What is next for Nagorno-Karabakh?

armenian flags

By: Jacco van der Veen

Picture credits: RG72 – wikimediacommons

The war in Ukraine has come to define the headlines concerning international conflict. However, other conflicts, whether active or protracting, have continued all over the world. One of such conflicts is that in Nagorno-Karabakh. Following a rapid, and highly successful invasion in autumn 2020, Azerbaijan seized large parts of territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, finally resulting in a fragile ceasefire, largely relying on Russian peacekeepers. The JASON Institute, having paid special attention to this conflict at the European borderlands, spoke with officials, including the Foreign Minister of the widely unrecognised ethnic Armenian Republic of Artsakh, Davit Babayan, and Armenian Ambassador to the Netherlands Mr. Tigran Balayan. 

Some weeks ago, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan visited the Netherlands. His visit did not go unnoticed, with both pro- and anti-government protesters letting their voices be heard. The official visit to the Netherlands came in the lead up to a much-anticipated meeting in Brussels. At the invitation of European Council President Michel, Pashinyan met with Azerbaijani President Aliyev to discuss a potential peace settlement. 

THE delicate position of the current Armenian government – re-elected earlier this year with a majority of the votes – echoes the position that the Armenian nation as a whole finds itself both within the Caucasus and in the wider world. The aftermath of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War has left the future of the largely unrecognised Armenian-populated republic of Artsakh in jeopardy.

A Settlement for Peace?

PRIME Minister Pashinyan has declared his intentions to find a peaceful solution to the long-lasting conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and has made safeguarding the rights of the ethnic Armenian his priority over the return of territory. Hardliners in Armenia, but also within the Armenian diaspora, have protested against this line of the government, which was re-elected in 2021. The Armenian government’s position followed news concerning human rights abuses that include extrajudicial executions took place in the now-Azeri controlled areas of the region.

ARMENIAN Ambassador to the Netherlands, Mr. Tigran Balayan remains cautious “I have seen positive messages, and even joint declarations by President Aliyev for decades. What is important however, is what we have on the ground now. Exactly one month after the ceasefire in 2020, Azeri forces broke it again by capturing two villages, without international backlash or repercussions. Of course, I would love that at least 50% of the provisions in the EU council will be implemented. However, there is a real chance. We have stated for a long time that we are ready to negotiate, and that the terms from Azerbaijan are acceptable for us.”

A week ago, Azerbaijani President Aliyev repeated his earlier claims that there is no Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and that the issue is resolved. Ambassador Balayan: “They [the Azeri] are the only ones who believe this. Many countries, including the United States, have called upon Azerbaijan to withdraw from the positions. But they just ignore it, and where are the consequences?”

ARTSAKH Foreign Minister, Davit Babayan when speaking about peace stated: “This conflict practically does not have a solution, and it might be the most difficult conflict in the world. A compromise does not work because it touches upon very deep phenomena, especially concerning Azerbaijan. For that, the history of the region is very important. Azerbaijan itself is the result of a geopolitical great power struggles of the 20th century. The most important hindrance today is Azerbaijan’s ethno-political situation. Within contemporary Azerbaijan, there are many ethnicities, comprised of Turkic, Iranian, Dagestani, and other groups. Several other peoples living inside of Azerbaijan today have desires for autonomy similar to Artsakh, these are the Avars, Lezgins and Talishes. This makes the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh so complex, at the moment that Artsakh can have autonomy, these other groups will also claim autonomy. This is a stalemate situation that does not have solution. The only option is providing stability and settle conflict, but not a peace.”

WHEN asked about the current situation, and how this is experienced by the Artsakh government, the Foreign Minister answered “The situation here is quite specific. After the first war, we have now a very different geopolitical reality. This was a very hard and very difficult war as for the first time we did not only face Azerbaijan, but also Turkey and various mercenary groups. Artsakh stood for forty-four days against this overwhelming force. We lost 80 percent of our territory, Artsakh has not been so small in its entire history, we are practically unable to defend ourselves at this point, which is why we have the Russian peacekeeping force as the main guarantor of peace and security. Without them, a new war would be a matter of several minutes. In this situation, Azerbaijan is frequently violating the ceasefire agreement.” 

DELVING deeper into the wider implications of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Babayan resumed “This is not just a concentrated conflict on Nagorno-Karabakh alone, as for Azerbaijan this is a conflict between them and Armenia. Thus, it is a much broader conflict that includes territorial claims over Armenia, including capital Yerevan. We have not seen an appropriate international response to this. It is a very hard thing to confess that now we have entered an era of ‘naked geopolitics’ and the entourage of human rights, democracy, rule of law, and the rule that an autocratic state cannot invade a democratic state, has now evaporated, unfortunately. It is definitely a crisis of values. The question is if these values were really ever at the core of international politics, or just a pretext. If values are selective, then there are no values. The world would be much more stable if there is a value-based approach. With pure geopolitics, we will see a further degradation and more violent conflict. It is a hard blow to realise that now we have these pure naked geopolitics, but at least now it is much clearer and more honest.”

Backlash from Ukraine

WITH the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an important ally of Armenia has become a designated pariah for the West. Armenia, meanwhile, maintains good relations with the United States and many European countries. As Russian peacekeepers are crucial for the maintenance of the very fragile ceasefire within the Nagorno-Karabakh region, this new geopolitical reality may have significant consequences for the future of the Caucasus region.

WHEN asked about the effects of the war in Ukraine, Ambassador Balayan responded “What is happening in Ukraine is very negative for us. Azerbaijani officials are theorising that a Russian defeat in Ukraine will remove the peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh, and we see on the ground that it is happening. The sanctions will have an impact on Armenia as well because the Russian economy is hyperconnected with that of Armenia as its main investor and trading partner. Many Russians live in Armenia, and many Armenians live in Russia. But not only in Russia, also in Ukraine and some have become victims of this conflict. It is difficult to be an ally of Russia in these circumstances”

“HOWEVER,” the Ambassador resumed, “Azerbaijan is also regarded as an ally of Russia, President Aliyev signed a partnership declaration with President Putin. Russia is the country which provides existential physical security to Armenians in Artsakh, and to Armenia itself because we are under existential threat from Turkey as well.”

WHEN reflecting on the future, Ambassador Balayan concluded “I do not know how this will end but we abstained from the UN vote, because we favour diplomacy. It is our firm belief that this conflict should be resolved peacefully, and we hope that the Russia-Ukraine negotiations will yield results as soon as possible.” 

FOREIGN Minister Babayan went in-depth into the conflict in Ukraine, which he sees as an example of the naked geopolitics of today’s world. “What happens in Ukraine is a conflict between the West and Russia. We have entered this era of naked geopolitics. This is why the Russians consider Ukraine’s stance to join NATO to be an existential threat. There is no space anymore, no geopolitical vacuum. Everybody should be ready for this type of response, including a nuclear response, because they have in mind that they need to save their country because a failure in Ukraine will be, in their mind, the destruction of Russia. This is very dangerous. I told European Parliament members months ago that a war between Russian and Ukraine would be imminent, and they did not believe me. We have to look at the world without ideology and PR, and when I say that the nuclear arsenal can be used it is not a fantasy. The world has entered the most dangerous period in its history. There is no vacuum and there are no naïve leaders who will be willing to take a step back.”

On the importance of the Russian presence for Artsakh, the Foreign Minister explained “our country looks like a person who lost one of his legs, one of his arms, an eye and has a wound in his heart. We are in a difficult situation, tomorrow there can be no Stepanakert or Nagorno-Karabakh, or I could be killed. We must save our country at all costs, and we cannot serve the interests of other countries because we see that nobody came to our aid. We have to calculate who can assist us in saving Artsakh. Europe is unable to do so, and before the US can intervene, Artsakh will already have lost. The Russian peacekeepers are the only ones who right now can prevent a new invasion. Russia is a fraternal country, but that does not mean that the US is our enemy. We have friends among the nations, and we can maintain fraternal relations with Russia, the US, Ukraine, France, and Iran. The Armenian diaspora is strong in all these countries, and we have our own interests: that of the Armenian people. This is why we do not adopt a zero-sum policy, but we want good relations with both Russia and the West.”

The Future: A Conclusion?

It is beyond a doubt that the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh remains thoroughly complex. The viewpoints of both Ambassador Balayan and Foreign Minister Babayan underscore this once again. On the one hand, talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan are continuing, and a ceasefire appears to continue to hold a very delicate peace. The current Armenian government claims to be fully committed to reaching a peace. On the other hand, the situation on the ground does not reflect promises made and should invite caution rather than optimism. Artsakh, meanwhile, whilst already unrecognised by the international community, faces an existential crisis in losing its status as a de facto state. It must be hoped that the dire warnings of Foreign Minister Babayan are heeded, and serve as an incentive to strive for peace, even in circumstances such as these. 

What the future will bring for Nagorno Karabakh is unknown. Though the geopolitical situation may be described and perceived to be ‘naked geopolitics’, the core values that have emerged after the ruins of the Second World War should remain pivotal and should guide the decisions made by our leaders. 

The JASON Institute strongly believes in the free and open exchange of ideas, especially in times of conflict. Therefore, we wish to thank both Ambassador Tigran Balayan and Foreign Minister Davit Babayan for their time and for enabling us to hear their views and experiences. We have reached out to representatives of the Republic of Azerbaijan for a comment but have not received a response. 

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