The paper discusses the recent developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh official peace process since April 2018 when large-scale protests overthrew the ruling elite in Armenia and the new political leadership came to power. The author analyzes various official statements and media reports, focusing on two significant trends within the current peace process—(re)establishing dialogue between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of Nagorno-Karabakh and improving security along the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The paper argues for disconnecting the two trends from the overall political negotiations and asserts that the “fragmentation” of the privatized official peace process could better contribute to the transformation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has received an observable impetus following the change of political power in Armenia in April 2018. The contacts between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials mediated by third parties have noticeably intensified. These meetings were in the spotlight of regional and international journalists and political analysts. At the same time, some non-trivial political developments have not attracted that much attention and maybe for a good reason. However, they might contain a certain transformative impulse for the peace process, and therefore I find it important to shed light on these developments.
This paper describes and analyzes recent changes in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settings, thus outlining a context for other articles in this issue discussing prospects for the peace process. The article particularly focuses on developments potentially leading towards a dialogue between the Nagorno-Karabakh communities and improvement of security along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. I acknowledge that the main analytical material for this article—official statements and media reports—are highly politicized and cannot be taken for granted. Moreover, the situation on the ground can be significantly different from the picture presented by politicians and media.
As an analytical value of this paper, I present original thoughts on implications of the observed changes as well as factors hindering further progress in the peace process within this extremely complex conflict environment. Nevertheless, I do not intend to display my interpretations as only truthful representation of the recent events. There are plenty of other dynamics influencing the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process that cannot be covered within the scope of this brief analysis. Furthermore, the main puzzling question how in practice the changes since April 2018 can enlarge a room for the (re-)engagement across the conflict divide and transformation of antagonized attitudes is explored in the respective articles published in this issue (Romashov et al. 2019). In the conclusion, I argue for “fragmentation” of the official peace process in order to foster the transformation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict setting.
Dialogue between Nagorno-Karabakh communities
April 2018 marked change of political power in Armenia. The uprising, which came to be referred as the “Velvet Revolution,” was characterized by the uncertainty of how these new circumstances will affect the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Particularly in Azerbaijan, the policy-makers were caught off guard by the effective and large-scale protests led by a former journalist turned politician Nikol Pashinyan that eventually overthrew Armenia’s ruling elite. They had therefore no clear vision on the implications for the negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and actions Baku should take in order to benefit from such developments (Shiriyev 2018b). Different options were proposed for Azerbaijani policy-makers to proceed further with the new political reality in Armenia, ranging from active military undertakings to the strategy of waiting and observing (Shiriyev 2018b) (Shiriyev 2018a).
At the end of April 2018, military sources from Nagorno-Karabakh actively reported on the increased military activities of Azerbaijani forces on the Line of Contact (LoC) (Sputnik 2018a) (Sputnik 2018b) (Ministry of Defence 2018). Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied these reports and linked them to the political processes in Armenia, hinting that the reports were supposed to distract public attention from the protest movement (1news.az 2018). Nevertheless, such reports led to the agitation of the OSCE Minsk Group (OSCE MG), as it feared that an unprecedented violent conflict escalation that occurred two years before, in April 2016, would repeat. As a warning, on April 23, 2018, the OSCE MG Co-Chairs issued a joint press statement, in which they underscored “the critical importance of the sides respecting the ceasefire at this delicate time” characterized by “political developments in the region and the possibility of escalation along the Line of Contact.” They expressed hope for a “meeting as soon as possible to renew intensified negotiations” (OSCE 2018a). Apparently, the mediators were also troubled that the political talks could be undermined and in light of the new political conditions.
Pashinyan’s statements during his visit to Nagorno-Karabakh on May 9, 2018, the day after he was elected prime minister by the National Assembly, were remarkable for the peace process, as they showed his determination to include the present-day government of Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiations. For some political observers this rigid stance of the Armenian government signified the beginning of “complete stagnation” (Markedonov 2018) or at least a pause (Tariverdiyeva 2018) in the negotiation process. Zaur Shiriyev (2018b), an Azerbaijan expert, saw a causal relationship between the new Armenian leadership’s “hardline rhetoric” and small-scale military actions on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan’s exclave, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, initiated by Baku. According to Azerbaijani analysts, the idea behind this military movement was to send a signal to the Armenian side that “war is still on the table if the current rhetoric on Nagorno-Karabakh becomes policy” (Shiriyev 2018b). Nevertheless, Armenia’s new position has been continuously restated by Pashinyan ever since and was even included in the Government Program of the Republic of Armenia for 2019 adopted by the National Assembly on February 8, 2019. Thus, these declarative statements did eventually become a policy.
Even though Pashinyan’s initiative was strongly opposed by Baku, it may (in an ideal scenario) also bring along the displaced Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh to the talks, and so the official peace process could acquire a new or additional format. Shiriyev (2018a) notes, “For Baku, the participation of Karabakhi Armenians in talks about the territory’s status is acceptable only if Karabakhi Azerbaijanis displaced from their homes by war are also present on an equal footing.” According to his survey, a major proportion of Azerbaijani experts agreed that Baku should react to this Armenian government’s policy by “strengthening the institutional and human capacity of Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijanis and proposing their participation in negotiations with Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians” (Shiriyev 2018b).
The OSCE MG Co-Chairs ostensibly are not against changing the format of negotiations if the sides agree to it. For instance, Russia’s foreign minister in this regard said, “If at a certain stage the parties agree that Nagorno-Karabakh should be represented at the talks again, it will be their decision and we will respect it” (Lavrov 2018). Perhaps, to address both Pashinyan’s initiative and the precondition set by the Azerbaijani side, the OSCE MG made the first steps towards preparations for a dialogue between the Azerbaijani population from Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh. On October 31, 2018, in Baku, the OSCE MG Co-Chairs met with representatives of the Azerbaijani community affected by the conflict (OSCE 2018b). Later, the Azerbaijani side started the process of “strengthening the institutional capacity” of Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijanis that would allow them to have an official representation in possible talks with Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. On December 20, 2018, the organization that represents the Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan elected its new head, Tural Ganjaliyev, who also occupies a diplomatic position in Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Rustamov 2018). The statements coming from this organization (JAMNEWS 2018) (Azərbaycan24 2018) as well as comments made by a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry (Kucera 2019) following the appointment have indicated the willingness of the Azerbaijani side to establish contacts between the two communities of Nagorno-Karabakh.
On March 5, 2019, Miroslav Lajčák, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, met with representatives of the Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh. As reported, he reaffirmed the OSCE’s continued support for “small, tangible steps to promote co-operation and dialogue.” Lajčák also expressed his conviction that “step-by-step and through continuous and increasing dialogue, small improvements to the lives of the people most affected by the conflict can be made” (OSCE 2019a). On March 13, 2019, the senior official visited Yerevan where, in addition to “the political leadership” of Armenia, he also met with “representatives of the de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh” (OSCE 2019f). During their regional visits in May and October 2019, the MG Co-Chairs, together with the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (PRCIO), met separately with both the de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh and the chair of the Azerbaijani Community of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan (OSCE 2019c) (OSCE 2019i).
However, one should avoid misinterpreting these developments and active shuttle diplomacy of the mediators as a progression that inevitably will result in the (re)establishment of the dialogue between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of Nagorno-Karabakh. The process requires long negotiations and coordination, and there is no plain evidence that in the end it will be successful. Probably, a clearer picture could be formed after the presidential elections in the non-recognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which are scheduled for spring 2020 and will be held in accordance with the new constitution adopted in 2017 that brought more power to the president. So far, the de facto authorities in Stepanakert have not supported the idea of inclusion of the Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiation process, though neither they rejected civil dialogue. On this matter, Masis Mayilian (2018), who is responsible for foreign affairs in Nagorno-Karabakh, said, “I believe that no party should create obstacles, if representatives of public organizations of refugees from Artsakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia decide to discuss their problems within the framework of Track II diplomacy.” It should be noted that Azerbaijani officials have opposed any changes to the official negotiations format (Moscow-Baku.Ru 2019) (Seidova 2019) (Haqquin.az 2019), and seemingly would prefer a less formal organization of the intercommunity dialogue.
Therefore, I expect that in such circumstances a possible arrangement could be a semi-official dialogue between public representatives appointed by the de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh and the organization known in Azerbaijan as the Azerbaijani Community of Nagorno-Karabakh Region. This dialogue can be organized under the auspices of the OSCE, namely the OSCE PRCIO. The PRCIO’s office in Tbilisi, as “a neutral territory,” could host this dialogue on a regular basis and the OSCE Conflict Prevention Centre could provide professional facilitators for this process. Perhaps, a similar kind of arrangement was discussed during Lajčák’s visit to Azerbaijan, where he stated, “The OSCE is encouraged by the informal dialogue we have seen so far. We are watching closely for signs of constructive progress and real commitment, and stand ready to facilitate when needed” (OSCE 2019a). Such a dialogue between the Nagorno-Karabakh communities would not acquire official negotiation status but would be still “higher” than a Track-2 process and serve as a complementary platform for Track-1 political talks as well as a backchannel for transmitting messages between Baku and Stepanakert. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh should not be necessarily the main theme for discussions on this platform, and the participants may concentrate on myriad other concerns, problems, and aspirations they might share (or not). Since this process would certainly attract a lot of public attention, it could also considerably contribute to a long-standing appeal from mediators and peace activists to prepare the populations for peace.
Safety along the border
The call to “prepare the populations for peace” has continuously appeared throughout the OSCE MG statements following the recent dynamic way in official meetings (OSCE 2018c) (OSCE 2019d) (OSCE 2019e) (OSCE 2019f). Seemingly, the new Armenian government has tried to address this appeal. At the meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council on December 6, 2018, the then acting Foreign Minister of Armenia Zohrab Mnatsakanyan urged for “genuine efforts to prepare the populations for peace on all sides of the conflict” as a significant prerequisite for the process of negotiations (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia 2018). Perhaps, one of such “genuine efforts” was an Armenian Public Television’s report entitled “The Friendship of Past and the Hostility of the Present” and aired several times on January 21, 2019 during news programs. The report featured interviews with residents of a village on the border with Azerbaijan, called Aygepar, who reminisced about their friendships and work-related ties with Azerbaijanis from a neighboring border village, Alibeyli, before the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The report discussed the possibilities of restoration of this relationship. According to Armenian experts, the report was an unprecedented occurrence on Public TV, the content of which is allegedly highly monitored by the government and can be seen as an expression of official position (Aysor 2019a) (Mejlumyan 2019).
It is remarkable that Alibeyli is located in the Tovuz District of Azerbaijan, which is adjacent to the Agstafa District, where the border control was reportedly transferred from the army to the State Border Service of Azerbaijan. In December 2018, the Chief of State Border Service, Elchin Guliyev, announced the order of Ilham Aliyev to transfer the military posts on the state border with Armenia in Gazakh and Agstafa districts––important bordering regions with their critical transportation arteries––from the Ministry of Defense to the State Border Service. Reportedly, this instruction has been already implemented (Azərbaycan Respublikası Dövlət Sərhəd Xidməti [State Border Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan] 2018a) (Azərbaycan Respublikası Dövlət Sərhəd Xidməti [State Border Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan] 2018b). If so, for the first time in the history of the military conflict, border troops control part of the dividing line between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, at least on one of the sides. Albeit officially not framed in such way, this arrangement can be viewed as one of “possible confidence-building measures” and “additional steps to reduce tensions” that had been considered by the sides as stated in the press releases by the Co-Chairs of the OSCE MG issued on July 12 (OSCE 2018c) and September 27 (OSCE 2018d). Such an idea of transferring control of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where it remained unchanged since the Soviet period, to border troops on both sides, as an option to relieve tensions, has been discussed since the mid-1990s (Sputnik 2018c). In the changing political environment, it can receive new momentum for realization. Especially so, as in January 2019, the Chief of Armenia’s General Staff, Artak Davtyan, said, as reported, that the Armenian side will welcome possible negotiations on the demarcation of the border with Azerbaijan as well as the joint organization of the border service (Sputnik 2019).
The conflict zone’s borderlands were also the focus of the meetings in April 2019, when the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides agreed to undertake “measures in the humanitarian field” including “stabilization of the situation in the conflict zone, in particular during agricultural activities” (OSCE 2019g) (OSCE 2019h) (OSCE 2019b). The OSCE PRCIO on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, Andrzej Kasprzyk, visited Armenia in March and May 2019 to meet among others with the Defense Minister apparently about substantializing the diplomatic agreements on the situation in the LoC and the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border (Aysor 2019b) (Aysor 2019c). At the end of May, the OSCE MG Co-Chairs visited the region and held consultations with foreign ministers and defense ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan “to assess the evolution of the situation on the line of contact and the international border” (OSCE 2019c).
Since the first formal meeting between the Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev in Dushanbe on September 28, 2018, the security situation on the borderlands and along the LoC has considerably stabilized primarily thanks to the establishment of a direct communication line between the sides upon which the two political leaders agreed during the meeting. After reaching this agreement, the OSCE has continuously noted the significant decrease in ceasefire violations and reported casualties (OSCE 2018b) (OSCE 2018c) (OSCE 2019e) (OSCE 2019a) (OSCE 2019j) (OSCE 2019f). However, the security situation on the borderlands and along the LoC remains vulnerably exposed to belligerent and maximalist rhetoric of both sides and in general, to the swings in the overall political negotiations on conflict resolution. Since the end of May, after an extended period of relatively reduced violence, there has been a noteworthy increase in deaths and injuries on both sides. Not only have the lives of military personnel been recently endangered. For instance, on October 2, 2019, an excavator driver was killed in Azerbaijan after shooting from Armenian positions (Medzhid 2019), and the next day an Armenian tractor driver was injured during firing from Azerbaijan (Martirosyan 2019). These two recent incidents of violence occurred on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, although in different sections.
Increased safety of people residing and working in borderland regions of Armenia and Azerbaijan would be an important element of trust and confidence building that would give certain impetus to a wider conflict transformation process. Since the LoC essentially is the immediate field of military confrontation (“frontline”), and moreover because of the shift in responsibility from Yerevan to Stepanakert to decide the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh population, as announced by Pashinyan, the issue of demilitarization of the international border should be detached from the largely stalled Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution negotiations. Eventually, the borderlands can become a setting where the conflict issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan can be gradually overcome without being linked to the standstill in the overall conflict resolution process.
I should stress that the blockade of Armenia’s borders is a strong bargaining chip for Azerbaijan in the political negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, the proposed parallel discussions on the international border does not mean that Baku will relinquish this leverage, as the process does not automatically lead to opening borders and economic de-isolation of Armenia. Initial discussions should be inspired primarily by the human security approach, meaning that the borderland communities must be freed from overwhelming fear of violence associated with skirmishes across the border. Replacing soldiers with border guards along the border (at least on those parts that are not adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts) together with the demarcation process can be reasonable steps toward improving the safety of borderland people on both sides without senselessly linking these advances to the overall resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Furthermore, the use of threat of an effective war across the international border is pointless as long as Yerevan has security guarantees from Russia within the frame of the Collective Security Treaty. The stable security situation on the border would contribute to the development of often deprived borderlands on both sides and ensure protection of the crucial transportation links connecting Armenia and Azerbaijan to Georgia and the outer world. At the same time, the people living on the borderlands might feel that their socio-economic problems and safety concerns are better addressed, and that their traumas and anxieties caused by the conflict are not muted by the Karabakh-centered discourses (Romashov et al. 2019). Consequently, being less preoccupied with a potential warfare along the state border, the governments on both sides could concentrate their efforts on more complex and difficult political negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue itself.
The proposed parallel processes are hardly a new initiative and have been long discussed in various forms by experts and facilitators. However, I believe that every alteration in the socio-political context surrounding the conflict setting—and certainly the change of power in Armenia—is one of such transformations. There is potential to open windows of opportunities for transforming the conflict setting as such. Therefore, the impetus created by the recent political developments in the region should be preserved and re-directed towards conflict transformation. Indeed, reaching a comprehensive agreement would be too idealistic to expect, but the transformative potential could be effectively realized if the official peace process becomes “fragmented,” or less centralized.
From this perspective, the “fragments” signify parallel processes supporting the formalized searching for a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. They are not Track-2 or bottom-up initiatives of conflict transformation since, in the current environment, the launch of a sustainable public dialogue between Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of Nagorno-Karabakh has to be sanctioned by the officials. The advancement of the security situation along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan outside of the immediate conflict zone is also contingent on the joint will of Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities. However, both processes would definitely benefit from the involvement of a wider population. The Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of Nagorno-Karabakh can take part in the OSCE-facilitated dialogue, not only represented by officially appointed persons but also various diverse individuals and groups. The work on enhancing security of borderlands and demarcation of borders would be more efficient if it takes into consideration the needs and aspirations of local residents on both sides. For this reason, the borderland communities should be regularly consulted and assured that their voices are heard.
Unquestionably, these arrangements are possible only if political elites are ready to move forward with the peace process, commit to a result, and be willing to share the appropriated “exclusive” right to conduct the negotiations. Thomas de Waal (2010) identified the fundamental limitation that conditions the mediation efforts by the OSCE MG co-chairmanship, namely the ability of the ruling elites of Armenia and Azerbaijan to “exercise near complete control over the substance of the peace process and the way it is perceived by both domestic and international audiences.” They have managed to achieve this power because the negotiation process has been predominantly conducted between the two presidents or foreign ministers in private. However, the successful peace process requires the support of the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations, including Karabakhis (de Waal 2010). I consider that the proposed “fragmentation” of the official peace process would alter one of the most privatized political negotiations in contemporary post-Soviet conflict settings into a more inclusive arrangement. After all, the recent “revolutionary” developments in Armenia were inspired by the belief in the power of citizens to jointly influence political processes, and this aspiration should be extrapolated to the negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
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*The featured photo of this article portrays the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and the Jokhaz resevoir that is crossed by the border. The photo is taken by Christina Soloyan.