Azerbaijan is celebrating. Armenia is angry. This week, the two countries signed a peace deal to ‘end’ the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which clearly positions the Azerbaijanis as winners. But Armenian street protests are contesting the agreement. It therefore seems unlikely that the new treaty will bring peace and order to the region.
Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan, established by the Soviet Union in the 1920s, is mostly populated by ethnic Armenians. Its surrounding districts are dominantly Azerbaijani. Armenia has however controlled these districts in the past, such as during the first outbreak of war in 1988, causing hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis to become displaced persons.
Initial tensions date back centuries, but bloody conflict first broke out when the Soviet Union began to collapse. An Armenian separatist movement formed and in a 1991 referendum, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to be unified with Armenia instead of remaining part of Azerbaijan. Eventually, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional government declared autonomy from Azerbaijan. This was however after the newly independent Azerbaijan stripped the local government of its rights. They believed the region to be their own – and therefore refused to accept its autonomy.
Full-scale fighting broke out by early 1992. At its core, it is about border lines, ethnicity, land ownership and belonging. To this day, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis are fiercely convinced that the region is their homeland and therefore should be part of their national territory.
After an estimated million people were displaced and tens of thousands were killed, Russia was able to initiate a ceasefire in 1994, six years after the conflict began. But this did not pacify the region. Instead, it remained unstable and violence has continuously broken out.
Often this was triggered by accusations of truce violations, internal unrest – for example the 2008 Armenian election protests – or breaches of the border line. Some of these might seem like minor incidents, especially in the context of war, but even the smallest infringements of the ceasefire agreement have been used to justify retaliation.
Importantly, the violence is not merely the responsibility of the soldiers stationed along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, which was established as part of the ceasefire and is supposed to separate the two opposing sides. Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s governments have not been shy in attacking one another – public accusations against one another are commonplace. Official government social media accounts have also been used to spread nationalist rhetoric and, reports suggest, disseminating false information. This makes it difficult for citizens and outsiders to know what is really happening and who to believe. It is also increasing the divide between the countries, making it even harder to see a peaceful future, and violence is stoked either way.
Foreign countries, particularly Russia and Turkey, who are allied to Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively, are also involved in the conflict. Generally, support from Moscow and Ankara has come in the form of military training, strategy support and diplomatic allyship, but like the governments of the warring countries themselves, Russia is also spreading pro-Armenian propaganda through national media.
The war is vital for both countries. For Turkey, issues of international status and economic interest are at play. Turkey has been keen to showcase its power gains through providing military assistance to the winning side, wanting to establish itself as a competitor to Russia. Claims have been made that Turkey has deployed Syrian rebel fighters from impoverished war zones as border guards in Azerbaijan as part of their power display. Allegedly, they were then sent to support military operations in Azerbaijan, rather than merely securing the border. Additionally, Azerbaijan and Turkey have close diplomatic ties – especially through the energy sector – pipelines run between the countries that ensure Turkey has a stable oil and gas supply. This could be crucial if Russia were to cut off supplies due to conflict at any time.
For Russia, the country’s geopolitical position is at stake. Russia is keen to maintain influence in the region, prevent it from moving closer to the West and minimise Ankara’s power. History binds Russia to the region – Armenia and Azerbaijan were both part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Since its dissolution, Russia has continued to heavily influence former Soviet countries and has tried to secure their continued political support. Its main strategy has been to broker a peace deal and to oversee its implementation.
After September 2020 saw one of the most violent escalations yet, Russia has managed to create a new peace treaty. Renewed hostility along the Line of Contact had led to the declaration of martial law and troop mobilisation by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The latter then tried to win back the land that the Armenian separatists had occupied back in the early 90s. Drones, missile strikes, long-range artillery, online propaganda distributed via social media – a full-scale war erupted on Europe’s periphery.
Instead of providing support to their ally Armenia through military troops, Russia prioritised its own geopolitical standing. According to the peace deal, Armenia has lost the war. It states that Azerbaijan will continue to control the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh it occupied over the last few months and Armenia will retreat from surrounding areas. War prisoners are to be exchanged, transport corridors for displaced people to be arranged. Russian peacekeeping troops will be deployed to ensure both sides discontinue the war and fulfill their part of the new agreement.
In doing so, Russia effectively controls law and order in the region and continues to be the local hegemon, pushing Turkey aside. Whether this deal will really ensure long-term peace, however, is up for debate.
Protests in Armenia began almost immediately after the deal was announced and culminated in attendees storming parliament, demanding the prime minister Nikol Pashinyan step down. It is crystal clear that the Armenian population will not just accept their loss, even though the government has begun to move forward and hand territory over to Azerbaijan.
Pressure is mounting on the Armenian government and it is unclear if it will be able to remain in power. If not, the peace treaty may not be enforceable from the Armenian side. Protest and military groups may also try to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh. A new government could also refuse to adhere to the treaty.
Azerbaijan is however clearly superior in terms of economic and military power, and has the support of Turkey. This puts Armenia in a precarious position, especially as their ally Russia does not appear keen to provide military support. Without this, Armenia would have little hope if it came to a new outbreak of the war.
At present, this does not seem to matter to the Armenian protesters; it appears unlikely that they will concede without a fight. Based on the conflict’s history, it is probable that any breaches of the treaty would be retaliated, causing the peace treaty to fall apart.
It is unclear what will happen in the future, but one thing is sure: the Russian-brokered peace deal is by no means a guaranteed end to the war. National pride and the deeply-rooted belief by both parties that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to them are too strong. And so, this might just be a repetition of 1994: a failed treaty, dependency on external intervention, and above all, no end to the violence and instability.