This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu. It was first published on the electronic newsletter Caucasus Concise on 5 October 2023.
On 19 September, Azerbaijan resorted to military action to resolve once and for all the Karabakh question. After a twenty-four-hour military operation, the Armenian political project in Nagorno-Karabakh collapsed and the leadership of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic declared the dissolution of the entity. Within hours the exodus of 100,000 Armenians living in the territory started, and was completed smoothly within days. There were no pogroms of civilians, nor any of the usual signs associated with ethnic cleansing, as a UN fact-finding mission to the region in the last days asserted, but decades of hostility and vitriolic propaganda by both sides convinced the Karabakh Armenians that they were not safe living under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Azerbaijan tried to reassure the Armenians, but it was too little too late. Given that the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh had left the territory in similar circumstances in 1993, the territory is now empty, patrolled by “Russian peacekeepers” and Azerbaijani security forces.
The international community had done its best to convince Azerbaijan not to go for the military option in trying to solve the Karabakh question. In the end, hard-liners among the Armenian political leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh forced the issue by pressuring their de facto president to resign, apparently for not being tough enough, and by refusing to negotiate directly with Baku. This convinced the Azerbaijani leadership that negotiations were futile.
This was an operation conducted by Azerbaijan on its territory. The international community condemned it, but the condemnation was muted. This however does not mean that the diplomatic cost for Azerbaijan was not high. The images of tens of thousands of Armenian refugees fleeing Karabakh filled the screens of television networks all over the world. These images will last for a while.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev declared victory and the restoration of Azerbaijan's sovereignty. But was this a pyrrhic victory? Azerbaijan regained the territory, but is an empty Nagorno-Karabakh such an important trophy?
The right to return
Under international humanitarian law, all those displaced by conflict have the right to voluntarily return in safe, secure and dignified conditions. The population of Nagorno-Karabakh have the right to return back, and they should be assisted in doing so. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were also displaced in 1992-4 from the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh that were occupied by Armenians until 2020. Azerbaijan has started the process of returning these displaced people but the task is daunting. The Armenians had turned these regions into vast landmine fields, flattening all buildings in the process. It will take a lot of time and resources. The international community has never spoken strongly enough about these issues, and is not helping in the process of their return.
In a somewhat ominous development however, recently, Azerbaijan started talking about the return of Azerbaijanis who during the Soviet times lived in Armenia, and who left when the USSR dissolved. The end of the USSR saw the displacement of millions of people, triggered mainly by the economic collapse that followed, but also by a sense of insecurity. However their story, in most cases, is different from that of those displaced by conflict.
Many see this as an attempt by Azerbaijan to confuse the issues. The right to return needs to be respected where that right exists, and it should be applied equally for Armenians as well as Azerbaijanis.
Is Azerbaijan abandoning diplomacy as a means of resolving its disputes?
On two occasions, in September 2020 and in September 2023, Azerbaijani resorted to military force to achieve its goals. Both operations were conducted on territory the international community recognizes as part of Azerbaijan. This mitigated the circumstances. There is now fear, in the international community at large, and in Armenia in particular, that Azerbaijan has abandoned diplomacy to resolve its disputes, and will again use the military option to resolve any outstanding issues, for example in securing a transport link between its mainland and the exclave of Nakhichevan through Armenian territory. Azerbaijan dismisses these claims, but its actions and words are not always consistent, and there is enough ambiguity in statements past for the concern to be legitimate.
At this point, one would have expected that Azerbaijani diplomacy would be particular sensitive to international sensibilities, and would be taking steps to calm nerves. The summit of the European Political Community taking place today (5 October) in Granada, Spain, offered a unique opportunity for Azerbaijan to do so, and to turn the page. A summit on the margins of the main meeting between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the leaders of France and Germany, offered the possibility to register progress in the peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and announce a road map for the signing of a peace treaty before the end of the year. At the last moment, Azerbaijan squandered this opportunity by announcing that it will not attend, citing French bias in favour of the Armenians as an excuse. A very weak excuse given that the sympathy of French political leaders to Armenia has been a constant factor for decades based on the presence of a large Armenian diaspora (or, in other words, voters), in France. That never stopped Azerbaijan engaging with France, including for decades when France co-chaired the OSCE Minsk Group, and more recently as President Macron, tried, rather inelegantly, to insert himself in the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process. Some suspect that the Azerbaijani absence in Granada was due to Russian pressure. Russia has been trying to sabotage the Brussels-led peace process for months, and yesterday could not even hide its glee when the absence of the Azerbaijani leader from Granada was announced. Whatever was the reason Aliyev’s absence in Granada was a diplomatic blunder, a missed opportunity, and possibly a costly one, both in terms of Azerbaijani diplomacy, but also as far as the prospects for peace are concerned. Azerbaijan appears to have left a small window for manoeuvre by suggesting that a three-side Michel-Aliyev-Pashinyan meeting in Brussels was still possible. Such a meeting must now take place as soon as possible.
Time to turn the page
Azerbaijan, as well as Armenia, have made numerous statements recently claiming they are committed to peace between them and in the region. Their good intentions will be judged by their actions. It is time to turn the page in the South Caucasus, liberate the region from the spectre of war, and give the people the peace and prosperity they long for.