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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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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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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Implications of New Ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh

Early on Tuesday, Armenia and Azerbaijan announced an agreement to halt the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh in a deal brokered by Russia. 

On September 27, fighting once again erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to six weeks of the worst bloodshed since the 1994 ceasefire. During the course of the renewed fighting, ceasefires were negotiated first by Russia, then France, and then the United States, and each of those ceasefires were violated almost immediately. 

On Sunday November 8, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev claimed that his forces had captured the key city of Shusha/Shushi, effectively cutting off Armenian access to the region’s capital city and crippling the ethnic Armenian forces in the Region. On Monday November 9, Azerbaijan apologized for the downing of a Russian military helicopter over Armenia. The crash killed two Russian crew members and injured one.

Early on Tuesday November 10, Armenia and Azerbaijan announced that they had agreed to a Russian-brokered ceasefire.

Terms of the ceasefire Agreement

The ceasefire agreement establishes the immediate cessation of hostilities.  It allows for each party to maintain the positions which they currently occupy in the region, though Armenia will return the Agdam district, the Kalbajar district, and the Lachin district to Azerbaijan.  Russian will deploy nearly 2,000 peacekeeping forces to Nagorno-Karabakh for at least five years along the conflict line and the Lachin corridor.  Russia will also establish a peacekeeping command post in the region.

The agreement also provides for the construction of a new route along the Lachin corridor to connect Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.  Armenia must also guarantee safe passage in a transportation corridor which would connect Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will oversee the return of internally displaced persons and refugees to Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.  Armenia and Azerbaijan will exchange prisoners of war, hostages and other detainees, and the remains of casualties.

Armenian Protests and Azeri Celebrations

After the announcement of the ceasefire on Tuesday, thousands of people swarmed into the main square in the Armenian capital of Yerevan to protest the agreement. Protesters called for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign and they stormed the parliament building. They damaged the building and beat the president of the Armenian Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan to the point that he needed surgery.  Protests have continued in Yerevan since Tuesday and there is no sign that they will stop soon.

In Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku and other Azerbaijani cities celebrations broke out on the streets over the ceasefire agreement on Tuesday. People waved the Azeri national flag, honked car and bus horns, and lauded what they consider to be a victory.

International Implication

Although the international community has displayed grave concern over the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, its efforts have done little to resolve the current conflict.  Each of the Minsk group co-chair states of Russia, France, and the United States negotiated ceasefires which were violated almost as soon as they were signed.  Russia was finally able to negotiate a lasting ceasefire after Azerbaijan took Shusha/Shushi and the ethnic Armenian forces recognized their dire condition.  The ceasefire was a matter of necessity and not a triumph of diplomacy.

The international community has yet to forcefully repudiate Turkey for the role it played in stoking the flames of conflict.  The Russian-Turkish ceasefire monitoring center sets a troubling precedent of Turkish and Russian influence in the region.

Sources: AP, CNN, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Kremlin, France 24, TASS, OHCHR report

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