Many consider that negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, "nearly three years after the start of the 2020 Karabakh War, are at a make or break point," writes Onnik James Krikorian for commonspace.eu. "But there are some positive signs as well. Despite a tendency towards erratic behaviour, Prime Minister Pashinyan continues to hint at the possibility of a deal as does President Ilham Aliyev. Whether both have the political will to do so is simply a matter for discussion and debate."
The situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly complicated as time arguably runs out for a peace agreement between the sides by the end of the year. The hardest issues to resolve always come at the end, observers note, but adding to concerns, the two leaders are not set to meet again, at least in the Charles Michel facilitated format, until the autumn. On 21 July, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told AFP that a new war could occur if a peace deal is not signed.
"So long as a peace treaty has not been signed and such a treaty has not been ratified by the parliaments of the two countries, of course, a [new] war [with Azerbaijan] is very likely," he said.
Indeed, many consider that negotiations, nearly three years after the start of the 2020 Karabakh War, are at a make or break point. But there are some positive signs as well. Despite a tendency towards erratic behaviour, Prime Minister Pashinyan continues to hint at the possibility of a deal as does President Ilham Aliyev. Whether both have the political will to do so is simply a matter for discussion and debate.
Nonetheless, the U.S. says it will facilitate meetings between the foreign ministers, the format where much of the heavy lifting on an agreement to normalise relations is discussed, but the situation on the ground is worsening. Seven months later, the siege of what remains of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) continues and warnings of an impending humanitarian crisis now appear credible.
As the clock ticks down on an agreement, so too does it for what remains of any relative certainty and stability
Prior to June, the de facto leaders of the breakaway region repeated again and again that Karabakh Armenians would not starve. Karabakh, after all, is largely agricultural. But for the first time since “eco-activists” emerged on the Lachin Corridor in December last year, there are now significant problems transporting goods between Karabakh’s regions and the de facto capital, Stepanakert.
Bread is available, credible sources say, but it is impossible to distribute given that the gas supply from Armenia has been either disrupted or halted. Like Armenia, most vehicles in Karabakh run on natural compressed gas and not petroleum. But even then there is a reported shortage of diesel fuel for agricultural work while reported incidents on the new Line of Contact (LoC) make farming risky.
Even the Russian peacekeeping contingent cannot deliver humanitarian assistance or transfer goods, including hygienic, medicinal, and other items not produced locally, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has had aid convoys temporarily suspended after four contracted drivers illicitly transported goods including cigarettes, mobile phone parts, and gasoline into the besieged region.
As the clock ticks down on an agreement so too does it for what remains of any relative certainty – let alone stability – on the ground.
Karabakh is geographically isolated with only a 5 km-wide highway linking it to Armenia via Lachin, but for almost three years now many international commentators mistakingly compare its situation to that of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two other breakaway regions in the South Caucasus markedly different in so much that both have borders with a security patron and one has access to the sea.
Ironically, this also means that Azerbaijan does not actually have to consider renewed military action before the deadline for an extension of the Russian peacekeeping contingent’s in 2025 passes.
Whether internationally mediated or visible, it is vital that Baku and Stepanakert belatedly speak
Baku can and has simply tightened the screws on the Lachin Corridor, the existence of which is implied in the 2020 ceasefire agreement to last only as long as the Russian peacekeeping contingent does. As some of us warned from the outset, Azerbaijan can simply disrupt the sufficient flow of goods, gas, and water passing through what is internationally recognised as its territory.
This reality, however, was ignored by those who still believe Karabakh can become independent. That was unlikely before the last war and arguably impossible now. Nevertheless, even if it were to become independent, it would still find itself in the same situation unless Baku and Stepanakert communicate and cooperate. Whether internationally mediated or visible, it is vital that the two belatedly speak.
Recent talk of supplying humanitarian assistance via Aghdam should also come as no surprise. This too was predictable and Baku was hardly shy in its intentions. ICRC supplies to Karabakh should be coordinated by the organisation’s office in Baku and not Yerevan, it has argued. The European Union has welcomed such an offer, though only in so much that it complements Lachin and doesn’t replace it.
This situation, however, could arguably have been prevented had reconstruction of the Armenian section of the railroad linking Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan started in earnest in 2021, though the post-war environment was hardly conducive. The opening of the Trophy Park in Baku in January 2021 didn't help and nor did Pashinyan’s inclusion of remedial secession as a campaign promise that same year.
The February 2022 passage of a bill by Karabakh’s de facto parliament declaring the seven Azerbaijani regions surrounding NKAO, taken or returned to Baku as part of the 2020 armistice, as ‘occupied’ was also a misstep. But hindsight is one thing. What is important now is to not make the same mistakes again and to take a more realistic and proactive approach to resolving the conflict.
Approaches by all protagonists must change before a new wave of violence erupts
The EU and the US have made important strides in this direction but it is Azerbaijan’s policy of coercive diplomacy that has proven most effective on the ground. Baku is not content with anything that could usher in a new status quo that significantly delays a long overdue peace agreement. However, that has also come at the expense of driving Armenians and Azerbaijanis further apart.
It is high time that such approaches by all protagonists on the ground change before a new wave of violence erupts. Moreover, instead of criticising the ongoing peace process, civil society should publicly articulate and elaborate ways in which the issues currently being negotiated could be realistically addressed and resolved. Ideally, such Track II initiatives should be complementary to Track I.
The sticking points are already known – border delimitation and demarcation, the unblocking of regional transport and communications, and the rights and security of the Karabakh Armenians. Meanwhile, lest forgotten, as the return of Azerbaijani IDPs to the surrounding seven regions continues, there will also be security concerns for both communities as the geographic proximity between them inevitably narrows.