Will there be lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh?


The guns have finally silenced after the most recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Apparently, in only 40 days, Azerbaijan achieved what it had been struggling for over 30 years. The first Nagorno-Karabakh war started as an ethnic and territorial conflict that took place from the late 1980s to May 1994, in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in south-western Azerbaijan. The war was fought between the majority ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, who were backed by Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan, who were part of the Soviet Republic. Azerbaijan was attempting to curb the secessionist movement in Nagorno-Karabakh while the enclave’s parliament had voted in favour of uniting itself with Armenia and a referendum, boycotted by the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh, was held, whereby most of the voters voted in favour of independence.
With the disintegration of the USSR, the conflict became more violent and inter-ethnic clashes between the two broke out shortly after the parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) in Azerbaijan voted to unify the region with Armenia on 20 February 1988. Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union and got rid of the enclave’s government. On the other side, the Armenian majority voted to secede from Azerbaijan and in the process proclaimed the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In early 1992, full-scale fighting erupted and despite international mediation by various groups, the hostilities continued. In early 1993, Armenian forces captured regions outside the enclave itself, raising the alarm bells for their neighbours. When the war ended in 1994, the Armenians were in full control of the enclave (with the exception of the Shahumyan Region) in addition to surrounding areas, most notably the Lachin Corridor — a mountain pass that links Nagorno-Karabakh with mainland Armenia. Russia brokered a ceasefire in May 1994, but failed to have a peace treaty signed. Resultantly, the Nagorno-Karabakh area was left in a state of legal limbo, with the Republic of Artsakh, another name for Nagorno-Karabakh Republic remained de-facto independent but internationally unrecognized while Armenian forces controlled approximately 9% of Azerbaijan’s territory outside the enclave. Sporadic fighting continued in subsequent decades while various attempts to broker peace by different international organizations including the UN and OIC failed to get the desired results.
The current conflict between the oil-rich Caspian nation of Azerbaijan and its impoverished, resource-poor neighbour and long-time enemy, Armenia began on the morning of 27 September 2020 along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact. This time, heavy artillery, armoured warfare, rocket attacks, the use of drones and cluster munitions along with ballistic missile attacks on civilian populations alarmed the world in general and the neighbouring countries in the region.
Russia managed to convince both sides to call a truce, putting an abrupt end to the six-week-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Resultantly, Azerbaijan got what it had been fighting for on the desolate, sun-parched hillsides and at diplomatic conferences for almost 30 years.
According to the Russia-brokered truce, Armenian forces will withdraw from the territory they still control within Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan will keep all the areas it recaptured since the conflict flared up on September 27, including Shusha, the region’s second-largest city, known to Armenians as Shushi. Russian peacekeepers will guard a route linking Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
While euphoric Azerbaijani crowds celebrate their “victory”, the Armenians face humiliation because they agreed to give Baku a new transit corridor through southern Armenia to Azerbaijan’s southwestern exclave of Nakhichevan. Armenian Prime Minister NikolPashinyan’s government is plunged into a political abyss because enraged protesters stormed into his residence, the parliament building and pillaged government offices, demanding his resignation.
Armenians are incensed because they feel their government capitulated and there may be coup attempts. There are chances that if the West-leaning Pashinyan steps down, his successor may resume the conflict, some observers warned but the chances of that will reduce with Russian peacekeepers being deployed there.
Irrespective of whether Pashinyan is forced to step down or continues in power, many Armenians consider the new peace deal long-term and stable. They opine that even if there is a change in government, the successors will stick to the terms of the peace agreement.
The peace deal has raised the prestige of Russia in the South Caucasus region. For the last two centuries, Russia had been gradually annexing Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, which were the stronghold of the Ottoman Empire. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, Moscow has been endeavouring to establish its clout in the South Caucasus.
It backed separatists in two separatist provinces in Georgia, recognizing their independence after the 2008 war with Georgia and installed sizable military contingents there. Moscow already has a military base in Armenia, and the arrival of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and southern Armenia will mean all three ex-Soviet nations of South Caucasus will host the Russian military.
Landlocked and resource-stricken Armenia had been reaching out to the EU but received limited response. In 2013 it sought to clinch a free-trade deal with the EU but at the last minute, opted to join the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-dominated bloc of ex-Soviet nations.
The new deal let Armenia boost exports to Russia and gave Armenian labour migrants working there a chance to avoid bureaucratic hurdles. Observers opine that the multimillion Armenian diaspora has strongly supported Russia’s role in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and its influential members openly call for Pashinyan’s removal.
It may be recalled that former publicist Pashinyan came to power after a series of peaceful protests in Yerevan in 2018 that were dubbed “the Velvet Revolution”. The protests toppled the government of Sargsyan, a native of Nagorno-Karabakh and one of the leaders of the so-called Karabakh Movement of the late 1980s that tried to convince last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to make the Armenian-dominated Azerbaijani enclave part of Soviet Armenia.
Three earlier truces brokered by Russia, France and the United States, collapsed within hours but the Russian sponsored deal is likely to hold and give peace a chance.