Baku Launches Next Step Talks with Karabakhi Armenians
Author: Nicholas Castillo
Oct 13, 2023
Since Azerbaijan retook territory lost during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in September, Baku has announced the re-integration process of Karabakh and launched a dialogue with the representatives of the Armenian community of Karabakh. However, while the reintegration process so far has produced some successes, the demographic situation of the region remains chaotic, with 100,000 Armenians having left Karabakh for Armenia and 600,000 Azerbaijani internally displaced from the First Karabakh war. A broad agreement is yet to be announced addressing these and other issues.
A key issue in the next weeks will be how many, if any, Armenians remain or will return to Karabakh. On September 30, the office of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reported that 100,000 Armenians, out of an original population of 120,000, have crossed the border into Armenia. The recent UN mission to Karabakh reported that there may be as few as 50 to 1000 Armenians left in the region. Both the President of Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia have made public remarks asking local Armenians to remain in Karabakh, with Azerbaijan promising to respect the cultural and religious rights of Armenians in the region.
The presence of any community of Armenians in Karabakh could prove crucial. That group's relationship with the Azerbaijani state, if positive or neutral, could entice other Armenians to return. Their place in the region would also be necessary to lend any legitimacy to agreements between the representatives of the Karabakh region and Baku. Azerbaijan has engaged in some early steps to attempt to entice back Armenians, such as creating an online portal for Karabakh Armenians to apply for residency, although Azerbaijan's State Migration Service has reported it may not be available yet in Armenia. Armenians returning to Karabakh would also be a positive development for Yerevan, which likely lacks the capacity to take in and integrate the sudden migrants, who in turn could contribute to domestic political upheaval already wracking the country.
At the same time, Baku is offering to re-settle Azerbaijanis who themselves, or their relatives, were displaced during the First Karabakh War of 1988-1994. Over 600,000 ethnic Azeris were displaced by the war, with many fleeing Karabakh itself due to ethnic violence and with Armenian forces capturing many ethnic Azeri majority regions. The status and resettlement of Azerbaijani refugees have long been a rallying cry by Baku. Starting in 2020, Baku implemented what it termed the “Great Return” program. Under this program, hundreds of Azerbaijanis displaced by the first Karabakh war have moved into newly constructed homes built on land re-incorporated into Azerbaijan following the 2020 Karabakh war. An extension of this program may be applied to newly recaptured territory.
But the extent to which Azerbaijani refugees are able to return after so long is yet to be seen. Not only have thirty years passed since their initial displacement, but the war and its aftermath resulted in widespread property destruction as well as landmine contamination. Plans to provide economic incentives for the region, referenced in Baku’s initial reintegration plans, may be in part an effort to incentivize migration back to the territory.
It is not clear if these issues have been addressed by local talks. Since September 21, Azerbaijani officials have held a series of discussions with representatives of the Karabakh Armenians. Following their initial meeting on September 21, further meetings were held on September 25, 29, and October 2. During these talks, also attended by Russian representative Admiral Oleg Semenov, Azerbaijani member of parliament, Ramin Mammadov, offered Baku’s proposal for the reintegration of the Karabakh region. Under this proposal, the Karabakh region would be governed by representatives of the office of the President of Azerbaijan, security would be transferred entirely to Azerbaijan’s internal bodies, local residents would be provided with the right to exercise their own cultural and religious traditions, and Baku would institute a series of tax incentives and subsidies in order to speed up economic development in Karabakh.
While discussions have included plans for formal integration, agreements coming out of these meetings have focused on humanitarian aid. The Azerbaijani delegation agreed to the request of the Karabakh Armenians for food aid and fuel, as well as providing communications services to the territory. This fuel will be especially pertinent to schools and hospitals in the region, which have suffered a lack of resources in the last few months. In addition, the participants discussed plans to open a field hospital in the region staffed by both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. There is little sign that these meetings produced any broad agreement on reintegration, however.
The arrests of former members of the separatist administration of Karabakh could prove a stumbling block toward peaceful integration. This is especially true in regard to the relationship between Baku and Washington, which has insisted that Azerbaijan provide a broad amnesty for the Karabakh Armenians. However, early signs point to arrests targeting only the upper echelons of the separatist administration. On October 4, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that “thousands of Armenian servicemen and members of illegal armed formations agreeing to disarm were let off free as a humanitarian gesture by Azerbaijan and traveled to Armenia without obstructions.”
Given the lack of a comprehensive agreement between the representatives of the Karabakh Armenians and Baku, many important questions for Karabakh remain unresolved. Concrete steps by actors on the ground will likely be decisive in the coming weeks. Some efforts on the part of the Azerbaijani state point to this – for instance forming working groups to prepare for the reintegration of Armenians, beginning to provide Armenian-language online platforms to access government services, and state media producing videos of Armenians telling personal stories of positive inter-communal relations before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The presence of UN observers has the potential to provide a third-party observer, legitimizing any agreements and ensuring that the two sides make good on their commitments.
Additionally, the lack of continued fighting on either side following the ceasefire is noteworthy. Despite some incidents of violence, generally, the September 20 ceasefire has been held. Separatist Armenian forces have begun disbanding and giving up arms without any resistance. The United Nations mission to the Karabakh region likewise found no destruction of civilian infrastructure or Armenian religious or cultural sites. Events since September 19 have averted fears among some analysts that an Azerbaijani victory in the conflict over Karabakh would lead to a long-running insurgency campaign by Armenian forces.
Despite the mass exodus from Karabakh, it appears as though reintegration will go forward. Channels of dialogue have been opened between local Armenians and Baku and fighting between the two sides has come to a halt. The decades-long conflict over Karabakh has entered a period within which both Baku and Yerevan appear to agree to move forward. Reintegration of the territory into Azerbaijan is likely on the horizon, even if the exact nature of that reintegration is yet to be determined.