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Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
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

Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus

While the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 moved the front lines in Azerbaijan’s favour, it has not brought peace. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to engage in humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and continue to engage diplomatically through the OSCE Minsk Group.

A brief second war between Armenia and Azerbaijan from late September to early November 2020 dramatically moved the front lines in Baku’s favour. But it has not brought peace. The bloody six-week conflict is a cautionary tale, like the nearly 30 years of stalemate and skirmishes that preceded it. Both experiences warn that a future that does not address the grievances of both sides, integrate the economies of South Caucasus countries and bring real benefits to all who live there risks being a recipe for renewed instability and conflict. Russia, which brokered the 9 November ceasefire deal between Yerevan and Baku and has deployed peacekeeping troops to the region, will continue to shape relations among all concerned. Turkey, as Azerbaijan’s chief backer and the party holding the key to Armenia’s economic reconnection to the region, will also wield considerable clout. EU diplomacy and support, however, will be crucial in creating an environment in which the advantages of cooperation outweigh those of conflict. To engage effectively, Brussels will need to work closely with Moscow and Ankara. Unusual as such collaboration might be at a time when tensions are running high between the EU and both Russia and Turkey, it is necessary.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Undertake sustained humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to ease suffering, whether it results from the late 2020 fighting, the longstanding conflict beforehand or the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Stand ready to facilitate economic and infrastructure projects to reconnect the South Caucasus countries, including by road and rail;
  • Continue to engage diplomatically, through the traditional and still official Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group format for negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh and other forums as appropriate. While efforts to resolve the core issues underpinning the conflict, notably Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, are unlikely to bear fruit so soon after the fighting, it is important that diplomatic channels continue to function for when opportunities do arise.
  • As soon as is feasible, resume efforts to build relations and trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis through direct people-to-people contacts and projects that facilitate cross-border visits for experts and journalists. 

A Ceasefire Short of Real Peace 

When the first Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in 1994, it left the region ravaged, with tens of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Armenian forces were in control of not only the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, a region within Soviet Azerbaijan that its ethnic Armenian majority had unilaterally declared independent in 1991, but also seven additional adjacent Azerbaijani regions. Armenia was, in effect, under Azerbaijani and Turkish economic blockade. Each side accused the other of war crimes and atrocities.

At the time, all involved hoped that with the fighting over, negotiations could bring a lasting deal. The OSCE established the Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the U.S., to facilitate talks. But if the Minsk Group fostered some dialogue, peace grew more elusive with each passing year. As positions hardened, Azerbaijani and Armenian communities became ever more isolated from one another. Both sides built up their militaries, preparing for a rematch. For nearly three decades, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs tried to broker compromise but, as their attempts were rebuffed, gradually threw up their hands. Peacemaking efforts largely petered out. There was a nominal ceasefire, but violations were numerous, and on several occasions escalated into larger clashes. 

All-out war resumed in September 2020. After clashes on the front line, Azerbaijani forces quickly advanced and, over the course of six weeks, recaptured much of the territory lost in 1994. The fighting killed thousands. Most of the dead were male combatants, a great many of them young conscripts between the ages of eighteen and twenty. The war also displaced, albeit in some cases temporarily, tens of thousands, predominantly women and children, with many families separated for at least the duration of the conflict.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace. As a result of both ground offensives and the deal brokered by Moscow, Baku has regained control of the seven territories Armenia had held around Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as roughly one third of the mountainous enclave itself. The rest remains under Armenian control, patrolled by both Russian peacekeeping forces and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh authorities’ security personnel. The disputed region’s long-term status remains an open question, as do the details of the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate. Other Russian government personnel are offering aid and reconstruction assistance in Armenian-controlled parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is active in Azerbaijan, assisting with demining and reconstruction. The sides exchanged some prisoners of war in December, but Armenia is now angry at Azerbaijan’s stated plans to prosecute several Armenian soldiers whom it has in custody. Baku says its forces captured these soldiers after the end of hostilities, but they appear to have arrested at least one while the war was still raging. There are other troubling developments, including skirmishes at the new front line, which is much closer to civilian settlements than the old one. Only the Russian forces’ arrival halted the shooting. 

None of this bodes well for the long term. There is little risk that history, which is to say the pattern of military build-up, stalemate and eventual rematch of the last 30 years, will repeat itself exactly. But the past decades illustrate all too clearly the dangers that lie in festering resentment, the absence of meaningful talks aimed at addressing it and a region in which borders are closed and contacts among communities across front lines few.

A lasting peace does not require everyone to agree on everything from the start. Indeed, it would be premature to push the parties toward agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status so soon after the war. Reconciliation is only likely to take place gradually and only if all parties see it as in their interests. In support of a step-by-step approach, the Russian-brokered ceasefire deal calls for economic reconnection, an aspiration the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia reaffirmed when they met on 11 January in Moscow, promising to create a working group to define plans for new commercial ties and transport infrastructure. These plans could define a new and different way forward, one that creates real economic incentives to collaborate and eschew violence. But the plans will not work without broader international engagement – and here, the EU may have a special role to play. 

How the EU Can Help 

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan participate in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. One goal of this program is to improve transport links in the South Caucasus, which Brussels has helped do in Azerbaijan as well as in neighbouring Georgia. EU support for rebuilding railways and roads that once connected Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia would be in line with both its own goals and those announced at the 11 January Moscow summit.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses. Few other international bodies have the leverage and the moral standing in the South Caucasus to call on Armenia and Azerbaijan to fulfil their commitments to prisoner exchanges and to investigate past abuses adequately. 

Europeans can also help keep diplomatic channels alive, even if seeking a settlement on major issues does not make sense for now. Russia’s direct involvement and the relative disengagement of France and the U.S. has, at least for now, relegated the Minsk format to a less central role. Besides, many Azerbaijanis see France and the U.S. as having failed to deliver on peace plans since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. But the Minsk process remains relevant as the internationally agreed format for negotiations: it may be crucial to ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid in the near term and broad regional and global support for any future settlement.

The EU could consider bolstering the role of its own special representative for the region, by giving staff support to enable more active engagement, working both with the OSCE and independently. The EU should also support member state Sweden, which just assumed the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office for 2021, in fulfilling its mandate for keeping up OSCE contacts with Azerbaijani, Armenian, Russian and Turkish leaders on the conflict. The EU can publicly acknowledge the importance of this mission and ensure that Sweden maintains a point role with regard to the conflict for member states. 

Past EU support in this region focused on building relations and trust between civil societies on both sides. Although it facilitated direct people-to-people contacts that would not otherwise have occurred, it increasingly involved the same people, and those less and less frequently, thus limiting its impact. A new approach should involve a broader group of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, including displaced and returning people, people living in border areas, and officials responsible for transitional justice and reconciliation. Brussels could also fund programs that facilitate cross-border visits for experts in a wide range of fields, which largely ceased in the 2010s, and journalists, a few of whom had started making trips prior to the 2020 war. 

The EU can also help mitigate the war’s effects, building on the humanitarian aid it provided during the fighting. Its funding of UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross enabled them to deliver urgent assistance to war-displaced Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Now, it can help fund reconstruction both in territories controlled by Armenians and those controlled by Azerbaijan. It could also consider programs in Armenian and Azerbaijani settlements along the border between the two countries. That border has grown longer as a result of wartime shifts in territorial control and towns have grown larger due to displacement. Such support would supplement Russian assistance, carried out in cooperation with the UN, near the border in north-eastern Armenia to build and light local roads and construct new schools, greenhouses and irrigation systems.

EU health-care assistance is also important. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Brussels has sent basic medical supplies to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. EU support may become essential for effective vaccination and the regeneration of tourism, which was a crucial source of household income in both countries before the outbreaks of war and contagion. 

Aside from its direct effects, a strong EU role can build support for peace. It can reassure Armenians nervous about Turkey’s actions in support of Azerbaijan and both Armenians and Azerbaijanis who, although beholden to Moscow for its engagement to end the conflict, recognise that its financial contribution will not match its military and diplomatic weight going forward. Brussels’ involvement would give the bloc an opportunity to cooperate with both Russia and Turkey. There are many areas of disagreement between Brussels and other EU capitals, on one hand, and Moscow and Ankara, on the other, but improving prospects for peace in the South Caucasus is one area where, broadly speaking, they have good reasons to work together.