The Nagorno-Karabakh Dispute After 20 Years

Twenty years ago, the withdrawal of troops, the return of refugees and the deployment of peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh looked like the next logical steps after the signature of the ceasefire. None of this occurred. Today, the prospect of renewed fighting, which this time could have a regional dimension and pull in Russia and Turkey, seems more likely than ever since 1994. 

Posted on 05/12/14
By Dr. Sabine Freizer | Via Today's Zaman
(Map by mwmbwls, Creative Commons License)
(Map by mwmbwls, Creative Commons License)

Twenty years ago, Armenians and Azerbaijanis signed a ceasefire to silence the artillery in Nagorno-Karabakh. But since May 12, 1994, almost none of the subsequent steps have strengthened that peace; the sides are still far from agreement on a comprehensive settlement.
Instead, especially in the past few years, the number of people being killed along the frontlines has risen. Some 30 persons a year are the victims of snipers, shelling and mines. The Armenian and Azerbaijani military budgets are increasing. Baku, in particular, has raised its military budget from $175 million when President Ilham Aliyev was inaugurated to $3.7 billion in 2013. The situation in Ukraine, and particularly Russia’s annexation of Crimea, is making the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict even more elusive.


For Azerbaijan, non-resolution of the conflict means that 14 percent of its territory remains occupied and 600,000 Azerbaijanis are displaced, the vast majority of whom are from lands around Nagorno-Karabakh and not from the entity itself. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the local population of between 90,000-150,000 feels increasingly secure of its independence, but not of its security. Armenia is ever more dependent on Russia and its long land borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are sealed shut to trade and travel.


For the past 20 years, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been mediating talks between the Azerbaijani and Armenian leadership through the OSCE Minsk Group, chaired by Russian, US and French representatives. They mainly focus on trying to resolve the conflict between Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and the right to maintain its territorial integrity, and the Armenian demand that the majority ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh be able to determine how they are governed — a demand shifting over time from unification with Armenia to the establishment of their own state. Calls to change the format of the international negotiations or to drop international mediation altogether are becoming more persistent in the absence of progress.


Since 2005, the parties have come closer to agreeing on the elements of what is now a “well-established” compromise. These “basic principles” are based on three fundamental components: the non-use of force, territorial integrity and the right to self-determination. They include six elements: the return of the occupied Azerbaijani territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh; an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh guaranteeing security and self-governance; a corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia; eventual determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status by a legally binding expression of will; the right of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees to return; and international security guarantees, including a peacekeeping operation.


But the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia remain unable to finalize the deal. Part of the problem is that they fear the public backlash that would occur if they are viewed by their societies as making any compromise. Confidence is in short supply in the region. Divisions between the two societies keep growing, as the generations that remember easy co-existence during the Soviet period get older and are replaced by generations that have been schooled in an atmosphere of hate and distrust of the other side.


In their ceasefire anniversary statement, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs point out: “… a settlement will not be possible without a basis of trust and understanding between the Armenian and Azerbaijani people.  We call on the sides to commit to active people to people programs and security confidence building measures to reinforce the peace process.”(
Thankfully, in the shadows of the official negotiation process and the overall deterioration in people-to-people relations, Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society groups have been taking part in far-ranging dialogue on issues of common concern.  Since June 2010, much of this has been facilitated by international NGOs within the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK;, an initiative funded by the European Union. Meetings have involved women, youth, journalists and expert groups — from Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh. Through these meetings, at least some people have been able to see beyond the hate rhetoric voiced by their media and politicians. They have even debated difficult topics like Nagorno-Karabakh’s ultimate status, considering the real differences between the options of autonomy and independence.


The past 20 years of negotiations show that peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia cannot be made in closed rooms between the countries’ presidents. A much greater involvement of society is needed. But Baku and Yerevan are not doing enough to support these second-track efforts. Instead, Azerbaijan’s arrest of journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov, immediately after he was deported from Turkey and the investigation of peace building activists Arif and Leyla Yunus, allegedly for espionage for Armenia, when in fact the three are engaged in a civil society project called Public Dialogues (, makes people-to-people confidence-building even more difficult.


Events in Ukraine contribute to the sense of hopelessness. The blatant violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed between the US, the UK and Russia to provide Ukraine with security guarantees if it turned over its nuclear arsenal, makes it unlikely today that Armenia will accept similar guarantees in exchange for the territories it occupies. After Russia’s overt takeover of Crimea, it is also less likely that international opinion will heed the four United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions passed in 1993 that call for the withdrawal of local Armenian troops from Azerbaijani lands. Crimea also demonstrates to Azerbaijan how it could navigate a quick military operation to regain lost territory with only limited international opposition. Russia, driven by its nationalist imperialist foreign policy, has little interest in helping to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which secures its key role in the region by keeping the Caucasus from being an open and free transit route for Western interests.


Twenty years ago, the withdrawal of troops, the return of refugees and the deployment of peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh looked like the next logical steps after the signature of the ceasefire. None of this occurred. Instead, as the OSCE Minsk Group concludes, “the sides have shown little willingness to take advantage of the opportunities … or make the political decisions necessary for progress in this peace process.” Today, the prospect of renewed fighting, which this time could have a regional dimension and pull in Russia and Turkey, seems more likely than ever since 1994.


Dr. Sabine Freizer is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.   This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading newspaper of Turkey. Click here to go to the original.

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