This month marked the third anniversary of the ceasefire statement that was meant to end the second Karabakh war. In retrospect, it might be more appropriately considered a continuation of the first conflict of the early 1990s given that the ceasefire then was hardly implemented too, leading to a new war 26 years later. Meanwhile, hopes that Baku and Yerevan could sign a peace agreement are fading.
A deal was possible by the end of the year, both sides pronounced in 2022 and again throughout 2023, but that sounded as vague and sometimes disingenuous then as it does now. Instead, an uncanny sense of deja vu hangs over the process, reminiscent of earlier failures by the now defunct OSCE Minsk Group.
“There is a possibility of a Karabakh settlement in the course of this year,” then U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group Steve Mann told journalists in 2005 before correcting himself. A peace deal could be signed “this year or within the next hundred,” he said, perhaps sarcastically. That feeling has now returned with even the U.S. admitting that it is pointless to predict when an agreement might come.
Baku is concerned that Yerevan is playing for time while Armenia fears that Azerbaijan prefers to soldier on with its so far successful policy of coercive diplomacy. Both sides have consistently engaged in forum shopping.
At the same time, Azerbaijan might be close to rejecting U.S.-facilitated talks, especially as pandering to the ethnic Armenian and conservative Christian vote has already emerged in the run up to next year’s U.S. presidential election. But we do at least now know that Armenia favours the EU-mediated platform and is reluctant to engage with Moscow. However, following the cancelation of two meetings by Azerbaijan in October alone, Brussels’ future increasingly hangs in the balance as Baku looks elsewhere.
This includes the highly questionable 3+3 regional format, or 3+2 as it more accurately should be referred to. Talks involving Georgia have also been floated by both Baku and Tbilisi while Yerevan seems uninterested. Meanwhile, Pashinyan even has his own “Crossroads of Peace” project, perhaps to rival Baku’s “Zangezur Corridor” that might now pass through Iran rather than Armenia. Ironically, that could now be what Yerevan fears, leading as it would to even more semi-isolation.
Such a proposal, amounting to little more than a map with a few bullet points, so far presented only to actors outside the region, might anyway prove unrealistic if the U.S. continues to openly says such economic and transport routes should exclude Russia and Iran. Both are important trading partners for Armenia and such interference by D.C. is more likely to destabilise the region.
A new arms race could also be emerging just as it did over a decade ago. Though its reasons are understandable, Yerevan is already purchasing new weapons from abroad, especially India and also France, given that its traditional supplier, Russia, is unable or unwilling to do so as it faces setbacks in Ukraine. Azerbaijan has also predictably again increased its spending, while ironically criticising Armenia for doing the same despite an arguably greater need to do so.
But Yerevan is unlikely to achieve anything close to parity with Baku and risks ushering in the same misplaced sense of security and complacency that led to war three years ago. Some Armenian analysts also argue that if Yerevan can rebuild its army then not only can it hold out for longer but even retake Karabakh by force at an undetermined date in the future. Thankfully, however, this is not official policy.
Aside from the tragedy of another war, such hopes are unrealistic and dangerous. In 2018, Armenia’s military budget stood at $513 million, rising to almost $800 million in 2022. Next year it has earmarked $1.3 billion. In contrast, Azerbaijan’s was $1.6 billion in 2018 and is set to hit $3.8 billion in 2024. This money would be better spent for the benefit of citizens in both countries.
Instead, the same old way of thinking prevails. Si vis pacem, para bellum – If you want peace, prepare for war remains the common refrain in Yerevan and Baku while another can increasingly be heard too – Si vis pacem fac bellum – If you want peace, make war. There are no voices at all articulating another – Si vis pacem para pacem – If you want peace, prepare for peace.
That last message is one the EU should now amplify, especially as both Yerevan and Baku talk of signing an agreement in one breath while relying on derogatory and confrontational rhetoric in the next. NGOs funded by the EU should now finally and publicly articulate the same call for peace at every given opportunity. For decades, mediators have consistently urged the governments to prepare their populations for peace but they have not. But nor too has much of civil society.
Yet, if there ever was ever a role for salaried NGOs in conflict resolution then this would be it. Unless they too have no real desire for peace, of course. Finally, Brussels should also be cognisant of the need to be considered a neutral mediator by all sides and avoid the temptation to engage in geopolitical confrontation and competition with regional powers that will surely react harshly in response.
With the 30th anniversary of the 1994 ceasefire also upon us next year, the stakes are high. Suffice to say, a tangible breakthrough by the end of 2023 remains vital for all hope going forwards. Otherwise, like much of the world, the mediators will instead be preoccupied by Ukraine, Gaza, the U.S. presidential vote, and any other cataclysmic global event that might unexpectedly appear out of nowhere.
Three years on, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in that situation before.