This editorial first appeared in the 22 June 2023 issue of our newsletter, Karabakh Concise. If you would like to subscribe to Karabakh Concise, or any other of our newsletters, please click here.
"The question that remains unanswered is if there are Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh who are determined enough not to want to live in an Azerbaijani state that they will resist violently. Such thinking may exist, probably only amongst marginal groups, but nothing will come out of it unless it is abetted by the Government of Armenia, and/or by Russia, or in a less tangible way by radical groups within the Armenian diaspora," writes commonspace.eu in this editorial. "Whilst a detailed future vision for Karabakh may have to wait until the negotiations are more advanced, now is the time for Baku to send positive signals. By tightening the noose around Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijan has forced the issue, so time is no longer on its side."
In many ways the future of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was settled as a result of the Armenian defeat in the 2nd Karabakh War in 2020. Once the cordon sanitaire of empty, heavily mined territories around Nagorno-Karabakh was lost, and once the Azerbaijani flag started flying on the strategic citadel town of Shusha, overlooking the main Armenian centre of population, Stepanakert, Armenian Karabakh became indefensible, a new reality emerged.
How the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will adjust to the new reality is central to the future of peace in the South Caucasus. The broad consensus is that if they leave voluntarily, or are obliged to leave by circumstances or worse, coercion, this will be a failure for both the international community which is desperate to avoid this scenario, but also for Azerbaijan, which claims that the Karabakh Armenians are its citizens.
Since the end of hostilities in November 2020, Azerbaijan has gradually and systematically been reasserting its control over the territory, especially by tightening its grip over the Lachin corridor that traditionally connected the Karabakh Armenians with Armenia. They now decide what goes in and what comes out of Nagorno-Karabakh. Or nearly. Those determined enough to get out, or get in, can still find their way through mountain pathways, but this is not a solution for most people and neither does it address the issue of how Stepanakert can be re-supplied. The Armenians call the situation a blockade leading to ethnic cleansing, the Azerbaijanis say that it is not, because people can go in and out if they are willing to pass through their checkpoint. The Russians, who deployed a “peacekeeping force” to Nagorno-Karabakh of around 2000 persons in November 2020, have not intervened, much to the frustration of the Armenians.
In many ways what is happening on the ground around Nagorno-Karabakh is a sideshow to the bigger Armenia-Azerbaijan – and Armenia-Turkey – peace process. However, everyone understands that events in Karabakh can impact the peace negotiations substantially, and may, in a worst case scenario, derail the whole process completely.
The international community, and in many respects also Armenia, have been advocating direct Baku-Stepanakert talks. The question is who should Baku negotiate with in Stepanakert. During the time when they were in control the Karabakh Armenians established the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and presented it as an independent sovereign state-in-waiting. Baku is not willing to negotiate with such a structure. It has called for the dissolution of its institutions and its armed formations. However Baku will have to reconcile with negotiating with some of the leaders of NKR – simply because there is no other alternative. In Nagorno-Karabakh itself, views are mixed. Some think negotiations are inevitable; some want to be defiant. One suspects negotiations will start sooner or later.
With some good will many issues will be solved. Baku has a fat cheque book and it can make things happen quickly. It is minded to keep those Karabakh Armenians that are ready to work with it happy. But this largesse will not be enough. Something else will be required to reassure the Karabakh Armenians – and the international community – on a range of issues ranging from personal safety and security, to linguistic and cultural rights, to free movement to and from Armenia. Azerbaijan says it has a plan but is not ready to share it yet.
As the dispute about the future plays out there have been some incidents of violence, but in fact not that many. This is a good sign. It gives time for a political solution to emerge.
The question that remains unanswered is if there are Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh who are determined enough not to want to live in an Azerbaijani state that they will resist violently. Such thinking may exist, probably only amongst marginal groups, but nothing will come out of it unless it is abetted by the Government of Armenia, and/or by Russia, or in a less tangible way by radical groups within the Armenian diaspora. The latter can provide some money and possibly some human resources, but do not have the logistical capacity necessary for anything more than isolated incidents.
In its dealings Baku should do its utmost to avoid giving any excuse for this scenario, and it now needs to show generosity and magnanimity. Whilst a detailed future vision for Karabakh may have to wait until the negotiations are more advanced, now is the time for Baku to send positive signals. By tightening the noose around Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijan has forced the issue, so time is no longer on its side.