An abandoned armoured personnel carrier from the first Karabakh War (1988-1994) beside a road in Nagorno-Karabakh, 2014. Photo (c): Global Voices.

An old conflict has resumed in the South Caucasus. On September 27, violence erupted once again in Nagorno-Karabakh. The future of this territory has been a major source of tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as has its past. In the twilight years of the Soviet Union, the territory’s Armenian population declared independence from Azerbaijan, hoping for eventual union with Armenia. A brutal war between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan ensued, leading to massacres and ethnic cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis were expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh itself. A 1994 ceasefire agreement left the region as a de-facto state under the control of its Armenian community, controlling several surrounding regions of Azerbaijan proper.

But the absence of war is not peace. A resolution is complicated by the exalted place of Nagorno-Karabakh in both Armenian and Azerbaijani historiographies. These are not ancient hatreds; the long history of coexistence between both communities seems increasingly like a hallmark of another era. As negotiations floundered, armies and societies entrenched. For Armenia, the principle of self-determination was paramount; although Yerevan has not recognised the de-facto independent entity, it provides explicit and direct political and military support. Meanwhile Azerbaijan insisted upon the primacy of territorial integrity, which is recognized by the international community, vowing to return Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territories to its control.

Without peacekeepers on the ground, violence in Nagorno-Karabakh flared up over the subsequent decades, as did hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan along their own border. A serious confrontation in 2016 resulted in Azerbaijan taking strategic heights in this mountainous area.. The latest clashes can now without a doubt be more properly described as a full-scale war. The Azerbaijani armed forces have mounted an armoured offensive in southern Karabakh and shelled Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Karabakh Armenian armed forces have fired on Azerbaijani towns such as Ganja. However, in the fast-paced information environment, disinformation abounds and there are fears that both sides are exaggerating their successes and underplaying their losses.

What can be safely said is that this is now the most serious armed confrontation in Karabakh since the 1994 ceasefire. It threatens to draw in other regional powers, threatening the lives and livelihoods of potentially thousands of civilians. But just as a ceasefire cannot bring a lasting peace, neither may a battlefield victory. Is there any hope for a negotiated settlement? Will Armenians and Azerbaijanis be able to live together in Karabakh as they once did? Or will the guns fall silent only to resume in another few years, bringing more tragedy to a war-weary region? What role will regional powers and other countries directly and indirectly involved in the conflict play?

Stories about How the Karabakh conflict is transforming regional politics

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