Azerbaijan and Armenia — It’s Time to Work towards Peace
Apr 6, 2022
Recent incidents in Karabakh show both the fragile nature of the ceasefire and the absolute need for the parties to start taking serious, meaningful steps towards lasting peace.
In the past week, Armenia and Russia both charged Azerbaijani forces with violating the Russian-brokered 2020 ceasefire by entering the small village of Farrukh, just across the line of Azerbaijani control in Karabakh. Both Russia and the United States issued official statements calling on the sides to exercise restraint and on March 27 the Russian government said the Azerbaijani forces had withdrawn. Azerbaijan’s government, for its part, insisted Azerbaijani forces had not violated the ceasefire. Still, perhaps as many as three ethnic Armenians died in the incident. Questions arose abroad, including in the international mainstream press, as to whether Azerbaijan was looking to take advantage of the international focus on Ukraine and Russia’s movement of troops to augment its forces there.
This incident follows a break in the natural gas supplies to Stepanakert/Khankendi, the major city in the portion of Karabakh still held by ethnic Armenian forces. Gas supplies initially stopped the night of March 7-8 and stayed shut off for a number of days. The gas was interrupted again March 21 and stayed shut off until March 28. The city gets its natural gas from Armenia via a pipeline through Lachin, following the same route for road traffic from Armenia to Stepanakert and other regions of Karabakh still under control by ethnic Armenians and safeguarded under the 2020 ceasefire by Russian peacekeepers. Baku has denied having anything to do with the supply interruptions; Armenia, however, said Azerbaijanis were responsible. With winter continuing, the loss of gas for heating and cooking created serious hardships for the people in Stepanakert/Khankendi.
Ceasefire violations have been a continuing reality since the current agreement went into effect ending the Second Karabakh War in November 2020. As in the past, the sides trade official statements condemning each other, often with language that seems targeted only to pleasing domestic audiences and reinforcing long-held positions and beliefs. In doing so, these tweets and ministry statements do nothing to change the situation on the ground nor to bring about an environment for meaningful progress towards negotiations, let alone a peace agreement. While Azerbaijani figures, for example, will note statements expressing their country’s desire to move towards normalizing relations with Armenia, opening up transport and commercial relations, and working towards a constructive, neighborly relationship, those sentiments can be lost in accusatory or bellicose texts. The same can be said for the tone and language used by others as well.
It is by no means easy to overcome decades of mutual suspicion and conflict. The 2020 war and Azerbaijan’s military victories and return of lands occupied by Armenian forces for nearly 30 years, however, drastically altered the situation on the ground. There were signs in 2021 that the sides might be able to make progress. For example, Armenia began allowing Azerbaijani planes to overfly Armenian territory between Baku and Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave. Azerbaijan expressed interest in establishing normal diplomatic relations with Armenia. There were initial talks on regularizing commerce and trade between the two countries. Following incidents in 2021 resulting from the fact that Armenia’s main north/south highway, built during the Soviet era, briefly crosses a couple times into internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory, the countries worked out a modus vivendi and in November, with Russian President Putin at Sochi, agreed to work on border demarcation and delimitation.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the international community is unlikely to have much tolerance for a renewed conflict in the Caucasus. It is time for the countries themselves to move forward, to put aside the old accusations and counter accusations, and to work towards a lasting peace that will benefit the people of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. If they do so, they will find support in Washington and other western capitals as well as produce overdue benefits for the people in both their countries.