Author: Kakha Gogolashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
On November 9, 2020, an agreement was made between Azerbaijan and Armenia with the mediation of the Russian Federation through which the conditions of a ceasefire in Nagorno Karabakh were outlined. Three meetings were held in the scope of the OSCE Minsk Group in October (Moscow – October 10, Paris – October 17 and Washington – October 25) while the November 9 agreement was achieved through a unilateral Russian initiative, completely bypassing the OSCE and the co-chairs of its Minsk Group. As a result of this, the Russian Federation clearly bolstered its military and political influence within the region.
The press, politicians and experts underline the unequivocal victory of Azerbaijan in the month-and-a-half-long war. If we judge according to the results of the military operations, Azerbaijan’s success is unquestionable. Armenia was forced to establish a truce in an extremely undesirable situation due to which the President of Azerbaijan called this act the “capitulation” of Armenia.
But What is the Actual (Devoid of Emotional Assessments) Result for Armenia?
- The Armenian side has not experienced total defeat and will retain control of about three-quarters (perhaps more) of Nagorno Karabakh proper according to the ceasefire agreement.
- Armenia has retained the right of making use of the road connecting it to Nagorno Karabakh – a 5-km strip of the Lachin corridor controlled by its allied Russian “peacekeeping forces.”
- Despite the fact that in his television address the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, cynically reminded Nikol Pashinyan that the issue of the status of Nagorno Karabakh was not part of the declaration, in reality this not only means that the independence of Karabakh is not a done deal but also that Azerbaijan has failed to re-establish its sovereignty over this region and in this regard, despite the defeat in war, nothing has changed for Armenia.
- The agreement establishes the border for the placement of military forces of the opposed parties in the same places where they were positioned before the ceasefire. In Karabakh, Russian peacekeeping forces will be stationed “on the ceasefire line and along the Lachin corridor (parallel to the removal of Armenian military units from there – meaning only the territory along the ceasefire line) which means that the Armenian military forces can now remain on the territory of Karabakh for an indefinite time in unrestricted numbers. The Azerbaijani side does not have any leverage through this agreement to control the movement of Armenian military formations and weaponry towards Karabakh; therefore, the issue of their admittance to Karabakh will entirely depend on Russian will. This creates certain inconveniences for Armenia but will depend on Russian-Armenian relations, not the will of Azerbaijan.
- Nothing is said about the army of Karabakh. This means that Karabakh retains the right of having its own armed forces and it is clear that it will attempt to restore and even strengthen its defensive capabilities together with Armenia (presumably with Russia as well).
- The Armenian side loses control on the strategically important city of Shusha in Karabakh; however, Russian peacekeeping forces will be stationed near the city which will easily eradicate any attempts from Azerbaijan to attack Stepanakert in any way which will downgrade the strategic importance of Shusha.
- Armenia renounces and fully frees the Agdam, Kelbajar and Lachin districts, together with the “extra territories” around Karabakh, which it managed to occupy during the first Karabakh War in 1993. The remaining four districts were freed by force by the Army of Azerbaijan during this last confrontation. Armenia has never had a territorial claim on these districts as the share of the ethnic Armenian population in five out of the seven fully occupied districts was about 0.1% before the 1989-1994 war. These districts were occupied due to strategic considerations. Armenians did not try to develop them (with minor exceptions, specifically the settlement of Syrian refugees in about ten abandoned villages in three of the districts) as they did not have sufficient material or human resources even if they wanted to. The Armenian side did not hide that they needed these territories primarily to ensure Karabakh’s military security. Apart from this, Armenia was trying to link the return of these territories to Azerbaijan with the status of Nagorno Karabakh making it into an asset to make a deal. However, the international community (as well as Azerbaijan) was demanding that Armenia return those territories without any attached conditions and even in terms of the OSCE Minsk Group, the “Madrid Principles” were adopted according to which Armenia was supposed to free these territories after which the negotiations about the status of Nagorno Karabakh would be conducted. Therefore, the “handover” of these territories cannot be seen as a “tragedy” for Armenia as given the pressure from the international community (the “Madrid Principles” under the OSCE, signed by Armenia in 2007, envisaged precisely this) Armenia would have been forced to return them sooner or later anyway.
- The only unacceptable and unforeseen territorial loss for Armenia was the city of Shusha, together with 15-20% of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh in its southern part. Here, we can also remember that about 25% of the population of Nagorno Karabakh before 1989 was Azerbaijani; therefore, the Armenians should have been ready for the scenario under which they would have to concede the territory of equivalent size if the consideration would be the independence of Karabakh.
- According to the ceasefire terms, the de-facto independence of Karabakh has become much more secure than it was before when it was protected by the Armenian armed forces and now any attempt by Azerbaijan to return these territories by force will put it up against Russian military and political resources. Even though the talk is now frequent that Armenia has become even more dependent on Russian will and support, Armenia has never really relied on itself alone in confrontation against Azerbaijan. This kind of dependence on Russia has always been a decisive factor for maintaining control of Nagorno Karabakh. For Armenia (and especially for those from Karabakh), the presence of the Russian army there was desirable as it would create long-term guarantees for the Armenian enclave to protect itself from Azerbaijan and from Turkey (according to the conviction of Armenians from Karabakh). That said, the issue of the placement of Russian peacekeepers was the prerogative of Azerbaijan according to international law (which it opposed) and not that of Armenia. After the war, victorious Azerbaijan has softened its position and legalized the presence of the Russians on its territory for five years at this stage but possibly for a long time in the future. This issue has certainly been decided in Armenia’s favor.
To conclude, we can point out that the outbreak of hysteria in Armenia, accusing Prime Minister Pashinyan of making a “treasonous deal” and equating the result to a “catastrophe,” is incorrect. This is a panic reaction of the society caused by confusion and an insufficient understanding of the results. In reality, Armenia has managed to conclude the situation with relatively small setbacks if one can say this considering that thousands of soldiers and civilians have died. However, when I say this, I am speaking about the political outcomes. As for the long-term humanitarian consequences, they may turn out to be beneficial for Armenia as opening up roads and other communications of regional importance, which the declaration entails, will bring significant economic and social benefits for Armenia, if actually implemented. It is also unfair to blame Nikol Pashinyan for signing a “humiliating” ceasefire agreement. Given the situation, he acted on the brink of the possibilities. The truth be told, his mistake was to heed the populistic and radical sentiments of the powers that are now demanding his resignation. He did not turn out to be daring enough to agree to just Azerbaijani demands regarding the de-occupation of the territories around Nagorno Karabakh in time. Due to pressure from the radical opposition, PM Pashinyan could not dare to re-start negotiations with Azerbaijan in accordance with the “Madrid Principles” adopted by the OSCE in 2007. As a result, the Armenians now have Russian troops in Karabakh, instead of the international OSCE mission and instead of a referendum on independence, as laid out in the “Madrid Principles,” they have a statement by the President of Azerbaijan that “there will be no more talks on the status of Karabakh.” That said, if the consideration of the issue returns to the OSCE, nothing will be lost in this regard. Azerbaijan may even find it is preferable to concede part of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh in exchange for the removal of Russian troops and the Armenian separatist enclave from its territory which is a constant source of instability. Despite everything, it is necessary for the people of Armenia to understand that Nikol Pashinyan is the only adequate political figure in the country who is suited for maintaining the fragile truce with Azerbaijan and control over Karabakh, conducting further negotiations about the status of Karabakh and at the same time continuing the course of democratization and European integration. “Toppling” him could cost the country a lot.