The Upper Karabakh region, also known as Nagorno Karabakh which translates to Karabakh ‘highlands’ in Russian, is a mountainous territory of about 4400 km2 located in eastern Azerbaijan near the border with Armenia. Although the region is internationally recognized as part of the Azerbaijani region, it considers itself independent under the name of the Republic of Artsaj. No UN member country recognizes this republic which in practice is under Armenian sovereignty. Armenians and Azerbaijanis have disputed the region for more than thirty years and have never reached a peace agreement. That is why every now and then, disturbances between the two come to the surface again. One of the bloodiest episodes occurred in April 2016: four days of violence that left around three hundred dead. However, the most serious escalation so far is the one currently occurring as a result of the clashes that began in September 2020.
Upper Karabakh is populated by a majority of Armenian Christians and an Azeri-Muslim minority. After the dissolution in 1918 of the Russian Empire, which had controlled the region until then, the Democratic Republic of Armenia and the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan emerged. At that time, the two republics disputed several territories, including Upper Karabakh. In 1920, when Armenia and Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union, Moscow assigned the Karabakh area as an autonomous region within the territory of Azerbaijan.
After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the newly independent Azerbaijan withdrew its autonomy from Nagorno-Karabakh, assuming the territory as its own. This resulted in one of the bloodiest wars of the last half of the 20th century, which lasted from 1989 to 1994, and also led to one of the largest diasporas in history by the Armenian population. It is estimated that between 2,000 and 30,000 people died during that time. During this period, the parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh region organized a referendum on independence on December 10, 1991, which was approved with the support of the Armenians and the boycott of the Azeris.
Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence on January 6, 1992 as the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, and was later renamed the Republic of Artsaj in 2017. The declaration further aggravated the open war between Azerbaijan and Armenian secessionists supported by Armenia. The Karabakh secessionists resisted the Azerbaijani offensive and also took control of a strip of Azerbaijani territory that now connects the region with Armenia. The conflict lasted until 1994 after a Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed. Although the ceasefire agreement has been broken on several occasions.
That same year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created the Minsk Group chaired by France, Russia and the United States to further develop a peace process. The proposal, presented in 2007 as the Madrid Principles, calls for the territories surrounding the region to be returned to Azerbaijan and for a consultation to be held to decide on their final status. Due to the continuing state of conflict in the region, such a consultation has not yet been able to take place.
The Madrid Principles
The Madrid Principles are one of the main peace agreements proposed for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The proposal was presented by the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan during the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ministerial conference held in Madrid in November 2007.
The agreements originated from a revised version of the proposed peace accords presented by the OSCE Minsk Group states (France, Russia, and the United States) in 2006. The then representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed on several points of the agreement but differed on the deadline for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied territories and on the decision-making mechanisms for deciding the future status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
In July 2009, during the G8 summit in Italy, the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group, Nicolas Sarkozy, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, issued a joint statement urging the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, to “resolve their differences and finalize their agreement on the basis of the Basic Principles,” these being the principles of Non-use of Force, Territorial Integrity, and Equal Rights and Self-Determination of Peoples enshrined in international law.
The conference also revealed six points of the peace treaty agreed upon by all parties:
- Return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control.
- An interim state for Nagorno-Karabakh with guarantees for its security and self-government.
- A corridor linking the region of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
- Future determination of the final legal status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region through expression of the will of the country.
- The right of displaced people and refugees to return to their former places of residence.
- The launching of a peacekeeping operation in the area by the international security forces.
Apart from its deteriorating effects on the region for the actors involved, this Nagorno-Karabakh conflict does not only affect the local actions of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The South Caucasus area is especially known for its geopolitical and economic relevance in terms of oil, gas, weight and influences in the Middle East. The region is known as one of the main trade arteries for the entire continent. Therefore, it is not surprising to find the presence of several international actors such as Russia, Turkey, France, the United States, NATO, Iran and Israel, among others.
In the event of a large-scale armed conflict, it is believed that Russia would end up allied with Armenia because of its shared historical ties with the Armenian-Christian community; Turkey, on the other hand, would side with Azerbaijan because of its Persian heritage and Muslim presence, and could appeal to the support of the international community (NATO) due to its membership. For both Russia and Turkey, exercising sovereignty over the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea is of great importance for their influence in the rest of the Middle East.
France has called for a ceasefire and has offered its support to the Armenian community, given its historical ties during the diaspora in which thousands of Armenian immigrants. On the other hand, Israel has become quite the tie breaker in the conflict when it comes to Iran’s involvement. Having provided millions of US dollars in weapons and secret intelligence to Azerbaijan, Israel has forced Iran to take part in the regional issue in the southern Caucasus publicly stating the importance of both Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach a ceasefire “for the good of all”.