A man in a military jacket stands next to his car in the Naltankha neighbourhood in Khachmaz, in the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, on Oct. 11, 2018. (Emrah Gurel/Reuters)
For Nagorno-Karabakh’s dueling sides, living together is ‘impossible’
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the May-June 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs. It has been reprinted with permission.
Nothing dispelled the illusion of a ceasefire more than the declaration of a new one last June. “We will keep the ceasefire,” the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia said at a ceremony at the Madrid peace talks. The stakes are high: the continued breakaway of Nagorno-Karabakh, a small, disputed territory of Azerbaijan, after decades of fighting, threatens to revive the patterns of a civil war from the 1990s. The long-awaited peace deal that came out of that conflict 11 years ago still hasn’t delivered hope that the conflict can be solved diplomatically. Today, as far as the two warring sides are concerned, the conflict is not only about territory, but about people.
For Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh’s connection to Nagorno-Karabakh-Azerbaijan Republic is not just a land dispute. It is the source of life and identity. For Azerbaijanis, in contrast, Nagorno-Karabakh’s remaining disputed territory and its 3.2 million inhabitants are the result of an illegal occupation. It is for this reason that many of their compatriots, especially in the south of the country, have begun taking up arms against each other, with scores of people killed during clashes last summer.
The presence of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the peace talks only raises hopes of creating a durable, equitable solution. Yet no one is in a position to play a decisive role. An impartial international presence, aside from the local powers, would be needed to support a cease-fire, a viable government and a modern border. A compromise would also need to be hammered out on the fundamental problem of historical reconciliation, which not only creates territorial lines, but also sees the warring parties interact as partners, not former enemies. For now, the only bright spot is the international support that almost all countries and communities are extending to “the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” as the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, put it recently. That support needs to be translated into action, but it remains politically difficult in all but two countries: Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Declining Violence of a Territory That Won’t Go Away
The conflict will not end soon, unless both sides decide to ease up on the arms and gestures of war. The two sides must now commit to peace. A number of ideas — and the practical applications — already have been floated by the international community, most notably a cease-fire and the establishment of a border so that restoration of social relations would be easier. Others, most importantly in Armenia, call for the creation of a realistic mediation mechanism, with a more active role by Russia and the EU, as well as more involvement of Turkey.
However, it seems unlikely that the two sides will make a real effort to resolve the conflict. On the contrary, their strategy has clearly shifted from one of war to conflict resolution. Analysts suggest that Azerbaijan cannot return to the war that ended in 1994, as an intense security context continues to exist for separatists there. Yet Azerbaijan is only going to play a minimal role in the international mediation process, since it is committed to continuing to protect its enemies and seeks a state resolution. Meanwhile, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has continued to deteriorate, with the cost of living getting worse and the rising number of clashes occurring, as fighters continue to receive money and arms from outside.
Now, whenever there is a flare-up, Russian troops and a few hundred local Azeri troops are dispatched to the region — just as was the case in 2015 and 2016. As such, the international community’s support to the conflict resolution process is eroded. “The costs of a military response to the violence are too high,” states Astrakhan (Russian Far East), which has the largest Armenian population in the Russian Federation. The regime’s position was reiterated by Russia in July after a handful of clashes.
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