Conflict – South Caucasus

In the midst of the pandemic, Nagorno-Karabakh’s long-standing conflict shows no signs of abating

Shorena Kobaidze

In the South Caucasus, the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 occurred alongside the revival of long-standing ethnic conflicts over the territory in Nagorno-Karabakh. A six-week war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the long-disputed territory left more than 5,000 people dead and displaced tens of thousands. Following a protracted conflict in the early 1990s between Armenia and Azerbaijan, formally ending with a peace agreement in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh – despite remaining formally Azerbaijani territory – was in practice a de facto autonomous territory. With hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians fleeing elsewhere in Azerbaijan and the simultaneous departure of many ethnic Azeris from the region, its population has since then been overwhelmingly Armenian.

After years of sporadic border clashes, however, outright conflict broke out in September 2020 between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, culminating in a decisive military victory for the latter. Official estimates show that at least 140,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting, including more than 40,000 into Armenia, amidst widespread destruction of homes, schools, churches and cultural heritage, as well as other serious human rights abuses. While the terms of a Russian-brokered truce leave the future of Nagorno-Karabakh undecided for now, much of the surrounding areas captured by Armenian forces in the previous conflict are under Azerbaijani control. The conflict has also further destabilized the geopolitical climate in South Caucasus, provoking demonstrations and a political crisis in Armenia alongside the resurgence of a triumphant nationalism in Azerbaijan.

This conflict took place in the midst of a global pandemic that has left no country untouched. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the virus, relatively well contained in previous months, spread rapidly through the population as the mass displacement of civilians forced them into close confinement in hazardous, overcrowded conditions. This situation was mirrored in Armenia where the impact of COVID-19 has been severe, particularly following the outbreak of fighting, with an eightfold increase in reported infections during the conflict. An influx of tens of thousands of displaced civilians from Nagorno-Karabakh placed further pressure on its overstretched health system.

In immediate terms, there is little hope that the ceasefire on its own will be a sufficient basis for lasting peace in the region — not while old storylines remain entrenched on either side. The only groups challenging these nationalist narratives are civil society actors in both countries, yet their situation is precarious and contested. In Azerbaijan, a government-led crackdown forced many civil society actors and human rights defenders to cease their activities, with authorities reportedly exploiting COVID-19 restrictions to detain or silence opposition activists. In Armenia, on the other hand, following the peaceful Velvet Revolution in 2018, many civil society representatives and activists took positions in the new government. While this saw an improvement in the public perception and status of civil society organizations, Armenian society has nevertheless become highly polarized between those with liberal views who largely support the new government and supporters of the old regime. Reactionaries in the latter camp have repeatedly depicted these organizations as ‘grant eaters’ or ‘Sorosians’, accusing them of undermining national values and furthering international agendas. These domestic divisions significantly curtail the ability of Armenian civil society actors to forge links and promote dialogue with their counterparts in Azerbaijan.

At least 140,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting, including more than 40,000 into Armenia, amidst widespread destruction of homes, schools, churches and cultural heritage.

Notwithstanding the cessation of hostilities in November 2020, the implications of the recent fighting are also being felt not only in Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also in neighbouring Georgia, where the pandemic has been accompanied by political turmoil in the wake of its October 2020 elections. As the most ethnically diverse state in the South Caucasus, Georgia has long been home to many ethnic groups including sizeable Azerbaijani (6.3 per cent) and Armenian (4.5 per cent) minorities. Historically, both communities have coexisted peacefully and interacted extensively through family ties, networks and civil society associations represented equally by both groups in the various provinces where Armenians live next to Azerbaijanis. This has been aided by the relatively supportive environment in Georgia itself: since its independence, the country has made great progress in creating a policy framework that promotes minority inclusion.

But despite the state’s efforts aimed at decreasing the gap between majority ethnic Georgians and minority Azerbaijani and Armenian populations, the outcomes are not straightforward — and risk being further complicated by the deteriorating relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Many members of ethnic minorities still report feeling marginalized as members of Georgian society. The general consensus among decision-makers is that the main challenge to overcoming the continued economic disparities between different groups is language, given that the inability of most of these minority populations, particularly those aged over 30, to speak Georgian hinders their ability to integrate economically, politically and socially into Georgian life. Fluency in Georgian among minorities is concentrated in the capital and other regions of the country with mixed populations, while fluency in more remote regions with monoethnic minority populations is much lower: for instance, approximately 83 per cent of Azerbaijanis in Kvemo Kartli and 72 per cent of Armenians in Samtskhe-Javakheti do not speak fluent Georgian.

Fluency in Georgian in more remote regions with monoethnic minority populations is much lower compared to large cities: for instance, approximately 83 per cent of Azerbaijanis in Kvemo Kartli and 72 per cent of Armenians in Samtskhe-Javakheti do not speak fluent Georgian.

The sentiment among a significant number of ethnic Georgians is that, despite numerous opportunities for language courses offered to them, minorities are simply not interested in learning. This, of course, overlooks the wide-ranging impacts that history, geography and inequality have played in perpetuating these barriers, instead placing the burden of addressing these obstacles squarely on the communities themselves. Decision-makers often do not fully understand the problems and challenges faced by minority populations because they do not consult with these groups. Furthermore, as identity in Georgia has become increasingly defined by affiliation to one’s homeland, mother tongue spoken and religious affiliation, there is a danger that an ‘us and them’ mentality around majority–minority relations could become established in future. Such an attitude not only ignores the country’s diversity but can also lead to minorities being regarded as a security or social threat, further marginalizing them and exposing them to discrimination, hate speech and nationalism. These are forces that have already forced many members of minorities from the countries in the South Caucasus to migrate on account of their ethnicity.

Destabilization, political crises and deepening ethnic divisions in the South Caucasus have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. During the pandemic, as poor and marginalized communities risk becoming even poorer and more marginalized, inclusion, reconciliation and a respect for minority rights are more important than ever, as integral a part of assuring the future stability and well-being of the region as public health and social welfare protections. Understanding and removing the constraints to the development of peace building processes will require renewed efforts and dedication to ensure opportunities, equality and basic services for all, regardless of whether they belong to minority or majority populations.


Photo: Children approach a rocket case in a field near the village of Taghavard in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, January 11, 2021. Following the military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and a further signing of a ceasefire deal, the village was divided into two parts: the Azeri forces stayed in the upper western end and those ethnic Armenians who did not flee live now in the east, reinforced by armed units. Picture taken January 11, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Artem Mikryukov.