The Karabakh conflict is resolved: what should be done next?

The Karabakh conflict is resolved:  what should be done next?

With a decree signed on September 29, Samvel Shahramanyan, the de facto leader of the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” (“NKR) declared the dissolution of the breakaway territory. This decision came 10 days after a counter-terror operation launched on 19 September triggered by a mine explosion in the Khojavend district of Azerbaijan, which killed nine Azerbaijanis, including seven police officers.

After the operation, which had lasted a total of 24 hours, the Armenian Armed Forces in Karabakh agreed to lay down their weapons and leave the region. Azerbaijan officially announced that 205 people, including one civilian, lost their lives, while the “NKR” officially announced the death of 218 people, including 18 civilians (real casualties on the “NKR” side are expected to be more).

After the operations stopped, representatives of Baku and the Karabakh Armenians held three meetings, two in Yevlakh and one at the headquarters of the Russian peacekeepers in Khojaly. At the meeting where humanitarian issues were discussed, the Azerbaijani side presented an initial reintegration plan and agreed to provide food, medical and fuel aid to the region.

In 10 days, according to the official statements of the Armenian government, over 100,000 people from Karabakh have moved to Armenia. The Azerbaijani authorities have not yet disclosed their statistics regarding the Armenians who have passed through the Lachin checkpoint since the recent military campaign.


Maximalist attitudes of Karabakh’s de facto officials and the results

On November 1, 1997, Levon Ter-Petrosyan's article titled "War or peace? Time to get serious." was published in Armenian newspapers.

"As has happened many times in our history, we will beg in the future for what we reject today, but we will not be able to get it," claimed Ter-Petrosyan, triggering a discussion among the people of Armenia and Karabakh. In his article, the former president stated that preserving the status quo would hinder Armenia's development, and that in case no compromise would be found, the war would be the most likely outcome. But the peace plan that Ter-Petrosyan planned to sign was not accepted by the “NKR” authorities and Armenian political circles, resulting in the eventual resignation of the president.

Although it was expected that the “NKR” would give up its maximalist attitudes after the Second Karabakh war, it did not happen. The leadership of the entity had been reluctant to engage with Baku despite the fact that Azerbaijan gradually took control over the electricity, internet and natural gas lines, as well as the Lachin route that was keeping Karabakh alive. In continuation of the systemic provocations, the “NKR” parliament passed a bill in February 2022 which named seven districts that Azerbaijan liberated from occupation in 2020 and outside of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) as 'occupied regions of the Republic of Artsakh'. This decision of the separatist regime came two months after the first meeting of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and the President of the European Council Charles Michel in Brussels on December 12, 2021.

In his speech in the Armenian parliament in April 2022, Prime Minister Pashinyan said that it was necessary to lower the bar on the status of Karabakh and accept the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. This statement was strongly criticized by the separatist authorities of Karabakh and the Armenian opposition. The de facto leader of the “NKR”, Arayik Harutyunyan, held an emergency meeting and vowed that the people of Karabakh would not give up on their struggle. The statements made by the Karabakh parliament were that no alternative other than independence would be accepted.

Following the November 2020 statement, Azerbaijan issued multiple warnings to Armenia, urging the removal of its military forces from the Azerbaijani territory. Despite these repeated warnings, the Armenian side consistently disregarded them, asserting that Armenia did not maintain   military presence in Karabakh. However, the veracity of this claim by Armenian authorities was subsequently debunked by a statement made by the Armenian Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan on July 19, 2022. In his announcement, Grigoryan informed the Armenian media that Armenian soldiers would indeed be withdrawing from Karabakh.

However, no measures were taken to remove the heavy weaponry, and the majority of it remained intact. Although the much-anticipated joint visit of representatives of Azerbaijan Reclamation and Water Management and Karabakh representatives to the Sarsang water reservoir in August 2022 promised hope that dialogue between Baku and the Armenian community had begun, this did not last long. The weapons that Azerbaijani side seized following the anti-terror operation, along with the casualties sustained by the Azerbaijani army during the 24-hour operation, underscore the seriousness of the problem.

Another obstacle was created by Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian billionaire of Armenian origin, who announced in September 2022 his renunciation of the Russian citizenship and a decision to settle in Karabakh, later taking office as State minister in November. Baku claimed that Vardanyan was in the Azerbaijani territory illegally and that he was damaging the prospects of the Baku-Khankendi dialogue, demanding that he leave the region. But these demands were not taken into account. Vardanyan quickly took control in Karabakh and urged Arayik Harutyunan to dismiss Security Council secretary, Vitali Balasanyan, who had allegedly established a dialogue with Baku.

With Vardanyan settling in Karabakh, the Gizilbulag and Demirli mines, where illegal activities had been stopped after the 2020 war, started to function again. Videos were published in the Azerbaijani media showing how raw materials from the mine were transported to Armenia. On December 3, 2022, a group of Azerbaijani protesters closed the Lachin–Khankendi road, demanding an inspection of these mines. Although a common agreement was reached as a result of the meeting between the Baku representatives and Russian peacekeepers on December 7, Ruben Vardanyan and a group of his followers did not allow the Azerbaijani authorities to inspect the mines.

Russian peacekeeping forces commander, general mayor Andrey Volkov, negotiated with the Azerbaijani side to install special equipment allowing to check passing vehicles and cargo. According to the agreement, one person from Azerbaijan would monitor the entry and exit of the vehicles via a remote monitor, and there would be no physical contact. Karabakh's regime also rejected this offer. Thereupon, protests by dozens of eco activists began on December 12, 2022 and ultimately ended in Azerbaijan establishing a border crossing point at the beginning of the Lachin-Khankendi road at the beginning of April 2023. In June, Azerbaijan closed the Lachin road after a state border officer was injured by an Armenian sniper on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Days later the road was opened, but only for ICRC vehicles.

Official Baku offered the completed Aghdam-Khankendi road to deliver needs such as food and medical supplies to the Armenian population of Karabakh. EU and U.S. officials welcomed Azerbaijan's offer and emphasized that humanitarian cargo should be delivered to Karabakh via both the Lachin-Khankendi and Aghdam-Khankendi routes. News started to be published that Arayik Harutyunyan would accept this offer. After this news, Vardanyan said in a video he published that Harutyunyan had crossed a red line. Vardanyan's people also blocked the road in Askeran, preventing the delivery of aid sent by the Azerbaijani Red Cresent Society.

Meanwhile, although the West and Russia offered meetings between Baku and Khankendi in different venues, the parties could not come together. The Karabakh de facto authorities canceled the meeting to be held in Bulgaria, mediated by the U.S., at the last minute. Azerbaijan also did not accept the meeting planned in Slovakia and instead offered to meet in the Azerbaijani town of Yevlax (Yevlakh), but Karabakh representative again refrained from attending this meeting. Former Prime Minister of Armenia Aram Sargysan, in an interview with the Armenian media said that Karabakh said no to an online meeting offered by Louis Bono, US Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations. He stated that this was Russia's direct involvement and called it a mistake that Karabakh only talked about independence during the talks.

On September 1, Arayik Harutyunyan resigned and the Karabakh parliament elected former Security Council secretary David Shahramanyan as the new president. Shahramanyan was the person who met with the Baku representatives at the Russian peacekeepers’ headquarters in Khojaly in March this year. After Shahramanyan became president, he agreed to allow humanitarian cargo to pass through the Lachin-Khankendi and Aghdam-Khankendi roads at the same time. Shahramanyan's election as the new president was received harshly by Azerbaijan. Many countries around the world have issued statements stating that they do not recognise this election.

After the anti-terror operation initiated by Azerbaijan ended, the Karabakh side released a ceasefire statement and intense migration to Armenia began. Azerbaijan stated that it will ensure the rights and security of those who decide to stay and obtain Azerbaijani citizenship; however, this didn’t stop ten thousands of people from moving to Armenia.

Azerbaijan announced reintegration plan

Although Azerbaijan repeatedly offered the highest possible status to Karabakh during the 26 year-long negotiation process, Karabakh would constantly reject it. After the 2020 war, Baku stated that the Armenian people living in Karabakh were Azerbaijani citizens and perceived Armenia's discussion of this issue in an international arena as a threat to its territorial integrity. Apparently, Azerbaijan did not want this problem to be brought to the international arena and produce a new status quo. Azerbaijani officials stated that what Azerbaijan will offer to the people of Karabakh is legally no different from what it offers to other minorities. What is ignored is that the Armenian population living in Karabakh had not been in contact with Azerbaijanis for 30 years, and their leadership tried hard to deny them this opportunity after the second war as well.

In addition, all ethnic groups living in Azerbaijan are better integrated with each other. It was not a realistic policy to expect the same from Armenians in such a short time.

During the 2020 war, Azerbaijani officials voiced the possibility of granting cultural autonomy to Karabakh Armenians. Following the ceasefire declaration in November 2020, discussions surrounding the specifics of this cultural autonomy, integration models, and the potential for a transitional period to address the challenges arising from 30 years of lacked communication could have been started.

In May of this year, Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan, underscored that the rights accorded to Hungarians, Slovakia's largest ethnic minority, could serve as a potential model for the Karabakh Armenians. But there were lack of disscussions on this.

On October 2, Azerbaijan unveiled a plan for the reintegration of the Armenian population of Karabakh that emphasizes equality of rights, safety, cultural preservation, and economic development for the Armenian population in Karabakh.

However, more extensive negotiations should be held regarding the implementation of this plan.

Azerbaijani officials should discuss the reintegration plan or models more frequently during their domestic and international meetings and interviews with the media. Such actions would showcase internationally that Azerbaijan is committed to the reintegration process. Engaging in such negotiations can also facilitate the dissemination of Azerbaijan's message to the Armenian population of Karabakh.


No time for delays

The anti-terror operation not only assisted Azerbaijan in regaining control of Karabakh and restoring its territorial integrity but also eliminated a substantial obstacle to the envisioned peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

However, to advance in this direction, both Armenia and Azerbaijan also the mediating countries must utilize time wisely.

The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan were expected to meet in Granada on October 5 at a meeting with the participation of European Council President Charles Michel, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron.

However, the Azerbaijani president refused to participate in this particular negotiation format, citing concerns over France's pro-Armenian stance and remarks made by French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna regarding military cooperation and the supply of arms and ammunition during her visit to Armenia.

One of the reasons for Ilham Aliyev's absence was the rejection of the Azerbaijani President's proposal for Turkish President Erdoğan to also attend the meeting, a proposition that was turned down by both Germany and France.

In their statement, the Azerbaijani side also emphasized the importance of addressing regional issues in collaboration with countries closely linked to the region.

However, Azerbaijani officials have expressed their willingness to continue negotiations in the Brussels format. During his statement in Granada on October 6, Charles Michel announced that the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia are going to meet in Brussels later this month. This forthcoming meeting could potentially represent the final opportunity for both parties to reach an agreement on a peace treaty, with the aim of signing one before the end of the year.

The signing of a peace agreement can make it easier for Armenians who left Karabakh to return to their homes.

According to the statement made by the United Nations delegation headed by the UN Azerbaijan Coordinator Vladanka Andreeva, after its visit to Karabakh on October 1,  50-1000 ethnic Armenians remain in Karabakh.

In the same statement, the UN mission also underlined that the mission saw no damage to civilian public infrastructure or to cultural and religious structures, and that it did not come any reports neither from the local population interviewed nor from the interlocutors regarding cases of violence against civilians after the ceasefire.

After UN missions trip, the Azerbaijan State Migration Service and Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Population announced on October 4 that 98 people among the Armenians staying in Karabakh applied for Azerbaijani citizenship .

It is essential to recognize that sustainable peace hinges on the presence of Armenian communities in Karabakh, as it profoundly influences relations between the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In this context, the constructive stance of the Armenian government and the intermediary states holds significant importance.

Both the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan bear the responsibility for taking proactive measures in laying the groundwork for harmonious neighborly relations.