The conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Azerbaijan and Armenia is in fact not unlike the South Tyrol conflict between Austria and Italy. Since the second half of the 1990s – especially after the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994, which led to a “frozen” transition situation until November 2020 – delegations from the loser nation of 1994, Azerbaijan, repeatedly visited the autonomous province of Bolzano-South Tyrol in the tri-border region Italy-Austria-Switzerland to examine the model of possible conflict resolution with the involvement of the international community. At the Eurac Research Center for Advanced Studies in Bolzano there is an east-west focus. At the end of October 2020 an international Nagorno-Karabakh conference of the Eurac Research Institute for Federalism and Minority Rights took place with the participation of Mario Raffaelli from the Province of Trentino, who acted as mediator of the OSCE Minsk group between Armenia and Azerbaijan and helped to develop the six “Madrid Principles” for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2007. In addition, there is the work of the Eurac Institute for Comparative Federalism, especially for the Minsk Group, especially for minorities and displaced persons. The region was a topic of the big Central Asia Conference in Moscow in 2019, where the formulations and a certain populist rhetoric of nationalism already indicated that the conflict could reignite.
This article introduces some considerations on the following four points in order to provide a minimal basis for discussion for the current situation:
- What is the conflict about?
- Causes and Background
- Possible solutions
What is the conflict about?
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the “Mountainous Black Garden” in the South Caucasus, has a long and complex history, including the issue of autonomy that goes with it. Similar to other “hyper-complex” conflicts, the conflict has political and economic as well as religious, ethnic and civil-religious-nationalist components that make a solution particularly difficult. Identity narratives play an essential role in the Nagorno-Karabakh question, which has repeatedly prompted both the territorial powers and the major powers behind them to adopt a symbolic, conflict-promoting policy. The coexistence of the closely intertwined Armenian and Azerbaijani populations has produced both positive and negative examples over the centuries. The multiple changes in the ethnic-territorial distribution of the population have not made things any easier. In modern times, after the Russian November Revolution, Nagorno-Karabakh was annexed to Azerbaijan in 1921-23 despite an Armenian majority (albeit with a larger Azerbaijani minority than today), also because the Bolsheviks there had a greater influence in Moscow than their Armenian counterparts. Despite repeated attempts by Armenia and the representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh to change their affiliation to Armenia, nothing changed until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The decline of the multi-ethnic Soviet state under Mikhail Gorbachev led to a resurgence of nationalism in the Caucasus in 1988 and led to another application from Nagorno-Karabakh to move from Azerbaijan to the Soviet Republic of Armenia, which Moscow rejected. As a result, the region unilaterally declared itself in 1991 under the name “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh”, since 2017 under the name of no other recognized name “Republic of Arzakh” (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) as an independent state, nor from Armenia itself for lack Chances of success. As a result, a large-scale war developed from 1991 to 1994 with the participation of regular army units on both sides, claiming up to 30,000 victims and forcing around 700,000 Azerbaijanis and 400,000 Armenians to flee the region. It ended with an Armenian victory, the maintenance of the de facto autonomous status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupation of the surrounding Azerbaijani areas, the so-called seven districts, which Armenia now occupied as “buffer zones” for reasons of military security. Between 1991 and 2020 this constellation resulted in a “frozen conflict” with no final solution. The “freeze” appeared to the background powers and the international community, including Russia, Turkey, Iran and the OSCE, as well as various EU states of the diplomatically oriented Minsk Group, including France, as the only way to keep the region balanced and stable in the face the complexity and the lack of prospect of a final amicable solution.
From September 27 to November 10, 2020, however, a new six-week regional war unfolded in which the Azerbaijani army, supported by the “brother nation” Turkey, “reacted” to alleged Armenian provocations with a major attack. These were allegedly Arab, including Syrian and Libyan mercenaries brokered by Turkey, as well as state-of-the-art weapons, including drones and heavy long-range bombing. Even before that, in 2016 and in between, there were repeated minor skirmishes with injured people that were barely registered by the international community. The much too small border control mission of the OSCE with a team of only six people was overwhelmed by the situation. This latest war claimed at least 4,000 victims and ended in a clear victory for Azerbaijan. On November 10, 2020, after the failure of EU and OSCE peace missions, a ceasefire was agreed upon more or less monolateral mediation by the Armenian protecting power Russia. The ceasefire envisaged the dispatch of Russian mediation troops, the territorial return of the seven occupied districts and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh territory to Azerbaijan, and the fundamental restoration of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the territory, although many individual modalities remain to be clarified. Of the around 150,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, of whom, according to reports by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, 99% are Armenians, around 90,000 had fled in the course of this war.
Causes and Background
The causes and backgrounds why a new open war broke out in the autumn of 2020 after repeatedly smoldering minor conflicts are, as always in larger military conflicts, a combination of various factors. Essentially five dimensions worked together here, which mutually strengthened each other under the given conditions of the time. As always, the decisive factor was the historical situation, since individual reasons usually only work together to create a war if the larger surrounding historical moment enables or favors this.
The five dimensions are as follows:
I) De-internationalization and the trend towards neo-nationalism in the global overall concept
The Caucasus has long been seen as a powder keg with many “unsolvable” conflicts that many actors believe must be frozen until the historic moment for an amicable solution arrives. However, this would require a certain recognition of the primacy of multilateralism and international law on all sides. The willingness to do this has been weakened in recent years; and with it the international and, depending on it, the territorial climate changed. Since the second half of the 2010s, neonationalisms have sprung up around the world, encouraging more nationalist initiatives, so that the willingness in the region to suspend balances in order to satisfy national interests has increased. The states returned to their own politics of interests, also with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh. The politics of the spheres of influence experienced its resurrection through the “return of geography” (Paul Dibb), also called “revenge of geography” (Robert D. Kaplan), as a strategic mentality. Therefore, the most recent war of 2020 can be described as a neo-nationalist war, especially between the two participating states Azerbaijan and Armenia, but also between the interested powers behind it, Russia (Armenia) and Turkey (Azerbaijan). Iran, as a regional power with a direct common border with Nargorno-Karabakh, was indirectly involved as a third party, but has up to a third Azerbaijanis in its population and therefore does not want to be drawn into a new Azerbaijani nationalism.
ii) A proxy war of new great power ambitions between Russia and Turkey
The Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020 was also a “proxy war”. New regional great power ambitions of the neighboring powers took effect – not least because of the return of geography. The neo-nationalist wave promoted a new “chess game” mentality and the resulting strategic maneuvers in the zone. A paradoxical logic prevailed: Both proxy war powers, Russia and Turkey (Putin-Erdogan), were able to benefit from the conflict. Because with the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020, both powers actually helped each other to strengthen their presence in the Caucasus and to “dialectically” expand their territorial power in the style of the 19th century. In fact, they have divided the entire zone among themselves. On the one hand, Azerbaijan has become more dependent on Turkey; on the other hand, Russia has, in addition to its already existing military base, anchored itself even more firmly in the region by providing pacification troops and made Armenia even more dependent on its protective power. However, there is a risk that, once this process of mutual strengthening of the two background powers has been completed, conflicts may eventually arise between Russia and Turkey – who are at the same time partners or at least partially cooperate strategically in other conflict contexts, such as Syria. This could make cooperation between the regional powers even more complex overall.
iii) Domestic political reasons
The rearmament, which Russia delivered to both Armenia and Azerbaijan on a fairly strict business basis after 1994, was paired on both sides with increasing civil-religious indictments in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The identity reformism grew stronger with the global rise of “imaginal politics” and the return of “tribal politics”. In addition, and following another global trend, a certain populism arose on both sides, which “naturally” played with the ethnic component in the disputed area. Nationalist populisms on both sides used symbolic strategies, albeit to different degrees and not in the same way. An internal nationalist point of contention was the Yerevan-Stepanakert motorway, which was an instrument for the “integration” of Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia and was understood as such by both sides (similar to the Tirana-Pristina motorway between Albania and Kosovo in the Kosovo Balkans).
iv) Religious fault lines
Armenia is not only Christian, but also sees itself as an “originally Christian” nation; Azerbaijan is Islamic with a Shiite majority. Both sides were forcibly secularized during the Soviet and post-Soviet times, and those responsible tried to soften the religious component. But since the “return of religion” in the 1990s, it has intensified again. This included the role of Christian activism in the Armenian diaspora in France, but also of Islam, also in France, a nation that in recent years has been repeatedly shaken by religiously based terror and religious conflicts. This had repercussions that echoed in the conflict area. The fact that France is on the Minsk Council of the OSCE is a footnote that does not seem entirely unimportant here.
Two pipelines run near the disputed area. The topic of resource control should not be underestimated, as it is perceived as particularly important for the nations that are dependent on it, especially in times of an impending energy transition.
Understandably, many questions arise about the outcome of the recent conflict. Why did Azerbaijan win the 2020 war when it lost the 1994 war? Because today it is economically and militarily much stronger than in 1994, mainly because of its wealth of natural resources, especially oil and gas – and because it was actively supported by Turkey. On the Armenian side, on the other hand, Russia tended to take a more cautious stance due to its previous Ukraine and Crimean policies. The generally more expansive attitude of the authoritarian Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially since his “comprehensive” takeover of power in 2014 and after the failed coup in July 2016, also played an important role in the renewed escalation of the open conflict. Erdogan dreams of an Islamic superpower between East and West and sees the “brother nation” Azerbaijan as his natural sphere of influence, similar to the Chinese province of Xinjiang (Uighurs). He pursues great power politics from the Caucasus to Syria and Libya. Therefore, some thought that this war, ironically, was the end of an independent Azerbaijan because the country had strategically become part of the Turkish sphere of influence. As always in conflicts, Turkey’s behavior is also due to the thoughts of revenge of those who feel underestimated or not taken seriously – including political psychology. Above all, Erdogan wants to show the EU that he has influence.
In summary, the Managing Director of the World Trends Institute for International Politics Potsdam, Erhard Crome, formulated the situation in a dialogue with the author:
The actions of Russia and Turkey in the region are mostly presented as competition. The quintessence of their actions in the Caucasus and the Middle East is that they do not develop their positions together, but in a pseudo-competition that basically amounts to reciprocity. In doing so, they are pushing the West, the EU and the USA equally out of the conflicts and their solution, and geopolitically out of the region. Turkey has increased its control over Azerbaijan. Putin never wanted bad relations with Aliyev. In Armenia, Pashinyan had blinked westward during his “Velvet Revolution”. In this respect, his and Armenia’s defeat in 2020 came at just the right time: Russia is now more contractually bound in the region with peacekeeping forces, and a new Maidan became a distant prospect. Thanks to Putin, Armenia did not lose all of Karabakh, and Erdogan made sure that Azerbaijan does not win everything. Biden is responding to the western blink by recognizing the genocide of the Armenians in the First World War. But that seems to me to be a rather helpless symbolic gesture. By the way, all analysts are avoiding an interesting geopolitical topic: by letting the currently unemployed IS fighters in Libya, Chad or the Caucasus die as religious fighters, Erdogan is reducing their number in Idlib. That means Russia and Assad don’t have to bomb a lot there before the area is returned one day to the Damascus government, whoever is president there.
For solutions and perspectives, three main building blocks come into question – whereby all three remain unclear with regard to strategic manageability and concrete implementation on site: a) the most recent ceasefire agreement of November 10, 2020; b) the Madrid Principles of 2007; c) the South Tyrolean model.
a) The ceasefire agreement of November 10, 2020 called for, among other things
the cessation of hostilities, the return of all areas near Nagorno-Karabakh previously controlled by Armenian forces to Azerbaijan, the stationing of Russian peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and the return of refugees under the supervision of the UN Refugee Agency.
b) The Madrid Principles were presented by the OSCE in 2007 and reaffirmed by the Minsk Diplomatic Group in 2009. They were not intended as a solution, but rather as a mechanism for relaxation and, at the same time, as freezing, which – in a sometimes consciously imprecise way – was to initiate a way of producing a longer lasting solution. Uwe Halbach (Berlin Science and Politics Foundation) summed it up:
Since 1992 the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mediates in the conflict to which Germany belongs. Since 1997 it has been led by three co-chairs: USA, Russia and France … Since 2007 the “6 Madrid Principles” have been on the negotiating table. They provide six central principles (“basic rules”) for conflict resolution: 1. the return of five of the seven provinces around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani sovereignty; 2. A transitional status for Nagorno-Karabakh (until final settlement), which guarantees the security and self-determination of its people; 3. a corridor between the Republic of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh (the so-called Lachin Corridor, note by R.B.); 4. the future regulation of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding declaration of will by the conflicting parties; 5. the right of all displaced persons and refugees to return to their homeland; and 6. international security guarantees and peacekeeping.
Point 1 was settled with the outcome of the war on November 10, 2020, as all seven districts of Azerbaijan were recaptured and awarded to Azerbaijan in a provisional ceasefire. The remaining points are open, although point 5 appears to be relatively consensual, at least rhetorically.
c) The South Tyrolean model would be a permanent and constitutionally anchored territorial autonomous self-government of Nagorno-Karabakh including ethnic proportionalities (proportional model in the government and public administration) and international safeguards for stabilization despite possible further micro and mesoconflicts. According to this model, in addition to the six Madrid principles, which in themselves only remain transitional orientations for containment, the push for lasting pacification could be: a regional, extensive autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh with primary and secondary legislative rights within Azerbaijan, possibly in partial aspects also for the seven districts that are now (again) under Azerbaijani administration to promote regional unity and reconciliation. The South Tyrolean model was publicly addressed by Azerbaijani President Ilhan Aliyev as a possible conflict resolution strategy in October 2020, which led to both parties to the conflict temporarily calling on Italy as a mediator. But as in the South Tyrol conflict, the attitude of the protecting power is also decisive in Nagorno-Karabakh: In the case of South Tyrol, it was Austria. In the Nagorno-Karabakh case, the situation is made more difficult by the fact that there are two protecting powers: Russia and Turkey. In addition, the role of Iran remains unclear.
Territorial self-government based on autonomy while belonging to one of the conflicting states can be a promising path for Nagorno-Karabakh. The South Tyrolean model is a good template for this. It is also a multi-ethnic mountain area and offers both sides the narrative of a success story to give legitimacy to proponents of territorial autonomy from the start.
On the other hand, there are differences in historical, political, cultural and religious backgrounds. As ideally as the South Tyrolean model “fits” at first glance, in times of “re-globalization” a lot depends on contextualization and “glocalization”, if it is not even decisive. The success of the implementation depends crucially on the will of all sides as well as the historical framework. This willingness to implement the South Tyrolean model of territorial autonomy is currently lacking, especially among the winners, while the losers are more likely to be “revenge fantasies”, favored by trauma. From this perspective, the South Tyrolean model will not be directly applicable, but the discussion about it, as a process and development perspective, can help stabilize the situation. This could lead to a policy statement and tentative work to adapt various clauses and mechanisms in the coming years.
A prerequisite for this could be a joint invitation from delegations from all three territories involved: Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia could visit South Tyrol in order to look directly at the autonomy model in practice, its achievements, opportunities and limits, preferably in cooperation and exchange with the Governments in Rome and Vienna. Representatives from Eurac Research and the South Tyrolean provincial administration could advise the conflicting parties and the powers behind them. For such advice, Eurac Research founded its own specialized center in February 2019, the “Eurac Center for Autonomy Experience”, which at the same time represents a bridge between science and the state administration. Within the framework of this center, representatives of the conflicting parties could be invited to South Tyrol with sustainability-oriented preparation and follow-up. If helpful, this process could also involve the South Tyrolean EU parliamentarian Herbert Dorfmann, who is President of the European Parliamentary Society and a board member of the European People’s Party (EPP).
However, previous experiences with autonomy in Nagorno-Karabakh have been rather changeable to negative. Autonomies were promised, partially granted and then taken away. For a permanent solution to autonomy, a lot depends on the specific territorial distribution of the ethnic groups – do they live mixed together or separated according to groups? Since 99% of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh are Armenians today and mainly Azerbaijanis live in the surrounding districts, principles of South Tyrolean autonomy such as the so-called “ethnic proportional representation” are hardly applicable. This principle provides for the distribution of income and posts in the state administration according to ethnic criteria. With only 1% Azerbaijanis, this is hardly relevant in Nagorno-Karabakh, but it could still be a sign of goodwill. Despite these restrictions, however, self-administration is generally possible, including territorial tax sovereignty if necessary.
A major obstacle, unlike in South Tyrol, where all conflict parties were Catholic, is the non-identical religion on both sides, an Islam in crisis internationally (Fareed Zakaria) and a more militant interpretation of Christianity on the other side. Then, while all sides involved in the settlement of the South Tyrol dispute were democracies, there is non- or semi-democracy on both sides and in both background powers, Russia and Turkey. The situation thus differs from that which led to the foundations of today’s South Tyrolean model between 1972 and 1992. At that time, autonomy was negotiated between Austria and Italy – that is, between two states that were both Catholic, both democracies and where there was a will to reach consensus after the war experience. As Erhard Crome aptly pointed out in the case of South Tyrol:
there was no religious charge for the conflict – everyone was Catholic. And: Today the EU stands as a roof over the whole (like over Alsace-Lorraine): Everyone is a Union citizen, pays with the same euro and the borders are open. All of this is missing in the Caucasus region and in this way contributes to the burden of the conflict.
Further differences are the South Tyrolean concept of “dynamic autonomy”, i. H. its constant and conscious further development, which is explicitly integrated into the founding strategy and runs counter to the interests of both sides. Another hurdle is that in South Tyrol the police and the military are reserved for the state of Italy. This may appear to many in post-war Nagorno-Karabakh as a usurpation and make the acceptance of an autonomy regulation without police force of its own questionable. Basically, this is actually a misunderstanding of what autonomy is: a compromise solution. Autonomy in the sense of the South Tyrolean arrangement means for parts of the population, regardless of the possibilities, to be part of a nation with a different cultural identity and history. A final problem is the lack of civil society participation in the pacification process. Or as Uwe Halbach put it:
OSCE mediation in the conflict takes place at a high diplomatic level. Civil society forces are insufficiently involved in the process. In an authoritarian state like Azerbaijan, it is difficult for non-governmental organizations, and this is all the more true for actors who advocate a dialogue with those opposing the conflict. But peace activists also encounter considerable reservations on the Armenian side. There is a high degree of distrust and an extremely low willingness to compromise on both sides. These mental barriers were further hardened by the “April War” in 2016. After the change of power through the “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia, there was a brief relaxation phase in 2018 with signals of willingness to compromise [the two capitals] Yerevan and Baku. But already at the beginning of 2019 the tone became harder again and the fronts hardened again.
Overall, one more question arises: is there room for political initiative? From today’s perspective, the question can only be answered inadequately. The complicated situation requires further negotiations and clarifications. In the medium to long term, however, without a tailor-made autonomy solution for Nagorno-Karabakh, it is likely that the conflict will continue to smolder, regardless of the will or unwillingness of those in power. The international community should not wait for new revanchisms to ignite. The domestic political escalation of the situation in Armenia after the lost war of 2020 with an “attempted military coup” in February 2021, which Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan denounced after the Armenian military sided with the political opposition and demanded the resignation of Pashinyan, was one serious warning sign. It remains to be seen how US President Joe Biden’s announcement in April 2021 that the mass murders of Armenians in the 20th century will be classified as genocide will also affect Turkey’s behavior in the region. Likewise, the response of French President Emmanuel Macron in the same month that “Armenia and France will be bound forever” could have an impact on the further development of the dispute.
The perspective is limited. Above all, the EU can take action and score with the trump card of the South Tyrolean model. Diplomatic or intergovernmental gestures of reconciliation are not enough for lasting success. Laborious detailed work on site is necessary. One thing will certainly continue to apply in Nagorno-Karabakh: history is a superhuman, man-made process. Every local conflict resolution strategy will have to consciously move in the paradoxical field of tension between what is feasible and what cannot be influenced.
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