Karabakh Conflict Far From Over and Could Explode Again

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 39

Former Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan (Source: Axar)

Following the Moscow-brokered ceasefire and post-war declarations signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan that ended the 2020 Second Karabakh War, the international community has generally concluded three things. First is that the Karabakh conflict is over; second, that the benefits of reopening transportation routes are so great that all sides will be interested in seeing the provisions of these declarations realized; and third, that the likelihood of any new fighting between the sides is minimal, not least because of the presence of Russian peacekeepers on the ground (see EDM, October 13, 2020 and December 16, 2020). Indeed, former Armenian foreign minister Vardan Oskanyan writes that this “stereotypical view” has spread so widely that it is distracting attention from the real situation. Namely, he argues, the benefits spelled out within these trilateral declarations are far less likely to be realized than most think, and the danger that more fighting may eventually break out is far greater (Hraparak, March 6; IA REX, March 7).

Oskanyan’s words deserve attention not only because they undoubtedly reflect the views of many in Yerevan but also because they challenge what is the received opinion in numerous world capitals. More than that, his argument finds support both in the current difficulties the parties face and the increasingly obvious fact that the economic carrots laid out in the declarations as the reward for regional cooperation will not be realized for several years at the earliest. This offers a virtual invitation for those opposed to the current settlement to engage in actions to torpedo it, even if they are not in a position to achieve their own alternative goals.

In his article, Oskanyan argues that when “stereotypes are formed in the international community, it is very difficult to dispel them” by arguments alone. Sometimes these stereotypes benefit one side, sometimes the other; but they often stand in the way of understanding what is in fact going on. In the past, the Armenian side benefitted from some stereotypes, and that is why relative stability in the South Caucasus was maintained from 1994 to 2020. But now, new stereotypes have arisen that threaten Yerevan’s interests and must be countered before they block Armenia from achieving any of its objectives, Oskanyan asserts (Hraparak, March 6; IA REX, March 7).

The former foreign minister points to three new stereotypes that he says have emerged in the last few months: 1) a belief that “the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh has been solved, 2)” a conviction that “Karabakh is Azerbaijani territory” and that the issues facing Armenians living there are only about human rights, and 3) a certainty that “the time has come to look to the future.” The train powered by such views, Oskanyan says, has left the station and is gathering speed. To stop it, Yerevan must work in “three directions: diplomatic, military and international-legal.” Otherwise, Armenia and Armenians will find themselves marginalized to the point of lasting defeat.

To prevent that from happening, Oskanyan continues, Yerevan must argue that the November 2020 ceasefire declaration did not “reflect the desire of the Republic of Armenia but was the result of a situation imposed on it by military force,” and that no “status quo imposed by military actions can ever be the basis for long-term peace in the region.” Moreover, he adds that “the Armenian side has never and will never aspire to lands that do not belong to it but will defend those that do.” Finally, “the achievement of the rights of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to sovereignty on their land remains the chief task of the foreign policy of Armenia.”

According to Oskanyan, Yerevan must rebuild its military, launch an international diplomatic campaign by uniting Armenia, the Armenian diaspora and the people of Karabakh, as well as bring a maximum possible number of cases before international tribunals to challenge Azerbaijan’s most recent moves. Unless it does so, he says, “in the not-so-distant future, we will see the Nakhchivanization of the remnants of Artsakh [the Armenian name for Karabakh], the exodus of Armenians from Syunik [the Armenian name for the Zengezur corridor between Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan], and even the loss” of this region to Baku. That outcome would cut off Armenia from Iran and connect mainland Azerbaijan and Turkey by land.

However that may be, there are real and serious problems threatening both the ceasefire and the reopening of transportation links as detailed in the latter, January 2021, trilateral declaration. Ending a war is never easy. Problems always persist regarding the fate of casualties and prisoners, and questions are raised about compensation. But in this case, there are some more serious disputes that were not solved by real negotiations or a real agreement. Those outstanding issues, thus, call into question the optimism of the international community. Among the most critical of these is the continued role of Armenian military units in Karabakh. These units have entered into a symbiotic relationship with the Russian peacekeepers there (see EDM, December 8, 2020), even though Baku has demanded that they be withdrawn because, in its view, their continuing presence contradicts the November declaration (Doshdu, March 1, 2021).Yerevan has shown no interest in doing so, and Moscow is not pressuring the Armenians, thus leaving in place forces that could easily become another casus belli for Azerbaijan.

But an even more serious obstacle to any establishment of a lasting peace is the spreading fear that reopening transportation routes, something Moscow has promoted as central, is anything but a done deal. Earlier this month, for example, Armenia reacted with fury to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s use of the term Zengezur for the corridor that is slated to be opened between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan. Armenia saw that formulation as a move toward Azerbaijan’s seizure of what the Soviets declared and the international community recognizes to this day as Armenian territory (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 5; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, March 7). And the possibility of a new Armenian-Turkish railway seems farfetched given the attitudes of both sides at the present time (Stoletie, March 3).

Given all this, the risks that a new armed conflict will break out remain all too real, especially if the international community comforts itself with the notion that such an outcome is impossible.