The Crisis In The Middle East

What’s behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Causacus region mapping

Mains level: Usual crisis in the middle east and caucasus region

Fresh clashes erupted on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, threatening to push the countries back to war 26 years after a ceasefire was reached.

Try this PYQ:

Q.Turkey is located between-

(a) The Black Sea and Caspian Sea

(b) The Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea

(c) Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean Sea

(d) Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea

The conflict

  • The largely mountainous and forested Nagorno-Karabakh, home for some 150,000 people, is at the centre of the conflict.
  • Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan but is populated, mostly, by those of Armenian ethnicity (and mostly Christian compared to the Shia Muslim majority Azerbaijan).
  • The conflict can be traced back to the pre-Soviet era when the region was at the meeting point of Ottoman, Russian and the Persian empires.

A legacy of soviet era

  • Once Azerbaijan and Armenia became Soviet Republics in 1921, Moscow gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan but offered autonomy to the contested region.
  • In the 1980s, when the Soviet power was receding, separatist currents picked up in Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • In 1988, the national assembly voted to dissolve the region’s autonomous status and join Armenia.
  • But Baku suppressed such calls, which led to a military conflict.
  • When Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the clashes led to an open war in which tens of thousands of people were killed.
  • The war lasted till 1994 when both sides reached a ceasefire (they are yet to sign a peace treaty and the border is not clearly demarcated).

Issue over control

  • By that time, Armenia had taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh and handed it to Armenian rebels. The rebels have declared independence, but have not won recognition from any country.
  • The region is still treated as a part of Azerbaijan by the international community, and Baku wants to take it back.

What is the strategic significance of the region?

  • The energy-rich Azerbaijan has built several gas and oil pipelines across the Caucasus (the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea) to Turkey and Europe.
  • This includes the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (with a capacity of transporting 1.2 billion barrels a day), the Western Route Export oil pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline.
  • Some of these pipelines pass close to the conflict zone (within 16 km of the border). In an open war between the two countries, the pipelines could be targeted, which would impact energy supplies.

What’s Turkey’s role?

  • Turkey has historically supported Azerbaijan and has had a troublesome relationship with Armenia.
  • In the 1990s, during the war, Turkey closed its border with Armenia and it has no diplomatic relations with the country.
  • The main point of contention between the two was Ankara’s refusal to recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide in which the Ottomans killed some 1.5 million Armenians.
  • On the other end, the Azeris and Turks share strong cultural and historical links. Azerbaijanis are a Turkic ethnic group and their language is from the Turkic family.

Where does Russia stand?

  • Moscow sees the Caucasus and Central Asian region as its backyard. But the current clashes put President Vladimir Putin in a difficult spot.
  • Russia enjoys good ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and supplies weapons to both.
  • But Armenia is more dependent on Russia than the energy-rich, ambitious Azerbaijan. Russia also has a military base in Armenia.
  • But Moscow, at least publicly, is trying to strike a balance between the two. Like in the 1990s, its best interest would be in mediating a ceasefire between the warring sides.

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