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Loosening the Karabakh knot: Why peacekeeping won’t be enough

The agreement to end the latest round of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has created a Russo-Turkish situational partnership in the South Caucasus. It comes at the expense of the sovereignty of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

November 19, 2020 - Francesco Trupia - Articles and Commentary

War-Ruined Buildings in Şuşa/Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh Photo: Adam Jones (cc) wikimedia.org

By being apparently implemented on the ground, the latest Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement has ended the “2020 Karabakh War”. At present, the humanitarian crisis as well as the ambiguity over future border demarcations and the uncertainty regarding the Russian operations of peacekeeping, provide as questions as unclear answers.

It seems that the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh lies in its historical name, a rendering from the Russian adjective for “mountainous” and the Turkic “black garden.” Since the war outbreak on September 29th, many expressed their concerns about the potential internationalisation of the conflict, while others likewise drew attention directly to Russia and Turkey.

Under the shadows of former empires

The latest trilateral agreement signed by leaders Nikol Pashinyan, Ilham Aliyev and Vladimir Putin in the nighttime of November 10th, has not only ushered a Russo-Turkish situational partnership in the South Caucasus, but also unveiled a geopolitically contingent machination at the expense of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

To a certain extent, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers has favoured Armenia since the ceasefire agreement has restrained Azerbaijan from bringing its military operations further. Despite this, however, Russia’s intervention has not come with no cost for Armenians. Moscow’s peacekeeping will not find a remedy to Armenia’s mediocre diplomacy and lack of visions in settling the conflict. Nor, will it turn Russia’s previous aloof position into a more pro-Armenian one in light of the ongoing process of deracination of what many Armenians stand for. Nonetheless, only the Russia-led peacekeeping can slowly but surely guarantee a wide range of legitimate yet controversial demands and claims that Karabakhi Armenians will soon start seeking out.

Granted today’s favourable new situation on the country, Azerbaijan will have a hard pill to swallow anyway. With the end of the celebrations for the liberation of Shushi/Şuşa, a strong criticism against the presence of Russian peacekeepers seems inconspicuous yet capable of gaining momentum against Aliyev, who had at first refused the presence of Russian peacekeepers on the ground, as invoked by Armenia. In fact, Russia’s boots on the ground de facto impede Azerbaijan’s Turkey-backed military operations to gain control of the whole region and fully restore its national integrity. Having successfully achieved a long-awaited revenge on the battlefield, Azerbaijan remains far from its primary military objective. Expected structural reforms and future plans of development and investment in Nagorno-Karabakh may challenge Azerbaijan’s future. In addition, the parapet of the rhetorical “One State, Two Nations” referring to Turkey and Azerbaijan, may crumble, too. In this sense, Azeri top diplomats and experts know well that the cutting-edge military equipment received from Turkey, will probably have a higher price than that already paid economically. Regardless of how strengthen the interstate relations are, Azerbaijan will be always Turkey’s little brother, and not vice versa.

On the one hand, Turkey has been recognised as a new pivotal actor in the South Caucasus after signing a memorandum with Russia on creating a joint centre for monitoring the respect of the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh. On the other hand, Russia seems nevertheless reluctant to pass full responsibility to Turkey in the operations of peacekeeping. Ankara will not easily slack its influence off, and Azerbaijan may potentially serve more Turkey’s vested interests in the region rather than fulfilling its national inspirations

At this stage, the Kremlin has all at once constrained its historical stance on the side of Armenia, but also kept at bay the Azeri-Turkish “peace sponsorship”. This is why, in the very end, looking at the latest events through the lens of a Russia-Turkey proxy fades definitely away. Understanding the ignition of the military confrontation as an event out of the blue, is simply wrong. The tragic denouement of a stagnant and increasingly ineffective peace process have basically paved the way to the latest military confrontation. As a result of this, the South Caucasus seems the Russia’s “Old Abroad” since the region has anew become a space of legitimate interests overlapping with Turkey’s. In this regard, Armenia would defintely undergo a series of radical changes, while the question whether the impact that Turkey’s role will have on Azerbaijan’s geopolitics will only include energy cooperation, is worth addressing in a long-term perspective.

Coming to terms with martyrdom, debunking the mythscape

The “2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War” could be summarised in the paradoxical fact that a large number of died soldiers were younger than the conflict they fought in.

The disputed region has been the symbol, and it does continue to, of survival and historical revenge. The inconspicuous campaigns carried out by Armenians within the Soviet Union asking for recognition of the 1915 Genocide and for adjusting an unfair allotment of the Armenian Nakhchivan and Karabakh to Azerbaijan, fell on deaf ears in Moscow. Amongst Azerbaijanis, especially those who fled their houses during the 1990s, a profound sense of grievance and prevailing sense of injustice have always come along with displacement in their own country. In the recent history, Artsakh/Qarabağ has never been controlled by post-Soviet Azerbaijan, nor has it been de jure part of Armenia after the demise of the Soviet administration. The latter has not impeded both young republics to forge their national identities around its history. Instrumentally, Yerevan and Baku have presented their respective legacies of statehood as deeply rooted in those high mountains understood not only as the storehouse of fine musicians, men of letters and heroes, but also associated with images and sounds of atrocities and pogroms accordingly.

Today’s situation defines a historical U-turn. The almost thirty-year war has been excavating memories of traumas, while provoking new ones and keeping people in despair. Those Azerbaijanis who had suffered from an “illegal occupation”, are now coming to terms with a legacy of loss and injustice. Those Armenians who had instead kept images and sounds of victory as part of their millennial history, are experiencing or witnessing the ethnic cleansing of 130,000 Karabakhi-Armenians.

Resulting largely in human losses and physical destruction, the “2020 Karabakh War” has already taken a heavy toll on the political and social fabric of both societies. The current polarisation of opinions and liberal positions within the political spectrum and civil society of Armenia is nothing but the result of a constantly imposed sense of living a “life of purgatory.” Subtly mobilised on a political level, emotional and psychological patterns and objects of gross violence and injustice have been juxtaposed to heroic struggles for resistance and national pride. Decades of Armenophobia in Azerbaijan and Armenia’s campaigns against the Turkey-orchestrated Azeri genocidal attempts in Nagorno-Karabakh have constantly portrayed the “other” as the “enemy” and “thief,” whose responsibility for the death of innocent civilians must be met with an appropriate punishment.

Since the early hours of Saturday, September 27th, social media profiles of ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis have visualised a lasting arc-enmity, timely unfolding during the peaks of violence stemming from new ignitions of military confrontation. While videos and footage of atrocities have circulated through social media and were released knowingly to media outlets, all political leaders, as well as civil society and the liberal voices critical toward war rhetoric, aligned themselves along ultranationalist and maximalist positions. In doing this, the risk that another generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis will be systematically conditioned to hate each other is simply high.

Beyond peacekeeping

If the Yugoslavian war, specifically in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, has taught us anything, it is that a prospective peace cannot be achieved without full-fledged mechanisms of transitional justice and reconciliation. The Armenian Minister of Defence David Tonoyan’s doctrine of “new war for new territories” cannot but be unacceptable for the future of Armenia in the region. In the same vein, Aliyev’s previous scepticism toward “peace talks” can no longer be tolerated, nor find space in Azerbaijan and beyond.

If maintaining an elusive yet important peace is key at this stage, judicial and non-judicial mechanisms for activating a process of reconciliation cannot be anymore left behind. Considering the new reality on the ground, regardless of how the latter will evolve in the next five years, it should be borne in mind that a shrinking, albeit pre-existing, space for discussing people-to-people reconciliation must be restored at all costs. The Russia-brokered truce neither opens the doors to peace by default, nor represents a “document for peace”. On the contrary, the latest ceasefire agreement is anything but a political document that shall comply with a reconciliation roadmap.

The latter shall activate, now more than ever before, truth-seeking activities to restore human rights and civil liberties, as well as measures of compensation for both war-torn populations. So far, peace has knowingly meant nothing more than a continuation of the status quo, which has largely unmasked a lack of political will of Armenia and Azerbaijan to loosen the “Karabakh issue” and find a common ground for kicking off reconciliation policies.

Galvanised by a new reality on the ground, Aliyev’s position will unlikely loosen the geopolitical knot. As a broad rule, Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions are still internationally recognised as Azerbaijani sovereign territory, as confirmed by relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. However, the latter have also stated that a settlement of the dispute could not have achieved by force. On the other hand, Armenia has always spoken more in praise of the right of self-determination, which remains written nowhere and recognised by none. . Respectively, both positions will be no longer taken in account.

In a time when the Russo-Turkish quasi-colonising partnership casts dark shadows on the region and both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh knot could be untied through a rethink-and-change approach. Moving even beyond the old-fashioned forgive-and-forget paradigm, Armenia and Azerbaijan must be capable of moving from a win-win solution and accept a lose-lose perspective, which is inconvenient for both, yet necessary for coming to terms with a legacy of human rights violations and unforgettable atrocities and transiting from a resolution-by-force perspective to lasting peace. A full range transitional justice agenda and reconciliation roadmap would activate retributive mechanisms both internationally and domestically, such as a restorative justice tool kit for symbolising the work of truth and reconciliation commissions, reparatory justice efforts through massive reparation programs, vetting procedures and institutional reforms as defined by the UN Secretary General (UN Doc S/2004/616, 2004). Within this, while Azerbaijan should begin with properly recognising the quasi-state entity of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and giving it de jure recognition, likewise Armenia should begin with thinking about a policy plan for fully granting all Azeris in IDPs their right of return and cultural claims, massive compensation for their material loss and safety.

Francesco Trupia is a Postdoc fellow at the Centre of Excellence IMSErt at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, where he mainly contributes to the Laboratory for the Study of Collective Memory in Post-Communist Europe. He holds a PhD from the Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski in Political Philosophy and since 2014 he has been working in Kosovo, Armenia, Bulgaria and Poland.   

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