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Attention Diverted: Humanitarian Concerns in Nagorno-Karabakh Amidst The Lack of International Action and Media Coverage



Introduction


The year 2023 has been a year of conflict. The Russo-Ukrainian war continues on without an end in sight, while more recently, the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war has captured the world’s attention. AmidIn the midst of both wars, Azerbaijan reignited a conflict dating back to the Soviet era on September 19, 2023, when it launched a large-scale military offensive on the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a heavily contested region of the country made up of a predominantly Armenian population. Within days, the region was under Azerbaijani control, and a ceasefire was ordered. An exodus of the ethnic Armenian population followed soon after the ceasefire as more than 80% of Nagorno-Karabakh’s initial population of 120,000 fled the region, seeking refuge in neighbouring Armenia.

 

There have been ongoing reports of human rights abuses in the region since the conclusion of a previous bout of fighting in 2020 (Tadevosyan, 2023), with sparse media coverage and a lack of international attention. Even during Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor from December 2022 to September 2023, which resulted in shortages of essential items such as food, medicine, hygiene essentials, fuel, and other necessary supplies, the situation was barely reported by traditional media outlets despite the prolonged duration of the blockade (Human Rights Watch, 2023). 

 

This article argues that the lack of international coverage in Nagorno-Karabakh stems from a shift in regional dynamics to favour the side of Azerbaijan. The presence of Azerbaijani oil, coupled with the diplomatic isolation of Armenia by regional powers such as Russia and Turkey, has contributed to a lack of interest and incentive to cover the conflict in great detail despite the humanitarian implications of ignoring it.



The History of Nagorno-Karabakh


The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has its roots in the early 20th century, during the Soviet takeover of the Caucasus. The region, with a predominantly Armenian population, was placed within the boundaries of Soviet Azerbaijan, a decision that sowed the seeds of future discord. In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, Nagorno-Karabakh's legislature declared its intention to join Armenia, sparking violent conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, a full-scale conflict termed the First Nagorno-Karabakh War erupted, resulting in significant casualties and displacement, with Armenia gaining control over Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent Azerbaijani territories.

 

A ceasefire in 1994 left Nagorno-Karabakh as a de facto independent region with close ties to Armenia but unrecognised internationally. Despite various international mediation efforts, notably by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, an initiative aimed at mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a permanent resolution remained elusive. The region experienced intermittent clashes, with significant escalations in 2016 and another full-scale war in 2020, resulting in Azerbaijan regaining much of the lost territory. Economically, the war imposed significant burdens on both nations. Azerbaijan faced increased expenditures for rebuilding the liberated areas, while Armenia grappled with financial strains due to its military spending​​ (Ibadoglu, 2020). In Nagorno-Karabakh, the unrecognised regime lost considerable territory, altering the region's agricultural and energy landscape​.

 

 

Regional destabilisation and conflict escalation


Russia and Turkey's roles in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict exemplify the complexities of great power dominance in regional conflicts, underscoring the intricate balance between regional aspirations and geopolitical strategies.

 

Russia, as a traditional power broker in the South Caucasus and a co-chair of the Minsk Group, has maintained a dual role. Officially, it sought to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but its actions suggested a more self-serving agenda. This became particularly evident when Russia unilaterally deployed peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh post-conflict, thus asserting its direct influence in the region (Yemelianova, 2023). She notes that ‘Moscow’s military presence in the conflict zone and its mediation success has weakened the positions of the Minsk Group and other international actors who previously dominated the peace process’ (p. 1356). Russia's military presence not only overshadowed other international mediation efforts but also served to reinforce its strategic interests in the Caucasus under the guise of a peacekeeper.

 

Turkey's role, conversely, was more overtly aligned with its national interests and regional ambitions. As Azerbaijan’s most significant strategic ally, Turkey provided substantial diplomatic, political, and military support during the conflict. This support was not only a manifestation of the close ethnic and linguistic ties between the two nations but also an element of Turkey’s broader strategy to expand its influence in the South Caucasus and counterbalance Russian dominance (Askerov & Ibadoghlu, 2022). Turkey's involvement in the conflict served as a crucial factor in Azerbaijan's military success, altering the balance of power in the region.

 

Furthermore, the evolving relationship between Russia and Armenia highlighted a shift in regional alliances and dependencies, A breakdown in Russo-Armenian relations following Armenia’s increasingly pro-NATO stance, coupled with Moscow’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, signalled to Azerbaijan that resistance from Russian peacekeeping troops would be unlikely (Hartog, 2023). The fact that Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor went unopposed for such an extended amount of time, coupled with the indication that Russia would likely leave Armenia to fend for itself, undoubtedly contributed to Azerbaijan’s decision.



The Azerbaijani oil and the EU response


As Foreign Policy debate highlights, great powers prioritise regions ​​with ‘the greatest concentrations of wealth, power, danger, and the ‘crisis in the Caucasus, while tragic, does not carry the same stakes’ (Ashford & Kroenig, 2023). 

 

In this intricate geopolitical landscape, another critical dimension emerges: the reticence of Western countries to vocally address these issues, a stance seemingly influenced by their reliance on Azerbaijani oil. The EU's controversial gas deal with Azerbaijan, aimed at reducing dependence on Russian energy, has come under scrutiny, especially in light of Azerbaijan's actions in Nagorno-Karabakh and fears of ethnic cleansing of the region's Armenian population. This growing concern puts pressure on Brussels to reconsider its energy relations with Azerbaijan, a move complicated by the bloc's energy needs (Gavin & Sorgi, 2023). Moreover, the EU's late engagement in the conflict, after years of deferring to the OSCE Minsk Group, reflects its struggle to balance diplomatic involvement with competing strategic interests. The Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin Corridor, creating a humanitarian crisis, has been condemned by Western governments and human rights organisations. Yet, the EU's broader strategic interests, particularly in securing oil and gas supplies from Azerbaijan, seem to have influenced its approach to the conflict, leading to a cautious stance despite the significant human rights implications (Deen et al., 2023).

 

More importantly, Yavuz and Huseynov (2020) and Askerov and Ibadoghlu (2022) underscore the Western powers' apparent indifference towards the conflict's deeper issues, focusing instead on their strategic interests, such as the sale of arms in the region. As such, this indifference provided Russia the opportunity to assert its influence unilaterally, raising concerns about the long-term stability and impartiality of peacekeeping efforts in the area.

 

 

(The Lack of) international media coverage and implications


Regrettably, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has received far less attention from international media outlets as compared to the coverage afforded to the Russo-Ukrainian and Israel-Hamas wars. A significant reason for this could be because the profit-maximizing motives of these media outlets are not served by covering the region.

 

Shafag Mehraliyeva, Program Director of Communication and Digital Media at ADA University, attributes the lack of international media attention to the conflict to the terminology used to refer to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh (Cherkaoui, 2023). She notes that using the term ‘frozen conflict’ to describe the situation following the Second Karabakh War resulted in a lack of interest by media[3]  outlets to cover the region, which led to an obfuscation of on-ground realities leading up to the events of September 2023 and beyond. The belief that the conflict had seemingly been resolved likely contributed to a lack of public interest and by extension, a lack of demand for region coverage. Even if interest peaked at the outbreak of the conflict in September, the sparking of the Israel-Hamas war in October likely drew demand and, thus, media coverage away from the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

 

The rapid displacement of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh following Azerbaijan's military offensive initially gained the media spotlight but soon became an afterthought, overshadowed by other global events such as the Israel-Hamas war (Neal, 2023). This shift in focus raises concerns about adequate support for the refugees, who face dire needs ranging from food, shelter, healthcare, to psychological support, especially with the approaching winter. Local and international aid organisations, along with the United Nations (UN) agencies, have mobilised resources to address these challenges, with the UN launching an emergency response plan to raise USD $97 million for displaced refugees (UN, 2023).

 

However, the refugees' situation is compounded by a chronic housing crisis in Armenia, exacerbated by the influx of Russian expatriates following the Ukraine war, leading to overcrowded living conditions and a scramble for affordable housing​​. Providing adequate heating for refugees poses a significant challenge as well, with Russia having raised energy prices after it invaded Ukraine. As winter arrives, Armenia has informed the UN and civil society groups that support is required to address the twofold problem of heating and housing (Neal, 2023).

 


Conclusion


The plight of Nagorno-Karabakh refugees, grappling with the trauma of displacement and the legacy of a protracted conflict, is a stark reminder of the human cost of geopolitical conflicts. The international community's fluctuating attention to such crises reflects a challenge in maintaining sustained support for vulnerable populations amidst shifting geopolitical interests​​, such as the changes following the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, which resulted in the balance of power shifting to favour Azerbaijan. It also serves as a stark reminder that international media outlets are ultimately profit-driven and result in unequal coverage of events.

 

Nevertheless, this refugee crisis is as pressing as any other humanitarian emergency and deserves far greater attention from the international community. The geo-strategic importance of the Nagorno-Karabakh region should not dictate the amount of attention given to the crisis.



This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.


 

References

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Askerov, A., & Ibadoghlu, G. (2022). The Causes and Consequences of the Second Karabakh War. In M. Gunter & M. H. Yavuz (Eds.), The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (pp. 245–271). Routledge.


Cherkaoui, T. (2023, October 24). Media Bias and the Coverage of the Karabakh Conflict. TRT World Research Centre. https://researchcentre.trtworld.com/media-public-diplomacy/media-bias-and-the-coverage-of-the-karabakh-conflict/


Deen, B., Zweers, W., & Linder, C. (2023, March). The EU and the elusive peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Clingendael Institute. https://www.clingendael.org/pub/2023/the-eu-in-the-south-caucasus/4-the-eu-and-the-elusive-peace-agreement-between-armenia-and-azerbaijan/


Galina M. Yemelianova (2023) The De Facto State of Nagorno-Karabakh: Historical and Geopolitical Perspectives, Europe-Asia Studies, 75:8, 1336-1359, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2023.2214708


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Guarantee Right to Return to Nagorno Karabakh. Human Rights Watch. (2023, October 5). https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/10/05/guarantee-right-return-nagorno-karabakh


Hartog, E. (2023, September 20). Russia shrugs as Azerbaijan attacks Nagorno-Karabakh. POLITICO. https://www.politico.eu/article/while-azerbaijan-attacks-nagorno-karabakh-moscow-leans-back/


Ibadoglu, G. (2020, November 17). Why Azerbaijan Won. Institute for War and Peace Reporting. https://iwpr.net/global-voices/why-azerbaijan-won


Misachi, J. (2021, July 12). Nagorno-Karabakh. WorldAtlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/geography/nagorno-karabakh.html



Tadevosyan, M. (2023, April 11). Routine Observance of Human Rights in Shadow of an Unresolved Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh: External vs. Internal Locus of Responsibility. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2023/04/06/routine-observance-of-human-rights-in-shadow-of-an-unresolved-conflict-in-nagorno-karabakh-external-vs-internal-locus-of-responsibility/


The Economist Newspaper. (2023, September 4). An Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan is on the point of starvation. The Economist. https://www.economist.com/europe/2023/09/04/an-armenian-enclave-inside-azerbaijan-is-on-the-point-of-starvation


United Nations. (2023). Armenia Refugee Response Plan. United Nations. https://armenia.un.org/en/249557-armenia-refugee-response-plan


Yavuz, H. M., & Huseynov, V. (2021). The Second Karabakh War: Russia vs. Turkey? Middle East Policy, 27(4), 103–118.

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