This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu
War returned to the Caucasus for one day this week, claiming hundreds of lives, displacing more people, and denting further the prospects for peace. Every time blood is spilt, regardless of any justification, the wounds of the past open again, and this time is no exception. Whilst Baku appears to have achieved its objective of frustrating the decades-long Armenian political project in Karabakh, the situation on the ground remains fluid. Tens of thousands of civilians are now caught in the epicentre of a difficult and painful political transition that will see Nagorno-Karabakh re-integrated back into Azerbaijan. How this process will work out is not clear at all, and every step is fraught with risks. So far Baku has shown its stick. Now it needs to show its carrot. Following this week’s events, some said that the peace process is dead. This needs not be the case. In fact in their speeches in the last hours both President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan reiterated their commitment to the peace agenda. In the coming weeks and months Armenia and Azerbaijan need to remain focused on the one objective of signing a peace agreement. Without it the chance of more deadly violence in future will be much higher. The international community too must keep this as its top agenda in the region. The journey has not become easier in the last days, but the road remains open. The journey now needs to be finished.
At 1300 on Tuesday, 19 September, Azerbaijan announced that it was launching “an anti-terrorist operation” in the mainly Armenian-populated parts of Karabakh after several Azerbaijanis were killed or injured in what Baku says were incidents involving recently planted landmines. The operation lasted twenty-four hours during which military personnel and hardware of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) were destroyed. Baku said that during its operation great care had been taken to avoid civilian targets or infrastructure. It demanded the withdrawal of any remaining Armenian forces from Karabakh – Yerevan says there are none – and the disarmament and disbandment of all military formations of NKR. By Wednesday morning, Stepanakert accepted the terms, which were communicated through the Russian forces stationed in the territory. This appeared to signify the demise of the Armenian political project in Karabakh, which has been at the core of the region's divisions and conflicts.
Both sides agreed to meet a day later in Yavlak to put the agreement in practice. The meeting took place as scheduled, and appears to have been only the first of many. But having this channel of direct communication is hugely important.
High human cost
The 24-hour Azerbaijani military operation left hundreds of dead and wounded. Whilst most of the casualties are military personnel there are also some dead and wounded amongst civilians. Sources close to the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh say that 200 people have been killed and four hundred injured during the twenty-four-hour Azerbaijani military operation to regain control of the territory. Human rights defender Gegham Stepanyan wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that "among the civilian population, the number of wounded exceeds 40, of which 13 are children. At the moment, there are 10 confirmed civilian victims, 5 of which are children". Although these figures cannot as yet be independently confirmed they are realistic given the severity of the attack.
Azerbaijan has also suffered casualties, including dead and wounded. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev referred to this on Wednesday (20 September) in his televised speech to the nation, but he gave no figures. It is understood there may have been a small number of Azerbaijani civilian casualties too.
In the meantime, it was also reported that a number of Russian soldiers, part of the "peace-keeping" force in Nagorno-Karabakh have been killed by mistake. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence has confirmed the incident and President Aliyev phoned President Putin to apologise and offer his condolences.
Baku has so far shown its stick; it now needs to show its carrot
Every time blood is spilt, regardless of any justification, the wounds of the past open again, and this time is no exception. The last days have once more dented the prospect for peace. The situation on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh remains fluid. Tens of thousands of civilians are now caught in the epicentre of a difficult and painful political transition that will see Nagorno-Karabakh re-integrated back into Azerbaijan. How this process will work out is not clear at all, and every step is fraught with risks. So far Baku has shown its stick. Now it needs to show its carrot.
Baku's military operation in Karabakh has been criticised by the international community. Privately in Western capitals there is disappointment that President Aliyev has not been more magnanimous following his 2020 victory, but there is also some sympathy with Baku's frustration at the intransigence shown by the Karabakh Armenians
In a televised broadcast on Wednesday night, President Ilham Aliyev, appears to have started the process of reaching out to the Karabakh Armenians, but this now needs to be sustained.
“In two days, during a meeting of representatives of the Karabakh community with my representative in Yevlakh, we will convey to them our visions of future coexistence. All their rights will be guaranteed: educational rights, cultural rights, religious rights, and municipal electoral rights because Azerbaijan is a free society. Azerbaijan is a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state. It is our great asset. Representatives of every nationality living in Azerbaijan can see this. There is no need to explain that. It is our way of life. There has never been and will never be discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds in Azerbaijan, and the Second Karabakh War showed it again. Representatives of all nationalities, representatives of all ethnic groups, all confessions united as one fist - for Azerbaijan, for dignity, for the Motherland! Therefore, look at this beautiful atmosphere; this is a natural environment, and we are inviting the Armenian population of Karabakh to enjoy it. We are ready to implement various social programs. We are rebuilding all of Karabakh and East Zangezur. Look how much we have done in just two years.”
“Today, a new historic chance has been created for ordinary people living in Karabakh. Take advantage of that chance. We are ready for this, and the Azerbaijani people know this, and I am sure that the Armenian people also know that I am a man of my word. We propose this, and I hope that our proposal will be accepted. This proposal is based on logic, historical justice, international law and future development and is calculated for future growth.”
It is going to take much more than one speech of President Ilham Aliyev for the Armenian community of Karabakh to feel that they would be safe as part of Azerbaijan. This work must start and Baku needs to understand it has a big responsibility.
The peace process is damaged, but not dead
Following this week’s events, some said that the peace process is dead. This needs not be the case. In fact in their speeches in the last hours both president Aliyev and prime minister Pashinyan reiterated their commitment to the peace agenda.
In his speech on Wednesday, President Aliyev said:
During this period, today and yesterday, Armenia has unexpectedly shown political competence, which we appreciate. We see this as an essential factor, and the events that happened today and yesterday will also positively impact the peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
I want to hope that the steps we have taken and the results of anti-terrorist measures will allow us the opportunity to finally remove the obstacle to the peace talks created by Armenia, whatever you call it, and this will create a new reality in the South Caucasus, will create peace, lasting peace. We must ensure that the other side does not live with revanchist ideas, and they must also rest assured that we do not have sights for their land. We recognize their territorial integrity and have declared it, and we recognize the territorial integrity of all countries. We demanded that from them and the stubborn Armenians behind them. Those who are not with them in a difficult moment, who are located far away in Europe, should know - the farther they are from our region, the more comfortable the region will be; breathe a sigh of relief, and we are offering that. We propose that the future of South Caucasus countries should be based on peace, tranquillity and development. We suggest that the forces, the fraudsters, and corrupt politicians sitting far from our region that pursue their political agenda and use the Armenian people as a tool and exploit them to leave us alone. Those who sit on the other side of the world and make groundless accusations against us should get their hands off us. Let the South Caucasus, this region, which has been a place of fighting, wars and bloody clashes for centuries, breathe easy. We have had enough! We demand this, and I want to say that the position of the Armenian state yesterday and today gives hope. It gives hope that the day is not far when Azerbaijan and Armenia will settle the issues between them, sign a peace treaty, and countries of the South Caucasus start working on future cooperation in a trilateral format.
On his part, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, speaking a few hours later on Thursday morning in a speech marking Armenia’s independence day, stated:
“We must pass down to them [future generations] an Armenia where people can freely express themselves, build their own happiness through free and creative work.
“Even today, many conditions contributing to this are present in Armenia: democracy, freedom of economic and any legal activity, equality of all before the law, principled anti-corruption policy, and economic activity are necessary but not sufficient conditions for this.
“For these conditions to be complete, peace, that is, a conflict-free environment, is necessary. Peace is a factor that ensures and guarantees security as well as independence and sovereignty.
“Many believe that in this tense regional environment, in the face of occasional military conflicts, it is not adequate to talk about peace. But particularly in these conditions, peace should be valued and peace should not be confused with a truce or a ceasefire. Peace is an environment that is free from conflicts, inter-state, inter-ethnic conflicts.
“This path is not easy, it goes through external and internal shocks, and we must go through this path for the sake of independence, for the sake of statehood, for the sake of the future.
The sides and the international community need to remain focused on a peace agreement
In the coming weeks and months, Armenia and Azerbaijan need to remain focused on the one objective of signing a peace agreement. Without it the chance of more deadly violence in future will be much higher. The international community too must keep this as its top agenda in the region. The journey has not become easier in the last days, but the road remains open. The journey now needs to be finished.