Throughout the years Armenia and Azerbaijan have been close to signing a peace agreement several times. Each failure deepened the mistrust and led to escalations culminating in the Second Karabakh War. The negotiations that followed, led intermittently by Russia and the EU, never gained a strong footing, and  the locus of warfare gradually shifted from Karabakh into the territory of Armenia.

With the situation on the ground and the geopolitics surrounding the conflict changing daily, making any predictions about the future of the conflict is a futile exercise. And yet, we cannot afford to drop analysis and efforts to influence what comes next either. On September 29, we invited Zaur Shiriyev, South Caucasus Analyst at Crisis Group, and Philip Gamaghelyan, Editor at Caucasus Edition and Assistant Professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, to share their analysis of the current state of affairs.

According to Shiriyev, one of the key explanations for the recent escalation is the desire of official Baku to rush signing the peace agreement with Armenia. Many in Baku believe that signing the peace agreement is a priority and more important than the resolution of other issues (transport connectivity, delimitation and demarcation of borders etc.). This comes from the belief among Azerbaijani decision makers that official Yerevan’s confirmation of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in written form is key to regulating relations peacefully  between the two countries in the future. Shiriyev stated that other reasons were explained in the latest Crisis Group analysis, and noted that he has certain reservations about the peace treaty issue, noting that today any document can be characterized as a peace agreement. The subject of the negotiations of the two sides shows that what is discussed is not a comprehensive peace agreement, but a framework document that will consist of 10-14 articles. Instead, according to the speaker, the parties need a comprehensive peace agreement that covers many issues and areas. One without extensive ambiguities, and includes an implementation mechanism and actors that can translate peace agreement provisions from paper to practice. Such a document should address the restoration of economic and diplomatic relations, establishment of transitional justice mechanisms, such as a truth commission, the role of civil society, and should cover all other areas and issues pertaining to relations between the two countries. At the same time, Shiriyev noted that signing this kind of document is currently viewed as a mechanism for creating peace between the two countries, but signing an agreement is not enough in and of itself. It is no less important to think how peace between the societies of the two countries can be achieved. Unfortunately, in the last two years, no serious work has been done in this regard.

Gamaghelyan pointed to a number of dynamics that make the peace process ineffective. One dynamic in particular has persisted for decades: the leaderships of Azerbaijan and Armenia continually approached the conflict from an adversarial point of view and strived to build alliances against one another. They never reframed the conflict into a shared problem to be solved, instead continuing to invest in the arms race and not the search for a solution. At the same time, the broader trends surrounding the current state of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations have been transformed. Prior to the 2020 war, Armenia and Azerbaijan were the primary actors in their confrontation. Following the Second Karabakh War and the other recent developments turned Armenian-Azerbaijani, the Russian army is on the ground, Turkey is openly involved, Iran is mobilizing on the border, and the U.S. is taking on an increasingly proactive role. These are all developments that turn the confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan into a proxy conflict between global and regional powers, with the potential of a proxy war on the horizon.

The collapse of cooperation among the mediators in the Minsk Group and the broken international consensus when it came to settling the Karabakh conflict is only one of the changes that fractured the foundation of the peace process. In proposing solutions to the Karabakh conflict, negotiators long prioritized two principles of international law: territorial integrity and self-determination. None of these currently have much political currency. The annexation of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson by Russia come to signify the change in global norms,  coupled with a shift away from the struggle over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh to open inter-state warfare no longer based on claims grounded in the norms of human rights, self-determination, or territorial integrity.

The crisis of the liberal world order had repercussions for the overall peace process as well.  All the previously proposed formulas for the solution of this conflict assumed eventual democratization of the region, including the prevalence of human and especially minority rights that would form the basis of coexistence. The institutionalization of civil society was to play a prominent role in inter-societal reconciliation. However, the liberal democracy, along with respect for rights, never arrived. Collapsing the foundation of professionalized civil society’s role in peacebuilding. It transformed from a well-paid bureaucratic job positioned well within the norms of the previous system into a dangerous civic activist  position that requires courage and commitment. As a result, most of the former pacebuilders either left the scene or change their profiles, creating a temporary vacuum in the civil society-led peace initiatives.

What’s next

Shiriyev stressed that there should not be an expectation of a comprehensive peace agreement in the near future. At best, it may be possible to sign a framework agreement, which will be called a peace treaty. Shiriyev also pointed out that there is now a small window of opportunity. It will not last longer than a few months. Both speakers agreed that some of the key reasons for the failure to develop or sign a peace treaty are mistrust, a lack of professional capacity, internal political constraints, and the exclusion of voices and needs of populations impacted by the conflict. On both sides the processes are centralised and led by only a few actors, which diminishes the legitimacy of any possible peace deal. The internal political tensions in Armenia could also limit the capacity of sides to proceed with an agreement. The sides also fail to agree on any issues and lack any tangible developments. As the societies are losing their trust in negotiated agreements, it is particularly important now to have tangible changes, such as addressing war crimes and human rights violations, and agreeing on economic connectivity routes.

Gamaghelyan suggested that while he was overall pessimistic, he still saw opportunities for putting the peace process back on track. Despite their rivalries, at this point in time neither of the external actors looked interested in an escalation in the South Caucasus. For the U.S. and the EU who are trying to pull the region away from Russian orbit, the path lies through their contribution to democratization and conflict resolution. Russia, in turn, has no resources to invest into a new front of a proxy war and stands to lose rather than gain from further escalation.

What is important for the external actors actively involved in the process, Shiriyev believes, is to ensure inclusiveness of the process, in order to sustain spoilers as well as to make the process meaningful not only for the states but also for the populations.

To Gamaghelyan, there are many possible scenarios in which this conflict could develop,  detailed in a recent article co-authored with Pinar Sayan. Most of these scenarios, however, are variations of permanent warfare. With the development of a comprehensive peace agreement currently not having any basis under it, he suggested that the least problematic way forward would be the “Cyprus scenario” – putting the solution on hold, managing the  escalations, and investing into long-term normalisation efforts: demarcation, economic integration, road openings, investigation of war crimes, restitutions and other provisions of transitional justice.

The two speakers also noted the consolidation of anti-war and pro-normalization voices. While there was a societal consensus around the 2020 war in Karabakh, it is not the case this time. Shiriyev observes that many public figures in Azerbaijan are currently emerging as anti-war voices, as there is no public support for a new war. Gamaghelyan argued that the vacuum created by the retreat of professionalized peacebuilders leaving the scene had a silver lining. Those who stayed and the new voices that emerged since the 2020 war were the actors genuinely invested in building peace and who could form the basis of a new sustained peace process.

Shiriyev noted that civil society in Azerbaijan has done very little to formulate peace messages and promote them, and it seems as if they are waiting for a formal peace agreement between the two countries to be signed, which cannot be the way to achieving  peace. That’s why civil society should formulate a peace agenda in its society. Before 2020, the phrase “preparing the nations for peace,” meant preparing the nations for a possible compromise on the Nagorno-Karabakh status. What does preparing societies for peace mean today? Is it to prepare people for coexistence? This is an important question for the civil societies to consider.