26 Aug 2022
An Analysis of the November 9 Ceasefire Agreement and Its Implementation
The ceasefire statement signed between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia on November 9, 2020 not only ended the 44-day war over territories in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 but laid out a particular framework for Armenia and Azerbaijan to sort their disagreements out and achieve peace. Although since then there have been several meetings and joint statements of the officials from the two sides thanks to different mediation efforts, many of the objectives set by the November statement remain unimplemented or only partially implemented. This article examines the November 9 document in order to understand its conceptual gaps, contradictions, and other shortcomings that have possibly led to complications and challenges on the way to addressing decades-long issues. In addition, the article scrutinizes these challenges on the ground and highlights positive signals that the conflicting sides have sent to each other.
The trilateral statement signed by the official heads of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on November 9, 2020 terminated the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war but did not bring comprehensive stability to the region. As of this writing, the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the Armenian-Azerbaijani borderlands remain hotspots in this new phase of the conflict. It is apparent that the parties have not yet committed fully to complying with the conditions of the November 9 statement.
There have been attempts, mediated by different actors, to bring together the conflicting parties, help them sort out their disagreements on the matters, and have them comply with the provisions of the November 9 statement. A key meeting took place on April 6, 2022 in Brussels, mediated by the European Council President Charles Michel. There, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan “reiterated the necessity of adhering fully to the provisions of the 9/10 November 2020 trilateral statement” (European Council 2022). Time will reveal if, and how, the parties would ensure their commitment to the November 9 statement and if any future signed peace treaty between them will address its shortcomings. These remain open questions for now, but one fact is clear: more than a year after signing of the trilateral statement, which first and foremost aimed at ending hostilities, these still periodically occur while many other provisions of the document remain unfulfilled. Therefore, we found it important to analyze this agreement in terms of the problem of commitment.
A ceasefire agreement is a formal agreement made by warring parties to end hostilities. Such a document often creates a framework for negotiating a lasting peace. To do so, ceasefire agreements ideally lay out an explicit legal framework that regulates the commitments and actions of the conflicting parties in the post-war period. Such agreements may define clear measures to be taken if any of the parties do not comply with the accepted terms. Ceasefire agreements are documents that work to assure that the parties remain committed to the armistice. Hence, if a ceasefire agreement does not address the problem of commitment in an explicit, observable, measurable way, non-compliance to the terms by any of the signatories should come as no surprise.
This article analyzes the commitment problem of the November 9 agreement. It attempts to answer the following questions:
- What were the violations of the ceasefire agreements within the first year after its signing?
- What were the opportunities in the post-war order from which solutions to the commitment problem could have been drawn?
- To what extent does the agreement text address the commitment problem?
The article begins by presenting the evidence of the parties’ non-commitment to the “Statement by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia and the President of the Russian Federation, 09.11.2020” (hereafter referred to in short as the “November agreement”) as reported in media as of September 2021. Then, drawing on the theory of credible commitment, we formulate a conceptual framework for this paper. Lastly, we employ content analysis to reveal the pitfalls of the November agreement.
The November agreement stopped the war that had lasted for 44 days in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. In accordance with the agreement, the Russian peacekeeping contingent was deployed to the region.
As of this writing, the most detailed report on the situation in the conflict zone has been the International Crisis Group’s “Post-War Prospects for Nagorno-Karabakh” published in June 2021. Although the report itself does not focus on or specifically analyze the November agreement, it offers an in-depth examination of the issues on the ground directly or indirectly stemming from the document. According to the report, the situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh since the signing of the November agreement poses a compelling example of the commitment problem for which all parties are responsible to various degrees.
Russia, as a signatory of the agreement and its broker, has heavily contributed to the implementation of the ceasefire by deploying peacekeepers. The trilateral statement defines two main locations for the Russian peacekeeping contingent to be stationed, one along the Lachin corridor connecting the former NKAO (the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijani SSR) to Armenia and another along the line of contact (presumably between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces). However, the ICG report draws a quite different picture: While the deployment of peacekeepers seems to be in line with the document when it comes to the Lachin corridor, the peacekeeping contingent in the former NKAO is deployed along the main roads of the former oblast instead of the line of contact, as stipulated in the agreement. As a result, in different places along the line of contact, according to the report, Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers are only 30 to 100 meters apart from each other, with no third-party presence in between. The report claims that the military men of the two sides are so close that “they can sometimes hear their foes’ conversations echoing across the front” (International Crisis Group 2021, 7).
In parallel with the lack of the Russian peacekeeping personnel along the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, there have been also violations of ceasefire. For instance, on December 11 and 12, 2020, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clashed around the villages of Hin Taghe and Khtsaberd (known in Azerbaijan as Taghlar and Chaylaggala, respectively) located near the southeastern borders of the former NKAO (Kucera 2020). Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that the villages came under Azerbaijan’s control because of these fights (The Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia 2020). In the aftermath, the Russian peacekeepers included the two villages in their zone of control (mil.ru 2020).
Although Armenian and Azerbaijani officials contest whether or not Hin Taghe/Taghlar and Khtsaberd/Chaylaggala are located inside the borders of the former NKAO or Jrakan/Jabrayil district, the Russian peacekeeping personnel should have been stationed in these villages between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers before the escalation occurred, as the Statement establishes “the contact line” as a place for the peacekeeping deployment. According to the ICG report, as of April 2021, a significant portion of the contact line remained unmanned by the peacekeepers (International Crisis Group 2021, 8), thus forming a potential spot for military escalation.
The violation of the ceasefire alongside the line of contact between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces, as well as continuous instances of shootings and military advances along the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, have fueled post-war tensions. This clearly demonstrates the commitment issues between the parties. On various occasions, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of violating the ceasefire agreement. Moreover, the Russian Defense Ministry accused Azerbaijan of ceasefire violation on August 11 (Avetisyan 2021b), marking the first time that Russian officials blamed one side for a ceasefire violation.
Another major issue raised by the November agreement and still unresolved is the opening of communication and transport links in the region. Although Armenia and Azerbaijan have their own ways of interpreting this provision of the agreement, the fact that the opening of these links has not been realized also reveals the existing commitment problem. One subsequent document signed by the leaders of the three states after the November agreement, which was the result of the first meeting they held after the war, reiterated the need for opening transport links. On January 11, 2021, the leaders signed a four-clause document that provided for the creation of a working group consisting of officials from all three countries for unblocking the regional economic and transport infrastructure. The working group, headed by the deputy prime ministers of the three states, is expected to work on a list of projects that would enable the opening of economic and transportation links. On January 30, 2021, the deputy prime ministers held their first meeting and discussed the implementation of the November 9 statement of 2020 as well as the January 11 agreement of 2021.
On November 26, 2021, the three leaders signed another statement in Sochi, Russia, yet again reaffirming their commitment to the implementation of the two agreements. “We have agreed to intensify the joint efforts towards the earliest possible solution of the remaining tasks arising from the statements dated 9 November 2020 and 11 January 2021,” the new statement reads (president.az 2021c). While appreciating the meetings of the Working Group established in January 2021, this statement also emphasized “the need to launch, as soon as possible, specific projects” to address economic and transport issues raised in the previous statements.
Since then, there has been no significant progress in the work towards opening up transport connections and economic infrastructure, with no announcement of specific projects as previously promised. The last meeting of the Working Group was held on October 20, 2021 in Moscow “during which the prospects of restoration of transport communications in the South Caucasus region were observed and the further course of the work carried out within the framework of the January 11, 2021 statement was discussed” (armenpress.am 2021b). While the statements were released and the meetings held with emphasis on commitment to the November statement, the two neighboring states took polarized positions regarding the transport connection of Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave to the rest of the country through Armenia’s Syunik province. The Azerbaijani president and officials have continuously stressed that the November agreement provides for the opening of what they termed “the Zangazur corridor.” Aliyev even said in an interview on Azerbaijani state TV that if Armenia avoids opening this corridor, “we will do it by force” (Avetisyan 2021a). Armenian officials, however, have prioritized the issue of detainees being kept in Azerbaijan over the unblocking of the transport routes. They denied any possibility of opening “the Zangazur corridor” and insisted that to make progress on regional cooperation, the issue of Armenian detainees must be solved and Azerbaijan should step down from “territorial claims against Armenia.” The polarization over transport links hindered the activities of the Working Group, too. On June 1, 2021, Armenia’s Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan told journalists that the Armenian side decided to postpone its participation in the work of the trilateral group due to rising tensions on the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border (JAMnews 2021d).
Another problem of commitment to the November agreement has to do with the issue of Armenian refugees and Azerbaijani IDPs from the war-affected region. The agreement stipulates the return of refugees and IDPs to their former houses of residence situated in the conflict zone, aided by the UN Committee for Refugee Affairs. Nevertheless, the return has not been organized for Azerbaijanis who are formally expected to live in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. The same problem concerns the Armenians displaced from territories belonging to the former NKAO that were reclaimed by Azerbaijan during the war.
For Azerbaijanis displaced from the territories, which are still under the de-facto control of Armenian authorities and Russian peacekeepers, the issue is a little more complicated. Although Azerbaijani officials have publicly stated that the Russian peacekeepers will only be stationed in Karabakh temporarily and all Azerbaijanis from the former NKAO will eventually come back to live in the places of their former residence, it is not certain to what extent such statements will come true. Several Azerbaijani analysts and public figures who oppose state policies have questioned whether the Russian government will be willing to withdraw the peacekeeping forces at the end of the five-year term of their mandate, even if one of the parties, namely Azerbaijan, vetoes the extension of this term (pia.az 2021). In their arguments, public figures who are skeptical of the future withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers refer to the cases of Moldova and Georgia, where the Russian military never left the regions it was mandated to control in the form of peacekeeping operations, and claim that the fate of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict will not be any different. In that case, it is not clear whether the displaced Azerbaijanis would agree to resettle in the areas where Russian soldiers execute effective control over their everyday affairs, given that the Russian military does not have a positive image in the Azerbaijani conflict narratives, while the media in Azerbaijan has traditionally portrayed Russia as a closer ally to Armenia.
Another issue with the case of displaced Azerbaijanis is the possibility of coexistence with Armenian residents in the post-war period. The last time these two peoples experienced and enjoyed coexistence, or living side by side, was during the Soviet period, more than three decades ago. Even if we consider those experiences positive, the collective memory of the people can be degraded over a long span of time. In addition, the narratives of hate and suspicions inflicted upon people with regard to ‘the other’ side diminish the chances that people, especially the new generation, will be eager to live side by side.
The case of Armenians displaced from territories that came under Azerbaijani control, as well as Armenians who were displaced during the fighting and who later returned to their homes, is also complex. Although it has been more than a year since the signing of the ceasefire agreement, no progress has been made regarding the Armenian civilians who fled Shusha/i, Hadrut, and the villages of Martuni/Khojavand that are currently under Azerbaijan’s control. The issue of these people has been occasionally raised by Armenian officials, but their Azerbaijani counterparts have not commented on the matter. A probable reason for this reluctance to comment is that Azerbaijani officials considered Armenian civilians from Shusha/i and Hadrut solely as Azerbaijani citizens. Moreover, there are also Armenian residents of territories that are still under Armenian and Russian control who were displaced during the war but now hesitate to come back out of fear of an Azerbaijani attack. These are particularly those people who lived near the former line of contact prior to the second Karabakh war.
Overall, the situation on the ground in the aftermath of the signing of the ceasefire agreement demonstrates that the signatories of the statement have commitment problems regarding the peacekeeping mission, the opening of regional transport links, and the return of refugees and IDPs to their homes.
Positive developments and opportunities for increased contacts
In the light of all the deadlocks, drawbacks, or shortcomings of the November agreement, as well as deep mistrust between the two parties, surprisingly there were also some positive signs regarding both communications between them and the implementation of the main tasks established in the document. Although one can argue that these signs are quite minor against the background of ongoing tensions, they have the potential to encourage and provide resources for the general peace process.
An initial meaningful development would be the transmission of messages between the leaders that can be construed as positive and peaceful. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev’s post-war speeches are, generally, characterized by a tone of threats and terms-dictating. For instance, on April 12, 2021, at the opening of the Military Trophy Park in Baku, Aliyev said: “We have created a new reality. We have created it by shedding blood, showing courage and driving away the enemy. Everyone should and will reckon with us from now on” (Azertag 2021). However, some parts of Aliyev’s speeches also demonstrate a willingness to move forward to a time of peace and sign a peace treaty. In May 2021, in a video conference dedicated to “regional development and perspectives of cooperation in the South Caucasus,” Aliyev discussed the possibility of signing a peace treaty with Armenia (President of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2021a). “If such a treaty is signed, security, non-coercion, topics regarding acceptance of [the] realities of [the] current time will be indispensable to such a document,” he specified. The dictation of one’s own terms is apparent in the given quote and in the entire speech; thus, this rhetoric does not sound like an invitation to a peace agreement. The message was once again reiterated by Aliyev in July 2021 at a meeting with Azerbaijani IDPs. He stated: “We consider the issue as resolved. There must be a peace treaty signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both have to recognize each other’s territorial integrity and borders, and [a] delimitation process should start” (President of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2021a). Again, this statement demonstrates an approach that puts terms and preconditions before expressing readiness to sign a peace treaty and this is done in the form of demand from the other side to recognize one’s own territorial integrity, which includes the territory in dispute over which two full-scale wars have been waged within the past 30 years. This approach of setting preconditions for signing a peace treaty and dictating the terms favorable to oneself as the ‘victorious side’ does not contribute to peaceful communication and thus undermines any prospects of future peace. However, what is positive and important while reading between the lines is the existence of a starting point—in other words, the willingness to meet and talk with the other side. If such a meeting or a series of meetings between the heads of the states is facilitated, supposedly by any state willing to take the role of mediator or by already established mediator states in the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group, there is a chance that a party that has come to the negotiation table with its own conditions may have to remove some of them or step back from its maximalist position during the course of the negotiations. In any case, being open to signing a peace treaty with a country one considers its ‘enemy’ and against which it employs hateful rhetoric is still a good start.
A similar approach has been exercised on the Armenian side as well, by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. In September 2021, Pashinyan delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly where he said: “So, how are we going to achieve the goal of opening an era of peaceful development for our country and the region? Through dialogue, overcoming incrementally the atmosphere of painful hostility in our region. We realize that the path will be difficult and long” (Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia 2021). Following his address to Parliament while answering a question from an MP, the prime minister suggested,: “The opening of communications in the region must have the logic and goal of security and peace” (Armenpress 2021a). In the rhetoric of the Armenian leader, or leadership, there is an acceptance and willingness to engage in peaceful communication that would bring about possibilities for regional peace such as opening of blocked transportation lines. There is also still the sense of reacting to the harsher rhetoric of the Azerbaijani official leadership, namely putting its own preconditions such as non-compliance to the opening of what is called in Azerbaijan the “Zangazur corridor” or the demand of immediate release of all Armenian detainees under the Azerbaijani custody. Nevertheless, there is a positive rhetoric, presumably with good intentions to discuss possibilities of resolving ongoing disputes and settling peaceful coexistence in the region with the other side. What brings the two sides together is a shared understanding, albeit to different extents, of the necessity of peace in the region. That should be a departure point for further negotiations.
Another remarkable development is the willingness on both sides to open transportation and communication lines blocked because of the conflict. However, the sides seem to have utterly polarized perceptions of what these lines are and how they should serve each country. If we take only the example of a possible connection between Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan enclave, there is a disagreement over what this route should look like, as Azerbaijan insists that it is the “Zangazur corridor” and Armenia says it is nothing more than an old railway and motor road. Still, both have a shared understanding and recognize that there are communication lines that must be opened according to the document they signed.
It is also noteworthy that the most doable practicalities outlined in the document have been realized to a large extent. One of these and perhaps the most sensitive is the exchange of prisoners of war (POWs) and hostages. The first initiative to realize this clause of the document took place on December 14, 2020 when, in a swap of detainees from both sides, Azerbaijan returned 44 hostages and Armenia 12 (AP 2020). The act was mediated by Russia, particularly the head of peacekeeping personnel Rustam Muradov. Later, the issue of POWs and hostages became one of the central themes of the post-war discussions as, just like on the other issues, the parties adopted polarized positions in terms of their interpretations of the situation. In mid-December 2020, a skirmish that broke out in Khtsaberd village near the line of contact resulted in 62 more Armenian soldiers being taken into Azerbaijani custody (Mejlumyan 2021). Armenia considered them POWs and demanded their unconditional release while Azerbaijan, in contrast, called them “terrorists” and “saboteurs” and claimed that they would be tried under Azerbaijani jurisdiction (JAMnews 2021a). Despite the tendency in Azerbaijan of the president and officials as well as of the wider public to consider Armenians detained after the end of the second Karabakh war saboteurs, there are cases of them being released in return for mine maps. In June 2021, Armenia and Azerbaijan exchanged detainees for landmine maps—Azerbaijan returned 15 Armenian soldiers and Armenia gave maps of 97,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines (Kucera 2021). According to Georgian Foreign Minister David Zakaliani, the deal was brokered by Georgia and the U.S. after “ two-to-three-month[s of] work” (Kucera 2021). A month later, Azerbaijan returned 15 more Armenian detainees to Armenia in return for maps of 92,000 landmines (Reuters 2021). This time the deal was coordinated by Russia. Occasionally, mostly with the mediation of Russia, Azerbaijan returned several detainees to Armenia without receiving anything in return. For instance, in October 2021, the Azerbaijani side returned five soldiers to Armenia with no report on any exchange with Armenia (JAMnews 2021c). Moreover, when there is no reported exchange, as in the last-mentioned instance, the government-affiliated media in Azerbaijan represents these acts as “a humane gesture.” Apparently, there is always an incentive to free detainees, even when the population on the other side of the conflict divide has been long deemed as “terrorists” or ”enemies” of the nation in order to make oneself look humane or benevolent in the eyes of mediators or, in general, the international community. In fact, five of the prisoners who had returned to Armenia in October were the ones to whom the Azerbaijani court had given a six-year sentence in July of the same year (JAMnews 2021c). An official from Azerbaijan’s State Commission on POWs, Missing People, and Hostages said at a public press conference in January 2021 that two Azerbaijani civilians were being kept in Armenia (Azertag 2021). Since then, Azerbaijan had not raised official demands on the release of POWs or hostages from Armenian custody. Most recently, on February 7, 2022, Azerbaijan returned eight more prisoners to Armenia with the demand that the latter would disclose the location of the mass graveyards of Azerbaijanis killed in the first Karabakh war of the early 1990s (Azadliq.org 2022).
The most contentious issue in post-war Azerbaijan has perhaps been maps of landmines supposedly laid by the Armenian armed forces in the early 1990s as they took over districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani side has demanded that they be provided with the maps. Azerbaijani officials, state-affiliated media, and analysts have long articulated the message that it is inhumane not to release these maps (xalqqazeti.com 2021). The reason is that while Azerbaijani specialists carry out mine clearance on the territories under Azerbaijan’s control since the war ended, there are still officers, deminers, and civilians being killed by mines. As of November 2021, a year since the war ended, 33 Azerbaijanis, 26 of them civilians, have been killed and 139 wounded in mine explosions (Daily Sabah 2021).
Due to the humanitarian tragedy caused by the landmines, the Azerbaijani government uses the demand for mine maps as a tool for bargaining in negotiations over the release of Armenian detainees. This demand, however, was not mentioned in the November statement, though the statement itself covered several humanitarian issues, including, as discussed above, the cessation of hostilities, the return of IDPs and refugees to their homes, and the release of prisoners of war and hostages. This process of demining has been complicated by the long-time denial by Armenian officials about the existence of any such mine maps in their archives (International Crisis Group 2021). Nevertheless, it turned out that such maps do exist and they would be useful for both sides, as the aforementioned exchange deals prove. What is still unclear is how many such maps Armenia has and whether they will be used for bargaining in a way producing results satisfactory to both sides.
Pashinyan asserted in October 2021 at a meeting with members of the Armenian diaspora in Lithuania that there are more such maps: “I am ready to take with me to the meeting all maps we have and I call on the Azerbaijani president to bring with him all captives” (Armenpress 2021). The positive signal was not only that, unlike previously, the Armenian leadership now admitted the existence of mine maps, but also, even more significantly, the head of the state expressed willingness to release all maps available and resolve both the issues of detainees and maps that are most contentious to the sides of the conflict. However, as with every post-war issue, there is a lack of trust between the sides. In a video conference addressing the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2021, the president of Azerbaijan said: “Armenia refuses to release accurate maps of minefields. The accuracy level of the maps for three regions which Armenia had to provide is only 25%” (President of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2021b). This official statement from Azerbaijan clearly shows little or no trust at all in Armenia. Nonetheless, remarkably in a longer span of time there have been more examples of exchange deals and demonstrations of readiness to solve such sensitive post-war issues.
Another sensitive issue specified in the November statement is the exchange of bodies of military servicemen fallen during the war, on which there was notable progress. Shortly after the signing of the Statement, the sides have exchanged bodies of at least 200 servicemen. According to the Red Cross, the process was mediated by Russia (Al Jazeera 2020). Also then, Armenian rescuers, together with Russian peacekeeping personnel, started searching for the missing Armenians in the Azerbaijani-controlled areas. According to the latest updates from the defense ministries of both countries, the rescue operations are searching for 193 Armenian and 6 Azerbaijani missing servicemen (news.am 2022; mod.gov.az 2021).
There is a range of activities that the peacekeepers are engaged with, though they are not provided by the November 9 statement. These activities could be seen as positive elements in the post-war context, as they positively affect the lives of civilians on the ground and potentially contribute to the peace process. “Plenty of things” that the Russian peacekeepers found themselves dealing with, as the International Crisis Group (2021) identifies, range from solving the infrastructural problems of Armenian civilians to negotiating with Azerbaijani officers over disappeared cows from Armenian households. One of the very first tasks the peacekeepers’ emergency staffers occupied themselves with when they arrived right after the signing of the Statement was the repairing of roofs and windows badly damaged by shelling. Those efforts allowed civilians to return to their homes to shelter during the winter.
The peacekeepers also helped Armenian civilians who are mostly residing along or close to the front lines separating Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers’ outposts. Surprisingly, most of the time it is not the exchange of fire that brings Russian peacekeepers in but agricultural or logistical affairs. For instance, in several Armenian villages, residents told the International Crisis Group associates (2021) that they had petitioned the peacekeeping troops to help them visit Armenian cemeteries now left in the areas controlled by the Azerbaijani forces. Moreover, the peacekeepers have helped to return cows or sheep that have accidentally crossed the frontline to the Azerbaijani side; to clear mines and remove pieces of missiles from yards, gardens, and orchards; and to mediate between Armenian and Azerbaijani officers facing each other across the line of contact. There is a telephone hotline used to reach out to the peacekeeping and emergency personnel of the Russian troops and many Armenian villagers call that number instead of taking the long ride to approach the peacekeeper’s outposts with their demands. In one incident, a villager in the village of Mkhitarishen approached the peacekeepers after one of his cows disappeared and they told him to dial the hotline if another cow disappeared again after they found out that the lost cow was cooked by the Azerbaijani soldiers for dinner (International Crisis Group, 2021)
One more task defined in the November statement is the foundation of a monitoring center of the joint group of Russian and Turkish officers to observe the ceasefire regime. On January 30, 2021, the center was opened in Aghdam district, a territory reclaimed by Azerbaijan during the war (RFE/RL 2021). Initially, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that 60 officers from Turkey and 60 officers from Russia will serve in the center (xezerxeber.az 2021). Later, the Defense Minister of Turkey, Hulusi Akar, stated that one general and 38 officers from Turkey will be there on duty (RFE/RL 2021). In the center, the officers observe ceasefire regime by operating surveillance drones. They also receive and analyze complaints from the conflict sides. To this day, it has not been announced exactly how many complaints have been filed to the monitoring center and what corresponding measures it took. Thus, it is hard to examine the efficacy of the center’s work. Nevertheless, the existence and maintenance of an observation center close to the line of contact is useful for those parties that continue to suffer from occasional violations of the ceasefire.
Among opportunities and positive signs, it must be noted that there have been continuous attempts by different mediators to bring together officials of the conflict parties and start a discussion platform. The major and ongoing one is the Working Group created in accordance with the January 11 document signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, and which is led by deputy prime ministers of the three countries. In October 2021, the Group met for the eighth time since its creation, after which they informed the public that they are still discussing the realization of the opening of communication and transport lines in the region blocked because of the conflict, which was mentioned in the November statement and reiterated in the January 11 Statement (JAMnews 2021b). Besides, and most importantly, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have met on several occasions at this point thanks to mediators, namely Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and European Council President Charles Michel. Most recently, Michel mediated their meeting in Brussels on April 6, 2022, which lasted four and a half hours (Isayev, Kucera, and Mejlumyan 2022), Afterward, Michel released a statement informing of the results, which are arguably the most productive diplomatic gains since the war ended. According to Michel, Aliyev and Pashinyan agreed to “move rapidly towards a peace agreement between their countries, to instruct Ministers of Foreign Affairs to work on the preparation of a future peace treaty, which would address all necessary issues … and convene a Joint Border Commission by the end of April” (European Council 2022). The Joint Border Commission is mandated to “delimit the bilateral border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and ensure a stable security situation along, and in the vicinity of, the borderline” (ibid.).
The developments stemming from the Brussels meeting are crucial for the implementation of the November statement and addressing gaps left there, most importantly because the meeting promised the preparation of a future peace treaty, albeit in an indefinite timeline, which would supposedly cover most, if not all, of the questions left open in the Statement. Thanks to this and other mediation efforts, Armenia and Azerbaijan now appear committed to finalizing the construction of the remaining part of the transport connections.
Above all, the most outstanding achievement coming from the Brussels meeting is perhaps the fact that Armenia and Azerbaijan finally will develop bilateral efforts to address their disagreements over the November statement, and generally, the conflict. On April 11, the Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan, Jeyhun Bayramov, and Foreign Minister of Armenia, Ararat Mirzoyan, held a phone conversation in which they “exchanged views on the creation of the commission on delimitation and border security, preparation of peace negotiations and humanitarian issues” (mfa.am 2022). The direct call between the two diplomats was perhaps the first publicly announced bilateral official communication between the two countries’ senior officials in the last 30 years since the start of the conflict. All such meetings and discussions lack transparency and public openness. Thus, the public, including journalists and analysts, do not know much, or practically anything, about the content of these meetings. Nevertheless, the fact of regular meetings between officials from Armenia and Azerbaijan is an indication of a positive development, which is necessary at a time of deep mistrust between the two sides.
Theory of Credible Commitment
Our study draws upon the literature on credible commitment. In this section, we summarize the relevant and important aspects of conflict resolution scholarship for diagnosing the extent to which war-terminating treaties address the security dilemma.
Conflict resolution scholarship covers the processes necessary to achieve a durable peace following a peace agreement or a treaty. One such process-centric approach is the theory of credible commitment, which argues that peace will not be sustainable unless there are enforceable guarantees on the terms of the agreement (Walter 1999). This is also commonly referred to as the commitment problem as exemplified by the ‘prisoner’s dilemma,’ that peace agreements and treaties are expected to address in order to ensure a lasting result.
Theoretical literature in international relations suggests a number of explanations for why negotiations break down. One argument is that combatants simply do not want to reach a settlement, and the failure of negotiations is the consequence of the fact that the parties are not willing to make concessions. In this light, Horowitz argues that “not all leaders in ethnically divided states want to promote accommodation” (1985, 564), and even if they do, it is not necessarily connected to the wish for obtaining real peace and could just as well be a result of the pressure by external actors (Stedman 1997). Other scholars from the fields of conflict and peace studies, sociology, economics, and political science suggest further explanations for why negotiations can fail, e.g., poor bargaining processes in which enemies aggressively attempt to accomplish individually rational strategies incompatible with each other (Fearon 1995; Lake 1998); the impossibility of dividing the stakes in a way agreeable to both parties (Pillar 1983; Ikle 1971; Wagner 1993); equally high value placed on winning the war by both sides (Fearon 1998); and the provision of incomplete information by a given side of the conflict about their own conditional power (Myerson 1983; Morrow 1992). All these factors arguably make it difficult for parties to reach compromise. However, even if these hurdles are effectively addressed by the conflicting sides, leading to a signed agreement, it is still likely that the terms of the agreement will not be met if it is lacking credible and enforceable guarantees regarding the terms to be met. Hence, the key challenge facing conflict parties at the negotiating table, as Walter puts it (1999, 134), “is not simply how to stop the fighting, but how to design a settlement that convinces the groups to shed individual defenses and submit to the rules of a new political game.” Walter considers three ways for parties emerging from wars to design treaties that can decrease the possibilities of post-treaty exploitation and bind parties to the terms. Walter does not suggest that they eliminate the risks of failed demobilization, as she rather theoretically presumes that the parties’ willingness to cooperate “will depend on the degree to which the treaties can guarantee that they will obtain the long-run benefits of peace and powersharing” (1999, 135).
In our study, when discussing a credible commitment problem, we are referring to a situation in which at least one of the sides does not anticipate the other side complying with the agreement due to the possibility of shifts in bargaining power, thus creating incentives to backtrack (see Fearon 1995, 407; see also Wagner 2000; Powell 2006). This can be further deepened by the uncertainty about one’s own security that potentially persists with the agreement signed between warring parties. The security dilemma here plays out visibly in a theoretical example that Leeds brings up. The author suggests a situation where two groups are involved in an armed conflict and both want to end the war. However, both fear that “any agreement designed to end the conflict might not be upheld by the adversary, which would cause the group to suffer costs” (Ashley Leeds 2000, 58). According to Leeds, to help solve this commitment problem and ideally put an end to the conflict, the agreement should be designed in a way that either provides agreements on other contentious issues or invites an external party to provide enforcement and monitoring or, if the risk of future attack is minimized, through a gradual and monitored disarmament process.
Walter identifies three safeguards that can help design an agreement that can neutralize the costs associated with disarmament and demobilization. The author suggests that, first, the parties can unilaterally enhance their defenses, thereby making a surprise attack more difficult. Secondly, the groups can plan consolidation efforts that would lay the ground for inter-accountability and reduce the possibilities of cheating. Finally, the warring parties can send signals to each other indicating the absence of hostile intentions and thus advancing the atmosphere of trust (Walter 1999). It is also important that the agreement conditions are formulated so that the incapability or unwillingness to credibly commit to them would put the prospects of a bilaterally advantageous cooperation at risk. This risk depends on the level of fear and insecurity that adversaries develop, but at the same time, they can be alleviated by the presence of third-party guarantors that facilitate the settlement.
In this regard, Walter argues (1997) that one of the most important and common reasons for opponents failing to reach successful settlements is their unwillingness to commit to an agreement that could potentially become less attractive as soon as it comes into power. This is where Walter highlights the role of third parties who “can guarantee that groups will be protected, terms will be fulfilled, and promises will be kept” (1997, 340). Lastly, Walter asks how to ensure that the promises made by a third party are themselves credible. The scholar suggests the application of a threefold guarantee. First, the external state should ideally have a self-interest in upholding its promise, in which old colonial ties, strategic and economic ties as well as alliance loyalties can ensure the political will to contribute to the settlement. Second, the parties should consider granting the guarantor the power to use force and the latter should be willing to do so if necessary, in order to punish any of the sides that violate the treaty. Finally, the military forces of the third party can be strategically placed in important locations, after getting approval from the governments of the adversaries (Walter 1997). These factors would make the credible commitment problem manageable.
The theory of credible commitment essentially provides a relevant conceptual framework that can be used to diagnose to what extent different peace agreements address the commitment problem. Therefore, we apply it in our analysis of the November agreement.
The Document Analysis
Our study applies the credible commitment theory to the analysis of the November 9, 2020 ceasefire agreement, officially called the “Statement by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia and the President of the Russian Federation, 09.11.2020” (Kremlin.ru 2020). In order to understand to what extent the agreement addresses the credible commitment problem, this study combines the methods of (1) desk research to summarize the wider discourse around the state of affairs during the post-agreement period, and (2) qualitative document analysis to reveal and analyze the content of the agreement in light of the theory of credible commitment.
The paper focuses solely on the content of the ceasefire agreement and does not intend to analyze its implementation. The theoretical presumption behind this small-scale study is that if a ceasefire agreement fails to lay a sufficient foundation for credible commitment, violations of agreement terms by one or more signatories are very likely to happen. With this, however, we do not claim that agreements with credible commitment mechanisms alone will necessarily succeed in the implementation phase; in fact, there are other factors in the negotiation and post-negotiation periods that influence the implementation of peace treaties. However, we argue that credible commitment mechanisms are the “minimum requirement” to be agreed upon in a legally binding written form, and thus with no such mechanisms, peace agreement implementation is more likely to fail due to the absence of a precise and transparent legal framework to manage the implementation and thus to enforce legal sanctions against non-compliance.
Our study deconstructs the November agreement text thematically. Several shortages of this document were discovered and classified into four main categories:
- Information ambiguity (uncertainty issues)
- Conceptual discrepancies (logical issues)
- Operational contradictions (activity issues)
- Accountability gaps (sanctioning issues, response to non-compliance, responsibility vectors)
By information ambiguity we refer to cases where the text or a part of it does not provide sufficient specificity regarding such matters as timing, location, actors, and processes. The main characteristics identifying these cases are found when the text in question is vague, generic, undefined, and incomplete.
Conceptual discrepancies concern cases where the text does not provide explicit definitions of key concepts mentioned in the agreement. Here, we are referring to rather undefined and uncertain usage of concepts, as well as definitions that lack a clear meaning.
By operational contradictions, we refer to cases where different pieces of the text refute or negate each another regarding particular activities or processes intended by the agreement. These cases are characterized by contradictory, incompatible, unjustified, or incomplete forms of text.
Accountability and/or sanctioning gaps concern cases where either the accountability vectors between the signatories are not clearly stated or no sanctioning measures are mentioned at all regarding non-compliance. These points mostly come as unclear, unstructured, disorganized, vague, and impunitive.
For analytical purposes, color codes are assigned to each of these categories (Table 1).
Based on these categories of shortages in the document, Table 2 below presents an elaborated critical perspective on particular articles of the November agreement while Table 3 does the same for the January agreement. Some essential elements of the negotiation process are not addressed in the document at all and therefore included in the table as missing articles.
Table 2. Articles of November agreement and their shortcomings
|Article of November agreement (Kremlin.ru 2020)||Critical analysis||Category|
“1. The Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia […] shall stop in their current positions.”
“4. The peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation shall be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of the Armenian troops[…].”
|This article contradicts the 4th article of the same document. It establishes that the armies of the parties in the conflict stay in their positions, while the 4th article assures the withdrawal of the forces of one party—in this case, of Armenia.||Operational contradictions|
“4. The peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation will be deployed for five years, a term to be automatically extended for subsequent five-year terms unless either Party notifies about its intention to terminate this clause six months before the expiration of the current term.”
|The agreement does not mention the timing of the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers in the event that any of the parties decides to terminate the respective clause. There is no mention of how, when, and through how many stages the process of withdrawal is to happen.||Operational contradictions|
“5. For more efficient monitoring of the Parties’ fulfilment of the agreements, a peacemaking center shall be established to oversee the ceasefire.”
|This article does not specify the location, time course, and involved actors of the peacemaking center. It also does not give details on how the process of monitoring should be conducted.||Information ambiguity|
|“6. …within the next three years, a plan will be outlined for the construction of a new route via the Lachin Corridor…”
“The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee the security of persons, vehicles and cargo moving along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”
|Article 6 establishes the intention to develop a plan for a route reconstruction but leaves out important details as to when the plan shall be outlined and by whom. Moreover, it is not clear what is to be understood by outlining and what exactly the outline is supposed to cover. Furthermore, there is no mention of what happens if Azerbaijan does not guarantee the security of the Lachin Corridor.||Information ambiguity|
“7. Internally displaced persons and refugees shall return to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.”
|This article of the agreement essentially delegates the function of supervision of the return of displaced persons over to the UNHCR. However, there is no mention of whether the UN has undertaken this commitment, especially considering that it is in no way an official signatory of this agreement. Therefore, this is an unjustified term.||Operational contradictions|
|“8. The Parties shall exchange prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons, and dead bodies.”||
Article 8 does not establish the timing, the procedures, or definition of terms. It is not clear if soldiers detained in the aftermath of the war are considered prisoners of war as well.
“9. The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.”
|The 9th article does not specify what kind of transport connections are supposed to be opened in terms of the mode of transportation.||Information ambiguity|
The status of the former NKAO has been at the center of discussions regarding the resolution of conflict since it erupted. However, the document mentions nothing about it.
The document does not specify what happens if any of the parties (including Russia) does not comply with the agreed points. It is not clear which vectors of accountability are applicable in different cases.
|Overall, the agreement has no mention of any future agreements to be signed or amendments to the November agreement that would address specific points, further details, procedures, and technicalities. This is an important shortcoming in terms of giving the parties and the stakeholders of the agreement a long-term understanding of the peacekeeping mission.||Operational contradictions|
Table 3. The January 11 agreement and its shortcomings
|Article of the January 11 agreement (mfa.gov.az 2021)||Critical analysis||Category|
|“1. With the aim of […] unblocking of all economic and transport communications in the region[…]”||The first article does not clarify the shortcoming left from the 9 November ceasefire statement: what kind of transport connections are supposed to be opened, in terms of the mode of transportation.||Information ambiguity|
|“2. The working group […] will formulate a list of main activity directions arising from the implementation of Article 9 of the Statement, establishing railway and automobile communication as a priority, and also determine other directions as agreed upon[…]”||The second article of the statement identifies railway and automobile movement as prioritized transport links and yet again falls short of concreteness when it states “other directions” without further elaboration.||Information ambiguity|
|3. “The expert subgroups will, within a month of the working group’s meeting, submit a list of projects specifying the required resources and activities for their implementation[…]”||The statement underlines the need to have exact projects with clearly identified deadlines; yet, time has shown that the most concrete assignment in relation to the realization of opening transport links was not fulfilled. It spotlights the problem of accountability—who is responsible for not fulfilling the clear points of the agreement?||Accountability/ sanctioning gaps|
|4.”The working group will, before 1 March 2021, submit a list of activities and their implementation schedule for approval at the highest level by the Parties, which would envisage restoration and installation of new infrastructure facilities[…]”||The statement determines the need to draft concrete activities according to a schedule, which has not been accomplished by the given deadline.||Accountability/ sanctioning gaps|
Clearly, after the signing of the November agreement, ceasefire violations and major disagreements between the conflicting parties continue. The situation analysis in the beginning of this article presented only a few of many cases of the post-agreement military fighting, which proves there is a problem of commitment among the parties. The analysis of the November agreement depicted several flaws in the document, which showcase that this commitment problem has not been addressed. Particularly, it offered evidence that the signed agreement is characterized by information ambiguity, conceptual discrepancies, operational contradictions, and accountability gaps. All these loopholes create a large space for subjective interpretations by the parties, which potentially allows them to avoid the agreement’s terms following their own national political interests. The lacuna results in episodic military clashes and other forms of ceasefire violations. Thus, the agreement fails to lay out a grounded and dependable legal framework that would ensure proper compliance to the agreed terms.
It is understandable that at the time when the agreement was designed and signed, the supposed priority was to terminate the war and lay down a path for future negotiations. Thus, it would be overly optimistic to expect that the agreement would have covered so many problematic aspects in detail during such an emergency. However, the statement could have announced prospective additional amendments and annexes to the November agreement to define and detail specific articles, further procedures, and technicalities. The January 11 statement has not fully and effectively addressed these gaps. This limitation also points at another important fault in the November agreement—that is, the lack of transparency for the stakeholders. It is a significant shortcoming since it does not allow the parties and their respective societies to have a long-term understanding of what is to follow the agreement, adding another level of uncertainty to the already unstable situation in the region.
To be more specific, in this last section we will discuss a few instances of contradicting interpretations of the agreed terms of the document, which could potentially be the result of a faulty agreement. As we established above, the 1st and 4th articles of the document contradict each other, something that has become clear since the parties began referring to one or the other in their interpretations of the postwar order. The Armenian side argues that the first article of the document allows for its troops or the troops of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic to remain in the positions they had until the start of the ceasefire. The Azerbaijani side, however, referred to the 4th article, insisting that Armenian troops were supposed to leave the territory as soon as peacekeepers had been deployed. This case shows the apparent contradiction of different parts of the November agreement which is articulated through a fundamental disagreement between the parties.
Another major disagreement illustrates itself on arguably the most sensitive post-war issue for Armenia: the issue of Armenian hostages under Azerbaijani custody. It is not clear if soldiers detained in the aftermath of the war are considered prisoners of war. This conceptual discrepancy spilled over into a major disagreement between the parties after Azerbaijan arrested Armenian soldiers in the territory of the former NKAO. Armenian officials demanded the release of the soldiers, representing them as prisoners of war, whereas Azerbaijan denied the demand by claiming that they arrived in the territory in question after the war and thus should be viewed as saboteurs.
Another essential controversy stems from the ambiguity around the term “transport connections.” As the document does not specify which “transport connections” are referred to, the parties end up having a space to come up with their own interpretation. The Azerbaijani side, in this regard, came up with the term “Zangazur corridor” that it thinks Armenia ought to open to connect Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan by land. The Armenian side, for its part, denied providing such a corridor to Azerbaijan but expressed its readiness to open “transport connections.” Here, again, the vagueness of formulations in the November statement creates possibilities for political speculation.
The fact that there was no mention whatsoever of the term “status” in the document, which has been at the center of conflict resolution negotiations since the conflict erupted in the late 1980s, lays the ground for another possible disagreement between the parties. The Azerbaijani side interpreted this fact as meaning that there will be no status for the former NKAO and that the document cements “the end of the conflict” (President of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2020). Its Armenian and Russian counterparts, however, appeared to disagree and commented that the conflict cannot be considered resolved before the status for the region is determined. However, if indeed there are prospects for a future decision regarding the status of the region, they could have been indicated in the document, even though the terms and conditions around that decision were unknown.
Last but not least, the document does not ensure a monitoring mechanism over ecological and cultural damage in the aftermath of the war, reports about which fuel public anger, e.g. the cutting of forests (Blinov 2020) and ruining cemeteries (Azatutyun.am 2021)). It provides no answer to the question of how to address these crimes. If the November statement would have provided for the establishment of a corresponding monitoring mechanism, such a body would now be able to deal with such specific issues.
The cultivation of a peace process that would result in the normalization of relations and permanent termination of the conflict should start from minor and incremental changes. In this regard, public communication is a practical area in which such changes can be realized in the most effective way. Speeches delivered by the official leaders of the countries are the most powerful in terms of shaping public images and perceptions domestically and on the other side of the conflict divide. Thus, leaders are foremost responsible for adopting a peaceful rhetoric calling their populations to peace and coexistence. Apparently, it is a difficult task to do, as neither in Armenia nor in Azerbaijan is the transparency of state decision-making ensured. There is no room for a plurality of voices in governmental policy-making that would influence the rhetoric of the heads of state. However, it is still possible for at least some parliamentarians, government officials, and public figures to avoid promoting irredentism, revenge, or hate in their speeches and instead foster the language of understanding, compassion, and invitation to dialogue. It is important for the governments of the two countries to understand the need to normalize relations between each other and express readiness to make concessions for that purpose. They must avoid issuing terms and conditions before the other side in order for the language of dialogue to be cultivated. Messages that emphasize peace, interdependent prosperity and the idea of living together should not be followed by threats of coercion in case the other side does not abide by one’s demands and desires.
It is also necessary to express readiness to communicate with the other side without a mediator. This is understandably difficult, given the mistrust and misperception developed between the sides throughout the conflict history. However, representatives of both sides could still meet in a third country to try to talk to each other without the presence of any mediators. The Brussels meeting on April 6, 2022 opened up the possibility for such an initiative, but we have not seen yet tangible results of this communication.
There were a few meetings between officials of the two countries since the signing of the document, though it is already a positive sign. But clearly there is a need for more meetings and in a more systematic order. The governments of both states as well as mediators should encourage and organize meetings between not only officials but also analysts, researchers, political parties, and everyone eager to contribute to the resolution of the conflict. In the pre-war period, there has been exchange trips of journalists and think tank representatives between Armenia and Azerbaijan organized by different actors. Such efforts, also involving young peace activists, should be continued as part of a broader peacebuilding policy. Such meetings should also be proposed to take place in Armenia and Azerbaijan. This will help settle the feelings of mistrust and insecurity the sides experience regarding each other.
The issue of demarcation and the delimitation of borders has long been discussed by both parties, expressing their readiness to start the process and yet accusing each other of not being cooperative enough on the matter. To make a way forward, the parties should together seek assistance from mediators, or mediators themselves should incentivize the parties to cooperate and agree on delimitation and demarcation. While each party obviously has its own terms and conditions in this regard, it is the role of mediators to convince them that concession and stepping back from some conditions and demands will overall be more beneficial than hindering the process which inevitably leads to sporadic clashes and casualties.
This paper critically analyzed the ceasefire agreement signed on November 9, 2020 from the perspective of the theory of credible commitments, shedding light on the question as to what extent the agreement addresses the commitment problem. The combination of situation and document analyses based on the relevant literature resulted in important findings that can be useful both for policymakers and researchers interested in the issue. Our critical analysis revealed the major downsides of the November agreement, which aggregately prove that many aspects of the commitment problem are not addressed at all by the document. This means that when searching for the answer as to why the parties do not comply with the terms agreed upon, one needs to consider the legal framework that is supposed to regulate that process in the first place. In this case, the legal framework, provided by the ceasefire agreement, largely fails to lay such stable grounds to ensure the parties’ compliance. This article identified the clear gaps in this legal framework. Although we did not specifically analyze the process of the agreement implementation, this paper can serve as a solid point of departure for further comprehensive research on the post-war status quo.
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