This fall, one of the world’s most protracted conflicts reignited in Nagorno-Karabakh. Since 1988, Armenia and Azerbaijan have sparred over the future of the majority-Armenian enclave, which is landlocked within Azerbaijan and subject to competing historical claims by both countries. Armenia won a decisive victory in the early 1990s, occupying Nagorno-Karabakh and seizing surrounding territory that was home to about 1 million Azerbaijanis—a move so devastating to Azerbaijan that its government has spent the past few decades stockpiling arms from allies like Turkey, Russia and Israel. After years of tension and sporadic violence, Armenia and Azerbaijan descended into war on Sept. 27.
After fighting ended in the 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself an independent republic and is now known as the “Republic of Artsakh” to its roughly 150,000 inhabitants. The republic is not recognized by neighboring countries, although Armenia has close ties to the government and represents it in formal negotiations. Since 1992, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—a group chaired by Russia, France and the United States—has overseen these negotiations. Azerbaijan, however, has questioned the legitimacy of the process, arguing that the U.S. and Russia are both biased against Azerbaijan: The U.S. has a vast Armenian diaspora population, and Russia sells arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has military commitments to Armenia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
In a testament to the limitations of the OSCE Minsk Group, several promising cease-fires have collapsed over the past six weeks. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of soldiers and civilians have lost their lives amid shelling in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ganja, the second-largest city in Azerbaijan. With the support of Turkey and Syria, Azerbaijan has also retaken much of the land seized by Armenia in the 1990s. Azerbaijan is now under scrutiny for bombing a strategically located city just south of Stepanakert known as Shusha or Shushi—and according to Arayik Harutyunyan, the separatist leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, “The one who controls Shushi controls Nagorno-Karabakh.”
I spoke to Arzu Geybulla, an Azerbaijani journalist based in Istanbul, about the state of the conflict and her proposals for peace. We also discussed an editorial she wrote for Osservatori earlier this month, in which she excoriated Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership for exploiting the “neverending war” for political gains. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: According to an article by Thomas de Waal, the lands surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh are empty and decimated by conflict. Where are the Azerbaijani citizens who used to live in the “buffer zone,” and what are the prospects for their return?
A: True, the territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that were under occupation have been left in poor, if not unlivable conditions. The government of Azerbaijan has vowed to rebuild all of the returned territories. The [internally displaced persons] and refugees ended up being disseminated across the country in refugee camps, train barracks, unfinished buildings. Some have received housing over the years, but the situation is dire and many are still waiting for housing.
I am not entirely sure how many of the displaced are willing to return—there are no studies that have documented the will and the interest. However, the current escalation has surely raised hopes for many of those who lost their homes and were forced to flee to return. There was a video that circulated online (one of many) of a soldier who found his home in one of the regained villages. Outside stood the sycamore tree that he remembered from his childhood. Another picture shared online was of a soldier who returned to his home after almost 30 years where the pomegranate tree still stood in the garden of what once was his home.
The sentiments are high, and so is the determination to return back what was Azerbaijan’s in the first place.
Q: If Karabakh is so closely tied with Armenia during formal negotiations, then why doesn’t Armenia recognize the territory as the “Republic of Artsakh”?
A: Because it would be the first country to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. This action would also destroy the negotiations process, as well as likely result in worse military escalation than what we have seen in the last three weeks.
Q: The U.S. and France have abdicated much of their negotiating responsibility in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group. What role has Russia played in their absence?
A: Minsk Group does not only consist of Russia, France and the U.S. Among its permanent members are Turkey, Sweden, Germany, Italy and Belarus. All members of the group have been calling for deescalation since it became clear that neither of the sides to this conflict, namely Armenia and Azerbaijan, were going to stand down when the other was under attack in the years since the cease-fire was declared.
Surely, Russia’s geographical proximity to both countries, the history, the current relations, and the tradition of being the broker of the cease-fire in this conflict makes Russia the first co-chair to intervene and to mediate. It was also the co-chair that mediated a cease-fire in 2016 during the April war. Then, both sides agreed and came back to the negotiation table. This time, however, we are seeing that neither of the sides is interested in staying true to the articles agreed to in the cease-fire simply because the balance to this conflict has shifted.
The first cease-fire that was declared on Oct. 10 came after the Azerbaijan army made significant advances, recapturing villages and strategic heights. Surely it was not going to stop and watch as Armenian armed forces violated the cease-fire. But the truth is, it is hard to tell who violated the cease-fire the first time, because there are no independent observer groups on the ground, nor are there any independent peacekeeping forces.
At this point, no matter what Russia does, Azerbaijan demands are rather clear and have been voiced over and over by the president, Ilham Aliyev, who won’t back down until the demands made by Azerbaijan (in line with basic principles) are actually followed.
Russia also sells arms to both sides. I think what we should be asking here is why a country sitting at the negotiation table can be selling arms to both sides and still getting a say. And secondly, why other members did not step in over the years. We are partially seeing this now with Turkey strongly coming forward in support of Azerbaijan. But while Azerbaijan feels emboldened with this support, this is also not very constructive for the negotiations, as Turkey is not seen as a neutral actor here from the Armenian side.
Clearly there is a need for a bigger involvement of all member states, and perhaps other actors as well, whether through the presence of organizations like Human Rights Watch to document war crimes, or others.
A: I think we should not be surprised by the existence of propaganda during the war. This is not unique to Azerbaijan or Armenia. We should, however, remember that much of popular, independent and opposition media has been blocked in Azerbaijan since 2017. While they continue reporting, they still rely heavily on the information provided and shared by the government institutions/sources.
In addition to lack of access to independent information, what is important here is the blanket limitation imposed on Azerbaijani internet users by the government of Azerbaijan and how this limit serves to boost government-sponsored media platforms, which only share information approved by the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government institutions.
They are also the ones who seem to have no issues accessing the internet and social media platforms. The Ministry of Defense has a Telegram channel that updates on a regular basis and a Facebook page. Each of these platforms is accessible via VPN, which the government strongly urges not to use as it can lead to stolen personal data.
In the absence of independent, verified information and in the absence of access to such information, the information war is natural and so is the likelihood of false information circulating online.
Q: You also wrote in June about President Aliyev’s heavy-handed and ineffective approach to the coronavirus. How has his policy toward COVID-19 changed since full-on war began?
There are new restrictions that came into effect last week. At this point, however, whatever President Aliyev was criticized for before the war is long forgotten, given the fervor in support of the war and, therefore, in support of President Aliyev.
All other problems are secondary. This is why I don’t see there will be much criticism over the lack of measures taken now with rising numbers.
Q: In a stinging op-ed earlier this month, you accused government leadership of “[caring] too much about egos and seats rather than human lives” during the ongoing conflict. If you could advise [Armenian Prime Minister Nikol] Pashinyan and Aliyev about the way forward, what concrete suggestions would you give them?
I would advise them to bring civil society to the negotiation table, although I’m not sure there are many peace advocates left on both sides. That being said, opening the negotiations to an independent civil society would be useful, sharing with them the results of previous meetings, full transparency and demonstrated commitment to resolving this conflict once and for all.
To President Aliyev, I would ask to release all political prisoners, reinstate international funding mechanisms for nongovernmental organizations and provide a safe environment for their work, on this conflict and outside.
To Prime Minister Pashinyan, I would say to tone it down—saying Karabakh is Armenia or threatening Azerbaijan to recognize Karabakh’s independence is not constructive. It may score him golden points at home, but it certainly does not help in reconciling long grievances between the two countries and its people.
To both, I would ask to take full responsibility for the recent weeks. Make concessions, and be prepared to convince the people in their respective countries that these concessions were needed in order to stop the human suffering and find a common ground.
For Aliyev, I would ask to take full responsibility for all that has happened under his reign, return what he has taken from the people, and let this country rebuild itself not as an authoritarian state but as a thriving democracy.
Q: There are credible reports of civilians being killed in Ganja and Stepanakert, and you’ve shared an article on Twitter about the war becoming a “humanitarian crisis.” What role does the international community have, if any, in ensuring that the conflict only involves soldiers?
Every war brings with itself grave casualties, and it is often civilians who suffer the most. It’s just that neither of the sides imagined how high these casualties were going to be. Any human life is valuable, whether it’s a civilian or an army officer. The loss of both is devastating as it is.
The most logical decision would be to stop fighting altogether. Stick to the cease-fire, exchange and collect bodies, exchange [prisoners of war], assess the situation and go back to the negotiation table. Without deescalation, and an immediate stop of fighting, not one single actor could prevent the humanitarian crisis. War crimes must be independently investigated, and the perpetrators on both sides must be brought to justice.
This is what the international community should try to achieve—all other attempts would be futile. That of course, in addition to safety guarantees, deoccupation and a final solution to this conflict once and for all.
Q: De Waal also wrote in the 2019 Carnegie paper that “[o]nly very limited social groups, such as traders who do business in Georgia, or students who meet the other side in foreign capitals, encounter members of the other ethnic group and hear their point of view.” What role do cultural exchange programs have in creating popular support for a peaceful solution?
I don’t think the leaders of the two countries were interested in finding a peaceful solution from the start. There were attempts earlier on, but they failed due to the inability of leaders to explain these solutions to the people.
One thought the status quo would continue, while the other was seeking revenge for all the losses. Lack of people-to-people diplomacy also drew both communities further apart, strengthening the respective government positions. No concessions could be made; not from the side of Azerbaijan anyway, considering the losses of the war.
I saw a post some two weeks ago on social media that was shared by someone from Ukraine who said “leaders would agree, wars would end but limbs won’t grow.” The quote was accompanied by a picture of two young Ukrainian boys who lost their legs during the fighting. Putting this into the context of the current situation, I can only say that making concessions is a skill. Surely not everyone will be happy, but at least people would still have their limbs, and people would still have the family members who are no longer with them.
It’s like those sycamore and pomegranate trees that still stood. It takes years, and decades to grow trees, and it will take years and perhaps decades to rebuild trust—if, of course, an agreement is reached. Maybe at some point in time, perhaps not in my lifetime, there will be more sycamore and pomegranate trees raised from the debris of this war. I only hope that they will be surrounded by life and far from bloodshed.