Tension returned to the Caucasus on Sunday (27) after further clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijan forces in the border region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
With the military escalation, the two countries declared martial law – that is, both governments prepare populations for possible war. It is estimated that 18 people died, including two civilians.
Armenia declares martial law amid tension at Azerbaijan border
It is not clear which movement was the trigger for this new round of confrontations. What is known is that Armenia and Azerbaijan live in territorial disputes older than the creation of the Soviet Union, in 1922 – the USSR incorporated the territory of the two countries in its almost 70 years of existence.
Armenian Foreign Ministry releases photo of what would be a wounded civilian in Nagorno-Karabakh during clashes with Azerbaijan this Sunday (27) – Photo: Armenian Foreign Ministry / Handout via Reuters
The largest of these disputes involves the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh. The region is home to almost 150,000 people in a territory stuck on the borders of Azerbaijan. Of that population, according to data presented by the Armenian government, 95% have Armenian origin.
On the one hand, Armenians argue that they are the ethnic majority and, by self-determination of the peoples, are entitled to control of Nagorno-Karabakh. On the other hand, the Azeris understand that they also have that region as part of the historical territory of Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Map – Photo: Alexandre Mauro / G1
Understand more about the disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh below.
Monument ‘We Are Our Mountains’, in Stepanakert (Khankendi), capital of the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, not recognized by Brazil – Photo: Grandma and Grandpa by David Stanley / CC BY
The region where Nagorno-Karabakh is today was populated by both Armenians, mostly Christians, as azeris, who mostly follow Islam. Although the Russian Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries managed to contain ethnic tensions in the Caucasus, often the two groups clashed.
With the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent formation of the Soviet Union in 1922, the territory over which Moscow’s dominions extended was divided into republics and autonomous regions. And although the Armenians were a majority in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Soviet government decided, still in the 1920s, include the territory within the borders of the then Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan.
In an interview with the G1 last year, researcher Jeffrey Eden, from Harvard University (USA), explained that the very centralized control of the Soviet Union in Moscow prevented the outbreak of separatist movements. Even so, nationalist sentiments remained.
“A lot of people in Azerbaijan see Nagorno-Karabakh as a historical part of the Azeri homeland – just as many Armenians see it the same way,” illustrated Eden.
War in the last years of the USSR
Flags of Armenia and the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh – not recognized by Brazil – Photo: Border Flags by David Stanley / CC BY
In 1988, three years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a war between Azeris and Armenians in the dispute for Nagorno-Karabakh. More than 30 thousand people died, according to estimates.
There are several reasons for the start of the clashes, but the slightest interference from Moscow in a period of reopening led by Mikhail Gorbachev lessened the cohesion imposed by the central government of the USSR: the Soviet military failed to contain the pro-Armenian separatist movements in Nagorno-Karabakh , and the war started.
The conflict only ended in 1993, already after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The clashes ended with a ceasefire signed the following year and mediated mainly by Russia.
Still, in 2016, new clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh left four dead and rekindled regional tension – calmed down since the end of the clashes in the 1990s. And other fighting in July 2020 showed that peace mediated for almost 30 years is at risk.
Volunteers participate in recruitment in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, this Sunday (27) after mobilization for confrontation with Azerbaijan – Photo: Melik Baghdasaryan / Photolure via REUTERS
Russia led in the 1990s, together with the United States and France, the so-called Minsk Group, aimed at resolving tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh. The alliance succeeded negotiate peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the demands have not been fully met.
That’s because, on the one hand, Nagorno-Karabakh remained under territorial control of Azerbaijan, who agreed to grant some autonomy. For this reason, even Armenia formally recognizes the territory as belonging to the Azerbaijani borders. From the other, Azerbaijan accuses the Minsk Group of favoring Armenian interests.
The new clashes have been worrying because, provoked, the Armenian government already admits to discussing Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian announced on Sunday.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian during a meeting with military leaders on Sunday (27) – Photo: Government of Armenia / Handout via Reuters
Russia, in this scenario, prefers to remain as the guarantor of peace between the two countries. So much so that on Sunday he called for an end to the escalation of tensions and a new ceasefire.
“Russia, which has long been the preferred mediator for the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, has a lot to gain by maintaining strong economic and strategic ties with the two countries. It is unlikely to risk damaging these relations by taking sides in the conflict,” explained Jeffrey Eden of Harvard .
Arayik Harutyunya, leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, during a press conference this Sunday (27) – Photo: Hayk Baghdasaryan / Photolure via Reuters
It is a conflict, in fact, that interests a few global geopolitical actors. Both the USA and Iran, political enemies among themselves, called for an end to clashes between Armenians and Azeris. Pope Francis also joined the calls for peace in the Caucasus.
Only Turkey, however, was at odds with the international community and positioned himself on the side of Azerbaijan, country with which it maintains ethnic ties. “Armenia is playing with fire and putting regional peace at risk,” said a Turkish government spokesman.
Dispute reached São Paulo municipalities
Church in the city of Shushi (Shusha), in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh – Photo: Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, Shushi, Artsakh, Armenia by hovo hanragitakan / CC BY 2.0
In 2019, report by G1 showed that two municipalities in the state of São Paulo received alerts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for declaring themselves sister cities of cities in Nagorno-Karabakh – including, mentioning the name of the territory as if it were independent.
- Mairiporã – Stepanakert (or Khankendi, in Azerbaijani or Azerbaijani);
- Pilar do Sul – Shushi (or Shusha, in Azerbaijani).
Both laws that determined the twinning were repealed after the Itamaraty alert. According to the ministry, the Azerbaijani government asked for explanations from Brazil because the two approved municipal laws mentioned the “self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh”.
In a note released in January 2019, Itamaraty informed that considers city initiatives “well intentioned”. However, according to the ministry, the projects “do not favor the construction of a favorable environment for the solution of the conflict”.