On this, the third anniversary of the 44-day Karabakh War, it remains unclear whether attempts to normalise relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are close to collapse or nearing their conclusion. In just 24 hours of fighting in late September, the situation changed literally overnight. Depending on your point of view, in the wake of the decree to dissolve the de facto Karabakh Armenian administration, there is either now no urgency to sign a peace agreement, or there is arguably no longer any reason for further delay.
Even the November 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement appears inconsequential given the exodus of tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians from Karabakh, raising many questions about the utility of the Lachin Corridor and the presence of the Russian peacekeeping contingent. This week’s news that Azerbaijan could now connect to its exclave of Nakhchivan via a rail connection through Iran also makes the prospect of doing so via Armenia either redundant, or at least less pressing.
Though such a link remains the subject of talks – whether through the trilateral working group established by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia in May 2021, or in negotiations facilitated by European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels ongoing since late the same year, this development is both encouraging and disappointing. On the one hand, it had been an obstacle to progress in talks. On the other, this interdependency could have contributed to the durability of any negotiated peace.
True, interdependence failed to prevent full-scale war in the early 1990s, and could lead to manipulation by any stronger party, yet it would at least create mutual incentives for cooperation while potentially deterring conflict in the future. The idea was to create a win-win situation where Azerbaijan would not only connect to Nakhchivan but Armenia could potentially join the Middle Corridor transportation link from China to Europe via Central Asia and the South Caucasus, ending its semi-isolation and exclusion from regional energy and transportation projects.
While it is not too late for Yerevan to finally start reconstruction on its Soviet-era railroad between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, operating under a reciprocal arrangement allowing access to the Russian market via Azerbaijan and Iran via Nakhchivan, time is running out. It is possible to operate two parallel routes, or even for Armenia to one day join any new Iran one via a renovated line through Nakhchivan, it does mean that it is theoretically no longer an impediment to unblocking and restoring regional economic and transport connections elsewhere.
In a nutshell, these two issues – Karabakh and Nakhchivan – might now have been removed from the equation, though this still is not certain. But if they are then they could have been resolved much earlier, and with less pain and suffering experienced along the way.
The problem of border delimitation and demarcation remains, of course, but it is also unknown if Yerevan will continue to insist on an international mechanism to guarantee the rights and security of the Karabakh Armenians, assuming any will return. Nonetheless, their plight remains of key importance for the international community as does their right to voluntarily go back to their homes. A distinct Karabakh Armenian identity – including dialectally – could otherwise find itself at risk.
During their recent meeting in Granada, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, made specific reference to that right of return as well as the need for international monitoring. How this might be facilitated remains unclear with Baku reluctant to agree to any deployment of international peacekeepers or a dedicated monitoring mission.
Even so, international organisations can still play a role.
The United Nations in Azerbaijan, for example, has visited Karabakh twice in as many weeks and could continue to do so. It could theoretically establish a field mission for the entire Karabakh Economic Region with individual UN agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Program perfectly placed to provide support to returning to both Armenian refugees and Azerbaijani IDPs. UNHCR could also finally play the role that was envisaged for it in the November 2020 ceasefire statement.
Any return is likely to prove a difficult task, with some saying impossible, but an attempt should be made. However, demands in some circles for the return of those ethnic Azerbaijanis that fled Armenia in the late 1980s could complicate matters. After all, similar demands for ethnic Armenians to return to Baku, Sumgait, and Ganja could then surface, straining the process even more. Besides, many have also died, applied for foreign citizenship, or simply left the region.
But the idea is not without merit – at least in theory.
In a podcast held in August 2021, the researcher and analyst Emil Sanamyan claimed that in the late 1980s Azerbaijan had made the continued existence of ethnic Armenians within its borders contingent on whether any ethnic Azerbaijanis remained in Armenia. Restoring that balance could introduce another element of interdependency. As cynical as it might sound, both countries would at least have to mutually ensure the rights and security of the other’s minority on their territory.
Nonetheless, it is too early to do so now while as many as 100,000 ethnic Karabakh Armenians face an uncertain future. There are enough reasons why their return might not occur over the coming years without adding even more obstacles in the form of a “Western Azerbaijan” project that would sadly result in even more resistance to a peace agreement in Armenia.
Instead, a more realistic first step could be to remove the effective travel ban introduced by both Yerevan and Baku which prohibits Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens visiting each other’s countries. Security would be an issue at first, but key groups such as those refugees that fled Armenia and Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early 1990s could at least be allowed to visit their old neighbourhoods, and the graves of the loved ones that they left behind.