Nagorno-Karabakh surrenders but what of the future?

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Azerbaijan launched a military offensive into the formerly disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region on September 19, with the aim “to restore constitutional order” and “force the dissolution of the government” in the capital Khankendi [Stepanakert in Armenian]. As a result of the 24-hour operation termed by Azerbaijan's Military of Defense as a “local anti-terror operation,” the government of Stepanakert/Khankendi surrendered, accepting the truce agreement outlined by Azerbaijan and Russia on September 20. Azerbaijan hailed the offensive, declaring it a successful move to restore the country's sovereignty, assuring Karabakh Armenians their rights would be protected and preserved. As of September 29, more than 84,700 Karabakh Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabkah. On September 28, the government of Nagorno-Karabakh announced it will dissolve itself by 2024.

The Nagorno-Karabakh area has been under the control of its ethnic Armenian population as a self-declared state since a war fought in the early 1990s, which ended with a ceasefire and Armenian military victory in 1994. In the aftermath of the first war, a new, internationally unrecognized, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was established. Seven adjacent regions were occupied by the Armenian forces. As a result of that war, “more than a million people had been forced from their homes: Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the adjacent territories, while Armenians left homes in Azerbaijan,” according to the International Crisis Group.

The tensions lingered over the following decades. In 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a second war that lasted for 44 days. That war changed the status of the region. Azerbaijan regained control over much of the previously occupied seven regions and captured one-third of Karabakh itself.

This war did not put an end to tensions and hostilities. Over the last three years, mutual accusations of ceasefire violations continued unabated. So did mutual hostile rhetoric at the government and local levels, diminishing any prospects for peace.

Since the ceasefire agreement was signed in November 2020, one question loomed: will there be another war? The most recent events on September 19, 2023, answered that question.

On September 21, representatives from Karabakh traveled to Yevlakh, an Azerbaijani town some 100 kilometers north of Khankendi/Stepanakert. The meeting lasted for several hours and focused on “the rights, security, and ‘reintegration’ of Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan according to the Azerbaijani constitution,” reported OC Media.

Commenting on these developments, regional expert Laurence Broers described the future of Karabakh Armenians as “unknown,” adding: “There is no international presence or monitoring capacity of any kind on the ground with exception of Russian peacekeepers, several of whom have been killed in this week’s violence. International facilitation of evacuation for those Armenians wishing to leave NK is now critical.”

According to Azerbaijani government-affiliated media, official Baku agreed to send a shipment of humanitarian aid and fuel to Karabakh and continue the peace talks. On September 22, photos of Azerbaijani aid en route to Karabakh circulated in the media.

A second meeting between the parties took place on September 25, 2023.

From environmental protests to full succession

On December 12, 2022, Azerbaijani citizens claiming to be environmental activists, though reports indicate they may have been linked to the government, began blocking the Lachin Corridor — the only route connecting Armenia to Karabakh across the territory of Azerbaijan, demanding that Armenia stop mining gold and copper-molybdenum deposits in Karabakh, which official Baku claimed Armenians were exporting illegally. Official Baku denied any involvement in the blockade. Numerous international stakeholders called on the government of Azerbaijan to end the blockade.

In the days that followed the December blockade, the protesters’ demands changed, saying Baku must “establish control over the Lachin Corridor,” according to reporting by Radio Liberty at the time. 

Then, on April 28, 2023, the so-called eco-activists suspended their blockade following the installation of an Azerbaijani border checkpoint on the corridor.

Just a month prior, in March 2023, Azerbaijan made several military advances, breaching the line of contact with Nagorno-Karabakh.

The newly set up border checkpoint gave Azerbaijan an upper hand to better facilitate the blockade of Nagorno Karabakh.

Soon, reports of residents from Karabakh being screened by the Azerbaijani border troops emerged, with footage appearing to show Armenian vehicles passing through the checkpoint, with Azerbaijani border control officers inspecting their vehicles and documents.

The blocking of Karabakh ensued in June 2023, with no supplies allowed past the Azerbaijani checkpoint, pushing the Armenian population living in Karabakh to the brink of yet another massive humanitarian crisis.

Throughout the blockade, official Baku continued meeting with counterparts from Yerevan. But while the leaders discussed some of the pressing points for reaching a final peace deal, there has been little sign of progress on the “most difficult issue — the fate of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh,” wrote Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent wars and shape policies.

According to Vartanyan, although significant progress was made in talks between the two nations in light of Armenian leadership's “significant concessions” since the end of hostilities in 2020, the fate of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh remained unclear.

A document outlining Azerbaijan's next steps regarding the ethnic Armenian population was never produced. The meeting in Yevlakh on September 21 and the lack of information on the next steps regarding integration do not rule out Armenians from Karabakh choosing to leave. The scenes of mass exodus since September 20 attest to earlier analysis.

According to regional expert Tom de Waal, the terms of the ceasefire and the talks in Yevlakh “were on Azerbaijan's terms and left ethnic Armenians looking unprotected.” In an interview with BBC, de Waal added, “We're probably, unfortunately, seeing a project whereby the Azerbaijanis offer so little to the Karabakh Armenians that most if not all of them will leave.” 

Official Baku could also suffer severe reputational damage with its other ethnic minority groups in the country. “Azerbaijan's other minorities have no autonomy and have limited minority rights. So we are looking at very restrictive and punitive arrangement for them [Armenians],” explained de Wall in a podcast interview with OC Media. Even with a lasting ceasefire, the majority of Karabakh Armenians will choose to leave,” added de Waal.

Laurence Broers tweeted:

Addressing the United Nations Security Council in New York on September 22, Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said, “Azerbaijan was determined to guarantee Nagorno-Karabakh residents ‘all rights and freedoms’ in line with the country’s constitution and international human rights obligations, including safeguards for ethnic minorities.” Bayram denied any allegations of Azerbaijan committing an ethnic cleansing.

Western diplomats disagreed.

During the convening at the United Nations, the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said official Baku broke “its repeated assurances to refrain from the use of force, causing tremendous suffering to a population already in dire straits.”

Russia's role

Russia brokered a ceasefire in November 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan installed the presence of 1,960 Russian peacekeeping forces in those parts of Karabakh “not recaptured by Azerbaijan and a narrow corridor connecting with Armenia across the Azerbaijani district of Lachin.” However, their presence did little to prevent the exchange of fire or military advancements.

While relations between Russia and Armenia have been strained over Russia's lack of support to Armenia as it faced pressure from Azerbaijan, one member of the Russian parliament went as far as suggesting nuking Azerbaijan's oil industry. Meanwhile, Russia has also repeatedly accused both Armenia and Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire agreement signed in 2020. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have increasingly questioned Russia's presence on the ground via its peacekeepers and their exact role.

Since the end of the 44-day war, Russia's role as mediator was also reduced, with the EU and the US taking a more proactive role in bringing leaders and high-ranking state officials together for negotiations. And yet, they could never replace Russia's role in the region. According to Tom de Waal, while the international community and the West could have done more, “the broader historical context” of the region shows “this [region] is at the edge of Europe, not a place for critical western internet or a place where western powers would deploy boots on the ground as peacekeepers,” leaving it to actors like Russia, which, unlike the Western stakeholders, “was prepared to put boots on the ground and shape events.”

Following the meeting in Yevlakh on September 21, Moscow said  “all the prerequisites” were now in place for a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the meantime, Russian officials continued to blame Armenia for the latest outbreak of violence, which was a sign that Russian allegiance and support switched to Azerbaijan [from Armenia], explained de Waal in an interview with OC Media.

The allegiance with Azerbaijan was also reflected in much of the Russian-state-controlled media coverage. But as exiled Russian media Meduza reported, they were instructed to do so. Meduza reported obtaining access to a manual with clear instructions for Russian media outlets: blame Armenia and the Western allies for the recent escalations.

During the outbreak of violence on September 20, Azerbaijani forces opened fire at a vehicle transporting Russian peacekeepers, killing several of them. This seems to have done little to deter Russian allegiance with Azerbaijan. Although Azerbaijan at first claimed they were killed by forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev later apologized to Russian President Vladimir Putin and offered to compensate the families of soldiers.

The cost of war

As of September 27, “the official death toll had risen to around 400,” following Azerbaijan's Ministry of Health reporting that 192 of its soldiers were killed during the 24-hour military offensive. Separately, an explosion of a fuel depot in Askeran (Asgaran) on September 25, killed 68 and injured 290 residents waiting in line to refuel. Earlier, the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh confirmed that at least 200 people were killed and over 400 wounded as a result of the military offensive. Of those killed, at least 10 were reportedly civilians, including five children.

Peace at last?

In a televised national address on September 20, President Ilham Aliyev said, “We intend to build a life together based on peace, mutual understanding, and mutual respect. We have no problems with the Armenian people. We have no enmity.”

The following day, addressing his country on the occasion of Armenia's independence day, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan also spoke of peace and the hard path leading to it: “In the summer of 2021, with your vote, I was elected the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia with the motto ‘There is a future.’ The peaceful, democratic, prosperous, creative, and happy future of the Republic of Armenia is the goal for which we endure these trials, for which we walk this path.”

With changing tides in the countries’ relationship and both leaders speaking of peace, regional peace activists have not ruled out that the nature of traditional peace-building changed with this war and that it is time to rethink approaches to peace-building among civic activists who have been marginalized and labeled as traitors. That, as well as the poor treatment of anti-war activists, begs the question: How committed Azerbaijan is to peace? As of September 22, at least five activists from Azerbaijan who spoke out against the military offensive were arrested.

In their weekly newsletter, OC Media writers Ismi Aghayev and Arshaluys Barseghyan wrote, “Regardless of what happens, the Nagorno-Karabakh status quo has been broken through the same cycle of violence and propaganda that has defined the conflict for 30 years — a status quo that left no room for healing or peaceful dialogue.”

The region and its people struggled for decades to heal after the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, whether they can do so now remains to be seen.

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