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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Fractious Karabakh Peace Provides Washington With Opportunity in the Caucasus

Photo by Rufat Abas.

The Russian-mediated peace deal [AC1] that ended the Second Karabakh War in November between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not a calm one. It came only after three ceasefires failed, with the longest lasting one day, the second [AC2] lasting hours, the shortest barely minutes.

The peace recognized Azerbaijan’s wartime territorial gains. Azerbaijan retook half of Nagorno-Karabakh (including the strategic and cultural city of Shusha) and the territories Armenia occupied since 1994. Russia achieved its long-standing goal of deploying troops in Nagorno-Karabakh, even if it shares an observation post with a Turkish mission. But Putin’s ceasefire focused on getting those Russian troops into Karabakh, and left a host of other pressing issues untouched. These issues present opportunities for the United States to bolster its presence in a region that has emerged as a linchpin for global geopolitical security.

A major problem effecting the peace is the contamination of Nagorno-Karabakh and the recovered territories of landmines and other unexploded ordinance that are the legacies of decades of ongoing conflict. Azerbaijan has estimated mine clearance operations will take upwards of a decade, and Baku has asked Yerevan to turn over maps of minefields to assist with clearing the land. Believing the minefields[AC3]  are necessary to the defense of Armenia and what remains of Armenian-held Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian government has so far refused to turn over these maps.

Then there are the Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) held by Azerbaijan. So far Baku has returned 61 Armenian POWs (58 in February, three in May), though the European Court of Human Rights says that Azerbaijan continues to hold 188 Armenian POWs. Baku has only confirmed detaining 72 Armenians, 62 of whom were captured in the Azerbaijani province of Hadrut in December, a month after the official end of hostilities. Because of the time of their capture, Azerbaijan calls them terrorists, not POWs, and is refusing to return them.

And culture is another sticking point to peace. For Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, referred to as the Republic of Artsakh by Armenians, is the birthplace of the Armenian nation. For Azerbaijan, the city of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh is the cultural heart of the Azerbaijani people. Following Armenia’s conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh 1994, over 800,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenia and Karabakh (while over 250,000 Armenians fled Azerbaijan[AC4] ). Armenia destroyed several mosques in Yerevan and Nagorno-Karabakh following the Azerbaijani exodus in 1994; the surviving mosques have been renovated[AC5]  in a ‘Persian style’ to erase Azerbaijan’s connection to Karabakh.

But Azerbaijan is not free of sin. In May, photos emerged of the removal of the Armenian Ghazanchetsots Cathedral’s dome in Shusha, though Baku said this was to repair damage caused by falling shells. The creation of a ‘Military Trophies Park’ in Baku following the Second Karabakh War is another example of the inflammatory rhetoric (coming from both sides) sustaining the conflict. Opening with a display of Armenian helmets taken from the bodies of Armenian soldiers, the park shows visitors wax models of Armenian soldiers bearing strange and frightening countenances. In an interview, the statues’ creators confirmed their goal was to “create the most freakish depictions” of Armenians possible. Such displays are inimical to peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Washington should take advantage of these unresolved issues and set up a trilateral working group between Baku, Washington, and Yerevan; should Baku and Yerevan make meaningful steps towards peace and reconciliation, then Washington would invite the sides to Camp David to formalize the peace. The first step could be accomplished by having Azerbaijan release all Armenian detainees listed by the ECHR, while Yerevan would exchange the relevant minefield maps to all parties involved in mine clearance operations.

Regarding the cultural issues, the United States should offer the services of the Smithsonian Institution in the preservation and renovation of religious and cultural landmarks in the region. The Smithsonian has extensive experience in such work and has operated in hazardous areas, having sent teams to restore artifacts in Iraq and Syria destroyed by Islamic State and is notably impartial. Washington should also condition future aid to both Baku and Yerevan on efforts to clamp down on anti-Armenian and anti-Azerbaijani/Turkish rhetoric coming from official channels. A first step would be at least taking down the offensive statues in the Military Trophies Park, if not the dismantling of the Park itself, which is hardly conducive to establishing peaceful relations.

Moscow has no intention of resolving these issues, which provides space in the region for Washington. If President Biden wants to combat Russian aggression and show that the United States remains a credible international force, then he should start in Karabakh.

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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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Does the Minsk Group Still Have a Role?

Is there still a role for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group for Nagorno-Karabakh after the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan?  This is the war that returned to Baku after 30 years seven Armenian-occupied territories and part of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.  The answer about the future of the Minsk Group depends on which side you ask.  Yerevan is clear that it sees the continuation of the Minsk Group as essential for determining the final status of Nagorno-Karabkah.  Baku is equally firm in the other direction, asserting that Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan and always will be.  This is the conundrum that the Minsk Group has faced almost from its beginning – radically opposed positions that fundamentally do not budge.

The Minsk Group itself is composed of the following nation-state members of the OSCE:  Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Finland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Turkey, as well, on a rotating basis, the Minsk Group troika:  France, Russia, and the United States.  But on a day-to-day basis these members (other than Armenia and Azerbaijan, of course) are not involved in working toward a solution to Nagorno-Karabakh. 

That task is carried out by the co-chairmanship troika of the Minsk Group:  France, Russia, and the United States.  The current co-chair representatives are Ambassador Stephane Visconti of France, Ambassador Igor Popov of Russia, and Andrew Schofer of the United States.  On a day-to-day basis, they are led by the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, the superb and deeply knowledgeable Polish diplomat, Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk, who has been in that position since 1996.

Having recently retired after 30 years in the State Department, I was asked to return to service as the interim U.S. Co-Chair for the Minsk Group from January through September 2017 because the previous U.S. Co-Chair had unexpectedly retired to accept a job in the private sector.  Although I had never served as a U.S. diplomat in Armenia or Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus was not terra incognita to me.  I had been the Office Director for the Caucasus and Central Asia in the State Department and in that position had travelled fairly frequently to the South Caucasus countries.  And then, after several ambassadorships in Central Asia, I was subsequently the Principle Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asia.  In general, I had spent a good chunk of my diplomatic career at various postings in the former Soviet Union which gave me at least a general understanding of the post-Soviet conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

To be honest, when I was offered the position of interim U.S. Co-Chair, I hesitated a bit at first.  Why?  Because within the State Department that position was not seen as particularly “career enhancing.”  To be frank, it was usually occupied by a diplomat in “a parking position,” i.e., waiting for a promised full-scale ambassadorship to become available, or was filled by a soon-to-retire diplomat who needed a bit more time to fulfill the requirements for retirement.  Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the opportunity to learn, on the ground, about an international issue to which I had paid scant attention in the past and to have the opportunity to travel into Nagorno-Karabkah itself, which is very rare for any American citizen.  And so I said, “Sign me up!”

On every trip to the region, usually about every six weeks (in the pre-Covid world), Ambassador Kazprzyk and we three Minsk Group Co-Chairs would meet with the most senior officials of both Armenia and Azerbaijan in their capitals and usually travel by road from Armenia though the occupied territories into Nagorno-Karabakh itself to meet with the officials in Stepanakerk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh.  From time to time, we travelled to Moscow, Brussels, and other capitals to brief the interested governments on our work and on the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  

In many ways, what we did and how we did it fit the stereotype that comes to mind for people when they think of the diplomatic life.  We stayed in five-star hotels where we were usually assigned suites on the executive floor that gave us access to a private dining room and full bar at no additional expense.  We always sought out the best restaurants in the cities where we found ourselves.  We lived well while we showed the OSCE flag and reminded Baku and Yerevan that the Minsk Group exists.  But to be blunt, very, very little ever got accomplished.

Over the years, the OSCE had formulated the Madrid Principles, a roadmap for the final resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would end in self-determination by the residents of Nagorno-Karabkah itself.  During the period that I served as the U.S. Co-Chair, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed his own plan to resolve the conflict, rather similar to the existing Madrid Principles, that immediately became known informally as the Lavrov Plan, even though we were cautioned to call it simply a “plan on the table.”

When the so-called Lavrov Plan was released, I asked my excellent colleague, the Russian Co-Chair Ambassador Popov, if the Kremlin would really agree to implement it, should Yerevan and Baku buckle and accept it.  His candid reply?  “Of course not.”  More than anything else, this made clear to me that Nagorno-Karabakh is not just a bilateral problem between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  In reality, it’s a trilateral issue with Russia playing a key, perhaps even decisive, role.

Nagorno-Karabkah is one of the so-called prolonged conflicts, sometimes called frozen conflicts, of the post-Soviet space, the others being Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Modova, and the regional mess in eastern Ukraine.  Although each of these conflicts has its own historic origin and is complex in its own unique way, the unifying factor is that Russia is by far the best placed to bring a conclusion to these conflicts – should it choose to do so. 

Moscow chooses not to do so for various reasons unique to each conflict, but the over-arching reason is that a resolution would enable each country to feel free enough to leave the den of the Big Bear to the north and look for other partners and multi-lateral alliances.  In the case of Georgia this would be NATO and the European Union.  But Moscow is bound and determined to keep this from happening in order to preserve its self-described “special sphere of influence.”

What I learned in multiple trips to Yerevan and Baku with my Co-Chair colleagues was that each side was adamantly frozen into its position and would barely deign to consider even the slightest interim compromise, even as a good-faith confidence-building measure.  I personally came to believe that only a war would finally settle the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, although I never stated this view publicly.  And yet we co-chairs kept at it. 

It should be remembered that during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabkah war, each of the Minsk Group co-chair capitals made a stab at negotiating a cease-fire, but each of these so-called cease-fires lasted mere hours.  Only when it looked as if Azerbaijan might actually reconquer its entire territory did Moscow step in and arrange the current situation.  Armenia had lost the seven territories it had occupied for nearly 30 years as a buffer zone around, and access route into, Nagorno-Karabakh and had even lost a southern chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, including the lovely mountain city of Shusha.   

Moscow was eminently better placed than any leading power or multilateral organization to bring Nagorno-Karabakh to a full and final conclusion.  Instead, it stopped the war but – significantly – now maintains peacekeeping troops in Azerbaijan, marking the first time since the independence of the former Soviet Socialist Republics that Moscow now has troops, in various capacities, in all three countries of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – thus further solidifying Russia’s “special sphere of influence.”

Is there, therefore, any role remaining for the OSCE Minsk Group?  As noted at the beginning of this essay, Armenia says “absolutely,” whereas Baku says “certainly not.”  And so the status quo of the Minsk Group is likely to continue bumping along in relative obscurity.  However, with some creative thinking, the OSCE, and the Minsk Group itself, could redefine that role. 

For example, it could add enabling reconstruction to its approved mandate.  In fact, both Baku and Yerevan have already recognized that the opportunity now exists for repairing and further building the infrastructure of the immediate region, including the construction of new roads and other modes of transportation and connectivity within and reaching beyond the region.  For example, the Minsk Group could organize and coordinate funding by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as well as by the capitals of the OSCE member states themselves, to devise a master plan and to help pay for enhanced development in the former Nagorno-Karabakh war zone itself and, more broadly, in the South Caucasus region.  Obviously, this would not be easy, if for no other reason than the region’s difficult neighbors, Iran and Turkey, would want to have their say in such an effort. 

But if the Minsk Group doesn’t redefine its mission, then it will continue, most unfortunately, as an intriguing backwater of international diplomacy.

Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland was U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, October 2013-August 2015. Before returning to Washington in September 2013, he spent a decade in South and Central Asia. He was U.S. Deputy Ambassador to Pakistan (2011- 2013), U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan (2008-2011), and U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan (2003-2006). He also served as U.S. Charge d’affaires to Turkmeni- stan (2007-2008). Prior to his diplomatic assignments in Central Asia, Ambassador Hoagland was Director of the Office of Caucasus and Central Asian Affairs in the Bureau of Europe and Eurasian Affairs, Department of State (2001-2003). In that position, he wrote and negotiated four of the key bilateral documents defining the Central Asian states’ enhanced relationship with the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. His earlier foreign assignments included Russia where he was Press Spokesman for the U.S. Embassy (1995-1998). During the course of his career, he received multiple Presidential Performance Awards, State Department Meritorious and Superior Honor Awards, as well as the Distinguished Honor Award.

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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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End of Nagorno-Karabakh War Marks Beginning of Political Turmoil in Armenia

Following the signing of a Russian-brokered agreement to end the recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on November 10, Armenia was thrust into a domestic turmoil. Public discontent has been rife, with many Armenians claiming that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan gave up and surrendered large amounts of territory to Azerbaijan.  

Armenia’s highest officials, accused the Prime Minister of signing the agreement without prior consent. Armenian President Armen Sarkissian released a statement which explained that he “learned about the conditions for ending the war from the press as well.” “Unfortunately, there had not been any consultation or discussion on this document with me as the President of the Republic [of Armenia],” he added.

As President Sarkissian called for national unity, many of Pashinyan’s allies instead began to issue their resignations from their government posts. Press Secretary of the Ministry of Defense of Armenia Artsrun Hovhannisyan issued his resignation on November 12. Hovhannisyan has been criticized for his statements to the public in which he expressed his confidence that Armenian forces would be victorious.

On November 16, Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan issued his resignation. Mnatsakanyan was a career diplomat, previously representing Armenia as Ambassador to the United Nations. He became the Foreign Minister in 2018 after Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, in which Nikol Pashinyan replaced Serzh Sargsyan.

Also within the Armenian Ministry of Defense, Defense Ministry Spokesperson Shushan Stepanyan and Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan both issued resignations on November 20. Defense Minister Tonoyan had held the position since May 2018 following Pashinyan’s rise to power. Spokesperson Stepanyan, born in Hadrut during Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory, announced via Facebook that she would be leaving her position. In her announcement, Stepanyan indicated that “at this difficult time…there is the need for officials who will not make decisions based on emotions, who will look at events professionally,” and added that “this is something I will not be able to do at this time.”

The most recent resignation came on November 24 with the announcement that Armenia’s Minister of Economy Tigran Khachatryan would be leaving his post. Appointed to the role in October 2018, Khachatryan served as Minister for only slightly more than two years. 

Immediately after signing the trilateral agreement with Russia and Azerbaijan, the Armenian public and opposition leaders began calling for Pashinyan to step down. An anti-government rally, led by opposition parties, was held on November 11 in downtown Yerevan. Eduard Sharmazanov of the Republican Party, Garnik Isagulyan of the National Security Party, and Ruben Melikyan, the former human rights ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh, were all detained in Liberty Square. Ishkhan Sagateluyan of Dashnaktsutyun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, addressed protesters and called for Pashinyan’s immediate removal, referring to the Prime Minister as “the evil of the nation.” Armenia’s National Security Service also arrested several other opposition leaders, accusing them of planning a coup.

Pashinyan came under further criticism after posting a controversial statement on his Facebook account, which many interpreted as a call for civil war and violence against his opponents. This statement initiated a wave of resignations within Pashinyan’s party, beginning with parliamentary representative Gayane Abrahamyan. Following Abrahamyan’s resignation, Varak Sisserian, the Chief of Staff for the Deputy Prime Minister, announced his intent to leave his post. Deputy Minister for the Environment Irina Ghaplanyan stepped down, and parliament member Taguhi Tovmasyan left Pashinyan’s political party, but remained in parliament.

Following the shakeup, it has been announced that Ara Ayvazyan will serve as Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vagharshak Harutyunyan as the Minister of Defense, Mesrop Arakelyan as the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, and Vahram Dumanyan as the Minister of Education, Science, Culture, and Sports.

Prime Minister Pashinyan has continually affirmed that he is not considering resignation. Martial law continues to remain in effect in Armenia despite the end of warfare, which some critics believe is being used to stifle mass protests against the Prime Minister.

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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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UN Response to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia reignited on September 27 after being frozen for decades.

War in the 1990s

Nagorno-Karabakh is a region located within Azerbaijan’s sovereign borders with a majority ethnic Armenian population.The Soviet Union established Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous oblast within Azerbaijan in the 1920s. Tensions in the region simmered under Soviet rule and in 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature passed a resolution to join Armenia. During the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region formally declared its independence from Azerbaijan. Armenia supported the separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh, and war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region. The war left nearly 30,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of Azeri and Armenian refugees.

The international community responded to the conflict by creating the Minsk Group, an institution within the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is co-chaired by the United States, France, and Russia. The Minsk Group is responsible for negotiations toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

United Nations Response to War

From April to November 1993, the UN Security Council passed four resolutions in response to the conflict: Resolution 822, 853, 874, and 884. Each resolution expressed concern about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and called for the immediate cessation of fighting. The UN-supported the Minsk Group’s ongoing efforts to negotiate a cease-fire. The UN condemned the Armenian seizure of the Kelbadjar district, the Agdam district, the Zangelan district, and the city of Goradiz in Azerbaijan.

The resolutions urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to allow humanitarian efforts to help displaced peoples to securely return to their homes. The UN confirmed their support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and urged all actors to refrain from supplying weapons, which might inflame the conflict. The UN Security Council also expressed a hope that a cease-fire negotiated by Russia, per the will of the Minsk Group, would hold and become permanent.


In 1994, Russia brokered a cease-fire, and afterward fighting largely ceased and the region stabilized into a frozen conflict. Armenia and ethnic Armenians still control Nagorno-Karabakh and much of the surrounding area, resulting in the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of Azeris. Minor shelling and skirmishes between the Armenian and Azerbaijani militaries resulted in hundreds of deaths since the cease-fire. In April 2016, intense fighting flared up, and over four days, an estimated 50 people died until both sides agreed upon a new cease-fire. Since 2016 there have been several violations of the cease-fire and tensions have remained high.

Current Crisis

On September 27, 2020, fighting once again erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the fighting started, there have been several cease-fires negotiated by Minsk Group co-chair countries. However, almost as soon as they are agreed upon, Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of violating the cease-fire, and the fighting has started anew.

United Nations Response to Current Crisis

The UN Secretary-General has issued several statements about the continued conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. He has expressed his concern over the situation and has called for the immediate end to the fighting in the region. On October 18, he condemned the Armenian strike on Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, Ganja.

“The Secretary-General condemns all attacks on populated areas impacted by the conflict. The tragic loss of civilian lives, including children, from the latest reported strike on 16 October on the city of Ganja is totally unacceptable, as are indiscriminate attacks on populated areas anywhere, including in Stepanakert/Khankendi and other localities in and around the immediate Nagorno-Karabakh zone of conflict.”  

He called on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to honor a humanitarian truce negotiated on October 18 and to resume negotiations with the Minsk Group.

A “frozen” conflict?

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has long been considered a “frozen” conflict, meaning there has never been a suitable resolution negotiated between Armenia and Azerbaijan, though they agreed upon a cease-fire. Without a resolution, there is little hope of lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh. From the 1994 cease-fire to the four-day conflict in 2016, hundreds of casualties were reported from minor shelling and skirmishes. These are significant numbers of casualties and do not represent stable peace in the region.

This conflict has been far from frozen, it has simply been contained enough to avoid the condemnation of the international community. To realize a lasting peace, the UN and Minsk Group must do more than implement a cease-fire, they must help negotiate a legitimate resolution to the conflict.

Sources: CFR, UNSC Resolutions 822, 853, 874, 884, Vox, BBC, UN Statements by Secretary- General, AP News

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