Will Armenia and Azerbaijan reach a peace deal?
There are efforts to end 30 years of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But will they work?
“We are now in the process of making an independent and sovereign state, and it’s a very important moment. It might be risky and painful,” warned Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan at the end of September.
One of the “painful” decisions has been Armenia’s willingness to actually negotiate a normalisation with Azerbaijan – and to separate this peace process from talks over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Almost a month after Azerbaijan’s attack, Armenia’s Security Council announced on 12 October that there would be a peace deal between the two countries, as well as border demarcation, by the end of the year. But no mention of Nagorno-Karabakh was made.
At the same time, the EU has sent a “civilian mission” to Armenia’s eastern border for two months, though Azerbaijan has said it will not let the mission inside its territory. The mission’s findings will be used in joint Armenian-Azerbaijani commissions on border demarcation.
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Demarcation commissions were first raised in a joint Armenian-Azerbaijani meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in November 2021. Moscow frequently boasts of having more information about borders of post-Soviet states than they do themselves.
Armenian security chief Armen Grigoryan stressed the urgency of demarcation. “Azerbaijan may use the so-called non-demarcated border as an excuse to attack Armenia,” he said.
In September, Azerbaijani forces advanced ten square kilometres into Armenian territory in one of the most violent incursions since the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan’s brutal offensive against the Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway region in 2020. Azerbaijan has now occupied roughly 50 square kilometres of Armenian territory since the 2020 conflict.
At least 197 soldiers and four civilians from Armenia died in the September attack, and 7,600 people were internally displaced. The Azerbaijani military confirmed that 80 of its soldiers died during the incursion.
A ceasefire was reached on 14 September, though it has been violated frequently. Videos of war crimes against Armenian soldiers during the three-day offensive were recently put online.
The current situation stems from the 2020 war, which resulted in a profound change in the balance of power in the South Caucasus.
As a result of the offensive, Azerbaijan took control of territory inside and around Nagorno-Karabakh (which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, although it has a de facto government run by its indigenous Armenians). Hostilities were stopped by the Russian-brokered ceasefire, which many in Armenia saw as “capitulation” to Azerbaijan.
The tri-party announcement saw Russian peacekeepers deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh and outlined a roadmap for opening the two countries’ borders for economic exchange.
One step requires Armenia to provide a transit route linking Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani exclave on Armenia’s western border. While the bilateral discussions on this issue are highly secret, Azerbaijani officials have since made territorial claims to Armenia’s southern Syunik province – the likely location for the route across Armenian territory.
Reacting to the recent peace deal announcement, political scientist Taline Papazian told openDemocracy: “Armenia had a double challenge to solve at the inception of its post-Soviet history [the state was founded in 1991]: independence, and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh question.
“Pursuing these two aims simultaneously has always been the biggest challenge for state-building.”
Armenia’s fight for independence from the Soviet Union coincided with Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians’ claims for self-determination from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s. Papazian believes that Armenian national identity and state institutions have been profoundly affected by the conflict with Azerbaijan and the cause of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians’ independence. Last month, protests were held in Nagorno-Karabakh over prospects that Armenia would cede control of the disputed territory to Azerbaijan.
Ending this deep-seated conflict through peace treaties could be workable, Papazian thinks. At any rate, she argues, it’s better to have a set of legal documents signed with an adversary than making no progress for decades and being locked in a state of permanent war.
She believes that whether the deals will ensure sovereignty and security to Armenia will depend not only on their actual details, but on mechanisms providing for their enforcement – and ultimately on whether the sides are sincerely interested in peace.
Armenia now hopes that the rights of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh will be guaranteed through international mechanisms, as the country’s own authorities have had no influence over the territory since the 2020 war.
Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party had promised an “era of peace” during its 2021 election campaign. But in light of Azerbaijan’s recent offensive, the government has started preparing the Armenian public for a new war.
On the day of the September incursion, the Armenian parliament passed a new gun law, intended “to cultivate the culture of using weapons for self-defence and raising combat competences”. On 20 September, the government declared that bomb shelters across the country were set to be renovated.
But beyond military training and shelters, the question of arms supplies has become a heated matter for public debate. The morning after Azerbaijan’s incursion, Pashinyan admitted that Armenia lacked weapons and spoke about the problems it faced in acquiring them.
Some “allies” had not delivered weapons that had been ordered, despite the fact that “millions of dollars” had been paid in advance, Pashinyan claimed at the end of September. Although he did not name which allies he was referring to, it’s clear the prime minister’s complaint was about Russia, Armenia’s main security guarantor. Neither Russia, nor its military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, intervened over Azerbaijan’s September offensive.
Shortly afterwards, it was reported that India had sold some $245m-worth of rockets, missiles and ammunition to Armenia. Around the same time, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US Congress, visited Armenia, saying the US was ready to “listen to what the needs are” in terms of Armenia’s capacity to defend itself.
“We are trying to broaden our cooperation in the military-technological field,” Pashinyan has said.
There’s a sense that both the diplomatic process and the military confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan have sped up in recent weeks. While Russia gained influence in diplomatic negotiations after the 2020 war, the EU’s own efforts have developed in parallel.
Papazian linked the West’s current interest in the region to Russia and the war in Ukraine. “With Russia’s weakness in Ukraine, the West is attempting to use this opportunity to ‘come back’ to the South Caucasus,” she said.
At the same time, both Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders accuse each other of using the current relations between Russia and the West to their advantage.
For Papazian, Armenia’s chance to integrate more fully within the South Caucasus region, including Azerbaijan, is a route to greater security amid external interest from both Russia and the West.
“I know it sounds fantastic right now, but the region will be stronger together… and that will help it keep the appetites of the former empires in check,” she said.
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