US institutions discuss Karabakh conflict, future implications


By Skylar Yoder

Earlier this month, the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C., and the University of Pittsburgh held separate virtual events for experts to discuss last year’s forced displacement of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and its implications for the South Caucasus moving forward.

During the University of Pittsburgh’s webinar, Berry College historian Kelsey Rice and Tigran Grigoryan, the director of the Yerevan-based Regional Center for Democracy and Security think tank, outlined the long history of the conflict leading up to Nagorno-Karabakh’s collapse last September. Rice noted that, from an academic point of view, there was a history of peaceful coexistence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, punctuated by flare-ups related to the control of key resources and other economic opportunities. She noted that the tensions stoked during the upsurge in nationalism in the late Soviet period generated competition to prove whose people were in Nagorno-Karabakh first, despite significant archaeological evidence that the region’s history was multiethnic.

Regarding the timing of Azerbaijan’s military offensives in the region, Rice argued that a spike in weapons purchases from Israel and Turkey in the late 2010s showed that Azerbaijan was looking to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict militarily, after decades of failed negotiations by the Minsk Group. Azerbaijan first struck Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, while the COVID-19 pandemic occupied most of the world. Then, Azerbaijan took advantage of a Russia distracted by its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 to begin blockading the region. With Russia’s peacekeepers less likely than ever to fulfill their mandate, Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh last September. That attack culminated in the collapse of the local, Armenian-led government and led to the forcible displacement of nearly all of the region’s ethnic Armenians.

Grigoryan, who was born in Nagorno-Karabakh and lived there until 2020, stressed how Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union came out of the original Karabakh movement in the late 1980s. He noted that because the region has played a pivotal role in political discourse and national identity in Armenia for the last 30 years, the country’s ruling elite are now trying to reevaluate and reinvent Armenia’s history to take the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh into account. This could be part of the motivation behind Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s repeated suggestions this year to change the country’s constitution to reflect a new national identity that does not include references to Nagorno-Karabakh.

In terms of the fate of the approximately 100,000 Armenians who fled from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia last year, Grigoryan noted many practical concerns, including psychological and financial issues. He argued that if the Armenian government does not do more to address these long-term problems, more and more people will leave for places like southern Russia, where there are historical Armenian communities, including Armenians with roots in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Meanwhile, the Kennan Institute, a U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia, held a webinar focused on peacebuilding in the South Caucasus from both an academic and a practitioner perspective. Ann Phillips, a fellow at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, explained that peacebuilding has so far failed because international diplomatic engagement has failed to make progress on the dilemma of self-determination versus territorial integrity. At the same time, local civil society did not scale up sufficiently to address narratives that thwarted compromise between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In reference to current peace talks, Laurence Broers, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program, highlighted how any future agreements between the two countries are likely to be so minimalist that they will not be able address the key issue of varying linguistic interpretations. That has been the case with the 2020 ceasefire declaration brokered by Russia, and similar instances in the future could result in more allegations of ceasefire violations and reduced trust. Due to the lack of trust between Pashinyan and recently reelected Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, academic theory suggests that external mediation would be best. However, there are no credible international actors that would be perceived as neutral by both parties. As such, Broers believes the best chance at a peace deal would be from direct negotiations between the two sides, albeit with relentless encouragement from the international community and firm commitments to support the ultimate outcome. Beyond a more robust peace agreement, Broers noted that addressing issues of social justice, cultural heritage, missing persons, and landmines will all be necessary.

Because any such agreement or mechanisms for peace seem far from reach, especially in light of Azerbaijan’s deadly attack on Armenia earlier this month, Phillips suggested that “functional coexistence” may be a more reasonable short-term solution. In this scenario, the main goal is to stop the violence by establishing direct lines of communication between security forces along the line of contact, halting escalation and creating “minimally livable spaces” along the border.

Looking to the future, the panelists noted that upcoming elections in both the European Union and United States could be consequential for the region, as the officials who have been engaged on these issues will likely change, which could, in turn, lead to a shift in engagement with the South Caucasus.
You can access a full recording of the Kennan Institute’s event here.

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