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Nagorno-Karabakh: Caught between peace and war
"Every woman in Nagorno-Karabakh wakes up in the morning and the first thing she does is check the news for casualties on the line. She does this before even brushing her teeth, having a shower or breakfast or even before she puts on makeup."
This is a quote from a woman in Stepanakert I spoke to during my field trip in September 2016, only a few months after the four-day war in April 2016. The woman continued to elaborate during our conversation, explaining how everyday life for women in Karabakh continues:
"If she has checked the news and knows everyone is safe and there were no clashes, she can move on with her everyday activities, knowing that her family members are safe."
Since the ceasefire in 1994, the lives of women of Nagorno-Karabakh have been dominated with fear, bound up with the threatened loss of a husband, son, brotheror cousin. 'Every woman knows that they can lose their loved ones from one day to another'. The ceasefire in 1994 was meant to freeze the conflict but since then the small unrecognised republic has been placed in limbo, being in a simultaneous state of war and peace, with sporadic clashes occurring every few years.
In the last two years, the proportion of soldiers and civilians killed or wounded in the conflict has doubled to 14 per cent. From 2016 to 2018, clashes accounted for 7 per cent of all soldiers and civilians killed or wounded in the conflict since 1994.
Now we are in the sixth day of renewed violent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. A female activist wrote yesterday that drones were approaching Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, indicating that this time the clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan forces were taking a more dangerous turn towards escalation. Hundreds of civilians and soldiers have already been killed on both sides and infrastructure has been badly damaged.
Shelling has hit targets outside of the conflict zone, including in Armenia itself. Both countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia have declared martial law and a general mobilisation. On the Armenian side even young women have signed up to join the military effort. On October 1, two French and two Armenian journalists were reported wounded in the fighting.
Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh as Armenians call it, is a small unrecognised republic. The conflict can be traced further back than the collapse of the Soviet Union to the application of the Soviet nationality policy in the region.
Image credit: Author supplied.
Although the population of mountainous Karabakh was mostly Armenian, for strategic and economic reasons Soviet authorities placed it within the wealthier Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan rather than Soviet Armenia. When in the late 1980s glasnost and perestroika started, street protests began in Stepanakert which eventually became a full-scale conflict, only ending in a state of ‘no peace no war’ in 1994.
Between 1991 and 1994, both sides sacrificed over 30,000 people, and ethnically cleansed each other from areas under their control. Since then, this prolonged conflict has long stood out as one of the world’s most daunting diplomatic challenges. For more than a quarter-century, an international peace initiative, known as the Minsk Process, has tried and failed to bring a resolution to the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh.
Even so, the seriousness of the four-day war in April 2016 has been acknowledged, in terms of the peace process, but nothing has changed on the ground. The only change that occurred in the last two years and that was perceived as feeding positively into the peace process was that Armenia experienced a major political leadership change, transitioning towards a more democratic system as a result of the so-called Velvet Revolution in spring 2018.
What is different this time around?
The renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has occurred at a time when most political leaders' attention is geared towards fighting the global COVID-19 pandemic. Europe is heading towards a second COVID wave, Belarus saw major protests in the past few weeks and the world is also distracted by the upcoming US presidential election in November. Perhaps that’s why the international community has been largely ignoring some warning signs in the preceding months and the overall volatile two-year period since the Velvet Revolution.
In July 2020, clashes broke out on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. The losses for Azerbaijan were heavier than expected and were followed by some major protests in Baku. Also, these clashes seem to spill over to diasporic communities cities including Berlin, London, Brussels, Moscow, and Los Angeles with a series of brawls and attacks between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
As before, at this point, there are many speculations and controversies around the renewed violence but this time around Azerbaijan has received support from Turkey. Already in August 2020, both states held joint military exercises and there are reports about strikes by Turkish drones. Now some may think that this is a move where the two principal parties, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, will become reliant on security partners Russia and Turkey.
This could then potentially even make it more complicated as the two problematic strong men Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey have different aims. In Armenia, memories of the massacres by the Ottoman Turks over a century ago remain a significant factor of national thinking and therefore this violent clash is seen as nothing less than a struggle for survival. In Azerbaijan, in contrast, it is presented as an attempt to regain territory lost between 1991 and 1994, so to allow many displaced people still living in temporary accommodation to return home.
Russia has a formal defence treaty and warm military to military relations with Armenia. Likewise we should not underestimate the power of the Armenian diaspora living in Russia, Russia is home to the world’s largest Armenian diaspora. Although Russia has a military base in Armenia, it is among the largest suppliers of weaponry to both Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Right now, the international community is stepping up their efforts to stop these violent clashes. On day 5 of the clashes, the Secretary-General of the 47-nation strong Council of Europe, Marija Pejcinovic-Buric, as well as Presidents Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump, acting in their capacity as co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which mediates in the conflict issued a joint statement, called for an immediate ceasefire. But these calls have so far been defied.
Meanwhile, some experts predict that it will remain a short-term battle for pockets of the land, the involvement of a third party like Turkey however could prolong the clash further. The longer that fighting continues, the more likely it is that Russia and Turkey will face difficult choices over whether to become more involved.
Ulrike Ziemer is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Winchester. Her publications include numerous journal articles and book chapters on the Armenian diaspora in Russia, as well as on women’s issues in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. She has published a monograph Ethnic Belonging, Gender and Cultural Practices: Youth Identities in Contemporary Russia (2011) and published two edited volumes Women’s Everyday Lives in War and Peace in the South Caucasus (2019) and East European Diasporas, Migration and Cosmopolitanism (2012). She tweets at @UlrikeZiemer. Image credit: Kinolamp/Flickr.