Karabakh: How to Break Deadlock?

Stepanakert/Khankendi, Karabakh © Reza Deghati

Since 1988, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been in conflict with one another. This enmity has caused two major wars and innumerable military skirmishes. Many people were killed as a result, and thousands more were driven from their homes. For 34 years, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have discussed the necessity of putting an end to the conflict. However, it has been 34 years and there is no peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The 34th anniversary of the conflict does, however, have one unique feature: for the first time in history, in 2022, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to work on a comprehensive peace accord that would end their conflict.

I can’t foresee when or where the peace treaty will be signed, but I can tell you what it should include. The deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan that will be signed should, like any other peace accord, put an end to the parties’ current disputes and create a framework for their settlement. But what are the disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

If the disagreements are to be conceptualized, then it may be said that two nations currently hold dissenting views on five issues. Future of the interstate relations is the first. Diplomats and politicians in Baku and Yerevan as well as in other capitals are currently developing scenarios for the future of relations between these two foes. Here, the choice is not a binary — to normalize or not to normalize. Instead, it is about two states recognizing one another’s very existence — i.e., territory, people, and sovereignty. Even though many people may find this matter to be too abstract, it is of special importance for the state-centered system of international relations.

The second concern is the location of the two states’ future borders. There have never been any peaceful border interactions between independent Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both countries’ administrative borders were established during the Soviet era, although they never appeared as physical borders and solely served just markings on Soviet-era maps. The third issue, which is the future of transportation and communication links, is logically related to the first and second issues but calls for a different classification. To be more exact, it is about the future of the routes that Azerbaijanis will use to travel from Zangilan to Nakhchivan through Armenia and Armenians currently use to travel from Yerevan to Stepanakert/Khankendi.

The fourth topic is more humanitarian in nature. To give examples: Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) and hostages kept in Azerbaijan, the fate of missing persons, and areas polluted by hundreds of thousands of landmines. The parties are at odds over the fate of the Azerbaijani (Muslim) cultural heritage in Armenia and the fate of the Armenian religious-cultural sites in Azerbaijan. The future of Armenians living in Karabakh is the final subject. Armenians of Karabakh had ethno-territorial autonomy within Soviet Azerbaijan for 70 years. But the military victory over Azerbaijan in the 1990s changed their modus vivendi: Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts became part of ‘augmented Armenia’.

One of the five subjects mentioned, the future status of Armenians in Karabakh, has very deep roots. A diplomat from Armenia once said that “the conflict started with status and will end with status.” There are two questions ingrained in the term status itself. (1) Who should be in charge of the area? (2) How should the area be controlled? The ultimate moment never emerged, despite the fact that Armenia and Azerbaijan have occasionally come close to settling on similar answers to these two issues in the past.

Due to the existence of two opposing national concepts, the parties were unable to reach a consensus on the subject of status throughout these years. The existence of the Azerbaijani population in Karabakh, particularly in the mountainous region, is denied by the Armenian national concept. The primary objective of this national concept is to have the “nation-state” founded at the expense of Azerbaijanis’ expulsion recognized internationally. Laurence Broers calls this ‘nation state’ augmented Armenia — which goes beyond the UN-recognized Armenia and covers Azerbaijani territories that were cleansed from ethnic Azerbaijanis.

Before the Second Karabakh War, in 2019, Armenian Foreign Minister’s spokesperson Anna Naghdalyan said that “Nagorno-Karabakh never consisted of two communities, it was always Armenian”. For Armenian politics, what Naghdalyan said was neither unusual nor exceptional. Both Armenian and Karabakh Armenian leaders have frequently indicated since the beginning of the conflict that they are, to put it gently, “skeptical” of the return of Azerbaijanis to Karabakh.

On the other hand, the Armenian community does not fit into the national vision of an independent Azerbaijan. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to argue that the rejection and denial of the Armenian national concept serve as the foundation for the Azerbaijani concept. Armenians are seen by the Azerbaijani national concept as a people who were brought by the imperial power to the Caucasus and have always had “traitorous intentions” toward Azerbaijanis.

Maragha, a former Armenian village which is now mostly in ruins and is situated close to the Azerbaijani city of Tartar, has lately gained popularity. The monument known as “Maragha-150” was built in 1988 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Armenians from Iran in the South Caucasus is the cause of its reputation. A number of articles were written, and frequent visits to this memorial were arranged by the Azerbaijani government. The main objective is pretty clear — to demonstrate that Armenians are not “native” to Karabakh.

However, it is not just Armenia and Azerbaijan that have such national doctrines rooted in hatred and denial. Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Palestine, and other places where there have been violent conflicts have similar situations; in some ways, though, they were bloodier than the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Experts in resolving conflicts utilize various strategies to resolve disputes if there are national notions based on such mutual negation. According to political thought, liberal approaches seek to coexist these notions while illiberal approaches strive to uphold one idea at the expense of the other. The latter approach supports genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities as a means of resolving conflicts. I will not discuss them here since I don’t think they are mentally stable solutions.

In an ideal world, the establishment of ethno-territorial autonomy in Karabakh may be seen as a solution to the conflict between the Armenian and Azerbaijani national concepts. However, the world is far from perfect. The fact that the world is imperfect is not the sole barrier to this solution. The world was far from ideal when the Dayton Accords, which put an end to the Bosnian conflict with its roughly 100,000 casualties, was signed in 1995. The formation of ethno-territorial autonomy is now ineffectual due to a number of causes.

First off, not a single political group in Azerbaijan is willing to share power with Armenians from Karabakh. Acknowledging the presence of a different flag in one territory is not the only aspect of ethno-territorial autonomy. This is the transfer of some political and economic power from the central government to those who have autonomy. Second, the vast majority of Armenians in Karabakh are not prepared to accept the short-term direct authority of Baku. The resident of Kolkhozashen/Arpadüzü village in Karabakh says, “I will die, but I will not live under the control of Azerbaijan,” and many, if not all, Karabakh Armenians agree with her.

Thirdly, it will take time for political thought to change before the ‘augmented Armenia’ that has existed de facto for 30 years can be abandoned. The concept of Azerbaijani nationhood and statehood itself has to change as well. The fourth is more geopolitical in nature. Saying that Russia, which has roughly 2,000 troops stationed in the region, is not interested in ending the conflict would be rehashing an old excuse. Clichés, however, may require reiteration.

So what to do?

Even though a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan is far from perfect, one exists. These two nations are capable of avoiding the nightmare of a third war with the help of innovative thinking, political resolve, and tenacity. Using little imagination I have; I offer a two-stage proposal for resolving the Armenians of Karabakh’s status issue. Before diving into the specifics of my plan, I should clarify that it is far from the ideal solution because (1) it is beyond my power to resolve a protracted impasse and (2) a settlement proposal cannot be fully articulated in two or three pages. My sole goal is to start a dialogue with the expectation that it will be fruitful in the long run.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict served as my inspiration in a positive sense. This conflict shares many similarities with the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict despite the differences in context and legal issues. A few of these parallels include demographic shifts brought on by migration, ethnic cleansing, occupation, and illegal settlements.

Nevertheless, despite the conflict’s deadly past and animosity, there have been a handful of achievements in its history. One of these achievements is the Oslo Accords, which were negotiated by Norway and the United States and signed in 1993. I propose that the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is currently thought of as the mandate zone of the Russian peacekeeping forces, should be divided into three sections in the first stage (10–15 years), resembling the configurations set by the Oslo Accords:

A Zone — will contain communities where Armenians made up the majority of the population according to statistics from the Soviet era. In this case, the status quo will be maintained in terms of governance, meaning that these settlements will continue to be controlled by de facto authorities without any type of political reorganization. As it does today, A Zone will continue to function outside of Azerbaijan’s legal authority. The “Artsakh Defense Army” will be disarmed and disbanded, and local inhabitants will make up an armed police force that will enforce the law. The only source of security will continue to be the peacekeeping force.

B Zone — will include settlements where Azerbaijanis made up the majority of the population according to statistics from the Soviet era. To be more particular, I am referring to Khojaly city and 40 other villages that had an Azerbaijani population prior to the First Karabakh War. The laws of Azerbaijan will be followed for governance in zone B. Restrictions will be imposed on the deployment of the Azerbaijani armed forces and other armed units in the territory of zone B. A peacekeeping force will provide the area’s security guarantee.

C Zone — will include the corridor that runs from Hin Shen/Kichik Galadaresi village to the Lachin district’s borders and into Armenia. Passport holders from both Armenia and Azerbaijan will be able to access this corridor without restriction. No habitations will be permitted in the corridor zone. To prevent any detours, installing crossing turnstiles with Artificial Intelligence (AI) support at the entry and exit of the corridor can assist in data collection without human touch.

Ethnic composition of NKAO prior to the First Karabakh War © @GoldenHopeful

By ensuring the coexistence of two diametrically opposed national concepts, this model’s primary objective, which would initially span a period of 10–15 years, is the establishment of negative peace, or the absence of conflict, in the region. With the aid of this approach, Armenians in Karabakh will be able to preserve their own governance and stay in their own residences without coming under Baku’s direct authority. With A Zone being able to obtain its energy, water, and other needs from the Azerbaijani state, this concept also sought to institutionalize communication between Armenians of Karabakh and Baku.

Azerbaijanis living in Karabakh will be able to return thanks to this approach. Even though contacts between zones A and B are crucial, it should be done with extra caution in the beginning. People registered in one zone can only enter another zone with permission from the peacekeeping force in order to avert potential incidents. On the other hand, the joint use of the Armenian dram and Azerbaijani manat can considerably contribute to the development of trust. Weekend bazaars can be planned with extra security to encourage people-to-people ties. Additionally, the completion of the railway from Aghdam to Stepanakert/Khankendi and the inauguration of the Khojaly airport could improve relations between the former “foes.”

The significance of peacekeeping forces serving as the sole provider of security in the area is reaffirmed by this concept. Not only should peacekeeping troops not be withdrawn in 2025, but it should also be thought about how to enhance and broaden their operations. Expanding the country makeup of the current peacekeeping contingent can, in part, prevent the game of politics from undermining the regional peace processes. The study of civilian missions conducted by the European Union in various crisis zones might be used as an example in this regard. The security umbrella in the area can be significantly strengthened by an EU civilian mission. The EU is a relatively privileged actor in the region: it is regarded as fairly impartial by both sides.

Since freezing the status quo cannot be regarded as the ultimate solution, as I have stated, this plan should be treated as the first stage. This plan hopes that sustainable peace will be more likely to be achieved by creating negative peace in the region at the initial stage. To be more precise, this approach seeks to return the region to 1988, the year the conflict began; not to start a new war but to start a new era of peace. This plan aims to offer Armenia and Azerbaijan some room to breathe and time to make changes. Accepting that an augmented Armenia cannot exist and that Karabakh Armenians have a place in Azerbaijan’s ethno-political structure will be helpful in the interim. After this period is up, all sides will need to come to a definitive understanding of how they perceive the future of Armenians in Karabakh within Azerbaijan. The objective is to test the coexistence model while averting the third war until then.

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Shujaat Ahmadzada

Shujaat Ahmadzada

University of Glasgow — IMCEERES (20–22) | Independent researcher