The Sudden Demise of Thirty Years of Independence: The Haut-Karabakh Conflict

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On September 2023, Azerbaijan proclaimed the disillusion of the Haut-Karabakh region (Image credit: ICRC)

In a swift and unexpected turn of events, the authorities of the enclave of Haut-Karabakh, known as Artsakh to Armenians, declared their self-dissolution along with all its institutions on September 18, 2023, just ten days after Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive. This marked the culmination of a centuries-old dispute, the latest chapter of which spanned three decades.

The story of Haut-Karabakh’s struggle for independence is steeped in violence. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, this self-proclaimed republic, born in 1991, was never recognized by the international community, including Armenia, which nonetheless supported it politically, economically, militarily, and logistically. Between 1988 and 1994, interethnic clashes escalated into open warfare, resulting in 30,000 deaths and massive population displacements. Approximately 700,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenia and Haut-Karabakh, while 230,000 Armenians fled Azerbaijan. The original ceasefire agreement established at that time was shaky at best.

Haut-Karabakh, a mountainous region nestled within Azerbaijan near the Armenian border, has been predominantly Armenian in population. It declared independence in 1991, during the dissolution of the USSR, a move vehemently rejected by Azerbaijan. Stepanakert, also known as Khankendi in Azerbaijani, serves as the self-proclaimed capital of the region. Haut-Karabakh, now known as the Republic of Artsakh since its constitution was amended in 2017, operates as a de facto state with its own government and parliament but lacks international recognition.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Haut-Karabakh traces back to the early 20th century, with roots in the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. The territory, predominantly Armenian but under Azerbaijani control, became a major point of contention. Despite a brief period of autonomy starting in 1923, tensions persisted. In 1988, Haut-Karabakh declared itself a socialist republic, a move rejected by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Violence erupted, leading to a full-scale war that lasted until 1994 when a ceasefire was brokered. The conflict flared again briefly in April 2016.

The name “Haut-Karabakh” itself reflects the semantic struggle surrounding the region, highlighting its various historical influences. In the West, it was often referred to as “Nagorno-Karabakh” until the fall of the USSR, but this term gradually fell out of use in favor of “Haut-Karabakh.” In Azerbaijani, the region is called “Dagliq Qarabag,” meaning “Mountainous Karabakh.” On the Armenian side, “Artsakh” is the historical name harkening back to its time as a province in the ancient Kingdom of Armenia. It’s also the name used by separatist authorities to refer to their self-proclaimed.

The situation took a significant turn in September 2020 when Azerbaijani forces launched an offensive against Haut-Karabakh, resulting in a rapid victory for Baku. Despite fierce resistance and support from the Armenian military, the region experienced a bloody defeat. Azerbaijani forces regained control of several territories through force or agreements with Armenia. Haut-Karabakh was left nearly isolated from Armenian territory, connected only by a narrow corridor, Latchin, under Russian peacekeeping supervision.

Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of carrying out ethnic cleansing in Haut-Karabakh following Baku’s offensive in September 2023. The rapid exodus of Armenians from the region has raised concerns about the fate of the Armenian population. Some have even described the situation as genocide, citing conditions created by the blockade imposed by Azerbaijani forces.

Historically linked to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia’s role in the conflict has evolved over the years. While Moscow initially played a role in brokering ceasefires, its recent actions have been more ambiguous. Some argue that Russia allowed Azerbaijan to blockade the Latchin corridor, indicating a shift in its stance. This shift may be due to strained relations with Armenia’s leadership and increased cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan, especially in the energy sector.

Turkey has consistently supported Azerbaijan in its rivalry with Armenia, sharing a historical enmity towards Armenians. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often referred to Turkey and Azerbaijan as “one nation, two states.” Turkey has provided military support to Azerbaijan, including drones, and has been accused of sending Syrian mercenaries during the 2020 conflict. Erdogan’s expansionist ambitions in the region have further strengthened ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

The international community recognizes Haut-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan’s territory but deems Azerbaijan’s military intervention as illegal. Despite condemnation, Western countries have been cautious in their response due to economic interests and energy dependencies. Azerbaijan’s wealth in oil and gas has made Western nations hesitant to take strong actions against it.

The dissolution of Haut-Karabakh in September 2023 marks the end of a tumultuous chapter in its history. While this article provides a comprehensive overview, the future of the region remains to be determined. The complex interplay of historical, ethnic, geopolitical, and economic factors continues to shape the fate of Haut-Karabakh and its people.

Written by Imane Moumen

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