The weeks since the Russian-brokered ceasefire that ended the six-week war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave have been rife with speculation about its geopolitical and regional impact.
At the same time, several international organizations have expressed their readiness to contribute to various aspects of peace-building in the region, if relevant political agreements are found.
The situation remains unstable
The Six Week War resulted in a new reality on the ground. There are now three different types of areas (NK) in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. First, it is the remaining part of the former “Republic of Artsakh”, where security is guaranteed by Russian peacekeeping forces and which is connected to Armenia by a transport corridor. This “ass-NK” continues to be inhabited by Armenians, and the displaced are returning in large numbers. While the territory is “under the protection” of the Russian Federation, its legal status remains unclear.
Second, there are parts of the former “Republic of Artsakh” surrounding the city of Shusha (called Shushi by Armenians) that have been retaken by Azerbaijan and re-incorporated into its jurisdiction. It is still possible that some Armenians will remain there, and Azerbaijan’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) will likely decide to return. These regions remain largely empty, but Azeri IDPs will try to return once security is guaranteed and minimal infrastructure is in place.
Is there a political opening?
Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan would have to accept and support any kind of international activity or presence on the ground, with Turkey being another factor. In the given context, Azerbaijan could gain the most from international engagement. An international presence on the ground could help ease the burden of reintegrating retaken areas.
This could happen through assisting returnees, monitoring the security situation and reconstructing infrastructure, and international activities to create opportunities for economic livelihood. From the point of view of regional politics, Azerbaijan will most likely be satisfied if the new Russian presence on its territory somehow finds a counterbalance, even if it is a civilian and “light” one.
Nagorno-Karabakh; At this point, Armenia is likely to support any type of international presence on the ground, especially inside the “rump-NK”. In addition to helping manage the difficult humanitarian and economic situation, any such presence could – in the eyes of Armenia – provide an additional deterrent against further military action by Azerbaijan.
Russian consent to any type of international presence on the ground is essential. For this to happen, the presence must have a light footprint and be carried out on behalf of an organization that does not meet Russia’s instinctive distrust.
Two other factors may come into play: Russia could perceive an international presence in the territories under Azerbaijani control as a counterbalance to excessive Turkish influence. Another factor motivating Moscow to support an international presence in the region could be the intention to signal to the new Biden administration some readiness for cooperation.
Who could act?
The fact that Russia has a de facto veto over any international presence in the region limits options. The OSCE, known for its flexibility, small footprint, and strong Russian influence on its functioning, would have to play a leading role in this regard. On human rights issues such as the return of internally displaced persons and refugees, the Organization could act even more quickly and flexibly with a non-permanent OSCE/ODIHR presence.
For example, ODIHR could propose a comprehensive project to help areas in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Such limited efforts could lead to other initiatives that take longer to develop, such as efforts to comprehensively monitor human rights, initiatives to support rule of law institutions, or efforts to promote soft regionalism and economic connectivity.
On the other hand, the EU currently maintains a limited political role through the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and continues to work with Armenia and Azerbaijan under its Eastern Partnership. It also finances two multimillion-dollar projects designed to support dialogue and peace-building in the region.
Both were designed before the recent war and are now being modified to suit the fundamentally changed landscape. The EU could use these assets, plus funding from its Foreign Policy Instrument (FPI) as well as humanitarian funds, to work with the OSCE and others to respond quickly and comprehensively to identified regional needs.
what can you do?
The initial tasks of such a presence would have to include activities in all three security dimensions of the OSCE. These tasks will need to include monitoring the security and human rights situation with a particular focus on returnees and host local communities. This should be complemented by a role in facilitating the delivery of real assistance to communities on the ground. In addition, a tool for establishing a dialogue between the remaining (or returning) Armenians, the new Azerbaijani administration and the Azerbaijani returnees will be essential to ensure stability on the ground.
Inside the “rear NK”, the role of the human dimension of the OSCE would have to be realistically initially limited to the mediation of humanitarian aid and possibly also to civilian monitoring of the situation in the area of human rights. However, to maintain connectivity and communication, it is essential that any presence in Azerbaijan-controlled areas be accompanied by a limited liaison function in both Baku and Stepanakert.
Bernhard Knoll-Tudor is the Director of Executive Education and Assistant Faculty at the Hertie School in Berlin. Prior to his appointment, He also held positions in the EU observer mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His latest comments on Nagorno-Karabakh were published in EJIL*Talk! and EURACTIV.