“When I look at the list of the fallen, I realise we have lost an entire generation”. Homes are left in ruin, the dead litter the roadsides, villagers begin to torch their houses. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh is in turmoil.
The Russian-brokered peace deal went into effect on November 10th. The military conflict is over, but unrest continues. “Nikol is a traitor”, rings out from demonstrators in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. They are outraged at the Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and want him to resign. They see the deal as a surrender and ultimate betrayal to Armenia. “My youngest son, he is 18”, says one unidentified protester, “he called me this morning and he cried, asking me, ‘mum why? So many boys died in my hands, for what? Forty days of this and then they sell us out?’”
The peace deal was struck after six weeks of bloody fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Though internationally recognised as Azerbaijani, the territory has been controlled by ethnic Armenians since 1994. Under the terms of the treaty, Azerbaijan will keep territory it has won from the conflict, while Armenia must withdraw from several other territories over the next few weeks. “I still think we haven’t lost, we were betrayed”, says another demonstrator.
The latest outbreak of fighting over the disputed enclave represents not just a battle for land and territory, but a struggle for national identity and pride. In 1988, fighting officially erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh in February of 1988 before a ceasefire was agreed in May 1994. From the end of the conflict and up until two weeks ago, Armenia had full control over the enclave.
Prime Minister Pashinyan has defended the “painful” decision to agree to a peace deal, claiming there was a risk of “total collapse” had he not done so. With the loss of the major city of Shusha (Shushi in Armenian), the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert was “left defenceless” – a situation the Prime Minister claims would lead to even greater losses. Already, the death toll is staggering, with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week claiming the number of fatalities is higher than 4,000, with tens of thousands of people being displaced as a result of the conflict. “When I look at the list of the fallen, I realise we have lost an entire generation”, cries an Armenian resident.
Smoke now billows from villages across the enclave: dozens of ethnic Armenians are fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh, burning their homes and properties as they leave. “This is my house, I can’t leave it to the Turks” (a term often used by Armenians to describe Azerbaijanis), says one resident. “Everybody is going to burn down their house today… we were given until midnight to leave”, he says, “we also moved our parents’ graves; the Azerbaijanis will take great pleasure in desecrating our graves. It’s unbearable”. A mass exodus is now taking shape as residents of the Kalbajar district flee to Armenia. Many fear a refugee crisis as both Azerbaijan and Armenia claim some 40,000 and 90,000 people respectively have been displaced as a result of the fighting.
The United Nations has also announced an investigation into potential war crimes committed by both sides. Shocking footage emerged of what appears to be cluster bombs being dropped on civilian populations. Such weapons are designed to open up mid-air before releasing vast amounts of submunitions. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan have banned the use of cluster bombs, despite over 100 states doing so. If dropped on civilian populations, the likelihood of survival is slim to none. The deadliest attack took place in the city of Barda as Azerbaijan accused Armenia of using cluster munitions on a neighbourhood in which at least 25 people were killed. The latter denies this accusation, claiming Azerbaijan has launched a number of rocket strikes on Armenian civilian populations. In a statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed deep concern over such incidents: “Amid deeply troubling reports that cluster munitions have been used by both parties, I call once again on Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop using them, and to join the more than 100 States that ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions which comprehensively bans their use”. Bachelet also called upon both sides to: “distinguish civilians from combatants, and civilian objects from military objectives”. Furthermore, a deeply disturbing video was circulated on social media of what appears to be Azerbaijani soldiers executing two captured Armenians in military uniforms. Under international humanitarian law, such an act would constitute a war crime.
The United Nations Working Group has also expressed deep concerns that the government of Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s assistance, had hired private Syrian fighters in the battle for the enclave. “It is… worrisome that the Syrian fighters deployed to Azerbaijan are allegedly affiliated with armed groups and individuals that, in some cases, have been accused of war crimes and serious human rights abuses during the conflict in Syria”.
The violence officially ceased on November 10th as Russian President Vladimir Putin monitored peace talks. It is now expected some 1,960 Russian peacekeepers will be sent to patrol the front line in a bid to prevent further outbreaks of violence. Moscow’s involvement in the conflict should come as no surprise, with the Kremlin controlling a military base in Armenia and being part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The Moscow-led agreement states Russia must provide military support should Armenia be attacked, but this does not include Nagorno-Karabakh or surrounding Azerbaijani regions. However, the Kremlin also has close ties to the latter, with NATO member Turkey openly backing Azerbaijan. Coincidentally, Russia also sells weapons to both sides of the conflict.
The treaty has been met with widespread jubilation in Azerbaijan as a mood of national celebration sweeps the capital city of Baku. President Ilham Aliyev said the agreement was of “historic importance”, and amounted to a “capitulation” by Armenia. Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, on the other hand, claimed: “This is not a victory but there is not defeat until you consider yourself defeated”. Armenian leader of Nagorno-Karabakh Arayik Harutyunyan – who also signed the treaty – said a ceasefire was unavoidable after the loss of Shusha. However, a strong mood of defiance grips the city of Yerevan. Chants of “We will not give it up” echo throughout Armenia’s capital as protesters defy martial law to gather in their masses. Pashinyan, accused of breaching the constitution by not consulting the people before agreeing a deal, had taken office in 2018 after leading a peaceful revolution in the post-Soviet state. He is now facing growing calls to resign.
The peace treaty between both Armenia and Azerbaijan will see the ceasing of hostilities between two states that have been in violent opposition for decades. However, with growing unrest sweeping Armenia due to a sense of betrayal on the part of their leader, an end to the story is unlikely. With the violence erupting during the Covid-19 pandemic alongside a subsequent exodus of refugees, a risk of a serious humanitarian crisis is evident.
With hostilities high on both sides and tension building within Armenia itself, the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis appears to have no clear end in sight. Only time will tell as to the effectiveness of the latest peace deal, but one thing is certain: the region will remain one to keep an eye on for many years to come.