International Involvement in the South Caucasus: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh

The mass exodus of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh is the recent crisis to hit the South Caucasus region. This mass migration can be traced back to the protracted conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the legal status of the territory and the fate of the minority living in the region. Some observers of this conflict and the resulting movement across borders have attributed the mass exodus to ethnic cleansing. Azerbaijan has categorically denied any use of violence against those who have chosen to evacuate. The United Nations (UN) observer team has also reported finding no signs that can be attributed to ethnic cleansing. Yet the conflict remains mired in debate, and undoubtedly, the Caucasus draws from a long legacy of conflict and violence.

However, the immediate roots of the current conflict can largely be traced directly back to the recent wars fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The successive wars fought between the two have been attempts to settle the territorial issue through military means. Neither regional nor other international actors have been able to prevent the military solutions resorted to by the conflict parties. Rather, these international actors have encouraged the military solution through tacit or direct involvement. The current global trends and behaviour of the powerful states also prove that military solutions to conflicts can never become an anachronism, despite the existence of multiple means of conflict resolution.

A protracted conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh can potentially threaten the multiple interests of the various actors in the region. Yet, far from mediating a solution, these actors have created increased insecurity in the region.

With the evolution of the conflict, existing and potential actors like the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia find themselves with a diminishing role. To a much greater extent, new actors like Iran and Turkey find themselves with a swelling presence due to several developments easing their entry and acceptance in the region. Turkey, for instance, in addition to its historical role, can also fill in the void left by the withdrawal of Russia, where the latter’s previous records regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have also eroded trust on all sides. Russia’s decreasing role is also complimented by the decreasing role of organisations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Thus, Azerbaijan’s close affinity with Turkey works with these factors, allowing it to ease into its role as a significant third party in the conflict.

On a collective level, organisations such as the EU still have some role to play. However, the trust of conflict actors has mainly been shaken due to the track record of these international actors. While the EU may yet present some hope for the Armenian ambitions in the region, especially following the fallout between the latter and Russia, Azerbaijan sees the organisation’s role differently. Azerbaijan has been especially observant of the organisation’s role in other conflicts in the region and beyond. For instance, the entry of international actors in Kosovo initially began for peacekeeping purposes but eventually led to the expulsion of Serbia from the region.

Similarly, the inability of the EU to address the protracted conflicts in the Caucasus – including in the case of Georgia – plays a major role in how these states react to its initiatives and policies in the region. Recently, the paralysis of external actors to act in the Ukraine-Russia conflict also offers major lessons. Yet, despite its misguided and inadequate efforts, international intervention remains one of the driving forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While the conflict is about the territorial integrity and rights of the direct actors in the conflict, the region presents unprecedented opportunities in terms of geopolitical influence from the outsiders’ perspective. Especially so when analysed together on a spectrum with the Central Asian states.

Overall, a protracted conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh can potentially threaten the multiple interests of the various actors in the region. Yet, far from mediating a solution, these actors have created increased insecurity in the region. Azerbaijan itself resorted to a military solution where it realised that not all regional conflicts and issues hold equal weightage in the policy considerations of the intervening forces. On the side of Armenia, the calculus with Russia also precipitated the military confrontation. Here, efforts, including the previously-iterated Madrid Principles, have lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the parties to the conflict. The Minsk group has also lost its momentum for mediation. In Azerbaijan especially, the dominant position is that this issue is no longer subject to the old Madrid Principles but is a matter to be settled through a peace treaty between the two states. Yet the South Caucasus remains increasingly interesting to foreign actors. However, as usual, the ambivalence and inability to choose a favourite as atrocious conflicts rage on describes the paralysis that has marked international intervention and mediation in regional conflicts.

Natasha Khan

Natasha Khan is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies, NUST, Islamabad. Her research focuses include discourse analysis, defense and security, and international relations. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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