Events are moving quite quickly in the South Caucasus, although they have not yet reached a breakthrough. Nevertheless, the first anniversary of the outbreak Second Karabakh War provides an opportunity to evaluate at least some of the new phenomena. In this article, I pay special attention to the question of re-establishing communications links and transportation connections.
A trilateral working group to promote such developments was established at an inter-ministerial meeting on January 11 of this year (in consequence of Point 9 of the 10 November 2020 ceasefire agreement). Armenia then suspended its participation in any knock-on discussions, but these have resumed as of August 17, in Moscow at the level of the deputy prime minister. It did so despite the fact that Azerbaijan has been supplying Armenia (although it is not obligated to do so) with gas from Russia through its own national pipeline system, which is more efficient than the Georgian infrastructure. Azerbaijan has also provided Armenia free passage through the territory on the Goris-Kafan highway, although Baku has stopped trucks that were illegally entering Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region.
The ceasefire accord calls for the opening of a corridor between Azerbaijan proper and its exclave Nakhchivan, and there is indeed a railroad there that can be rebuilt. Armenia, however, continues to insist instead on re-opening a longer and more circuitous railroad route between the two countries that do not go through the Zangezur Corridor. Not only would that route take a longer time for travel, but also it would cost more to reconstruct and refurbish.
The Turkish energy firm BOTAS had been interested in establishing a large physical plant on the border of Nakhchivan and Armenia. If a pipeline could be constructed across southern Armenia for this purpose, it would have been possible to create jobs in southern Armenia, which desperately needs economic development, through the construction of a processing complex to produce refined products for foreign export.
A pipeline through the corridor would have been in Armenia’s longer-term interests, but Yerevan was handicapped by internal political deadlock due to snap elections called after the war. Lacking a full cabinet, including a foreign minister (the ministry’s entire leadership had resigned earlier), in the wake of snap parliamentary elections in Armenia called by its prime minister Nicol Pashinyan, the Yerevan government was unable to take any constructive decisions. Faced with delays and indecisiveness on the part of the Armenian authorities, however, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the Igdir-Nakhchivan pipeline’s construction to supply Nakhchivan from Turkey.
The most immediate and effective confidence-building measure would be to facilitate the return of Azerbaijani civilians to the homes in the de-occupied territories from which they were driven by ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s. However, aside from the physical destruction of very many of those homes, this type of development is complicated by the fact that those who have already returned continue to be threatened with death and injury from the land mines sown by the Armenian forces before their departure last November under the terms of the agreement negotiated in Moscow.
Earlier this year, Armenia furnished mine maps for the city of Aghdam, in exchange for two groups of infiltrators held by Azerbaijan. (Armenia contends that they were prisoners of war; Azerbaijan noted that having infiltrated across the border after the ceasefire, they are not covered by definitions in the Geneva Conventions and therefore common criminals.) Nevertheless, according to Azerbaijani sources, the maps furnished by Armenia were correct only in a proportion of about 25 percent.
The international community has begun to recognize the seriousness of the situation, and an increasing number of countries have stepped forward to supply funds, equipment, and training for the mine-clearing operations. A delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) visited the de-occupied region recently and appeared to be astonished by the destruction caused over 30 years in violation of the international law of occupation. Their long report is remarkably even-handed. Notably, it mentions UNESCO as the agency that should begin to undertake an inventory of the cultural heritage and humanitarian losses of the region.
One may expect the increasing transfer of the conflict to “lawfare.” Yerevan has just filed a case against Baku at the International Court of Justice in The Hague (not to be confused with the International Criminal Court) under the International Convention of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Perhaps Yerevan had been alerted to the fact that Azerbaijan was filing such a case against Armenia, as it has done since.
Azerbaijan’s case formally accuses Armenia of racial discrimination and ethnic cleansing. According to reports, Azerbaijan said in its filing before the court that “Armenia has engaged and is continuing to engage in a series of discriminatory acts against Azerbaijanis on the basis of their ‘national or ethnic’ origin,” and that through “both direct and indirect means, Armenia continues its policy of ethnic cleansing” while inciting “hatred and ethnic violence against Azerbaijanis by engaging in hate speech and disseminating racist propaganda, including at the highest levels of its government.” This filing should succeed.
The ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis not only from the Karabakh region during the early 1990s, but also from southern Armenia in the late 1980s, is already well documented. Moreover, in 2015, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2015 that the military forces in occupied Azerbaijan were indeed under the effective control of Yerevan itself.
Finally, as to forums for the ending of the conflict. I have argued that the OSCE Minsk Group is outdated and has no role to play. This is certainly true in the formal sense since the slowness of multilateral international organizations relying upon consensus diplomacy cannot keep pace with the speed of developments today. What is absolutely certain is that the “Madrid Principles” are outdated and dead. I have enumerated elsewhere in detail the reasons why this is so. It is indicative that no one, not even from the Armenian side, has made serious reference to them since the end of the war last November.
Moreover, a few days ago the Russian Ministry of Defense removed the outline of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Soviet era, from its official map where it shows the deployment of its troops on Azerbaijani territory. This indication is all the more significant, insofar as it has occurred only a few days after the Russian side submitted to the two belligerent sides its proposals for the delimitation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, on the basis of detailed military maps from the Soviet era.
Russia as co-chairman of the Minsk group can act and has acted autonomously of the other two co-chairs (US and France), trilaterally with only Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moscow is free to inform Washington and Paris of its actions and then the three may choose to present the result as a Minsk Group product. But even that has not been happening. The first formal activity of the Minsk Group in a year was to hold meetings separately with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in the margins of the opening of the new session of the UN General Assembly.
In the end, the Minsk Group may serve a useful purpose as an umbrella for any agreed final settlement that is arranged outside its auspices, but even that is not necessary. All that is necessary is an international peace treaty with guarantees. That is how wars end, and with territorial settlements including mutual recognition and the delimitation and recognition of national borders.