icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan
Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan
Briefing 67 / Europe & Central Asia

Tackling Azerbaijan’s IDP Burden

As negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh stall, the Azerbaijan government has improved living conditions for the internally displaced (IDPs), though return to the occupied territories remains by far the preferred solution.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

I. Overview

Azerbaijan has made significant progress in recent years in caring for roughly 600,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were forcibly evicted from Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts by ethnic Armenian forces nearly two decades ago. Though many still face precarious existences, the state has been investing heavily in new housing and increasing benefits. But while some IDPs have fully integrated, many more are still in limbo. The government and most of the displaced favour return to their original homes. That the stalled peace process with Armenia means this is not an immediate prospect should not preclude IDPs from being full participants in Azerbaijan’s political and economic life. Yet, their unresolved fate is one of the main reminders of the conflict – and, without a peaceful settlement, puts pressure on the Azerbaijan leadership to prepare for the possibility of a new war.

Related Content

2011 was a lost year for the peace process, as seven years of talks on a Basic Principles agreement meant to lay the foundation for an eventual comprehensive peace deadlocked. Baku and Yerevan are in the midst of a major arms race and exchange increasingly militaristic statements, while sporadic clashes along the front lines kill about 30 persons annually. Beyond some possible confidence-building measures (CBMs), there is little likelihood of progress for the coming year, with Armenia, Azerbaijan and the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries (France, Russia, U.S.) all entering electoral cycles. Earlier Crisis Group reports have explored the threat of resumed fighting and suggested ways to move toward resolution of the conflict. A forthcoming report will again analyse the diplomatic and security situation. This briefing, however, concentrates on a too often ignored human consequence of the crisis.

The Azerbaijan government has begun to expend significantly more resources to improve the lot of the displaced, who are 7 per cent of the total population – one of the highest rates in the world. 108,000 were moved into new housing over the past two years, with space for 115,000 more slated to be constructed by 2015. Some complain, however, of poor construction and infrastructure, lack of community participation in planning and limited access to land or job opportunities in the new communities, all areas that need additional attention and improvement.

Azerbaijan’s IDPs benefit from free or low-cost education, health care and energy and have some special employment opportunities, though their ability to express their interests is limited by inability to elect municipal representatives. The some 40,000 from Nagorno-Karabakh are in principle represented as a group by the Azerbaijani Community of Nagorno-Karabakh Social Union, but its leadership is not fully popularly elected, and the 560,000 displaced from the occupied districts around Nagorno-Karabakh are not well represented. The political voice of IDPs thus remains weak. They should be more effectively integrated into decision-making about housing, services, and other community needs, as well as contingency planning for emergencies and confidence-building measures (CBMs).

This briefing includes a section on conditions for those approximately 128,000 IDPs and permanent residents living in close proximity to the 180km-long line of contact (LoC) that marks the 1994 ceasefire between the opposing forces. It does not address the plight of the Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan and vice versa who fled the initial violence in the late 1980s, as the overwhelming majority of them have been largely integrated into their respective new countries. Regular exchange of fire between trenches, snipers, mines and a lingering threat of renewed full-scale hostilities make living conditions near the LoC particularly precarious. A small (six-person) monitoring team from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has virtually no resources, meaning it provides inadequate oversight and inspires little confidence among the contending sides or civilians.

To facilitate greater IDP engagement in policies relevant to their lives, the Azerbaijan government should:

  • increase transparency; involve IDPs as much as possible in housing decisions; and streamline processes for reporting incidents of corruption or violations of state law regarding IDP issues; and
     
  • allow IDPs, while their villages and towns remain occupied, to vote for municipal councils in their places of temporary residence.

To protect IDPs and other civilians along the LoC, the Azerbaijan authorities should:

  • agree with the Armenian government and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh to an expanded interim OSCE monitoring role, to an OSCE proposal to remove snipers from the LoC and to set up an incident investigation mechanism, as well as to immediately cease military exercises near the LoC and advancing trench positions; and
     
  • create an inter-ministerial task force, including the National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA), to design a strategy to increase the safety of communities near the LoC, including more civil defence training, while refraining from resettling additional IDPs there.

The international community, in particular the co-chairs of the Minsk Group (France, Russia, U.S.) facilitating efforts to reach a comprehensive peace, should:

  • facilitate the creation of an incident investigation mechanism, including the operation of a hotline between the sides to discuss ceasefire breaches, and otherwise protect the civilian population living near the LoC; and
     
  • develop more on-the-ground CBMs to create an atmosphere of trust, including promoting civil society meetings between the ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ethnic Azeri population expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupied territories.

Baku/Tbilisi/Istanbul//Brussels, 27 February 2012

Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan campaigning for his political alliance “My Step” in his hometown Ijevan, about 20 kilometres from frontline trenches along the border with Azerbaijan. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan

With his party’s victory in the snap parliamentary elections and a new calm on the frontlines with Azerbaijan, Armenia’s leader Nikol Pashinyan and his team will have more space to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

BERKABER, Armenia – One of the windows in Sonya Matinyan’s home is filled in with bricks. The glass of the other is splintered by a rifle bullet. The roof has taken a few missile hits and leaking water has stained the ceilings in the interior. But, unusually, the 57-year-old Armenian is staying home this winter.

That’s because things are changing for the better in Berkaber, on Armenia’s north-eastern border with Azerbaijan. No gunfire has sounded here in the region of Tavush for almost two months, a welcome change from clashes that in the past two winters drove inhabitants into fortified cellars or to distant relatives’ homes. The quiet marks a rare lull in an area that has suffered conflict since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the two countries drove out each other’s Azeri and Armenian minorities and Armenians seized the nearby region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts from Azerbaijani control.

Map of Armenia CRISISGROUP
The poll was one of the freest and fairest in the recent country’s history, most observers said.

The recent improvement is in large part thanks to Nikol Pashinyan, a once marginal former journalist who in April led demonstrations that swept aside the old Armenian leadership. He confirmed his primacy on 9 December, when his My Step political alliance won snap parliamentary elections. The former ruling Republican party failed even to pass the 5% threshold to enter parliament. The poll was one of the freest and fairest in the recent country’s history, most observers said.

The longest truce in almost fifteen years is also holding because the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to communicate without intermediaries in September. In mid-November, defence officials of both countries met to finalise restoring direct lines of communication between military units located along Armenia’s southern border with Nakhchivan, an autonomous exclave of Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution”

The 9 December election concludes a period of transition since Armenia’s “velvet revolution” in April. The new ruling alliance has a disparate membership. Its backbone is a handful of people who stood next to Pashinyan in his small and once unimportant opposition party, Civil Contract. This group has been joined by other leaders of the street protests that led to the resignation of former president and subsequent prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan. Some members of Pashinyan’s team know the complexities of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from years of work in civil society organisations and meetings with Azerbaijani experts. 

The new parliament’s first session will convene in the coming weeks to endorse Pashinyan as prime minister. With a strong parliamentary majority, Pashinyan and his team will face fewer barriers to initiating new legislation and reforms. The public expects swift improvements in how ruling elites govern, an end to corruption and more incentives for small businesses. People, particularly those directly affected, also want to see progress on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Official negotiations have been dormant for several years.

“Maybe he doesn’t have a magic wand to fix everything at once”, says 47-year-old Armen Markaryan two weeks before the election. He came to listen to Pashinyan at a pre-election meeting with voters in the town of Ijevan, the main town in Tavush and only about 20 kilometres from the military trenches at the border with Azerbaijan. “But he has to change something so that we can live better and without war”, Armen said.

A Complex Peace Process

Pashinyan’s team has been publicly cautious about its plans regarding Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan. Throughout the election campaign, the former ruling Republican Party attacked the Pashinyan alliance as “traitors” preparing a “criminal conspiracy” with Baku. They based their attacks less on what Pashinyan has said than on the young age of many members of his ruling team and their lack of personal connections to Nagorno-Karabakh and the war in this region in the 1990s – in contrast to previous Armenian leaders. Pashinyan’s entourage reject the accusations of selling out.

Official negotiations have been dormant for several years. An April 2016 flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh killed at least 200 soldiers and civilians on both sides, after which divisions deepened as the parties started making maximalist demands. Azerbaijan calls for the immediate return of the seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, which have been under Armenian control since the early 1990s. Armenia, on the other hand, insists that the first step should be for Baku to grant independence to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Snow covers the slopes of Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, close to Armenian frontline trenches on the state border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Local officials say clashes over the past four years have denied villagers access to about 80 per cent of their farmland. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

The new ruling team in Armenia recognises that there is no easy way out of this impasse. “Everyone understands that a ‘reset’ is needed”, one of the newly elected parliamentarians of Pashinyan’s political alliance said, suggesting that both sides need to take steps to escape the years-long deadlock in talks. “But in order to launch such a reset, we must first reach a consensus within the party and the government”.

In August, speaking at a rally to celebrate his first 100 days of his office, Pashinyan promised tens of thousands of people gathered in the centre of Yerevan to turn to them for support before any settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh. The promise means that “Armenia will not make any sudden moves in the negotiation process any time soon”, said another newly elected parliamentarian from Pashinyan’s political alliance, suggesting that there will be no sudden change to its core demand on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.

Courting Azerbaijan

The new Armenian government will have to convince not only its own population, but also Azerbaijan, that a serious path to peace exists. For a number of years, the Azerbaijani government has called for substantial talks that will bring real change – by which it means the return of lands surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh seized by the Armenian side in the war with Azerbaijan in 1992-1994. Pashinyan would have to find a way to convince Baku that his government is ready to engage in good faith. Many on both sides doubt the other’s intentions and question whether a ceasefire can be maintained. The relative calm since September follows years of steadily increasing casualties along the frontlines and military build-ups in both countries.

There are signs of optimism on the Azerbaijani side too, however. Crisis Group’s interlocutors in Baku insist that Azerbaijan maintains the truce in the hope that the direct line of communication will pave the way for genuine negotiations with the new Armenian leadership. On 5 December, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers held their third meeting since Armenia’s April revolution. Talks between the leaders could follow.

While keeping the frontlines quiet is critical to achieving any ‘reset’ of peace talks, additional confidence-building measures would also help, including opening other lines of direct communication parallel to the military one. High-ranking Armenian officials told Crisis Group that establishing such links between humanitarian actors on both sides, for example, would be helpful. Representatives of Azerbaijan voiced similar ideas.

The new government in Armenia might also bring some fresh thinking on the conflict.

The two sides have already taken steps in this direction, using the military communication channel to discuss the possible release of an Armenian resident arrested in the country’s north-east state border area by Azerbaijani authorities since summer. On 5 December, the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities stated that they were ready to consider releasing an Azerbaijani soldier detained in Stepanakert since the beginning of 2017. Such discussions should continue.

A More People-centred Approach

The new government in Armenia might also bring some fresh thinking on the conflict. According to one newly elected Armenian parliamentarian from Pashinyan’s party:  “We can change our approach. Instead of discussing only political demands, we could begin to focus more on people and their needs, from two sides”.

A high-ranking Armenian diplomat also told Crisis Group that he hopes that such a “people-oriented approach” would dominate the negotiation process. Opportunities to discuss concessions may arise, but “it is important to recognise that Nagorno-Karabakh is about the people, not just the conflict”.

The current ceasefire serves the interests of large numbers of people on both sides. 600,000 Azerbaijanis reside within fifteen kilometres of the Nagorno-Karabakh frontlines. Similarly, tens of thousands of people live near the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, including around 40,000 permanently residing close to military zones in Armenia’s Tavush region, where frontline trenches stretch for 230 kilometres through the mountains.

Men play backgammon in Chinari, an Armenian village at the foot of a mountain that separates Armenia and Azerbaijan. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

In places like Tavush, more communication could help the parties coordinate on demining civilian roads and farm plots close to the frontlines, even before issues at the core of the conflict are discussed. The same applies to Azerbaijani villages, including along the frontlines in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. The two sides could start by marking the minefields left over from the early 1990s war. They could then demine any land that has no strategic military value and hand it over to civilians.

New security guarantees would also allow frontline residents to return to work on agricultural plots close to military positions. In the past four years, skirmishes have forced farmers to abandon fields in at least six villages in Tavush, residents told Crisis Group. For many of them, agriculture is the only way to make ends meet.

“This year, for the first time, people began to go swimming in the reservoir”, said Berkaber resident Argam Arzumanyan. Before the war, his village was a favourite vacation spot for people from Armenia, Azerbaijan and even neighbouring Georgia. Now military fortifications start only 20m away from each side of the dam. The last time the villagers had the courage to go down to the water was back in 2004. This year, Argam says, “I looked at the people splashing around in the water and could not believe my eyes and asked myself: are we really starting to live without war again?”