(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of articles on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.)
Can the pain and destruction, the losses and gains from the recently reignited war over Nagorno-Karabakh be turned into peace?
While the world was fixated on the outcome of the U.S. elections and the ongoing drama of whether U.S. President Donald Trump would concede to President-elect Joe Biden, Russia appears to have achieved the near-impossible by arranging for a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Kremlin has satisfied Azerbaijani leaders in Baku and their backers in the Turkish capital Ankara, though at the expense of Armenian leaders in Yerevan. The pattern echoes the Treaty of Kars signed almost a century ago, when Soviet Russia in 1921 compelled Armenia to cede territory to Turkey in Eastern Anatolia; this time, Armenia was forced to do the same, to the benefit of Azerbaijan in Karabakh.
Previous ceasefires did not hold, but this one, backed by Russian peacekeepers, appears to stand a chance. Achieving long-term peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a tall order. However, the Nov. 9 deal may offer the kind of opportunity the region has not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the initial war over Karabakh in 1994. The stars may be just adequately aligned for such an outcome, though this would require an acceptance that Russia is the dominant player. Nevertheless, a sustainable peace might help make that uncomfortable reality more palatable.
The stability and prosperity that would result from a settlement could help build the kind of mutual trust between the two nations to help them finally bury the hatchet and move on. To achieve this, both sides would have to abandon their maximalist demands driven by nationalism and opt for pragmatism. As unlikely as it may sound, Turkey could actually help.
The Reignited Conflict
The current round of hostilities erupted late in September when the Azerbaijan military went on the offensive with the stated objective of recapturing territories lost to Armenia in 1994, when a ceasefire ended two years of hostilities. At the time, Armenia occupied more than 4,200 square miles of Azerbaijan territory, an area a little smaller than Connecticut. Approximately one-third of this is the Karabakh region, where 150,000 Armenians live. The remaining two thirds of the territory is comprised of seven Azerbaijani regions around Karabakh, from which approximately half a million Azerbaijanis were displaced. Currently, Azerbaijan has one of the highest per capita concentrations of internally displaced people in the world, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
After the war, the Minsk group of countries led by France, Russia, and the United States was established to lead efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict. Long years of negotiations resulted in the adoption of the Madrid principles in 2009 that call for Armenia to return the territories surrounding Karabakh to Azerbaijan in exchange for Baku accepting a referendum on Karabakh’s final political status. Such a peace never materialized. The frustration stemming from the failure to arrive at a settlement has long simmered in Azerbaijan and threatened the credibility of President Ilham Aliyev’s leadership.
Azerbaijan’s Military Offensive and the Russian Ceasefire
Against this backdrop, several additional factors motivated Azerbaijan to launch its offensive. Most important is the investment made in boosting the capabilities of the Azeri military, particularly with technologically advanced weapons, after it had been defeated so miserably in 1994, combined with the Armenian conviction in its invincibility, especially in a defensive war on mountainous terrain.
All the same, the launch of such an offensive by Azerbaijan would have been unthinkable without at least the acquiescence of Russia, which had established the Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 1992 to provide collective security for a group of post-Soviet states, including Armenia (Azerbaijan never joined). The Kremlin had made its displeasure known with the increasingly pro-Western leanings of the government of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan that came to power after pro-democracy protests in Yerevan in 2018. Russia’s tacit acceptance of Azerbaijan’s offensive became especially visible when President Vladimir Putin, in the middle of the Azeri military advances, announced that the CSTO would not apply unless Armenia proper were to be threatened.
After several failed attempts at a ceasefire brokered by various members of the Minsk Group, Russia negotiated this deal on the heels of the Azeri military liberating four of the seven regions under Armenian occupation and then pushing on into Karabakh and capturing the historically Azeri town of Shusha, 10 miles from Stepanakert, the administrative center of Armenian-controlled Karabakh. A definitive human toll of the six weeks of heavy fighting has been difficult to establish independently, though Putin said in the aftermath of the deal that more than 4,000 had died, including civilians, and more than 8,000 had been injured.
The deal calls for a corridor linking Karabakh to Armenia proper, the 10-mile-long Lachin corridor, in return for a 30-mile-long corridor through Armenia linking Azerbaijan to the Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan bordering Turkey. The corridors would be policed by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The agreement, however, is silent on the future status of Karabakh and how a final settlement of the conflict would be reached.
The toll of three decades of conflict has been heavy for Armenia. Diplomatic relations with Turkey remain ruptured since 1993, and its borders with both Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed, leaving only narrow stretches of border with Georgia and Iran to access the rest of the world. The economic consequences have been devastating, further deepening its dependence on Russia and complicating its transition towards a more democratic regime. The human cost and civilian suffering on both sides have been tragic.
Indeed, the deal brokered by Russia has been called a “stunted” one. For sure it has serious weaknesses, and it remains far from clear whether Russia has a genuine interest in a real peace between the two countries. The future role of the Minsk Group is unclear as well. Despite these uncertainties, the gloomy picture on the ground, and the deep historical enmities, the ceasefire agreement signed by the conflicting parties is a ray of hope. But for a more promising future to be realized, several conditions would need to be satisfied first.
Armenian leaders should revive the legacy of Levon Ter-Petrosian, the country’s first president after independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He advocated pragmatism and recognized the need to compromise to achieve peace. He was also deeply conscious of the importance of Armenia having good relations with Turkey. To achieve this, he was even willing to see the return of occupied territories. He warned the public in 1997, “The international community will not for long tolerate the situation created around Karabakh because that is threatening regional cooperation and security as well as [the] West’s oil interests … Karabakh has won the battle, not the war.”
Ter-Petrosian faced massive resistance from hardliners and was even accused of treason. He was eventually deposed in 1998. His line of thinking in Armenia continues to face resistance and as late as 2016 was condemned as a harmful “virus.”
Turkey could help manage this resistance and contribute to the creation of a climate that is more conducive to reconciliation. One possible immediate step would be to revive the ill-fated diplomatic accords that were negotiated with Armenia in 2009, especially with regard to the opening of the land border with Armenia. Since Azerbaijan has recovered a good part of its territories and assuming that Armenia does indeed withdraw from the remaining areas in keeping with the terms of the ceasefire, one of the major impediments to the implementation of the protocols will have been removed.
Numerous studies have shown how impactful the opening of the border would be in helping to improve the economic situation in Armenia and its access to the external world. It would also benefit Turkish provinces bordering Armenia where locals have long desired closer relations to boost their local economies. However, Turkey would have to proceed cautiously, recognizing that its unmitigated support of Azerbaijan reduces its credentials as an “honest broker.” To overcome this, Turkish leaders will need to adopt a narrative that is sensitive to how raw and intensely the physical and psychological wounds opened by the recent round of hostilities are felt among the Armenian public.
At first glance, expecting such an approach from the Turkish government may not seem realistic. Yet it was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who as prime minister oversaw the negotiation of the 2009 diplomatic protocols. The protocols also broached the very difficult issue of how to address the events leading to deaths and deportations of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Erdoğan also was the leader who took an important step towards reconciliation on that issue in 2014, when he announced in an official statement, published also in Armenian, the Turkish nation’s condolences to the families of Armenians killed during the First World War. Clearly, this falls well short of Armenian demands and expectations, but in the Turkish context, it marked, as one of us co-wrote later, “a fundamental change in the nation’s approach to comprehending and addressing the events of 1915.”
Ter-Petrosian had recognized the challenge. He once noted that adopting “a tough position vis-a-vis Turkey and confront[ing] it with the issues of the recognition of the Genocide… would not bring any advantages to the solution of the Karabakh problem.”
Of course, Turkish politics and foreign policy have become much more nationalistic and confrontational compared with the days when Turkey was hailed as a model for democratization and soft power. Yet, Erdoğan also has a pragmatic streak and recognizes the need to adjust his politics in order to address Turkey’s economic woes and international isolation. He has already signaled his interest in improving relations with the United States under President Biden and recognizes the prestige and leverage that opening borders with Armenia would bring him internationally.
Finally, the performance of the Azerbaijan military and the unequivocal support Erdoğan gave to Aliyev would enable the Turkish leader to placate the more nationalist elements of his power base. That’s especially true of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), led by Devlet Bahçeli, that is particularly closely allied with Erdoğan. Bahçeli represents hardline Turkish nationalism, staunchly pro-Azerbaijan. Yet, the founder of MHP, Alparslan Türkeş, was an avid supporter of better relations with Armenia. The late Türkeş held the first high-level official contact with Armenia when he met Ter-Petrosian in Paris in 1993. At the time, he had even suggested the idea of erecting a statute on the Turkish-Armenian border carrying the words “we are sorry for the sufferings.” This legacy of Türkeş could facilitate Erdoğan’s hand in overcoming potential domestic resistance to opening the border.
Much more challenging to such a Turkish initiative would be the complicated geopolitics of the south Caucasus. Russia has played its hand skillfully and reasserted its role in the region in a decisive manner. How would Russia perceive such an initiative from Turkey? Would Putin be willing to let a Ter-Petrosian legacy supportive of reconciliation with Turkey openly surface in Armenia? How would the thousands of people protesting Prime Minister Pashinyan’s acceptance of the Russian deal be persuaded to give the Turkish initiative a chance? Where would the Armenian diaspora that traditionally has supported maximalist demands come down on responding to such an initiative favorably? Similarly, how would leading Western powers such as the United States and France, as members of the Minsk Group, react?
No matter the answers to these questions, Turkey should seize this opportunity to take a bold diplomatic step in the direction of opening the border. And why not be so bold as to announce it unilaterally?