When he saw the extent of the attacks on Stepanakert and other areas of Upper Karabakh, Hovig Asmaryan decided to send his three children to spend some time with their relatives in Yerevan. Asmaryan, a Syrian from Aleppo of Armenian ethnicity, arrived in Upper Karabakh in late 2012, fleeing the war in Syria. In the mountainous enclave, on land internationally recognized as Azerbaijani but controlled by Armenia, he bought a farm and recently opened a Syrian and Mediterranean restaurant. It was not bad, account by video call from Stepanakert. The region, ravaged in the war between Yerevan and Baku for control of the enclave in the early 1990s, had been revitalized and modernized, thanks in large part to donations from the large Armenian diaspora. Today, the scars of the conflict are once again being seen on the buildings and streets of the region, and Asmaryan, 50, is experiencing another war.
The Upper Karabakh – or Nagorno Karabakh – in the South Caucasus, with 150,000 inhabitants (the vast majority of Armenian ethnicity) and which has claims of self-determination, has experienced the most serious clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1994, the date on which a ceasefire was signed and has been continuously broken . A war now open in a heavily militarized region that can lead to a spiral that fully involves regional powers: Russia, due to its influence in the region and its defense agreement with Armenia, and Turkey, with an increasingly expansive appetite and which supports Azerbaijan and is testing Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus.
The recent clashes between the two former Soviet republics, the latest chapter in a latent conflict lasting three decades, are of increasing concern to the international community. War may also destabilize an area that acts as an important energy corridor for global markets: very close to the front line is a gas pipeline opened last year that runs through Turkey, aimed at easing Europe’s dependence on imports. of Russian gas.
On Saturday, after more than 10 hours of negotiation sponsored by Moscow, Armenia and Azerbaijan announced a ceasefire aimed at exchanging prisoners and recovering the dead, under the mediation of the Red Cross. A truce that, however, has already been broken a dozen times. Yerevan and Baku accuse each other of attacks against civilians. Armenia reports 20 civilians and 525 soldiers killed. Azerbaijan, which has not disclosed its military casualties, claims that more than 41 civilians have been killed and 205 injured since hostilities began on September 27.
Lika Zakaryan says that since practically since then she has lived in a small bomb shelter with three other people in Stepanakert. “My house was hit by one of the attacks and we no longer have electricity or gas there and the living room is missing a wall,” says the 26-year-old, who was born in Upper Karabakh after the war in the early 1990s. lasted six years. Zakaryan, who studied Sociology but who in recent months worked for an information website about the region, explains on Skype that her 24-year-old brother, her boyfriend and a good number of his friends are at the front.
Despite the ceasefire as talks on how to develop it continue in Moscow, the leader of the region, Arayik Harutyunyan, has announced that he is meeting with veterans of the n + oventa war to also get involved in the battle. “The situation is fatal,” he wrote on Facebook. The authorities in Upper Karabakh accuse Azerbaijan of initiating the confrontation and attacking civilian targets. “Azerbaijan has deliberately attacked more than 120 civilian settlements,” insists local politician David Babayan from his office in Stepanakert by video call. In addition to residential buildings, Babayan talks about bridges, water and electricity facilities, and also communications. On Thursday, two attacks destroyed much of Shusha Cathedral and seriously wounded three Russian informants.
Baku denies this and accuses Armenia of attacking a residential area in Ganja, the country’s second city, after the signing of the ceasefire and at dawn. Azerbaijani authorities have reported nine civilians killed and 34 injured, according to a note from the Foreign Ministry. Media on the ground in Ganja, such as France 24 or the BBC, have broadcast images of the enormous damage caused in the area by what Baku identifies as a ballistic missile. “If Armenia continues to attack civilian targets, Azerbaijan will be forced to take necessary measures against military targets,” said presidential adviser Hikmey Hajiyev.
The lawyer Tatev Asaryan was born in Upper Karabakh the day after the signing of the 1994 ceasefire between Baku and Yerevan, after the war that caused some 30,000 deaths and thousands of displaced people and for which a peace agreement was never signed. Through a precarious Internet connection and from one of the shelters in Stepanakert, he assures that, despite the fact that normal life has practically stopped, families are making an effort for children to follow their classes in one way or another.
The Red Cross, which has provided emergency medical supplies to hospitals and body bags to the Nagorno Karabakh forensic office, as explained in a note, also warns of the spread of the covid-19 pandemic among a refugee population in bunkers and with worse access to health facilities. Also of the arrival of the cold, says the head of human rights of Upper Karabakh, Artak Beglaryan. “50% of the population has had to leave their homes, some to shelters within the region, others to Armenia,” says Beglaryan from Stepanakert by phone. Like Yana Avanesyan, who left Upper Karabakh when an artillery attack hit her sister’s house. “It was not safe and we decided that it was better to go out to Yerevan than to stay in a shelter,” Avanesyan says, Professor of Law at the University of Stepanakert and specialized in Humanitarian Law, by video call. He does not know when he will return.
The latent confrontation for the mountainous enclave that several UN resolutions recognize as part of Azerbaijan began before Avanesyan was born, which has not yet reached thirty, and is the result of the conflicts inherited from the former USSR and its collapse, which combine territorial and ethnic tensions in a tumultuous South Caucasus. But this latest outburst is different. Not only because it comes at a time when both Armenia and Azerbaijan have much more sophisticated weapons, points out the expert in the area Thomas de Waal, who also highlights the intense information war on television and social networks; also because of the involvement of Turkey, which has offered its most direct support to its ally Azerbaijan in a traditionally Russian area of influence, which adds another new and complex component. All of this increases the risk of the local conflict becoming regional. That of Upper Karabakh would join the conflict in Libya and Syria, where Ankara and Moscow support rival sides.
Armenia has a defense agreement with Russia, which supplies arms to Yerevan but also to Baku, which has also invested a large part of the money earned with oil in buying defense material also from other suppliers, such as Israeli and Turkish drones that, according to Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer, are giving you a comparative advantage. In addition, different reports from the Armenian, French and Russian intelligence as well as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicate that dozens of Syrian mercenaries have come to the front to fight for Azerbaijan but financed with Turkish money. Turkey denies it.
Ankara’s intervention and Baku’s requests to participate at the negotiating table deeply scare Armenia and stimulate the memory of the persecution of Armenians by the Ottoman government in which more than 1.5 million died. A massacre recognized as genocide by a good number of countries. “It is very difficult to find a common language with the Turks, this is what history has taught us. But we are prepared to resist and fight to protect our people, ”remarks farmer and restaurateur Hovig Asmaryan.