Path to Peace in the South Caucasus – Part One
Two years after the Second Karabakh War how is the peace process proceeding in the South Caucasus? Quo Vadis Pax Caucasia?
To assess this we should first look at the positions of the respective parties.
Armenian and Azerbaijani Positions
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan made a significant statement to the Armenian Parliament on 14 September 2022:
“We want to sign a document because of which many people will criticize us, scold us, call us traitors, they may even decide to remove us from power, but we will be grateful if as a result Armenia will have lasting peace and security in an area of 29,800 square kilometres. I clearly state that I will sign a document that will ensure that. I am not interested in what will happen to me, I am interested in what will happen to Armenia. I am ready to make tough decisions for the sake of peace.”
The Armenian Prime Minister’s reference to the “29,800 kilometres” is important because it is the size of the present Republic of Armenia. It therefore excludes claim over the old Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and surrounding territories of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces after the First Karabakh War of the early 1990s.
In an interview on Armenian state TV broadcast the day before the Geneva bilateral peace meeting of 2 October, Pashinyan stated further that “no one is ready to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, just as no one is ready to recognize Karabakh as part of Armenia. And we need to recognize this fact.”
Pashinyan was emphasizing to his critics within Armenia and Karabakh that the region was universally recognised as a sovereign part of Azerbaijan and this was backed up firmly by international law. The only way this could be overcome was through military means and that was impossible for Armenia, which had lost a war only 2 years previous leading to the end of its occupation of Karabakh.
Pashinyan’s statement implied a recognition that the Karabakh Armenians are not part of Armenia. However, at the Sochi meeting the Armenian Prime Minister attempted to have a reference to a “future status” for Karabakh included in the statement, meaning something different was possible than the region being restored fully as an integral part of the Azerbaijan Republic.
The Azerbaijani position in the ongoing peace negotiations is contained in the Five Principles put forward in February 2022 and stated on 14 March 2022 at the Antalya (Turkiye) Diplomacy Forum by Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov. These are:
mutual recognition of respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inviolability of internationally recognized borders and political independence of each other;
mutual confirmation of the absence of territorial claims against each other and the acceptance of legally-binding obligations not to raise such a claim in future;
obligation to refrain in their inter-state relations from undermining the security of each other, from the threat or use of force both against political independence and territorial integrity, and in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the UN Charter;
delimitation and demarcation of the state border and the establishment of diplomatic relations;
unblocking of transportation and other communications, building other communications as appropriate, and the establishment of cooperation in other fields of mutual interest.
Speaking at the Congress of World Azerbaijanis, on 22 April in Shusha, President Aliyev reiterated that in the event negotiations do not result in a treaty based on the Five Principles Baku will respond forcefully against Yerevan:
“If they refuse,” he stated, “we will not recognize the territorial integrity of Armenia either and will officially declare that.”
This is a warning to Yerevan that Armenian military border actions against Azerbaijan would be responded to by operations that would take and hold strategic positions the Armenians regard as inside their territory – as recently happened in September. It also more significantly raises the historic issue of Azerbaijani-populated, but ethnically-cleansed, Western Zangazur, which was placed in the Soviet settlement of the 1920s within Armenia, but which Baku would view as a reopened territorial issue if Karabakh was not accepted as part of Azerbaijan by Yerevan.
Prime Minister Pashinyan knows Armenia is incapable of challenging Azerbaijan over Karabakh in the current circumstances and for the foreseeable future. He has therefore presumably opted to settle for the secondary aim of preventing Azerbaijan from achieving the victory of re-absorbing Karabakh. One way to do this is by offloading the Karabakh Armenians to “Russian protection” in order to deny Baku de facto its de jure territory. This possibility has the advantage for Pashinyan that he can wash his hands of the more intransigent Karabakh Armenians and remove them as an opposition and antagonistic element within the Armenian body politic. Pashinyan would then be able to concentrate his efforts on building an Armenian state on its current territory, without the Karabakh problem.
Failing that Pashinyan is probably aiming for achieving some form of autonomous status for the Karabakh Armenians – although that seems very unlikely given Baku’s strong opposition to recreating Nagorno Karabakh with an ethnic character in the post-Soviet era of nationalisms.
Azerbaijan’s position regarding territory is immensely reasonable. The Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was a Soviet construction aimed at solving the national problem between Armenians and Azerbaijanis within the Socialist context of the USSR. It’s resurrection in a world of capitalist nation states is wholly inappropriate. The Armenians by forcing 2 wars over the territory in a generation have emphasized the failure of the Socialist project of autonomous development, quite apart from the demise of the USSR. There is no going back to a construct that regenerates national antagonism, irredentism and war on a continual basis. It’s place on the map is over.
If the Armenians do not accept the established state borders and the settlement of the 1920s, which is recognized in international law, as the foundation of a settlement, then we are unfortunately back in the sphere of force. And that, as has been mentioned, opens the question of Zangazur which has not been on the agenda. That is not a welcome development as it will introduce a further destabilising factor into the existing conflict, sharpening it by implicating Iran which has a “red line” on the removal of its border with Armenia.
It should be said that Iranian opposition to the Zangazur corridor is not entirely to do with the fear of blocking its access to Armenia.
The Serbian political analyst Nikola Mikovich argues that:
“Iran understands that the corridor will connect Azerbaijan not only with its exclave Nakhchivan, but also with Turkiye, a regional rival of Tehran. If the corridor is built, it will give Turkiye a new land route into the South Caucasus, which the Turkish leadership is likely to use to boost its presence in the energy-rich region. In addition, Turkiye will get a shorter and faster route to Central Asian markets. Acquiring a transport platform to achieve a number of ambitious goals will definitely be a major geopolitical victory for Ankara. All of these events could seriously undermine Iran’s position in the region as they would end Baku’s transit dependence on Tehran, deprive the Islamic Republic of its monopoly on transit services in the South Caucasus region…”
With the border between Russia and Europe effectively closed, the South Caucasus route to Turkey, Iran, and beyond has gained a new significance. Article 9 of the Trilateral Agreement that ended the war in 2020, and was signed by Armenia, stated that:
“All economic and transport links in the region shall be restored. The Republic of Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to organize an unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and goods in both directions. Control over transport shall be exercised by the bodies of the Border Guard Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia.”
Baku interprets this as meaning that the road from western Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan, which will run through the southern Armenian region of Syunik (Western Zangazur) should have the same status as the Lachin Corridor from Armenia to Mountainous Karabakh. That is to say that it should be extraterritorial and shouldn’t be controlled by the Armenian authorities, with, Russian FSB/border guards performing this function instead. For Russia, this is an entirely acceptable option, as it would give Moscow control over the road linking Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkiye: a convenient alternative to the current communication links through pro-Western Georgia.
Armenia, however, sees this interpretation of the issue as a threat to the country’s sovereignty, especially as the corridor could impede Armenia’s transport links with Iran, which pass through the Syunik (Western Zangazur) region. It is therefore obstructing what it signed up to. Yerevan is supported on this issue not only by Tehran, which doesn’t want to lose control of its links with Armenia, but also, it seems, by the West, which would prefer not to hand over important communication links to the Russians. However, the West has a problem in that if it opposes Russian control it could bring about increased Iranian influence in Armenia, aimed at counter-acting Baku’s presence along the corridor.
The problem Pashinyan has is: can he achieve better relations with Turkiye in a society saturated with anti-Turkish sentiment? That is the great paradox: Armenia can only cease to be a military, economic and political dependency of Moscow by normalising relations with the state that it has demonised for a century. The independence that Armenia declared in 1991 can only be made into a reality through Turkish assistance, opening the road to Europe. And that can only be accomplished by an ending of territorial revanchism and a building of a functional independent state of Armenia composed only of its existing territory.
Dr. Pat Walsh, Historian and Political Analyst. Author of ‘Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus: Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis caught up in Geopolitics, War and Revolution’.