Analysing Nagorno- Karabakh Conflict: Prospects and Challenges for Conflict Resolution

The recent six weeks war between Armenia and Azerbaijan started on September 27, 2020 and ended with a Russian-brokered peace deal on November 10, over the Nagorno Karabakh (NK) region. It was not a shocker considering the nature of their conflict cycle and the peace processes that have failed to bring down the ethnic hatred and territorial grievances of the conflicting parties.  The roots of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict could be traced back to the divide and rule policy of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the Caucasus after World War I during which the NK region was placed within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Unsuccessful demands of Armenia throughout the Cold War period had led to the mass deportation of ethnic Azeris from Armenia. It was only after Mikhail Gorbachov’s “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” policies and the disintegration of USSR, that the Armenians residing in the NK region started demanding their right to self-determination. After Armenia and Azerbaijan got independence from the USSR, the conflict escalated into an armed confrontation. The confrontation resulted with the seizing of the NK region and the seven districts by Armenia. Azeris residing in the seven districts and the rest of the NK region were expelled to Azerbaijan.

Peace Processes and their Gaps

The peace process is an umbrella term that includes peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. The process helps to transform the conflict’s negative energy into a constructive one through long and short-term peace initiatives. However, in Nagorno Karabakh, almost a 30-year long peace process, primarily mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also known as the Minsk Group has been unsuccessful in producing results. It could not bring the conflict parties to a settlement or even bring their hatred down. Initially, it was so due to Russia’s dominating behaviour of leading the negotiations and OSCE’s failure of getting Russia on board with its negotiation process. For instance, during the 1994 negotiations, the Western members of the Minsk Group and Russia started two parallel talks. It resulted in the exploitation of the two different peace proposals by the conflicting parties. Budapest Summit was convened, to fill out the peace gap, which declared Russia as the co-chair of the Minsk Conference which was mandated to finalise the settlement status on Nagorno Karabakh. Furthermore, the summit also decided to include Nagorno Karabakh as a conflict party to overcome the gaps in the previous peace process.

Nagorno Karabakh peace process has been swaying from a package solution to a step-by-step deal. The package deal is aimed at settling the status of NK region through an agreement first. On the other hand, a step-by-step approach focuses on the cessation of the military conflict and other peacebuilding efforts before settling the status. The success of a package solution is highly unlikely. In the primordial conflicts, parties need to develop trust and reach a mutually hurting stalemate to agree on the final status of the territory. For this, multiple peacebuilding efforts and confidence-building measures (CBMs) are required to pave the way for the final negotiations. However, a step-by-step approach to peace has been a practical approach for Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, domestication of the external conflict to win a political base became a major hindrance in the success of the second approach.

In 1997, both the states had shown consent for a step-by-step solution. Therefore, the withdrawal of the Armenian forces from six Azerbaijani districts, demilitarisation, and the creation of buffer zones was decided. The final status of the NK region and the issues of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and Lachin land corridor were left for future negotiations. Unfortunately, the Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s adherence to the plan sparked political protests and riots in Armenia during which the politicians from the government party sided with the hardliners. It resulted in the ousting of the President. The latter’s predecessor President Kocharian, a hardliner, opted to go back to the package formula which offered the NK region a common state and de-jure unity.

However, the same problem occurred with Azerbaijan, as the step-by-step approach was difficult to sell to the domestic audience. In 2004, amid intense international pressure, President Kocharian had to join the Prague Process after which he claimed to reach an agreement on the principles of the settlement of the NK region.  However, Azerbaijan refuted President Kocharian’s claim, stating that no agreement was reached in the negotiations.

Regional Powers Influencing the Peace Process

Thirty years of a continuous peace process failed to reduce the hostility and animosity, due to the regional influence on the conflicting parties. Russia, under whom this conflict reached escalation multiple times, has only been able to carry out a ceasefire agreement. Russia’s primary interest has been to maintain her influence in her former republics. Moreover, Russia has taken Armenia under her security umbrella and also operates a military base from the Armenian land. Russia’s official position is that legally the NK region is a part of Azerbaijan and the seven occupied districts should be given back to Azerbaijan. However, the communication corridor between Armenia and NK region should remain open. Russia do not want to lose its influence in both Azerbaijan and Armenia as it did in Georgia, and neither wants further escalation of the conflict. This is due to the fear of military escalation of a similar conflict in the Caucasus region, such as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

On the other hand, Turkey had hostile relations with Armenia due to a historical animosity and her open support to Azerbaijan. Armenian genocide in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire is one of the factors on which the Armenian nationalism is based. Furthermore, Turkey’s military support to Azerbaijan has escalated the insecurity in Armenia to protect their land and save their ethnic identity. Turkey’s strategic goal is to alter the Russian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia through enhancing the economic, political and military ties.

Besides, oil is another factor that has attracted regional actors. Azerbaijan’s oil resources have aligned the Western powers and Turkey not to pressurise Baku to compromise on the NK region. So much so, the existing oil pipeline going from Baku to Tbilisi to Cehlan was initially meant to become a ‘peace pipeline‘ by passing through the NK region and Armenia. This will help Turkey to exploit the Caucasus oil and gas without any interference from Russia. However, the heightened security threats have failed this plan which could bring economic interdependence between Azerbaijan and Armenia, hence, leading towards de-escalation.

Challenges and Prospects for Conflict Resolution

For any peace process to work, the most significant aspect is to address the root causes of the conflict. In the case of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the roots are based on the divide and rule policy of the former Soviet Union that created the fear of eradication among the Armenian ethnic race and discriminated the Armenians residing in the NK region. Such a critical gap has not been addressed in the peace process spanning over around three decades. Moreover, as discussed above, a package approach or phased approach only works when the conflicting parties have reduced their insecurities and hatred for each other. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan and Armenia have only exploited these two approaches to satisfy their domestic audience for their political achievements.

The second factor that has caused hindrance in the success of the peace process is the understanding of the conflict actors. Russia and Turkey are the indirect conflict actors whose support to Armenia and Azerbaijan directly affects the conflict. However, Russia has been given a co-chair status in the Minsk Conference while Turkey is not considered a conflict actor. By doing this, the conflict has been transformed into a regional conflict in which Turkey and Russia are using Azerbaijan and Armenia as their proxies. Moreover, the November 10, 2020 peace agreement dilemma is that Russia has taken up the charge of peacekeeping and only wants Turkey to monitor the ceasefire; with both states being indirect actors in this conflict. Moreover, Azerbaijan has not promised any autonomy to the NK region in the agreement.

The third factor, which is disastrous for conflict resolution is the bellicose rhetoric used by the political leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both the governments and their oppositions used this discourse for political gains in their countries. They have thus induced a war sentiment in their citizens. As a result, the people have rejected the peace deals accepted by their leaders. After the military defeat in the 2020 war, the humiliation faced by Armenia has flared the sentiment of Armenians against Azeris and Turks. Such discourse could not hold any reasonable peace deal brokered by any party. The economic and military enhancement of Azerbaijan is another factor that has increased Armenia’s insecurity. Azerbaijan has been building up its military power which shows its adherence to the bellicose narrative. The military budget of Azerbaijan reached USD 267 million in 2019, while Armenia’s military budget is around USD 6,295 million.

Conflict resolution of Nagorno Karabakh is only possible if both states work on peacebuilding and conflict transformation to bring out a constructive and peaceful resolution of the NK region. In peacebuilding, students, professionals, media, and NGOs could play a significant role in reducing the war-sentiment on both sides. Successful peacebuilding requires all the conflicting parties (direct and indirect) on board to achieve the desired results. Thus, the Minsk Group needs to acknowledge Russia and Turkey as indirect actors playing a crucial role in the de-escalation and escalation of the conflict. The existing peacebuilding initiatives are very few and are operating at a small scale which does not suffice the purpose. It is especially true when the mainstream media is engaged in war discourse. One way of transforming the war hysteria is to create economic interdependence on each other. Such initiatives would support the negotiations on the final status of the NK region.

Neha Nisar

Neha Nisar is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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