[The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan represents the longest-running conflict in the former Soviet Union. At the center of the dispute is the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. More recently, and emboldened by its gains during the 2020 war between the two states, Azerbaijan has occupied territory within Armenia and escalated its demands for a peaceful settlement. To get a better understanding of this conflict Kylie Broderick, Jadaliyya Managing Editor, interviewed former senior United Nations official Hasmik Egian].
Kylie Broderick (KB): Why are Armenia and Azerbaijan in conflict?
Hasmik Egian (HE): The roots of the conflict were planted during the early years of the Soviet Union, which incorporated both Armenia and Azerbaijan as constituent republics. It has revolved primarily around the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, known to Armenians by its historical name, Artsakh. An autonomous region with an Armenian majority located within the territorial borders of Azerbaijan, disputes about its disposition erupted into armed conflict in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse during the early 1990s. More recently Azerbaijan, emboldened by the substantial territorial gains made during the war it instigated in 2020, has raised new demands unrelated to the status of Nagorno-Karabakh as conditions for achieving a peaceful settlement,
During the formative years of the Soviet Union its Commissar for Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, decreed that the Autonomous Oblast (region) of Nagorno-Karabakh, more than ninety per cent of whose population consisted of Armenians, would form part of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. The Autonomous Region of Nakhichevan, with a majority Azeri population and large Armenian minority, was similarly declared to be part of the Azeri Soviet Republic, although it is an exclave bordering Armenia, Iran, and Turkey that shares no borders with Azerbaijan.
Stalin’s nationalities policy was motivated by a desire to strengthen central control over the Soviet periphery. Thus, in regions like the South Caucasus and Central Asia arbitrary borders were often drawn through territories inhabited by particular ethnic groups to bolster a divide-and-rule strategy. While the Soviet Union had kept a lid on the resulting territorial disputes and grievances, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies of “perestroika” (reconstruction) and “glasnost” (openness) during the 1980s saw the re-emergence of these grievances.
In February 1988, the regional government of Nagorno-Karabakh conducted a referendum on secession from Azerbaijan and unification with Armenia. Approximatelyeighty per cent voted in favour, reflecting the ethniccomposition of the region at the time (eighty per centArmenian and twenty per cent Azeri). Both Moscow and Baku refused to recognize the referendum.
On 20 February 1988, tens of thousands of Armenians demonstrated in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, to demand that it join Armenia, and mass demonstrations soon spread to the Republic of Armenia. On 22 February, Moscow fired the Communist Party leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Azeri, and replaced him with an Armenian. This was an effort to placate the region’s Armenian population, which for decades had harboured grievances on account of discrimination by the Azerbaijani authorities.
Several days later, on 27 February, Azeri mobs in Sumgait, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, unleashed a three-day pogrom against its Armenian residents. According to official Soviet data, twenty-six Armenians were killed; unofficial estimates put the figure in the hundreds. (The Armenian population in Sumgait was estimated at about 17,000 prior to the pogrom. Today there are none). In March 1988, Moscow sent troops to Yerevan and Stepanakert to put an end to the Armenian demonstrations that had erupted the previous month.
On 10 December 1991, amidst the USSR’s dissolution, the Armenians of Artsakh held a second referendum, this time for independence from Azerbaijan rather than unification with Armenia. It was approved by 99.98 per cent of Armenian voter. Nagorno-Karabakh’s Azeri population boycotted the vote.
With the demise of the Soviet Union and independence of its fifteen constituent republics, and with the status of Artsakh still unresolved, Azerbaijan in early 1992 launched a war to seize uncontested control over the Nagorno-Karabakh. Its inhabitants were supported militarily by the newly independent Republic of Armenia. At the conclusion of the conflict in mid-1994, which became known as the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, Armenians were in full control of the entire enclave, as well as seven adjoining Azerbaijani districts and the mountainous passage that links Nagorno-Karabakh tomainland Armenia known as the Lachin Corridor. A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in May 1994. The ferociousconflict resulted in thousands killed, hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides displaced, as well as massive destruction of civilian infrastructure and livelihoods. For thefollowing twenty-six years until 2020, Nagorno-Karabagh remained a frozen conflict punctuated by periodic ceasefire violations and outbreaks of fighting, the gravest of which was in April 2016. This left Nagorno-Karabakh in legal limbo, with the Republic of Artsakh standing, de facto, independent but internationally unrecognized.
On 27 September 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Azerbaijan unleashed a surprise large-scale military assault on Artsakh. On the strength of massive weapons transfers, including advanced drones, from Turkeyand Israel, Azerbaijan was able to make extensive territorialadvances. On 9 November 2020 Russia brokered a ceasefire. The trilateral agreement, combined with Azerbaijan’s military gains secured for Baku not only the recovery of the districts lost in the first Karabagh war, but also swathes of territory within Artsakh itself. A 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force was deployed to patrol the rest of the region and most notably, the Lachin Corridor. Areas not physically controlled by Azerbaijan, populated by about 120,000 Armenians, remain governed by Armenian local authorities of Artsakh.
Overall, the 44-day war in 2020 war was a devastating setback for both the Armenians of Artsakh and Armenia. In addition to massive destruction of infrastructure, population displacement, human suffering, and thousands killed, there is documented evidence of the erasure of Armenian culture, churches, monuments, and architecture in areas of Nagorno-Karabakh captured by Azerbaijan. (Similarly, no trace of the Armenian population, or of its cultural and religious heritage are to be found in Nakhichevan today). Hundreds of Armenian POWs continue to be held by Azerbaijan for leverage in negotiations.
The November 2020 ceasefire brokered by Russia was not apeace treaty. It ended the fighting but left the sources of the conflict unaddressed. Although realities on the ground have been altered considerably in Azerbaijan’s favour, neither the war nor the ceasefire agreement resolved the underlying question: the political status of Artsakh.
KB: What is Azerbaijan seeking to achieve in Nagorno-Karabagh and in its relations with Armenia? And what are Armenia’s objectives on the issues that have arisen in the conflict with Azerbaijan in recent months?
HE: President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has been raising the stakes for a peace settlement with Armenia by widening the scope of the conflict beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. Emboldened by his country’s 2020 military gains, and intoxicated by its rapidly-developing transactional relationship with the European Union (EU) since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine – a relationship largely motivated by the EU’s quest for alternative natural gas supplies, as well by the rock-solid support offered by Turkey and Israel, Aliyev has opted for a coercive strategy and resort to brute force rather than negotiations with Armenia or the de facto Armenian local authorities in Artsakh.
Since May 2021, Azerbaijan has been launching regularmilitary attacks against Armenia proper. It is currently occupying some 215 square kilometres within Armenia as ameans of exercising pressure on Yerevan to submit to Baku’sdemands on a host of disputed issues relating to relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s military aggression against a neighbouringsovereign state has gone uncondemned by the international community, including the European Union, in stark contrast to the latter’s strong position on the war in Ukraine. Seeing to terrorise and demoralize the Armenian population, and breaking its will to fight, Azerbaijan has released video recordings of its soldiers summarily executing Armenian prisoners of war, as well as at least two instances of the rape, mutilation and killing of Armenian women soldiers – all war crimes under international law.
A key Azerbaijani objective is control of an overland passage to the exclave of Nakhichevan, with which Azerbaijan shares no boundary. In addition to Armenia and Turkey, Nakhichevan also shares a border with Iran, making it a strategically valuable outpost with which Azerbaijan canleverage its relations with Israel and the US.
While the 2020 ceasefire agreement stipulates the opening of all economic and transport links, and Armenian guarantees of secure transit between Azerbaijan and its Nakhichevan exclave, Azerbaijan insists this entails a “corridor”, without any customs or regulatory inspections, running through the sovereign territory of Armenia’s southern province of Syunik. Armenia, sticking to the “transit routes” specified in the wording of the agreement, has argued that access to its existing road system complies with its obligations.
A further Azerbaijani objective concerns the demarcation of the border between the two states. This has been closed since the early 1990s, as has Armenia’s border with Turkey, sealed by Ankara. The latter was opened, briefly, in February 2023 for the first time in thirty-five years to allow for the delivery of Armenian humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Turkey.
Azerbaijan’s two-pronged aggression against Armenia proper and the Armenian population of Artsakh has escalated further in recent months. In The Economist’s 2022 annual “Democracy Index”, Azerbaijan is ranked 134 out of 166 and categorised as “authoritarian”. According to Freedom House it has a “highly restrictive” civic sector, with a score of 1 out of7 for democracy indicators. Yet the Aliyev regime conjured up a movement of “eco-activists” to occupy the Lachin Corridor for nearly five months starting on 12 December 2022, on the pretext of protesting the adverse environmental impact of gold mining by Armenian companies.
Ilham Aliyev, it may be recalled, inherited Azerbaijan’spresidency from his father, Heydar, a former KGB officer who led the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan from 1969 until 1991 and then independent Azerbaijan until his death in 2003. In 2017, his son and successor Ilham created the post of Vice-President, duly appointing his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, to the position. In 2012 Aliyev was named “Person of the Year” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The 2016 Panama Papers released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) provided a fuller accounting of the Aliyev family’s elaborate money-laundering and corruption schemes, that among other activities reportedly included the covert funding of prominent European politicians to curtail criticism of the regime in Baku and burnish its image.
The complete blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the lifeline connecting the 120,000 Armenians of Artsakh to Armenia,has inflicted enormous humanitarian suffering; amidst harsh winter conditions, gas and water supplies were additionally cut off. Azerbaijan signalled its true intentions on 23 April 2023, when it replaced its “eco-activists” with two military checkpoints. This move effectively made the blockadepermanent, a direct violation of the 2020 ceasefire agreement. The Russian peacekeepers, while the only force that stands between the Armenians of Artsakh and Azerbaijanis occupying the Lachin corridor, have not acted to prevent these developments.
The date of the installation of Azerbaijani military checkpoints was also hugely symbolic for the Armenians, as it came on the eve of the 108th commemoration of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey. President Aliyev has offered Artsakh Armenians the choice between self-inflicted ethnic cleansing by leaving the region, suicidal submission to the will of Baku, or starvation and death. Despite a provisional decision by the International Court of Justice on 22 February 2023, ordering Azerbaijan to “take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions”, to date Azerbaijan has refused to lift its blockade.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government in Armenia, which came to power in the country’s 2018 “Velvet Revolution” and subsequent democratic elections, finds itself in a tight bind on all fronts – internally as well as externally, and with very limited options for manoeuvre. The second Nagorno-Karabagh war of 2020, with its colossal losses in Armenian lives and territory in Artsakh, were a heavy blow to his authority. Even if the roots of Armenia’s 2020 losses lie in the bankrupt policies of his predecessors, Pashinyan has been left “holding the bag”. Though he won re-election in 2021,both Pashinyan and his government continue to face severe criticism, even by his less arduous critics, for being weak and ineffective, particularly with respect to the country’s handling of Azerbaijan’s repeated armed aggressions and the status of Nagorno-Karabagh.
In trying to de-link Nagorno-Karabakh from the host of other issues in dispute with Azerbaijan, the Armenian government today no longer refers to the Armenians’ right to self-determination in Artsakh. Rather, it argues for guarantees for the rights of the autonomous region’s Armenian population. Armenia’s proposal for the creation of an international platform to oversee direct talks between Baku and the de-facto Armenian authorities in Stepanakert has been repeatedly rejected by Azerbaijan. At the same time, Azerbaijan’s threats to establish an extra-territorial corridor through Armenia’s southern province constitute a red line for Armenia.
KB: What role has Russia played, and to what extent is the current crisis related to the war in Ukraine?
HE: Russia, the traditional powerbroker in the South Caucasus, has seen its role diminished, whether by choice or by circumstance, since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Ironically, only two days before that invasion Russia and Azerbaijan signed a wide-ranging bilateral agreement in Moscow, which Aliyev gleefully declared “brings our relations to the level of an alliance”. This “alliance” seems to have secured for Moscow Azerbaijan’s absence from United Nations General Assembly votes on resolutions condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine, as well as Baku’s role as“middleman” to channel Russian gas to Europe, thus bypassing US and EU sanctions on Russia. Aliyev has every reason for his increasingly bellicose posturing, having contributed to the neutralisation of Russia’s primacy in the region. The 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh on the basis of the November 2020 tripartite agreement for an initial period of five years has by-and-large been impotent – again, either by choice or circumstance – as it has simply observed Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor unobstructed, save for the occasional facilitation of emergency medical or humanitarian movements to and from Armenia.
There are rising suspicions, and a loss of trust, among Armenians with regard to Russia’s agenda in its dealings with the parties to the conflict. This has been compounded by the refusal of the Russian-led security alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), of which Armenia is a member, to even condemn Azerbaijan’s repeated military aggressions against Armenia proper since May 2021, let alone come to its defence as required by the Treaty. The trust-deficit between Russia and Armenia widened further when Armenia invited an EU civilian mission of unarmed observers to be deployed on the Armenian side of Armenia-Azerbaijan border to “contribute to stability in the border areas of Armenia, build confidence and human security in conflict-affected areas, and ensure an environment conducive to the normalisation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan supported by the EU”. The 100-strong EU mission was deployed to Armenia on 20 February 2023 on a two-year mandate. A smaller iteration of a similar EU mission was redeployed from the EU mission in Georgia to Armenia between October and December 2022. Russia has viewed these EU missions as attempts to undermine Russian influencein the region, with its Foreign Ministry stating that the EU mission would only further provoke "geopolitical confrontation".
KB: Are other parties (e.g. US, EU, Turkey, Iran) playing a significant role in the crisis, either through mediation or other forms of involvement?
HE: Since 1992, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Minsk Group Co-Chairs France, Russia and the United States have been mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan, without success, to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh. In 2007, the Co-Chairs proposed a framework, known as the Madrid Principles, for the peaceful settlement of the conflict. Armenia brought the document into public debate with an overall favourable position. The fundamental principles that framed the Madrid document, namely self-determination of peoples and the peaceful resolution of disputes without resort to armed force, did not sit well with Azerbaijan, while it held on to the only other basic principle of the framework – the territorial integrity of states.
In broad strokes the Madrid Principles proposed a phased redeployment of Artsakh Armenian forces from areas captured during the war, with a certain number of parallel actions from both sides; an interim status for the region, with guarantees for security and self-governance; a twenty-kilometer wide corridor linking Armenia to Artsakh; future determination of the final legal status of the region through a legally binding referendum; the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping mission.
The EU is not the only player that in 2022 scurried to fill a perceived geopolitical opening in the South Caucasus where Russia has historically played a dominant role. The EU lost most of its credibility among Armenians following the slavish public declarations by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praising her new autocratic best friend Aliyev as a “reliable partner” on account of his supply of non-existent surplus natural gas supplies that partly originate from Russia.The EU civilian mission’s inability to have any visible impact on the conflict after repeated Azerbaijani aggressions within the territory of Armenia and the Lachin Corridor siege has further diminished the EU’s credibility.
The final months of 2022 witnessed heightened bilateral engagement with the parties to the conflict by both France and the United States, including a one-off visit to Armenia by the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, that was more of a PR exercise than anything else. In early May 2023 the US State Department facilitated bilateral talks between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, which despite the buoyant pronouncements of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken were unable to produce even a joint communique. If the history of the region over the past millennium serves as a precautionary tale, Armenia’s salvation is unlikely to be found in either a rupture with Russia or an expedient reliance upon the geopolitical opportunism of parties outside the region. One only needs to look at the map, as well as lessons drawn from developments in its neighbourhood in this century, to understand this point.
Turkey’s critical support of Aliyev’s regime, demonstrated by its effusive military and economic assistance during the 2020 war, has not wavered. To the contrary, it has grown by leaps and bounds. Similarly, Israel, which is reported to provide seventy per cent of Azerbaijan’s weapons in return for substantially discounted oil supplies, came out heavily on the side of its ally during the 2020 war. In March of this year, Azerbaijan upgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel by opening a full-fledged embassy in Israel (which has had an embassy in Baku since 1993). Israeli-Azerbaijani ties date back at least three decades, and have deepened over time. Azerbaijan has craftily exploited its geographical position as Iran’s neighbour. Perhaps for similar reasons, consecutive US administrations have since 2002 waived Congressional banson weapons supplies to Azerbaijan put in place in the early 1990s. Russia has historically provided large volumes of military supplies to both parties to the conflict, though it will need to be seen if this will continue given its difficulties in Ukraine.
Iran has drawn its own line in the sand with Azerbaijan, in the face the latter’s overt incitement of the sizeable Azeri ethnic population in Iran and especially Azerbaijan’s threats to establish a corridor through Armenia’s southern province which would sever transportation routes between Iran and Armenia. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, visited Kapan in Armenia’s Syunik Province in October 2022 to open a consular mission, announcing that any change to the nearby border was a “red line” Iran would take “all steps to resist”.
At the multilateral level, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by France, Russia and the US had been mostly defunct even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, owing to Azerbaijan’s longstanding efforts to side-line the mediators. The UN Security Council, having sporadically convened half a dozen meetings on either the 2020 Nagorno-Karabagh war or Azerbaijan’s subsequent aggressions against Armenia proper, as recently as December 2022 proved unable to muster even an anodyne press statement demanding Azerbaijan lift its siege of Artsakh. At the height of Azerbaijan’s 2020 war against Artsakh a half-hearted attempt to adopt a Russian-drafted Presidential Statement calling for a ceasefire was blocked, mostly by Security Council members who were also members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), at the time chaired by Azerbaijan.
KB: What are the likely scenarios for the coming period?
HE: If the recently concluded US-facilitated bilateral talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Washington are a good indication of the conflict’s near and medium-term prognosis, then it would be safe to venture that neither side is prepared or willing to make any concessions on the host of issues at stake. These comprise the status of Artsakh, including lifting of the siege on Lachin Corridor; border demarcation between the two states; and the opening of communication and transportation links in line with commitments made as part of the 2020 tripartite ceasefire agreement. Each party has drawn a line from which it neither can nor will move. For Armeniansas a people, whether in Armenia, Artsakh or the diaspora, there is a collective conviction that they today face an existential threat the magnitude of which they have not confronted since the 1915 genocide. No government in Armenia could survive the real or perceived abandonment of the Armenian population in Artsakh, or concessions in response to Azerbaijan’s threats to impose by force an extra-territorial corridor through the country’s southern province.
All indications point to Azerbaijan’s determination to achieve its objectives through coercion and armed force. Unless there is a uniform effort to stop this by the OSCE Minsk Co-Chairs – France, Russia and the US, another military aggression by Azerbaijan is looming. Given the venomous rhetoric among these players around the war in Ukraine, we are unlikely to see significant preventive efforts to stop a new war between the two states.
With no one to stop it, Azerbaijan will continue to either occupy additional strategic territory within Armenia, or refuse to remove its troops from those lands it has already seizedsince May 2021. While doing so, it will also continue its shopping spree among the various negotiating platforms on offer – from Moscow to Washington to Brussels. After Washington earlier this month, Brussels is the next stop on 14 May and 1 June for a meeting between the Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyevfacilitated by the EU. As far as Nagorno-Karabagh/Artsakh is concerned, Azerbaijan considers this a settled matter by virtue of the outcome of the 2020 war. This notwithstanding, Aliyevhas a lot riding on the upcoming Turkish elections. His bromance with Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once again on full display late last month when he rushed to Istanbul to visit his ally on the news of the Turkish president having fallen ill. While there, Aliyev threw his full support behind Erdogan in its vital 14 May national elections, thus placing all his eggs in Erdogan’s basket. Apart from the optics of interfering in Turkey’s domestic affairs, this is not the safest bet for Aliyev in the event that the opposition candidate wins. Another slightly hopeful development to avert a renewed war in the South Caucasus is the recent thawing of relations between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which perhaps relieves some of the pressures on Iran and strengthens its hand vis-à-vis Azerbaijan.