minsk Group, a body created in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) , co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States. On the ground, most of the violence ceased, except for a few regular clashes in the 2000s, notably from April 2 to 5, 2016, during the Four Day War, caused by an Azerbaijani attack.

But after several months of rising tensions, punctuated by incidents along the border, fighting broke out on September 27, 2020, prompting general mobilization and the establishment of martial law in these countries.

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  • Confrontations by proxy

These clashes raise fears of destabilization in this region of the southern Caucasus, an area crossed by oil pipelines, essential to supply the world oil and gas markets. Among the many diplomatic reactions, France, mediator in this conflict within the framework of the Minsk Group, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. In Washington, Donald Trump said he was watching the situation very closely. The escalation of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh is “Very worrying”, and any interference is “Unacceptable”, said the spokesperson for the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell.

A major conflict involving Armenia and Azerbaijan could lead to the intervention of competing powers in the Caucasus region: Russia and Turkey. Mr Borrell said he learned of the accusations of the involvement of “Syrian militias” close to Turkey and “Other forces” in Nagorno-Karabakh, taking care to add: “We have not seen any facts that could justify or support these allegations. “

The Kremlin, which positions itself as the arbiter in the region, supplies arms to both countries and, for nearly thirty years, has so far managed to avoid open war. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev.

Turkey has announced that it will support Azerbaijan, its traditional ally. Armenia’s ambassador to Russia, quoted by Russian news agencies on Monday, accused Turkey of moving around 4,000 fighters from northern Syria to Azerbaijan to take part in clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has denied this claim.

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