Heavy fighting in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh on Friday night and into Saturday left at least 33 people dead, including 18 Armenian and 12 Azerbaijani soldiers. The fighting was the worst since 1994’s ceasefire, and despite Azeri calls for a unilateral truce, fighting is continuing throughout the weekend.
Nagorno-Karabakh has a complicated history. The Karabakh Khanate became a protectorate of Russia in 1805, and the Khanate was dissolved, joining the Russian Empire in 1822. With the establishment of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Armenia and Azerbaijan SSRs, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh became contested between the two.
The Soviets attempted to resolve the fighting by making Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous oblast within Azerbaijan, though fighting continued with efforts to see the oblast transferred to Armenia. The Soviets offered increased autonomy, but the fighting just continued until the Soviet Union’s ultimate collapse.
Independent as of 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan immediately started fighting over the region, with three years of conflict ending in a ceasefire. The 1994 ceasefire left Nagorno-Karabakh in a contested state, with an Armenian backed independent Republic established but unrecognized, and Azerbaijan still retaining its legal claims over the land.
That situation has remained largely unchanged since, though Azerbaijan has complained about Armenia’s systematic settlement of ethnic Armenians into the region in an attempt to further enhance their hold on it. This includes reports of a large chunk of Syria’s displaced Armenian minority being resettled in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Both sides are blaming the other for starting this latest dust-up, with Azerbaijan reporting shelling from the region hitting their border villages, and Armenia claiming Azerbaijan just attacked for no reason. Either way, Azerbaijan fairly quickly gained some advantage, and took part of the region back under control.
This is complicating the ceasefire push, for while the international community is backing the notion of ending the battle, pro-Armenia forces within Nagorno-Karabakh are insisting they would only accept a ceasefire that returned all lost territory back to them.
A resumption of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia could seriously threaten regional stability, as their conflicts have tended to take on a religious tone. Armenia is overwhelmingly Christian, while Azerbaijan is vast majority Shi’ite Muslim.