Migration & Conflict

Nagorno-Karabakh: An unfavourable conclusion to a decades long war

May 17, 2024
an old man walking past a ruined building in Nagorno-Karabakh

An old man walks past buildings ruined in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. Photo: Adam Jones, Flickr.

For the last three decades Nagorno-Karabakh was a site of contestation, until January 2024 when it ceased to exist. Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) lies in the Lower Caucus Range and fully within the borders of Azerbaijan. Despite its location, the region is composed of mostly ethnic Armenians and held strong economic, social and political affiliations with Armenia. It was a self-declared republic. However, internationally the region was recognised as the territory of Azerbaijan, even by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. 

In a decree issued by Nagorno-Karabakh’s 5th, and last, president Samvel Shahramanyan the region was instructed to "dissolve all state institutions and organisation… by January 1, 2024” and that “the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) [will] cease to exist”.

The dissolution follows a bout of intense conflict on 19th September 2023 but the history of Nagorno-Karabakh has much deeper roots.

Armenians have a strong foothold in Nagorno-Karabakh, with claims that they have occupied the region since the 2nd century BC. This has not been without adversity or conflict. In 1895, under the Ottoman Empire they faced genocide and persecution for their faith. Legitimacy was granted in 1923 when the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was created by the USSR with territorial lines drawn specifically to ensure an ethnic Armenian majority.

In the 100 years since, Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself as part of Soviet Armenia (1988) and later declared independence from Azerbaijan as a new state (1991). During this time NK was still internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Conflict erupted between 1988-1994 and led to mass casualties of up to 30,000 people and hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis were forced to seek refuge. 

In 1994 fighting was quelled through a Russian brokered ceasefire, the Bishkek Protocol, which recognised NK as a de facto independent state. Despite independence the region still remained extremely close and reliant on Armenia. Outside of intermittent clashes, the ceasefire held until 2020. 

In 2020 the ceasefire was officially broken as Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan entered a 44-day war. Fearing major conflict on the continent, Europe, the United States and Russia all independently attempted to broker peace talks between the nations. Russia once again was able to secure a ceasefire and placed 1,960 Russian peacekeepers on the ground of NK. They also assumed responsibility over the Lanchin Corridor, the only road connecting NK to Armenia.

On 19th September 2023 Stephanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, was bombed in a lightning offensive. It was preceded by a 10 month blockade of the Lanchin Corridor, restricting medical supplies and food to a starving Nagorno-Karabakh in what residents described as “a slow motion genocide."

The blockade was initiated by Baku backed activists reportedly protesting illegal mining in the region. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan also accused Azerbaijan of conducting "ethnic cleansing" and urged the international community to act. 

On 20th September Russia secured another ceasefire, this time with the promise of negotiations that would lead to the dissolution of a ravaged region and its re-integration into Azerbaijan. Since the reopening of the Lanchin Corridor 70,000 of the 120,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh have fled the region. 

Despite Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh, over the last three decades it has been the primary arms supplier for the conflict, providing 94% and 60% of Armenian and Azerbaijani weapons respectively. Regarding the accusations of ethnic cleansing in the region, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said "It's difficult to say who is to blame (for the exodus). There is no direct reason for such actions”. 

a group of people evacuating their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenian evacated from their homes. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine Russia’s efforts have been diverted and have allowed other actors to become major players in this conflict, allowing Israel, Turkey and Europe to get involved. As Europe sees the Caucus as part of the continent, impetus for western peace intervention has been spurred. 

As for Europe’s interest, in an effort to diversify from Russian oil and gas supplies, the continent receives increasing levels of hydrocarbons from Azerbaijan. The country exports 8 thousand barrels of oil and gas daily to Europe and Central Asia.

Based on their shared pan-Turkick history, linguistic and economic affiliations, Turkey is a strong supporter of Azerbaijan and brings its allies Pakistan and Qatar to their side. In the 2020 conflict Israel also supplied arms to Azerbaijan. 

On the nexus of Europe and the Middle East, and with many influential actors involved, the prospect of sustained conflict in the region has considerable consequences.

Despite the formal dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh and its planned re-integration into Azerbaijan, this does not appear to be the conclusion of the region and its legacy.