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  • Tilman Voss

What's next? Azerbaijan's victory in Nagorno-Karabakh and shifting powers in the Southern Caucasus

It has only been weeks since the images of tens of thousands of Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh carrying everything they were able to retain of their old life went around the world. After Azerbaijan had launched a new series of attacks in September, the authorities of the self-proclaimed ´Republic Artsakh´ capitulated and officially announced its dissolution by the end of this year. The situation has left citizens in the region and governments in uncertainty about what's to come. Is the current cease in fighting just a ´warm-up´ for another chapter of this complex conflict – or has a window for achieving long-lasting peace now opened?


Tilman Voss


These days, Yerevan is seeing yet another wave of refugees arrive in town. While many Russians recently fled to the Armenian capital after the outbreak of the full-scale invasion into Ukraine in February 2022 to escape repression or military service, the new immigrants are ethnic Armenians, too. After Azerbaijan´s military operation in September 2022 and the following surrender of local authorities, more than 100.000 of them left the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh or ´Artsakh´, as they call it, and are now seeking shelter in the neighboring country. But how did it get to this point, and what might their future look like?


The complex history of a hurtful ethnic conflict


As it is always crucial to understand the past in order to be able to understand the present, it is essential to first recall the (contemporary) history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the mountainous region in the Southern Caucasus that had been part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic while being mostly inhabited by Armenians, saw the outbreak of a full-scale ethnic war just one year later, with now independent Armenia and Azerbaijan both claiming ownership of the territory. The tragic war that caused huge loss of life, including allegedly committed massacres by both sides, ended after a negotiated ceasefire in May 1994 and led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands ethnic Azeris and Armenians who had been living in the respective countries before the war.


For the next 25 years, fragile peace would hold in the region, but a resolution of the conflict never seemed to be within reach. Initiatives by international actors like the OSCE Minsk Group, that included France, Russia and the United States and commenced its work in 1992, would be as successful as the agreements negotiated under the same city´s name in 2015 regarding Ukraine. On the international stage, the republic that remained a part of Azerbaijan by international law would not be recognized by any other state, including Armenia – although it held a huge military presence in the area. In September 2020, Azerbaijan started a new offensive towards Nagorno-Karabakh and managed to push the Armenian and local forces out of all surrounding territories and a third of the republic itself.


What followed was yet another ceasefire agreement under the supervision of Russia – this time, Moscow would send peacekeepers whose task it was to secure the Lachin corridor, which remained the only connection left between mainland Armenia and the republic. However, the peacekeepers wouldn’t stop the corridor's blockade imposed by Azerbaijan, which started to unfold in late 2022. For months, the supply of essential goods like food and medicine was close to non-existent. This led to a sharp deterioration of the humanitarian situation inside Artsakh and to huge criticism towards Azerbaijan, including accusations of a genocide. When the new offensive started in September, there was little to no resistance inside the republic left – the military operation only lasted for two days until local authorities gave in.


The victors took little time to celebrate. Shortly after entering Nagorno-Karabakh, Azeri state media published a video of President Ilham Aliyev in the local capital - called Stepanakert by Armenians or Khankendi by Azeris - symbolically stepping on the Artsakh flag inside the local administration building. In the beginning of November, the new rulers held a military parade inside the town. At the same time, the former leaders of Artsakh were detained by Azerbaijani authorities and are now facing long prison sentences, while the Armenian population of approximately 120.000 people has almost entirely left the region.


A new (mis)balance


But what implications does the Azeri victory hold for the power balance in the Southern Caucasus? Azerbaijan has traditionally closely cooperated with Turkey, whose relations with Armenia have always been highly strained and charged by the Armenian national trauma of the genocide during World War I that was carried out by the Turkish. Ankara and Baku, who share many cultural and religious similarities, have recently ramped up their cooperation in the military sphere, including joint drills and the supply of weapons by Ankara. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly expressed his support for the action taken by Azerbaijan, stating that the country was right in defending its ´territorial integrity´.


On the other side, Armenia has traditionally relied on Russia as its protector. Both countries have signed a security agreement, and Armenia is furthermore part of the Russian-led security alliance CSTO. However, this relationship has certainly seen backsliding. Many believe that the dire situation for Russian forces inside Ukraine has led to a lack of capacities for them to act in the Southern Caucasus. The inaction of the peacekeepers during the recent operation has led to huge criticism from Yerevan. In late October, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan hinted at the need for the country to “diversify relations in the security sector”, indirectly blaming Russia for not acting according to the agreed bilateral framework that had been established before.


This obviously wouldn’t be left uncommented by Russia. Shortly after Pashinyan´s speech, Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov stated that he expected clarification from the Armenian side. Relations further deteriorated after Pashinyan skipped a CSTO summit scheduled this November. Nevertheless, the country remains highly dependent on Russia – not only in the military sphere, but also economically. Roughly 40 percent of Armenian exports go to Russia, and the country is largely dependent on the import of basic goods from the federation, including grain and petroleum. Thus, thinking about a geopolitical shift towards western partners like the EU or the US seems to be understandable, yet unrealistic as of now.


Prospects for Peace?


Subsequently, while Azerbaijan has managed to expand its power, Armenia finds itself in a rather weak geopolitical position. Hence, the country is pushing for a peace agreement that includes guarantees. Pashinyan repeatedly stressed the positive attitude of his country towards it – if certain provisions were to be fulfilled, such as the mutual respect for territorial integrity. The country has already recognised the new realities regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, despite protests from some of its own citizens.


But is Azerbaijan even inclined to peace? Or might they execute their apparent position of strength further and try to invade Armenia itself? This question has sparked various discussions, especially in regard to the so-called “Zangezur corridor”, a project aiming to establish a connection between Azerbaijan and the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan through the Syunik region located in southern Armenia. The project is strongly supported by Turkey, as it would facilitate trade between the two partners. Armenia is not incrementally against the project, but fears that Azerbaijan might use military force to implement the corridor. Former statements made by President Aliyev, who in 2021 stated that Azerbaijan would implement the corridor, “whether Armenia likes it or not”, contribute to this attitude. Although he later revised this statement, and other Azeri officials are now stating that the corridor might as well be realized in cooperation and through the territory of neighboring Iran, many citizens in the neighboring country treat any statements made by Azerbaijan regarding the implementation of peace with suspicion.


Other voices take a more positive stance regarding the future between the two countries and argue that a window for achieving peace might just have opened – the first in a long time. Such statements, however, mostly seem to come either from Azeri officials or experts that are said to be affiliated with Baku, leaving the question open as to if these statements serve as a way to conceal other, less peaceful intentions. For now, it is yet to be seen if any of these pledges will transform into actions. Although both sides continue to reiterate their commitment to peace, there has been little to no progress towards a solid peace agreement since fighting ceased. No surprisingly, both countries put the blame on each other – mistrust remains high. In early October, Azerbaijan refused to attend a planned meeting that was supposed to take place in Granada with the EU, France and Germany at the table, rejecting the proposed format altogether – as France has in the past supplied weapons to Armenia. On the other side, Armenia has so far rejected any dialogue formats that include Russia.


And even if the two governments would agree with each other, what about their respective populations? Will the Armenians who fled Karabakh ever accept that their home is now part of Azerbaijan? And will the Azeri population be satisfied with any agreement or demand even more concessions? Is a reconciliation between both groups possible, and are the respective governments really inclined to achieve this? In general, it remains unclear in which direction this rather complex and evolving situation might develop – but a serious approach to peace and a long-lasting cease of hostilities is yet to be seen.


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