By Leila Alieva
The Nagorny Karabakh conflict was long one of the “frozen” wars triggered by secessionist movements across the dying Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Against the background of major world security problems – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, turbulent relations with China – periodic military escalation did not attract much attention from the West.
International mediating mechanisms proved ineffective. The Minsk group of the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did not change but rather solidified the status quo between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
For 30 years, no measures were taken by international organisations or governments to implement four resolutions of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) about the immediate withdrawal of Armenian troops from Karabakh.
This sent a message to the parties on the necessity for self-reliance in dealing with individual security issues, including the restoration of sovereignty and internationally recognised borders. After a few decades of failed attempts to liberate the lands through so-called energy diplomacy, Azerbaijan’s arms acquisitions, which included diversity of suppliers such as Israel, Turkey and Pakistan as well as trainings and consultations, allowed it to take the military path in 2020 during a 44-day war. Politically, for Azerbaijan, the escalation of September 19 2023 also means depriving Russian troops of the excuse to be present on the ground, as foreseen in the Moscow-brokered 2020 ceasefire agreement.
In Armenia, re-elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been implementing an exceedingly complex but important objective of changing the country’s security and foreign policy paradigm from dependence on Russia – and to a large degree shaped by the nationalist part of its diaspora – to the one of normalisation of relations with neighbours.
This change is full of political risks for the democratically elected leader of Armenia, who made a crucial statement about Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. At least in official rhetoric, there seemed to be a desire of liberation from the security paradigm which made Yerevan dependent on Russia.
Azerbaijan’s successful military operation in Karabakh however reinforced the old narrative and brought nationalist forces and pro-Moscow groups to demonstrate in Yerevan, with large street protests and reportedly a plan to assassinate Pashinyan.
In Azerbaijan, lack of progress in international mediation led to an effective “unification” of Karabakh with Armenia.
While one should not disregard the reasons of Azerbaijan’s militarisation stemming from the oil money and autocratic governance, the absence of the progress in mediation has been crucial for the eventual resort to military action.
The 2020 war took the lives of more than 7,000 troops and civilians on both sides, and Baku had to agree to the location of Russian peacekeepers in a major deviation from Azerbaijani national policy.
The war also caused a significant reaction in Europe and the US, although this did not prevent the Azerbaijani authorities from launching what they described as an “anti-terrorist operation” on September 19 to “suppress large-scale provocations” in the territory.
While many analysts agree that Azerbaijan took an advantage of the distraction of the international community with Covid-19 and then with the war in Ukraine, its 2020 and 2023 military actions produced a profound reaction from the West.
The EU, the US and other governments issued statements in support of Armenia and Karabakh’s population, with some media confusing the attribution of Upper Karabakh area, calling it aggression against Armenia. In late 2022 the EU decided to send international monitors to the state border of Armenia with Azerbaijan.
This marked a stark contrast with the reaction during the First Karabakh War in the 1900s when Armenia’s forces, supported by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), advanced in Azerbaijan’s territory and ended up occupying seven administrative districts beyond the Karabakh’s administrative border. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were, and to date remain, displaced.
In spite of the four UNSC resolutions voted in response to the occupation, the US Congress adopted sanctions against Azerbaijan in October 1992, Most importantly, the culprits of military actions in violation of the recognised state borders were never named, tried or punished by any court, either national or international. The mass exodus of refugees from both states did not find redress or recognition either by national politicians or international structures.
There were other differences too: in the UN voting, in the degree of support for the state’s territorial integrity and terminology (of all secessionist conflicts, only Karabakh was called “disputed”). This reaction, perceived as unequal treatment, undermined credibility and authority of Western institutions and actors within Azerbaijan.
In turn, Pashinyan had to deal with an Armenian public increasingly desperate and disappointed with Moscow. Relations have become frosty as Russian peacekeepers failed to unlock the nine-month long blockade of Karabakh and, alongside the Russia-led security bloc Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), abstained from involvement in the times of escalation of conflict.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict bears the heavy burden of 200 years of colonial legacies, including Russia’s special relations with Armenians in Muslim colonies.
Three key post-colonial factors have been at play: reliance on external patronage by the parties involved, a selective approach in application of principles, rights and norms to the parties by the West and the role of Russia who used the conflict to extend her influence in the region.
By now it is clear to both parties that Russian peacekeepers failed in their mission. For Azerbaijan they did not fulfil the point of trilateral agreement about the disarmament of Karabakh’s armed forces, while for Armenia they did not protect Armenians during escalations.
The most tragic consequence of the conflict has been on the people themselves: the mass exodus seems to be the last and most heart-breaking episode in the endless story of the struggle and displacement, which started in 1988, when hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes due to their different ethnic backgrounds.
While the reintegration plan does include rational proposals by Baku, such as social support, exemption from taxes and amnesty for former fighters, local observers are sceptical, citing the low level of freedoms and rights. Nearly all the Karabakh Armenians have already fled.
Against the background of these calamities, talks and agreements continue, with hopes for the progress at the next high level meeting in Granada, Spain, along with the prospects of the communication lines to the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan.
Alternative policies and long-term solutions may come from the West’s support for the parties to the conflict searching for a mutually beneficial solution on a bilateral basis with equal responsibilities in international law in regards each other’s minorities, lines of communications and state borders.
The start of democratisation is just the first step in resolving the ethno-territorial conflicts. What matter for long term resolution is modernisation and opening of minds, liberalisation of attitude to the others, recognising equal rights of all people regardless of their ethnic, religious or racial identity.
About the author: Dr Leila Alieva is an affiliate of Russian and East European Studies, Oxford University School for Global and Area Studies.
Source: This publication was published by IWPR and prepared under the “Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project” implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.