In mid-September 2022 fighting once again erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus region on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue leaving over 200 dead. The two countries had fought a war in 2020, and with the subsequent ceasefire agreement a gradual move towards stability in the region was expected. Instead, the latest flare-up affected the regional condition and the prospects of regional cooperation. Given international situation, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has the potential to become a major flashpoint by drawing in regional and extra-regional actors. Nevertheless, certain recent but significant developments, aided by external factors, including the unexpected Russian military operations in Ukraine and its consequences, concerns over energy supply, international economic scenario and quest for resilient transport networks for inter-regional and global commerce, and the successive meetings of the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan indicate possible easing of the tense regional environment in South Caucasia and incremental move towards stability.
South Caucasus a complex region
South Caucasus has been considered as one of the complex ethnic regions of the world with all three countries of the region having population of diverse backgrounds. Since ancient times apart from being a trade corridor, the region has been a zone of frontiers of several yore empires – at times in conflict with each other. The region is also geopolitically complex. Over the last two centuries, the Nagorno-Karabakh region experienced various transitions. It was ceded by Persia to Tsarist Russia following the Treaty of Gulistan 1813 and the Treaty of Turkmanchai 1828. South Caucasia’s land neighbours are Iran, Turkiye and Russia, while on the east it has Caspian Sea and in the west Black Sea. All three neighbouring countries were big empires in the past and held sway over the region in different periods.
Currently, Russia has a military base in Armenia and both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia has also deployed peacekeepers in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh region. Turkiye has traditionally been supporting Azerbaijan, including militarily. Iran has a large Azeri population and shares borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, Tehran supports Armenia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty with which it shares ‘friendly and amicable relations.’
The roots of recent instability in South Caucasia can be traced to Tsarist and Soviet geopolitics. The Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh was incorporated as an Autonomous Republic within Azerbaijan in 1923, while the Zangizur area of Azerbaijan became part of Armenia. Later, as the USSR unravelled tensions surfaced and in late 1980s ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh demanded transfer of the region to Armenian control. In 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence leading to war with Azerbaijan. The war caused Azerbaijan to lose Nagorno-Karabakh as well as adjacent territories to the Armenian backed forces. Azerbaijan recovered parts of lost territories in the 2020 war.
South Caucasia in changing energy dynamics
Russia has so far been a stable and large supplier of energy to Europe. However, the Russian military operation in Ukraine and the consequent sanctions on Russia have severely impacted regional and international transport and energy networks. Europe’s concern about gas supply and maintaining price stability in the energy market has increased. European countries are diversifying their supplies and the South Caucasian region is emerging as an important partner. Europe is securing gas deals on a priority and it is finding Azerbaijan a willing partner. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Baku in July 2022 and met with President Ilham Aliyev. The two sides signed a new MoU on a Strategic Partnership in the Field of Energy. They plan to double the capacity of the Southern Gas Corridor to deliver around 20 billion cubic metres (BCM) of gas to EU annually by 2027. Further, a ceremony was held in Sofia, Bulgaria on 1 October 2022 to inaugurate the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB), which was also attended by Azerbaijan President. The project was termed as ‘freedom’ from dependency on Russian gas by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The narrow land strip in South Caucasia provides a critical energy corridor with pipelines transferring energy to European markets. Peace and stability in the region is necessary for unhindered energy production and transportation.
Recent Efforts to stabilise Nagorno-Karabakh situation
There have been recent efforts by major and regional powers to bring peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and contribute towards stability and development in South Caucasia. Seemingly, diversification of energy sources and secured supply are primary reasons for renewed interests of Western countries to work for rapprochement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
On the side-lines of the United Nations General Assembly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted both Foreign Minister of Armenia and Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan in a meeting in New York on 19 September 2022. Blinken emphasised the need to prevent further fighting and return to the peace process.
Subsequently, in a significant development, Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and President Aliyev held direct talks, which was attended by the President of France and the President of the European Council, who had taken this initiative. The talks were held on the side-lines of the first meeting of the European Political Community in Prague on October 6, 2022. Following the talks, the two leaders agreed to allow the EU to send a mission to the common borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to build confidence.
Besides, on the side-lines in Prague, PM Pashinyan also held bilateral meetings with Turkiye President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two leaders discussed the process of normalisation of Armenian-Turkish relations and stressed the importance of direct contacts and high-level meetings. Following the meeting, the Turkish President referring to Turkiye’s shared but closed borders with Armenia, said that as soon as Armenia and Azerbaijan sign a peace agreement the Turkish borders will be opened.
Indicating that Russia continues to be a relevant actor in South Caucasus, President Vladimir Putin hosted on October 31, 2022 in Sochi PM Pashinyan and President Aliyev in a trilateral format. A statement was adopted by the three leaders emphasizing the importance of active preparations for the signing of a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They also agreed to refrain from the use of force and to discuss and resolve all problematic issues on the basis of mutual recognition of sovereignty, territorial integrity.
After the meeting in Sochi, PM Pashinyan paid a visit to Tehran and held talks with President Ebrahim Raisi on 1 November 2022. Apart from bilateral issues, the two leaders discussed the regional situation. In October, Iran had opened a consulate in southern Armenia city of Kapan to bolster Iran-Armenia relations.
The people of Nagorno-Karabakh have long been impacted by regional and international geopolitics. The conflict has been a barrier hindering regional security, stability and economic development and also impacting cooperation in inter-regional connectivity. Given the international scenario, the stakes in South Caucasia are high for regional and extra-regional players in terms of energy security and connectivity links. Making use of the opportunities presented by geopolitical shifts, both Armenia and Azerbaijan can continuously move towards finalizing a peace agreement and contribute to peace and stability as regional cooperation is the way forward for South Caucasus.
This article has been published earlier by the Conflict Weekly Special Issue under the title “South Caucasia: Prospects for a stable peace”.
*Dr. Athar Zafar is a Senior Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are of the author.