A Conversation About Nagorno-Karabakh

By Mary Hopkins and Jacob Levitan


On Nov. 10, 2020, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met in Moscow to sign a Russian-mediated ceasefire that ended the 2nd Nagorno-Karabakh War. One year on, two Johns Hopkins SAIS organizations — the Global Security and Conflict Management Club and the Central Asia and Caucasus Club — organized a panel of experts to review the war’s aftermath. Moderated by Johns Hopkins SAIS Professor P. Terrence Hopman, former Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Energy and Economics Chair of the Caspian Policy Center Robert Cekuta, former Ambassador to Armenia John Evans, United States Institute of Peace’s Senior Advisor on Nagorno-Karabakh Dr. Anne Phillips, and former Head of OSCE Mission to Moldova and Global Senior Fellow at the Wilson Center William H. Hill discussed the state of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and what it means for the region at large. 

After Hopmann provided a review of the conflict from 1988 onwards, Ambassador Cekuta offered his perspective on why the conflict has yet to be resolved after 30 years, pointing to how respective national identities have “hardened” in opposition to the other. Ambassador Evans highlighted that the conflict has expanded beyond the region in question to a broader friction between Armenia and Azerbaijan in general. The war over the territory expanded to include other Azerbaijani territories. Phillips put the dissension in the context of the international community, which largely prefers “territorial integrity” over “self-determination,” indicating that the Azerbaijani perspective is generally favored. Later, she discussed how education extended the conflict across generational lines and how the lack of transnational ties furthers the process of “othering.” Closing out the panel, Ambassador Hill traced the conflict back to Moscow’s “divide and rule” policy, in which Nagorno-Karabakh was transferred to Azerbaijan. 

The first war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh began in 1988. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan maintain historical claims to the region and name it their cultural cradles; Armenians and Azeris have lived side-by-side in the area for centuries. Then, in 1988, as centrifugal nationalist forces tore through the USSR, the majority-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh Central Committee voted to unite with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. As a result, Armenians and Azeris launched pogroms – an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, oftentimes Jewish people in eastern Europe – in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

After the Soviet collapse, Armenia seized Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories in a brief war lasting from 1992 to 1994. Despite numerous clashes in the three decades following the end of the First Karabakh War, the status quo remained unchanged. However, Azerbaijan scored a decisive victory in the Second Karabakh War lasting from September to November 2020, regaining half of Nagorno-Karabakh and all the surrounding districts lost to Armenia. 

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