Nagorno-Karabakh, a crossroads between East and West, echoes a century-long war history.
Although Nagorno-Karabakh is a region rich in history and mountainous scenic beauty right between Europe and Asia, it is infamous for the almost century-long dispute between Armenia – one of the very few Christian countries in the Middle East with a majority of Muslim – and Azerbaijan, claimed by both for cultural and historical reasons.
First Nagorno-Karabakh war
Back in the 1920, the Soviet Union integrated both Armenia and Azerbaijan. A year later, Josef Stalin placed Nagorno-Karabakh under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan, granting it the status of an autonomous oblast – which, although part of the Soviet Azerbaijani, retained a certain autonomy with ethnic Armenian rulers – while more than 90% of the population were Armenians.
In order to balance the ethnic and religious components, the Azerbaijani administration forced part of its population to settle in the region, implementing the so-called de-Armenisation of Nagorno-Karabakh, which succeeded in decreasing the percentage of the Armenian population to 75% and increasing the Azerbaijani one from 5.1 to 21.%.
Tensions began to escalate during Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika, in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to weaken and nationalist sentiments raised in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Therefore, the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to gain independence from Azerbaijan and be unified with Armenia, claiming historical and cultural ties as their basis for self-determination.
When in 1988 the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature declared its intention to join Armenia, the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan intensified into violent clashes: as the Soviet Union began to collapse, so did the situation – until now relatively under control – in the region. Thus, the conflict escalated into a full-scale war after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, leading to a formal referendum for the Nagorno-Karabakh independence from Azerbaijan. During the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, from 1992 to 1994, Armenia gained control of most of the region, and by the end of 1993 the clashes had already caused nearly 30,000 casualties. As a result, a significant refugee crisis created hundreds of thousands of displaced people from both sides, leaving the region with a de-facto independence, but without ever achieving peace.
Second Nagorno-Karabakh war
Since then, despite the several ceasefire and mediations attempts, outbreaks and violences continued, until an escalation of hostilities reached in 2016, then settled with a ceasefire negotiation brokered by Russia in 2020, ending the second Nagorno-Karabakh war with more than seven thousands victims between soldiers and civilians from both side. The core issue remains the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenia reclaiming for self-determination and the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state on one side, and Azerbaijan maintains that Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of its territory on the other. The conflict has also been influenced by geopolitical factors, regional power dynamics, and historical grievances, making a peaceful and sustainable resolution even more challenging to achieve. Internationally, Nagorno-Karabakh has never been recognised except for Armenia.
In December 2022, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor, severing the only connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Subsequently, the International Court of Justice in the Hague issued a mandatory directive, requiring Azerbaijan to promptly permit unhindered passage of people and goods through the corridor, which was ignored. The situation for the 120,000 Christian inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh worsened as shortages of essential provisions such as food, fuel, and medication became acute, with malnutrition highly diffuse.
On late September of this year, the Azeri military forces launched a short but violent offensive aimed to retake control over Nagorno-Karabakh, rekindling hostilities between the two countries, making more than 400 ethnic Armenian victims. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, after Azeri forces took control over the region, more than 100,000 have already fled to Armenia – corresponding to nearly the entire Christian population of Nagorno-Karabakh – sparking a new dramatic refugee crisis.
While the President of Azerbaijan has ensured respect Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, the fear of “ethnic cleansing”, dreaded only by the Armenian Government but also reported by many humanitarian aid organisations, never completely disappears.
A potentially protracted humanitarian crisis
This is a severe humanitarian crisis, an exodus that weighs heavily on Armenia, a country already struggling with high rates of unemployment, a housing crisis and the recent rise in the cost of energy – leading to an increase in the general cost of living, especially during winter season where the temperatures drop drastically – adds an additional-important challenge to an already complicated situation. As claimed by many international organisations, including the United Nations, Armenia is unable to accommodate such many people without proper support from the international community. This situation may eventually lead to further impoverishment for the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and the consequent intention to move to other countries seeking new opportunities.
A failure of compromise between Armenia and Azerbaijan – or a further escalation of the conflict, could potentially have an important impact on Europe, albeit indirectly. Specifically, it might lead to a significant influx of refugees into nearby regions and European countries. Yet another humanitarian crisis will hit and strain an already dire situation in terms of displaced persons and refugees worldwide. This could create added pressure on European nations already dealing with refugee and migration issues.
Since 1988 the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has already created over a million of refugees and displaced people. While international organizations, including the UN, have been involved in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict and promote peace in the region, all the resolutions proposed eventually failed to provide any peaceful solution.