Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Where does India stand?

New Delhi Oct 14, 2020, 06.24 PM(IST) Written By: Achal Malhotra

Clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

India has every reason not to support  Azerbaijan which has built its case on the basis of territorial integrity. Azerbaijan has shown scant regard for India’s territorial integrity violated by Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir

The Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is almost three decades old and one whose seeds were sown as early as July 1921 when a Christian Armenian majority autonomous enclave was created on the territory of a Muslim majority Azerbaijan during the incorporation of the South Caucasus region into then evolving USSR. 
It was a flawed decision as logically Nagorno-Karabakh should have been a part of the neighbouring Armenia with which it shares ethnic, religious and linguistic links. Several petitions from Nagorno-Karabakh to central authorities in Moscow during the next seventy years for its merger with Armenia were rejected. 

Nagorno-Karabakh’s decision to declare its independence in September 1991 in the backdrop of imminent disintegration of USSR and emergence of its constituent republics as independent States resulted in a war between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh in which the latter was supported whole-heartedly by Armenia. 

By the time a ceasefire was brokered by Russia in 1994, the Armenians had established control not only over Nagorno-Karabakh but also surrounding seven districts of Azerbaijan. No country-not even Armenia- has so far recognised the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh

Current Situation/ Regional and Global dimensions

The ceasefire violations and skirmishes have occurred on many occasions since 1994. The most recent flare up on 27th September is, however, unprecedented in more than one sense: in its intensity and scale it has surpassed all previous clashes, including the “Four Days War” in April 2016. 

More importantly, Turkey, which hitherto had been extending only moral support to Azerbaijan, has expanded the scope of its involvement through military support; even more dangerous are the reports that Turkey is facilitating the participation of mercenaries from Syria and Libya to fight alongside Azeri forces. 

Turkey’s bid for a role is linked to its desire to emerge as a leader of the global Islamic community and also a regional player.

Turkey’s active involvement in the conflict is bound to pit it against Russia which considers the region as part of its 'Near Abroad' and post-Soviet space and is intolerant of any other countries’ encroachment. The Americans and Europeans have made considerable investments in Azerbaijan’s oil and gas industry, and Europe’s energy security hinges to a certain extent on the stability of the region as the supply of Caspian oil and gas to Europe traverses a route which is close to war-torn Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Turkey being a member of NATO further complicates the matters. Since 1994, the USA, Russia and France have engaged Armenia and Azerbaijan as co-chairs of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) 11- Member  Minsk group in a bid to find an acceptable solution but have so far barely succeeded in managing the conflict. 

The primary reason for the failure is that the conflict is more than an ethno-territorial conflict; it is a conflict between two principles: the principle of territorial integrity (as propounded by Azerbaijan and supported by most of the countries)  and the principle of Right to Self Determination, invoked by Nagorno-Karabakh and supported by Armenia. 

Needless to add that the international community as a whole is opposed to the use of force to resolve the conflict. Both Azerbaijanis and Armenians have adopted maximalist positions: Azerbaijan may at best agree to granting some autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh within the territorial limits of Azerbaijan whereas the Armenians are unwilling to settle down for anything less than full independence.

Where Does India Stand?

India does not have a publically articulated policy for South Caucasus, unlike 'Neighbourhood  First', 'Act East' or 'Central Asia Connect' policies and the region has remained only on the periphery of its radar. 

Further, there is a visible asymmetry in India’s relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Armenia is the only country in the region with which it has a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty (signed in 1995), which incidentally would prohibit India from providing military or any other assistance to Azerbaijan in case Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh spills over to the territory of  Armenia. 

India has received three heads of states from Armenia but none from Azerbaijan or Georgia. Armenia extends its unequivocal support to India on Kashmir issue whereas Azerbaijan not only supports but also promotes Pakistan’s narrative on this issue. 

The levels of India’s trade or investment with Armenia are, however, very low. In the case of Azerbaijan, the  ONGC/OVL have made relatively small investments in an oilfield project in Azerbaijan and GAIL is exploring the possibilities of cooperation in LNG. 

Azerbaijan falls on International North-South Transport Corridor route, connecting India with Russia through central Asia; it can also connect India with Turkey and beyond through Baku-Tbilisi-Kars passenger and freight rail link. 

In view of Georgia’s foreign policy priority of integration with Euro-Atlantic structures and also in deference to Russia’s sensitivities, India has slow-peddled the development of its relations with Georgia with whom Russia’s relations are at a very low ebb. On the whole, India’s stakes in the region can be assessed as more or less peripheral.

India has adjusted its position as the conflict has evolved. 

In the very initial stages of the conflict in 1993, India said it had “followed with great concern the escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh with considerable ingress of Armenian forces into Azerbaijan” and had called for “respecting each others’ territorial integrity and inviolability of existing borders”. 

In 2008, India joined Russia, the USA and France and voted against Azerbaijan’s resolution in UNGA which inter-alia demanded “the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories of Azerbaijan” For quite some time now, India’s  emphasis is on peaceful resolution of the conflict through diplomatic negotiations. 

India has every reason not to support  Azerbaijan who has built its case on the basis of territorial integrity as Azerbaijan has shown scant regard for India’s territorial integrity violated by Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir.  

At the same time it is difficult for India to support Armenia and publically endorse Nagorno-Karabakh’s right for self-determination in view of the possible repercussions it can have for India as its adversaries may misuse it not only by making erroneous demands to apply it to Kashmir but also to re-ignite secessionist movement in certain parts of India.

Under the circumstances India has adopted a balanced and neutral stance and made a politically correct statement in which it has expressed its concern, called for restraint and immediate cessation of hostilities and resolution of conflict peacefully through diplomatic negotiations. 

In this context India has also expressed its support for the OSCE Minsk Group’s continued efforts towards peaceful resolution, implying that India is not in favour of the involvement of any other entity, including Turkey. Arguably, India’s statement should have also reflected its position on the alleged entry of mercenaries in the conflict.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)