‘Risk of new war’ with Azerbaijan looming, most Armenians say

By Mark Dovich

“Do you see a risk of new war in Artsakh?” is the difficult question Armenians are finding themselves increasingly having to answer, using the name for Nagorno-Karabakh that most Armenians prefer.

According to a new survey conducted last month by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, only 22% answered no. Many Armenians believe another war will break out over Nagorno-Karabakh — within one year from now (18%), within five years (13%) or within ten years or after (5%). Moreover, a plurality of those polled (24%) responded that “the war had not finished.” The poll, commissioned by CivilNet, asked respondents extensive questions about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, among other topics.

Overall, 78% of those polled said the next step to resolving the conflict was “the return of prisoners, then everything else.” Every other possible answer, such as “clarify the status” of the disputed territory, received support from 5% of respondents or fewer. (Last week, a plane thought to be bringing Armenian prisoners of war home turned out empty upon arrival to Yerevan, prompting widespread outrage in Armenia.)

Respondents were also asked “what Armenia’s general goal should be” in Nagorno-Karabakh. To that question, answers were much more split. Thirty percent of Armenians answered “the return of all territories” lost in last year’s war, while 22% said the return of the borders of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, the Soviet-era administrative entity at the center of the conflict and the basis of self-determination claims. Meanwhile, 20% answered, “maintain current borders,” and another 20% said it was difficult to answer.

The survey explored six potential “approaches to the settlement” of the conflict that civilians would like to see. When asked to give their first choice solution, respondents overwhelmingly answered either “Artsakh officially part of Armenia” (34%) or “Artsakh an independent state” (27%). For their second choice, 39% of respondents answered granting the territory “special status within the Russian Federation.” Each other option, which all involved either joint Armenian-Azerbaijani or sole Azerbaijani administration over the region, garnered support from less than 1% of respondents.

Those polled were questioned extensively about their opinions on “the further settlement of the Karabakh conflict.” In particular, respondents were asked to state which country, in their opinion, was key to a resolution of the conflict, as well as which countries they thought “important” to be involved with potential peace negotiations.

The plurality of respondents, at 35%, answered “the Armenian government” when asked on which country the settlement of the conflict depends. Other popular answers included “world powers (U.S., Russia, China, EU),” at 32%, and “the Russian Federation” alone, at 33%. Interestingly, only 15% of respondents said that resolving the conflict depends on Azerbaijan, a massive drop of 16 percentage points since last year’s survey, which was conducted between August 15 and August 29, several months before the most recent round of fighting broke out.

There was greater consensus on which countries should (and should not) be involved in the resolution process. More than 80% of respondents said Russia should be “very involved” or “somewhat involved” with peace negotiations — while nearly the same proportion answered that Turkey “should not be involved at all.” The majority of those polled also said they envisioned seats at the negotiating table for France and the U.S., which, together with Russia, chair the OSCE Minsk Group.

In a separate question, the plurality of respondents (49%) called the Minsk Group’s work either “very important” or “more or less important,” while 30% said the group’s work was either “more of less not important” or “not important at all.” Another 19% percent of respondents said it was too difficult to answer. The Minsk Group was created during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s and is meant to encourage peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Additionally, there was a series of questions about the Russian peacekeeping forces that have been stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh since the signing of a ceasefire agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia last November.

When asked about their level of trust or mistrust toward the peacekeepers, slightly more than half of respondents answered that they trust the peacekeepers fully or mostly. On the other end of the spectrum, 25% of respondents said they “absolutely” or “mostly” do not trust the Russian forces. Sixteen percent of those polled answered “neither trust nor mistrust.”

The survey also asked respondents if they thought “Russian peacekeeping forces will continue to work in Artsakh” after their five-year mandate in the region ends. Though the plurality of those polled said “do not know,” the answers “yes” and “probably yes” together garnered 47% of respondents’ support. Meanwhile, only 15% answered either “no” or “probably no.”

The topic of reestablishing transport connections between Armenia and Azerbaijan was also included in the survey. In the 1990s, Azerbaijan, alongside Turkey, imposed a devastating economic embargo on Armenia, shuttering the borders entirely. Although the borders remain closed for now, the November 2020 ceasefire agreement includes calls for “all economic and transport links in the region [to] be unblocked.” In Armenia, a potential Azerbaijani transport corridor going through Meghri, Armenia’s southernmost town, has emerged as a subject of great debate and concern.

In the survey, 53% of respondents said they felt “fully negative” toward the reestablishment of Armenian-Azerbaijani transport links. Only 4% said they felt “fully positive” about the proposal to reestablish transport connections.

When asked which of two statements they agreed with more, the majority of respondents (59%) said they agreed more with the statement that “the launch of the Meghri corridor poses a threat to Armenia’s national security,” while only 12% answered “the launch of the Meghri corridor creates the foundations for economic development.” 9% said they agreed with both statements.

Finally, canvassers asked “how much do you believe in the cohabitation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis,” meaning the prospect that the two groups could peacefully live side-by-side. A whopping 72% of Armenians said they “do not believe at all” that it could be possible, while 18% answered “to some extent I believe, to some extent I do not believe” it to be possible. Only 3% said they “fully believe” that Armenians and Azerbaijanis can live together peacefully. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenians and Azerbaijanis across the South Caucasus lived side-by-side. In some villages in southern Georgia, they still do.

Canvassers gathered the data between March 12 and March 25, when Armenians were largely focused on the crisis of political legitimacy swirling around Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan after Armenia’s disastrous defeat in last year’s war. Around that time, concerns were also growing about the fate of Armenian cultural sites, such as the Dadivank Monastery, that are now under Azerbaijani administration. Worries over the treatment of Armenian prisoners of war and demands for their return had also become frequent topics of discussion across Armenia by this time.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a series of visits to areas retaken from ethnic Armenian forces in the war, widely seen, by Armenians and international observers alike, as a provocative move. On March 15, for instance, Aliyev visited a medieval Armenian church and said “all these inscriptions are fake.”