Last weekend a ceasefire was broken between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a historic conflict that mixes political, ethnic-religious and economic interests for the Caucasus region

Why is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict strategic for Europe, Russia and Turkey?

photo_camera SPUTNIK/SERGEY GUNEEV - Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The media have been inundated with headlines about Armenia and Azerbaijan since last weekend. The international turmoil is causing a flurry of commentary and analysis ranging from ethno-religious interests to possible international confrontation.  

But the fact is that the international community is very interested in peace and calm in this area, owing mainly to the Caspian Sea oil and gas fields and the oil and gas pipelines that cross Azerbaijan towards Turkey and Europe

But what about Nagorno-Karabakh? This territory, located within Azerbaijan, is a small enclave of Armenian population that wants to become independent and part of the neighbouring country (Armenia). With 140,000 inhabitants, 90 % of whom speak Armenian, it proclaimed independence in 1991 by creating the Republic of Artsaj. 

To understand how this whole territorial conflict began, we have to go back to 1918, when Iosif Stalin, in creating the USSR, occupied the Caucasus region and divided the territory into three socialist republics: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  As in many other cases in the history of colonisation, the ethnic groups and religions that lived together in the area were not taken into account. This is how Nagorno-Karabakh remained within Azerbaijan despite being more akin to Armenia. For many years this uncomfortable situation was maintained without wanting to take the Soviet leadership to task. 

But when the Soviet empire began to weaken, the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh began to demonstrate and Armenia, in an attempt to expand its territory, entered into a war with Azerbaijan that was to last eight years (1987-1994). This war took more than 30,000 lives and displaced around a million people.  

El primer ministro de Armenia, Nikol Pashinián

Although the USSR tried to prevent this Armenian annexation, its priorities were beginning to focus on survival. This is how the Soviet regime began to deflate without being able to exert any kind of influence. In 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh region proclaimed itself independent by creating the Republic of Artsaj. This new state shares administration and banks with the Armenian country, which also gained Azeri ground during the war by surrounding the eastern part of the newly proclaimed country. 

The war ended with the Azerbaijanis as the big losers as they suddenly found 20% of their country invaded by Armenia and an independent republic proclaimed without their consent. About 800,000 Azeris were forced to leave the occupied area after the war.  

This state has not been recognised by any UN country, but diplomatic efforts to recognise the region have made (and continue to make) great efforts to achieve their goals. The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has proclaimed on several occasions that "their greatest enemies are the Armenians" and has given no sign of wishing to settle this conflict of which they feel they are historical victims. 

In 2009 an attempt was made in the city of Madrid to revive the resolution of the conflict in which three lines were proposed to ease tensions: first, the inhabitants of Artsaj could decide whether to be from Armenia or Azerbaijan. The second point urged the Armenian army to withdraw from the occupied region to the southeast of Nagorno-Karabakh. And finally, Azerbaijan would guarantee a humanitarian corridor for all those who wish to leave Artsaj for Armenia.

These talks were broken off as neither country was willing to give up Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Tensions have been building up until now, which have resumed the military confrontation leaving dozens of wounded, according to sources at the Ministries of Defence on both sides. 

In February 2020 the leaders of both countries were seen for the first time in public at the Munich Security Conference. Both Nikol Pashinian, the Armenian prime minister, and Ilham Aliyev were discussing at a conference the historical reasons for belonging to one or other of the disputed territories. The talk did not reveal any agreement, but the idea that they should discuss it in public opened the door to hope for a peaceful future. 

El presidente de Azerbaiyán, Ilham Aliyev

Nothing could be further from the truth. Seven months later, both countries have taken up arms again and, right now, they do not seem to have any intention to stop. Azerbaijan wants to recover its lost territory and, in the process, control the Republic of Artsaj, over which it has no jurisdiction since it proclaimed independence.  

On the other hand, Armenia feels it has a duty to continue defending the citizens living in Artsaj, an annexationist pretext for continuing to control the area. For the time being, Pashinian has banned men between 18 and 55 from leaving the country in case he has to send them to the front. This decision suggests that the conflict may last longer than it should. 

Correspondents on the ground report the presence of many ambulances going from one place to another, as well as families leaving Nagorno-Karabakh fleeing the conflict, and the ongoing power and internet cuts in Azerbaijan.  

AFP / MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA AZERBAIYANO - Tropas azeríes llevando a cabo una operación de combate durante los enfrentamientos entre los separatistas armenios y Azerbaiyán en Nagorno-Karabaj
The geostrategic value of the Caucasus and its inhabitants

Armenia and Azerbaijan are located between Europe and Asia, in an area between the Black and Caspian Seas and bordered by the mountain ranges of the Caucasus. Their geostrategic value is of great interest to neighbouring countries, both Russia and Europe, particularly because of the gas and oil fields controlled by Azerbaijan which are located in the Caspian Sea. 

The Armenian population is mainly Christian and identifies with the Armenian Apostolic Church, an eastern denomination sympathetic to the Eastern Orthodox Churches. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is home to an Azeri Muslim population, about 85% of whom are Shi'a. 

According to its constitution, Azerbaijan is considered a secular country and, because of its proximity to Iran, it shares many Persian festivals. It is considered the most secular country in the Islamic world and, at the same time, one of the least religious on the planet. Azerbaijani society is highly westernised and it would be a mistake to infer that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is purely religious or ethnic. 

It is a very complex territorial conflict. Azerbaijan and Armenia have very curious borders, with large pieces of territory within each state. A clear example is the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in southwest Armenia, which belongs to Azerbaijan even though they do not share direct borders. Indeed, in order to cross between these territories, it is necessary to go through Iran, as Armenia does not have a direct route available or operational. 

AFP - Mapa de Azerbaiyán y Armenia

The confrontation is currently forcing certain powers involved to take part in the matter. These are Turkey and Russia, the former supporting Azerbaijan and the latter, less directly, Armenia. The possibility of this conflict turning into an international war is a long way from reality. Whatever commitments and diplomatic interests it may have with one or other country, the international community prefers a calm territory, as Azerbaijan is crossed by two oil pipelines and a gas pipeline that directly supply Europe.

Following news of the clashes, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has resumed the initiative of the Minsk Group, a body set up in 1992 to resolve this territorial conflict. The co-chairmen of the Minsk Group are Russia, France and the United States. In addition, the group is made up of Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland and Turkey, as well as Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

Turkey has openly criticised the inefficiency of this body, which it considers, as it is led by Russia, "has paralysed the conflict rather than settled it", Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced this week in the media. Turkey's intervention directly in the conflict by supporting the Azeris is making headlines. In a veiled way it seems that Erdogan has moved militias from Northern Syria and Libya to Azerbaijan. Though nobody confirms or denies it, Armenia claims to have information that Turkish troops are also arriving in Nakhichevan. 

With respect to the development of the conflict as well as Turkey's alleged intervention, the Minsk Group has to meet soon to consider how to deal with the Caucasian peace, an issue postponed without being solved years ago, and now knocking on its doors again. 

REUTERS/Servicio de Prensa Presidencial vía AP  -   El presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Azerbaijan, the world's least known petro-state 

Territorial stability has a major economic motive. The oil and gas coming from both Russia, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea is of great interest to Turkey and Europe. Two huge hydrocarbon fields that concern Azerbaijan are located at the bottom of the Caspian Sea: Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli and Shaj-Denis. 

Azerbaijan, a Caucasian country, derives most of its economy from the profits it makes from extracting oil from its territory. This has evolved and many international companies are doing business in Azerbaijan. In the early 20th century, there were 167 oil companies in Baku and 55 of them were Armenian companies.

Oil extraction increased significantly after the Second World War, particularly as a result of supplies to the Eastern Front Allies (in this case the Soviet Union). At the end of the war with Armenia in 1994, Azerbaijan signed the "Contract of the Century" with 11 major oil companies from eight different countries: BP (United Kingdom), Amoco (United States), Lukoil (Russia), Pennzoil (now US Devon), UNOCAL (United States), Statoil (Norway), McDermott (United States), Ramco (Scotland), TPAO (Turkey), Delta Nimir (now US Amerada Hess) and SOCAR (Azerbaijan). 

This ensured great national economic solvency. But the most important thing: Azerbaijan strategically hosts the passage of several oil and gas pipelines carrying crude oil and liquefied natural gas from Russia and the Caspian Sea to Europe and Turkey. 

None of these pipelines pass through the Nagorno-Karabakh area, precisely because of the tension and historical clashes with Armenia. This is why Azeri companies and the government have been forced to re-route these major pipelines through Georgia. If you look at the map of the oil and gas pipelines, you can see that, if they passed through Armenia, the route would be shorter. But it has not been possible due to the natural enmity of these states.

Mapa Gaseoductos en la zona de Azerbayán y Armenia

The international community and the petroleum companies concerned are focusing on Nagorno-Karabakh to prevent them from distracting Azerbaijan from looking after the crude oil production that supplies them and protecting the gas and oil pipelines from any kind of blackmail, stoppage or economic crisis triggered by a war. 

The history of Azerbaijan and oil goes back a long way. The first pipeline was built in 1878 by Baku Oil Refinery of Balakhani Mines. There are many underground pipelines in Azerbaijan today for both oil and liquefied natural gas. And many of them pass near the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsaj.  

One of the most important is the South Caucasus pipeline that runs from the Caspian Sea through Georgia to Turkey. It opened in 2007 and is 970 kilometres long. The pipes have been supplied by the Japanese company Sumitomo Metal Industries. And the project's shareholders are: BP (25.5%), Statoil (25.5%), SOCAR (10%), Lukoil (10%), NICO (10%), Total (10%) and TPAO (9%).  

The second-best known gas pipeline is called TAP (Trans Adriatic Pipeline), which joins the TANAP pipeline. Created in 2011, it is 878 kilometres long and carries Azeri natural gas through Turkey to Europe via Greece, Albania and the Adriatic Sea. The shareholders of the project are: SOCAR (20%), BP (20'%), Snam (20%), Fluxus (19%), Enagás (16%) and Axpo (5%).  

The TANAP (Trasns Anatolian) pipeline transports natural gas from Turkey's eastern border to the west and will provide stable transit in the country. The project will join the expanded South Caucasus pipeline from Azerbaijan to several pipelines in the European Union. It was a highly controversial project, particularly in Italy a few years ago, as the government was debating whether to accept the arrival of the Azeri supply, but it was finally approved. 

This sort of business has made Azerbaijan a state with very tenuous but present international influence. To date it has no known enemy other than the Armenians. Even Russia regards Aliyev as an ally, despite his market being threatened in 2009, when the European Union was seeking other sources of financing to re-establish the heating of Northern Europe which had been cut off owing to the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. In the end, Russia understood it was more profitable for the EU to reduce its dependence by 10 per cent by replacing it with Azerbaijan and blocking Ukraine and its gas pipelines. 

AFP / AZERBAIJAN MINISTRY OF DEFENCE - Azeri troops carrying out a combat operation during the clashes on 28 September 2020 between Armenian separatists and Azerbaijan in the border region of Nagorno-Karabakh

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has raised old ghosts which, on an economic and energy level, are once again worrying the European Union, Russia, Turkey and all the international gas and oil companies that do business in the Azeri country. 

Although there is no indication of the idea that the Armenians may occupy sensitive areas where pipelines pass, the international community cannot fail to pay close attention to this conflict, which is reopening old wounds and it is unclear where it may lead. 

Particularly if Turkey decides to intervene militarily on the ground. This threat would force other countries such as Russia to take action and, with the gas and oil tap in the north of the European Union, it does not seem appropriate to start another international confrontation between these two countries, which are already seeing each other's faces in Libya and Syria.

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