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The hardly noticed disappearance of the state of Nagorno-Karabakh

By Hannan van Rooij –

In 2022, with a group of friends I was planning to participate in the Mongol Rally. This is a contest where people drive from Londen to Ulaanbaatar in the most crappy car they can find. The winner of the contest is the group with the most outstanding stories, mostly because their vehicle broke down or ran out of gas. As a preparation for our trip we decided that each group member had to do some research on a couple of countries we would pass through, to gain some basic information. In the end we decided not to participate. There were many conflict areas we had to cross, which we did not feel comfortable with. One of the conflicts I came across was between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. A conflict I had never heard of.

Nagorno-Karabakh was a self-declared autonomous state where mainly Armenians lived, positioned in the centre of Azerbaijan. For decades, a conflict has been brewing, marked by episodes of severe violence and ceasefires. Or rather: There was a conflict brewing. Nagorno-Karabakh has been dissolved since the start of 2024. What is the background of this conflict? And does the dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh signify the conflict’s definitive end?

The conflict is commonly framed as a fight over the national identity that Armenians cannot express according their standards versus territorial integrity in favour of Azerbaijan. Its origin goes back to the Soviet Union era, when Nagorno-Karabakh, as Armenian territory, was given to Azerbaijan. The decision to make Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijani was made in the a forerunner of the messy dissolution of Soviet Union where Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence in 1917. The Bolsheviks however reclaimed both of the countries before in 1991 Armenia and Azerbaijan gained actual independence. Even though the majority of residents living on the land we now call Nagorno-Karabakh identified themselves as Armenian, Lenin and Stalin hoped to provoke communist leadership internationally by mapping Armenia and Azerbaijan like this. The Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh did not agree, and the creation of their autonomous oblast within Azerbaijan was a pivotal moment for the path of warfare.

In the past roughly 50 years, there have been 2 key episodes of violence. The period of the independence of 1917 until the first episode was marked with tensions between the two parties. Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh attempted multiple times to transfer the territory to Armenia to gain historical justice, but since that was denied, the first episode of violence occurred in the 1990’s. In 1994, after almost four years, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh won the battle with Azerbaijan due to financial support they received from Armenia and Russia.

After they declared themselves autonomous, the Lachin corridor was established. This is a road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia which was constructed to receive support through food and medicine. Azerbaijanis had to flee from the now Armenian territory because of discrimination. Because of the corridor the prosperity of Nagorno-Karabakh grew, causing a difference between the wealth of residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijanis.

After years passed Azerbaijan however gained prosperity due to the oil industry, and because it could also count of the support of Iran there was a shift in the power dynamics. In 2020 Azerbaijan took over control in territories where Armenians lived in a new episode of war that only lasted a couple of weeks. They also took over the Lachin Corridor which they eventually blocked in 2022. This block cut off all essential supplies for citizens living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Both episodes are marked with numerous ethnic cleansings, significant casualties and floods of refugees on both sides.

From December 2022 until last October, Azerbaijan left the Lachin corridor closed, leaving the entire Nagorno-Karabakh area without basic necessities. This was a disaster for many Armenians, causing many deaths. The blockade was lifted later to allow residents to flee. Last year, Azerbaijan declared that the state of Nagorno-Karabakh would be dissolved by 2024. According to NOS, by October 2023, about 80% of the Armenians living there had already fled.

It might seem that a long period of tensions is now ending because Azerbaijan has won the conflict, but is it really? Lasting peace requires recognition. Recognition for the grieve and sadness among Armenians who lost their ancestry land, and for the hurt on both sides. During the conflict villages of both parties have been burned, murders committed and blockades imposed; examples of violence causing social and group trauma. Apart from this, there are many factors and root causes of the conflict that require attention, such as its historical backdrop, religious influences, the role of cultural identity, and the influences of foreign countries and the international oil industry. All these aspects should be addressed in order to foster a process of peacebuilding through forgiveness, reconciliation and dialogue in a conflict that, internationally, is hardly discussed anyway.

Discovering this conflict in the process of contemplating to travel there made me feel strange. Right now the focus of the media is on the conflicts of Israël/Palestine and Russia/Ukraine, which are very impactful internationally. However, the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh is recent and devastating as well. A whole group of Armenians were forced to flee and the world is unaware. How are the people from Nagorno-Karabakh doing? And how are the residents of other underexposed conflict areas, such as Yemen, Congo and Afghanistan? Who looks out for them?

Hannan van Rooij is a nurse, care ethicist and a student of the premaster program Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit.. She wrote about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for her studies.

One Comment

  1. I have heard about this conflict and the devastations it brought, and have asked myself the same things. Especially being from Israel, one can really feel that some wars are more trendy than others. And here rises the question to how the media works, and how are world news shown to the wide public not really WORLD news. And questions about activism as well 🙂 who is driven, and by what information.
    Thank you for taking the time to write about it.

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