Ethnic tensions continue to fester after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabkh war

By: Lane Johansen

Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed territory in southwestern Azerbaijan (near the Armenian border) with a majority ethnic Armenian population. It was established as an autonomous region of Azerbaijan in 1923, but Nagorno-Karabakh’s government voted to unite with Armenia in 1988; intensifying separatist efforts resulted in Azerbaijan abolishing the enclave’s autonomous status in 1991. The subsequent conflict culminated in the 1991-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War, during which both sides accused the other of ethnic cleansing. Ethnic tension has repeatedly sparked violence in the region since. 

A self-declared independent state, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but de facto governed by separatist ethnic Armenians. Hostility in the enclave reflects broader religious and geopolitical conflict in the region: Nagorno-Karabakh comprises an overwhelmingly Armenian Orthodox population, while Azerbaijan is majority Muslim. Russia is a traditional ally of Armenia; Turkey and Azerbaijan are close partners. Turkish-Armenian relationship have long been tense, largely due to Turkey’s continued denial of the 1915-1923 Armenian genocide. 

On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan (supported by Turkey) launched an attack on the eastern border of Nagorno-Karabakh. War erupted immediately, and Amnesty International documented at least 146 civilians unlawfully killed by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces during the next month. Armenia was outmatched by Azerbaijan’s Turkish-supplied drones and surrendered on November 8, with another Russian-brokered peace deal ending the brutal conflict. Azerbaijan retained control of the areas it took during the war and almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers were deployed to the enclave. However, Azerbaijani and Armenian forces have clashed several times since the November ceasefire, especially near the ambiguous new Nagorno-Karabakh border.     

62 Armenian POWs are still being held in Azerbaijan, with the Armenian government failing to negotiate their return. Thousands are protesting in Armenia and demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation, while the mood in Azerbaijan is antagonistic and “vengeful.” Ethnic tensions continue to blister after the release of videos showing mass atrocities, such as live beheadings, on both sides.  

Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey are capitalizing on the conflict to increase their influence in the broader Caucasus region: on January 30, the countries opened a joint military center near the Nagorno-Karabakh border. To counter the enhanced Turkish presence, Armenia is seeking closer ties with Russia, which consequently threatens Azerbaijan. With unsatisfactory mediation and escalating tensions exacerbated by Russian and Turkish power plays, the threat of renewed violence seems to only be increasing.  

For more information on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict:

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