The Karabakh update: New realities, new opportunities
Azerbaijan launched a lightning operation on September 19, retook control of Karabakh and held initial talks with representatives of its ethnic Armenian population for the first time on reintegrating the area back into the country. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev vowed that the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region will be protected. The victory, ending a conflict that lasted for more than a century, and the reconstitution of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity surprised the international community as Aliyev used a strategic time as the West and Russia were busy with the conflict with Ukraine. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led security alliance comprised of six post-Soviet states – a group that pledges to protect members in case of an attack. However, Moscow seems to have acquiesced to the operation as the Russian forces stationed at the scene of conflict did not act to halt Baku’s undertaking. Yerevan, a former Soviet republic pursuing an increasingly Western-oriented approach, and joint military drills with Washington this month built up to Russia’s antagonism toward the regime in Armenia.
The only downside of this new reality is that it threatens the survival of the Nikol Pashinian government. The Armenian leader has been realistic and conciliatory in seeking a solution to the conflict and pursuing the rights of Armenians. Following Azerbaijan’s operation, he announced Thursday that “There is no imminent threat against civilians in Karabakh” – a statement that reflects the reality despite the ongoing disinformation campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” in the region. Meanwhile, a normalization process also continues with Türkiye. The aftermath of the operation saw protests against and calls for the resignation of the Armenian leader.
Moreover, the inflow of Karabakh’s Armenian population to Yerevan will impact domestic politics as well as further economic strains on the landlocked country. Similarly, Pashinian faced domestic unrest and pressure in 2020 over signing a deal with Azerbaijan. His seat being endangered by the recent developments would be a loss for the region and the opportunities that await.
The conflict in the Caucasus was one of the international issues in which diplomacy failed. Karabakh saw years of tensions, skirmishes, military buildup, off-and-on periods of calm, as well as two previous wars. The third war lasted only 24 hours. So why has diplomacy failed?
The Minsk group, throughout the years, came up with several proposals for a solution. Both the “package deal” of 1997 under which a Permanent Joint Commission (PJC) would be established with one Azerbaijani, one Karabakh and one representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), as well as the proposal of 1998 suggested for Karabakh to be a “state-territorial formation in the form of a Republic” as part of Azerbaijan. The territorial formation would have its own constitution, flag and anthem, as well as direct external relations with foreign states in economic, trade, scientific, cultural, sporting and humanitarian fields. It was rejected. In 2007, the Madrid Principles were put forth, namely the evacuation and demilitarization of the territories surrounding Karabakh, an interim status for the region providing guarantees for security and self-governance, a corridor linking Armenia to Karabakh, future determination of the final legal status of the region through a legally binding expression of will, 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 operation. 2009 saw small changes in the text, yet the principles were still criticized by both sides and found unsatisfying. They failed to restore Baku’s sovereignty in the region. Furthermore, as can be seen from the proposals, the main failure of the Minsk group is to have tried to incompatibly incorporate both the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan while pushing for self-determination of the region. This time, the solution to a decadeslong conflict would come through force.
Where does Türkiye stand?
Ankara has been a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity since the beginning of the problem. Although not having direct impact on this month’s operation, Ankara has for years cooperated with Baku on military training while providing defense industry cooperation, of which the Turkish drones were especially decisive in the second Karabakh war when Azerbaijan retook most of Karabakh and seven adjacent regions. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the first leader to visit Karabakh following the 2020 victory. Now, again following the recent conflict, he paid a visit to Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan enclave, which is separated from the rest of the country. I was part of the presidential delegation that followed the visit, which signals the next chapter in the South Caucasus.
As Baku is on the one hand engaging in efforts to redevelop and rebuild infrastructure and institutions in Karabakh – long-neglected – it eyes to create the Zangezur corridor that would be a bridge between the enclave and the western regions of Azerbaijan. Erdoğan’s Nakhchivan visit was, therefore, no coincidence. Opportunities emerge for actors in the region, including for Türkiye and Iran. The corridor, once established, will have three main outcomes: It will further strengthen bilateral and trade ties between Ankara and Baku, enable Türkiye to reach the Turkic world directly, and, on a larger scale, connect Europe to Central Asia.
Armenia has been a sticking point in the issue. Although the Russia-brokered agreement signed by the sides after the second Karabakh war guaranteed the corridor, Yerevan has been reluctant to allow it. Azerbaijan envisages the corridor to pass through southern Armenia at its border with Iran. Yet, Armenia fears it would disrupt its connection with Iran, which has been a lifesaver to the landlocked country with few natural resources whose border with Türkiye has also been closed for years. In the face of Armenian reluctance, talks have been ongoing with Iran as an alternative route that could surpass Armenia and establish a corridor through Iran. Positive signals are coming. Still, having been isolated for years, Armenia should not miss this opportunity for further integration in the Caucasus that would benefit the country in multifold areas while opening the way for renewed positive diplomatic and trade ties.
This article was originally published on Daily Sabah on September 28, 2023.