On November 10, 2020, a Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement halted a forty-four-day-long Armenia-Azerbaijan war over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh, confirming a decisive Azerbaijani military victory.
Three months later, the dust has not settled from the latest war. Although it completely altered the balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the November agreement was far from a true peace treaty and left many issues unresolved. The enormous human suffering it caused, with the loss of at least 6,500 lives, including around 150 civilians, reverberates through this small region.1
The end of fighting reversed roles of victor and defeated, as Armenians were forced to give up the land they had won in the conflict of 1991–1994. Azerbaijan regained the seven districts around Nagorny Karabakh that it had lost in the first war, providing the opportunity for at least half a million Azerbaijanis to return home after being displaced for more than twenty-five years. Azerbaijan also captured around one-third of Nagorny Karabakh itself, including the town of Shusha, forcing more than 30,000 Armenians to flee from their homes, while Armenian settlers also had to leave the Armenian-occupied districts outside Nagorny Karabakh at short notice.2
The November trilateral agreement radically changes the geopolitical configuration of the region, giving Moscow a central role it last held in the Soviet era three decades ago. As a result of the agreement, a Russian peacekeeping mission of 1,960 men was deployed to both Karabakh and the Lachin corridor between Karabakh and Armenia for an initial five years, with the possibility of renewal.
In 2021 all actors in the dispute must make a number of crucial decisions on next steps. Yet so far there is little evidence of strategic planning from anyone, with the possible exception of Russia.
Strategic calculations may not be easy when emotions are still riding high. Horrific war videos of atrocities against captives, including decapitations, evoke revulsion and anger. Prisoners are still being held, and remains of dead bodies have not been returned. In much of their rhetoric and actions, the two countries continue to act like they are still at war. Armenians appear traumatized by their sudden reversal of fortunes, and many voices, especially those in opposition to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, insist that the November agreement has no legal status and can be rejected. A minority vows to use force to recapture lost lands.
Azerbaijanis say the Karabakh conflict is now resolved and “in the past,” but this has not translated into magnanimous action toward Armenians. A continued aggressive stance is fueled by reports and images of devastation to the seven former occupied territories. During twenty-six years of Armenian occupation, they were almost completely leveled, and it will take years to make them habitable again.
A trilateral meeting in Moscow on January 11, 2021, the first occasion the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan had met with each other since the conflict, ended with a pledge to work on economic issues but without a statement on outstanding political differences. Issues that need addressing include the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping mission, the modalities of implementing the projected new transport corridors, the status of the de facto Armenian authorities in Karabakh, and the format and agenda of international talks.
This article considers what comes next in the Karabakh dispute and if and how international actors can help pave the way for a full peace.
Unpacking the November Agreement
The nine-point agreement of November 9–10 was signed in haste by Pashinyan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Russian President Vladimir Putin as conflict was still raging in the middle of Karabakh following the fall of Shusha. (The agreement came into force at midnight in Moscow, which was already 1 a.m. in Armenia and Azerbaijan.) A Russian peacekeeping force was deployed almost instantly to the region, suggesting considerable preplanning by Moscow, but arrived without a precise mandate.
The agreement imposed an immediate ceasefire, gave a timetable for withdrawal from Azerbaijan’s occupied regions and the introduction of Russian peacekeepers, and stipulated the need for new transport corridors. But it has points of ambiguity.
The two sides dispute the application of the eighth point of the agreement, which states, “The Parties shall exchange prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons, and dead bodies.” An exchange of war prisoners took place on December 14, 2020. However, as of February 1, 2021, the Azerbaijani side still had many captives and the Armenian side a few. UN human rights officials have called for their release, expressing alarm at reports of abuse of prisoners.
The biggest group of prisoners consists of at least sixty-two Armenians captured in December during clashes in two villages in the south of Hadrut district in Nagorny Karabakh, in which six Armenians and two Azerbaijanis were killed. The Armenian side says that these men were defending two Armenian villages in an area that should have been under the protection of Russian peacekeepers. The Azerbaijani side says that because they were captured after the November 10 ceasefire agreement and that they were “saboteurs,” they are liable for prosecution.
The agreement is also unclear about the status of Armenian armed personnel inside Nagorny Karabakh. According to point 1, the parties to the conflict must “stop in their current positions.” Point 4 of the agreement says, “The peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation shall be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of the Armenian troops.” The two sides interpret these points differently. Armenians say point 1 allows them to keep their forces in Karabakh and that they have complied with point 4 by withdrawing armed forces from the seven Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh. The Azerbaijani side says that Armenian forces should have withdrawn from Karabakh itself as soon as the Russians were deployed on the ground.
This is a highly sensitive issue. Conscript soldiers from Armenia—who suffered high numbers of casualties in the forty-four-day war—are still reported to be on the ground in Karabakh. Even if they eventually return to Armenia, the question remains of what happens to Karabakh Armenian military units, whose command and composition are local.
This connects to the question of the yet-to-be-defined mandate of the Russian peacekeeping force. Despite weeks of negotiations, Moscow and Baku have not agreed on this. There are reports that the number of Russian troops may exceed what is stipulated in the November agreement.
Moscow’s engagement involves more than just peacekeeping. A long television report on Russia’s Channel 1 showed Russian soldiers escorting returning displaced Armenians and carrying out de-mining, reconstruction, and healthcare provision. Local Karabakh Armenians were interviewed thanking Russian soldiers, politicians, and Putin for saving them from destruction by Azerbaijan.
Having also played a major role in the war, Turkey’s stake in the postconflict situation is not so clear. Turkey offered heavy political support for Azerbaijan and provided direct military assistance in the form of military trainers, drones, and other equipment. This may have been key in helping Azerbaijan to achieve a military breakthrough and prevail in a fight that many had predicted could not be won.
During the conflict there was speculation that the Russian and Turkish presidents were bargaining over a so-called condominium deal for the South Caucasus in which the two traditional great powers had equal weight, as they have done in Libya.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly called for an overhaul of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Process, which would give Turkey a bigger role in negotiations. Erdoğan had also evidently expected Turkey to be part of a joint peacekeeping force with Russia. No bilateral agreement between Moscow and Ankara has been made public. Thus far, Turkey’s involvement looks much more limited. Its main role on the ground is participation in a monitoring center established in the town of Aghdam, whose functions are not yet fully clear.
Inside Nagorny Karabakh
The end of the war leaves the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh, the people whose status is at the heart of the conflict, in an uncertain position. Out of a total population of less than 150,000, tens of thousands—from Hadrut district, the town of Shusha (which Armenians call Shushi), and several villages in the north and east of the territory—were indefinitely displaced by the conflict. Many of these, as well as most of the population of Karabakh’s main city, Stepanakert, fled to Armenia during the conflict. Russian officials say more than 50,000 people have now returned.
To justify its new peacekeeping mission, Moscow needs a well-functioning territory with a large civilian population. Yet the conflict has truncated Nagorny Karabakh and cut many of its connections to Armenia, making the region economically much less viable, as a recent report from the International Crisis Group makes clear.
Thus far, Aliyev has indicated that he intends to keep up a policy of isolating Karabakh from the outside world and severing its political connections with Armenia. On January 8, he expressed indignation that Armenian Foreign Minister Ara Ayvazyan had visited the region, threatening Armenians with an “iron fist” if such visits were repeated. In the same speech, Aliyev said, “All visits must stop. No foreign citizen can enter that area without our permission. No international organization except for the Red Cross can go there.”
This policy, however, presents Baku with a dilemma in that it does not bring the Karabakh Armenians any closer to Azerbaijan but strengthens Russia’s influence over the region. There are unconfirmed reports that Moscow is considering giving the Karabakh Armenians Russian passports, a tactic it has employed with residents of the other post-Soviet breakaway regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniestria.
The de facto elected Karabakh Armenian authorities continue to function, but with several changes. A reshuffle in the government saw Masis Mailyan, the internationalist-minded de facto foreign minister, replaced by presidential aide David Babayan. De facto President Araik Harutyunyan has lost support following the military defeat in November. The most powerful figure in the territory may now be the security chief, Vitaly Balasanyan. Balasanyan was a commander in the first war and a close associate of former Karabakhi and Armenian president Robert Kocharyan, who maintains a personal relationship with Putin. That makes him—and potentially the whole Karabakh Armenian elite—closer to Moscow than to the Pashinyan administration in Yerevan.
Baku has effectively ruled out any dialogue with all three of the abovementioned de facto officials and has launched criminal proceedings against them, both for acts committed in the recent war and in the earlier war, such as the Khojaly massacre of 1992.
Despite the end of fighting, Armenia and Azerbaijan are still contesting many issues.
The mood on each side of the conflict is radically different. After November 10, Azerbaijan jubilantly celebrated its military victory and the return of lost territories. The soldiers who died in the conflict are being honored as martyrs.
Azerbaijani society, including opposition parties, rallied strongly behind Aliyev and the war effort. The capture of Shusha, the town deep inside Karabakh with strong cultural and historical associations in Azerbaijan, resonated especially deeply.
Aliyev, afforded new legitimacy by the victory, is pressing home his advantage both within Azerbaijan and vis-à-vis the Armenians. On the domestic front, he has repeatedly castigated the opposition Popular Front and Musavat parties, who had formed the government in the 1990s, for losing Azerbaijani territories in the war of 1991–1994. (This is debatable, as they were only in office for one year during that time.) This can be interpreted both as Aliyev seeking to build his legacy and as a preemptive strike against those Azerbaijanis who express disappointment, either with the decision to halt the war on November 9, the introduction of Russian peacekeepers, or the difficult state of Azerbaijan’s economy.
Since the ceasefire, Aliyev has barely moderated his rhetoric toward Armenians and has continued to call them “the enemy.” In one video, he and the first lady mock the Armenians. They are seen to stop their vehicle in the liberated region of Kubatly at the sight of an Armenian-language sign, order soldiers to dismantle the fallen sign, and then trample on it. Furthermore, Baku has issued postage stamps with images of parts of Azerbaijani territory, including Karabakh and the recently recaptured districts being disinfected, as if being purged of an infestation of pests clearly intended to represent Armenians.
During and immediately after the conflict, Aliyev directed personal invective against Pashinyan. The mocking phrase “Ne oldu, Pashinyan?” [“What happened, Pashinyan?”] delivered in a speech of November 10 took off in Azerbaijani and Turkish social media. In recent weeks, his tone has changed somewhat, and Aliyev’s harshest language has been directed at previous Armenian leaders—perhaps because he sees Pashinyan, the co-signatory to the November agreement, as the key figure to help deliver its demands.
On the Armenian side, a sudden, unexpected, and bruising defeat, at the cost of at least 3,500 lives, has left many in denial and the country in political turmoil. So far, there has been little discussion of what happens next and much anguish over a conflict Armenian leaders have referred to as a potential “second genocide” and “Azerbaijani-Turkish aggression,” drawing a direct link to the Armenian Genocide of 1915–1916.
Pashinyan himself arguably helped to trigger the 2020 war through his nationalist rhetoric on the Karabakh issue and a refusal to commit strongly to a peace process under the OSCE’s Basic Principles framework. However, it is quite likely he acted as he did not because of a passionate devotion to the cause of Karabakh, but for the opposite reason, because he wanted to postpone dealing with the Karabakh issue to focus on his ambitious domestic agenda in Armenia.
Pashinyan is the first leader who came to power in post-Soviet Armenia whose agenda wasn’t centered around Karabakh,” Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, said in an interview. He continued, “For him Karabakh is a problem. For all the others, it was the cornerstone of their political agendas.”3
After signing the humiliating November 10 ceasefire agreement, Pashinyan faced calls to resign, not just from opposition parties but also from President Armen Sargsyan (who is head of state but has mostly ceremonial powers) and the heads of different branches of the church. Pashinyan chose to fight for his position and blamed his predecessors for the defeat. Despite a dramatic loss of popularity compared to his sky-high ratings he enjoyed after the Velvet Revolution of 2018, he has thus far managed to cling to power.
New Tensions Between Armenia and Azerbaijan
Two relatively new issues are especially toxic. First, the two countries must delineate their shared international border in areas where the Republic of Armenia adjoins Azerbaijan’s Kelbajar, Kubatly, and Zangelan Districts, as well as most of Lachin District, all newly vacated by Armenian forces.
New Post-Ceasefire Map of the Nagorny Karabakh Conflict Zone
On the border of Armenia’s southern Syunik province and Azerbaijan’s Kubatly District, Baku utilized Soviet-era maps to quickly take control of lands that Armenians had been using on an everyday basis for years, including parts of the main highway between the towns of Goris and Kapan, much farming land, and parts of the village of Shurnukh. This makes people of this part of Armenia, which borders Azerbaijan on both sides, feel vulnerable and sparked angry demonstrations against the government in Yerevan.
Further north, prior to the ceasefire agreement, Azerbaijan called for the return of seven villages in the Kazakh District—three of which are in Soviet-era exclaves surrounded by Armenian territory—as well as the Kerki exclave next to Nakhichevan. Here, it is the Armenian side that is refusing to give up land. Armenians also point to an exclave named Artsvashen that belonged to Armenia in Soviet times but was captured by Azerbaijanis in 1992. These territorial issues could have been postponed, pending international arbitration or agreement on territorial swaps, but are causing new ill will between the two countries.
A second contentious issue is the fate of Armenian cultural monuments. In other postconflict contexts, cultural heritage has been a field of cooperation and reconciliation. In the Armenian-Azerbaijani context, it is the cause of yet more bitterness.
In and around Karabakh are dozens of Armenian churches, some dating back to the fifth century. Some of these, such as the medieval churches of Dadi Vank, Gtchivank, and Tsitsernavank, as well as the main Armenian cathedral in the town of Shusha (or Shushi), suddenly fell under Azerbaijani control. This sparked major expressions of international concern, especially given Azerbaijan’s record of destroying Armenian cultural heritage in Nakhichevan. For their part, many Azerbaijanis (with some justification) objected that the world was ignoring the fate of destroyed graveyards and damaged mosques in the seven territories newly liberated from Armenian control and the town of Shusha. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which helps protect cultural heritage sites, called to send a mission to Azerbaijan but was rebuffed by Baku, which said the organization had not paid sufficient attention to the fate of the monuments when they were under Armenian occupation.
Azerbaijan did itself no favors with what looks like an aggressive act of cultural appropriation. Drawing on a bogus Soviet-era historical theory, the Azerbaijani leadership, most prominently the Ministry of Culture, spuriously asserts that all Armenian churches in and around Karabakh are not Armenian but “Caucasian Albanian.” (The reference is to an ancient Christian people who populated much of the territory of Azerbaijan in the early medieval era but, according to most non-Azerbaijani historians, were assimilated from around the sixth century). This signals a continuation of an Armenian-Azerbaijani war, also fought vigorously on the Armenian side, not just over present status but about the past and culture. Such continued tensions poison trust and hold back normalization and reconciliation efforts.
Russia’s Different Agendas
The new Karabakh war ended with Russian troops deployed on the ground for the first time in almost thirty years. Russia thereby gained new and significant influence over both Armenia and Azerbaijan but is also now more vulnerable than before to a backlash from either. Its troops face physical risk if violence breaks out on the ground.
Putin previously said that he did not want to take responsibility for the conflict as Russia would only get blamed by both sides. Now Moscow faces dilemmas as it seeks to pursue different agendas simultaneously.
To make its five-year peacekeeping mission in Karabakh a success, Russia must work closely with Armenia and the de facto authorities in Karabakh. Yet Moscow also wants to avoid the threat of an Azerbaijani veto on extending the mission in 2025. That means keeping on the best possible terms with Azerbaijan and assuring Baku that Karabakh is no longer a separatist territory.
Russia has little reason to push for a rapid normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan that could call time on its peacekeeping mission. Yet it also needs to see sufficient stabilization of relations between the two countries to facilitate its other agenda—the restoration of transport links, which connect Russia by road and rail to Armenia, Iran, and Turkey but bypass Georgia, with its high mountain roads and pro-Western orientation.
Furthermore, some Russians will see good reason for rapprochement with Turkey to pursue a shared aim of limiting Western involvement in the region. Yet Moscow will also want to share responsibility for the threats the conflict still poses and the costs of reconstruction, and therefore has a rationale to continue to be a multilateral actor, working together with Western powers.
Russia has indicated that it wants to preserve the previous main diplomatic mechanism for the Karabakh conflict, the twenty-four-year-old French-Russian-U.S. co-chairmanship of the OSCE’s Minsk Group. The co-chairs emerged tarnished by the new war and the (somewhat unfair) perception that they bore responsibility for the failure of Baku and Yerevan to forge peace with one another. France is generally perceived in Azerbaijan as a biased mediator, especially after the French Senate voted to recognize the independence of Artsakh, as Armenians call Nagorny Karabakh. The United States is regarded as more even-handed, having built up relationships on both sides, but has increasingly disengaged from the issue in recent years. Under the administration of former president Donald Trump, the U.S. co-chair was not afforded the rank of ambassador. The only significant initiative on the conflict, undertaken in 2018 by then national security adviser John Bolton, linked it to the administration’s Iran policy.
The OSCE co-chairs visited the region once again in December 2020. In Baku, despite a public dressing-down from Aliyev, they received the message that their work would continue. In Yerevan, they were welcomed more warmly. But their future agenda is still up in the air. Despite a previous tradition of visiting Karabakh itself, the co-chairs did not visit the region in December, after both Baku and Yerevan insisted that they should enter the territory from their side and refused to compromise. It is far from clear who will now be negotiating with whom. Aliyev has stated that the conflict is now “resolved,” and some Azerbaijanis now say that the dispute with Karabakh Armenians is a domestic issue that Yerevan should have no say in. Yet, Baku has no obvious interlocutors among the Karabakh Armenians, having accused most of their leaders of criminal activity.
Overarching this is the unresolved issue of status, which has been the crux of the dispute for more than a century. Over recent decades mediators have a tried to formulate a new status for the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh within the borders that were drawn for the former Soviet-era Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Region in 1923. Yet the Armenians’ loss of Hadrut district and the town of Shusha, however, may spell the end of Nagorny Karabakh as a distinct territorial entity within those borders. Formally, as far as Baku is concerned, the region no longer exists but is divided up between different Azerbaijani districts.
The OSCE’s Basic Principles framework document, which was the basis for negotiations since 2006, looks even less viable than before. The Armenian side did not embrace it strongly before the conflict and the Azerbaijani side has disavowed it as a result of the conflict. In his November 10 victory speech, Aliyev, who had once promised Nagorny Karabakh the “highest autonomy in the world,” declared, “The status went to hell. . . . As long as I am President, there will be no status.”
For those reasons, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on January 18 that negotiations should continue but elaborated, “Exactly because the problem of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is controversial, if we take the positions of Yerevan and Baku, the three leaders decided to leave it be for future consideration.”
New Role for International Partners
A new role is needed for not only for the Minsk Group co-chairs but for the OSCE mission operating in the region, the civilian team led by Polish diplomat Andrzei Kasprzyk since 1996.
Formally mandated by the OSCE chairperson-in-office (a rotating position held in 2021 by Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde), this mission remains the main internationally sanctioned presence in the region. For more than two decades, its main function was to monitor the 1994 ceasefire line, a role now superseded by the latest war. However, the team can still usefully monitor the situation on the international Armenia-Azerbaijan border, which is not the responsibility of Russian peacekeepers. It can also usefully act as neutral international eyes and ears to report on civilian complaints in the conflict zone, monitor unauthorized or suspicious activities, and mediate local disputes.
This mission was originally conceived as more than a monitoring mechanism and could now work to implement neglected parts of its mandate, without the need for new authorization. One of these is to “assist the parties in implementing and developing confidence-building, humanitarian and other measures facilitating the peace process, in particular by encouraging direct contacts.” Another is to “Co-operate, as appropriate, with representatives of the United Nations and other international organizations operating in the area of conflict.” Both roles are highly relevant in current circumstances.4
International actors from outside the region, notably countries of the European Union and the United States, which have always supported a peaceful resolution of the conflict were sidelined during the recent fighting and their standing fell in the region.
These countries now seek a role for themselves in a new challenging environment. The new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is likely to seek a more active role, but it will have to do so through what is bound to be somewhat awkward collaboration with Russia. On the other hand, the European Union has never had a direct role in this conflict, which predates its emergence as a diplomatic and political actor in this region. The new, more dynamic post-ceasefire landscape affords it new possibilities to operate both in support of an OSCE diplomatic process and in parallel to it.
Western actors and international organizations can seek to engage in two main activities. One is economic assistance—so long as this is embedded in a clear-eyed political strategy that supports a sustainable peace for the region.
The November agreement potentially opens up an opportunity to envisage the South Caucasus anew, with new transport connections and economic cooperation possible for the first time since the Soviet era. There are plans for a restored road and rail connection between Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan via Armenia. Armenians may also be able to travel from Yerevan to southern Armenia and Iran via Nakhichevan, a much easier route than the highland roads of Armenia. All this, however, will be difficult without political rapprochement.
This calls for a triple agenda of assisting the huge task of reconstructing and resettling the de-occupied Azerbaijani territories, providing assistance to Armenian-administered Nagorny Karabakh, and supporting region-wide transport links and economic connectivity.
Azerbaijan’s seven de-occupied regions were almost completely destroyed and have massive needs. The Azerbaijani leadership has so far made commitments only to a few high-profile projects there. Aliyev has already initiated a new six-lane 100-kilometer highway from Fizuli to Shusha. He has laid the foundation stone of a new international airport in Fizuli and said that it would start operating in 2021. He announced that a second new airport would be built in Kelbajar or Lachin District. These new airports will be expensive, very likely costing 200 million Azerbaijani manats ($117.7 million).
Aliyev also announced that he wants to see the territories rebuilt with “smart cities” and “smart villages”—urban-type settlements, which may not be popular with returnees who want to return to their old houses.
These announcements look rather premature, preceding the launch of a wider program for the territories or any public consultation on how this will happen. A previous official seventy-two-page program from 2008 entitled “Big Recovery” makes clear how big the challenge is. It documents plans to rebuild 751 settlements over 11,500 square kilometers and resettle up to 570,000 people. An extensive program of demining, refurbishment of utilities, and reconstruction is needed before former residents can return, something that could take several years.
How can all this be paid for? Azerbaijan is in a difficult economic climate, weathering the problems of falling oil production and modest international oil prices, as well as the costs of the global pandemic. It is unlikely to be able to afford these projects on its own. Azerbaijan’s State Oil Fund, worth around $40 billion, has thus far been used to fill gaps in the regular budget. Azerbaijan also has a record of systemic corruption, which makes it unlikely that all the money in a massive reconstruction project would be spent scrupulously.
This is where the EU, UN agencies, and international financial institutions such as the World Bank, European Investment Bank, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development could pledge funding, as well as the expertise they have accumulated in other postconflict situations such as the Balkans.
Previously, Azerbaijan has sought to restrict international access to Karabakh itself but could be prevailed upon to rethink this policy if this access is part of a wider international economic assistance program for the de-occupied territories, harnessed to an agenda of normalizing relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The conflict has also weakened Nagorny Karabakh’s economy. Gas and electricity supplies have been reduced. Its two main towns, Stepanakert (which Azerbaijanis call Khankendi) and Shusha (or Shushi), which used to rely on one another for water and electricity, are now in rival hands.
The newly liberated Azerbaijani Kelbajar and Lachin Districts are also likely to struggle to survive economically, unless they can get energy resources and goods from Armenia and Karabakh. Economic connectivity needs to be seen to work for all. In a sign of potential trouble, Armenian villagers in Karabakh blocked a highway on January 18 to prevent a convoy of Azerbaijani trucks with a Russian escort from crossing their territory to Kelbajar District, in protest of the fact that those same villagers had been unable to use the road to travel to Armenia since November 10.
The Karabakh dispute sits deeply in the consciousness of two societies. A second area where European actors in particular can play a role is the much longer-term ambition of fostering dialogue and reconciliation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
There was much unfinished business from the first Karabakh conflict, including unpunished war crimes. The 2020 conflict has created new festering problems, such as the displacement of Karabakh Armenians from their homes and the disappointment of Azerbaijanis from Lachin District that they were unable to return home. If left unaddressed, these issues could lead to new violence in the future.
Narratives are set from above. Unless there is a decision by leaders to change official discourses, end hate speech, and reset old narratives, little is likely to change in stories of hatred and bitterness repeated in societies and the media. The only groups who challenge these narratives were a few brave civil society activists and intellectuals. A crackdown in Azerbaijan forced many of these individuals to leave the country and their number on both sides was further reduced by the recent war.
In the past, these civil society initiatives received funding from an EU initiative, the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. It will take time to rebuild these links. In the meantime, work is probably most needed on internal dialogue and discussion within both societies. Perhaps the most hopeful prospects for cross-border cooperation are for business groups, a constituency that now has a chance to work together as never before.
Armenian-Azerbaijani reconciliation is a long-term project, but international actors should still put their support behind it now. That will show the parties to the conflict their commitment to a sustainable peace. It will also seize a moment when this often-forgotten conflict is still relatively high on the international agenda.5
Appendix: Statement by President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, and President of the Russian Federation
On November 10, 2020, a Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement halted a forty-four-day-long Armenia-Azerbaijan war over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh. The agreement reads:
We, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, state the following:
- A complete ceasefire and termination of all hostilities in the area of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is declared starting 12:00 am (midnight) Moscow time on November 10, 2020. The Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia, hereinafter referred to as the Parties, shall stop in their current positions.
- The Agdam District shall be returned to the Republic of Azerbaijan by November 20, 2020.
- The peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation, namely, 1,960 troops armed with firearms, 90 armoured vehicles and 380 motor vehicles and units of special equipment, shall be deployed along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin Corridor.
- The peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation shall be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of the Armenian troops. The peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation will be deployed for five years, a term to be automatically extended for subsequent five-year terms unless either Party notifies about its intention to terminate this clause six months before the expiration of the current term.
- For more efficient monitoring of the Parties fulfilment of the agreements, a peacemaking centre shall be established to oversee the ceasefire.
- The Republic of Armenia shall return the Kalbajar District to the Republic of Azerbaijan by November 15, 2020, and the Lachin District by December 1, 2020. The Lachin Corridor (5 km wide), which will provide a connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia while not passing through the territory of Shusha, shall remain under the control of the Russian Federation peacemaking forces.
As agreed by the Parties, within the next three years, a plan will be outlined for the construction of a new route via the Lachin Corridor, to provide a connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and the Russian peacemaking forces shall be subsequently relocated to protect the route.
The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee the security of persons, vehicles and cargo moving along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.
- Internally displaced persons and refugees shall return to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
- The Parties shall exchange prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons, and dead bodies.
- All economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions. The Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Service shall be responsible for overseeing the transport connections.
As agreed by the Parties, new transport links shall be built to connect the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and the western regions of Azerbaijan.
Corrections: In the third paragraph, reference to Armenian settlers has been changed to reflect that they left Armenian-occupied districts outside Nagorny Karabakh, rather than Nagorny Karabakh itself. Also, the conversion of 200 million Azerbaijani manats has been updated from $235 million to $117.7 million.
1 Casualty figures are based on the most recent estimate at the time of publication but do not include soldiers missing in action.
2 Language used in this article aims for neutrality and does not imply a political judgement. The article generally uses place names used at the start of the conflict in 1988, for example, the names of the towns Shusha and Stepanakert.
3 Alexander Iskandaryan, Skype interview with the author from Yerevan, January 11, 2021.
4 The OSCE website does not carry the full mandate of Kasprzyk’s mission, but an OSCE source confirmed to the author that this text, published by the European Parliament, is correct.
5 This publication was supported in part by the Aso Tavitian Initiative, made possible through a generous gift from the prominent philanthropist and trustee emeritus of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Aso. O. Tavitian. This publication has also been co-funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement no. 769886. This publication reflects the views of the author, and the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.