In Nagorno-Karabakh ‘peace,’ a bitter conflict remains unresolved

Why We Wrote This

This week’s cease-fire gives Azerbaijan much of the land it lost to Armenia in an earlier war, and ends six weeks of fighting. But does it move the two countries any closer to real peace?

Stepan Poghosyan/Photolure/Reuters
Demonstrators hold national flags at a rally to demand the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, following his signing of a deal to end the war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The protesters regard the deal as a surrender.

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When Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced early on Tuesday morning that he had signed a peace deal with Azerbaijan to end their two countries’ six-week war, he acknowledged that “this is not a victory.”

Most people in Armenia are calling it a surrender, and there is no doubt that Azerbaijan has taken an important step toward recovering the ethnically Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh that it lost more than 25 years ago in an earlier war.

For the time being, though, the Russia-mediated deal just freezes the front lines – Azerbaijan had regained considerable amounts of territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh’s traditional capital, Shusha. It does nothing to resolve the bitter conflict over who has the legal and moral right to the territory.

Azerbaijan’s military success, aided by Turkey, suggests that the question of legal and moral rights in Nagorno-Karabakh will be overridden by the exercise of force. A quarter century ago, Armenia had the upper hand in that domain. Now the tables have turned, and maps of the northern Caucasus will have to be redrawn.

Just before 2 o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan took to his medium of choice, Facebook, to make the most difficult announcement of his career.

He had signed an agreement to end the six-week war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, he explained, and the terms had been “extremely painful.” Under the Russia-brokered deal, Armenia has ceded all the territory Azeri troops had captured during the fighting, and more.

The agreement, however, is a stopgap, not a settlement, freezing the front lines rather than resolving differences. Armenia and Azerbaijan are now perhaps as far away from peace as they have ever been.

“I’m as worried as much by what is not explained [in the cease-fire accord] as by what is,” says Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center. “With no progress on the status of Karabakh, we are in a sense still stuck at square one.”

Mr. Pashinyan said he had made his decision after “an in-depth analysis of the military situation.” Azeri troops had made significant territorial gains last week.

The deal, widely viewed as a surrender, was greeted with angry disappointment in Yerevan, where official reports from the front had disguised the gravity of the situation. Soon after Mr. Pashinyan’s announcement, livid crowds of protesters descended on the capital’s Republic Square and broke into the prime minister’s official residence. Half a dozen men emerged on the second-floor balcony and led the crowd in chants of “Nikol betrayed us.”

Demonstrators quickly moved on to Armenia’s parliament and ransacked it as police stood by. “We are going to find that coward and drag him before us,” one protester said. “He sold out the homeland.”

The war broke out in September when Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, launched an offensive to recapture territory it had lost to its neighbor in the early 1990s, when Armenia seized the ethnically Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1994, when the dust settled, ethnic Armenians controlled not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but also seven surrounding regions of Azerbaijan proper.

The nine-point agreement signed this week by Mr. Pashinyan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and mediator and Russian President Vladimir Putin allows Azerbaijani forces to hold on to the territorial gains they have made since fighting began six weeks ago, and extend them.

Neil Hauer
Kelbajar, Nagorno-Karabakh, a village that Armenia will hand over to Azerbaijan on Nov. 15, 2020, under the terms of a peace deal that many Armenians have condemned as a surrender.

Most notably, these include the town of Shusha, known by Armenians as Shushi, the historical capital of Nagorno-Karabakh located squarely in the region’s center. Armenian forces must vacate other occupied Azerbaijani territories within weeks, while a 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force will guard a rump of Armenia-held territory within Azerbaijan whose final status remains undetermined.

Before the ink was dry on the tripartite agreement, Russian peacekeepers sped toward the region. They had been preparing for their new role before the deal was announced: A Russian Mi-24 helicopter mistakenly shot down by Azeri gunners on Monday night had been escorting a Russian military convoy toward Nagorno-Karabakh.

Many questions remain unanswered. The matter of Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status, for example, is not addressed in the agreement.

Some Armenians take a dark view, concurring with Russian political scientist Gleb Kuznetsov, who is considered close to the Kremlin. He wrote that the next five years will essentially serve as a period for local Armenians to “vacate” on their own, before Azerbaijan takes over Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Azerbaijan is going to be tempted to encourage such an exodus,” says Mr. Giragosian. But Russia’s potentially open-ended peacekeeping role could offer the region some protection, he says.

“Russian peacekeepers usually don’t go home once they deploy,” he says, pointing to Georgia, Moldova, and elsewhere. Their presence around the edge of Nagorno-Karabakh could be “potentially positive” for the territory’s unclear status, he suggests, forcing Azerbaijan to reach a political settlement instead of launching a renewed offensive.

But the failure of the current deal to address the deeper roots of the conflict compromises the Russian mission’s chances of achieving anything beyond a refreezing of the dispute. It addresses the symptoms, but not the cause, says Laurence Broers, Caucasus program director at Conciliation Resources, an international conflict resolution NGO.

“What worries me about this agreement is that there is a great silence on anything other than peacekeeping and transit corridors,” he says. “The threat of renewed war will continue to hang over any efforts at reconstruction, development, and peace building over the next five years.”

The territorial losses will surely prove very difficult for Armenians to stomach, convinced as many were of eventual victory even as the military situation worsened. Though most people knew that there were problems at the front, they drew strength from the memory of how dire the situation had been before Armenian troops turned the tables in 1994 to win a famous victory.

That made the gut punch of surrender this week all the more devastating.

In this sense, the dynamics of the conflict have not radically changed – they have simply flipped. Whereas previously Armenia was the dominant victor and Azerbaijan the aggrieved, resentful defeated side, this reality has now reversed – with the same ominous possibility for future violence. 

Azerbaijan has thus far shown little of the magnanimity in victory that might help break this cycle.

In his first address following the deal, President Aliyev mocked the Armenian prime minister, laughing as he asked, “What happened, Pashinyan?” In the same breath, he rejected the idea that Azerbaijan would grant any autonomy to a potential Baku-ruled Nagorno-Karabakh in the future.

Meanwhile, many younger Armenians who were not born when their fathers fought the last war against Azerbaijan, and who might have developed more amicable views of their longtime foe, have died in this war.

Azerbaijan “has killed those who might have engaged with them,” says Mr. Giragosian, explaining that the new generation now harbors as much anger as its elders ever did. “They have poisoned the atmosphere for a generation.”

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