Opening of Fuzuli Airport Marks Important Step in Reconstruction Efforts, But Problems Remain

Photo By AyshanASLAN

During a videoconference with Azerbaijani Minister of Culture Anar Karimov on January 5, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated that after demining the Fuzuli district, which was returned to Azerbaijan following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, an international airport would be constructed. Nine months later, on September 5, 2021, Azerbaijan Airlines’ ‘Karabakh’ aircraft conducted the first flight, landing at the Fuzuli International Airport after a 35-minute journey from the Baku airport.

Although the airport is only approximately 95% complete, the construction of an international airport in less than a year represents how restoring the cities damaged during thirty years of occupation is a top priority on the domestic policy agenda.

Authorities have ambitious plans for reconstruction efforts in the territories brought back under the country’s control through the 2020 war. Through the construction of transportation infrastructure, including the Fuzuli airport, the Azerbaijani government is seeking to transform these territories into centers of industry and tourism. There are plans to construct an industrial center in Aghdam, a logistics and trade center in Jabrayil, a culture and tourism center in Shusha, and an additional tourism center in Kalbajar. There is also a particular interest in constructing ‘smart cities’ that are powered by renewable energy, harvesting the hydroelectric, solar, and wind energy potential of the region.  

Although an airport was constructed in less than a year, not all restoration efforts can be completed with alacrity. Many challenges to Azerbaijan’s reconstruction efforts persist, leaving many displaced individuals still wondering when they can return to their homes.

One of the most pressing issues for the Azerbaijani government in the post-war environment has been the issue of landmines. After months of denying the existence of maps showing the location of landmines, Armenia handed over maps showing the location of approximately 100,000 landmines in the Aghdam region in exchange for 15 Armenian prisoners of war. In an interview after the signing of the ceasefire agreement, the head of the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) Idris Ismayilov stated that it would take ten years to fully demine the territories reclaimed by Azerbaijan, and three to five years for displaced individuals to safely return to their homelands.

It is also important to consider the cost of these restoration efforts. According to data released by Azerbaijan’s State Statistical Committee, 74,901,200 AZN (approximately 44 million USD) was spent on construction work in Fuzuli, with nearly 200 million AZN (approximately 118 million USD) spent on projects in Zangilan, Kalbajar, Jabrayil, Aghdam, Lachin, and Shusha. Following the signing of the ceasefire agreement in November 2020, President Aliyev stated that Azerbaijan would file lawsuits through a variety of international channels demanding compensation from Armenia for damages to its territories. The Azerbaijani government estimates the damage to exceed 50 billion USD, but so far, the pursuit of reparations has been unsuccessful.

The emphasis that the Azerbaijani government is putting on reconstruction efforts is a positive signal for those displaced from their homes in these regions. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Azerbaijan is home to more than 600,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Unfortunately, while IDPs have been waiting to return to their homes, numerous civilian deaths and injuries have been reported as displaced individuals have attempted to return to the areas they fled from during the first Karabakh war before the completion of demining activities. Despite some early successes, many of the issues in the territories regained in the 2020 war are far from being resolved. It should also be noted that the investments in these regions should not just benefit Azerbaijan, but the entire region. Further dialogue is necessary for the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but pairing improved relations with infrastructure investments could lead to economic benefits for both countries, benefitting both populations and contributing to greater regional stability.

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Despite Protests, Iran Continues to Facilitate Illegal Shipments into Nagorno-Karabakh

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One month ago, Iran’s ambassador to Azerbaijan Abbas Mousavi was summoned by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs and presented with a diplomatic note demonstrating the country’s concern over Iran’s shipments of cargo into the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Leading up to this confrontation, between July 11 and August 8, it was documented that 35 Iranian vehicles entered and exited the region via the Lachin corridor.

Raising this issue with Iran was fruitless. Between August 11 and September 10, not only did Iranian vehicles continue to travel to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but the total number of vehicles entering the region increased. In this one-month period, 58 trucks entered the region. As Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territories are internationally-recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan, these vehicles should, in theory, require permission from Azerbaijani authorities for entry.

Despite being formally addressed by Azerbaijan, this problem of illegal shipments of cargo persists, presenting several problems for conflict resolution. Iran insists that it seeks to maintain friendly relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the country’s position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict follows that of international law: that Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories are an internationally-recognized part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Furthermore, Iran has encouraged negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Continued support for illegal transportation of products and demonstrating partiality by aiding one side of the conflict undermines any credibility of the Iranian government when it calls for conflict resolution.

The fact that this issue has continued despite diplomatic communications once again calls into question the role and effectiveness of Russian peacekeepers. As Azerbaijani member of parliament Elman Mammadov recently noted, the Russian peacekeeping mission does not seem to be interested in ending the conflict. Instead, “the contingent of Russian military personnel stations on the territory of Azerbaijan cooperates with the separatist regime,” according to Mammadov. 

The delivery of goods by Iranian vehicles into the occupied territories of Azerbaijan relies on the Lachin corridor. According to the third article of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, facilitated and mediated by Russia, Russian peacekeepers were to be deployed along the line of contact as well as along the Lachin corridor. Despite their supposed presence in this region, peacekeepers have failed to uphold the principles of the agreement, before and after Azerbaijan raised this issue with Iran. If the peacekeepers were properly carrying out their duties, these Iranian vehicles would not be allowed to enter the Republic of Azerbaijan.

In reality, the complacency of the Russian government in upholding its own agreement will only elevate the risk of future conflict. With documentation of Iran blatantly ignoring international law, many in Azerbaijan are beginning to share the same view as MP Mammadov: that Russia is not interested in resolving the conflict or enforcing the rule of law. If the Azerbaijani side loses confidence in the ceasefire agreement, progress on critical issues will be brought to a standstill.

For example, the issue of border demarcation is by no means a new issue, but it has become an even more important topic in the post-war environment. After November 10, 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan have routinely accused each other of violating each other’s state borders, leading to flare ups that have claimed lives and injured others. As described by the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “a prerequisite for [demarcations] is the existence of normal bilateral relations, including diplomatic relations, between the neighboring states.”  

Iran’s continued illegal shipments of cargo into Nagorno-Karabakh and the Russian peacekeepers’ failure to respond is undermining the prospects of conflict resolution. As these actions continue, Azerbaijan will only become more skeptical of the Russia’s role as a ‘mediator’ and will be less likely to engage with a power that is deemed impartial.

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Field Visit of the International Conflict Resolution Center to Georgia: An Assessment of the Current Status of Georgia’s Frozen Conflicts

Representatives of the International Conflict Resolution Center traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia to gather first-hand information from government officials, think tank researchers, and civil society activists on the history, current
status, and future of Georgia’s territorial conflicts. Approximately 20% of the Republic of Georgia is occupied, with the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali occupied by Russian military forces. In addition to humanitarian challenges, the occupation of Georgia’s territory has geopolitical implications and repercussions in domestic politics amongst other effects.

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Iranian Shipments into Nagorno-Karabakh Highlight Unreliability of Russian Peacekeepers

Photo by Azeritimes

On August 11, Iran’s ambassador to Azerbaijan was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was presented with a diplomatic note informing the ambassador of illegal visits of Iranian cargo trucks to the Karabakh region. Although Iran has long facilitated the transportation of military equipment into Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenian forces, the recent increase in the frequency of deliveries has caused concern for Azerbaijani officials.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s official stance regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict follows the position supported by international law, which states that the territory is an internationally-recognized part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Iran also officially recognizes United Nations resolutions that recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and call for the removal of Armenian forces from the region.

Iran’s actions suggest otherwise. In June 2020, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister accused Iran of allowing Russian military cargo to be transported through the country into Nagorno-Karabakh. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, videos and images circulated on social media, depicting military equipment being transported through Iran towards the Nordooz-Agarak border crossing point.

Despite the many documented examples of cargo and military equipment being transported from Iran into the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Iran vehemently denies facilitating any shipments. According to Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, “Iran carefully monitors and controls the route of transportation and transit of commodities to other countries…and does not allow [the] country’s soil to be used for the transfer of arms and ammunition whatsoever.”

The recent increase in the number of cargo transfers through Iran to Nagorno-Karabakh highlights several troubling issues, including a possible increase in militarization against a backdrop of increased tensions and recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as doubts over the role of Russian peacekeeping forces.  

In recent months, there have been a series of flare-ups between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On July 19, Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of starting a shootout along the border between Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and the area near Yeraskh, Armenia. On July 28, three Armenian soldiers were killed and two Azerbaijani soldiers were wounded in another escalation between the two countries. Following this incident, Armenia and Azerbaijan both agreed to a Russian proposal for enforcing the ceasefire in the region of the flare up.

Considering the number of outbreaks of conflict in recent months, the increase in cargo shipments from Iran is concerning. Whether Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh are positioning themselves to be on the offense or defense, indications of further militarization of the region are concerning for regional security and development as well as the security of civilians on both sides of the conflict.

Iran’s role in facilitating the transportation of goods into Armenian-held parts of Nagorno-Karabakh represents another instance that calls into question the role of Russian peacekeepers. The Russian peacekeeping force, consisting of nearly 2,000 soldiers, has been notably absent in mediating conflict and complacent in enforcing the terms of the ceasefire agreement.

For example, on May 12, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced during an emergency Security Council meeting that Azerbaijani forces had advanced more than three kilometers into Armenian territory. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying that troops were present in the region to enforce Azerbaijan’s border. In this instance, Russia remained silent and did not take any action.

Additionally, Russia and its peacekeeping forces were clearly disinterested in contributing to the resolution of one of Azerbaijan’s greatest post-war challenges: obtaining the maps of landmines in territories recovered through the 2020 war. In the months following the war, Armenian officials denied the existence of maps of landmines and referred to the requests as a ‘fake agenda’ pushed by Baku. Finally, in June 2021, the Armenian government provided maps of nearly 100,000 mines in the Aghdam district in exchange for 15 Armenian soldiers. In this case, the Russian government and Russian peacekeepers certainly could have facilitated the exchange of maps and prisoners of war much earlier, which would have reduced casualties and injuries caused by landmines and returned soldiers to their homeland and to their families.

Most recently, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense issued a press release calling for the ‘complete withdrawal of the remnants of the Armenian armed forces from the territory of Azerbaijan.’ Azerbaijan states that Armenian armed forces have been setting up new outposts in the territories east of the administrative boundaries of Kelbajar and Lachin, which is in direct violation of the November ceasefire agreement. Russian peacekeepers are currently deployed in the areas where militarization is taking place, and no action has been taken to enforce the principles of the trilateral agreement.   

In these cases, as well as with the recent reports of equipment being transported illegally from Iran, Russian peacekeepers are not actively contributing to improving relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As demonstrated with other conflicts in the post-Soviet space, Russia thrives on instability. Despite being the negotiator of the ceasefire agreement and being one of the largest players in the region, it is in Russia’s interest to prevent the conflict from being resolved. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war provided Russia with an additional opportunity to physically insert itself in the South Caucasus region. Allowing for violations of the ceasefire, whether through border provocations or illegal cargo transfers, ensures delays in the long-term resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and ensures that Russia can maintain a military presence beyond the five-year term indicated in the November 10th agreement.

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Turkey Solidifies Role in South Caucasus with ‘Shusha Declaration’

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On June 15, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a new agreement during an official visit to Shusha, a city reclaimed by Azerbaijan during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Erdoğan and Aliyev first visited the city of Fuzuli before proceeding to Shusha. While in Shusha, Erdoğan and Aliyev signed a monumental defense and economic agreement, officially called the ‘Shusha Declaration on Allied Relations.’ According to Aliyev, Azerbaijan and Turkey “have established a qualitatively new relationship, and all provisions of the declaration are a guarantee of our future cooperation.”

The Shusha Declaration builds on previous agreements signed between Azerbaijan and Turkey, including the ‘Agreement on the Development of Friendship and Comprehensive Cooperation’ – signed in 1994 – and the ‘Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Assistance Between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Turkey’ – signed in 2010. The latter, ratified in 2010 by Azerbaijan and in 2011 by Turkey, proved crucial for the Second Karabakh war, as the agreement states that Turkey and Azerbaijan will provide unconditional support for each other ‘in case of a military attack or aggression against either of the countries.’

While the Shusha Declaration includes ‘Shusha’ in the title, the contents of the declaration go beyond military support and support for Azerbaijan’s efforts in the territories gained in last year’s war. The agreement also states that Azerbaijan and Turkey will ‘increase their efforts to diversify national economies and exports in trade and economic relations…to develop more favorable conditions for the mutually beneficial development of investment cooperation.’ Additionally, various clauses refer to energy security, including the continued development of the Southern Gas Corridor and efforts to strengthen electricity supplies in the region.

Turkey will continue to contribute to construction efforts in the reclaimed territories. In order to improve the coordination of reconstruction efforts, Erdoğan announced that Turkey would open a consulate in Shusha, the first diplomatic mission to open in the region. Erdoğan added that the opening of a consulate would help Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) return home. An opening date has not been announced, but Erdoğan noted that the consulate will be opened in Shusha ‘as soon as possible.’

Increasing Turkey’s role in the region also led to talks about the ‘Zangezur corridor’ – a transit corridor intended to connect Nagorno-Karabakh to Nakhchivan and the Kars province of Turkey by rail. Erdoğan noted that the opening of this transit route will allow Turkey to access Central Asia through the Caspian Sea and that Russia would benefit from the passage as well.

The announcement of Turkey’s greater engagement in the region was welcomed by many Azerbaijanis, but not received well by Armenia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia released a statement on June 15 condemning the visit of Erdoğan and Aliyev to the region and the signing of the Shusha Declaration, referring to these actions as an ‘outright provocation against regional peace and security.’ The Ministry also added that these actions represent the ‘false and misleading nature’ coming from Ankara and Baku about normalizing relations with Armenia.

The strengthening of the already-strong relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey causes concern for Russia. While Russia describes the joint Russia-Turkish Monitoring Center as a positive development, Russia’s presence far outweighs Turkey’s, with nearly 2,000 peacekeepers on the ground. Russia is particularly concerned about a statement made by Erdoğan, in which the Turkish President noted that he would explore the possibility of a Turkish military base in Azerbaijan. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to this statement, stating that, “the deployment of military infrastructure by [NATO] alliance countries near our borders is a cause for our special attention.”

Whether or not a military base materializes, the Shusha Declaration indicates that Turkey intends to take a serious role in the South Caucasus and seeks to counterbalance the role and influence of Russia in the region, disrupting the previous status quo.  

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Armenia and Azerbaijan Make Breakthrough Deal on Mines and Prisoners

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After several weeks of escalating tensions between the two countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan recently agreed to a deal that addressed some of the most pressing issues for each side. The deal led Azerbaijan to release 15 Armenian prisoners in exchange for maps indicating the sites of clusters of landmines in parts of the territory reclaimed by Azerbaijan during last year’s war.

On June 12, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan announced the details of the arrangement. Azerbaijan released 15 Armenian, who were detained after the signing of the ceasefire agreement in November 2020, via the Georgia-Azerbaijan border, and Armenia provided Azerbaijani authorities with maps of 97,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in Aghdam and nearby areas.

The deal was made possible with the assistance of several parties. Georgia not only allowed prisoners of war to be returned through its territory, but its government actively contributed to the agreement as well, with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili directly involved in the negotiations. Also involved were U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker, President of the European Council Charles Michel, and the Swedish Chairmanship of the OSCE. Following the announcement of the agreement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his gratitude for Georgia’s involvement, and Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili stated that, “Georgia is back [in] its historic mediator role…[and] building confidence is the path to lasting peace.”

With Georgia, the U.S., the European Union, and OSCE Chairmanship all having a stake in the negotiations, one glaring omission was the role of Russia. Although Russia has utilized its ceasefire agreement to insert itself into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and to achieve an additional presence in the South Caucasus region, the country has had little involvement in the peace process beyond its force of peacekeepers on the ground. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have shown dismay towards some of the actions of Russia in the post-war environment, and Moscow has seemed indifferent in extinguishing smoldering elements of the conflict. Russia has done little, if anything, to pressure the Armenian government to hand over landmine maps and has put minimal pressure on Azerbaijan to address the issue of prisoners.

While this deal should be considered a significant step, especially considering the backdrop of the series of escalations last month between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it only addresses a small fraction of the issues plaguing the domestic political arena of each country. In Azerbaijan, one of the hinderances to reconstruction and development of the territories reclaimed during the 2020 war has been the extensive mining operations of Armenian forces. According to Idris Ismayilov, the Head of Operations for the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA), approximately 10 years will be needed to fully demine the territories. The greatest challenge in the demining process has been identifying the locations of mine clusters; until now, the Armenian government has refused to provide Azerbaijan with maps of landmines, at one point even claiming that no such maps existed.     

As part of this deal, Armenia secured the return of 15 Armenian nationals that had been held in detention in Azerbaijan. In the aftermath of the 2020 war, securing the safe return of Armenians held by Azerbaijani forces has been a priority on the domestic agenda. On March 15, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov announced that Azerbaijan had released all prisoners of war. Despite this, many Armenians still remained in captivity, as Azerbaijan states these individuals were captured after the signing of the ceasefire, therefore not meeting the definition of ‘prisoner of war.’ Regardless of the technicalities, it is a priority for the Armenian people to see their compatriots return home safely, as recently stated by Mané Gevorgyan, the spokesperson for Armenian acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Looking forward, several steps should be taken. Neither side should hold the interests of the other side hostage for leverage, as returning prisoners to their home country and providing maps for demining efforts both increase trust and cooperation. Historically, Armenia has denied the existence of landmine maps, but as visible through this latest agreement, the maps do exist. At the least, Armenia should offer information about which regions it holds maps for so that Azerbaijan can formulate an agenda for negotiation. Azerbaijan should, in exchange, provide information about its prisoners, giving clear information about their status, conditions, and wellbeing, as well as engaging in conversation with Armenia about securing their return.

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New Challenges to Political Stability in Run-up to Armenian Elections

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In recent years, Armenia’s domestic political situation has experienced a high level of volatility. Many Armenians came together in April and May 2018 during the country’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ in which Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and members of his Republican Party controlled government were forced to step down in favor of Nikol Pashinyan.

During the first two years of Pashinyan’s leadership, there were a small number of political flare-ups and controversies, but the country was lauded internationally for its improvements in democracy ranking systems. In 2018, The Economist praised Armenia for its gains in government accountability and transparency following the revolution, naming Armenia the annual Country of the Year.

The country has entered a new political reality following the signing of the ceasefire agreement ending the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. In Armenian society, many considered Pashinyan to have ‘sold out’ the people of Armenia by capitulating to Azerbaijan without discussing the decision with other officials. Armenian President Armen Sarkissian notably stated that he was not involved in the signing of an agreement learned about the signing of a peace deal through the news.

By February 2021, Pashinyan faced expanded protests. After Pashinyan stated that Russian-supplied Iskander missiles used during the war ‘underperformed’ he came into conflict with the country’s military officials. Pashinyan fired Armenian Chief of General Staff Onik Gasparyan, a decision which was previously blocked by President Armen Sarkissian, which led to dozens of top military officials to demand Pashinyan’s resignation.

With civilians and opposition parties questioning his authorities, opposition parties signed off on Pashinyan’s announcement that the country would hold early elections. On April 25, Pashinyan announced his resignation as Prime Minister, remaining in the position in a ‘caretaker capacity’ until the June elections.

Considering a backdrop of a series of recent escalations of border tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, several high-ranking officials have exited Armenia’s government with elections only weeks away. As of the time of writing, Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Foreign Minister, and the Foreign Ministry’s Press Secretary have all issued their resignations.

The resignations were kicked off by a meeting in which acting Prime Minister Pashinyan proposed a plan for de-escalating the tensions that have emerged on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, part of which have been caused by the lack of a border.

Pashinyan’s proposal, which called for the withdrawal of Armenian and Azerbaijani troops from areas near the countries’ borders and the deployment of international observers from Russia, France, or the United States, was welcomes by Western nations, European Union member countries, and the OSCE. Many Armenians, however, expressed disapproval of this proposal. In recent weeks, the Armenian public has experienced reports of Azerbaijani soldiers entering Armenian territory and most recently, reports of the arrest of 6 Armenian soldiers by Azerbaijani forces. The conflict is very much active in the minds of civilians, and Pashinyan’s proposals for mediation seem unattractive at the least.

Foreign Minister Ara Ayvazyan announced his resignation on May 27 following a National Security Council meeting. On May 31, he provided additional details, stating that he resigned to ‘ensure [that] there is never any question that our ministry can take steps or agree to any ideas or initiatives that go against our…national and state interests.”

Following Ayvazyan’s resignation, Deputy Minister Gagik Galachyan and Press Secretary Anna Naghdalyan both issued their resignations. In her resignation announcement, Naghdalyan noted that it was an honor for her to work with Ayvazyan and his predecessor, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan. Mnatsakanyan resigned over disagreements with Pashinyan, and it has been reported that this is the same reason for Ayvazyan’s resignation.

Ayvazyan’s resignation was likely triggered by another case of Pashinyan’s decision to go rogue and make national decisions independently. Mikael Minasyan, the son-in-law of Serzh Sargsyan, leaked a ‘secret document’ on social networks in which Armenia would sign over a number of villages to Azerbaijan. Pashinyan acknowledged the authenticity of the document on May 20, and Minasyan added that Foreign Minister Ayvazyan is ‘categorically against’ the signing the agreement.

With these issues simmering in Armenia, caretaker Prime Minister Pashinyan began a diplomatic tour to France and Belgium on June 1. According to Armenian news outlet Armenpress, Pashinyan will meet with members of the French National Assembly, French President Emmanuel Macron, and representatives of the Armenian community of France. Pashinyan’s agenda includes discussions on Armenian-French bilateral relations, opportunities for resolving the current border situation, and a long-term settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Sunday, June 20, leaving Pashinyan with less than three weeks to shore up domestic support to maintain his party’s majority or risk losing to opposition candidates that have blamed Pashinyan for Armenia’s 2020 defeat.

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Armenian Soldiers Detained by Azerbaijan in Latest Escalation of Border Tensions

Photo by Azertac.

In recent weeks, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have once again flared up despite clear stipulations outlined in the trilateral peace agreement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia in November 2020. On May 12, the government of Armenia announced that the Azerbaijani military had advanced into its territory in the southern Syunik province of the country. By May 20, the country also reported a series of clashes with Azerbaijani troops that left several Armenian soldiers injured. On May 25, Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that an Armenian serviceman was fatally wounded by Azerbaijani armed forces, a claim that Azerbaijan denies.

The latest development highlights the multiple challenges in the post-conflict reality of the region. On May 27, Azerbaijani officials reported that six Armenian soldiers had been captured in the Kelbajar region. According to Armenian news outlet, the six Armenian soldiers were captured by Azerbaijani troops while carrying out engineering work near their military facility in the Gegharkunik Province.

Azerbaijani officials, on the other hand, have stated that the Armenians were sappers involved in scouting defenses and laying landmines. According to Lieutenant Colonel Anar Eyvazov, the Spokesperson for the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, the soldiers were part of a ‘sabotage group’ operating in the Yukhary Ayrim village. Eyvazov also stated that Armenia assembled its forces, including tank formations, at the front line.

In the post-war setting, the issue of landmines has become a hot topic. Landmines have caused military and civilian casualties on both sides of the conflict, and following the end of the second Karabakh war, assessments have shown that it will take at least five to six years to clear unexploded ordinance and a minimum of ten years to clear landmines. Azerbaijan’s National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) is working to clean the reclaimed territories with a force of more than 15,000 personnel. Russian military personnel and personnel from Turkey’s Special Mine Detection and Clearance Teams are contributing to demining efforts.

The Armenian government has also asserted that its soldiers had not crossed into Azerbaijani territory, highlighting another challenge of stabilizing the situation in the region. With the first Karabakh war erupting in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan never officially demarcated a border. During the second Karabakh war, Azerbaijan presented itself as a force simply restoring its territorial integrity under its internationally recognized borders. With the latest move, however, Azerbaijan has literally pushed past this boundary into uncharted territory, highlighting the need for negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in establishing official boundaries.

Following the announcement of the arrests, members of the international community jumped to voice their concerns. The U.S. Department of State released a statement calling for Armenia and Azerbaijan to ‘urgently and peacefully resolve this incident’ and for Azerbaijan to release the six prisoners, as well as any prisoners of war. The U.S. government also demonstrated awareness for the problems caused by the lack of border demarcation, noting that both Armenia and Azerbaijan should return to their positions that they held on May 11.

France’s Foreign Ministry issued a similar announcement, calling on both sides to ‘show the utmost restraint and to refrain from any provocation.’

Noticeably silent in the recent developments of this month is Russia. Russia, which maintains a presence of nearly 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, has not issued a firm warning on the detention of the soldiers. On May 27, it was reported that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had requested international observers from ‘Russia or other countries’ to be deployed to the Armenian border where the latest incidents have occurred. Sergey Kopirkin, Russia’s Ambassador to Armenia, only issued a generic response during a recent press conference, claiming that Russia is making efforts to resolve the situation in Syunik without providing any further details. Prime Minister Pashinyan has also made numerous appeals to the CSTO, which he claims ‘has not expressed a clear position’ and ‘has not declared that Azerbaijan should withdraw its forces.’

For now, the situation remains unresolved, but highlights the need for border demarcation as well as acknowledgement for the danger of the extensive mining in the region. Rather than simply issuing statements, the international community and international organizations should lead on-the-ground missions in Armenia and Azerbaijan to establish solutions to the smoldering components of the conflict, in order to prevent further escalation of conflict.

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Cultural War Heats Up Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Photo by The Azeri Times.

On October 8, in the midst of 2020 Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha, also known as the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, was damaged by an artillery shell. Armenian officials accused Azerbaijan of targeting the religious site, but the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan countered this and stated that it “doesn’t target historical, cultural and, especially, religious buildings and monuments.”

As part of its post-war efforts, Azerbaijan has launched widespread initiatives to rebuild and restore the territories it gained back last year. One of Azerbaijan’s greatest victories in the Second Karabakh war was gaining control of the city of Shusha, which for many Azerbaijanis, is considered the heart of culture. Following the signing of the trilateral peace agreement by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture stated that “the restoration and reconstruction of our historical and religious monuments, including churches and synagogues, is an integral part of the policy pursued by the Azerbaijani state in this area.”

Six months after the end of hostilities, controversy over the cathedral has erupted once more. Images of the cathedral covered in scaffolding surfaced on social media, sparking outrage in the Armenian community. By May 3, images showing the removal of the cathedral’s dome appeared, which according to Gegam Stepanyan, the Ombudsperson of the regime governing Nagorno-Karabakh, serves to “liquidate the Armenian presence and traces in the occupied territories.” Armenia’s Foreign Ministry added that the renovation efforts have started without consulting the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that the purpose of the restoration work is to recreate the original appearance of the cathedral and the city of Shusha, adding that all works “are carried out exactly in accordance with the original architectural style.” The Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church also stated that an Orthodox church was built in Shusha in 1847, but in the 1990s, characteristics of the church were modified to add attributes of the Armenian Gregorian church.

While the government of the Republic of Azerbaijan has preserved several Armenian religious monuments, including an Armenian church in the center of Baku, the same cannot be said for Azerbaijan’s cultural monuments. Several mosques in the Armenian capital, including the Shah Abbas, Sardar, and Haji Novruz Ali mosques, were destroyed after Azerbaijanis were forced to leave Yerevan. The single remaining mosque, the Blue Mosque, was renovated to reflect a ‘Persian style.’ Mosques in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts that survived demolition faced a similar fate. In October 2019, after five years of ‘renovation’, the Govhar Agha Upper Mosque in Shusha was reopened, and officials in Karabakh began to refer to the mosque as historically ‘Persian.’ Referring to the mosque in this way erases the Azerbaijani history and identity in Shusha, which is exactly what Armenians are accusing Azerbaijan of doing currently.

Religious and cultural sites remain a controversial and sensitive topic in the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The involvement of an international organization, such as UNESCO, would be particularly valuable in building confidence and trust in the post-conflict space.

However, working with this organization will not be easy, as the Azerbaijani authorities have reasons to doubt the efficacy of UNESCO. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, UNESCO issued a statement to show its concern over the escalation of violence in the region, urging Armenia and Azerbaijan to comply with their obligations, including ensuring the prevention of damage to cultural heritage under international humanitarian law. In the previous three decades of occupation of Azerbaijani territory, however, Azerbaijan’s appeals to UNESCO to investigate destruction and misappropriation of Azerbaijani cultural heritage went unanswered, and statements against the destruction of Azerbaijani cultural and religious sites were never issued.

Despite Azerbaijan’s lack of confidence in UNESCO, President Ilham Aliyev recently invited a UNESCO fact-finding mission to the territories regained in the war. According to Aliyev, “after the conflict, a mission is now expected to be sent…because on the liberated lands there is an Armenian atrocity, vandalism.”

Although dates of a field visit by UNESCO have not been announced, bringing officials from an international organization could significantly reduce tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. If UNESCO can verify that Azerbaijani officials are not vandalizing cultural sites belonging to Armenians, steps toward restoring trust can be taken, ultimately benefiting both peoples and leading to greater integration in the region.

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Another Failure of E.U. Mediation Talks in Georgia: Implications for Conflict Resolution

Georgia, which has been hailed for its democratic development during in the post-Soviet era, began to experience a renewed political crisis following the October parliamentary elections. The Georgian Dream political party gained the greatest number of votes, however various opposition parties banded together under the United Opposition, and ultimately did not recognize the results of the election, leading to a boycott of parliament. After several months of deadlock, tensions reached a new level with the arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia. Protests erupted, with demonstrators calling for a release of political prisoners and early parliamentary elections.

After this escalation, European Council President Charles Michel stepped in and began mediation efforts between the ruling party and the opposition in early March 2021. Following the first round of negotiations, Georgian Dream and the United Opposition agreed to a six-point agenda for continued negotiations.

Less than a week after the talks, an audio recording from 2017 of Bera Ivanishivili was leaked, reigniting the tensions and the controversy surrounding the Georgian Dream party. In the recording, Bera, the son of the Georgian Dream party’s founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, is heard instructing high ranking government officials to harass various young people who made online posts criticizing him and his family. The leak of this recording put Georgian Dream led many Georgians to question the legitimacy of the party, and an investigation was called for.

This week, Special Representative of the President of the European Council Christian Danielsson held a new round of talks in Tbilisi. On March 30, Danielsson issued his proposals for resolving the domestic crisis to the ruling and opposition parties. Although Danielsson prefaced the meeting with the need for compromise, neither side agreed to sign the agreement, which called for reforms in the electoral system, judicial system, and system of power distribution.

Shortly after midnight on March 31, it was publicly announced that the mediation effort had failed. By April 1, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili stated in a government meeting that Georgian Dream is considering ending negotiations with the opposition, calling the negotiations ‘pointless talks.’

With the news that the political deadlock would continue, several western governments issued their own announcements showing disdain for the sustained impasse. In a joint statement issued by Members of the European Parliament, representatives warned that the absence of a resolution would affect the future relations of the European Union and Georgia. The European Parliament is currently posturing itself to suspend financial assistance to Georgia through various programs; the amount to be withheld amounts to approximately 60 million Euros.

In a recently published report by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. reiterated the opinion of the OSCE and ODIHR. The OSCE and ODIHR assessment states that there are questions over abuse of administrative resources, intimidation of voters, violations of voter secrecy, attacks on political opponents, and violence against journalists.

As Georgia’s internal political crisis continues, the lack of a complete parliament has implications for relations and negotiations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, internationally recognized as part of Georgia, but controlled by occupying governments and supported by the Russian government.

While Russia has stated that it is staying neutral on the Georgian crisis, Russia is known to capitalize on division. Georgia’s political parties often accuse each other of having relations, or a desire to have relations, with Russia. Majority of Georgians consider integration with Europe as a way of protecting the country from further occupation of territories by Russia. However, with relations between Georgian political parties and European Union officials strained, Russia can exploit the growing distance between the E.U. and Georgia. With a disruption to the construction of Euro-Atlantic relations, Georgia may be less likely to defend itself against ‘borderization’ efforts of Russian forces, and it may be less capable of engaging in meaningful negotiations with Abkhaz and South Ossetian officials.

Russia can take advantage of Georgia’s weakness and make additional efforts to integrate Abkhazia and South Ossetia with itself, politically and economically. In this capacity, Abkhaz Vice President Aslan Bartsits stated in a recent interview that ‘negotiations with Tbilisi are an illusion.’ Bartsits stated that, “we are in a state of war with Georgia. We have no peace treaty. Georgia’s rhetoric towards Abkhazia has not changed one iota.”

The Russian Federation is one of few countries recognizing Abkhazia’s independence, and the Georgian government is in no position to encourage Abkhaz officials to engage in talks. For the time being, Abkhazia will continue to rely on Russia for connection to the outside world, deepening investments in infrastructure and trade, further isolating Abkhazia from Georgia. As long as the Georgian political crisis continues, negotiations and communications with its occupied territories will be off the table, negating any progress that has been made in improving relations in recent years.

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The Road to Karabakh: Russia’s New Role in Border Control

When the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Ceasefire Agreement went into effect on November 10, 2020, several existing international laws were reaffirmed. Since the beginning of occupation in the early 1990s, international law has stated that Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding territories are an integral part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed the agreement, they agreed to this simple fact: Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan.

While some parts of Nagorno-Karabakh remain populated with ethnic Armenians, Azerbaijan has largely regained control of its territory. From the beginning of the signing of the peace agreement, one of the priorities has been to rebuild all of the infrastructure and property that has been destroyed. With the assistance of deployed Russian peacekeeping forces, the ninth clause of the agreement stipulates that Armenia must guarantee the safety of transportation links between Azerbaijan and its exclave, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. On the other hand, Azerbaijan became responsible for facilitating unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and cargo. 

As stated in the agreement, Russia’s role should be limited to monitoring the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territory, maintaining a peacekeeping center for monitoring the ceasefire, including a center jointly-controlled with Turkey, and for maintaining the security of transport routes. 

Previously, it was announced that more than 50,000 ethnic-Armenians had returned from the Republic of Armenia to the Armenian held parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. The population of Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh before the 2020 war was approximately 150,000, with slightly more than 50,000 residents living in the capital city of Stepanakert (known as Khankendi, de-jure). 

After this large group of ethnic Armenians had migrated back to the lands where they were residing before the 2020 war, it was announced that Russia had taken on an additional responsibility. Beginning in early February, all visitors to Nagorno-Karabakh would have to receive permission from Russian peacekeepers before entering. On February 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the de-facto government existing within the region stated that this process was being introduced for ‘security purposes.’

Authorities of the regime occupying part of Nagorno-Karabakh attribute the need for this additional layer of security to a concept that was promoted during wartime: the use of mercenary soldiers. Armenia repeatedly reported that Azerbaijan, with the help of Turkey, employed Syrian and other mercenaries during the war, although no evidence has shown this to be the case. In an interview with Armenian Public Radio, David Babayan, the Foreign Minister of the de-facto regime of Nagorno-Karabakh, stated that control by Russian peacekeepers was part of the ‘new reality in Karabakh.’

Nagorno-Karabakh has always been part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and this fact was solidified under the trilateral agreement. Any argument that Nagorno-Karabakh should be independent or a separate entity governed by ethnic Armenians was immediately quashed with the peace agreement, as the Prime Minister of Armenia himself agreed to the terms and conditions that negate all claims to the territory. 

Azerbaijan maintains a ‘blacklist’ of foreigners who traveled to the occupied territories without permission before the 2020 war. Azerbaijan views any visit to its territories by crossing the border from Armenia as a violation of its immigration law; if one’s name is added to the blacklist, one can be banned from entering Azerbaijan for life. 

That being said, before the 2020 war, Azerbaijan saw monitoring who entered and exited the occupied territories as an important measure of national security. Now that Azerbaijan has liberated much of the previously occupied lands, it would be logical to assume that the Azerbaijani government would have greater control over the affairs of these territories. Instead, Russia has been handed an additional role outside of the agreement, leading many to question why Russian forces are being given the authority to operate in this capacity outside of the borders of the Russian Federation. 

Despite having a peace agreement that confirms the ownership of the territories, many questions remain. This is particularly apparent in the territories that were not liberated or returned to the Azerbaijani government as there has been no concrete decision on how to determine the operating status of the territories still held by ethnic Armenians. 

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The War is Over, but Azerbaijani Refugees Remain Displaced

Following the outbreak of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war on September 27, ethnic Armenians residing inside of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region mobilized. In a few short weeks, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capitol Khankendi, referred to as Stepanakert by ethnic Armenians, transformed from a city of more than 50,000 to a ghost town.  

Approximately 150,000 ethnic Armenians lived in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied regions before the beginning of the war. By October 7, the Nagorno-Karabakh regime’s Ombudsman Artak Beglaryan estimated that 70,000-75,000 ethnic Armenians had been displaced, and many were being evacuated to Yerevan, the capitol of the Republic of Armenia.  

After the signing of the November trilateral peace agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, a clear procedure was established for ethnic Armenians to vacate the territories liberated by Azerbaijan during the war. Under the Sixth Article of the agreement, Armenia was to return the Kalbajar District to Azerbaijan by November 15 (later extended to November 25) and the Lachin District by December 1.  

International media provided widespread coverage of the return of the Kalbajar district to Azerbaijan. In this handoff, ethnic Armenians burned down their homes, slaughtered livestock, and razed entire plots of forests before beginning their exodus to Armenia. With the return of Kalbajar and Lachin to Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan cooperated with Russian peacekeepers and ensured the safety and security of ethnic Armenians.  

While international media was focused on the departure of ethnic Armenians from lands internationally recognized as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan has demonstrated full compliance with additional aspects of the trilateral agreement as well. By late December, approximately 43,000 Armenians had returned to the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh retained by ethnic Armenians with the signing of the peace agreement. By late January 2021, this number surpassed 50,000 civilians.  

While the population of ethnic Armenians within the territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan are still not at their pre-war levels, approximately one-third of the population has returned in less than three months since the settlement of the conflict.  

The same cannot be said for the Azerbaijani IDPs (internally displaced people). After thirty years of Armenian occupation, the future remains uncertain for the displaced Azerbaijanis and their families. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Azerbaijan has one of the highest populations of IDPs globally, with an estimated one million individuals displaced by conflict during the early 1990s.  

Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war gave a sense of hope to the refugees who have been unable to return home for the past thirty years. The resolution of the conflict and partial restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is only the first step, and for many reasons, the refugees’ displacement will unfortunately continue for many years to come.  

During the thirty years of occupation, entire cities were leveled by ethnic Armenians. A prime example of this destruction is the city of Ağdam. What was once a city home to approximately 40,000 Azerbaijanis and countless cultural sites, including the Ağdam mosque and Soviet-era Bread Museum, became known as the ‘Hiroshima of the Caucasus’ due to its complete obliteration. 

Ağdam is only one example of this annihilation. The liberated territories are in no condition to support the refugees who once called this home. Agricultural lands have been plundered and infrastructure is in disrepair. Lands that appear to be usable are often times not; due to extensive mining efforts, the Azerbaijani army faces an uphill battle with demining operations. In consideration of all of these factors, the Azerbaijani government is currently conducting a series of inventories on the extent of the damages in order to calculate the amount of money needed for reconstruction efforts.  

Although a timeline for permanent resettlement is still unavailable, the Azerbaijani government is taking steps to provide a sense of resolve for its IDPs. The inventories of damages will lay the foundation for the Azerbaijani to seek investment from the international community in reconstruction efforts. It will also give the government of Azerbaijan a valid and legitimate platform to seek restitution from the Armenian government in the international legal system, especially since the Armenian Prime Minister signed the agreement which implicates Armenia as an occupying force in the internationally-recognized territories of Azerbaijan. 

Diplomatic actions and lawsuits may prove successful in the long term for restoring rights and properties to the displaced, but the Azerbaijani government has also recognized the importance of offering short-term guarantees as well. After the cessation of hostilities, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons Fuad Huseynov affirmed that refugees would not lose their protections. According to Huseynov, the Azerbaijani government will continue to provide social assistance and social protection for IDPs until three years after they return to their native lands.  

Azerbaijani IDPs may not see tangible results immediately and it will likely be many years before families are able to return to territories with restored infrastructure, demined lands, and quality housing. However, in the past three months since the end of the conflict, the Azerbaijani government has taken a number of steps to establish a foundation for refugees to return home. Moving forward, the international community should provide support to Azerbaijan, not only financially, but within the rule of law, to ensure that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is secure and to reduce the chances of any further displacement.  

Image Source: Azerbaijani Refugees from Karabakh  

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Implications for Georgia’s Victory in European Court of Human Rights Lawsuit

On August 11, 2008, one day prior to the signing of a ceasefire agreement ending the hostilities between Russia and Georgia in the 2008 Russo-Georgia war, the Georgian government submitted a lawsuit to the European Court of Human Rights. After more than a decade of consideration, the ECHR announced its ruling.  

While the Georgian government submitted its case to the ECHR in 2008, it was not accepted by the Court for consideration until December 2013. Following several years of deliberation, the Court released the judgement on January 21, 2021: Russia violated numerous articles of the European Convention on Human Rights during the 2008 conflict.  

In addition to not cooperating with the ECHR and its investigation, the Court ruled that Russia violated six articles of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to life (Article 2); prohibition of torture, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 3); the right to liberty and security (Article 5); the right to protection of private and family life (Article 8); protection of property (Article 1, Additional Protocol 1); and freedom of movement (Article 2, Protocol 4). The court also concluded that Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) are integral parts of Georgia, and that in controlling these regions, Russia is responsible for the violation of human rights of Georgian citizens.  

Because of this ruling, Georgia is entitled to compensation from Russia. Russia and Georgia now have one year to present their proposals for settlement. Although the ruling was in favor of Georgia, the Georgian government should not expect a quick and easy settlement process. In January 2019, the ECHR ruled in favor of Georgia in another case and ordered Russia to pay Georgia 10 million Euros for damages suffered by more than 1,500 Georgian nationals. Russia has yet to pay the settlement determined by the Court.  

While Georgian officials consider the ruling of the case to be an ‘enormous victory’ the results did not sit well with the other side of the lawsuit. After the ruling was announced, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation stated that “Russia proactively supports South Ossetia in its efforts to build a modern democratic state.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also issued a tweet, stating that, “the friendly relations between Russia and South Ossetia are based on the principles of alliance and integration and are not subject to momentary considerations.” 

The authorities of South Ossetia, Georgia’s occupied Tskhinvali region, also did not react well to the verdict. Anatoly Bibilov, the President of South Ossetia, called the ruling “biased, politicized and has nothing to do with real facts.” One day after the ruling, Bibilov conducted an extensive interview with local reporters. According to Bibilov, the ECHR’s ruling was one-sided and “had little in common with true events and facts, dictated by the anti-Russian political course of the collective West, which has not for a moment thought about condemning the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia and the crimes of the Georgian military.” 

Georgia’s victory in this case did not bode well for Russia and Russia-backed South Ossetia, possibly hindering communications between officials in a context in which many diplomatic efforts have already been postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the potential setbacks, in terms of cross-border communication, the ruling lays the foundation for further successes for Georgia in international courts.  

Following the recent decision, Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria stated that the ECHR ruling ‘is of great legal and historic importance for Georgia’ and added that the court’s decision will likely influence the International Criminal Court’s investigation of the 2008 war.  

According to a statement released by the Ombudsman of Georgia, since 2016, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has been investigating alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the August 2008 war. The Ombudsman’s office indicated that the ECHR ruling will likely have an impact on the ICC ruling, especially because of the ECHR’s conclusions on the torture of Georgian prisoners of war.  The Office of the Public Defender of Georgia stated that the International Criminal Court should make the identification of high-ranking officials responsible for the torture of Georgian prisoners a priority.  

Despite the slow-moving nature of the international arbitration system and the possible hindering of communications between Georgia, Russia, and South Ossetia as a result of the ruling, the decision was a key action in affirming Georgia’s territorial integrity, and that the regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) are in fact Georgian territory. 

Image Source: Agenda.GE  

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Russia Appoints New Special Envoy for Border Demarcation, Heightening Tensions with Georgia

On January 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a Presidential Decree on the topic of demarcation of the state border between Russia and its neighboring states. The decree focuses on establishing borders between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, reigniting frustration from the Georgian side on Russia’s continued involvement in supporting de-facto states that fall within Georgia’s internationally-recognized borders.  

In the decree, Russia named Mikhail Petrakov as the new Special Envoy for Demarcation and Delimitation of Borders. Petrakov also serves as the head of a Russian delegation responsible for engaging in multilateral talks with countries of the Caspian region. The post was previously manned by Igor Bratchikov, who entered the role under a Presidential Decree that took effect on August 25, 2012.   

The January 2021 decree states that Petrakov “will be tasked with delimiting and demarcating the state border of the Russian Federation with Abkhazia, Georgia, and South Ossetia.” The announcement of Petrakov’s appointment immediately incited a response from the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Georgia affirmed that any demarcation of state borders will not be considered until Russia de-occupies Georgian territory and reverses its recognition of the ‘independence’ of the occupied territories that was announced in 2008.   

On January 4, Nikoloz Samkharadze, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, echoed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement that Georgia will not establish any borders until Georgian authorities regain control over Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Samkharadze also stated that “international law is on our side.”  

Due to the coronavirus pandemic that emerged in the South Caucasus region in early 2020, the lines of communication used by Russia and Georgia to discuss the issues of territorial occupation were interrupted. The Geneva International Discussions, launched in October 2008, are the only platform for the parties of the Russo-Georgia war to discuss humanitarian and security issues. 

The 51st session of the Geneva International Discussions was originally scheduled to take place on March 31 and April 1, 2020. In light of the global health crisis, the talks were initially postponed to October 6-7, 2020. However, the Russian delegation backed out the discussions, citing concerns over face-to-face meetings during a pandemic. The 51st session ultimately took place on December 10-11, 2020, marking the first and only round of discussions in 2020.  

With a full year elapsing between the 50th and 51st sessions of the discussions, the consequences of a lack of dialogue could be clearly observed.  

Historically, freedom of movement between Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia has been affected by sporadic border closures and frequent changes in policy. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, movement has faced further restrictions. 

On March 11, 2020, Abkhaz officials announced that beginning on March 14, the Enguri Bridge Crossing Point, the only link between Georgia and Abkhazia, would be closed indefinitely to curb the spread of COVID-19. After more than two months, Abkhaz authorities opened the Enguri Bridge crossing for one day on May 26 with the purpose of allowing residents of Abkhazia who traveled to the Tbilisi-controlled areas for medical treatment to return.  

By June 21, Abkhaz authorities announced another temporary opening of the Enguri Bridge. The opening was planned for June 22-24 to serve as a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to allow Abkhaz residents to return from Georgia proper. Following this three-day window, the only linkage between Abkhazia and territory controlled by Tbilisi was once again severed. Two additional ‘humanitarian corridors’ were opened from August 5-9 and December 3-10. The December opening faced widespread criticism from Abkhaz residents. Residents were only permitted to exit Abkhazia, and residents seeking to visit relatives in Georgia proper or seek medical care were unsure if they would be able to return to their homes after exiting Abkhazia.  

The situation in South Ossetia, Georgia’s other region occupied by Russian-backed forces, was even more dire. In early 2020 amidst the initial spread of the coronavirus, South Ossetia closed its borders with both Georgia and Russia. Initially, the only connection between South Ossetia and the outside world was through freight transportation between North and South Ossetia. Despite the attempts to isolate itself, South Ossetia’s hospitals quickly became overwhelmed, and authorities were forced to call upon Russia to establish a mobile military field hospital. By December, the Russian Armed Forces closed the temporary hospital facility and withdrew from Tskhinvali.  

Limitations on the freedom of movement between Georgia and its occupied territories as well as the repeated postponing of dialogues between Tbilisi and occupying forces led to heightened tensions on border issues in 2020. Russia’s announcement of a new Special Envoy for border demarcation does not positively contribute to the situation, both at the diplomatic level and with the on-the-ground situation.  

It has been recommended that Georgia could promote further engagement with the occupied regions by offering additional medical assistance during the pandemic, but it is uncertain how this would be perceived by occupying authorities. In December 2020, the Georgian government delivered 10,000 doses of surplus flu vaccines to Abkhazia for use by high risk groups. However, earlier this month, as wildfires raged across western Georgia and Abkhazia, Georgian authorities volunteered to provide support, including the use of helicopters, to extinguish the fires, but Abkhaz authorities rejected the offer.   

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Armenia’s Responsibility in Destruction of History and Culture of Azerbaijan

With the signing of the trilateral agreement ending the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, clear deadlines for the deoccupation of Azerbaijani territories were established. In the days after the announcement, homes were set on fire, trees felled, and livestock slaughtered by ethnic Armenians leaving territories that had been returned to Azerbaijan. These scenes garnered attention from international media, but destruction on a much wider and deeper scale began nearly thirty years earlier as occupying forces sought to wipe out any and all cultural and historical traces related to Azerbaijan.

On November 17, one of the world’s most famous museums released a press release on the importance of preserving cultural heritage. The statement, made by the Metropolitan Museum of New York, called for the preservation of Armenian cultural sites. “The recent bloodshed and destruction in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is a global tragedy of grave concern to us all,” read the official statement. Museum officials added that, “we implore all those involved to respect these international cultural sites [of Armenians], which enrich our world and have survived for thousands of years.”

The Met, which hosted an exhibit titled Armenia! in 2018, made no mention of Azerbaijani culture or historical sites. Funding for this exhibition primarily came from the Hagop Kevorkian Fund, the Hirar and Anna Hovanian Foundation, and the Armenian General Benevolent Union. The Hagop Kevorkian Fund has provided more than $650,000 in donations to the Met in recent years.

Beginning in 1994 when Azerbaijan lost control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories, Armenian forces and Nagorno-Karabakh authorities pushed for the destruction of Azerbaijani cultural and historical sites in order to erase Azerbaijani history in the region, justify their actions, and complicate the possibility of Azerbaijan reclaiming its lost territories.

As Karabakh is the cultural center of Azerbaijan, these efforts were widespread and comprehensive. According to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions led to the destruction of 927 libraries, 22 museums, 808 recreational venues, 4 theaters, 2 concert halls, 8 cultural parks, 4 art galleries, and 85 schools of music, and more.

Religious sites were also a common target of the de-facto authorities. Many mosques were simply destroyed but those that survived were neglected, used as animal shelters, or modified to erase Azerbaijani elements. Examples include the mosque of the Alkhanli village in Fizuli, which was graffitied and converted to be used as a cowshed. More widely known is the Juma Mosque in Aghdam. As the only building still standing in Aghdam, a city referred to as the Hiroshima of the Caucasus, the mosque has fallen into disrepair and served as a barn for cows and pigs under Armenian occupation.

Some religious sites escaped total destruction during Armenian occupation, but were instead defaced in an attempt to change their identity and provide an alternative history for the region. In 2019, after five years of restoration efforts, authorities of the regime occupying Nagorno-Karabakh announced the completion of restoration efforts on the Govhar Agha Upper Mosque in Shusha. After its restoration, the mosque was referred to as “Persian” in an attempt to erase evidence showing Azerbaijan’s historical ties to the region.

Other sites, including the Khudavang Monastery Complex near Kalbajar, had traditional, Caucasian-Albanian motifs destroyed and replaced with Armenian designs. The monastery, which was constructed in the 15th century, previously held many oil paintings and inscriptions on the walls of the building. The Albanian crosses were replaced with Armenian crosses, and Armenian paintings covered the previous designs and inscriptions.

In 2011, Armenian and Karabakh authorities began to ‘renovate’ the walls of the Ganjasar Monastery Complex, which was constructed in the 12th century. With the financial backing of Armenian businessman Levon Hayrapetyan, work to cover the exterior walls of the complex with marble stones began. Armenians themselves protested this action, stating that it would destroy the historical and cultural value of the structure. Azerbaijanis claim that this ‘renovation’ was used to make the site more Armenian, masking more significant changes to the structure and design.

In addition to religious centers, historical sites and museums became easy targets for deliberate destruction of the Azerbaijani legacy. In the Khojavend district, the Azykh Cave is an archaeological site where bones and relics of ancient people have been discovered. As a result of Armenian occupation, many illegal excavations were allegedly carried out, and until liberation, the cave served as a storage facility for Armenian military equipment.

In Shusha, the Museum Mausoleum Complex of Molla Panah Vagif fell into disrepair. The complex and permanent exhibits were destroyed, and any transportable artifacts were taken to Armenia. Khurshudbanu Natavan’s house, a historical monument, music school, and later the site of the National Museum of Azerbaijani Literature was pillaged in 1992, and hundreds of pieces of arts, carpets, miniatures, and archaeological samples were destroyed and seized by Armenian forces.

In surrounding areas, the Museums of History in Kalbajar, Lachin, and Aghdam were all destroyed and plundered as well. Historical pieces have often made their way to markets where valuable artifacts have been sold for scrap metal or auctioned off. Bronze statues of the poet Natavan, the composer Uzeyir Hajybayov, and singer Bulbul were being sold as scrap metal in Georgia, but the Azeri government purchased these pieces and took them to Baku for safekeeping. In another instance, a silver handbag from the Lachin Museum of History was sold at Sotheby’s in London for $80,000.

As members of UNESCO, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to uphold international cultural conventions, including the 1954 Hague Convention, which states that attackers have an obligation to not only protect cultural property, but to take steps to prevent the theft of property in occupied territories. In the nearly thirty years of occupation of Azerbaijani territory, Armenia failed to honor its pledge to the international community. Not only did much of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions turn into a desolate wasteland, Armenian authorities actively encouraged destroying and defacing cultural and historical monuments. On top of this, they sought to profit from this destruction by selling valuable artifacts and incorporating relics into their own museums.

While little attention has been given to the widespread destruction and vandalism of Azerbaijani property, international organizations, museums such as the Met, and international media have all called upon Azerbaijan to ensure the security of Armenian historical and cultural heritage. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern over historical Christian sites in the territories being returned to Azerbaijan. In response to this, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has affirmed that Azerbaijan will work towards these goals.

During the entire 44 days of warfare, Azerbaijan was guided by international law and the legal framework that supported the country’s territorial integrity. It is in Azerbaijan’s best interest to uphold the obligations of the 1954 Hague Convention, and to set an example for the importance of preserving history. Azerbaijan has a longstanding reputation of tolerance and diversity in culture and religion. These principles should be adhered to in the reconstruction efforts in the recently liberated lands by preserving all historical and cultural sites, even those built during the years of occupation.  

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