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Old Conflict, New Armenia: The View from Baku
Old Conflict, New Armenia: The View from Baku
Report 166 / Europe & Central Asia

Nagorno-Karabakh: Viewing the Conflict from the Ground

The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh is the most significant obstacle to peace and stability in the South Caucasus. Eleven years into a ceasefire, the parties have been unable to sign a single document bringing them closer to a settlement. Whatever is being done at the internationally mediated negotiations, at ground level resumed war appears a real possibility.

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Executive Summary

The Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict[fn]Terminology is highly politicised in discussions and writings on NK. While for Azeris it is "the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region", Armenians talk about the "Azerbaijani-Karabakh conflict". In this report the term "Nagorno-Karabakh conflict" will generally be used for simplicity.  has existed since the end of World War I but gained international attention only when it developed into a full-fledged war between Azerbaijan and Armenia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today there is neither war nor peace. Ceasefire violations are increasing, and there is a real risk of a new outbreak of active fighting. The deep-rooted causes of the war remain an issue of conflict between Baku and Yerevan. Azerbaijan argues that the war was initiated by a land-hungry Armenia eager to seize its territory. Armenia maintains that the war started between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, and that Armenia became engaged only to protect Nagorno-Karabakh's overwhelmingly Armenian population and their right to self-determination. Both sides consider the disputed territory vital to national survival, "a symbol of national aspirations and of the hostility of the other".

On the ground, the war has resulted in the occupation of Azerbaijan territory. Nagorno-Karabakh forces, reinforced by many conscripts and contracted soldiers from Armenia, occupy some 13.4 per cent of Azerbaijan's land (11,722 sq. km.). This includes some 92.5 per cent of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), five districts outside Nagorno-Karabakh, and significant segments of two others.The occupied territory outside the former NKAO amounts to 7,409 sq. km., close to double the territory of the former Soviet oblast.

When Stepanakert describes its self-declared "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" (5,089 sq. km.), it says that 15 per cent is controlled by the Azerbaijani army. This includes parts of the districts of Martuni and Mardakert (327 sq. km.), which were in the NKAO, as well as the pre-war Shahumian district and Getashen settlement (701 sq. km.) northeast of the NKAO. Stepanakert authorities claim these last two should be part of present day Nagorno-Karabakh as they also declared secession from Soviet Azerbaijan in 1991. In addition they consider Lachin (1,835 sq. km.) to be part of Nagorno-Karabakh and say it "cannot be subject to compromise, as it connects Karabakh to the outer world", even though it was never part of NKAO, and no Armenians lived there before the war.

All sides have largely ethnically cleansed the territory they control. There is no agreement on the exact number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) but probably some 413,000 Armenians fled Azerbaijan and regions in Armenia bordering it, and 724,000 Azerbaijanis (and Kurds) were displaced from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts. The multi-ethnic character of Armenia, and to a large extent Azerbaijan, has been destroyed. The vicious cycle of displacement began while the Soviet Union still existed and culminated with violent, mutual expulsions immediately before and during the war. Armenia is now 97.89 per cent Armenian, Nagorno-Karabakh 95 per cent Armenian, and Azerbaijan 90.6 per cent Azeri.

Over eleven years after the signing of a ceasefire, neither return nor compensation has been offered to the million-plus forcibly displaced persons. They, together with the tens of thousands of dead and disabled, are the main victims of the conflict. This report focuses on the situations faced by the two main communities from Nagorno-Karabakh[fn]The number of dead is controversial. Initially local and international officials claimed that 18,000 to 20,000 Azerbaijanis and at least 25,000 Armenians died. However, there is now some consensus that total deaths were rather fewer, in the neighbourhood of 18,500, the figure quoted in Thomas de Waal, Black Garden, op. cit., pp. 284-286, and Arif Yunusov, "Statistics of Losses in the Armenian-Azerbaijani War", in Karabakh Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Baku, 2002), pp. 20-22. The reportedly complete list of 6,500 Armenians killed was published in the Encyclopaedia of Liberation War in Karabakh in 1991-1994, (Yerevan, 2004), pp. 701-862.Hide Footnote  and the surrounding districts, which were affected by the military confrontation, rather than the whole population displaced as a consequence of the broader Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict.[fn]Azerbaijan and Armenia are not engaged in negotiations to regulate the return or compensation of refugees from territories outside NK or its surrounding districts. A senior Azerbaijan official told Crisis Group, "we will have to leave the question of the return of refugees to future generations". Crisis Group interview, Baku, December 2004. An Azerbaijan parliamentarian was, however, adamant that no solution for NK which failed to take into consideration the needs of Azeri refugees from Armenia was viable. Crisis Group interview, Baku, June 2005. NK authorities insist that the resolution of the conflict must also take into consideration the plight and future of Armenians from Azerbaijan. Crisis Group interviews, officials from the NK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Stepanakert, May 2005.Hide Footnote  A subsequent report will examine the negotiations process and make recommendations for moving forward on peaceful settlement both at the negotiating table and on the ground.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 14 September 2005

Azerbaijani people stage a protest against Armenia's occupation of Azerbaijan's territory Nagorno-Karabakh at the Mehsul stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan on 29 September 2018. Resul Rehimov/Anadolu Agency

Old Conflict, New Armenia: The View from Baku

The April 2018 “velvet revolution” in Armenia has brought new meetings and helped improve the dynamics of the three-decade-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Much more needs to happen to reach peace, but Azerbaijan’s old scepticism is giving way to cautious hope in diplomacy.

A series of direct contacts between Azerbaijan and Armenia have brought hope to the two countries’ decades-long impasse over Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict that began as the Soviet Union collapsed. But while these meetings, on the heels of a change in power in the Armenian capital, bring new dynamism, much has to be done before true progress is possible.

The Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders, Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan, last met in person on 22 January 2019 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, their third meeting since the latter came to power in Yerevan last April. Their January discussion, held without mediators, came just six days after the two countries’ foreign ministers met in Paris, where they agreed to take concrete measures to prepare their populations for peace.

Thus far, these meetings’ most significant outcome is a September agreement to build a ceasefire control mechanism and a communications channel between state representatives. These two measures have calmed the Line of Contact, leading to the fewest combat casualties there since 2013. Along with Armenia’s political transformation, the reduced fighting has yielded optimism about the prospect of more meaningful talks to come.

Baku appears to believe that the peace process can now move forward even without the help of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, created in 1992 to help resolve the conflict. In December, Aliyev gave the clearest signal to this effect, saying “2019 can be a breakthrough year”. His statement received little global attention but reverberated at home. But just what breakthroughs may be possible remains uncertain.

Expectations Great and Small 

For the government, the hopes of progress represent a break with the recent past. Clashes erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016, marking a low point in relations between the two governments. Both before and after the exchange of fire, ruling elites in Azerbaijan felt that Pashinyan’s predecessor, former President and Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, was negotiating in bad faith. Today, they seem to regard their Armenian interlocutors with newfound respect.

The government has matched its rhetoric with actions, making important personnel changes that seem to be laying the groundwork for direct talks with Armenia. Specifically, high-profile appointments in state agencies overseeing displaced persons show that Baku is taking that basket of issues more seriously. In April, Baku named a new chairman of its State Committee for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, Rovshan Rzayev, an outspoken advocate for meeting the needs of the displaced in education and housing. In December, it designated a capable career diplomat, Tural Ganjaliyev, as chairman of the Community of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan – a government institution representing Azerbaijanis displaced from the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. Previously, the Azerbaijani leadership had not considered the Community a priority. Civil society leaders had criticised the Community for its poor public relations, at home and abroad, which allowed the voices of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians to dominate the discourse. 

The Azerbaijani authorities hope that economic pragmatism will make Armenia amenable to considering Baku’s plan for a comprehensive peace agreement.

The move to strengthen the Community may also be a reaction to Pashinyan’s demand that Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh – who run the de facto authority in the territory – be officially represented in negotiations. By putting a senior official in charge of the body, Azerbaijan is channelling the statement of the 1992 OSCE Council of Ministers meeting that Karabakh Azerbaijanis are “interested parties” in the conflict just as Karabakh Armenians are. If Armenia demands the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities’ participation in negotiations, it appears, Azerbaijan will counter by insisting that Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijanis also have a seat at the table. But crucially, these actions imply expectations that the table will, in fact, exist. 

Much of the shift in sentiment is rooted in the change in leadership in Yerevan. Azerbaijani officials see good omens in the new Armenian government’s stated desire to introduce structural economic reforms and raise living standards. To boost its economy, they believe, Armenia would need to participate in regional economic projects. This is impossible as long as conflict persists. Not only is open trade with Azerbaijan precluded, but Turkey, which is central to the energy and transport networks that fuel the region, closed its borders with Armenia in 1993, after the UN Security Council adopted a resolution demanding the withdrawal of local Armenian forces from the Kelbajar district and other recently occupied areas of Azerbaijan. Baku refers to this state of affairs as the “self-isolation” of Armenia, and believes that the new government in Yerevan wants to end it.

The Azerbaijani authorities hope that economic pragmatism will make Armenia amenable to considering Baku’s plan for a comprehensive peace agreement – a step-by-step approach they call the “six D formula”: de-occupation, de-militarisation, demining, deployment, dialogue and development.

Amid the official optimism, some independent Azerbaijani experts have expressed doubts to Crisis Group researchers. They dismiss the recent spate of contacts as just one more round in two decades of on-and-off negotiations. As they see it, the discussions have failed to move beyond basic principles since 2007 – and there is no reason to think that they will now. They argue that the April 2016 clashes, which actually achieved some territorial gains for Baku, raised popular hopes in a military solution to the standoff.

Sceptics of the official optimism also argue that Armenia does not see its economic “self-isolation” through the same lens as do Azerbaijani authorities. Armenia has expressed readiness to open its borders with Turkey, but without pre-conditions tied to conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia’s economy, although limited by isolation, has not been destroyed by it, in part thanks to Russian support. This suggests that economic benefit alone may not be sufficient incentive for the Armenian side to compromise on its core concerns in Nagorno-Karabakh. As for the “six D formula”, authorities in Yerevan have never discussed such grand ideas.

Crisis Group research suggests that the dramatic changes in Armenia in 2018 and the Azerbaijani authorities’ positive spin have led to growing openness among the Azerbaijani public to a diplomatic solution.

Past attempts to find a solution sound a cautionary note. Most recently, the Lavrov plan-proposed by the Russian foreign minister to the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides in 2015 (and again after the 2016 April escalation as a peace proposal) – postulated the return of some lands to Azerbaijani control, return of Azerbaijani IDPs to their homes, and a peacekeeping mission to Nagorno-Karabakh. It would have left the status of Nagorno-Karabakh unresolved for the time being. In Azerbaijan, the plan was criticised by both independent experts and government officials as “minimalist” and “defeatist” because it would have recovered only five of seven Armenian-controlled territories for Azerbaijan and would bring Russian peacekeepers to the conflict zone. Armenia also strongly opposed the Lavrov plan, because it provided no clarity on the future legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh. These positions underline the maximalist goals both sides retain for any negotiation, and bode ill for slow, step-by-step processes. 

These challenges aside, Crisis Group research suggests that the dramatic changes in Armenia in 2018 and the Azerbaijani authorities’ positive spin have led to growing openness among the Azerbaijani public to a diplomatic solution. This feeling is particularly pronounced among IDPs, the people most affected as the conflict continues. But while public support may make it easier for Baku to come to the table, high public expectations combined with a history of maximalist positions can also constrain government options, particularly if negotiations prove arduous.

Hope or Fallacy

The Azerbaijani authorities should take care to manage public expectations of a process that, no matter what the parties’ intentions, lengthy and incremental. The key will be to reach intermediate understandings with the Armenian side that the government can present as tangible progress without exaggerating these achievements.

Already, local media in Azerbaijan misinterpreted the 16 January commitments of Elmar Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart to “prepare the population for peace”. That wording does not mean that the parties have already reached an agreement. The misperception stems in part from the fact that the U.S., French and Russian presidents used similar language at a summit in 2011, which seemed on the verge of a peace deal before talks failed. By recycling this formulation, Baku and Yerevan sent the message that peace once again was close at hand. As Rauf Mirgadirov, a well-known expert, said, “if the sides have not agreed to some elements of a peace agreement, then there is nothing to tell people. Ultimately, you are not preparing the population for anything’”. Should the great expectations – especially among IDPs – be dashed, the damage to public faith in diplomacy might be long-lasting.

In fact, the Azerbaijani leadership has not said how it plans to prepare the population for peace. Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijanis have expressed the view that such preparation should include contact between Karabakh Azerbaijanis and Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. But the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have long rejected the notion of “intercommunity dialogues”.

The fact is that preparation of the public for peace implies preparation of the public for long negotiations and the potential for compromise. This includes both public debate and more transparency about what is happening at the negotiating table. More engagement of Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society groups alongside official negotiations could also be valuable to underscore the simple proposition that peace is possible with the other side, preferable to a military solution, and should involve some gains for Armenia as well. Moreover, given the likely long-time frame for talks, a symbolic, humanitarian gesture such as an exchange of detainees could help keep the momentum going. As one Azerbaijani official told Crisis Group: “Notwithstanding the population’s decreased trust in diplomatic negotiations, if they see a tangible result, even a minimal one, it could dramatically change their thinking about possibility of resolution via talks”.

Azerbaijan has begun taking necessary steps forward, such as the personnel changes noted above and the marked adjustments to government rhetoric. These tactical shifts, however, sidestep the elephant in the room: both parties must understand – and make sure the respective populations understand – that to succeed, a peace process will be painful and protracted and must at least begin as open-ended. 

This commentary is co-published with Italy’s Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, which first published it here on 6 February 2019.