Following E.U.-mediated talks in Brussels, Armenia and Azerbaijan announced the creation of a border commission to determine claims over the long-contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. For the last 30 years, Armenians have controlled this mountainous territory inside Azerbaijan, with skirmishes repeatedly breaking out between the two sides. The new commission has designated state officials from both Armenia and Azerbaijan – representing various ministries, state services, and executive positions – and executive representatives from the countries bordering Armenia to meet in order to make plans regarding the Armenia-Azerbaijan interstate border. The framework for the April 2022 peace agreement would give both sides mutual recognition of territorial integrity, making Karabakh an official part of Azerbaijan. However, this is an unacceptable concession for many Armenians, thousands of whom have erupted in protest.
Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has claimed around 30,000 lives in the past 31 years. After the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Armenia launched an offensive against Azerbaijan, occupying the Karabakh region and settling nearly 150,000 people there. The ceasefire agreement struck in 1994 left Armenians occupying around 20% of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories and did little to rehome the around 1 million internally displaced Azeri people.
Though violence remained low post-ceasefire, it flared up again into full-scale war in 2020 after Armenian forces shelled Azeri military positions and civilian settlements. In the ensuing six-week clash, over 6,000 people were killed and Azerbaijan reclaimed large swaths of territory, though Karabakh itself remained under Armenian control. A tri-lateral deal between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia ended the war after Russia deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers to oversee the truce.
However, violations of the ceasefire have been reported since this deal was struck, with a notable uptick in incidents over the past year. Azerbaijan argues that the de facto Armenian leadership has illegal military forces in the region. Armenia asserts conversely that disarmament was not part of the 1994 ceasefire deal. In March, Azeri troops seized territory near the ethnically Armenian-populated village of Farukh, sparking concerns about a greater incoming offensive. Furthermore, Armenian officials have accused Azerbaijan of deliberately damaging a pipeline into their country’s enclave, leaving Armenians in Karabakh to endure nearly a month of extreme winter conditions without heating. Azerbaijan denies the allegations.
This precedent – Azerbaijan making consistent gains, while Armenians operate on their back foot – does not bode well for re-defining borders in Karabakh. Following the 1994 agreement, the international community noted Armenians’ distaste for having to relinquish territory which they view as ethnically, historically, and rightfully their own. “The reaction to this declaration of an end to the war in Armenia has been greeted with what appears to be absolute disgust and despair,” Robin Forestier-Walker, an Al Jazeera correspondent in neighbouring Georgia, said. “There is just a sense of disbelief that somehow this was the only option for Armenia, to effectively admit defeat, and to sign this agreement, with Azerbaijan, brokered by Russia, that brings this war to an end, but effectively allows Azerbaijan to claim almost complete victory.”
The protests against Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his insistence that the “international community calls on Armenia to scale down demands on Karabakh” suggest that Armenians will view ceding any additional territory as capitulation. Armenia’s National Security Service warns of a “real threat of mass unrest in the country.”
The E.U. has played a critical role in easing tensions between the two countries and must continue to do so. Efforts to de-escalate conflict, like re-launching a hotline between the two sides’ defense ministries or funding missions to clear landmines, will be essential to ensure that miscommunication does not cause accidental clashes and that any intentional aggression will be attributed and documented correctly.
Furthermore, the needs of ethnic Armenians in Karabakh must remain a key element of negotiations, regardless of Azeri military capabilities to re-take the area. During the active fighting in fall 2020, many people in ethnic Armenian communities were forced to flee their homes and interviewees reported extra-judicial executions by Azeri forces. Azeri people considering relocating to territory reclaimed by Azerbaijan have also expressed concerns over entering what has been an Armenian stronghold for decades. “I have huge security concerns when it comes to living close to Armenians,” one source told Amnesty International. “There is lots of trauma between our two nations. I know lots of people who were killed.”
An agreement which does not uphold the dignity and basic living conditions of all peoples living in the region will create refugee flows and suffering, and likely trigger further violent disputes. Even ignoring new refugee concerns should borders shift, Amnesty estimates that up to 100,000 displaced people still live in informal housing in Azerbaijan. The border commission should consider resolving these conditions essential to establishing a safe and secure border.
In addition to determining civilian safety, the commission must articulate a new vision for how to govern and enforce the decided-upon border. This will be difficult; authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have laid out their unwillingness to allow for expanded Azeri control. “Any attempt to incorporate Artsakh [an Armenian name for the region] into Azerbaijan would lead to bloodshed and the destruction of Arsakh,” Davit Babayan, the de facto foreign minister for the region, said on April 14th. The territory’s parliament concurred, issuing a statement declaring, “Any change of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status is unacceptable.” One member went so far as to say that “even the threat of war can’t hold us back” from defending Arsakh’s autonomy, and a former official even suggested that he would prefer to join Russia rather than face “physical annihilation” should Azerbaijan gain ownership of the region.
Karabakh’s de facto president, Arayik Harutyunyan, offered a slightly more optimistic stance. “We understand that we have to coexist like neighbors [with Azerbaijan] but living under their control is impossible,” Harutyunyan said.
Given the extreme hostility from local governing forces and civilians, a plan for transitional governance must be discussed in order to mitigate violence during any shifts in regional power. This plan will be best formulated incorporating local opinion, so Azerbaijan must be convinced to let mediators visit the conflict zone and speak with key figures.
Russia’s role in this transition must also be navigated with care, as it remains the leading outside power in the conflict.
Ultimately, this border commission is a necessary first step in moving towards a durable peace within Karabakh, but simply articulating new borders will be insufficient to prevent further warfare. The resolution of border claims must be accompanied by clear agreements over how to counteract displacement, remedy pre-existing poor living conditions, and establish governance and military activity in the region. All of these components of peace will be supported by the full and dedicated engagement of the E.U., co-operation with Moscow, and a concerted effort to understand and incorporate local officials’ and citizens’ priorities. This well-established and complex conflict will not be ended simply or quickly, but investing in the upcoming border commission talks can lay the groundwork for a safer and more just Karabakh.