In the shadow of the Murovdağ mountain range lies an area of land of which few of us may have heard, yet it forms part of a conflict that has resulted in almost 40,000 people killed and roughly one million refugees – but you didn’t hear that on the evening news.
The area is known as the Nagorno-Karabakh and it lies within borders of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh region is recognized by the United Nations, United States, European Union and the other relevant international organizations as part of Azerbaijan, yet it has been occupied by the Armenians for more than 20 years. Absent the iron fist of Moscow that ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many ethnic tensions exploded, including the conflict between Moscow-backed Armenia and energy-rich Azerbaijan, leading to a full scale war over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts.
From every possible legal standpoint, including a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, the area is considered part of Azerbaijani territory and has been recognized by the United Nations, the U.S. and the European Court. Armenia is therefore considered to be illegally occupying the area through the use of its Russia-backed military forces. Azerbaijanis assert that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan and that the issue is a matter of territorial integrity, the basis for modern international law and geopolitics. However, Armenia’s claim is based on a history of Christianity as “evidenced” by its number of churches. Yet, Nagorno-Karabakh is very much a part of the heart of the Azerbaijan, the many desecrated mosques included.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has a strategic factor as well: Azerbaijan possesses the only oil pipeline in the former Soviet Union that doesn’t traverse Russia and Iran. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the second largest in the world and second only to the U.S.’s Alaskan pipeline, provides a non-OPEC, non-Russian and non-Iranian alternative for oil supplies to the West, including supplying about 40 percent of Israel’s oil.
Currently, Azerbaijan, with Western partners such as British Petroleum and others, are building natural gas pipelines, again, directly to Western markets, bypassing Russia and Iran and thus helping to alleviate Europe’s problematic energy dependence on Moscow. Due to this land dispute, these pipelines intentionally bypasses Armenia – who consequently loses out on the vast economic benefits, losses that Armenia being a poor nation cannot afford. Of course, that also means that control of the oil pipelines of Azerbaijan remains an enticing prize for Russia, currently suffering from increasing isolation and suffering an economic downturn due to the sanctions over its annexation of Crimea. Should it ever control that region again, Russia could literally turn out the lights of Europe and plunge it into a new darkness. Azerbaijan and its partners are the stalwart and guarantor of energy security for the entirety of Europe.
But Armenia and Azerbaijan are two very different countries. As they gained their independence, Armenia, possibly due to feelings of vulnerability, decided that its future was with Russia and since its independence has closely aligned itself with it. Sadly, Armenia has grown into a vassal state of Russia. Armenia outsources its foreign policy to the Russians, and is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which acts as an opposition group to NATO. Armenia also was the first of the former Soviet Republics to join the Eurasian Customs Union, Moscow’s answer to the European Union. And like Russia, Armenia has strong relations with Iran.
In contrast, Azerbaijan closely aligned itself to the West and is considered pro-Europe, pro-West and pro-U.S. It has worked on building relationships with the West, including the State of Israel for which it’s a major supplier of oil. It has a good relationship with its Jewish population and actively fights anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism and, yes, Azerbaijan is a majority-Muslim nation. Azerbaijan is a robust and increasingly successful emerging democracy. So put simply, it’s the kind of country the West would be in favor of having on their side – for both their strategic interests, as well as their progressive and democratic values.
Ultimately, as in all conflicts of this nature, the people who lose out the most are those who live there. Currently, Nagorno Karabakh — just as Armenia — is monolithically Armenian and Christian. However, a million Azerbaijani refugees who were ethnically cleansed from Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding regions, await their homecoming.
Perhaps the time has come for countries like the United States and other members of the Minsk Group (the group set up more than 20 years ago to mediate the disagreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan) to stop dithering and to use their financial and political influence to mandate Armenia to make peace with Azerbaijan and respect international rulings and law? Only then, with the conflict behind them, can all the residents of the area start to enjoy the riches and economic benefits that their land offers for a truly brighter future.
Justin Amler is a noted South African born, Australia-based writer and commentator on international issues. His expertise is on the Middle East, Eurasia and the former Soviet Union.