October 1, 2023
Emerging Developments in Nagorno-Karabakh
(Updates Following Recent Report)
By HIROSE Yoko
On September 1, I presented a report at the research meeting hosted by the Japan Forum on International Relations, centering on “The Future of the China-Russian Sphere of Influence Concept and Japan’s Response.” The report primarily emphasized the recent developments in Nagorno-Karabakh, with a particular emphasis on the peace initiatives in the first half of 2023. I highlighted the notable increase in the pro-peace observed during May to June, coinciding with high-level diplomatic negotiations primarily in Europe and the United States. These negotiations involved the heads of state and foreign ministers from Azerbaijan and Armenia. The statements made by Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan were particularly noteworthy, signaling a willingness to acknowledge Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh if the safety of local Armenian residents could be assured. These statements have drawn significant international attention. Furthermore, Pashinyan’s statement suggesting a potential withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance led by Russia, has also garnered considerable global interest. While Armenia was reportedly aiming to conclude negotiations within the year itself, it was observed that Azerbaijan had started slowing down the pace of negotiations around June. This change in pace can be attributed to key developments. First, Azerbaijan established a checkpoint in the Lachin Corridor. This corridor, which serves as a link between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, had been a point of contention since it was blocked by Azerbaijan in December 2022. Second, Turkish President Erdogan, who has been a strong ally and supporter of Azerbaijan in recent years, was re-elected in May 2023. These events have significantly influenced the dynamics of the ongoing negotiations.
Amid these circumstances, on September 19, Azerbaijan announced the launch of an “anti-terror” operation in Nagorno-Karabakh. The stated objective of the operation was to “ensure the disarmament and withdrawal of Armenian military formations deployed in Azerbaijan’s territory and to neutralize their military infrastructure.” It was reported that this operation was initiated in response to two landmine explosions that occurred earlier that day, resulting in the death of six people, including four police officers. Nevertheless, the veracity of this claim remains uncertain.
However, a conclusion was reached within 24 hours. On September 20, both Azerbaijan and Armenian forces announced that they had agreed to completely cease hostilities from 1 pm local time (6 pm Japan time), under the mediation of Russia’s peacekeeping forces. Following this, Azerbaijan made a resounding declaration of the restoration of its territorial integrity and sovereignty. While Azerbaijan demonstrated willingness to allow Armenian residents to continue living in the region, most of these residents, fearing persecution, expressed a desire to evacuate. It was reported that 99% of the residents wished to seek refuge in Armenia, leading to the commencement of a mass exodus.
On September 28, the “Republic of Artsakh,” the administrative body for Armenian residents, announced its dissolution effective from January 1, 2024. This announcement signals the anticipated resolution of this issue, both in name and in substance.
The most notable harbinger of these developments was Russia’s decision not to support Armenia during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. Prior to the onset of the war, it was speculated that Russian President Putin, who had reportedly distanced himself from Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, would withhold support.
Once again, Russia did not extend its support to Armenia in this conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh holds considerable importance for Armenia, and to safeguard it, the country has had to be subservient to Russia. Conversely, if Armenia were to relinquish Nagorno-Karabakh, it could potentially gain a greater degree of diplomatic freedom. Armenia has already been distancing itself from Russia, and from September 11–20, it conducted joint military exercises with the United States. Given these circumstances, and considering that Armenia has historically relied on Russia for support in sectors such as energy and defense, it is highly probable that the decision to relinquish Nagorno-Karabakh will be followed by a swift shift toward a more pro-European and pro-American diplomatic stance in the future.
It can be said that Azerbaijan adeptly seized the opportunity presented by the situation. Given that Russia was fully engaged with its invasion of Ukraine and its relations with Armenia had notably deteriorated, it appears that Azerbaijan was confident that Russia would not extend its support to Armenia. Moreover, by concluding the 24-hour military operation through the mediation of Russia’s peacekeeping forces, Azerbaijan effectively granted Russia a significant role in resolving the conflict.
In the near future, it is anticipated that Azerbaijan will spearhead the reconstruction of Nagorno-Karabakh and facilitate the resettlement of its inhabitants. However, within Armenia, there is a growing resentment toward Prime Minister Pashinyan, who is perceived to have abandoned Nagorno-Karabakh, and also toward Russia for its lack of support for the country. This sentiment has fueled new protests. Furthermore, it is projected that up to 120,000 refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh will need to be accommodated, posing a significant burden for Armenia, a country with a population of around 2.8 million. This situation is likely to result in issues spanning social security, housing, and employment. Given that residents of Nagorno-Karabakh are regarded as second-class citizens in Armenia, a heightened risk of social unrest in Armenia is foreseeable in the future.
The developments in this region require continuous vigilant observation.
(This is the English translation of an article written by HIROSE Yoko, Distinguished Research Fellow of JFIR, which originally appeared on the e-Forum “Giron-Hyakushutsu” of GFJ on October 2, 2023.)