This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu
https://www.commonspace.eu/node/12577-The Karabakh conflict was the most serious and divisive issue in the South Caucasus during the whole post-Soviet period and until very recently. It started off with discord on how a compactly living Armenian population could live in an Azerbaijani state, but soon turned into a secessionist war once Armenians decided to create an independent Armenian state. The rest is history. For some time the Armenians appeared to succeed, and for some time they appeared to be making some progress with their project. But Azerbaijan never accepted the situation and always made it clear it will reverse it, by force if necessary.
The contemporary Azerbaijani state is very different from that of the early 1990s, and the geo-political context is very different too. So, in autumn 2020 the military balance tipped and the prospect of an Armenian state in Karabakh collapsed, although it took another three painful years for the process to be completed. The exodus of the entire Armenian population of Karabakh in September 2023 should not be a cause of joy for anyone. The South Caucasus had enough refugees anyway, including hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis displaced by the 1st Karabakh War. Adding another 120,000 Armenians to the list was simply another painful addition.
The dust from this conflict and the turmoil it created is now starting to settle, and many are asking the question? What next? The international community continues to go through the motions in trying to support the sides to find a lasting solution, but the momentum for Moscow, Washington or Brussels to lead has been lost. This throws the ball back to the sides: the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Not a bad thing, some would say. They know best what needs to be done. Unfortunately, the reality is not so simple. The baggage of history weighs heavily on Armenia and Azerbaijan and on Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The ongoing negotiations appear to be going very slowly. There remain a number of serious disagreements on several issues, and every now and then some new ones emerge. But not all is lost. Some positive signs have emerged from Baku and Yerevan.
Baku appears to be willing to accept the Armenians back, as long as they accept to live under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the property of Armenians in Stepanakert/Khankendi, the administrative centre of Karabakh, remains intact.
In Yerevan, the government of prime minister Pashinyan has remained consistent in its commitment in favour of a peace process despite the very vocal, often very vitriolic criticism of most of Yerevan’s chattering classess, and their counterparts in the diaspora. The Armenian government has renounced any territorial claims on Karabakh, and expressed a willingness to change the Armenian constitution that appears to condone such claims. Pashinyan has a good track record of winning popular votes. Securing this Constitutional change is within his reach.
But both sides need to be ambitious in how they think of the future. Avoiding Karabakh completely is never going to be possible, because for some, it will always remain a sore point. The alternative is not a series of half measures, but bold decisive measures.
On the side of the Azerbaijan government, it must develop a scheme that would encourage the voluntary return of those Karabakh Armenians who want to do so. What is currently on offer is not enough and a more ambitious and more transparent scheme is needed. Baku should also open discussion about how to deal with the property of those that decide they do not want to return. Schemes need to be developed for those Karabakh Armenians who simply want to visit occasionally to pay respects at family graves. Such schemes are neither too complex nor too expensive to implement, and Baku should get on and do it.
Eventually, once Armenia and Azerbaijan establish diplomatic relations, the setting up of an Armenian consulate in Stepanakert/Khankendi could be a very tangible confidence-building measure.
On the Armenian side, there is much to be done too. Armenia is a reasonably open society, and silencing opposition criticism of the peace process is not an option. But the government should be more attentive to what its members and its employees are saying, so that there is harmony in the government messaging.
The sides need to address issues that are of mutual concern, together. Landmine clearance is one of the top priorities. Big chunks of territory are contaminated. Cooperation is necessary, and this can take many forms. A joint anti-demining centre for example can be established in Aghdam where information can be exchanged and a strategy for a region-wide mine clearance effort can be developed. Such a centre can also have an international dimension, possibly also offering tools and resources that can be used in other scenarios beyond the South Caucasus.
There will be a point when Baku will have to take some big decisions about the Karabakh Armenian leaders that it currently holds in detention.
It’s fine for Baku and Yerevan to try to solve the differences between them without outside interference, but they must show that their process is credible, and they must think “big steps”.
Karabakh has been the symbol of division and war in the South Caucasus for too long. It must now become the symbol of peace, reconciliation and co-operation.
This commentary was prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu .