Thursday, 21 March 2024

Armenia and Azerbaijan: The Distant Perspective of Peace, Cooperation and Narratives of Trust

Published in Analytical Articles

By Intigam Mamedov

March 21, 2024

On February 13, 2024, a new border skirmish took place between Armenia and Azerbaijan, months after Baku regained its territories in Nagorno-Karabakh. While the sides accuse each other of provocations, such incidents could also lead to larger clashes. While a peace deal is needed in order to put an end to the decades-long conflict, reaching an agreement will take time. Meanwhile, to encourage it, both states should now focus on trust-building initiatives, particularly in the humanitarian, economic, and environmental areas. Such short-term initiatives have the potential to assist and stimulate the evolution of new narratives on peaceful coexistence – a challenging but vital task for current and future generations.

Aliyev Pashinyan European Council President Charles Michel small


BACKGROUND: On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry announced “local anti-terror measures” aimed “to ensure the provisions of the Trilateral Statement” – an agreement signed by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia in November 2020. For almost three years, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh had remained unstable. The Trilateral Statement had failed to stop mutual attacks from time to time, and Armenia and Azerbaijan had failed to agree on the realisation of main transport corridors and the future of Nagorno-Karabakh residents. The so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh republic” remained a self-proclaimed, illegal, and unrecognised formation (even by Armenia). At the same time, Baku was accused of creating a humanitarian disaster by blockading supplies on the Lachin road. As these conditions became unacceptable for both parties, escalation was to be expected.

The 2020 Second Karabakh War resulted in an asymmetric balance of power. Azerbaijan proved able to leverage its decisive military advantage into territorial gains; its claims over Nagorno-Karabakh have been recognised within international law since 1993; and it has more powerful and decisive allies (primarily Turkey but also Israel and Pakistan). In turn, Armenia’s situation became highly vulnerable. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, in which Armenia participates as a member state, ruled out any involvement in this conflict, even after Yerevan accused Baku of shelling the southern Armenian towns of Goris, Kapan and Jermuk. Russia has denounced recent political actions and statements by Yerevan, including in relation to Armenia-US military exercises or the process of ratifying the ICC Statute, as hostile. Previously considered a key ally, Russia is now perceived in Armenia as failing to deliver on its security commitments and its peacekeeping contingent as being unable to protect Armenia.

Calls made by the EU, France and the US for Azerbaijan to stop its 2023 military activities in Karabakh can be considered contradictory in the context of Ukraine’s efforts to liberate its territories. Indeed, Azerbaijan and Ukraine are sovereign states where separatist forces were supported by foreign countries. In the case of Ukraine, the West recognised its right to regain territories by military force and supplied weapons for this purpose, while taking the opposite stance regarding Azerbaijan. According to Brenda Shaffer, “Calling on Azerbaijan to withdraw from Karabakh is like calling on Ukraine to withdraw from Mariupol.”

Within days, Azerbaijan took over control of the remainder of Karabakh. Approximately a hundred thousand local Armenians fled to Armenia. In March 2024, the Armenian government decided to return to Azerbaijan four frontier villages that fall within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory. The military resolution of a 30-year conflict led to a new geopolitical reality in the region, which brings new challenges and prospects.

IMPLICATIONS: To avoid future confrontation, Armenia and Azerbaijan need to agree on a peace deal, which is delayed by several sticking points. The first relates to the delimitation and demarcation of borders between the two republics. The second – guaranteed by the Trilateral Statement – refers to transport connectivity, especially between Azerbaijan and its enclave Nakhchivan. And third, international guarantees and dispute resolution mechanisms are needed. While these issues are essential, they will take time to resolve and negotiations for a peace deal may last for an extended period.

Yet simultaneously and in parallel, Armenia and Azerbaijan can focus on a proactive and positive agenda to create a better climate for a peace deal and a secure and predictable future. For instance, several important issues in the humanitarian area could form the basis for closer cooperation if necessary attention is received from both sides. Demining territories of Nagorno-Karabakh is one such issue, which requires Armenia to share maps for hundreds of thousands of mines. Exchanging prisoners of war is another area of potential cooperation.

The sides also need to seriously approach a scenario in which Karabakh Armenians can safely return to the territories regained by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s declaration of its readiness to reintegrate Armenians wanting to stay in Karabakh faced mistrust in Yerevan, demanding concrete security guarantees for the local Armenian population. Launching further discussion about the right to return can demonstrate the parties’ commitment to peaceful co-existence. Finally, restoring the cultural heritage of the region is also a considerable challenge.

Moreover, much can be done in the fields of economy and environment. While there is a discussion about the potential benefits and threats to Armenia of launching the Zangezur corridor, it is clear that developing the region’s connectivity serves the geo-economic interests of both states. And observing the pacta sunt servanda principle in accordance with the content of the Trilateral Statement (Provision 9, in particular), all economic and transport links in the region need to be unblocked. Collaboration between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the environmental area can also intensify for mutual benefit, particularly in making the regional ecological policy more effective and systemic within a holistic understanding of the Caspian-Caucasian bioregion. In this regard, including Yerevan in the work of the Tehran Convention Secretariat and other relevant regional mechanisms should be prioritized.

However, in light of the traumas that the recent war has incurred on the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples, initiatives focused on cooperation risk being received with misunderstandings and anger, and need to be paired with a deeper engagement with public discourse. For example, it is essential to refer to good examples of the common history of Armenians and Azeris and explain the advantages of economic cooperation and unblocking cultural ties with neighbours. Relevant narratives should be promoted by officials, opinion leaders and mass media. The discourse of rivalry needs to be substituted with a discourse of cooperation. Although this is a lengthy process that will hopefully be continued by future generations, making the first move today, in conjunction with the above-mentioned cooperation initiatives, is of great importance.

Recently, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has called to revise the Constitution and remove provisions connecting Armenia with the Nagorno-Karabakh region. While this is widely considered a result of pressure from Baku, it also represents an attempt to build a new Armenia in which development is not hindered by revanchist ideas in historical and political narratives. Similarly, along with its stated policy to reintegrate the Karabakh population, Azerbaijan needs to develop a persuasive narrative about new compatriots to shape public attitudes towards Armenians with Azerbaijani passports while guaranteeing their safety and citizen rights. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has referred to the Armenian population of Karabakh as “our citizens” stating: “We intend to build a life together based on peace, mutual understanding, and mutual respect. We have no problems with the Armenian people. We have no enmity.” While rhetoric itself is not enough to build trust between the two nations, it remains important at this stage, especially as a basis for commencing the outlined cooperation initiatives and making headway towards a peace agreement.

CONCLUSIONS: The narrative dimension of the conflict is essential not only for short-term cooperation or a pragmatic peace deal but also for the long-term perspective and the future history of the two nations. As the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is deeply rooted in historical myths and the strategic narratives of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, a long-term solution must be rooted in the readjustment of mutual images and collective perceptions of the two nations. Shifting from the competition of historical biographies, toxic otherings, and exceptionalist representations is key to normalizing relations between the two states and their diasporas abroad.

While difficult and very long-term, Armenia and Azerbaijan need to construct and establish narratives of mutual respect and cooperation focusing on peace rather than on war and speculations about the past. Geopolitics is a less significant determinant of the conflict’s development than the historical perspectives of the two nations themselves. The implementation of stable solutions in security and cooperation depends on the efforts and intentions of today’s leadership of the two states. However, the possibility for these solutions to remain in place and work for future generations depends on mutual representations in public perception and national biographies.

We should not underestimate the significant role of the narrative dimension in the conflict and the urgent need to implement a discourse of trust rather than rivalry.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Intigam Mamedov is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Social Sciences, Northumbria University, UK. His research interests include international relations, critical security studies, Russian and Post-Soviet Politics.

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