Azerbaijan : A Reflection of the Shadows of the Cold War or Cry for Cultural Identity?
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Picture by Daily Sabah
After continuous fighting for 6 weeks, the city of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh was liberated by Azerbaijan from the occupation of Armenian forces on the 8th of November. On very emotional notes the leader of the country announced that azan will be heard in Shusha after 28 years. Ahmed, a journalist in Baku, perfectly reflected the mood in Azerbaijan- "There is a mood of national celebration in Baku. There are surging crowds among a sea of flags. This is a real and a key victory which has been achieved after a very long fight."
The Nagorno- Karabakh region is of great historical and cultural importance for Azerbaijan. It is also of enormous economic value for being rich in oil and gas. In 2020 events took a heated turn as clashes began on 27 September along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, established in the aftermath of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in the 1990s. As of October 27th reports have put the number at 39 additional casualties with 122 civilians reported to be injured while reports conducted by Human Rights Defenders have registered the extent of the damage at 11,600 Civilian settlements.President Putin has placed the estimate of casualties as being roughly 5000 on each side.
A depiction of one of the key standing structures that borders Armenia, it is a symbol of the wealth of the agriculture/medieval lifestyle of old Azerbaijan and represents the dynasty.
In retaliation to the attacks reportedly launched by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Artsakh brought in martial law and total mobilization, while Azerbaijan resorted to martial law and a curfew, subsequently declaring partial mobilization on the 28th of September. There was massive deployment of drones, sensors, long-range heavy artillery, and missile strikes. The states' propaganda used official social media accounts in online information warfare. On 9 October, a temporary humanitarian ceasefire was declared between both sides, however, it was extremely short-lived as the Azerbaijani forces continued their advances. Within a very short period, Azerbaijan announced the capture of dozens of villages on the southern front. With subsequent capture of Khoda Afarin Dam and Khodaafarin Bridge the Lachin corridor, an important highway between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, a ceasefire brokered by the US was brought into effect, but within a short time fighting resumed. Azerbaijani forces advanced to Shusha and successfully captured it.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has announced that “Shusha is now free” after “28 years of occupation” by Armenia. Shusha is a city in the occupied Karabakh region.
The Peace Deal
Following the capture of Susha on the 9th of November a peace agreement was signed between the President of Azerbaijan,the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, and the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, in agreement of ending the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The President of Artsakh also showed his acceptance towards the treaty. However, outrageous protests erupted in Armenia against the government. The Peace deal encompasses the conditions to Armenians to give up the Lachin Region with a road to enclave; Russian forces have been sent to protect the road; Armenian to turn over areas held outside the enclave, 1960 peacekeepers have been deployed as peacekeepers for the next five years, Azerbaijan says Turkish troops will also be involved; thereby establishing a Russo-Turkish geopolitics in the Southern Caucasus. The Armenian president was called a 'traitor' for accepting the peace deal. The protesters also seized the parliament building by breaking doors , and pulled the President of the National Assembly of Armenia Ararat Mirzoyan from a car,and physically assaulted him . In contrast to Armenia, wide celebration parades were taken out in Azerbaijan celebrating the victorious capture of Shusha.
Actual Footage offering a deeper perspective into the aftermath of the conflict.
US President Elect Joe Biden stated his concern quite clearly via the following statement, ’I am deeply concerned by the outbreak of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh and call for urgent de-escalation, restoring the ceasefire, and a resumption of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.’
Shusha is referred to as one of the world’s remaining or continuously stirring cold war style of political developments that has had cracks of tension growing through the years and comprises various complex layers. The region is internationally recognised by the UN and international parties as belonging to Azerbaijan, however it does hold a large ethnic group of Armenians which has grown immensely over recent years thus issues with occupation and land declaration are fueling a heated dispute.
Cultural and Religious Significance of Shusha for Armenia and Azerbaijan
Shusha houses several edifices of cultural and religious importance to Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The Armenian version of the Four Gospels was compiled by calligrapher Ter Manuel in 1824 within the city of Shusha. The city is also home to Holy Savior Cathedral (commonly referred to as Ghazanchetsots) which is a revered house of worship. As a result this city is of tremendous religious reverence for the Armenians.
In terms of cultural significance a representative from Baku, Shahin Rzayev has stated that,’Shusha is like Mskheta for Georgia or Kyoto for Japan’. At the same time, Shusha houses the Yukhari Govkhar Agha Mosque as well as the Ashaghi Govkhar Agha Mosque, whose construction was commissioned by Ibrahim Khalil Khan who was the son of the founding ruler Panah Ali Khan. These mosques are religious symbols of the Azerbaijanians. Widely recognized as the cradle of the Azeri culture, Shusha houses leading schools of the Mugham style of music.
Map clarifying the zone of conflict.
Geographical Significance of Shusha
Shusha city contains a strategic trading ground due to its positioning and altitude referred to as the ‘road of life’’. This road connects the mountainous region to significant trade partners and hence is much prioritized by both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
While Nagorno-Karabakh is small, the geopolitical stakes are high due to its proximity to strategic oil and gas pipelines, and its location between the powerful regional forces of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
An undetonated bomb between the Armenian and Azerbaijan border by Reuters.
Shusha, Shushi and the War So Far
At first, it was decided that Shushi (as Armenians refer to Shusha) would be part of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. The initial association of Karabakh to Armenia is believed to have been a plan to ensure Armenian support of Soviet rule. But the Soviets’ new Commissar of Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, reversed the decision. In 1923 Nagorno-Karabakh became an autonomous administrative region of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic even though 94% of its population at the time was ethnic Armenian. Though ethnic Armenians complained that Azerbaijan discriminated against them, the Soviet Union ignored their protests.
Post the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a severe war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Karabakh region which houses the city of Shusha. In 1994, the newly independent nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan signed the Bishkek Protocol, a ceasefire brokered by Russia that left Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. But though the fighting ceased, the two sides could not agree on a peace treaty.
For the last two and a half decades, Armenian and Azerbaijani troops have been divided by a contested “line of contact” laid out in the Bishkek Protocol. The Council on Foreign Relations says that given the close positioning and limited communication between military forces stationed there, “there is a high risk of inadvertent military action. Iran, which borders Azerbaijan and Armenia and has complicated relationships with both, has weighed in, warning of a “regional war,” complaining of rockets and shells striking inside its territory and placing its own troops near its border.
The U.S, Russia and France, which head the Minsk Group that mediates the conflict, have tried to negotiate a ceasefire. Three attempts led by Russia, France and U.S.A respectively failed within short periods of time, the latest unravel being the American attempt at a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the third week of October.
Azerbaijani people celebrate the liberation of Shusha, the historical city of Azerbaijan by Azerbaijani armed forces from Armenian occupation.
Apart from regaining strategic territories it had lost during the war in 1990s, Azerbaijan's recent victory also takes off the table any questions for a referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh, at least for the foreseeable future. For Azeris, this is a moment of great historical and national importance; as well remembrance of those who do not live to see this victorious day. Sevinc, a student at the University of Baku, said, "Shusha, a city of great importance to Azerbaijan and our culture has been liberated. This victory comes after years of fighting and loss of lives and hopes. I cannot express my happiness in words, but most importantly I remember the people who have died for our nation."
A report published by the Guardian quoted Laurence Broers, director of the Caucasus programme at Conciliation Resources, who described the peace deal brokered by Russia as 'momentous'. It is a big win for Putin as well, proving that Russia is the only outside party that was able to deliver peace; and further cementing the failures of the OSCE (Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe) Minsk Group in negotiating long-lasting peace in the region. Moreover, this also speaks volumes about the assertive influence of both Russia and Turkey in the region, without the presence of any western powers.
It remains to be seen how long this ceasefire stays in hold, considering the failure of previous ceasefires. Despite Russia's anxiousness to halt tensions between its ally Armenia, and Azerbaijan, a strategically important oil and gas importer, the treaty does not appear to be completely foolproof. The deal makes no provisions for safe passage for those ethnic Armenians who might want to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, and neither does not give any assurances of protection to those who wish to stay. The responsibility now remains with Russia to come up with a viable plan of governance and security with both sides involved.
The International Crisis Group, in its statement, said, "An imposed peace that leaves a generation of Armenians resentful is no recipe for peace; in a way it would be a mere mirror image of the reality with which Azerbaijanis have lived for the last three decades. Coupled with the accusations of war crimes coming from both sides, which will also emanate for years to come, it could plant the seeds of the next stage of conflict."
As Armenians mourn the loss of their territory and Azerbaijanis celebrate their long-awaited victory, the rest of the world can only wait and watch to find out what lies ahead.
Authors: Sanjukta Bose | Richardt Schoonraad | Anagha Rajesh | Srijita Chakrabarti