20 Years After the 1994 Armenia-Azerbaijan Ceasefire, A Call for #NKPeace

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Military Base, Armenia-Azerbaijan border © Onnik James Krikorian 1994

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the May 1994 Ceasefire Agreement that put the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh on hold. Unfortunately, this is not a date to celebrate. Thousands have died since the armistice was signed, and two decades later, the sides are nowhere closer to peace than they were back then.

In fact, the environment today might even be the least conducive for peace ever.

True, as followers of my work will know, I’ve been using new online tools to bring the sides together, training journalists and activists from each, since 2009. During that time I have seen how much Armenians and Azerbaijanis actually have in common with each other, but with just enough diversity to contribute to the rich cultural tapestry of the South Caucasus.

This is especially true in Georgia where ethnic Armenians and Azeris even co-inhabit the same villages and speak each other’s language. However, the reality in Armenia and Azerbaijan proper is that the vast majority among a new generation is unable to remember a time when both peoples lived together in peace. Many even think it is impossible, although clearly it is not.

The problem is that open discussion about the need for peace is missing. Governments use the conflict for their own internal political needs and those civil society organisations working in this area are not inclusive enough and often in competition with each other. In such an environment, nationalist and militarist rhetoric engulfs the alternative.

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Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik James Krikorian 1994

To mark the 20th anniversary of the 1994 ceasefire — and 20 years since I first visited Karabakh for The Independent — I had been planning to write a blog post detailing my hopes for a lasting settlement, but others have beaten me to it. There’s also very little to add. The U.S. Embassy in Armenia, for example, tweeted the situation in a nutshell:

And speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last week, Ambassador James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group charged with the task of mediating negotiations to end the conflict, articulated the situation perfectly.

Some key points from Ambassador Warlick’s speech:

For two decades, […] peace has been elusive. All parties distrust each other and a generation of young people has grown up in Armenia and Azerbaijan with no first-hand experience of each other. As many have noted, older generations remember a time when Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side-by-side and differences did not need to be resolved through the barrel of a gun.

[…] The benefits of peace far outweigh the costs of continued stalemate, and avoid the catastrophic consequences of renewed hostilities.

Armenia would immediately benefit from open borders, greater security, and new opportunities to trade, travel, and engage with all its neighbors.

Azerbaijan would eliminate a key impediment to its growth as a player on the world stage, regional trade hub, and strong security partner, while giving hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons a prospect for reconciliation and return.

The thousands of people living in Nagorno-Karabakh would be freed from the prison of isolation and dependence.

Credit where credit is due. Although I had been critical of the OSCE Minsk Group in recent weeks, especially in terms of what always seem like optimistic statements from the co-chairs which don’t reflect the reality, Ambassador Warlick’s comments are not only very open, but also very welcome.

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Ethnic Armenian refugee from Nagorno Karabakh in Yerevan, Armenia © Onnik James Krikorian 1994

Most importantly, the framework for any peace deal — known by those following the negotiation process, but not by most Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens caught in the trap of misinformation, manipulation, and political games — was also spelt out. Again.

First, in light of Nagorno-Karabakh’s complex history, the sides should commit to determining its final legal status through a mutually agreed and legally binding expression of will in the future. This is not optional. Interim status will be temporary.

Second, the area within the boundaries of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region that is not controlled by Baku should be granted an interim status that, at a minimum, provides guarantees for security and self-governance.

Third, the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh should be returned to Azerbaijani control. There can be no settlement without respect for Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, and the recognition that its sovereignty over these territories must be restored.

Fourth, there should be a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. It must be wide enough to provide secure passage, but it cannot encompass the whole of Lachin district.

Fifth, an enduring settlement will have to recognize the right of all IDPs and refugees to return to their former places of residence.

Sixth and finally, a settlement must include international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation. There is no scenario in which peace can be assured without a well-designed peacekeeping operation that enjoys the confidence of all sides.

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Landmine Clearance, Askeran, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik James Krikorian 2001

Ironically, these steps are no different from those outlined in the 1994 Bishkek Protocol. The challenge now appears to be to remind all parties to the conflict that this was precisely how a peace deal was always envisaged. That’s why I welcome Ambassador Warlick’s remarks.

Of course, it is up to the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to take the first step. They should consider measures, even unilateral ones, that will demonstrate their stated commitment to making progress, reducing tensions, and improving the atmosphere for negotiations. They should reduce the hostile rhetoric, and prepare their populations for peace, not war.

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Battle Area Clearance (BAC), Fizuli, Armenian-controlled Azerbaijan © Onnik James Krikorian 2001

Commenting on the statements, Carnegie’s Thomas de Waal, author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, put Warlick’s speech into a more condensed form.

The ambassador acknowledged Azerbaijan’s real frustration, 20 years after the ceasefire, at having territories occupied and refugees unable to go home. But he also reminded Baku that a strengthened ceasefire mandate would save lives on the Line of Contact. And it was emphasized that for the mediators, some kind of vote—”a mutually agreed and legally binding expression of will” on the future status of Nagorny Karabakh—is “not optional.”

[…]

He also said that “any enduring peace must reflect the views of all affected parties if it is to succeed”—a coded reminder that at some point the Minsk Group expects the Karabakh Armenians to join the talks.

There were messages for the Armenian side as well. The ambassador clearly used the phrase “occupied territories” to describe the Azerbaijani regions outside Karabakh and said that the Lachin Corridor linking Karabakh and Armenia should be a corridor, not a whole region.

Ever since the failure of the Kazan summit in 2011, the Armenians have more or less sat on a perch, saying that they want to keep on negotiating over the document that was under discussion that day.

[…]

The ambassador’s speech will be spun, misquoted, greeted with cynical shrugs. But there are plenty of elements in there for those who read it closely enough which, if taken up, could constitute the making of a real peace process.

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Settlers from Armenia, Lachin, Armenian-controlled Azerbaijan © Onnik James Krikorian 2001

But time is running out. Since 2006, many Armenians now consider the territory of Nagorno Karabakh to extend beyond the borders of the Soviet-era autonomous oblast to include the seven regions surrounding currently under their control even if four UN Security Council Resolutions demand their return.

Bellicose and militaristic rhetoric from both sides, arguably especially in Azerbaijan, is counterproductive and reinforces negative stereotypes. It is definitely not conducive for instilling trust among Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh regarding the return of land that was intended to serve as a military buffer zone around the territory.

I’m not aware of reaction to Ambassador Warlick’s speech in Azerbaijan, but it has reportedly been greeted negatively in Armenia even if it simply reiterates the terms of the 1994 ceasefire agreement and the peace process to date. It’s difficult to imagine that many in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno Karabakh itself will agree, however.

Therefore, what’s ironic is that opposition to a peace deal is simply delaying the inevitable.

In the meantime, current and future generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis will suffer as a result. This doesn’t even have to be militarily, although dozens of Armenian and Azerbaijani villages on the LoC suffer from sniper fire and insecurity on an almost daily basis. An initial agreement to withdraw snipers was reneged upon by Azerbaijan.

That was a mistake. The psychological damage and human suffering is already enough.

But there is some cause for hope. Despite the rhetoric, and even if Armenians and Azerbaijanis are unable to agree upon the final status of Nagorno Karabakh, the 2013 Caucasus Barometer from the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) shows that the majority of people in both countries believe the conflict will be resolved peacefully.

It’s by a slim margin, of course, with 54 percent considering that option most likely in Armenia and 55 percent feeling the same in Azerbaijan. Only 20 percent of Armenian respondents and 33 percent in Azerbaijan believe a solution can be found through force. That can definitely be taken as the basis for building peace.

At least, it can be if the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan finally display the political will to do so. Failure to do this can only mean that we’ll be waiting another 20 years to discuss exactly the same things that have already been said time and time again since the 1994 ceasefire. And that would be the gravest mistake made ever.

For now, though, that unfortunately looks to be the direction we’re heading. If war doesn’t break out first, accidentally or otherwise.


My own personal thoughts on peace can also be found in this retrospective published in Azerbaijani by BBC Azeri in 2011. It’s also available in English here.

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Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik James Krikorian 1994

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Azerbaijani Prisoner of War (PoW), Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik James Krikorian 1994

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Azerbaijani Civilian Hostages, Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik James Krikorian 1994

4 Comments Add Yours

  1. Abrahamyan

    Where can I read about your own position on the issue of Artsakh and its independence?
    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Onnik James Krikorian

      You just did. Whatever agreement is decided in negotiations, basically. However, as one prominent Azerbaijani journalist notes, that is unlikely until the South Caucasus has reached a much higher level of democratic governance. Twenty years after the ceasefire it unfortunately seems unlikely there’ll be a peace agreement even in another twenty…

  2. Abrahamyan

    So you want “return” some part of Artsakh back to Azerbaijan, believing that it will end to their hostility toward Armenia and Armenian nation, and peace will finally settle in the region?

    Reply
  3. Abrahamyan

    So you want “return” of some part of Artsakh back to Azerbaijan, believing that it will end to their hostility toward Armenia and Armenian nation, and peace will finally settle in the region?

    Reply

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