Conflict Watchlist 2023

South Caucasus and Central Asia: Threat of Sporadic Outbreaks of Violence Across the Region

Posted: 8 February 2023

For multiple countries in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, 2022 was marked by ongoing violence stemming from decades-long disputes, further exacerbated by domestic turbulence and the ongoing armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Both regions belong to the post-Soviet space, share high levels of dependence on Russia, politically and economically, and continue to suffer from border disputes rooted in the failure of the Soviet Union to address tensions over the internal delimitation. As the Russian war in Ukraine brings further instability to the region and negotiations around border disputes show no sign of progress, Central Asia and the South Caucasus are likely to continue to experience new outbreaks of violence in 2023.

In the South Caucasus, tensions have continued to simmer between Armenia and Azerbaijan since Azerbaijan captured significant territories from the breakaway Republic of Artsakh during an escalation of violence in 2020. The conflict between the two countries stems from disagreement over the status of Artsakh in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians and formally belonging to Azerbaijan.

While fighting has been ongoing at lower levels since 2020, the violence escalated again on 13 September last year, when Azerbaijan launched an offensive on the territory of Armenia in the eastern and southern Syunik, Gegharkunik, and Vayots Dzor regions. At least 80 Azerbaijani and more than 200 Armenian servicemen were reportedly killed, as well as at least three civilians. Through this military operation, Azerbaijan was allegedly attempting to pressure Armenia into accepting, among other things, an agreement on the Zangezur corridor, which would connect the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic to the rest of Azerbaijan through the territory of Armenia.1Stefan Meister, ‘The Military Escalation Between Armenia and Azerbaijan: Is the EU Still a Normative Power?,’ German Council on Foreign Relations, 20 September 2022 At the same time, Russia was tangled up in the war in Ukraine during a major Ukrainian counteroffensive and unable, or unwilling, to intervene.2Mary Glantz, ‘Amid Ukraine War, Armenia and Azerbaijan Fighting Risks Broader Conflict,’ United States Institute of Peace, 15 September 2022 Although Russia has positioned itself as an intermediary between the two countries, it has historically backed Armenia due to the presence of a Russian military base there, closer cultural and religious ties, and attempts to limit the influence of Turkey, Azerbaijan’s ally, in the region. Russia and Armenia are also members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional security organization that Azerbaijan withdrew from in 1999. A reduction in fighting in 2022, however, was achieved with a ceasefire agreement brokered by the United States. 

In December, the blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only route connecting the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh to Armenia, further precipitated tensions in the contested territories. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of orchestrating the blockade in an attempt to force ethnic Armenians to leave Artsakh,3Ismi Aghayev and Ani Avetisyan, ‘Lachin corridor blocked by Azerbaijani ‘eco-activists’,’ Open Caucasus Media, 12 December 2022 as Azerbaijan deflected the blame onto Russian peacekeeping troops.4Daily Sabah, ‘Baku rejects Yerevan’s accusations of closing Lachin corridor,’ 14 December 2022 The road remains closed while some 120,000 Armenian residents of Artsakh are facing a shortage of essential goods and services, including water, medicine, and access to more complex healthcare.5Tony Wesolowsky, ‘Blocking Of Key Nagorno-Karabakh Artery Triggers Fresh Tensions Between Armenia And Azerbaijan,’ Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 22 December 2022 As a potential humanitarian crisis looms over the region, protests calling for the Lachin corridor to be unblocked surged in both Armenia and Artsakh. Following the start of the blockade, negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have seemingly come to a halt.6Caucasus Watch, ‘Ararat Mirzoyan on Negotiations with Azerbaijan, Protest Along Lachin Corridor and Mediation of Georgia; Azerbaijan Responds,’ 22 January 2023 

In Central Asia, fighting escalated last year along the disputed Kyrgyz-Tajik border in September. Over 100 people were reportedly killed across both sides during the escalation, including dozens of civilians, marking the deadliest Kyrgyz-Tajik border clashes since ACLED coverage began in 2018. Almost half of the 970-kilometer border between the two countries remains yet to be demarcated, prompting occasional violent incidents.

The region also grappled with widespread domestic turmoil, as security forces suppressed demonstrations in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The year 2022 began with mass demonstrations in Kazakhstan over a liquified petroleum gas (LPG) price hike. Unable to suppress the growing discontent, not only with LPG prices but also the rising cost of living and economic stagnation, the government allowed state forces to use live ammunition, granting a “shoot-to-kill” order.7Al Jazeera, ‘Kazakh president gives shoot-to-kill order to quell protests,’ 7 January 2022 As the Kazakh government claimed to have also arrested 12,000 people during the first two weeks,8Al Jazeera, ‘Kazakhstan detains nearly 1,700 more people over unrest,’ 12 January 2022  ACLED records at least 200 fatalities from the violence, though human rights groups warn the actual number of fatalities may be higher.9Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, ‘Information note of the NGO Coalition of Kazakhstan against Torture as of January 19, 2022 on the right to freedom from torture as a result of the January events in Kazakhstan,’ 19 January 2022 

In both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, authorities cracked down on demonstrations led by ethnic minorities. After members of the Pamiri minority held demonstrations against local authorities in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan in May, the government accused demonstrators of belonging to an organized criminal group and killed over 20 people during a “counter-terrorist operation.”10[Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, ‘A source in the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Rushana confirmed the death of 21 civilians during the “counter-terrorist operation”,’ 20 May 2022 Many other participants subsequently faced arbitrary arrests, staged trials with lengthy prison sentences, and torture.11International Federation for Human Rights, ‘Tajikistan: Heavy prison sentences for rights defenders from Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous region,’ 19 December 2022; Human Rights Watch, ‘Tajikistan: Autonomous Region Protesters Denied Fair Trials,’ 23 August 2022 In Uzbekistan, peaceful protests by the Karakalpak ethnic minority on 2 July were met with a harsh police response that led to clashes and dozens of reported fatalities.12Civicus, ‘Civic Freedoms Remain Highly Restricted as Karakalpakstan Protests Turn Violent, Bloggers and Activists Targeted,’ 7 October 2022; ACCA Media, ‘Uzbekistan: Blogger Tortured with Electric Shock for Opinions on Constitutional Amendments,’ 11 July 2022 The subsequent torture of detained activists led to the highest monthly surge of violence against civilians since ACLED’s coverage of Uzbekistan began in 2018. 

What to watch for in 2023

While violence across the region had subsided by the end of the year, the border disputes in the South Caucasus and Central Asia and the economic insecurity and lack of democratic freedoms in Central Asia that drove it remain unresolved. These issues are thus likely to continue to cause sporadic outbreaks of violence across the region in the form of cross-border clashes and violent suppression of popular movements by government forces. 

Armenia and Azerbaijan failed to sign a peace treaty by the end of the year.13Burc Eruygur, ‘Armenia says it intends to sign peace deal with Azerbaijan by end of 2022,’ Anadolu Agency, 26 October 2022 Although an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan may be reached in 2023, it will likely omit two crucial issues – the status of the de facto Republic of Artsakh and the Zangezur corridor. The biggest point of contention regarding the latter is Armenia’s unwillingness to allow Azerbaijani forces to monitor the road passing through its territory. An agreement that does not address these issues is unlikely to prevent further armed confrontations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, so ceasefire violations are anticipated to continue in 2023. 

Russia will likely wish to keep its grip on the region, as it continues to station its peacekeeping troops in Artsakh. Yet, Armenia seems to have become progressively disillusioned with the ability of the CSTO and particularly Russia, ever wary of antagonizing Turkey, to maintain peace in the region following their failure to address the September 2022 escalation and the blockade of the Lachin corridor.14Ani Mejlumyan, ‘Pashinyan refuses to sign CSTO declaration after bloc’s failure to help Armenia,’ bne IntelliNews, 25 November 2022; Al Jazeera, ‘Armenia cancels military drills of Russian-led alliance,’ 10 January 2023 Armenia may instead look to intensify efforts to strengthen security ties with the US and the European Union to offset Azerbaijani pressure.15Nadia Beard, ‘With Russia Bogged Down In Ukraine, Armenia Is Worried It’s Being Abandoned By The Kremlin,’ Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 30 September 2022 However, as Russia is overstretched and lacks resources to effectively intervene in the South Caucasus due to its war against Ukraine, Armenia remains vulnerable to future attacks by Azerbaijan.

Border disputes in Central Asia are also yet to be settled and look likely to shape domestic politics in the short run. Political will is critical for reaching any long-standing peace arrangement in the region, yet both Tajik and Kyrgyz regimes have instrumentalized border disputes to consolidate power through nationalist rhetoric and divert attention from internal problems.16Asel Doolotkeldieva and Erica Marat, ‘Why Russia and China Aren’t Intervening in Central Asia,’ Foreign Policy, 4 October 2022 While neither state seems interested in spending resources on prolonged fighting, isolated clashes look set to continue in 2023, with domestic issues being the main drivers behind their intensity. On his part, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon may be seeking to use the dispute to increase popular support for passing the presidency to his son in the near future.17Chris Rickleton, ‘’Khanstitutions’: In Central Asia, Constitutions Are Not For The Many, But For The Few,’ Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 20 January 2023; Asel Doolotkeldieva and Erica Marat, ‘Why Russia and China Aren’t Intervening in Central Asia,’ Foreign Policy, 4 October 2022 

Third-party intervention is also unlikely to prevent further clashes. In the past, the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation chose to watch clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan from the sidelines, as these organizations seem to primarily reflect the interests of Russia and China, respectively, and this will likely continue. Russia’s possible involvement in the conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the region of Central Asia as a whole, will likely be dictated by developments in Ukraine and along the Azerbaijan-Artsakh-Armenia Line of Contact, and may further diminish if Russia experiences further setbacks. Russia’s falling out with the West due to its invasion of Ukraine has also made Russia a less attractive ally, which may convince political elites in Central Asia to continue to cut ties with Russia.18Temur Umarov, ‘Russia and Central Asia: Never Closer, or Drifting Apart?,’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 December 2022 This would also reflect popular attitudes in Central Asia towards Russia, as large percentages of the local populations blame economic problems on the Russian war in Ukraine, while the influx of Russian draft dodgers to Central Asia raises fears over security and sovereignty in the countries.19Asel Doolotkeldieva, ‘Russian Draft Dodgers Find a Mixed Reception in Central Asia,’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 19 October 2022 Meanwhile, as Russia’s regional influence wanes, China seems to be attempting to deepen economic ties in Central Asia.20Yang Jiang, ‘China leading the race for influence in Central Asia,’ Danish Institute for International Studies, 10 October 2022

The region is likely to remain volatile in 2023, with sporadic spikes in cross-border, communal, and police violence, exacerbated by economic turmoil. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a negative impact on the regional markets in Central Asia, with distressed supply chains, increased financial strains, and declines in consumer and business confidence.21The World Bank, ‘Russian Invasion of Ukraine Impedes Post-Pandemic Economic Recovery in Emerging Europe and Central Asia,’ 4 October 2022 Coupled with the already existing discontent over the rising cost of living, the new year is likely to bring further unrest to the countries. This may result in another outbreak of demonstrations in Kazakhstan if problems continue and if the president’s new government fails to gain popular trust, as well as in other countries in the region. Additionally, ongoing authoritarian rule in Central Asian countries may also cause further demonstrations, with underrepresented ethnic and religious minorities particularly active in claiming their rights within these regimes, placing them at a higher risk of violent and political oppression.