The Second Karabakh War (September 27–November 9, 2020) has resulted in a partition of Azerbaijan’s former Upper Karabakh Autonomous Region (obsolete Russian acronym: NKAO). The war’s victor, Azerbaijan, currently controls one third of that territory, while Russian troops and the Armenian authorities of the unrecognized Karabakh republic centered in Stepanakert control about two thirds. All of Upper Karabakh is universally deemed—also by Russia, emphatically—as being a part of Azerbaijan.
The Armenian-inhabited “NKAO” had been supposed to receive a legal-political status through an international negotiation process—the Minsk Group—that operated from 1994 to 2020, inconclusively. Following this war and partition, however, the “NKAO” no longer exists as a territorial or political unit. Its remaining territory, moreover, is being turned into a Russian protectorate with both military and civil-affairs dimensions (see EDM, January 21, 22, 26, 2021). All these new facts render the status issue moot.
Yerevan and Stepanakert (historical Khankendi – AzeMedia) currently estimate the population of rump–Upper Karabakh (the unrecognized Karabakh republic) at 105,000 to 110,000, including the registered war refugees from Karabakh sheltered in Armenia. Those refugees’ number was last cited by Armenia’s government at 20,000 (Civil.net, Arminfo, February 3, 4), as against 35,000 to 40,000 cited by the Stepanakert authorities (Armenpress, February 11, 15).
The number of war refugees from Karabakh registered in Armenia had peaked at some 90,000 to 93,000 last December (Armenpress, December 25, 29, 2020). Most of them have been encouraged to return to Upper Karabakh since then. Yerevan and Stepanakert are acutely conscious that Armenian outmigration from Upper Karabakh would undermine their effort to wrest this territory from Azerbaijan. This is why their officially released data might overstate the size of Upper Karabakh’s population.
Outmigration could also weaken the rationale for Russia’s military presence to guarantee the security of Karabakh Armenians. Accordingly, Russian “peacekeeping” troops have helped organize the mass return of war refugees from Armenia to Upper Karabakh, using buses under Russian military escort. The number of Russian-escorted returnees reached 50,000 on January 19, by the Russian military’s count (Mil.ru, January 19) and inched upward afterward, at 52,712 by the most recent Russian count on February 26 (Mil.ru, February 26). A far smaller number of refugees returned with their own transportation means and have not been officially or reliably counted.
Incomparably higher, approaching one million, is the number of Azerbaijanis displaced from the seven inner-Azerbaijani districts that Armenian had forces seized in 1993–1994 and Azerbaijan regained in November 2020. The tripartite armistice declaration of November 9, 2020, had stipulated that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would oversee the return of all refugees and displaced people. Preempting the UNHCR, however, the Russian military largely took over this process in Upper Karabakh for Armenian refugees.
The Armenian side nevertheless remains apprehensive about population decline in this territory. Attempting to address this problem, “President” Haraik Harutiunian has announced the re-launch of a “state” program of artificial insemination in order to increase local birth rates (News.am, January 17).
Russia’s “peacekeeping” mission in what Moscow itself deems as Azerbaijani territory has no agreed-upon mandate; and Russia’s military presence there has no legal basis. It does, however, have Baku’s carefully weighed consent as part of the November 9 armistice declaration; it was not imposed on Baku, but was worked out through genuine give-and-take negotiations; and the mission’s actual execution by Russia is subject to constant adjustments through negotiations with Baku. This bilateral process has, to all intents and purposes, excluded Armenia from any significant role or initiative. Yerevan seems merely to react and largely comply with Russia’s initiatives in Upper Karabakh.
Without making any formal arrangements, therefore, Russia has become the real and recognized guarantor of Upper Karabakh’s security. Armenia has lost the guarantor’s role after 26 years of filling it (1994–2020). Yerevan has not only exhausted its resources in the recent, lost war but has also been outplayed diplomatically by Baku in the triangular process with Moscow.
Some Stepanakert officials, including the Security Council’s chief, Major General Vitaly Balasanian, and “parliament” chairperson Artur Tovmazian, have publicly registered Armenia’s loss of the guarantor’s role. They have clearly identified Russia’s “peacekeepers” along with the Karabakh “republic’s” forces as security guarantors, omitting Armenia from the equation (Artsakhpress, February 26; Artsakh Public TV cited by Arminfo, March 13). Russia, moreover, is bringing substantial humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Upper Karabakh, taking over also the “social guarantor’s” role from Armenia.
Armenian nationalism kept firmly aloof from the “Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”) even when operating in alliance with Russia. This distinctiveness remains intact in Yerevan. However, Stepanakert seems to consider moving toward the Russian World as a way of ingratiation with Moscow. Karabakh’s unrecognized “foreign affairs minister,” David Babaian, has issued an irate indictment of Azerbaijan’s disrespect for Soviet-era military memorials in the territories regained from Armenian control (News.am, March 8). The “parliament” in Stepanakert is considering draft laws to confer official status on the Russian language in the Karabakh “republic’s” administration and its mass media. A debate is ongoing on whether Russian should become an “official language” on par with the literary Armenian language or, alternatively, a “working language” to be used when necessary (Azatutiun.am, March 12).
Some international observers expect Russia to begin (after a decent interval) distributing Russian passports in the Karabakh “republic,” turning the recipients into citizens of Russia and potential labor migrants there. This would reproduce the model used earlier in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and, currently, in Donbas. The case of Upper Karabakh, however, differs from those previous cases. Stepanakert’s as well as Yerevan’s top priority is to keep the population firmly attached to the land in the “republic,” since population loss would negate the Armenian claims to this territory (see above). Russia is also interested in keeping its would-be protégés in place, so as to justify its military presence and even augmenting it if deemed necessary in the future. Launching Russian passportization while at the same time strongly discouraging emigration could be a solution that would satisfy Moscow, Yerevan and Stepanakert.
Russia seems intent on reproducing in Karabakh the model it had earlier developed in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Donbas—namely, a local proto-state with formal institutions under Russian military protection and economic sustenance (see EDM, December 8, 10, 2020 and January 21, 22, 26, 2021). Russia had itself created those proto-states, but it found a ready-made “republic” in Karabakh, carved out by Armenia from Azerbaijan’s territory. Russia’s military “peacekeeping” intervention in November 2020 has simply replaced Armenia with Russia as protector-guarantor of the rump-Karabakh centered in Stepanakert (see Part One in EDM, March 18).
Russia does recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and its title to sovereignty over this would-be republic’s territory. Indeed, Moscow expresses its recognition emphatically at this early stage, without the ambiguities and conditionalities that Russia has attached to its theoretical recognition of Moldova’s, Ukraine’s and (until 2008) Georgia’s territorial integrity. Baku finds Moscow’s assurances reassuring politically and useful in practice. Those other countries’ experience, however, illustrates Russia’s way of piling up ambiguities and conditionalities that devalue and practically cancel Russia’s recognition of territorial integrity over time. This can culminate in Russia’s official de-recognition of the territorial integrity, as in Georgia’s case in 2008. In another version of this ongoing game, Russia has officially de-recognized Ukraine’s territorial integrity in Crimea since 2014, but not in Donbas. The Kremlin has worked with the latter proto-state’s institutions to administer and police the Russian-protected territory. Baku is aware of all this, and Moscow can use this awareness in due course as a lever of pressure on Baku.
In Karabakh’s case, Russia has taken over the protection of an almost 30-year-old “republic” with full-fledged institutional structures: its own constitution, president, government ministries, parliament, political parties, judiciary, and military and security forces. Although their existence and operation has (even from Russia’s official standpoint) no legal basis, Russia has no intention to dismantle them. Instead, Russia’s military and civil authorities in Karabakh work with those local institutions to handle day-to-day matters on the ground. This cooperation goes on discreetly at this early stage, the Russian side being careful not to offend Baku’s sensibilities.
Stepanakert (Khankendi) authorities have announced plans to overhaul the “Karabakh defense army” and other security structures in the wake of the lost war. The plans call for maintaining a permanent army with a mix of conscription and contract service, increasing the army’s mobility, updating the reserve training and mobilization system, and reinforcing the existing “state” security service and police by adding a special forces (spetsnaz) battalion to each with a view to conducting “anti-terror missions.” Stepanakert envisages continuing cooperation with Yerevan’s military toward those goals. Clearly, Stepanakert cannot expect any Russian military assistance in the foreseeable future (see EDM, January 14; Arminfo, January 26; Armenpress, News.am, February 4, March 13).
Stepanakert considers the territories regained by Azerbaijan last November as belonging by right to the “Artsakh republic” (the Armenian name for Karabakh). Based on its “parliament’s” March 1 resolution (News.am, March 1), Stepanakert‘s representatives routinely speak of “Azerbaijan’s aggression against the republic of Artsakh” (as if the latter were a legally recognized entity), declare that “Artsakh’s territories currently controlled by Azerbaijan are occupied territories,” demand the “de-occupation of the Azerbaijani-controlled territories,” and call for recognition of the “people of Artsakh’s right of self-determination.”
According to “foreign affairs minister” David Babaian, Stepanakert clings to “our traditional priorities”: aiming for international recognition, seeking de facto relations with other states—primarily with “fraternal Russia”—and reinforcing inter-Armenian relations (with Yerevan and the diaspora). The quest for international recognition shall continue to focus on local-level administrations in foreign countries, in hopes of moving up to higher levels in a later stage (Armenpress, February 5). Such a forlorn quest seems based on geopolitical delusions that have long ensnared some Armenian leadership groups.
As Babaian stipulates, Artsakh’s existence as such constitutes “a high-value asset to Armenia’s statehood, in regional politics and in global geopolitics.” Artsakh “stands in the way of dangerous geopolitical challenges, first and foremost the advance of pan-Turkism.” In this situation, “Artsakh must remain an all-Armenian priority [for Yerevan and the diaspora].” The tandem of Turkey and Azerbaijan being inimical to Russia by definition, Artsakh is therefore useful to Russia, and its position in the South Caucasus amounts to “geopolitical capital.” Russia’s peacekeeping operation provides for Artsakh’s security, but it does not resolve the conflict with Azerbaijan. A political solution to this conflict must be negotiated based on the people of Artsakh’s right to self-determination (News.am, March 12; Aravot, March 17, 18).
Moscow has unofficially helped Stepanakert to take a first step toward inter-parliamentary relations. Two members of the Karabakh “parliament” have visited Russia’s State Duma for talks with the latter’s prominent member Konstantin Zatulin (from the ruling United Russia party (Artsakhpress, March 17). More than 20 years ago, Zatulin helped pioneer inter-parliamentary relations between the Russian Duma and the legislature of Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea. In that case and in other conflict theaters, Zatulin steps in when the Russian government considers it premature to do so itself.
Eurasia Daily Monitor