15 reasons to watch the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2017
A military showdown between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is highly likely this year, a Council on Foreign Relations (CfR) report says.
A brief explanation of the conflict:
In 1988, bloody clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh broke out between ethnic Armenians and Azeris.
Both groups laid claim to the territory—officially part of Azerbaijan—after the fall of the Soviet Union.
But in 1991, Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh voted to establish the region as an independent state, in a poll boycotted by many Azeris. The intervening years saw a full-fledged war break out. Ethnic cleansing was rife.
At least 30,000 died in the clashes and an estimated one million people were displaced.
Armenia occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding areas in 1994—an area amounting to 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. An uneasy truce has maintained since then, and fatalities continue.
Is it all set to change?
1. Azerbaijanis have not forgotten, nor have they forgiven. The loss of Nagorno-Karabakh remains a “traumatic event” for the majority of Azerbaijanis, a 2016 report by the Polish Institute of International Affairs said. “Hostility towards Armenians is also deliberately stoked by Azerbaijan’s authorities,” the report stated.
2. Armenian nationalists are not backing down. Mass demonstrations against the Armenian government broke out in Yerevan last July in support of nationalist militants who took hostages at a police station in the country’s capital.
Many protested against what they perceived to be their government’s inability to defend Nagorno-Karabakh from an Azerbaijani offensive. Their revolt resulted in the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan in September.
3. The pain is still fresh. Even though two decades have passed since the implementation of the ceasefire, the painful memories of that era still resound on both sides today. Efforts to overcome the trauma are often met with resistance.
4. Peace activists are targeted. “Social media is actively used to identify and intimidate constructive or alternative voices,” local peace activist Philip Gamaghelyan wrote. Armenians or Azerbaijanis who befriend one another publicly on social networking sites are often “attacked, insulted, and called traitors,” he added.
5. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia are boosting their military might. According to the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), both Azerbaijan and Armenia were ranked among the top 10 most militarised countries in the world in 2015, Armenia taking third spot and Azerbaijan taking eighth.
6. Armenian forces measure up to Azerbaijan’s. With around 70,000 troops, Armenia’s armed forces equals Azerbaijan’s in terms of frontline manpower, even though it only has a population of around 3 million people, as opposed to Azerbaijan’s 9.5 million.
7. But Azerbaijan is overtaking. Baku spent an astounding $22 billion to modernise its military equipment since 2006 and now significantly outguns its rival. This proved effective during last year’s clashes as Azerbaijani forces managed to reclaim territory from occupying Armenian forces.
8. Both are facing a credit crunch. Credit rating agency Moody’s has painted a bleak picture for the South Caucasus region in 2017. Armenia’s dire economic situation sparked major anti-government protests in Yerevan last year. In Azerbaijan, meanwhile, currency depreciation, volatile energy prices and contracting gross domestic product makes social unrest in the country “likely” in 2017, the CfR report said.
9. It’s the crude. Having enjoyed the prosperity brought about by high oil prices for so long, Azerbaijan’s economy is set to take a nosedive as crude oil — now half the price it was two years ago — comprises 90 percent of the country’s exports. Armenia, on the other hand, has no oil of its own, but it too is suffering the blowback of low oil prices due to its economic dependence on Russian prosperity. In 2013, oil and natural gas accounted for 68 percent of all Russian exports.
10. How are both sides coping? Writing for Euractiv, Licínia Simão, an assistant professor of International Relations at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, said both Armenia and Azerbaijan are using the conflict to “divert attention from the social and economic problems they face.”
11. Russia is playing big brother. The fight for Nagorno-Karabakh is just as much an international battleground for influence as it is a regional war. Azerbaijan and Armenia are still very close allies of Russia. Russia played a leading role in negotiating the re-establishment of the ceasefire between the two sides last year.
12. Is Russia genuinely interested in peace? Russia is Azerbaijan’s first choice of weapons dealer. Over 80 percent of Azerbaijan’s armaments were imported from Russia. But while Russia is bound by a pact to militarily intervene in Armenia’s defence if it is attacked, Russia and Azerbaijan enjoy no such treaty. Azerbaijan, while respecting its ties with Russia, has a more diverse international support base, with neighbours Turkey and Iran filling in as important trade partners.
13. Pipelines matter. Azerbaijan is key to the planned Southern Gas Corridor, which will see gas pumped from Central Asia to Europe. Europe is seeking ways to decrease its dependence on Russian gas, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which bypasses Russia and Armenia, is necessary for this project.
14. War in Nagorno-Karabakh could spoil all of that. Armenia previously warned that it would target Azerbaijan’s energy sector if attacked. The pipeline runs close to Nagorno-Karabakh’s Mardakert district, home to some of last year’s fighting, where occupying Armenian forces are positioned.
15. And others might get dragged into it. In August 2008, Russia helped the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia declare independence from Georgia. The brief war resulted in Georgia becoming the West’s closest ally in the South Caucasus as Tbilisi sought protection from Russian aggression. Thanks to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, Georgia gets most of its energy imports from Azerbaijan. But if Armenia attacks the pipeline, Georgia may have no choice but to defect to the Russian sphere of influence.