The Variants of Political Solutions for the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. A Webinar

Throughout nearly three decades of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, negotiators discussed a number of possible solutions to the conflict, including various types of autonomy, federation, and even a land swap. No agreement was ever reached and the Second Karabakh War subsequently upended every dynamic in this conflict. On April 20, scholars convened to discuss the path forward. Kavus Abushov, Associate Professor of Political Science at ADA University, Philip Gamaghelyan, editor at Caucasus Edition and Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego, Asbed Kotchikian, advisory board member at Caucasus Edition and Associate Professor of Political Science at AUA, and Kamal Makili-Aliyev, LLD, Associate Professor of International Law and Human Rights at Malmö University and an affiliated researcher at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, discussed the potential form and bases for the new stage of the peace process.

The panelists focused on the opportunities and challenges that Armenia and Azerbaijan face in the aftermath of the 2020 war. Philip Gamaghelyan stressed that the Second Karabakh War has exacerbated the deep enmity already existing among Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Unlike in 1994, the current ceasefire did not result in the establishment of a robust negotiation process. Neither an official nor unofficial peace process currently exists. Further, Baku’s refusal to return PoWs coupled with provocative steps such as the inauguration of a Military Trophy Park contribute to hardening attitudes in Armenia with regards to dialogue with Azerbaijan and the possibility of reengaging in a peace process. This sentiment was echoed by Asbed Kotchikian, who noted that attitudes have indeed been hardening in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to Kotchikian, experts usually assume that the defeated side is more inclined towards nationalist rhetoric, but it is apparent that even the victors are quick to resort to a nationalist discourse.

Kamal Makili-Aliyev noted that the actions of the parties suggest that they consider the ceasefire agreement signed in November to be a normative treaty. According to the speaker, some aspects of the treaty have already been implemented, yet the implementations of others have slowed due to the lack of trust. Makili-Aliyev discussed the political crisis in Armenia and the absence of a unified political front as significant reasons for the slowdown. He mentioned: “Azerbaijan tying the return of the detained (ed. POWs) to Armenia’s withdrawal from territories controlled by Russia’s peacekeeping mission” and that both of these are included as obligations in the ceasefire agreement in paragraphs 4 and 7. He argued that the solution to these problems was likely to be political rather than legal.

Turning to the Russian peacekeeping presence in Nagorno Karabakh, the speakers view both as a challenge and an opportunity. Kavus Abushov stressed that the long-term presence of the Russian peacekeeping force makes renewed military escalation unlikely, creating a favorable atmosphere for negotiations and the resolution of the conflict, or at least an interim peace.

Asbed Kotchikian likewise stated that the Russian peacekeeping force could help secure a safe environment for people-to-people contact and confidence-building, considering that Armenians and Azerbaijanis will now have to live in proximity. At the same time, he noted that the involvement of Russian peacekeepers has brought new challenges to the region. Armenia lost its agency as an actor in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Possible future agreement on the fate of the region will be either bilateral, between Russia and Azerbaijan, or possibly trilateral, among Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.

Discussing the possible variants of a solution, Gamaghelyan evaluated the trajectories that other ethno-national conflicts have taken. In Gamaghelyan’s view, the conflict currently follows the South Ossetian scenario, without an effective peace process between the parties, the enmity between people growing, and Nagorno Karabakh functioning as a de-facto Russian protectorate. This scenario has advantages: both freezing the conflict and saving lives in the immediate future. The downside, however, is that without direct engagement the conflict can become permanent and, with time, escalate. Unlike South Ossetia, however, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict might draw in more than one outside actor, becoming a proxy war involving regional and global actors, a variation of a Syrian scenario.

Gamaghelyan argued that the parties’ preferred solutions- either Armenia’s preference for international recognition of the NKR as an independent state or Azerbaijan’s preference for complete control of the region- were unrealistic considering the involvement and position of Russia and other international actors. Pursuit of a unilateral solution would likely drive the region back to violence and increase the likelihood of the Syrian scenario.

According to Gamaghelyan, theoretically another possible but currently unlikely direction is a negotiated path towards autonomy. One modeled after either South Tyrol, a German speaking region within Italy, or the Aland islands, a de-facto independent Swedish-speaking region de-jure located within Finland. According to Gamaghelyan, the first scenario is difficult to achieve as they require a high level of democratization. Finally, the sides could proceed with the Cyprus scenario, grounded in an agreement to rule out violence and engage in long-term negotiations and a peacebuilding process without the expectation of finding a political solution in the near or medium-term future.

Referring to the potential variants outlined by Gamaghelyan, Abushov and Makili-Aliyev do not think the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will follow the exact trajectory of any other particular conflict, but will instead follow its own path incorporating elements from a number of other political settlements. Makili-Aliyev suggested that the three pillars of the Aland Islands settlement could serve as the basis for negotiations: demilitarization; political autonomy; and respect of minority rights.

The conclusions drawn from the webinar were that substantial obstacles remain on the road to restarting an effective peace process. Among them, the absence of trust is the most significant.