ARMENIA AND AZERBAIJAN CLASH OVER DISPUTED NAGORNO-KARABAKH REGION

Armenia-Azerbaijan

By Alex Pollock

Fighting has erupted once more between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet Union republics in the Caucasus region. At the heart of the decades-old conflict is the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It is recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but it is controlled by ethnic Armenians. The countries fought a bloody war over the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although they declared a ceasefire, they have never managed to agree a peace treaty. (BBC News)

Recent clashes

Over 220 people have been killed in the most recent clashes. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by Armenian-supported separatists for decades. The population is over 90% ethnic Armenian, despite being located within Azerbaijan’s borders. The self-declared authority of Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognised by any UN member states.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have both recorded several casualties – military and civilian – over the past week as fighting escalated to shelling and border clashes. On Monday 5 October, Armenian officials accused Azeri forces of carrying out rocket strikes on the administrative centre, Stepanakert, and Azeri forces accused Armenia of attacking several towns outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The current fighting is the worst the region has seen since the 1990s, and both sides blame the other for the escalation.

Armenia said it is “ready to engage” with international mediators France, the United States, and Russia, but Azerbaijan insists that Turkey be included in the negotiations. Azerbaijan is openly supported by Turkey, which is calling for the removal of Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia provides economic and military support to Nagorno-Karabakh but does not officially recognise the region. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said in a televised interview that the territory is Azerbaijan’s land, and demanded an apology and a timetable from the Armenian government for the withdrawal of Armenian troops.

History of the conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region was established by the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Under Soviet rule, fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan was kept under control. In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh passed a resolution to become part of Armenia, despite being within Azerbaijan’s borders. Azerbaijan rejected Armenia’s claim to the land. War broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region in 1988 and by 1993 over 30,000 people had died and Armenia had taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as 20% of its surrounding Azeri territories. Russia brokered a ceasefire in 1994 that has officially remained in place since, however, there have been several violations of that ceasefire agreement in the last decade.

In April 2016, hundreds of civilians were killed when fighting broke out again. A new ceasefire was signed after four days of fighting. Continuous breakdowns in negotiations led to further ceasefire violations and more casualties. Several mediation efforts were made – primarily by the Minsk Group – an effort led by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, co-chaired by the United States, France, and Russia. While the group has successfully facilitated ceasefires, no permanent solution has been reached to the issue of who should control the territory.

In October 2017, Armenian and Azeri leaders met in Geneva to find a more permanent solution, but the talks failed to produce lasting peace.

Foreign interests and international response

If a more permanent ceasefire agreement is not reached, increasing tensions could further destabilise the South Caucasus region, threatening countries beyond Armenia and Azerbaijan. The fighting is moving closer to critical gas pipelines in the area, threatening to disrupt oil and gas exports. Azerbaijan produces over 800,000 barrels of oil per day, providing critical supplies to Central Asia and Europe.

There are several international players with stakes in the conflict, including Turkey and Russia. Turkey has openly supported Azerbaijan, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledging full support for Azeri forces. Turkey was the first country to recognise Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991 and has often referred to the two nations’ relationship as “one nation with two states.” Turkey recently denied claims by Armenia and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that it sent hundreds of Syrian mercenaries to fight for Azerbaijan. Turkey called for an international response against Armenia, calling it the “biggest threat to stability in the region.” Turkey and Azerbaijan participated in joint military exercises in August, following a July border clash. Turkey has no formal ties with Armenia and has made future ties dependent on Armenia’s withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite Turkey’s willingness to assist Azerbaijan, experts predict that Azerbaijan will attempt to limit Turkey’s involvement due to fears of angering Russia, who has expressed support for Armenia. Russia and Armenia are part of a military alliance, called the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which is critical to Armenia’s security.

Several other countries have expressed concern over the escalation of violence, including Germany, Pakistan, the Vatican, and Iran. Iran offered to mediate future peace talks. The European Union appealed for an end to the violence, while France and Canada both called for immediate dialogue and a ceasefire. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “extremely concerned” and called for both sides to stop the fighting.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

According to The Joshua Project, 92.5% of Armenia’s 2.9 million people profess to follow some denomination of Christianity. Most Armenian believers belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the world’s oldest churches. Apart from Georgia to the north, Armenia is surrounded by Muslim countries. Just under 85% of Azerbaijan’s 10 million people follow Islam. However, a study done by Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre found that of all the post-Soviet Muslim-majority republics, Azerbaijan “is the one in which Islam has the weakest embrace.” This more “relaxed” view of Islam in Azerbaijan presents the Church in the region with a great opportunity to help fulfil the Great Commission, however, the Armenian Church needs the support of fellow believers.

An INcontext contact (an Armenian pastor) provided the following insights: This is a spiritual battle against Christian Armenia. We are a small Christian nation surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations. Christian nations need to stand with Armenia because Christians are needed in this part of the world to reach all the Muslims. From a spiritual perspective, the enemy doesn’t want the Church here, so it’s an onslaught against the Church. It truly is a ‘David versus Goliath’ battle because it is not only Azerbaijan against Armenia, but Turkey with its Syrian proxy army supporting Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani people are not our enemy; they are our friends. We pray for peace. People are dying, and every hour makes a difference between many lives lost or saved. We need peace with our neighbouring countries to share the Gospel with them.”

Please pray with us:

  • For negotiations to be grace-filled conversations that lead to lasting peace
  • For Christians in the region to be examples of Christ’s grace, peace, and hope to those who are suffering due to the war
  • For increased opportunities for the Armenian Church to spread the Gospel

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Image: REUTERS/ARMENIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

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