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Shireen T. Hunter

Resolving the Karabakh conflict

Azerbaijan and Armenia demonstrated how quickly so-called frozen conflicts can thaw [AFP]

Date of publication: 13 April, 2016

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Comment: Easing Armenia's sense of geographical and ethnic isolation is dependent of a number of factors, says Shireen T Hunter.

The problem with frozen conflicts is that they are never really frozen.

While they might be temporarily put on hold, as soon as the conditions seem propitious to any of the players, they will inevitably be brought in from the cold. And once that happens, the thawing process is liable to happen very quickly.

The dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the mountainous region of Karabakh and several other cities is one such conflict.

Recent skirmishes leading to the deaths of dozens of Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers demonstrated just how quickly so-called frozen conflicts can begin to thaw.

Unfortunately, those not directly involved in the conflict tend to overlook it until the risk of it re-igniting and somehow adversely affecting their interests becomes apparent. Only then are they shaken out of their complacency. Meanwhile, innocent people on both sides of the conflict pay the price of indifference.

When these frozen conflicts start to warm up, outside powers exhort the parties involved to solve their problems and "be reasonable". In doing so, these outsiders conveniently forget the extent to which their own policies have contributed to the dispute remaining unresolved.

The shadow of history

Another tendency of regional and international players not directly engaged in the conflict, is to forget the historical context - and to grow impatient with the parties' inability to overcome their past. But asking people to forget history is futile, akin to hoping they will forget their childhood traumas: it cannot be done. The only way to overcome the domination of history is to face it.

Karabakh has a long and tortuous history, as does the rest of the Caucasus. Moreover, it is of significant symbolic importance for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. For Armenia, this is partly because, as explained by the American-Armenian scholar Richard Hovannissian, "while the rest of Armenia was submerged under foreign control a flicker of freedom was maintained in Karabakh, albeit under Iranian suzerainty".

Towards the end of the 19th century, Karabakh also became the place where nascent Azerbaijani nationalism took shape and flourished, giving the region a certain symbolic value for Azerbaijan. Following the fall of the Tsarist Empire in 1918, the region became the subject of rivalry between the Ottoman Empire and the British and their White Russian allies.

A hallmark of the 1987-1992 period in the Soviet Union was the manipulation of nationality issues in the competition of power between the hardliners and Mikhail Gorbachev and later between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin



When the Ottomans helped establish the independent republic of Azerbaijan, they gave Karabakh to Azerbaijan, but the Armenians of Karabakh never accepted this decision.

The Bolshevik government initially gave Nakhijevan and Karabakh to Armenia. But Moscow later changed its mind and transferred them to the new Republic of Azerbaijan, in part because the newly formed Soviet Union in 1923 wanted to reach a modus vivendi with the new Turkish Republic.

Finally, Karabakh was made an autonomous region within Azerbaijan, which the Armenians also never accepted. Clashes and protests continued throughout the communist era, and Armenia requested the return of the Karabakh region from the Soviet authorities on several occasions.

Rising ethnic tensions

A hallmark of the 1987-1992 period in the Soviet Union was the manipulation of nationality issues in the competition of power between the hardliners and Mikhail Gorbachev and later between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Meanwhile, the same process took place at the level of republican elites.

Those who opposed reform by instigating ethnic violence wanted to show that Gorbachev's Perestroika and Glasnost ("restructuring" and "openness") only led to turmoil. One consequence was the killing of large numbers of Armenians in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait in 1988, which triggered the larger conflict.

At the same time, Armenia's border with Iran serves as one of its lifelines. During the 2008 Russia-Georgia war for example, the Iranian border was Armenia's only window on the outside world


Later, Yeltsin used this issue to gain support among non-Russian republics. His famous advice to them to "take as much sovereignty as you can swallow" shows his change of heart. These manipulations of nationality issues contributed to the escalation of the dispute over the region and also led to similar problems in Georgia with the Ossetians and Abkhazians.

The USSR's problems and later its dismantling also brought rivalries to the surface that had long since remained dormant. In particular, Turkey wanted to become the main power in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as a champion of Turkic and Turkic-speaking peoples. 

As a result, it sided wholly with Azerbaijan. In doing so, Turkey also hoped to thwart any potential Iranian influence in Azerbaijan, whose people have close historical, religious, and cultural ties. At one juncture, in 1992, Turkey sabotaged an Iranian mediation effort for Karabakh. Later, when visiting Baku, Turkish President Suleiman Demirel told the Azeris that they should not look to Iran to solve their problems.

Later on, Turkey's policy of siding entirely with Azerbaijan and closing its borders with Armenia did not help matters. Instead, it has exacerbated Armenia's feeling of geographical and ethnic isolation in the region.

By contrast, Iran has followed a more balanced policy. Concerned about a Turkic alliance with irredentist claims on some of its territory, Iran sees Armenia as a valuable force for counterbalance in regional politics.

Meanwhile, lured by Azerbaijan's energy wealth and seeing it as a means of pressuring Iran, the United States and European countries indulged the Republic


At the same time, Armenia's border with Iran serves as one of its lifelines.

During the 2008 Russia-Georgia war for example, the Iranian border was Armenia's only window on the outside world. However, because of US policy to contain Iran, its relations with Armenia were not able to progress, and many plans to expand road and rail links and the transfer of Iranian energy are still incomplete. Of course, Russia too, wants to see Armenia remain dependent - and consequently frowns on its ties with Iran.

Meanwhile, lured by Azerbaijan's energy wealth and seeing it as a means of pressuring Iran, the United States and European countries indulged the Republic. This attitude gave Azerbaijan - which is more populous than Armenia (9.6 in comparison to 2.9 million people) - the impression it could wait out Yerevan, and find a military solution at an opportune moment.

Azerbaijan also skilfully manipulated Middle East politics, especially Iranian-Israeli hostility, and increased its influence in Western capitals by cosying up to Israel. Lest we forget that when the option of attacking Iran seemed real, Azerbaijan was viewed as a possible military launching pad against Iran.

Where to go from here?

The first step towards resolving the situation is to realise that there is no such a thing as a frozen conflict. In fact, the status quo has a habit of unravelling at the slightest provocation.

  • All players, both inside the conflict and out, must also realise they cannot get everything on their wish list. Clearly, most of the territory that Armenia has captured from Azerbaijan should be returned. But a special arrangement must also be made for Karabakh and the Lachin corridor, which links Karabakh to Armenia proper. This will help ease Armenia's sense of isolation.
  • Turkey must open its borders with Armenia and seek general reconciliation with the country.
  • Iran's role as a party acceptable both to Armenia and Azerbaijan should be recognised, and tripartite and quadripartite cooperation involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey should be encouraged.
  • European countries should help more in Armenia's economic development.
  • Efforts should be made to keep Middle East politics from unduly influencing regional relations.

In conclusion, the West needs to recognise that Russia is, and will likely remain, a player in the region. As such, the West needs to keep Russian perspectives in mind. Meanwhile, however, Russia should stop seeing this region as its own back yard. Only then can the process of tackling the Karabakh problem begin.

A version of this article was originally published on Lobelog on April 11, 2016.

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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