Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: History, India’s Response

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India has ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has not picked sides in the conflict. But it does have something at stake — tensions in the region impact New Delhi’s plans to bypass Pakistan as the gateway to Europe and Russia.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is called one of the “frozen conflicts” of the world.

This conflict erupted on September 19, when Azerbaijan launched an offensive and within 24 hours, declared victory over the separatist province of Nagorno-Karabakh. Authorities of the province have now said the ethnic Armenian enclave would dissolve on January 1, 2024.

Though far away, the recent developments in the South Caucasus region have implications for India, in connectivity and ties with the region.

The conflict over the decades

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region officially recognised as part of Azerbaijan. But its 1.2 lakh population is predominantly ethnic Armenian, having close cultural, social, and historical ties with Armenia. Basically, Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. The Armenians are Christians, while Azeris are Muslims. The conclave is connected to Armenia through the 5-km Lachin Corridor.

The region has seen conflicts of influence between regional powers since the medieval period — imperial Russia, Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) and the Persian empire (Iran). When Czarist Russia gave way to the Soviet Union in 1921, Nagorno-Karabakh was part of the Azerbaijan SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic).

In 1923, USSR established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast—home to a 95 per cent ethnically Armenian population—within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, the first round of tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh began in 1988, with its regional legislature passing a resolution declaring its intention to join Armenia, despite being geographically located within Azerbaijan.

When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 and Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved statehood, Nagorno-Karabakh officially declared independence.

War then broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, killing about 30,000 people. By 1993, Armenia had captured Nagorno-Karabakh, and additionally, occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan’s geographic area.

In 1994, Russia brokered a ceasefire known as the Bishkek Protocol. “This made Nagorno-Karabakh de facto independent with a self-proclaimed government in Stepanakert, but still heavily reliant on close economic, political, and military ties with Armenia,” a background note on the conflict by Council on Foreign Relations said.

Sixteen years later, in September 2020, Azerbaijan and Armenia went to war again. This time, Azerbaijan managed to wrest control of the territory around Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian analyst Dmitry Trenin believed that Azerbaijan took advantage of the fact that the US was busy with its Presidential elections and Russia was occupied with crises in its neighbourhood in Georgia.

Russia again brokered a deal, and provided peacekeeping forces along the Lachin Corridor. But having tasted victory, Azerbaijan wanted more concessions and no peace deal was inked.

Azerbaijan is said to have got support from Turkey and Pakistan in the form of weapons and personnel. Pakistan military personnel are believed to have helped the Azerbaijan forces, and on the ground, there were reports of Syrian, Libyan and Afghan fighters as well.

In December 2022, the Lachin Corridor was blockaded by Azerbaijan, causing severe shortages of essential goods including food, fuel and water in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Former International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo warned there was a “reasonable basis” to believe Azerbaijan was committing a genocide in Nagorno-Karabakh, terming starvation an “invisible genocide weapon”.

On September 19, days after an agreement to reopen the Lachin Corridor for aid deliveries sparked hopes of easing the crisis, Azerbaijan launched an “anti-terrorist” offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh and claimed to have regained full control over the region.

While Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev is being hailed as a hero in his country, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is facing protests at home. The future of about 1.2 lakh Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh is at stake, with reports of many leaving and fleeing to Armenia, fearing persecution.

India’s position

On the conflict, India has always steered clear of taking sides.

In 2020, after the conflict broke out, it had said, “India believes that any lasting resolution of the conflict can only be achieved peacefully through diplomatic negotiations. In this regard, we support OSCE Minsk Group’s continued efforts for a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

This time, after the conflict, Delhi has made it clear on Thursday that it “encouraged the parties to move forward on ensuring long-term peace and security in the region through dialogue and diplomacy, which includes the safety and well-being of all civilians”.

India has ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Importantly, the region is central to its plans of connectivity through the south Caucasus region.

India’s ties with Armenia date back millenia. Historians have suggested that when Assyrian warrior queen Semiramis invaded India in 2000 BC, some Armenians accompanied her. According to literary evidence, Indian settlements in Armenia were established by two princes (Krishna and Ganesh escaping from Kannauj) in 149 BC.

The first guidebook to Indian cities in Armenian was written in the 12th century. A few Armenian traders had come to Agra during the Mughal Empire. Emperor Akbar, who is believed to have an Armenian wife Mariam Zamani Begum, granted them privileges and considerable religious freedom.

In the 16th century, Armenian communities emerged in KolkataChennaiMumbai and Agra. Today, the vestigial community is mainly settled in Kolkata.

In contrast, historical ties between India and Azerbaijan have been more recent — the ‘Ateshgah’ fire temple in the vicinity of Baku is an 18th-century monument, with a much older history, and has wall inscriptions in Devanagari and Gurmukhi. It is a surviving proof of the hospitality that Indian merchants on the Silk Route to Europe enjoyed in Azerbaijani cities such as Baku and Ganja.

In modern times, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, India recognised the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan and established diplomatic relations.

With Armenia, India opened its embassy in 1999, has a treaty relationship, and has received as many as three Heads of State. There have been two visits from India at the level of Vice President.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi met his Armenian counterpart in New York in September 2019, which was followed by the External Affairs Minister’s visit to Yerevan in 2022.

Armenia publicly endorses India’s position on the resolution of the Kashmir issue on a bilateral basis and supports India’s aspiration for a permanent seat in the expanded UN Security Council.

In fact, in 2022, the India-Armenia deal to supply Armenian armed forces with PINAKA multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL), anti-tank munitions, and ammunitions and warlike stores worth US $250 million was viewed as Delhi siding with Yerevan.

In contrast, Azerbaijan’s proximity to Pakistan has been perceived as an irritant in the ties. There has not been a single visit at the level of Head of State/ Government between India and Azerbaijan.

India’s Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, former President Dr S. Radhakrishnan (as Vice President in 1956) and former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (in 1961) had visited the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. In recent years, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu visited Baku for the NAM Summit in 2019, accompanied by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Former External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had also visited Azerbaijan for the NAM ministerial meeting in 2018.

Because of the geographical location of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the region is important as a viable corridor for India’s connectivity with Russia and Europe through Central Asia and Iran.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are members of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which India is keen to develop. India supports Armenia’s proposal to include Iran’s Chabahar port in INSTC.

Tensions in the region directly impact India’s plans to bypass Pakistan as the gateway to Europe and Russia. New Delhi has to figure out a way around this.

Source: Indian Express