Middle ground fallacy in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict։ Part I

This is the fourth part of my series on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where I share my thoughts on why the negotiations have failed by discussing the realpolitik side of the issue.

I promised myself to stay strong until the end of this damn war. One of the few inevitable breakdowns was right after the 10+ hour meeting on 10/10/20 in Moscow, where the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan were discussing the terms of a humanitarian ceasefire. They came up with four short points — dry and opaque: humanitarian ceasefire to collect the bodies, format of the negotiations unchanged, etc. It didn’t make sense. I don’t know what I was expecting but suddenly everything seemed unreal. Why did all these kids die?

The humanitarian ceasefire never took effect.

There are no true winners in war. No matter who claims the victory, people on both sides suffer and there is no way to stay morally unstained in this situation. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis have suffered and keep suffering. Many of us are waiting for the “victory news” not to celebrate but to unleash our emotions, to mourn our losses and the tragedy of human nature.

Since the onset of the conflict back in 1980s, many people from both sides were forced to leave their homes and move to the other country, where the majority of their ethnic group lives. Ethnic cleansing if you wish. There were more Azerbaijani refugees because in the 90s war, Armenian forces gained control of the surrounding areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. These areas were strategically important to guarantee the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and serve as a buffer zone today. This has been the status quo for decades now.

“We are our mountains”, Monument in Artsakh

It may seem to you that this situation is to our advantage; after all, Armenians won the first round of the messy war in 90s and made territorial advances. However, it is far from being true. In fact, maintaining the status quo is extremely costly. As long as no peace agreement is reached, there is a constant threat of war and heavy investments in the military are needed. Young soldiers keep dying in meaningless border skirmishes. We are isolated from two of our four neighbors, major oil pipelines all bypass Armenia, railway connections in the region are blocked, foreign investments are hampered because of war risk. We don’t benefit economically from keeping this buffer zone, we lose. So why do we insist on keeping it? Are we all fanatic nationalists who just want to claim land, chase people from their homes and feel good about ourselves while killing our economy? No, ideology is not enough to resist such a big economic temptation. The security risk, however, is.

Quotes from Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev

In my personal quest for missed peaceful solutions, I came across a book called “How enemies become friends: the sources of stable peace”, the title of which immediately appealed to me. The first chapter lays out four crucial components for creating peace:

  1. Unilateral accommodation: a concession must be made by one side to “signal benign as opposed to hostile intent”
  2. Reciprocal restraint: cautious steps away from rivalry, weakening of geopolitical competition
  3. Societal integration: intensification of contacts between governments, private-sectors and ordinary citizens, lobbying for the reduction of economic barriers
  4. Generation of new narratives and identities: emphasis on uniting rather than separating aspects in the public consciousness, development of solidarity

Sounds like a plan but we are still stuck at the first step after so many years. Why? As of the Armenian side, there have probably been missed diplomatic opportunities, and many Armenians are not sure who of our leaders to blame. I am not sure, I don’t know enough about the diplomatic nuances to have a strong informed opinion. What I do know, however, are the factors that make negotiations objectively hard for the Armenian side.

As I mentioned in my first article on this issue, a long-lasting peace should give the people of both nations a sense of justice. For Armenians in Nagorno- Karabakh it means recognition of their independence (Republic of Artsakh) and a connecting corridor to Armenia. The surrounding regions of the buffer zone could then be returned to Azerbaijan, and people who have been displaced from there due to war could finally come back. Why is it so hard to achieve?

Here are the Madrid principles, the main framework for the negotiations:

The Madrid principles

It may all sound nice on paper but let me summarize what it means to us: return of territories (a strategic buffer zone to ensure the security of Nagorno-Karabakh) without any guarantee of Artsakh’s independence! Well, you may say why do you hurry? There will be peacekeepers, there will be a free expression of will etc. No, what it means in practice is the return of strategic territories against promises, not real peace. The introduction of peacekeepers, most probably Russian, will effectively eliminate Armenian’s influence and give more power to Russia, our arch-friend, who has its own geopolitical interests and sells weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. After all, don’t forget how Nagorno-Karabakh was assigned to Azerbaijan in the first place! Finally, that means no final peace agreement, just a huge unilateral accommodation from Armenia.

Quotes from Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev

On this issue, I firmly believe that Azerbaijan should be the first party to commit to concessions. Not because I am a self-righteous nationalist. It is based purely on my understanding of the power dynamics. I tried to explain in my last article why we cannot trust Azerbaijan, a highly militarized country known to spread hatred towards Armenians, to oppress its own people, to use its oil-wealth to corrupt international politicians and to cooperate with Turkey, another powerful armenophobe. Azerbaijan also does not want to include the representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh as a formal party in the negotiations, so that Armenia comes across as a territory-obsessed “invader” in the eyes of the international community.

In my naive opinion, the side which is less trustworthy due to its authoritarian regime and power should take the first step, i.e. recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. It would make sense to me if people’s right to security and self-determination would be prioritized over “territorial integrity”. I do acknowledge the pain of the Azerbaijani refugees who have lost their homes during the war, and it is in their own interest, too, that Azerbaijan’s government becomes more democratic.

But not only is there almost no real pressure on Azerbaijan, both countries are portrayed similarly in the media despite tremendous differences in terms of democracy and power. I will elaborate on this issue in the second part of this article.

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