Fate of vulnerable minority looms over Armenia-Azerbaijan peace

New peace talks are finally inching forward, but the fate of the population caught up in the centre of the conflict remains a key concern.

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After a hiatus of several months, Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations resumed in May – and readouts from intensive meetings in Washington, Brussels, Chisinau, and Moscow suggest an agreement on normalization of relations between the two states is feasible.

There is now a critical mass of issues at the inter-state level on which eventual agreement looks possible, such as border delimitation, resolving humanitarian issues, and the much-discussed connectivity agenda. Many observers sense a historic opportunity to finally turn the page on 35 years of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

For the first time in many years, it is the stronger side – Azerbaijan – which appears to be pushing for a negotiated outcome, within a context where Armenian deterrence and its capacity to resist have broken down.

It is evident that, in Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia has a leader for the first time in two decades prepared to go against popular opinion and renounce the country’s role as the patron-state of Karabakh Armenian secessionism.

Pashinyan has repeatedly indicated Armenia is ready to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity – including the former Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region which lies at the heart of the conflict.

Many observers sense a historic opportunity to finally turn the page on 35 years of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict

Azerbaijan also closed the circle of its compromised territorial integrity in April by establishing an unscheduled checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor, the only route connecting Karabakh to the outside world.

Although presented as a measure coordinated with the Russian peacekeepers, the checkpoint is another step in Azerbaijan’s piecemeal dismantling of the Russian-brokered 9 November 2020 ceasefire – making it more likely that Azerbaijan may request the Russian peacekeepers’ departure when their first term ends in 2025.

Azerbaijani control over the Lachin Corridor also renders impossible Yerevan’s military support to Karabakh Armenians which, Baku says, is still ongoing.

Between credible commitments and ethnic cleansing

Armenia’s shift towards recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and Azerbaijan’s new de facto control over its borders highlight the vulnerability of the Karabakh Armenian population.

Under a civilian blockade since December 2022, access through the checkpoint has reportedly only been possible to date with Russian peacekeepers’ or International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) accompaniment. Even the latter’s access has recently been interrupted after another shoot-out, in a cycle of military incidents followed by collective punishment.

This vulnerability is acknowledged by Pashinyan’s readiness to abandon the secessionist project in Karabakh being predicated on Azerbaijan’s offering of guarantees for the Karabakh Armenian population.

But Baku’s offer to its Karabakh Armenian population always had a ‘credible commitment’ problem. Even when autonomy was supposedly on the table prior to 2020, this was never substantiated in any kind of document or white paper.

Azerbaijani officials insist they have a plan for the civil integration of the Karabakh Armenian population but are just waiting for a more pliant leadership in Stepanakert – referred to as Khankendi in Azerbaijan – before revealing it.

This silence unfortunately fuels fears that Baku’s intention is the depopulation of Karabakh, or ‘creeping ethnic cleansing’ – and such fears are not ill-founded.

Whenever territorial control has passed from one side to the other in this conflict, ethnic cleansing has been total. Since the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people of both nationalities, most of them Azerbaijanis, have lost their homes as a result of forced displacement.

The renewed focus on the relationship between the Azerbaijani state and the Karabakh Armenian population indicates the conflict has reverted to its roots – an asymmetric majority-minority struggle

An exodus of Karabakh Armenians would vindicate these fears, emphasize the limits to Azerbaijan’s heavily-marketed brand of multiculturalism, and add a whole new cluster of conflict issues, potentially derailing the ratification of the normalization agreement currently under negotiation.

It would also create a new internal diaspora of Karabakh Armenians in Armenia, with uncertain consequences for the country’s longer-term future, and set the stage for a new era of contestation between rights of return for Karabakh Armenians and Azerbaijanis displaced from Armenia in late 1980s.

Current Azerbaijani efforts to build a ‘Western Azerbaijan’ community, consisting of Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia articulating a Palestinian-style right of return, seem to anticipate such a scenario.

Return to first principles

The renewed focus on the relationship between the Azerbaijani state and the Karabakh Armenian population indicates the conflict has reverted to its roots – an asymmetric majority-minority struggle traditionally levelled by the drawing in of outside actors.

Between secession and ethnic cleansing lies a third way – the reframing of Karabakh Armenian rights as those of a national minority claiming protections under instruments such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, while also having specific security needs in the short to mid-term.

Such a transition is challenging to imagine for all sides, and sceptics observe that national minorities bereft of relevant geopolitical positioning rarely merit more than ‘expressions of concern’ from policymakers.

But the international legal landscape is arguably more hospitable to national minorities than to unrecognized secessionist republics which have scant protection under international law. Some Azerbaijani analysts have advocated for Baku to shift to more persuasive and less coercive ways to speak to the Karabakh Armenians it deems to be its citizens.

Fate of vulnerable minority looms over Armenia-Azerbaijan peace 2nd part

Reframing relations between Karabakh Armenians and the Azerbaijani state, however, is also contingent on a second transition – decoupling the conflict from the legitimacy formula of political elites. For decades, ‘rally round the flag’ effects justified stalled reform processes, limited political participation, and curtailed human rights across the conflict divide.

In Armenia, the dual shocks of the 2018 Velvet Revolution and the military defeat in 2020 have triggered this transition, accounting for Nikol Pashinyan’s political survival despite his oversight of a disastrous military defeat and advocacy of an unpopular peace.

In Azerbaijan, the temptations of a victor’s identity are unsurprisingly strong after decades of humiliation. Since its victory in 2020, the country has witnessed tightening political controls and increasing expressions of an expansive nationalism.

But the signing of a peace treaty would make the Azerbaijani elite face the dilemma of sustaining a domestic strategy of ordering its society around the conflict with Armenia, or the sustainability of genuine peace.