What do Americans think of Azerbaijan?

Recent developments in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan

From July 12 to 16, 2020, mutual artillery fire was recorded on a section of the state border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to official information, at least 17 people were killed - on the Armenian side, four military personnel, on the Azerbaijani side, a civilian and 12 military personnel, including the highest-ranking officer who fell in an exchange of fire with the Armenian armed forces since the end of the Karabakh War in 1994 Azerbaijani province of Tovuz and the Armenian province of Tavush not far from Georgia. It is located near important transit projects that connect the Caspian region with Europe and run between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

As in previous violent incidents, both sides accused their respective opponents of having provoked the military conflict. After July 16, fighting subsided, but opponents continued to accuse themselves of military attacks. This development has had worrying implications. On July 14th, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the parliament in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, calling for a fight. The military escalation at the border spread to the Armenian and Azerbaijani diaspora groups around the world. According to a message from the Azerbaijani embassies, Armenians attacked Azerbaijani protesters in London, Los Angeles and Brussels. In contrast, the Central Council of Armenians in Germany, for example, complained about an arson attack on the Armenian embassy in Berlin and attacks on shops in Cologne and Hamburg that are run by Armenians.

Each party to the conflict accused the other of using military action to distract attention from acute internal problems. Azerbaijan is in an economic crisis because the world market prices for energy resources are falling. Armenia, on the other hand, is suffering severely from the Corona crisis - there the number of new infections rose dramatically in June and July. However, it is precisely these challenges that indicate that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan can afford to escalate a violent incident into open war.

A short period of relaxation

After the change of power in Armenia as a result of the "Velvet Revolution" in spring 2018, the hope grew that the conflict-laden relationship with Azerbaijan could relax. High-level meetings between the foreign ministers and the leaders of the two countries increased. A September 2018 agreement opened a direct channel of communication between their governments. There have been fewer violent incidents on the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire line than since 2013. At a meeting of foreign ministers in Paris on January 16, 2019, both sides announced that they wanted to prepare their societies for a peace agreement. The population in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan should be better informed about the official mediation in the conflict, civil society groups should be more involved. However, Baku rejected the demand of the new Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to bring Nagorno-Karabakh back to the negotiating table of the Minsk OSCE group.

Towards the end of 2018, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced that 2019 could be the "year of the breakthrough". That was all the more astonishing as he had previously repeatedly complained that the negotiations within the framework of the OSCE on conflict management were unsuccessful and had mentioned a "military conflict resolution" as an alternative to the futile diplomacy. However, it has now been reported from Baku that contacts between the hitherto completely separate societies of Nagorno-Karabakh and the rest of Azerbaijan, as well as the return of internally displaced persons to their hometowns, could improve the humanitarian situation in the context of the unresolved conflict and pave the way for an agreement. At the same time, Aliyev drew a red line: The maximum concession to Nagorno-Karabakh is an autonomous status within Azerbaijan. On the other hand, the Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan rejected the formula "territories for peace". It says that peaceful conflict resolution is only possible if the provinces in the vicinity of Nagorno-Karabakh, which are controlled by Armenian troops, are returned to Azerbaijan beforehand.

The relaxation was drawing to a close in spring 2019. During his visit to the USA in March, the Armenian Defense Minister Dawid Tonojan announced that his country had to prepare for an active defense strategy and spoke of "new war for new territories". When Prime Minister Pashinyan visited Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, in August 2019, he affirmed: "Karabakh is Armenia - period!" President Aliyev countered in Sochi at the Valdai Club conference in October with "Karabakh is Azerbaijan - exclamation mark!" In a comment on this dispute there was talk of a "war of punctuations". During the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, Aliyev and Pashinyan presented the well-known historical narratives that identify the disputed area as an ancient part of their own national history. One observer said: “The Munich conference showed that the leaders of both countries are more willing to move into the 2nd century BC. To go back than to discuss the future. "

Points of contention in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict


The escalation of July 2020, during which it remained relatively calm in Nagorno-Karabakh and its surroundings, drew attention to a border region far outside this conflict zone. About 150,000 people live there in 26 Armenian and 84 Azerbaijani villages on a non-demarcated section of the border with military installations on both sides. Nonetheless, Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven Azerbaijani provinces in its vicinity, which are wholly or partially controlled by Armenian troops, are still at the center of precarious international relations. Since the end of the Karabakh War, a ceasefire agreement of 1994, which Russia brokered, has been circumscribed using the formula “neither war nor peace”. The armistice was not followed by a peace treaty, and incidents of violence repeatedly occurred along the line of contact where snipers face each other. Dozens of people were killed in the exchanges of fire every year. The violence escalated here, especially between 2014 and 2016. There were 72 fatalities (including eight civilians) in 2014 and 80 (including five civilians) in 2015, followed in April 2016 by the worst escalation since 1994. It killed 200 combatants and 25 civilians. Occasionally the incidents of violence spread to sections of the state border outside the conflict zone, but where only seven percent of all fatalities were recorded between 2016 and 2018. In the past two years this proportion has doubled while the total number of incidents of violence has decreased.

In March 2019, when the end of the détente was in sight, Pashinyan pleaded for a solution to the Karabakh question, "which should be equally acceptable to the people of Armenia, the people of Artsach (Nagorno-Karabakh) and the people of Azerbaijan." Such a solution has so far not been achieved in almost three decades of international mediation efforts. The Minsk OSCE group, headed by the three Co-Chairs Russia, USA and France, has been conveying "basic principles" for peaceful conflict resolution since 2007. They include an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh pending the settlement of its final legal status "through a legally binding expression of will", the return of the territories in its vicinity to Azerbaijan, a corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the right of all refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their hometowns and security guarantees including an international peacekeeping operation. However, the views of the conflicting parties about the implementation of these principles and their order differed.

The status of Nagorno-Karabakh

In the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, two principles of international law collide: On the one hand, there is the principle of territorial integrity, which Baku invokes with regard to the territory of the former Soviet Union Republic of Azerbaijan and which the international community confirms as none State has so far recognized the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh diplomatically. On the other hand, Armenia uses the right to national self-determination to justify the separation of the former autonomous region, which is largely inhabited by Armenians, from the Republic of Azerbaijan. President Aliyev has repeatedly stressed that the people and state of his country will never tolerate a second Armenian state on the "historical territory of Azerbaijan". The opposition and large sections of civil society harassed by state authorities also share this attitude. As the only acceptable compromise, Azerbaijan offers Nagorno-Karabakh an "autonomous status" within its national territory, which, however, has hardly been specified. In October 2016, President Aliyev spoke of an "autonomous republic" for the first time. Previously there was always talk of an "autonomous area". The US Co-Chair of the Minsk OSCE Group saw this as a signal for the start of serious discussions about the status.

According to the Basic Principles, the area is subject to interim status until the legal status is clarified. In the dispute about this, Baku offered a compromise during the détente, which should enable the de facto state, which is isolated worldwide and only closely linked to the Republic of Armenia, to pursue a "limited foreign policy". In return, Azerbaijan expects Yerevan and Stepanakert to withdraw Armenian troops from the provinces in the vicinity of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, this is not to be expected as long as Baku repeatedly points to a "military conflict solution" and there is no international guarantee of security for Nagorno-Karabakh.

The dispute over the final legal status is about which population groups are entitled to vote and how and where to vote. Azerbaijan has considered two separate votes: According to this, the Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh and the community of Azerbaijanis expelled from this area, who live in different regions of Azerbaijan and today have around 60,000 members, should cast their votes separately. At best, Armenia would agree to a uniform coordination with the participation of the Azerbaijani internally displaced persons. These could not prevent a majority in favor of an independence vote in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The territories in the vicinity of Nagorno-Karabakh

Since 1994, five Azerbaijani provinces in the border area with Nagorno-Karabakh have been completely under the control of Armenian troops and two others have been partially controlled. They were previously mostly inhabited by Azerbaijanis who were driven from these areas. Far more Azerbaijani refugees and displaced persons came from them than from Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Especially in those territories that lie between the Republic of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the governments of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh promoted the expansion of transport links and new settlements. It is true that the government in Yerevan did not pursue an official policy of settling Armenians in these areas in order not to arouse international criticism. Nevertheless, Armenians gradually settled in these territories. Today around 17,000 of them live there.

After an initial fact-finding mission, the Minsk OSCE group in 2005 called for an end to this settlement policy. A year later, the de facto government in Nagorno-Karabakh passed a constitution that postulated its jurisdiction over the adjacent territories and the settlements there. Agriculture was expanded in the settlements. Azerbaijan complained about this development at international level, which it regards as a gross violation of negotiating principles. The more new settlements emerge, the greater the aversion on the Armenian side to the internationally demanded return of these territories to Azerbaijan, the return of Azerbaijanis who were expelled from them, and the withdrawal of Armenian troops. Incidents of military violence such as those in April 2016 and July 2020 reinforce this stance. In March 2019, the head of the National Security Service of Armenia turned against speculation about territorial concessions to Azerbaijan and spoke of a program to resettle Armenians in the areas under the control of the Armenian army.

Any attempt by the new Armenian leadership to find compromises here could run into opposition in Nagorno-Karabakh, in the global Armenian diaspora and in Armenia itself. This has created an emotional and political barrier against one of the basic principles for peaceful conflict resolution. The external mediators in the conflict are faced with the challenge of fully and independently reviewing the situation in the seven provinces. OSCE fact-finding missions in 2005 and 2010 were limited and have not yet done justice to the task.

Nagorno-Karabakh returns to the negotiating table

Another point of contention is the demand of the new leadership in Yerevan to return Nagorno-Karabakh to the negotiating format of the Minsk OSCE group. Before 1998, its representatives sat at the negotiating table. But then the de facto state lost its position as a separate negotiating party after its first "president" Robert Kocharyan rose to the presidency of the Republic of Armenia. In the vicinity of the Republican Party of Armenia, many representatives of the government came from Nagorno-Karabakh or from the Karabakh movement that had developed in Armenia since 1987. This also included Serzh Sargsyan, who was ousted in 2018 and who held high state offices in Stepanakert in the 1990s, such as that of Defense Minister, and who succeeded Kocharyan as President of Armenia in 2008. From the point of view of Azerbaijan, a »Karabakh clan« ruled in Armenia from 1998 to 2018. With the Velvet Revolution of spring 2018, this power elite lost its leadership position.

The new head of government Nikol Pashinyan initially asserted that he could not speak for Nagorno-Karabakh, but was only responsible for the Republic of Armenia, and called for the de facto state to participate in the negotiations again. However, Pashinyan ran the risk that the opposition from the old power elite could accuse the new leadership of negligence with regard to Karabakh. Pashinyan countered this by making his rhetoric on the Karabakh problem more patriotic and Pan-Armenian. For example, he brought up a possible unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with the Republic of Armenia and thus provoked sharp reactions in Azerbaijan. Even before that, when Pashinyan had made more moderate comments on Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan was not ready to accept a return of the de facto state to the negotiating table. The Co-Chairs of the Minsk OSCE Group were also reluctant to change the existing negotiating format.

The attitude of external actors

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has so far differed from other disputes in the area of ​​the former Soviet Union, such as the Georgian secessionist conflict or the fighting in eastern Ukraine, in that it was not placed in a context of geopolitical rivalry or a new East-West conflict. Russia did not oppose Western actors here. Alongside the USA and France, it holds the position of co-chair of the Minsk OSCE group. There were no fundamental differences of opinion between Washington, Paris, and Moscow over mediation, even if Russia tries to play the leading role in mediation. In the recent escalation phase, warning voices from Moscow, Washington and Brussels called on both Armenia and Azerbaijan not to start a war. A unilateral declaration came only from Turkey, which sided entirely with Azerbaijan.Some commentators hinted at the risk of a proxy war - with a view to Russia and Turkey, which in conflict regions such as Libya are each providing military support to opposing forces.

However, Russia warned Armenia and Azerbaijan to prevent further escalation. Commentators from high security circles in Moscow expressed concern that violence on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border could provoke clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijani in Russian cities, given that Russia is home to large diaspora groups and migrant workers from both peoples. From the perspective of a Russian military expert, the message from the Kremlin is: “We are neutral. We respect both peoples and will not support one side against the other. «This is in contrast to the conflict policy that Russia practices against Georgia and its breakaway parts of the country. There it supports Abkhazia and South Ossetia politically and militarily against Georgia and uses this as a lever against the country's orientation towards the west.

Russia is in a contractual relationship of strategic partnership with Armenia and maintains a military base there. Even before the renewed escalation, Russian commentators expressed criticism of the conflict rhetoric of the strategic partner Armenia. At the meeting of the Valdai Club in Sochi in October 2019, Foreign Minister Lavrov reprimanded statements such as "Karabakh is Armenia" and compared this with the Albanian Prime Minister's statement that Kosovo is Albania. This rhetoric does nothing to create an atmosphere for the resumption of the political process.

In Armenia, on the other hand, there was growing skepticism that in a military conflict with Azerbaijan one could rely on its "allies", that is, on Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which Armenia is the only country in the South Caucasus to belong to . In addition, the political relationship between Armenia and Russia cooled off after the change in power in 2018, even if both continue to acknowledge their strategic partnership. However, this does not mean that Russia is distancing itself from Azerbaijan. In the last two years in particular, Moscow has endeavored to win Baku over to the Eurasian Economic Community.

Turkey, on the other hand, supports Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia. Her relationship with Azerbaijan follows the slogan »One nation, two states«, as the country is closest to her among the post-Soviet states with a titular nation of Turkic origin. In contrast, the relationship between Armenia and Turkey is historically deeply disturbed - above all because of the genocide that was committed against the Armenian ethnic group in the late Ottoman Empire in 1915. In 2010, Ankara and Baku signed an agreement on strategic cooperation and mutual support. There were joint military maneuvers, as well as expressions of solidarity for Azerbaijan from Ankara in incidents of violence in the context of the Karabakh conflict, as in April 2016.

However, doubts arose as to whether Turkey would take part in an outright war on the side of its "brother country". In the context of the conflict escalating in July 2020, statements were heard from Ankara that pointed in this direction. On July 29, the largest joint military exercises to date were initiated in Azerbaijani parts of the country as part of the agreement on military cooperation, for example in Baku, Nakhichevan, Ganja and Kurdamir. According to the Azerbaijani media, up to 11,000 soldiers from Turkey took part in the thirteen-day artillery and air defense maneuvers. However, this number has not been officially confirmed. The Armenian Defense Ministry said that together with Russia they would monitor and analyze the Turkish-Azerbaijani military activities with all available reconnaissance means. Baku complained that Armenia and Russia held joint air defense exercises. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, the Russian military stationed in Armenia conducted joint exercises with the Armenian military during the escalation phase, which involved 1,500 Russian soldiers, MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and combat drones.

So was a proxy war looming? On July 27, Putin and Erdoğan held a telephone conversation in which the Russian President emphasized "the importance of preventing steps that could escalate tensions." In the weeks that followed, Russian comments on Turkey in the state media remained rather cautious, including on highly controversial international issues such as Ankara's natural gas policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia is currently preoccupied with other problems. This includes the wave of protests in our own Far East and in neighboring Belarus.

Moscow's allegedly neutral policy towards the conflicting parties Armenia and Azerbaijan has, however, contributed to considerable rearmament in both countries in recent years. Russia is playing the extremely dubious double role of a main mediator in the conflict and at the same time the largest arms supplier to both conflict parties, and justifies this with "maintaining the balance". The strategic partner Armenia purchases Russian weapons at a preferential price, Azerbaijan at the market price. Other third countries also played their part in the armament in the conflict area. Israel became the second largest arms supplier for Azerbaijan after Russia, for which the recipient country received criticism from other Islamic countries. In 2016, Baku signed long-term contracts with Israel to purchase military goods worth $ 5 billion. Azerbaijan, for its part, complained about an arms delivery from Serbia to Armenia shortly before the renewed escalation broke out. The answer came from Belgrade that Serbia had sold arms to both states in recent years, ten times more to Azerbaijan than to Armenia.

Thus a terrifying degree of militarization arose in the context of the unsolved Karabakh conflict. In the global militarization index of the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), which measures military expenditure in relation to a country's population and economic size, Armenia and Azerbaijan are among the top ten. In absolute terms, Azerbaijan, the South Caucasian state with the largest population and the largest economy, has invested more in armament than Armenia. Baku's military budget has long exceeded Armenia's entire state budget. Armenia reacts to this material superiority of the enemy with increased military mobilization. At the end of August 2020, the Armenian Ministry of Defense issued a bill calling for a nationwide militia to be set up in which volunteers - men and women under the age of 70 - form new auxiliary troops. These could also be used at »endangered border sections«.


There was initially no further escalation of the military violence incident in July 2020. In August, international attention had largely turned to other issues, such as developments in Belarus and the worsening political crisis between Europe and Russia over the poison attack on opposition leader Navalny. But the incident at the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border has once again warned the international community not to rely on the fact that the more than three decades old interstate conflict will remain in the status of a »frozen conflict«. Most analysts do not consider a planned war ("intentional war") to be likely. Nevertheless, a "war by accident" due to an escalation of a violent incident that got out of hand cannot be ruled out. Such a war would be fought today at a much higher military level than the Karabakh War from 1992 to 1994 and would shake the entire South Caucasus. As a result, worried comments came from Georgia in particular about the new incidents of violence not far from its own state border with the two neighboring countries.

Even if the prospect of a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict has again been called into question, mediation efforts should not be limited to containing the danger of a military escalation. Not long before the renewed exchange of fire, signals were sent on both sides of the conflict, which international politics should use. This applies, for example, to the announcement to prepare one's own population for compromises, to enable humanitarian contacts between the strictly separated societies of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, to better inform the own population about conflict mediation and to involve civil society groups more closely in the latter.

Dr. Uwe Halbach is a scientist in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia research group.

© Science and Politics Foundation, 2020

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ISSN 1611-6364

doi: 10.18449 / 2020A71