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Home » The West Must Act to Avert War in Nagorno-Karabakh

The West Must Act to Avert War in Nagorno-Karabakh

by Cahan Garakhanova
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Without a strong-handed referee, Azerbaijan has increasingly moved to resolve its issues by force.

A woman in a crowd of protesters clutched a lifeless dove in her hand, its head flopping back and forth as she waved her arm in the air. The bird had apparently been squeezed to death while she spoke into a megaphone, delivering an impassioned speech honoring Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the 2020 war for Nagorno-Karabakh.

With dark humor, the strangled dove came to embody the broken peace process in the South Caucasus. The bird and its human handler were part of a show of political force by Azerbaijan in the Lachin corridor, the sole road connecting Armenians in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to the outside world. Since Dec. 12, Azerbaijani protesters have blocked the road with crowds of people and tent encampments, halting the normal movement of people and goods in or out of the enclave. The protests began with specific complaints around the mining of natural resources in areas held by ethnic Armenians. They grew into a broader nationalistic grievance, challenging the role of Russian peacekeepers and pressing for greater controls over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The resulting melee has choked off incoming cargo, cutting food, fuel, and medical supplies for 120,000 ethnic Armenians, according to population figures from local leaders. The U.S. State Department called on Azerbaijan to open the road and made a statement at the U.N. Security Council calling for the same. Samantha Power, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s administrator, warned the closure could “cause a significant humanitarian crisis.” Gas supplies to Armenian-populated areas were cut for three days, leaving people without heat in winter weather.

Nagorno-Karabakh is populated by ethnic Armenians who have pursued independence since the 1980s, when Azerbaijan and Armenia were part of the Soviet Union. Since 1991, these Armenians have built a self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, with an elected government and a range of public institutions. Officially, though, Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, whose government has spent 30 years trying to reassert federal control over the region and its residents.

In 2020, the status quo moved in Azerbaijan’s favor. A 44-day war established Azerbaijani control over much of the disputed area. However, part of it remained inhabited and self-governed by the Armenian population. Russian peacekeepers were deployed to assure protection for Armenian-held areas, as well as free passage through the Lachin corridor—the road that Azerbaijani protesters are now blocking.

Since February, the war in Ukraine has left Russia weakened and its capacity diminished. Without a strong-handed referee, Baku has increasingly moved to resolve its issues by force, even while those same issues are on the negotiating table.

Two parallel peace tracks—one facilitated by the European Union, the other hosted by Moscow—have aimed to de-escalate the situation and resolve contentious issues, including the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. But Azerbaijan’s superior military power and natural resource wealth have enabled it to drive the dynamics on the ground. On Sept. 12, it launched a punishing attack on Armenian territory, two weeks after peace talks between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had taken place in Brussels.

“The peace the way Baku envisions it is a peace that is entirely established on its own terms,” said Eldar Mamedov, a Brussels-based foreign-policy analyst. “Aliyev is trying to apply pressure on the Armenian side to re-integrate the Karabakh region into Azerbaijan proper.”

Armenians in Karabakh see full integration into Azerbaijan without security guarantees as a prelude to ethnic cleansing, either through direct violence or severe pressure to leave their homes. Azerbaijan has vowed to treat the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh as equal to its own citizens, which provides little comfort given Baku’s poor human rights record. Moreover, a series of gruesome incidents by Azerbaijani soldiers, including the execution of Armenian prisoners of war, sexual violence against women soldiers, and the mutilation and beheading of Armenian civilians have swelled their fears.

“The fate of the Karabakh Armenians is a core issue for ending the hostility between the two countries. No one has laid out what’s the best way,” said Zaur Shiriyev of the International Crisis Group.

Source: Foreign Policy

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