23 Sep 2023
What can be done?
On yet another bloody September morning, the Azerbaijani Army attacked the beleaguered Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh – betrayed by peacekeepers, abandoned by Armenia, and starved for months. The three-year marathon of restoring sovereignty of the Azerbaijani state is nearly complete.
How did we reach the point of no return, accepting violence as the main method of conflict resolution? During the twenty-six years following the ceasefire that ended the First Karabakh War, the sides imitated a peace process and prepared for the Second. The price of rejecting peace was economic stagnation, political repression, autocratization of the region, and, particularly of Azerbaijan, missed chances for deeper integration with the European Union, and the loss of thousands of lives. Yet, popular demand for peace never emerged. Making a mockery of the democratic peace theory, both princeps and vox populi longed for more war. The demonstrators in Azerbaijan in July 2020 demanded war instead of peace. In the run-up to and throughout the 44 days of the Second War, slogans “new war for new territories” and “we will win” were endlessly repeated by countless Armenians who blindly accepted the government’s “don’t look up” directive. The societies and their governments chose the Second War and had it. The result: thousands more deaths, the transformation of the region into an arena of proxy conflicts. No peace. Only a redrawn line of contact.
Neither the decades of negotiations nor the two wars that ended in a decisive victory by one side then the other, brought us any closer to peace. In the aftermath of the First War Armenians took control not only of Nagorno-Karabakh but also of surrounding territories displacing far more people than the number of those for whose rights they fought, and refusing to compromise, even on an inch or on a return of anyone back home. “No inch of land” was the (in)famous slogan that summed up the policy of successive governments towards the conflict. In the aftermath of the Second War, Azerbaijan (re)established control over what was long accepted by most as its sovereign territory, this time with a mirroring slogan – “your status went to hell.” Rather than accepting the victory and settling, however, now it is Azerbaijan that is pressing far outside of what it ever asked for or was interested in: starving and repressing the Armenian population, pushing its army deep into Armenia proper and continually escalating its demands. With peace as far as it has ever been.
What else is left to fight for? What needs to take place for us to have peace?
What do we propose?
Nothing has been done to date to prepare the ground for coexistence of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Karabakh or for Armenians to live peacefully under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. The risk of oppression of the population and the fear of violence against the civil population remain high. With Baku consolidating its control over the remainder of Nagorno-Karabakh, a safe passage and as needed the evacuation of the Armenians who request such assistance should become the immediate priority of both the international community and the Armenian state. If the Azerbaijani government means what it says and intends to provide security, it could start with offering an unobstructed passage to Armenia. It could then showcase security guarantees and reasonable conditions for a peaceful life, those who wish could then be invited to return.
Evacuation in the short term should not result in an extinction of Armenians and its heritage from Nagorno-Karabakh. The exodus of Armenian population is as unjust as the exodus of Azerbaijanis before. We should stop repeating the same vicious cycle.
The de-jure acceptance of Azerbaijan’s full sovereignty over Karabakh, needs to be preceded by amnesty for all ex-combatants, provisions for preservation of culture, identity, and human rights of the Armenians who choose to remain. No degree of ethnic cleansing and forcing the population to leave is acceptable.
The enmity is currently deeply rooted and the scars of violence on both sides are fresh, a period of segregation and international peacekeeping is necessary, along with long-term strategies that foster coexistence. As till now very little has been done in the three years that followed the war to prepare populations for peace and coexistence, a green light for people-to-people contacts and civil society-led confidence-building initiatives is necessary. In the long-term, this will help ensure that Karabakh should remain a place where Armenians live and will continue to live together.
On Armenia-Azerbaijan relations:
The Armenian government looks to have learned its lessons the hard way, and has thrown out the white flag. The power disbalance, however, is currently rather extreme, which results in the Azerbaijani government to continually raising the bar on what it demands from Armenia. The pressure has mounted to the point that what is on the table does not provide Armenia with avenues to remain a viable state, making it impossible for Yerevan to accept the conditions and sustaining the conflict and instability in the region, making it a fertile ground for great power rivalries and proxy wars. A peace agreement that provides feasible paths for Armenia to remain a viable state is in the interest of the entire South Caucasus. It involves the Armenian state retaining control over its sovereign territory, receiving security guarantees, and access to communication and trade routes.
On the collective West:
The external actors, particularly the US and the EU that returned to the region following the start of the war in Ukraine should develop long-term strategies and make them explicit. At the present time, partnership with the collective West is a high-cost endeavor for the countries of the South Caucasus. It contains existential risks. To date, the West has proved to be an opportunistic and unreliable partner. Their policies have been short-lived, withdrawals – sudden. That has factored into the calculations of various Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani governments in distancing themselves from the West and aligning with Moscow. Since the Western actors are at this openly encouraging the pro-Western turn of Armenia and the Caucasus in general, to shake their reputation as opportunistic and unreliable partners, they should develop and make explicit their long-term strategies as well as limitations.
On Peacebuilding community:
The peacebuilding community needs to come out of the coma, get its act together, and formulate a new vision and agenda. Leaving the monopoly over the conflict at the hands of autocrats and underqualified novices has led us, not to a cycle, but a spiral of violence.
The local and international peacebuilding community needs to accept that the times of unrestricted civil society activism and building peace through building democracy remain in the past and are not in the cards in the foreseeable future. Ingenuity, learning from activists in authoritarian spaces, and the development of approaches to advocate for peace and coexistence in an illiberal and highly volatile political context – and the middle of the region becoming an arena of proxy wars – is what the times demand. Tactically decoupling peacebuilding from democracy building might not be desirable, but at this time it is the obvious necessity.
The previous point does not imply the acceptance of authoritarianism as fait accompli. Peace activism can no longer remain apolitical and should include long-term resistance to authoritarian and oppressive regimes. While conflict management and reduction of violence necessitates tactical compromises with the power holders of the day, a stable peace in the region cannot coexist with the oppression of Azerbaijani citizens – current or future.
*The cover image is taken from Wikipedia Commons.