After the devastating forty-four-day war fought between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh just last year, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s authoritarian ruler who has held power since 2003, has exploited every significant avenue possible to claim that the three-decades-old Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict concluded with a military and diplomatic victory by Azerbaijan. Aliyev is trying to avoid repeating the mistake of the Armenian leaders who failed to capitalize on their 1994 military victory to settle the conflict based on the Armenian perspective. Determined to force his vision of the conflict solution upon the defeated Armenian side, President Aliyev presents the tripartite declaration signed on November 10, 2020, between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia as a comprehensive peace agreement. This declaration, among other things, provided an immediate ceasefire, transferred the remaining districts under Armenian control to Azerbaijan, and aided the exchange of prisoners of war. Most importantly, this ceasefire introduced a substantial deployment of Russian security forces, acting as a peacekeeping mission, in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh still remaining under Armenian control as a result of the 2020 war. The declaration created a new status quo as Azerbaijan gained control over most of the disputed territory, but many questions are still unanswered, and the region’s future is all but decided. But Aliyev’s strategic unwillingness to accept this complicated reality does not negate the fact that the conflict is far from being resolved and that a durable solution is unlikely in the current geopolitical environment.
A Complicated History
The conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to the development and conclusion of WWI. Azerbaijan and Armenia both declared independence in 1918 and intended to establish nation-states based on clearly demarcated state borders and national territories defined by ethnic groups. But the preexisting cohabitation of ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis under Russian imperial rule complicated the drawing of state borders and resulted in what is known as the Armenian-Tatar War (Azerbaijanis were called Tatars in the Russian empire). The 1915 Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Turkey’s involvement in the South Caucasus after the end of WWI further complicated the interethnic landscape of the region as Turks and Azerbaijanis are ethnically related.
National aspirations for independent statehood, along with interethnic conflicts and violence, were both put to an end by the rise of Bolsheviks in Russia and the invasion of the Transcaucasian republics by the Red Army. The nationalist government of Turkey and the Bolshevik regime sealed the transfer of large swaths of the territory of the First Armenian Republic to Turkey through the Treaty of Moscow, which defined the border between Turkey and the Soviet Union and resulted in a strong sentiment of historic injustice among the Armenian people. Another disputed territory between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Nakhichevan, was put under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan as a protectorate. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was still inhabited by a large Armenian majority, was defined later by Stalin and became an autonomous oblast (a region in Russian) within Soviet Azerbaijan. The autonomous oblasts were special administrative units within the constituent Soviet republics created for territories that had a special national composition. These units were given some degree of political autonomy and had their own state organs, but were subordinated to the Union republics.
While many think and treat the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as an ethnic conflict beginning in 1988 during the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union, the roots of the conflict date back to the period between 1917-1920 and to Stalin’s decision to hand the region to Soviet Azerbaijan. The final collapse of the Soviet imperial rule in 1991 allowed for the outbreak of a large-scale war between the Armenian forces of Nagorno Karabakh and newly independent Armenia on one hand and Azerbaijan on the other. While the “question of Karabakh” came to light thanks to the peaceful protests by Armenians about discrimination and anti-Armenian policies, asking the Soviet government to consider the peaceful transfer of the region from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia, it soon turned violent. Political demands of Armenians from Karabakh to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were met with violent anti-Armenian massacres in large Azerbaijani cities such as Baku, Sumgait, and Kirovabad. An exodus of Armenians from Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh started homogenizing populations in both countries.
As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, interethnic violence turned into war, which formally ended in 1994 with the signing of a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement between the representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In September 1991, the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan based on the region’s Soviet-era boundaries. At the signing of the 1994 ceasefire agreement, Armenians had achieved a surprising and unconditional victory in military terms, acquiring control over not only the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in its Soviet-era borders but over seven surrounding Azerbaijani districts. Azerbaijani residents were forced to leave these districts, and these regions collectively became known as the “security belt” around Nagorno-Karabakh. The rationale on the Armenian side was that this belt would act as a fortified defensive line against possible Azerbaijani aggression.
An Issue of National Identity and Pride
President Aliyev intends to avoid the mistake of Armenian leaders who failed to consolidate and leverage their victory on the battlefield after the first war. In the case of Azerbaijan, the preferred solution today is to convince the world that the conflict no longer exists due to Azerbaijani officials considering the military and the diplomatic victory of 2020 as ending the question of Karabakh. Aliyev is making every effort to translate military victory into diplomatic victory by shutting any international pressure to restart negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh. Although the Armenian side had a very significant advantage in terms of military victories after the first war which ended in 1994, it agreed to an international framework for negotiations to settle the conflict in a peaceful manner. Today, Azerbaijan’s oil-based financial resources and the unconditional backing of Turkey’s Erdogan allow the Azeri autocrat to withstand pressure from the international community and continue his belligerent rhetoric and policies. Aliyev intentionally frames the 2020 Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement, under which Azerbaijan regained control over the seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and a large portion of the region itself, as a peace treaty in a desperate attempt to kill any effort of relaunching negotiations to find a long-term solution to the conflict and define the status of the Armenian-inhabited region. Aliyev claims that Azerbaijan has “solved the conflict militarily” and that Nagorno-Karabakh as a political unit no longer exists.
Aliyev holds his own political goals and understanding of the conflict, but the reality drastically differs from the Azerbaijani perspective. Due to the territorial changes stemming from the 2020 war, the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains unclear and unsolved. Azerbaijani forces established military outposts after entering sovereign Armenian territory under international law last spring. This provocation has resulted in heightened tensions and border clashes along the new line of contact. Simultaneously, many Armenians returned to the territory that remained under Armenian control after the war, and where Russian peacekeepers stand as the guarantor of the security and ceasefire. According to the ceasefire agreement, the Russian peacekeeping mission will last five years, with either party holding the right to decline further extension of the mission. Despite the speculation that Russia, Armenia’s strategic ally, intends to stay in the region for a long time and establish a permanent military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey’s unconditional support for Azerbaijan and the heightened tensions between the West and Russia makes such a prospect unlikely. The question of what will happen once the Russian involvement concludes (which in reality is more of a military intervention to guarantee the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and simultaneously serve Moscow’s geopolitical interests in the region) makes the prospect of a future war loom large.
Armenia’s victory in the first Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994 brought unprecedented joy and pride to a nation that has historically suffered under imperial rule. The victory was regarded as a special moment in Armenian history, which ended a centuries-long pattern of national decline, defeat, and tragedy with what was perceived by Armenians worldwide as the liberation of a historically- and ethnically-Armenian region. This special victory went hand-in-hand with the contemporary national struggle for independence and statehood, widely viewed as restitution for the many past injustices endured by Armenians, spanning from the genocide by Ottoman Turks to the loss of territories of the First Armenian Republic. Although Armenians often fail to accept it, this holds true for Azerbaijan as well. Azerbaijan first appeared on the political scene of the world in 1918, with ethnic Azerbaijanis simply known as “Caucasian Turks” or “Caucasian Muslims” prior to the second half of the 19th century. Unlike Armenians who had survived and preserved their national and religious heritage despite the imperial conquests of Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Russians, the Azeri population lacked a strong national consciousness, making the issue of Karabakh crucial to its development, along with nation-building efforts. The fact is that the Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan both arose from Soviet domination with a fresh sense of national identity: Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Roadblocks to a Lasting Settlement
Maximalist expectations remain one of the largest obstacles obstructing the achievement of a durable solution to the conflict, both in high-level negotiations and in terms of broader societal expectations. Compromise is seen as a betrayal by both sides and no side wants to make territorial concessions. The Armenian side had an advantage for quite a long time, but the question of territorial concessions was a dire one. Before the status quo changed in 2020 when Azerbaijan regained control over the seven surrounding districts and captured roughly 30% of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, even mentioning the transfer of lands won in the 1990s to Azerbaijani control was seen as treason within Armenian society. The Nagorno-Karabakh talks were largely secretive and no substantial details were made available to the public, aiming to limit uproar in highly passionate environments. At the same time, an entire generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis grew up without any kind of contact with each other. Azerbaijan and Turkey blockaded Armenia due to the conflict, and all communications were shut since the first war in the 1990s.
This lack of contact and communication has only heightened the animosity between the nations and made the political settlement of the conflict more complex. On the Armenian side, things are complicated by the close ethnic connection of Turks and Azerbaijanis (Azeris are often referred to as “Turks” in Armenia). The fears of Armenians, for whom the memory of the genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks is still fresh, are exacerbated by the newly forming deep bond between Turkey and Azerbaijan. The leaders of these countries now talk of a “one nation, two states” formally which confirms the Armenian perspective.
An even bigger problem is the extreme anti-Armenian rhetoric, policies, and measures which have defined the current Azerbaijani regime’s policies. Although distrust and antagonism are mutual between the two nations, the authoritarian regime of Ilham Aliyev has aggressively promoted hatred and racism among the Azeri public and encouraged violence against Armenians. For example, any person regardless of citizenship or birth, who has an Armenian or Armenian-like last name is barred from entering the territory of Azerbaijan. More horrifying examples include the heroization of Ramil Safarov, who axed an Armenian soldier in his sleep during a NATO English-language program in Hungary. Safarov was pardoned by President Aliyev, promoted in military rank, and awarded with a free apartment paid by the state for his heinous crime.
The 2020 war was also full of episodes showcasing the course that the Azerbaijani government has taken in regard to Armenians. Videos of ethnic Armenians一both civilian and military personnel一 being tortured, mutilated and humiliated brought back the memory of the Armenian genocide and the anti-Armenian massacres in Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In one video, two Armenians were beheaded by Azerbaijani troops. While international organizations have confirmed that civilians from both sides have suffered during the war, the degree of heinous and inhumane treatment of Armenians by Azerbaijanis has been outstanding and unparalleled. And in the latest showcasing of state Armenophobia in Azerbaijan, President Aliyev himself unveiled a war trophies park in the center of the capital Baku where helmets of killed Armenian soldiers, as well as racist and Armenophobic caricatures, were displayed. Aliyev seems to enjoy the humiliation of the Armenian side by laughing and poking fun at Armenian PM and by continuing to exert psychological pressure against Armenia through threats and military provocations. Instead of taking real steps towards normalization of relations to ensure peace and stability, the euphoria of Azerbaijan’s victory has blinded President Aliyev’s rational thinking. He is committing the mistake that has already been made in the past: thinking that the new status quo is the final victory. The history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict suggests the opposite.
The New Status Quo and the Future of the Conflict
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, contrary to what the Azerbaijani President may believe or argue, still exists. The humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh has not been resolved as many Armenian refugees are still waiting for answers and assistance from the government of Nikol Pashinyan in Armenia, which bears a large share of responsibility for failed negotiations, the humiliating Armenian defeat in the 2020 war, and is widely accused of deliberately mishandling the war effort. The question of the Armenian prisoners of war still in Azerbaijani captivity has yet to be resolved despite the recent call by the European Parliament of their “immediate” and “unconditional” release. President Aliyev continues to talk about peace with Armenia, yet calls Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh “dogs.” Meanwhile, Azerbaijani troops attack the sovereign borders of Armenia. Aliyev keeps pushing his false narrative of history calling proper Armenian territory, such as the capital Yerevan or the southern region of Syunik, “historic Azerbaijani lands” and threatening war as his government negotiates to buy $2 billion worth of weapons and military equipment from Israel.
A long-term solution to the conflict in this situation is highly unlikely. With so many questions unanswered一the refugee crisis, the illegal trials of Armenian prisoners of war, the promotion of interethnic hatred, unclear borders, and the ambiguity regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and its indigenous Armenian population to name a few一peace and stability seem increasingly unattainable. Compromised, incompetent in foreign relations, and facing an unprecedented political crisis at home, the so-called “revolutionary” regime of the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, which gave Aliyev a reason to start a war due to the mishandling of international negotiations of Nagorno-Karabakh, can do little to restart the negotiation process as Armenia has essentially lost its leverage and seat at the negotiating table and severely compromised it sovereign decision-making through the stationing of Russian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinyan and his “revolutionary” regime, which rose to power in 2018 as a result of mass protests demanding the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan after ten years of rule, were quick to discard the legacy and policies of the predecessor governments and to start the negotiation process from “a new point” in order to reach a solution “which would be acceptable for the peoples of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan” in Pashinyan’s words. However, Pashinyan, enjoying widespread domestic support largely thanks to his populist charisma, ended up jeopardizing the negotiation process mediated by the OSCE Minsk group. The miserable failure of multilateral diplomacy and the extremely poor handling of the war effort during the 2020 war has led to widespread accusations of incompetence and treachery at the highest level. As with his other policies, Pashinyan’s actions have achieved nothing and have instead contributed to the radical change in the status quo of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which now makes a sustainable solution more unlikely than at any other point during the negotiation process from 1994 until 2019.
In the meantime, President Aliyev refuses to give up his long-time anti-Armenian standing to bridge the gap between the two nations. Aliyev seems to enjoy the humiliation of the Armenian state and nation, laughs and pokes fun at the Armenian PM, and continues to voice new threats and make provocative moves while simultaneously advocating peace and stability. Instead of taking real steps to ensure peace, stability, and normalization of interethnic relations, Aliyev seems to repeat the same mistakes that the sides have made in the past: thinking that the page of conflict is turned and that the status quo is unchangeable. The same thinking prevailed among the Armenian leadership and elite in the wake of the 1994 victory, and the same thinking prevails among the Azerbaijani ruling regime today. Only Aliyev himself proved that the status quo is indeed changeable, and there is no guarantee that Azerbaijan will emerge victorious next time as well.
The only route to stability, peace, and a durable solution to this conflict is through compromise, compassion, and acceptance that both sides have interests and their truths. But the road begins with a genuine interest in ending the conflict in a respectful, mutually acceptable, and decent manner in accordance with international law and basic principles of interstate relations. The future of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and the Armenian-Azerbaijani ethnic conflict in general now depends on Azerbaijan: Armenia has virtually lost its seat at the negotiating table. The defeated and humiliated regime of Pashinyan, accused of treason and incompetence, has made “the opening of a new era of peace” its central goal despite Azerbaijan’s increased belligerence, military aggression against Armenia’s borders, provocative actions and claims, and continuing Armenophobia. Because of the government’s inability to act and incompetent handling of not only the war effort but also of the post-war situation, Armenia has little to offer today. From the warring parties, Azerbaijan holds the key to conflict resolution today. This means that Azerbaijan now bears the most responsibility for the course that the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict will take.
Before any long-term solution can be negotiated, Azerbaijan must unconditionally release all Armenian POWs who are being held and tried in Azerbaijan on false terrorism charges. Azerbaijan must formally commit to preserving the Armenian cultural and religious heritage in areas under its control, especially given its record of the cultural destruction and falsification of history to accommodate the country’s maximalist stance on the issue. The policies of radical Armenophobia and new provocative territorial claims against Armenia proper by Aliyev and his regime must be given up. Instead of increasing the psychological warfare against Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and promoting interethnic animosity, Azerbaijan must launch a constructive discourse and give up its goal of gaining control over the entire Nagorno-Karabakh land devoid of any physical or cultural Armenian presence. Most importantly, any proposal for a lasting solution must define the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh in its Soviet-era borders regardless of the military control of the area and guarantee the right to self-determination of the indigenous Armenian majority of the region.
These are not easy choices for the winning side, but anything short of such commitments is bound to result in renewed hostilities and new crises. Unfortunately, the need for a genuine interest in achieving a long-term solution to the conflict means that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will not be solved unless both Pashinyan’s crawling regime in Armenia and Aliyev’s dictatorial regime in Azerbaijan are replaced. New competent governments, familiar with the nuances and complexities of the conflict, must come to power to alter the current course of the conflict. The new regimes have to share a new and clear vision of regional order in South Caucasus devoid of excessive influence by great powers and with a firm commitment to peace and stability through constructive discourse and acceptance of each others’ national interests and the significance of Nagorno-Karabakh for both nations. Given the centrality of the state in people’s lives in both countries, a historical legacy from the Soviet era, the reset of relations must come from the top. Regime change in both countries is indispensable for the real steps to peace and final settlement of the conflict to be taken. Otherwise, war will return to Nagorno-Karabakh and it is not clear which side will be the one laughing. As the Russian saying goes, “the last laugh is better than the first.”