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Nagorno-Karabakh: no clear path out of the crisis

An interview with Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. Interviewers: Adam Reichardt and Agnieszka Widłaszewska

April 29, 2023 - Adam Reichardt Agnieszka Widłaszewska Thomas de Waal - Hot TopicsIssue 2 2023Magazine

Photo Courtesy of Thomas de Waal.

ADAM REICHARDT: Before we go into the most recent developments, I would like to start with a brief summary and reminder of how we got to the current situation surrounding the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh. What is the essence that lies behind this dispute?

THOMAS DE WAAL: This conflict is the oldest ethnic and territorial conflict from the late Soviet era which began in 1988. In fact, its roots lie in the early 20th century when the South Caucasus was a part of the Russian Empire, which was not wholly divided along ethnic lines. The highlands of Karabakh, a beautiful region which is geographically a part of Azerbaijan, had a centuries-long, Armenian majority population, with Armenian monuments and churches. It is in fact quite an important place for Armenians, but also plays an important role for Azerbaijan. The region is very much within Azerbaijan economically, geographically and also has an important Azerbaijani town right in the middle of it called Shusha. Generally speaking, it was a place where during the Russian Empire or Soviet times, the Armenians and Azerbaijanis coped more or less together under Russian rule. Both in 1918 and in 1988, as soon as imperial rule was weakened, the two sides began to fight for control of this region. In 1988 the Karabakh Armenians tried to vote to secede from Soviet Azerbaijan and join Soviet Armenia. Then a kind of low level inter-Soviet civil war erupted between the two sides, leading to full scale war in 1991. That war lasted for three years and 20,000 people died. The Armenian side won a military victory, more than a million were displaced, mostly on the Azerbaijani side, and for years Azerbaijan had to put up with Armenian occupation of a fair chunk of its territory. In 2022 Azerbaijan, fuelled by oil wealth and Turkish weapons, went back to war and inflicted a humiliating military defeat on the Armenians in just six weeks. After nearly three decades of Armenian dominance, the situation suddenly flipped into one of Azerbaijani dominance. For two years, it has been the Azerbaijanis who have been dictating to the Armenians and this is the new context in which this very old dispute is now situated.

AR: The ceasefire that was negotiated in 2020 was Russian-led, even though there is an official OSCE Minsk Group which is meant to mediate the conflict. It seems that Russia had really taken a lead role in terms of mediating. Is this because Russia has close ties with Armenia or is it more related to Russia trying to maintain some sort of influence in the region?

Well Russia has been traditionally the most active mediator even when there was the Minsk Group co-chairmanship with the United States and France. In 2020 Russia was the party which was ready instantly to commit boots on the ground, putting Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh. This obviously fitted the Russian agenda, but it also stopped the war from spreading into an even more dangerous phase with a direct conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. But having said that, Russia is no longer the only or indeed the main mediator. Since 2021 the European Union has stepped in as a mediator in many ways, more of a facilitator, facilitating contacts between the two sides. So, we have these parallel tracks with the Russians, who obviously have their own agenda both in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the EU being a facilitator that is more trusted by both sides. Obviously, the EU has an agenda as well, but by no means is it such an aggressive one as the Russians. However, there have been no negotiations since December 2022 since this new crisis with the Azerbaijanis blocking access to Karabakh, so at the moment there are no negotiations to speak of since then.

AGNIESZKA WIDŁASZEWSKA: This blockade of the so-called Lachin Corridor, as you said, began in December 2022. The official narrative from the Azerbaijani side, at least, is that there is a group of Azerbaijani citizens who claim to be environmental activists and they blocked the route, which is the only route linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, because they are accusing Nagorno-Karabakh of illegal and strongly polluting mining activities in the region. Are there any grounds for these environmental claims? And what might be the other reasons for this blockade?

First of all, that claim is highly dubious. Azerbaijan is basically an autocracy, it does not have a civil society which goes out and protests freely, so these are clearly government-sponsored protesters blocking the road. This does, however, give the Azerbaijani government an element of deniability and an element of manoeuvrability to use these so-called activists, rather than military forces, which would involve also a direct face-to-face confrontation with Russian peacekeepers. This was a clever way to close this road, the only road that links Karabakh Armenians to Armenia. The Azerbaijanis do have some fairly plausible and serious allegations, about what that road is being used for. There have been some fairly serious claims that land mines have been transported on that road for the Armenians to lay. There has been very little transparency about who or what goes into Karabakh and certainly Azerbaijan is concerned that there is basically a little local army there, which has been there for more than 25 years and it is not disarmed. Hence, the road can be used to resupply the army. We cannot verify that, but no one can really verify it because the only people who have been checking the road are the Russian peacekeepers. Having said that, by blocking the road, Azerbaijan is creating a serious humanitarian issue for the tens of thousands of Armenians in Karabakh. Schools and kindergartens have closed, fresh food has pretty much run out and there were major disruptions in the gas supply during the winter months. The local Armenians fear that this is a prelude to an Azerbaijani attempt to fully drive them all out of their homeland.

AW: You already mentioned the practical effects of the blockade on the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh. You also mentioned the Russian peacekeepers, as well as the Azerbaijani activists. Presumably there are forces on the Nagorno-Karabakh side. What is the military setup there?

There was a deadly clash recently in which three Armenians and two Azerbaijanis were killed, so there are Azerbaijani and Armenian forces around. But I think the main actors are the Russian peacekeepers, and this is where the big debate is: are they unwilling or unable – or a bit of both –to reopen the road? No written mandate was ever agreed upon with Azerbaijan, so they are obviously not going to forcibly disperse civilian protestors to reopen the road. At the same time, Armenians are saying that Moscow is deliberately using the crisis to put pressure on them. The Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is a bit too western-looking at the moment and he needs to be reminded who his main ally is. Even Belarus’s Alyaksandr Lukashenka said that Armenia should join the Union State with Belarus and Russia. My guess is that the Russians are simply too distracted and too weak to react. They do not have professional officers in Karabakh since most have already been redeployed to Ukraine. At the same time, Moscow does not want to pick a fight with Azerbaijan, so they are mostly negotiating behind the scenes to try and find a way out of this crisis.

AR: In your assessment what is Azerbaijan’s aim in all this? Is it to cut off this region completely from Armenia in order to create some dependence on Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is in the driver’s seat and they see an opportunity to coerce Armenia into signing an agreement to withdraw all claims on Karabakh and a peace deal which recognises Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Azerbaijan also wants the Karabakh Armenians not to have any claims on autonomy within Azerbaijan. This is a difficult situation for the Armenians, who are in a weak position. The worry here, however, is that Azerbaijan will push and push and at some point there will be some backlash, there will be some kind of violence. Perhaps Pashinyan will stop negotiating, or Azerbaijan becomes convinced that they can get an agreement entirely on their own terms, though I do not think that would be sustainable. Clearly Azerbaijan is going to get a good deal, but the question is will it get everything it wants.

AW: In terms of recent developments, the International Court of Justice recently ruled that Azerbaijan should “take all measures at its disposal to ensure the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin corridor in both directions”, which reflects the provision in the November agreement from 2020. Another thing that happened recently is that Ruben Vardanyan – a Russian/Armenian businessman who up until recently held the post of state minister in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and with whom Azerbaijan refused to negotiate – was dismissed from his position. This is treated by some as a potential opening or starting point for some further discussions. What is your take on these two developments, is either of them likely to somehow contribute to the end of this blockade?

Personally, I expected that with those two developments the crisis would have been resolved by now and the road would be open again, but I clearly got it wrong. The ICJ verdict called on Azerbaijan to keep the road open, but Azerbaijan seems to have ignored that and clearly it is an international court which has no implementation capacity. In terms of Vardanyan, who also renounced his Russian citizenship, he has quite good links in the UK and US, and is a very interesting character. Azerbaijan had worried that he was sent by Moscow and that this was the first step to build Nagorno-Karabakh into a territory with Russian troops and a Russian-backed leader, a kind of second South Ossetia. There is no evidence that he was directly sent by Moscow, but clearly he was a powerful figure who had links in Moscow. The Armenians are not happy with him either, because he is seen as a potential opposition figure to Pashinyan. So there was this common interest in wanting him out. He was removed from his position and that actually means a third thing happened, which is direct talks between Baku and the Karabakh Armenians for the first time in three decades. This is probably a good development, but obviously one within a rather bad context.

AR: The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has been around for over 30 years already and with two serious wars, the last being in 2020. At the same time, it seems that the war in Ukraine seems to overshadow all this, and the situation with the Lachin Corridor does not get much international attention. Do you think that there is an important geopolitical element to this and that we should be paying more attention to what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh?

The geopolitics of the situation are not as clear cut as they are elsewhere, in Georgia or in Ukraine. There are geopolitics, clearly Turkey is with Azerbaijan and Armenia has a formal alliance with the Russians, but the Armenians are also trying to get western support, as they also have a close relationship with France. There is a lot of geopolitical bargaining, but it is largely about the position of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the region and their relations with each other. I guess this is one conflict where the local is still more important than the geopolitical.

AR: What about the role of Iran in the region?

Indeed, Iran borders both countries and has interests there. It has a particularly difficult and deteriorating relationship with Azerbaijan, but I think it is more interested in the status quo. Iran has its own problems with sanctions and with developments in the Middle East. It would like to be a big player in the Caucasus, but isn’t. I think Turkey is a much more active player here than Iran and I think Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan is an important reason why Azerbaijan is now in a much more dominant position.

AW: And you mentioned several times the EU’s engagement in the peace talks. There is also a new EU mission that was launched in Armenia in late January of this year – the civilian mission under the Common Security and Defence Policy. Could you tell us a bit more about the prerogatives of this mission and its aims, and how it has been received by the different actors in the region?

It is something quite unprecedented that the EU has a mission in a CSTO country. The Russians are clearly unhappy about it and the Azerbaijanis are unhappy but in a different way. Basically, the conflict spread to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border (beyond Karabakh) which was never demarcated at the end of the Soviet Union. Last September, Azerbaijan basically crossed the border and is still camped inside what most people think of as Armenian territory. There was a serious outbreak of violence and 300 people died. So, in this context Armenia appealed to the CSTO for support and did not receive any positive response; and to its credit the EU stepped up when the Armenians said they wanted an EU monitoring mission and deployed the new mission relatively quickly with about a hundred unarmed monitors. I think it provided a psychological and political boost for the Armenian side and Baku was clearly frustrated. At the same time, they would rather have an EU mission than a Russian one.

AR: If we look at the overall progress, or lack thereof, of the peace negotiations since the end of the 2020 war, where do you think things stand and where are things heading? What do you see as the political positions of Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev and do you think there is a chance for any sort of meaningful, peaceful and stable relationship in the near future?

No one really knows how it is going to develop and no one really knows if this road is going to be fully open, which is a prerequisite for any return to the peace process. This year could see a peace agreement or it could see the two sides go back to conflict, probably not full-scale conflict, but some kind of serious violence. We cannot really tell which at the moment. I think Aliyev and Pashinyan are committed to dialogue and negotiations, which is good, but their approaches are different. Pashinyan is out on a limb and I do not think he is supported by many other people in Armenia for actively negotiating with Azerbaijan, or even with Turkey. A lot will depend on the calculus of Aliyev, whose recent rhetoric is extremely aggressive towards the Armenians. He is getting some pushback now from the EU, US, the Russians, etc. They got most of their land back and maybe do not need to keep on pushing. They are definitely still in a strong position, but obviously Aliyev wants something to show to his public. In a best-case scenario this could be some sort of bilateral state-to-state Armenia-Azerbaijan agreement that also creates a separate process on the Karabakh Armenians. But there are plenty of spoilers out there: Iran could actually be one of the spoilers; the Russians for sure do not like the way the EU is taking a lead in this. So basically, this year could see potentially a peace agreement but it could also be a nice piece of paper that the two leaders sign, but then is not sustainable and breaks down.

This interview is also available as a podcast on Talk Eastern Europe – the official podcast of New Eastern Europe, available at: www.talkeasterneurope.eu.

Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specialising in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.

Agnieszka Widłaszewska is a Brussels-based political scientist and co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe and co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.

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