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Why Peace Talks in the Caucasus Are So Difficult

Why Peace Talks in the Caucasus Are So Difficult

Armenia’s prime minister made what looked like a historic concession recently, in the fraught peace talks with Azerbaijan. By renouncing any claim to the legitimacy of the right to self-determination for Nagorno Karabakh, Nikol Pashinyan may get points in Western eyes as a man of peace—but the story is bigger and far from over.

If the West wants to avoid more instability in the post-Soviet space it must ensure that any accommodation in the south Caucasus directly addresses the needs of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Otherwise, violence is likely whatever Armenia does.

The realities of the situation can be confounding for observers—even those who are well-meaning Western friends. In simply wishing away tensions and hoping conflicts will just go away, they ignore two central truths driving the troubles in our region.

The first truth is that the internal borders between the republics of the Soviet Union, which became international borders between sovereign states once communism collapsed, are often unnatural. They result from diktats by mischief-making Moscow leaders who sometimes purposely scrambled the existing ethnic map.

A view of an Azerbaijani checkpoint recently set up at the entry of the Lachin corridor, the Armenian-populated breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region’s only land link with Armenia, on May 2.
TOFIK BABAYEV/AFP via Getty Images

That is how so many Armenians ended up in Azerbaijan, which is an entity essentially invented about a century back. Today’s tiny rump Armenia, meanwhile, is but a fraction of the historical legacy from many thousands of years ago.

We Armenians understand very well that despite this there is little patience today for irredentism. Rather there is a broad-based desire in the major capitals that the map of the world stay largely as it is—unmolested by “squabbling tribes with ancient grievances.”

This expectation stands even, and perhaps especially, when many members of a nation-state’s ethnicity end up stuck in neighboring countries, as demonstrated by numerous examples in present day Europe.

Which brings us to the second truth that many fail to grasp about our region: Armenians cannot similarly just accept that they will be OK living as equal citizens in Azerbaijan. It is an exception and perhaps a singularity.

Azerbaijan’s kleptocratic government, led by the dynastic regime of the Aliyevs for over 50 years, including in the three decades since independence, is a burden even to ethnic Azerbaijanis. But it is a genuine menace to the Armenian “minority.”


Every dictatorial regime needs a bogeyman to distract its people from the abuses they undergo, and for the Aliyev family that is Armenia and Armenians. Its abusive attitude toward Armenians have been catalogued many times in the past. Since December, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have been under a brutal blockade.

They have been living for six months under total siege with an ensuing humanitarian crisis. There are electricity and gas supply cuts and an intimidating presence of aggressive Azerbaijanis in the Lachin corridor which is their lifeline to the world.

Given the incapacity of Russian peacekeepers in the area, there are constant efforts to seize new territory and desecrate Armenian heritage sites in territories under Azeri control. The continuing rhetoric of hatred against Armenians is a signal of the danger lying just around the corner.

International pressure must be applied to Baku in order to prevent the killings and ethnic cleansing that are coming if the world—and indeed if Armenia—takes its eyes off the ball.

A pragmatic understanding that moving borders is unlikely lay at the core of Pashinyan’s statement, which while certainly important is also not entirely new.


The statement, which came in recent days amid ongoing peace talks with Baku, does qualify as a concession—so much so that it were preferable not make it offhand and in exchange for nothing, but while receiving solid and tangible guarantees of support for Armenia’s territorial inviolability.

But at the same time, in recent history Armenia has not in fact directly demanded control over Nagorno Karabakh. Mindful of realpolitik, it was always careful to view the enclave as, in effect, a third entity.

But Armenia certainly understood that this entity is in danger. That’s why it supported the people in Nagorno-Karabakh when they rebelled, even under the Soviet Union. That’s why it supported them in an early 1990s war that yielded a self-governance in Nagorno-Karabakh.

These understandings drove my actions as [JF1] foreign minister a few years ago when I was directly engaged in talks meant to secure a lasting agreement on these issues.

Aliyev pretended at that time that he might agree to an independence referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh—guaranteed to pass—on condition that it would only be implemented decades later, after his term. History went in another direction, of course, with Azerbaijan attacking in the fall of 2020. But the underlying reality hasn’t changed.


For the key international actors today, even such a delayed independence is probably off the table. But I assess that self-government should be possible. Aliyev wants to make permanent his gains of the war while memories of his victory are fresh – and he may be open to some concessions to get it done.

The world should be pressing for this and waving a big stick. It should make clear to Azerbaijan that this is the price for its threats and its violence, as well as for the sheer despotism of its regime.

Zohrab Mnatsakanyan was the foreign minister of Armenia.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

Published: 2023-06-08 20:08:45

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