Azerbaijani model for settling separatist conflict. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



The diminution of Russia’s role in settling the separatist conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh creates beneficial preconditions for resolving an old dispute dating from the Soviet period. It is a learned lesson for all those who are involved in settling separatist conflicts in other parts of the former USSR...


Anatol Țăranu

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh broke out during the last years of existence of the USSR and remains an unsolved one. The first Azeri-Armenian war ended with the Armenians’ victory and the mass expulsion of Azeri ethnics from territories conquered by the Armenians. Then, the Armenian army not only won the war from the start of the 1990s, but also fully or partially occupied another seven regions in Azerbaijan, neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh. Over half a million Azeris had to flee those regions for fear of ethnic cleansing.

“Great Return” announced by Azerbaijan

During many years, Azerbaijan, under the management of the Aliyev family, prepared to take revenge. During the war of 2020, Azerbaijan regained almost everything it lost in the previous military conflicts. Nevertheless, most of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh remained in their homeland under the guarantee of a Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed in the region.

Last December, Azerbaijan effectively besieged the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, blocking the Lachin corridor – the only route through which Nagorno-Karabakh was supplied with goods and electricity from Armenia. According to the official Yerevan, 120,000 Armenians remain blocked in Nagorno-Karabakh. As the Red Cross reported, the food supplies in the region are running out, while the shelves in stores are empty. The humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, which was practically isolated from the world by the Azerbaijani authorities, worsens daily. In its effort to reestablish control over the last segment of territory that was separated by Azerbaijan during the bloody conflict at the times of the collapse of the USSR, the Azerbaijani administration issued an ultimatum: the Armenians there must obey all the conditions put forward by Baku.

The Azeris’ tough position is not due only to propaganda. When Azerbaijan in 2020-2021 regained control over a significant part of the territory lost in the 1990s, it became evident that the Armenian side not only occupied those territories, but also systematically destroyed towns and villages there, which were abandoned by Azeris, making them uninhabitable. The “Great Return” of thousands of Azeris to the freed territories, announced by Iliham Aliyev, takes place much slower than it was expected and implies large-scale reconstruction works and demining works. Consequently, the Azeris cannot feel sympathy for the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Political and military part of solution

As regards the political problem, Aliyev sends a clear signal to the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh: these should accept the full integration into the Azerbaijani state system. The territorial autonomy is not discussed. The Armenians should become ordinary Azerbaijani citizens, with not yet defined special rights in culture and education. This approach implies the dissolution of the Parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh and other self-government bodies. Only the recognition by the Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh of this model of settling the secessionist conflict will lead to the offering of amnesia to persons who are actively involved in separatist actions.

The military successes of Azerbaijan in the confrontation with Armenia are due to major financing and a profound reform of the army which lasted for decades. Azerbaijan made a political-military alliance with Erdogan’s Turkey that massively supported, by arms supplies and military logistics and also politically, Baku’s war against the Armenian army in 2020-2021. Aliyev’s stake on the Azeri-Turkish alliance was fully justified, while Armenia’s alliance with Putin’s Russia disappointed Yerevan.

Putin’s declarative guarantees for Armenians

Since the war in Ukraine broke out, Russia has behaved surprisingly passively in Nagorno-Karabakh, while its peacekeeping forces haven’t intervened somehow in the happenings. This is blatantly against the statements made by Putin after the war of 2020. In particular, he said that the Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, who ran away during the conflict, could return to their homes under the protection or Russia and, in general, it seemed that Moscow this way intended to create a military basis in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In reality, these guarantees made by Putin turned out to be simply declarative. Now the Armenians blame Moscow and its peacekeeping forces for not fulfilling the mission of keeping control over the Lachin corridor - the land route that connects Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and that has been secured by a Russian peacekeeping force since the end of the 2020 war with Azerbaijan. But de facto this route has been blocked for months by the Azerbaijani side and the region is therefore affected. The explanations for such a policy pursued by Moscow are different: either Russia got stuck in Ukraine and concentrated all its forces in this direction or it signed secret agreements with Baku, which can refer not only to Nagorno-Karabakh, but also to other problems.

In such a conjuncture, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev became even more confident in his position. After his military victory in 2020, the President of Azerbaijan is ready to use both diplomacy and the army to resolve the secessionist conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Aliyev was confident in his skills even before the start of the war in Ukraine, but now received an additional trump card. The Russian aggression against Ukraine distracted attention and the resources of Moscow in the South Caucasus, while the international community, especially the West, strengthened its belief that the principle of territorial integrity is more important than the interests of the separatist minority.

Relationship with Russia as strategic mistake for Armenia

De facto abandoned by its ally, Russia, Armenia even renounced its demand to officially separate Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan. In an interview with La Republica recently, the Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that his country’s policy of solely relying on Russia to guarantee its security was a strategic mistake. As the official Yerevan realized particular realities, the relations of Armenia with the military organization of the CIS states (CSTO), which is actually controlled by Russia, deteriorated visibly. After the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the CSTO hasn’t offered any practical assistance to Yerevan. At the beginning of this year, the Armenian Ministry of Defense informed the CSTO that Yerevan didn’t consider it possible to stage military exercises of the organization on Armenian territory. Armenia later renounced to fill the post of deputy secretary general of the CSTO which was assigned to it. In May, the Armenian Premier Nikol Pashinyan said that his country’s withdrawal from the CSTO is not eliminated from the agenda of the Armenian government.

Moreover, as the newspaper Le Monde reported, Armenia accepted to host on its territory the Armenian-American military exercises “Eagle Partner 2023” on September 11-20 at a time when Yerevan further distances itself from Russia, which it criticizes for not helping to secure access to Nagorno-Karabakh – a territory that has been claimed by Armenia and Azerbaijan since the Soviet period.

Learned lesson

At the moment, despite the rising tensions around Nagorno-Karabakh and the presence of the danger of a new war, there are active diplomatic contacts between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan for finding modus vivendi. The conflict settlement negotiations involve the European Union and the U.S. and also Moscow, which until recently extensively controlled the situation in this region of Caucasus. But Russia’s influence on the area, especially after the launch of the war in Ukraine, has declined for the first time and this creates realistic preconditions for solving the problems related to Nagorno-Karabakh. As a series of experts consider, today an Armenian-Azerbaijani agreement is more possible than ever. They speak especially about the mutual recognition of the sovereignty of Azerbaijan and Armenia, the demarcation of the border, the road and railway transport conditions between Nakhchivan and the rest of Azerbaijan, etc. The diminution of Russia’s role in settling the separatist conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh creates beneficial preconditions for resolving an old dispute dating from the Soviet period. It is a learned lesson for all those who are involved in settling separatist conflicts in other parts of the former USSR.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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