Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: What Went Wrong (2018-2020)?
The 27th day of September of 2020 brought a war to the South Caucasus. This raging whirlpool of war has been taking hundreds of lives from both sides for almost a month․
Azerbaijani forces started a full-scale military action with the goal of gaining control of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven adjacent regions. The ongoing war has become a humanitarian tragedy for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the people of Azerbaijan and Armenia. For those following the conflict closely, the escalation was not a sudden event that happened out of the blue, but a tragic denouement of a stagnant and increasingly ineffective peace process.
The war will not resolve the conflict. It jeopardizes the possibility of a peaceful settlement and pushes the prospects of peaceful coexistence of the people of the South Caucasus further away. However, the developments of 2018, which seem so distant now, gave some glimpses of possible positive dynamics in the peace process. So, what went so wrong that led us to such an intense war? Why did the positive trust-building steps of the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan relapse into threats and ultimatums?
The answer to this question won’t help to bring peace right now. But, it could potentially give hints about how to prevent new wars and value the peaceful means of resolution not just in this conflict but also in the region and beyond.
To try to find an answer to this question, I look at the developments within the official peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. By looking at the rhetoric of two leaders and other political representatives on both sides of the peace process, I attempt to find out when the positive dynamic relapsed into war rhetoric. I attempt to highlight the critical junctures that pushed the military escalation a step closer.
This article has two limitations, which I want to put forth before proceeding. This article is limited to an overview of the developments of the last two years since May of 2018. However, the peace process has a history of three decades, the analysis of which would lead to more exhaustive conclusions about the ongoing war. Additionally, I don’t consider the analysis of official rhetoric an exhaustive explanation to the current crisis. Still, the rhetorical changes are a reflection and a justification of certain political acts, therefore, they provide an overall picture of the official dynamics of the peace process.
Here is an interactive timeline of the past political events since the revolution in Armenia until the second Karabakh war.
Statements, but no policies
The peace process around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict looks like a sinusoid; first, it shows a positive dynamic and then backslides below the axis into the abyss of violence, and then repeats itself again. First, the sides almost reach a consensus and then the leaders resign under the vertical popular pressure instrumentalized by internal oppositions or back off in order to avoid the internal criticism and stay in power, which leads to a military escalation. For example, this happened with the first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who publicly announced his vision of the conflict resolution and the inevitability of concessions; in 1997 he had to resign. When the conflict was close to its resolution in Key West in 2003, the former president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, refused to proceed with the agreement. The political elites on both sides prefer to stick to the conventional nationalist discourse and avoid any talk of compromise, which could threaten their power. Especially since the leadership of Serzh Sargsyan in Armenia and Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, the two countries entered a stage of aggressive militarization and deepened the polarization and distrust towards each other. It is important to note that the militarist security discourse was also used by the leaders to legitimize their authoritarian rule.
In terms of internal affairs, things radically changed in Armenia with the nonviolent people’s movement, called the Velvet Revolution, in 2018. The democratisation process in Armenia seemed to change the overall discourse about the conflict. The leader Nikol Pashinyan who came to power on the wave of the revolution, introduced several novelties to the official conflict discourse. The two main changes in the Armenian positions were: (1) “any resolution of the conflict should be acceptable for the people of Armenia, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the people of Azerbaijan,” and (2) the government of Nagorno-Karabakh should return to the negotiations table. Both requests were explained with his commitment to democratic values of inclusivity and legitimacy of his mandate. At the beginning, in several rallies, Pashinyan used his speeches to directly address the people of Azerbaijan. This was a positive attempt of re-humanization of the Azerbaijani people in the Armenian discourse as well as a way to build relations with the people of Azerbaijan. Pashinyan also called on Aliyev to make statements welcoming inclusivity in the peace process, and by doing so informally initiated a trust-building process. However, Aliyev, a convinced believer in the “might is right” world order and an authoritarian leader, rejected both of Pashinyan’s requests. It is worth acknowledging that Aliyev at least for a while left behind the bellicose claims about sovereign Armenia’s lands being Azerbaijani. The first time after a long gap he used that claim during the talk in the Munich Conference.
Still, Pashinyan and Aliyev’s first informal meeting was positive. During the first short and informal talk in Dushanbe on 27-28 September 2018, the sides successfully managed to agree to establish a direct communication channel to decrease the tension on the contact line. This channel brought temporary peace to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. The meeting was preceded by a ceasefire violation on 27 September reported by the Armenian side, but after the commitment was made, the Armenian-Azerbaijani contact line did not see escalations for more than a year. The agreement was successfully kept by both sides for around six months. This agreement has been a confirmation of the fact that many tensions on the border were a consequence of the absence of direct communication.
In Tavush region late fall of 2018 a villager that owned gardens right on the border was telling me with relief: “We can finally start to make plans in advance.” Berkaber village and the Mezem village in the background. 2018. Photo taken by: Christina Soloyan
During 2018 and early 2019 there were several meetings between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and several official and informal meetings between the leaders. The sides met for the second time in December of 2018. They discussed the possibility of exchange of prisoners in an “all for all” format. However, the Armenian side rejected the proposition, finding the exchange imbalanced.
In 2019, the two sides also announced their commitment to “prepare populations for peace”. Despite the top-down rhetoric of the announcement, overall, it still indicated a certain interest in the inclusive peace process. Within this framework, only few activities happened. One of the main state-supported initiatives was the exchange of journalists between Armenia and Azerbaijan in November 2019. As a journalist, former opposition figure and current leader of the democratization process in Armenia, Pashinyan expressed the importance of inclusivity in the political processes. In his speech during the meeting of security councils of Armenia and Azerbaijan, he highlights the exchange of journalists as a mutual success and a proof that they are “able to coordinate and carry out a common task.” Conversely, Aliyev explicitly expressed his skepticism towards such initiatives, considering the absence of any solid developments in the official negotiations process. In a reply to the journalist of TASS, Aliyev said: “After all, the negotiations should also be supported by humanitarian actions; of course. But I think that it is important that the format of negotiations has remained unchanged.”
This could be considered the last positive activity on behalf of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships. The much expected positive change that the democratization in Armenia should have brought to the peace process did not happen. Pashinyan’s statements about the importance of inclusivity of the process, transparency, his attempts to communicate pro-peace messages to the people of Azerbaijan have been left on the discursive level and have not translated into policies.
So when did the rhetorical relapse happen? When did the reluctant talks about a favorable environment degrade into threats and ultimatums?
A major relapse to the categorical rhetoric happened after Pashinyan’s speech in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh on August 5, 2019. During a rally organized by the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh governments, Pashinyan concluded his expressive speech with the chant “Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia and period.” He also repeated the “Miatsum” (unification) of 1988s movement. The statement caused outrage in Azerbaijan as well as dissatisfaction among the OSCE Minsk group. Later, Pashinyan interpreted the claim as “We will perceive aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh as an aggression against Armenia. We said that Armenia is the guarantor of Nagorno-Karabakh's security.”
The statement can be interpreted as the direct consequence of the pressure on Nikol Pashinyan to prove his dedication to the protection of Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most sensitive topics that is easily manipulated by opposition political actors against the others. Similarly, the politically marginalized powers after the revolution, especially those of the former two presidents, were involved in major media campaigns against Pashinyan, making “Nikol came to give up lands” the red line running through their media attacks.
Pashinyan’s statement was not left alone. Aliyev’s response to the statement was made in October, during the Valdai discussion club in Sochi, Russia, 2019. The context in which the response was done was a tactical choice, as Russia is considered the ally of Armenia. Aliyev dedicated a major part of the speech to reiterating the official narrative about the conflict using categorical rhetoric and concluded with “Karabakh is Azerbaijan - exclamation mark!”
This stretched-in-time dialogue is an exemplification of the race of narratives. The negotiations process is perceived not as a process of cooperation, but of competition. To ensure the discursive victory over the opponent, Aliyev’s speech was spread through emotionally appealing social advertisements. A state-funded social advertisement portrays different groups, such as youngsters, elderly people, families, professionals, and others watching Aliyev’s speech during the Valdai discussion club. The video culminates with people turning their admiring, victorious gazes to the screen on Aliyev’s words “Karabakh is Azerbaijan - exclamation mark!”
Such efforts to publicize Aliyev's categorical response after a long period of moderate rhetoric can be understood as yet more instrumentalization of nationalist discourse to preserve a leader's legitimacy, which as in Armenia, similarly in Azerbaijan, is exploited for the vertical discourses of legitimation of power. In the late 2019s and 2020, Aliyev returned to the same rhetoric about claiming not only the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh but also of the sovereign Republic of Armenia. Within this narrative, Aliyev says in his speech: “the principle of self-determination does not apply because the Armenian people have already determined themselves; they have an Armenian state, albeit created on Azerbaijani soil.”
The Armenian discourse also became categorical. In his interview to RBK in July 2020 Pashinyan said: “If president Aliyev wants the Armenian prime minister to represent Nagorno-Karabakh in front of the negotiations table, then he says that Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia. … This means that I am not the only one that says that Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia.”
Another major event that raised tensions among the parties to the conflict was the inauguration event of the newly elected president of Nagorno-Karabakh in Shushi/a in May 2020. The city carries symbolic meaning for the Azerbaijanis of Nagorno-Karabakh as most of the Azerbaijani minority of Nagorno-Karabakh was based in Shushi/a.
The same old bellicose rhetoric
Since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in the South Caucasus, the sides have not held official meetings or made major statements. The pandemic distracted the sides from the conflict for a while. However, on 12 July, a military escalation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border erupted. Both sides accused the other of military aggression. Pashinyan explained the reason behind the escalation as Aliyev's attempt to justify military expenditures to his people. Inturn, Aliyev accused Armenia of attacking in the middle of the fragile situation caused by the pandemic.
In recent years Turkey’s Erdogan and FM Cavusoglu had declared their support to Azerbaijan more and more often. However, it was during this time that Turkey announced its full support to Azerbaijan in the conflict. In its press release The MFA concluded with “Turkey will continue, with all its capacity, to stand by Azerbaijan in its struggle to protect its territorial integrity.” Defense minister Hulusi Akar vowed to “avenge the Azerbaijanis killed”.
In the aftermath of the July escalation Aliyev made a major change that could hint to the negative shift in diplomacy. The foreign minister of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov, who had served since 2004, resigned. In an interview to the local media Aliyev also expressed his dissatisfaction with the OSCE Minsk group and called the negotiations process pointless.
The tension between Armenia and Turkey in the face of the July escalation was exacerbated after the back and forth regarding the anniversary of the Sevres agreement. Nikol Pashinyan’s comments on the Sevres agreement, which caused indignation in Turkey, were characterized by prominent historian and diplomat Gerard Libaridian as an implicit “...demand for a change of borders. That is, the annexation of a significant part of the eastern regions of modern Turkey to Armenia”. Libaridian warned in his interview published on September 13, 2020 that “We [Armenians] are not ready to take responsibility for the consequences of what we said" in relation to the Sevres statements.
Surely, the rhetorically intense back-and-forth cannot exhaustively explain Turkey’s explicit support to Azerbaijan, however, it gave Turkey a way to legitimize its involvement in the region. “It is time for the authorities of Armenia to abandon aggressive nationalist and jingoist policies and come to their senses.” This was the concluding remark of the Turkish MFA’s response to the Armenian MFA.
The July escalation was left in a vacuum of intense, bellicose rhetoric. No negotiations or any communication followed the escalation. Later, Sergey Lavrov hinted at the reasons behind the escalation. According to Lavrov in his interview to a local media, the main factor is the decision of the Armenian side to “rehabilitate one of its abandoned military points that is located close to the Azerbaijani oil pipelines”.
In the diplomatic silence, the rumours about the military preparation of Azerbaijan, the alleged movement of mercenary groups to Azerbaijan were heard loud. The first news about the movement of Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan came out in late July, right after the July escalation. In other words, the Azerbaijani preparation of military action was not a secret even for the public.
A day before the war started, the American embassies in Armenia and Azerbaijan made statements urging their staff to avoid leaving the capital cities due to security concerns. This was the last bell that rang before the escalation. So, the 27th day of September of 2020 brought a destructive war to Nagorno-Karabakh. With the involvement of Turkey, the use of electronic warfare technologies such as drones and the use of illegal cluster munitions, the passivity of the mediating parties - Russia, US, France, as well as the neighbouring countries, the war has already become a humanitarian crisis for the region.
Eventually, the positive dynamics of 2018 were left on a discursive level. The Armenian diplomatic community could not translate the official statements into policies and inform the peace process with values of inclusivity and transparency. Aliyev’s authoritarian rule prevented positive development by failing to reciprocate any of Pashinyan’s statements. The Armenian government gave up its positive rhetoric to the nationalist statements in order to comply with vertical nationalist discourses and secure internal support. Finally, the Azerbaijani government also gave in to pro-war demands in order to, among other reasons, recover its political standing and justify authoritarian rule. Above all, however, the OSCE Minsk group co-chairmanship of mediators failed to adequately respond to the rising bellicose rhetoric and prevent the approaching escalation.
*The views, ideas, and opinions expressed in this text belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect Caucasus Talks’ team’s views.
**This article is partially based on the research of my dissertation submitted for my MSc Conflict Studies degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science.