Blurred Borders: Armenia vs. Azerbaijan. (Global Notebook)

By Theophanous, Georgios | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Blurred Borders: Armenia vs. Azerbaijan. (Global Notebook)


Theophanous, Georgios, Harvard International Review


In a remote province tucked in the Caucasus mountains, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have been caught in political limbo for over a decade.

The region is part of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan but is ruled by Armenia, whose forces took control in 1993. Since then, the situation has made little progress, with both countries unwilling to compromise over regional political control. Unfortunately, most countries in the international community seem to have resigned themselves to the status quo and have made resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh situation a low priority.

In September 2002, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in what might be termed "diplomatic shouting." In separate speeches to the UN General Assembly, each accused the other's government of tactics that Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian termed "rude and delusional manipulation." Oskanian challenged Azerbaijan to come to the peace table willing to compromise, while Vilayat Guliyev, Azerbaijan's minister of foreign affairs, maintained that Armenia was trying to annex Nagorno-Karabakh in violation of internationally recognized borders. For all their rhetoric, the two leaders failed to make any tangible progress and did little to raise the international community's hopes for a resolution of the conflict

There are traces of Armenian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh dating back to the first century BCE; the mountains of "The Strong Forest," as the Eastern Orthodox Armenians call the region, are dotted with medieval Armenian churches and monasteries. However, competing ownership claims arise because the province has also been under intermittent Ottoman and Turkish rule since the 11th century. Furthermore, the Azeris, who are ethnically linked to the Turks, feel an historical bond to the land. The Armenians have long constituted a majority in the region compared to the Azeris. In 1924, when the Soviet Union created the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region within Azerbaijan, the region was 94 percent Armenian; in 1989, the figure was 75 percent. Unfortunately, the joint history of Nagorno-Karabakh does not reflect two peoples living together in peace. The Armenians have been the victims of several instances of genocide at the hands of the ruling Ottomans and Turks both in present-day Armenia and in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, fueling an adversarial modern relationship.

The present conflict began in 1988. Spurred by Gorbachev's policy of perestroika (restructuring), Nagorno-Karabakh's National Council passed a resolution in February of that year that called on the two concerned states to strive for "a positive decision concerning the transfer of the region from" Azerbaijan to Armenia--in other words, unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. The very different reactions--enthusiasm from the Armenians and anger from the Azeris--sparked retaliatory pogroms against both Armenian and Azeri minority groups in the region. The violence further escalated in 1991 when both Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union. By 1993, Armenia had gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and a few other parts of western Azerbaijan. A year later, a cease-fire was declared, and since then, no significant progress has been made toward a final settlement.

The enduring stalemate has crippled both countries. The war forced the Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh to flee their homes, and today Azerbaijan is trying to cope with the economic and social fallout of absorbing over 600,000 displaced persons and refugees. While the Azerbaijani economy is steadily growing, the refugees are not being assimilated effectively. Azerbaijan's unemployment rate of 20 percent and poverty rate of 60 percent reflect the large numbers of refugees still living in camps and the many others whose lives have been disrupted by the conflict. …

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