Defusing Azerbaijan’s Landmine Challenge
Defusing Azerbaijan’s Landmine Challenge
Officers of ANAMA search for mines and unexploded ordnances in a field near the village of Dovlatyarli, in the Fuzuli District of Azerbaijan, in July 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 20 minutes

Defusing Azerbaijan’s Landmine Challenge

Azerbaijan is keen to resettle territories regained from Armenian control. Landmines are its largest headache. To woo foreign support, Baku should be more welcoming of outside expertise. Along with Yerevan, it should also unlink demining from the conflict and consider joining the landmine ban treaty.

The possibility of renewed war between Azerbaijan and Armenia has been in the air for more than a year – the result of friction around the countries’ mutual border and the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, with its majority Armenian population, in Azerbaijan. The two countries have already fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh, one in the 1990s and the other in late 2020. On separate tracks, the European Union (EU), the U.S. and Russia are spearheading intermittent negotiations that might yet yield a peace treaty between the South Caucasus neighbours.

Yet even amid the prospect of fresh hostilities, Baku is contending with a challenge that arises from past conflict: ridding the territory it regained in the 2020 war of as many as a million landmines. The mines make it difficult to rebuild in a space of some 7,000 sq km (analogous to the size of the U.S. state of Delaware or thrice that of Luxemburg), which in turn means the lands are not habitable for the 650,000 Azerbaijanis who want to repopulate them. Baku needs outside support to solve this problem, but surges of fighting and contentious peace negotiations make getting the needed technical and financial aid that much harder. If it is going to demine successfully, Baku will need to attract more donor support.

It will not be easy. As Crisis Group has recently described elsewhere, tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia are on the rise. Getting donors to provide substantial support for demining, while peace talks are stuttering, will be challenging. Still, there is a chance. To improve the atmosphere for donor engagement, Baku should join the Ottawa Treaty banning mines – something Yerevan might encourage by signing up itself. Baku should also make the case to donors for why the demining effort should be seen as a humanitarian mission, and it should demonstrate greater openness toward international experts who can aid in the demining process. The more that Azerbaijan can help donors see the demining effort as separate from its fractious relationship with Armenia, the better chance it has of enlisting their support.

Crisis Group’s Analyst for the South Caucasus Zaur Shiriyev visits a field in the region of Agdam, where the Azerbaijani demining agency ANAMA is clearing mines and unexploded ordnances. Azerbaijan, July 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

War Brings Back Land, But…

During the 2020 war, Azerbaijan regained most of the territory it lost to Armenian forces in the first war. That earlier conflict took place in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union dissolved – and with it, Moscow’s dominion over the South Caucasus neighbours. Jockeying for territory and position, the two neighbours fell into war. When a ceasefire ended the bulk of fighting in 1994, Armenian forces held the mainly ethnic-Armenian populated enclave that had been the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within Soviet Azerbaijan, as well as seven Azerbaijani regions surrounding it. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis fled homes in these territories.

After the end of the first war in 1994, most Azerbaijani IDPs lived in tents, wagons and public buildings, including student dormitories, clinics and sanatoriums such as this one in Barda. The photo, from 2019, captures the scene prior to the 2020 war. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Authorities in the capital, Baku, had long promised that Azerbaijan would regain this land, so those displaced could go home. After more than twenty years of diplomacy failed to yield the return of the lost territories, Baku began to look to other means. It built up its military forces and tested its strength in sporadic border skirmishes. In the spring of 2016, Azerbaijan retook Lalatapa, a strategic hilltop looking out over a big river valley, in what was then the bloodiest fighting since the first war ended in 1994. Although Armenian positions were still within sight, Baku immediately declared that the hilltop was just the start: nearby villages would be the trailblazers for a “great return” in which Azerbaijanis displaced for decades would come home to areas won from, or soon to be won from, the Armenians.

By 2020, Baku had given up on the negotiations then run under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In six weeks of war, it took back most of the territories it had lost in the 1990s, including a quarter of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. The majority of the land was depopulated, and under the terms of the armistice Russian peacekeepers patrolled the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that the ethnic Armenian majority still controlled, as continues to be the case. This territory, despite legally belonging to Azerbaijan, remains outside its control as per the 2020 agreement. Baku now refers to it as the “former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast,” as a way of signifying Azerbaijan’s post-2020 war claim of restored sovereignty and its rejection of Soviet-era boundaries for the region.

Following the 2020 war, excitement ran high among the communities of those displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounds. These include the children and grandchildren of people initially displaced and now number over 650,000 people. The displaced hoped they would soon go home, encouraged by Baku’s promises of a “great return”. But first, the reclaimed territory would need to be demined and houses rebuilt.

Nazim, displaced during the 1994 war, told Crisis Group that he wanted to return to his native town but was concerned about landmines and sceptical about a quick return, in July 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

One Million Mines

For years, Azerbaijan appears to have underestimated the challenge it would face upon regaining the lost territories. “All the Armenian-occupied areas contain around 100,000 mines”, the head of the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA), said in 2019. This assessment turned out to be wildly optimistic. Today, after new studies, both government officials and outside experts affirm that over a million mines, laid by both sides over decades, may remain emplaced. Preliminary mine experts’ data shared with Crisis Group classify nearly a fifth of the regained territory as highly contaminated and around two thirds of it as a priority area for humanitarian demining. Mine explosions are already killing and injuring people who venture back before the areas are ready.

With mines still in the ground and a peace deal yet to be reached, the regained areas are nowhere near ready to receive returnees – and yet the government continued to reach for the sky, making repopulation a key pillar of a 2030 national development plan, until slowly it started to face reality. In November 2022, the government acknowledged in a new “great return” strategy that mine clearance could set back its timetable, as could a lack of jobs in the territories in question and, in some cases, the proximity of those territories to possible fighting. As discussed below, even if those issues were resolved, it is unclear that Baku has the financial capacity to make good on its plans and meet the requirements of the return process, which not only involves demining but also entails extensive rebuilding.

The history of Lalapata, which Azerbaijan regained in 2016, foreshadowed these developments. Rebuilding got off to a rapid start at the first showcase village, Jojug Merjanli. Fully furnished homes, a school and administrative buildings sprung up. But the work soon ran into a snag: landmines were strewn all about, a problem that had been vastly underestimated in Baku. It took five months to demine just 3 sq km, allowing an initial 50 families to relocate. By the time of the 2020 war, only a few people had been able to follow suit.

Now, the villagers in Lalatapa seem likely to wait even longer for more neighbours. During a visit to the area in July 2022, one could see mines that sappers had already defused piled above the Araks valley farmlands, with Iran in the distance. But minefield placards everywhere showed all the work still to be done. Forced by the extent of the problem to choose, the government is now giving priority to areas it thinks can be resettled faster, according to an ANAMA employee – those further from past fighting and less heavily mined.

Short video recorded by Zaur Shiriyev showing the Lalatapa heights. CRISIS GROUP / Zaur Shiriyev


Defining the Problem

If Azerbaijan initially played down the problem of demining because it was unaware how big a challenge it faced, it later did so out of an apparent concern that the truth might discourage potential returnees. But after stories and statistics about landmine-inflicted injuries and fatalities in regained areas began trickling out, displaced communities came to trust these reports more than official reassurances.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev eventually adjusted his message, stating in October 2022 that the government could need up to 30 years and $25 billion to remove all the landmines and other explosive remnants (though without explaining how these figures were reached) and in the following month launching the above-referenced new great return strategy. By the following April, almost two and a half years after the end of the 2020 war, less than 7 per cent of the land flagged as dangerous had been cleared. Baku points to financial cost as the key impediment to ridding the area of mines.

Foreign diplomats and experts acknowledge the expense, but highlight other problems as well. Even though a dedicated body exists to address the demining challenge – ANAMA, which the UN Development Programme helped establish in 1998 – domestic demining capabilities are insufficient for the task, while foreign specialists face many difficulties gaining permission to work in Azerbaijan. In addition, accurate land surveys are in short supply. Both Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces laid mines indiscriminately along the former line of contact, the military demarcation line that separated the forces of Azerbaijan and Armenian troops and was in effect from the ceasefire agreement signed in 1994 until the 2020 war. Neither side marked where it laid the mines. Nor did either clearly fence off the minefields.

Baku has sought to acquire detailed maps of the regained territories from Armenia, whose forces were present in the land for nearly three decades. Armenian officials first denied having such maps, then said it did have them, agreeing to exchange some for detained soldiers. Government sources say the maps Azerbaijan received cover only 5 per cent of the regained areas and that only 25 per cent of these maps are accurate. Armenia says it provided all the maps in its possession, accusing Azerbaijan of reneging on the deal by designating some of the soldiers to be returned as terrorists and saboteurs (rather than prisoners of war) to avoid handing them over. Baku contends that those detained in Azerbaijan after the ceasefire agreement cannot be considered prisoners of war, because the document pertains only to those taken hostage before it was signed in November 2020.

But while it is a hindrance, the lack of maps may well not be the most salient issue. An international demining expert said in an interview that accurate statistics about mine explosions would help more, as areas around a known blast are usually the most contaminated. An ANAMA official agreed. “In more than twenty years, the number of landmine victims among Armenians in the conflict zone exceeded 400”, he said. “If we get the locations of these incidents, our work will be much easier”

A sign warns about the presence of mines and unexploded ordnance in the region of Fizuli, Azerbaijan. Similar warnings are found throughout the area. July 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Aid agency data indicates that mines killed or injured at least 747 people in Nagorno-Karabakh, mostly civilians, from the early 1990s through 2019; experts believe that data relating to the related explosions should be a crucial component of non-technical surveys. They point to Cambodia, where surveys helped shrink the area earmarked for demining by one third. The surveyors did this work by gathering testimony from locals, mine maps, data about deaths and injuries from mines, and aerial or satellite imagery to locate old military installations – often the most heavily mined places. A benefit of this approach is that costlier, intensive technical surveys – which use deminers, dogs and machinery – then only need cover far smaller highest-risk areas. Experts argue that if Baku took a page from what was done in Cambodia, it could help pinpoint risk and save up to $10 billion.

A senior ANAMA official said the organisation conducts all the right surveys, but most of the more than a dozen international mine experts interviewed for this piece said Baku’s approach seems uneven and would benefit from outside support. They report too few non-technical surveys in some areas; in other areas, Baku has spent too much money on technical surveys, which were done too soon. Foreign donors can help ANAMA step up its game by offering guidance on where to invest its resources, as well as by bringing new capabilities to the effort. For example, they could help Azerbaijan acquire the Remote Aerial Minefield Survey system. This high-tech mapping and detection system holds the potential to significantly reduce the size of large-scale suspected hazardous areas. Donors can also help fund specialised demining vehicles to navigate trenches and other obstacles. They could even assist in training mine detection dogs.

Who Does the Work and Who Pays

Notwithstanding differences over surveys, international mining specialists generally praise ANAMA, which does most of the demining in Azerbaijan and is meant to oversee the rest, carried out by other government bodies – including the military and border security agencies –and local NGOs. All in all, some 1,600 people, working for the government and NGOs, were engaged in the demining effort in 2022, twice as many as in 2020. Some, however, worry about having an organisation that lacks a strong voice in Azerbaijani decision-making assessing the work of other, more powerful agencies, such as the defence ministry and the state border service. An international expert working on demining in Azerbaijan suggested to Crisis Group that it might help to place a foreign organisation, which would be unencumbered by the “chain of command” and thus more willing to criticise, in a position to exercise quality control.

Indeed, foreign demining NGOs could be of greater assistance in several respects, but those hoping to work in Azerbaijan face many obstacles. Restrictive laws hinder their registration, with only one British demining NGO registered so far. Visits to the regained territories require long waits for permission. NGOs also face hurdles in obtaining information. According to one expert, ANAMA and state institutions shut foreigners out of demining consultations. That prevents them from sharing experience, know-how and cutting-edge technology – expertise that could be as valuable to demining efforts as foreign financial aid, depending of course on the scale of the latter.

ANAMA representative Gadir Bey discusses demining efforts with Crisis Group’s Zaur Shiriyev. Behind, the city plan shows ongoing demining operations in the city. In July 2022. CRISIS GROUP

Baku could thus be missing an opportunity. Foreign advisory inputs could be channelled through technical working groups with foreign NGOs, and donor representatives working with ANAMA could help Azerbaijan update its mine action strategy for landmine clearance, risk education and victim assistance. The same approach could facilitate development of mine action legislation to allocate resources and provide clearly defined responsibilities for mine clearance and rules for safe mine removal. It could also include provisions for victim assistance and measures preventing future landmine use. The resulting improvements to licencing, accreditation, quality assurance and tender procedures would not only make things easier for foreign NGOs, but also build trust and attract more foreign donor interest.

But Azerbaijan is primarily (though not exclusively) interested in financial support, saying it cannot afford to demine and make the regained territories liveable again without foreign assistance. Experts estimate the bill for reconstruction apart from demining to be $50-80 billion. Azerbaijan has allocated just over $11 billion for 2022-2026. A senior Azerbaijani official told Crisis Group that funding instability hinders effective planning. It had assumed Western funding for demining and reconstruction would flow in after the 2020 war, but donors hesitated for several reasons. First, they feared that financial aid would implicitly communicate support for Azerbaijan’s move to regain territory by force rather than through negotiations. Secondly, oil- and gas-producing Azerbaijan is far richer than Armenia, making donors sceptical about offering assistance to Baku without doing something similar for Yerevan. Supporting both countries would, in effect, double the cost of any aid package.

Thirdly, mine clearance has dropped down the priority list for donors. It may rise again due to the war in Ukraine, which will also be grappling with a vast landmine and unexploded ordnance problem. But the importance Western countries have given to Ukraine makes it even more likely that demining in Azerbaijan will become an afterthought for donors.

Fourthly, according to diplomats and experts, some donors want demining aid to be contingent on Baku signing the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines. The UK, France and other European states had already called on Baku to do so before 2020. At the time, the Azerbaijani government said it could not join while Armenia held some of its territories. The Azerbaijani government points out that neither Armenia nor neighbouring Georgia has signed the mine ban treaty, either. Azerbaijani government representatives told Crisis Group that the treaty offers no benefits to signatories. They also claimed that Baku already meets the treaty’s requirements, since it has not used anti-personnel mines since 1994.

Instead of signing the treaty, government officials in Baku told Crisis Group that Azerbaijan will focus on meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals for 2030, which encourage mine removal, the restoration of cleared areas and the return of displaced people. It hopes this commitment will attract more donor support. An international mine expert summed up the resulting “serious problem” for donor countries as follows: “I give you money to clear the mines, but then you use more mines, so the donor wonders what has been achieved with such financial aid”.

Finally, some donors are wary of providing larger sums of aid, particularly substantial contributions, because conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia shows no sign of abating. Donors are also concerned about Azerbaijan’s uncorroborated allegations that Armenia is continuing to transport and emplace mines on its territory – which they see as an effort to politicise the demining issue. The spat over maps gives further ballast to the unhelpful impression that the issue is political rather than humanitarian.

Nevertheless, financial aid might still come. Some donors view demining as a humanitarian issue that poses fewer political and financial challenges than, for example, helping reconstruct recovered territories. A European diplomat told Crisis Group that, even in the absence of accession to the Ottawa treaty, donors had promised about $22 million of assistance to Azerbaijan’s demining efforts since 2020; roughly one fifth of this amount was a pledge for eighteen months of EU support for ANAMA. Baku is also holding international events to drum up more aid. It may organise a donor conference or establish a trust fund for sustainable long-term demining assistance involving global institutions. In other countries with mine clearance challenges, this awareness-raising approach has helped attract more assistance and donor interest.

Tragic Legacy

Meanwhile, the “great return” goes on, albeit slowly. The first pilot project began in July 2022: ten families arrived in the relatively uncontaminated village of Aghali in the remote south-western Zangilan district, the vanguard of some 1,350 people expected to repopulate the village. Such projects put pressure on deminers to ensure that everything is ready on time. The government is expanding pilot projects to Fizuli and other regions, as it tries to accelerate returns to less contaminated areas. One of these is Shusha, situated in rocky terrain dotted with verdant vegetation, where the government plans to resettle 2,500 displaced people in 2023. Local ANAMA representative Gadir Bey shared in July 2022 that the area was safe enough for reconstruction to begin, with builders working deep into the night. ANAMA reported that just one anti-personnel mine, one anti-tank mine and a few fragments of ordnance were found around the city. International experts urged caution, however, saying demining must also cover outside areas people would soon try to reach, like farmland and other villages.

(left) A view of Agali village, in the region of Zangelan. (Right) Zaur Shiriyev visits Banovsha, 87 years old, the oldest resident of Agali. She had recently returned to the village. July 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Other places face greater challenges. Baku had planned to welcome 66,000 people to Agdam, once an economic hub of some 200,000, early in the “great return”. The city had been divided by the first war and many displaced people settled in the part that remained under Azerbaijan’s control. Despite being heavily mined, it was thus a priority for resettlement. Massive destruction was still apparent during a 2022 visit, but so was fervid rebuilding. Up a hillside, a lonely mosque stood unscathed in a sea of rubble. An old half-ruined school nearby offered a view of the whole city. The scaffolding sprouting everywhere, bricklayers building walls and hammers clanging away gave the impression that soon it could be vibrant again. Authorities initially estimated the city would be ready for resettlement in 2023. But demining and building power lines alone took eight months. Now, authorities promise the city will be ready in 2026.

Such delays fuel discontent among would-be returnees, some of whom believed in 2020 they would be home in weeks. On a trip to the south-western city of Fizuli after the 2020 war, Crisis Group met visiting schoolteacher Shadiya Qahramanova, 60, who said her former home lay among the shattered buildings. “That is my house”, she said, pointing to a ruined shell. “This wasn’t what I waited 26 years to see”.

Some of the displaced are beginning to understand that clearing all mines and other unexploded debris – artillery shells, grenades, mortars, rockets, bombs and cluster munitions – could take years. “I felt I had won the lottery but in reality … my situation remained unchanged. I am the same poor, old guy [waiting] to return home”, said Kamal, originally from Kelbajar, high in the mountains close to the Armenian border. He now lives in Baku.

But others have shown less patience and paid a terrible price. Eager to check up on old homes, hundreds secretly travelled back after the war, despite official warnings, and lost lives or limbs as a result. The government says mines have killed at least 54 people and severely wounded more than 290 in the last two and half years.

Zaur Shiriyev enters a destroyed building in the city of Agdam. The district was reclaimed by Azerbaijan as a result of the 2020 war with Armenia. July 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Making Dreams of Return a Reality

Demining challenges are daunting. Officials in Baku have widely shared that Azerbaijan needs more financial and technical support (although it tends to be interested in resources and equipment more than foreign advice or engagement). This support might be hard to come by with the war in Ukraine and global economic turbulence, but Baku can boost its chances by taking the following steps.

First, signing the international mine ban could help open the way. Baku should simply sign on its own, but Armenia could help the process along by signing as well. If it does so, as it has hinted it may, donors may be better able to persuade Azerbaijan to follow suit. A senior German diplomat told Crisis Group in March that Berlin was urging both sides to join the convention, telling them that financial support might depend on it.

Secondly, Azerbaijan should try to depoliticise support for mine clearance by making it clear that it sees demining as a humanitarian imperative unlinked to its conflict with Armenia. An international mine expert said blaming the other side and tying demining to aspects of the conflict, as Baku has sometimes done, is unhelpful. The expert says this rhetoric creates the impression that Azerbaijan is focused as much on “receiving condemnation of Armenia for its 30-year occupation as on receiving financial aid”. If Baku can decouple its cross-border frustrations from demining, donors may become more comfortable offering financial assistance even prior to the negotiation of a peace deal.

Personnel from the Azerbaijani demining agency ANAMA clear a field of mines and unexploded ordnances in the region of Agdam, Azerbaijan. July 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Thirdly, if Baku wants help with demining, it has to engage with Armenia. Ending the contretemps over maps – and addressing associated issues relating to detainees – would be a good start, if nothing else for symbolic purposes. More broadly, at a moment when cooperation between Azerbaijan and Armenia is scant and the peace process between the two sides beleaguered, demining initiatives could be a good area in which to try making progress. Initiatives in this area could bring immediate benefits to ordinary people on both sides. Border communities in both countries have long faced unmarked minefields that block access to water distribution systems and farmland, often their only income source, as Crisis Group has reported previously. Baku and Yerevan could work jointly to demine those areas and perhaps build confidence that would benefit their broader negotiations.

Fourthly, demining should also be a topic of conversation between Baku and community leaders of Armenian populated Nagorno-Karabakh, although talks are now disrupted by the continuing crisis. In the past, discussions between Baku and community leaders in Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh have addressed water, energy and other humanitarian issues. Mediators are pressing for renewed communication between the sides to expand the range of topics to foster cooperation and defuse tensions prior to addressing more challenging issues. These contentious topics include defining the rights and security of the Armenian population in the region over which Baku seeks to exert control. The inclusion of topics such as demining in these talks would helpfully add what should be another apolitical topic to the agenda.

Fifthly, Baku should develop creative strategies for attracting financial support. It should be attentive to how demining fits with donors’ own agendas. Donors who emphasise long-term development, for example, may be keener to support a demining strategy that is more explicitly tied to reviving economic and social activity on newly cleared land. (Baku is taking steps in this direction, but it should communicate its accomplishments.) Azerbaijan could also look to raise funds by strengthening public-private partnerships by offering cheap land in regained territories to private firms if they aid in mine clearance. Alternatively, foreign investors – energy company British Petroleum is the biggest in Azerbaijan – might be asked if they would be willing to assume mine clearance costs if given tax benefits. Donors hesitant to support demining itself could be asked to fund and develop victim aid. Donors might also be keen to train female deminers in a male-dominated sector.

Sixthly, Baku should demonstrate greater openness to a wider range of technical assistance, including advice from foreign experts. It should ease restrictions on international actors who wish to contribute expertise.

Finally, Baku can also generate good-will by offering to share the expertise ANAMA has and will continue to develop with other countries, to broad global benefit. Azerbaijani deminers have had to innovate in a challenging environment. The resulting lessons and approaches can feed in to other efforts around the world. Thus, Baku would not only set a commendable example but could also persuade more international donors to contribute. The key message here is that donor contributions to Azerbaijan create benefits that extend beyond the nation’s borders, serving a broader purpose. ANAMA has already engaged in demining in Türkiye and provided advice, training and support in Georgia, Ukraine and Afghanistan.

Baku may find some of these recommendations more realistic than others, but all merit consideration as authorities explore what it will take to unlock the support they require. A successful demining effort would reap substantial benefits. Agricultural settlements on both sides of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border would have a chance to flourish. Prospects for successful redevelopment would greatly increase.

But most important, the “great return” could finally start to become more of a reality. Even under the rosiest scenarios, it cannot happen all at once. Those who fled areas near Lalatapa and the old line of contact, some of the most heavily mined in the region, will have to endure the longest wait. But with a comprehensive and thorough demining program throughout Azerbaijan, they, too, can eventually go home.

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