Nagorno-Karabakh: will the recent ceasefire be permanent this time?
By CODY FRITZ
After three failed ceasefire agreements between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the past two months, it appears both parties are respecting a Russian-brokered ceasefire that went into force on November 10th. The agreement, which does not address the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast (province) status, details provisions for a staggered withdrawal of Armenian forces from the region and surrounding districts by December 1st. More notably, it includes Russian peacekeeping forces and an Azerbaijani transit corridor through southern Armenia to connect the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic with the rest of Azerbaijan.
Following the fall of Shusha, the agreement materialised the region’s second-largest settlement to Azerbaijani forces. It very well could have proven to be the staging post from which Azerbaijani forces would begin their assault on the region’s largest city, Stepanakert, which lies a mere 14km to its north. Likely realising the impending assault and the quickly disappearing likelihood of territorial gains, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan agreed to the conditions set forth in the agreement.
Responses to the ceasefire
The Armenian government has since been met with widespread protests, in defiance of current martial law banning street gatherings, and calls for the resignation of Pashinyan. A group of protestors were able to penetrate a government building and destroy furniture. Another group assaulted Parliament Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan, who was hospitalised for his injuries. Although the media has focused on these violent episodes, the vast majority of protestors have been peaceful. On the other side of the ceasefire line, Azerbaijanis erupted into celebrations, to whom the agreement represented victory. Videos shared across social media have shown thousands of people gathering around the country, many draped in Azerbaijani and Turkish flags.
Turkey has been a strong supporter of Azerbaijan, with which they share strong ethnic, cultural, and historical ties. Former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev once described them as “one nation with two states.” Despite no significant involvement in the conflict, Turkey also sees the ceasefire as a victory. On the other side, the population of Iran, a neighbour country bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia, has given a mixed response. The ceasefire has provided officials temporary relief from the fears of the conflict spreading to Iran - considering the 15 million Azerbaijanis and 100,000 Armenians in Iran, there was a risk that the conflict would cross over into Iranian territory.
Russia, an ally of Armenia with a large military base, also views the ceasefire positively for reasons similar to those that drove its activities in Georgia, in 2008 and in Ukraine, in 2014. Their primary security interest is maintaining a favoured status quo. Pashinyan, however, has proven to be difficult to pressure since coming into power following the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution. The current context is favorable for two reasons: the blame Pashinyan is receiving leaves room for the possibility of a new, more loyal leadership while the heightened insecurity among the Armenian population has helped spread the belief that Armenia needs Russia. Their involvement in the ceasefire is both a manifestation and a continuation of their growing influence in the Caucasus.
Causes of recent escalations in Nagorno-Karabakh
Various factors seem to have contributed to the rise of the latest conflict. First, Pashinyan and other Armenian officials escalated tensions earlier this year when they, for unclear reasons, increasingly used rhetoric on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The PM stayed clear of this throughout his first two years in power; however that changed when he declared the province indisputably Armenian. Announcing Shusha as the regional capital and eventually moving the parliament there further aggravated Azerbaijan, who see Shusha as a historically and culturally significant site, especially for regional Azerbaijanis.
That said, the rhetoric was far from being the only contributing factor. It appears Azerbaijan has been planning to reengage in the conflict for a while. Since taking over power in 2003, Aliyev has heavily invested in Azerbaijan’s carbon wealth to increase military capacity, buy more advanced weaponry, and train officers. Now with a relatively greater military capacity, all Aliyev needed was a spark to reignite the fire – and Aliyev got that spark when the popular figure Maj. Gen. Polad Hashimov was killed in a skirmish with Armenian forces in July. Thousands of protestors, who were also fueled by frustrations caused by the pandemic and severe water shortages, flocked to the streets and called for the government to retake occupied regions.
All of these factors contributed to the conflict’s ultimate reignition on September 26th, when residents on the Azerbaijani side of the ceasefire line, agreed upon in 2016, reported an entourage of Armenian rockets. This remains disputed, with Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh officials and Azerbaijani officials directing blame at each other. Regardless, Azerbaijani forces quickly responded, claiming to be defending their civilians. Both parties have since continued to describe the other’s actions as militant and, at times, indiscriminate.
Long-term prospects for peace
Despite the failure of previous ceasefire agreements to instil long-term stability into the region, the current ceasefire holds for the time being. Armenia has little incentive to reengage in the conflict anytime soon. Beyond its relatively weaker military capacity, not much support is neither available nor expected from all other parties involved in the conflict. However, this ceasefire is by no means an end to the conflict. There will undoubtedly be continued competing claims of territorial integrity by Azerbaijan and self-determination by Armenia. That said, the next thirty years will likely be similar to the last – the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will remain as an open question until geopolitical factors dictate otherwise.
Image - Onsplash