‘Peace in exchange for territories’ – an opinion from Baku about the seven regions around Karabakh
Seven regions of Azerbaijan, which have been under the control of the Karabakh authorities since the war in the early 1990s, have been the site of fierce battles between the Azerbaijani and Armenian armies since September 27, 2020.
They are also at the center of all political discussions.
What is at stake and why do Armenian leaders say their return to Azerbaijan is unacceptable?
Commentary by Azerbaijani political observer Shahin Rzayev.
Briefly about the history of the Karabakh conflict
The Karabakh conflict is the very first ethno-territorial conflict on the territory of the former USSR, which, in the opinion of many, was the detonator of the collapse of the Soviet empire.
The conflict erupted in 1988, when the Armenian majority of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region wanted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia.
It escalated into a brutal war in the fall of 1991. During that war, Armenian troops managed to establish control over both Nagorno-Karabakh itself and over the seven administrative regions of Azerbaijan adjacent to it.
In general, about 14 percent of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan came under the control of the Armenian army.
A ceasefire agreement was reached in May 1994 with the mediation of Russia and was of a purely ‘gentlemanly’ nature, since it was not possible to formalize a legally binding agreement.
Since then, this agreement has been repeatedly violated by both sides.
The most serious flare up of violence until fighting in September shook the region occurred at the beginning of April 2016, when Azerbaijan managed to break through the defense line of the Armenian army and liberate several strategically important positions, restoring control, according to various sources, from eight to 20 square kilometers.
Azerbaijan has not had access to 7 regions surrounding Karabakh for almost 30 years
Since 1992, the OSCE has been mediating peace negotiations. For all these 28 years, the result of the peace talks can be estimated at “zero point and zero tenths”.
The four resolutions of the UN Security Council adopted in 1993 also remained unfulfilled.
They contained demands to immediately stop hostilities and withdraw the Armenian armed forces from the occupied regions of Azerbaijan around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Later, it was these seven regions around NK that became one of the main stumbling blocks in the peace negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group (MG), co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France.
What the “Madrid principles” of settlement offer
Prior to the resumption of hostilities on September 27, 2020, negotiations were being conducted around the so-called “updated Madrid principles.” In short, the conditions were as follows:
• The Armenian armed forces gradually liberate the occupied regions of Azerbaijan around NK
• International peacekeeping forces are brought into the region
• A land corridor is provided between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia
• Karabakh is presented with temporary status
• Internally displaced persons are returned to the region
The future status of Nagorno-Karabakh is determined through a plebiscite with international guarantees.
The former leadership of Armenia was ready sooner or later to liberate five regions
The first point of the “Madrid principles” – on the phased withdrawal of the Armenian army from seven regions – from the point of view of Azerbaijan, is the main condition for the successful continuation of peace negotiations.
It is in this case that a certain degree of trust would arise between the parties, and it would then become easier to reach a compromise and prepare their societies for it.
Azerbaijan called this plan a “step-by-step solution”. Armenia (more precisely, its former leadership) insisted on a “package” solution – that is, the date for holding a referendum on the future status of Karabakh had to be agreed immediately.
The Minsk Group co-chairs proposed the following plan for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied regions: at the first stage, five regions around Karabakh, namely Aghdam, Fizuli, Jabrail, Gubadli and Zangelan, would be liberated.
These areas are located south and east of Karabakh and have never had any significant Armenian population.
The previous leadership of Armenia never concealed its readiness to liberate these five regions sooner or later.
For example, former President Serzh Sargsyan said back in 2008: “Agdam is not our homeland,” meaning that these territories are needed as a “security belt” and as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the future status of NK.
Azerbaijani districts of Kelbajar and Lachin – a different approach
The position in the two remaining districts – Kelbajar and Lachin – differed from the position in these five districts.
They are located between Karabakh and Armenia, and Armenia considers them vital for itself and was not ready to release them at the first stage after reaching an agreement.
Ground roads connecting Armenia with Karabakh pass through these areas.
In addition, the Zod gold deposit is located in Kelbajar, until recently gold was illegally exploited in the region, Azerbaijan says.
Azerbaijan has not insisted on the immediate liberation of these two regions, but demanded that a final date for the withdrawal of troops from these territories be given.
That is, the negotiations took place according to the “5 + 2” formula, which was also supported by the OSCE Minsk Group.
Pashinyan changed this plan
This continued until 2018, when Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in Armenia, said that he could not take responsibility for the liberation of even one region.
He stated that only the leadership of the unrecognized ‘Republic of Artsakh’ (the Armenian name for Karabakh), with which official Baku should negotiate, can take a decision on this.
Azerbaijan regarded these words as a rejection of previously reached agreements and an attempt to change the format of negotiations.
‘Second Karabakh war’ and Azerbaijan’s new plan
The situation changed radically after the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, 2020.
In a rather short time, Azerbaijan managed to break through the long-term defense line of the Armenian army and liberate almost completely two of the five regions south of NK – Jabrail and Fizuli.
In addition, Azerbaijani troops occupied strategic heights north of Karabakh – in the Kelbajar region.
As a result, Azerbaijan’s position has significantly strengthened on the diplomatic front. There is no more talk about a “package solution” of the problem.
Azerbaijan now demands the withdrawal of Armenian troops not only from the 5 + 2 regions, as before, but also from the territory of Karabakh itself.
At the same time, Baku leaves an opportunity for the introduction of peacekeeping forces, the composition of which has yet to be agreed upon.
The ‘second Karabakh war’ between Azerbaijan and Armenia seems to be taking on the character of a protracted war of attrition.
The third week of fighting has ended, the number of victims is already estimated at several hundred.
Azerbaijan has more resources – both human and economic.
But the factor of Russia is constantly present, with which Armenia has a military alliance.
Most likely, another “humanitarian ceasefire agreement” will still be reached in the near future. However, the resumption of peace talks is very, very far away – at least while the countries are being led by these leaders.
Much will also depend on the position of Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey, which has its own problems with Russia – but this is a topic for another article.