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Armenia-Azerbaijan Border Crisis – A New Escalation of an Old Conflict

By Daniela Belinschi

Edited by Andrzej Drzewieniecki & Andrada Bozianu

Nagorno-Karabakh has once again become the focal point of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The latter launched an attack on the region in the past weeks. The recent short-lived conflict is part of a longstanding dispute that resulted in thousands of casualties and an ongoing humanitarian crisis. The blockage of the Lachin corridor raised numerous questions regarding the safety of the population and the threat of a contemporary Armenian genocide.

©Karen Minasyan/AFP

Echoes of the Past

The conflict dates back to the 1917 Russian Revolution and has been characterised by a series of short wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the latter receiving sustained support from the Ottoman Empire.

Following the Turkish defeat in World War I, the Paris Peace Conference appointed a representative from Azerbaijan to govern the region. However, the decision faced opposition from civilians.

Subsequently, the region was incorporated into Azerbaijan under the Soviet authorities, which has remained the case since then.

The confrontation reignited in 1988 and resulted in approximately 30,000 casualties. A ceasefire agreement was reached on 12 May 1994, mediated by Russia.

In 2020, Azerbaijan launched a new offensive that received strong condemnation from the international community due to reported war crimes committed by both sides.

Human Rights Violations

The past three years were marked by ongoing tensions between the two states, with one of the main issues being the blockade of the Lachin corridor. This corridor served as a vital connection between Armenia and the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as the Republic of Artsakh - formerly a de facto independent state, however unrecognised by any member of the UN).

This has resulted in severe restrictions on free movement, and limited access to essential resources such as water, food, and fuel, thereby violating fundamental human rights. There have been reported cases of death due to malnutrition as a direct consequence of these circumstances.

As signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have committed to uphold and protect human rights. Furthermore, both are part of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The blockade of the Lachin corridor goes against the provisions of these two legally binding acts. This action has prompted the Council of Europe to take measures in response. Consequently, a territorial dispute has escalated into a full-fledged humanitarian crisis.

2023: A 24-Hour Chronicle

The anti-terror operation initiated by Azerbaijan on 19 September concluded within 24 hours, but it did not provide any guarantees for lasting peace. According to the agreement, the military forces of the Republic of Artsakh would be completely disarmed and disbanded, effectively ending the region’s self-proclaimed independence.

However, concerns arise regarding the fate of over 120,000 Armenians residing in the region. Despite assurances from the Azeri President about the peaceful integration of the Armenian community, there is no certainty that steps will be taken to prevent a repetition of past abuses.

According to a separatist Armenian human rights official, over 200 people were killed as a result of Azerbaijan’s military offensive. 138 people, including 29 civilians, had been wounded.

The war, albeit brief, coupled with the blockade of the Lachin corridor, sparked significant alarm and urgency among international human rights organisations tasked with safeguarding the rights of individuals, especially in conflict-affected regions.

External (Non-)Involvement

Turkey has consistently supported Azerbaijan throughout more than 100 years of the conflict. This alliance is rooted in both cultural similarities between the two nations and historical tensions between Turkey, or the Ottoman Empire in the past, and Armenia - most notably regarding the Armenian Genocide. Turkey continues to provide support to Azerbaijan, while it appears that Armenia has lost its primary ally.

Armenia, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), has received support from Russia during its conflicts with Azerbaijan, serving as a guarantor in peace negotiations.

However, despite its responsibility to maintain peace under the Eurasian intergovernmental military alliance CSTO, Russia did not intervene when requested by the Armenian government, even when Russian peacekeepers were among the victims.

Various reasons have been suggested for this inaction. One possible explanation is Russia's desire to preserve its relations with Azerbaijan (characterised by economic partnerships and security cooperation) and to avoid any strain.

Moreover, Russia’s war against Ukraine necessitates a significant deployment of military personnel. As a result, the commitment of maintaining peace, which Russia initially purported to uphold, has been deprioritized.

On the other hand, Armenia's foreign policy seems to be gradually shifting away from exclusive reliance on Russia. This shift became evident when Armenia recently provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine, for the first time since the beginning of the war, departing from its previous approach. In the words of the Armenian PM, the war is deemed as a "strategic mistake."

The state has also ratified the statute to accept International Criminal Court jurisdiction and had an exclusive joint-military exercise with U.S. soldiers. Earlier this year, it refused to host a military training by CSTO - a Russian-led alliance of post-Soviet countries.

In light of the evolving dynamics, the question arises: has Russia lost an old ally, or is it actively seeking to secure a new one, namely, Azerbaijan?

What About the EU?

The current relations between the European Union and Azerbaijan are primarily focused on gas purchase agreements, which are seen as a viable alternative for Europe's intentions to reduce gas dependence on Russia.

However, these liaisons are being reevaluated by the European Parliament and other EU officials due to concerns over fundamental human rights violations, against core principles of the European Union.

In fact, there are calls from European officials to suspend gas purchase agreements, as an imposed sanction toward Azerbaijan’s aggression.

The situation is further complicated by the mass exodus of the Armenian population from the region that is set to be integrated into Azerbaijan. As of today, almost all Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh have left their homes.

This has prompted Europe to reconsider its stance towards Azerbaijan. The recent attack on 19 September, right during the UN General Assembly, shocked both the EU and the US.

However, importing gas from Azerbaijan is not a long-term solution due to infrastructure challenges and the finite nature of natural gas resources. This strengthens the case for implementing viable sanctions.

Accordingly, some European officials argue that prioritising support for Armenia over Azerbaijan is also in line with the EU's commitment to peace and stability. The situation gained increased importance in light of Azerbaijan's incorporation of the region into its territory, resulting in the displacement and forced migration of over 100 000 Armenians.

The end of the century-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh does not guarantee regional stability, considering the historical legacies and external influences that continue to shape Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The updated state rapports underscore a significant shift in Caucasian politics, as Russia’s support for Armenia is no longer as prominent as before. The ongoing blockade of the Lachin corridor raises serious concerns over the safety and welfare of the affected population, particularly in light of past atrocities.

Given the European Union's objectives to ensure stability and democracy, it is crucial to act promptly and decisively to address the situation and ensure the protection of human rights.

Sources: Al Jazeera, Carnegie Europe, European Council, Human Rights Watch, Politico, Radio Free Europe, The Indian Express

Written by Daniela Belinschi

October 2023

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