For the second day in a row, fighting continues by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the southern Caucasus. At least 68 people were killed in fighting between Armenian-backed Nagorno Karabakh separatists and Azerbaijani troops, according to reports announced Monday, amid fears that an open war would break out between Baku and Yerevan. The conflict, in which regional powers support each other, is a legacy of the collapse of the USSR.
The clashes are centered in the region of Nagorno Karabaj, an enclave in the territory of Azerbaijan, but controlling forces of Armenia since the war that took place in the area when the Soviet Union disintegrated and left 30,000 dead. The confrontation ended with a ceasefire signed in 1994.
This conflict ended with a precarious ceasefire and each year there are clashes along the trenches that line the front line. But since 2016 these clashes have gained in frequency and intensity with several hundred deaths on each side. This is because both countries have rearmed, in many cases acquiring cutting-edge military technology.
Russia, the United States, the European Union and Iran have called on the parties to end the fighting, although Turkey, Azerbaijan’s main supporter, has shown its full support for the Baku government and has sent reinforcements in recent weeks.
There is fear of an implication that the military escalation destabilize a key region for European energy supply, since Russia, although it sells arms to both sides, is Armenia’s main support and has soldiers deployed in that country, who could intervene in case the Azerbaijani forces advance too far.
Meanwhile, both countries have declared martial law and restricted freedoms, which means that, In addition to the military, the propaganda war has begun. An escalation between historical enemies
In recent years, Azerbaijan has allocated a significant part of its oil revenues to the purchase of weapons.
After several weeks of war rhetoric, Azerbaijan said it launched a major “counteroffensive” in response to an Armenian “aggression”, resorting to artillery, armored vehicles and aircraft against the province controlled by Armenian separatists.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused his historic enemy of having “declared war on the Armenian people”, while Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev promised “to win.”
The president of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno Karabakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, affirmed on his side that “Turkey, not Azerbaijan” is fighting against the secessionist territory. “There are helicopters, F-16s (planes) and troops and mercenaries from different countries,” he said.
Moscow, which maintains cordial relations with the two belligerents and is the regional arbiter, feels closer to Armenia, which is part of the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO), a Russian-dominated military alliance.
All mediation efforts to resolve this conflict have failed and Armenia and Azerbaijan already fought on their northern border last July in the most serious combats since 2016, which raised fears of destabilization in the region.
At the heart of the toxic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the Nagorno Kabaraj region. The enclave, with an Armenian majority and annexed in 1921 to Azerbaijan by the Soviet authorities, it unilaterally proclaimed its independence in 1991 with the support of Armenia.
This was followed by the war that left 30,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Despite the ceasefire signed in 1994 and mediation by Russia, the United States and France that formed the so-called Minsk Group, armed clashes in the area continued to be frequent.
Before Sunday’s fighting, the most recent major clashes occurred in April 2016, killing about 110 people.
Revolts against dynasty
Armenia, a Christian country since the 4th century, has had a turbulent history since its independence in 1991. This impoverished and stuck state It has been the scene of several riots, violent repressions and controversial elections in a context of patronage and authoritarianism on the part of the different leaders who have succeeded in power.
In the spring of 2018, a peaceful revolution brought the current prime minister to power, Nikol Pashinyan. The latter ordered quite popular reforms to democratize institutions and fight corruption.
Azerbaijan, a Shiite land on the shores of the Caspian Sea, has been ruled by the same family since 1993. Heydar Aliev, a former Soviet KGB general, ruled the country with an iron fist until October 2003, passing power to his son, Ilham, a few weeks before he died.
Like his father, Ilham Aliev it has not let any opposition emerge. In 2017, he appointed his wife Mehriban as the country’s first vice president.
Russia, Turkey and genocide
Turkey, which has geostrategic ambitions in the Caucasus and ex-Soviet Central Asia, has made Azerbaijan, a hydrocarbon-rich Turkish-speaking country, its main ally in the region, a friendship fueled by its dislike for Armenia. Ankara supports Baku in its desire to regain Nagorno Kabaraj.
Armenians also harbor some hostility towards Turkey because of the genocide of about 1.5 million of his compatriots by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Turkey rejects that term and describes the event as reciprocal massacres.
However, the great regional power continues to be Russia, which has closer relations with Armenia than with Azerbaijan, although it sells arms to both countries.
Yerevan has participated in Moscow-dominated political, economic and military alliances such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Furthermore, Armenia needs Russia more than Azerbaijan, as the latter is a richer country, and has increased its military spending.
Oil against diaspora
Azerbaijan, thanks to its oil revenues, has in recent years launched a campaign to make itself known throughout the world, especially in the West, beyond its reputation for authoritarianism and nepotism.
Thus, Baku invested in sponsorship missions, such as in the soccer Euro 2020, postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Azerbaijan will host some matches of this competition. In addition, a Formula 1 Grand Prix is also held in the country.
Likewise, Baku tries to impose itself in Europe as an alternative to Russian hydrocarbons.
Armenia, for its part, has the advantage of its large and influential diaspora, heirs of the refugees from the Ottoman repression.
Kim Kardashian, singer Charles Aznavour or singer and actress Cher, for example, all have their Armenian origins in common.
Some took on the role of unofficial ambassadors for Yerevan, such as Kim Kardashian on the genocide, or Charles Aznavour, who raised funds to help Armenia after the devastating 1988 earthquake.