ZOiS Spotlight 22/2023

Why Nagorno-Karabakh Has Been Sacrificed and Why This Could Also Be an Opportunity

by Nadja Douglas 29/11/2023

After the exodus of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians from their home, international attention has moved on and their fate has received little attention. And yet, the new situation offers some unprecedented opportunities. Whether they can be seized depends very much on Azerbaijan’s next moves.

The Military Trophy Park in Baku contains war trophies seized by Azerbaijan during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Nadja Douglas

On 8 November, Azerbaijan held military parades in Baku and the town of Khankendi (known in Armenian as Stepanakert) in Nagorno-Karabakh to celebrate the new national Victory Day. On that date in 2020, Azerbaijan retook the historically significant town of Shusha and the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War ended.

Azerbaijan had waited many decades for this to happen. After Armenia’s defeat in 2020, seven territories in and around Nagorno-Karabakh were returned to Azerbaijan from Armenian occupation. As part of a long-term plan that began in December 2022, the Azerbaijani side isolated and starved the Armenian population of Karabakh by blocking its only lifeline with Armenia, the Lachin corridor. In April 2023, Baku installed a checkpoint in Lachin, and on 19 September it launched a swift military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh. Within two days, the Karabakh Defence Forces had surrendered and the de facto leadership had capitulated. By the end of September, most of the region’s ethnic Armenian population of over 100,000 had fled their homeland to seek refuge in Armenia.

The brief conflict in September was most likely the last act of the poisonous 30-year dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Now that Baku has regained sovereignty over the territory, it once again claims that the conflict is solved. Whether this takeover really removes the last obstacle to a final peace agreement between the two countries, however, remains doubtful.

The humanitarian tragedy that the Armenians of Karabakh have been living through, by losing their homes, ancestral land, and cultural heritage, has a partial parallel in the fate of the displaced Azerbaijani population that had to flee after their land was occupied by Armenia in 1992–93. The Armenian government has offered the Karabakh-Armenians refugee status, the ability to seek Armenian citizenship, and an allocation of financial assistance for all displaced people for at least a year. However, some fear that both the material and the moral support for the refugees could dwindle at some point.

International responses

The international reaction to repeated Azerbaijani incursions into Armenia’s border regions since 2021 and to the mass exodus of the Armenian population has been rather passive. While legislatures in the US and the EU have been vocal in urging Azerbaijan to cease hostilities and calling for an international mission and sanctions, executives have been unable or unwilling to adopt a common approach. The reason for the West’s inaction is twofold: Firstly, the desire to finally pave the way to peace in the region has prevailed over many other considerations in US and EU government circles. And secondly, economic considerations and Azerbaijan’s increasing influence on economic decision-makers in the West could have been decisive.

The greatest source of disenchantment for Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population was the complete abandonment of their cause by Russia. Armenians have for decades relied on Moscow as a key ally, which, in hindsight, they now recognise to have been a mistake. The Kremlin has failed them by effectively changing sides and seeking a new strategic alliance with Azerbaijan. While Russia criticised the Armenian government in August 2023 for recognising Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, the Kremlin did nothing to bring the territory’s status and autonomy back onto the agenda. Russia has not sacrificed Nagorno-Karabakh, as many believe, to punish Armenia and its current government for its Western course. Rather, the Kremlin has fallen victim to a reversal of relations with Azerbaijan: now it is Russia that is dependent on Azerbaijan for trade, transit, and re-exports, including sales of Russian gas to Europe.

As for Georgia as a regional actor, Georgians’ human compassion with the population of Nagorno-Karabakh is immense. However, politically, the Georgian government backed the Azerbaijani course because of Georgia’s own territorial conflicts. Tbilisi places high hopes on a tangible peace deal and has been proactively offering to facilitate peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan as an impartial mediator. According to Georgian experts, a peace agreement would offer new perspectives in developing the South Caucasus towards enhanced cooperation, the emancipation of external powers, and eventual regional integration.

Armenia is the party to the conflict that has incurred the most significant losses and can point to few wins beyond the preservation of its territorial integrity and the much-overlooked achievements of democracy, which are less cherished inside the country now than before the 2020 war. Yerevan was forced to abandon the cause of the Karabakh Armenians, because it could not afford another armed confrontation with Baku. Armenia has been under much pressure at the negotiation table but also worn down on the ground by repeated Azerbaijani incursions into its territory.

Peace in sight?

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have announced that a peace agreement is within reach. The two sides agreed on the three core principles of mutual recognition of territorial integrity, border demarcation, and the opening of transport links, with only ‘details’ remaining to be settled. Much now depends on Baku: whether it refrains from its ambiguous rhetoric, abandons for good the idea of establishing the so-called Zangezur corridor in the south of Armenia to connect mainland Azerbaijan with the exclave of Nakhchivan, and prepares in earnest to normalise relations with the Armenian side.

The path towards implementation of any agreement will be thorny. At this moment, renewed confidence-building measures are needed more than ever before. These measures could be initiated and financed by international donors, but unlike in the past, they should not include top-down expert talking shops. Rather, they should involve concrete measures that would alleviate the real problems of the populations affected by conflict: a policy of short-term visits and/or compensation schemes, water management in the border regions, mutual regular visits of cemeteries and cultural sites, and other forms of people-to-people contact. Money, time, and effort should be invested in earnest into meaningful projects to work towards a sustainable peace process in the region.

Dr Nadja Douglas is a researcher at ZOiS within the KonKoop network, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.