What’s happening in Azerbaijan and Armenia? Hopes of peace agreement grow

What’s happening in Azerbaijan and Armenia? Hopes of peace agreement grow

Armenia and Azerbaijan are reportedly edging closer to a peace deal after conflict broke out in the region last year.

As Armenia observes Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on Wednesday (April 24), hopes persist for the easing of tensions between the neighbouring countries.

Four villages along the nations’ shared border are being returned to Azerbaijani control, a move local reports suggest is crucial to any upcoming peace deal.

The settlements that were under Armenian control since the 1990s are abandoned. However, they are strategically positioned along a key trade route near Armenia’s highway to Georgia.

“In this process, the Republic of Armenia receives a reduction in risks associated with border delimitation and security,” Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told local news outlets.

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (Armenian Government/AFP via Gett)
Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (Armenian Government/AFP via Gett)

The news has elicited a mixed response. Some Armenians have expressed fears about future war and uncertainty about Azerbaijan’s goals in the contested region.

The BBC has reported some young Armenians have begun volunteer military training to prepare for a possible attack from Azerbaijan.

So what exactly is happening between Armenia and Azerbaijan and why have there been major tensions between them?

What happened in Nagorno-Karabakh?

In 2020, Nagorno-Karabakh, a region disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, experienced a significant escalation in conflict. The clashes erupted in late September and lasted for six weeks, resulting in numerous casualties and the displacement of thousands of people.

The conflict, which has historical roots and ethnic complexities, involved both sides accusing each other of aggression and ceasefire violations. Eventually, a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia was reached in November 2020, leading to the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces in the region.

The agreement also involved territorial concessions by Armenia, including the return of some territories in and around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. The conflict has had significant political and humanitarian ramifications, with ongoing efforts to address the underlying issues and establish a lasting peace settlement.

Nagorno-Karabakh has largely practised independence since the 1990s.

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh upon their arrival at the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, in September 2023 (REUTERS)
Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh upon their arrival at the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, in September 2023 (REUTERS)

While it is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, its inhabitants largely identify as ethnic Armenians. Many reject Azerbaijani rule.

In September 2023, fresh violence erupted after Azerbaijan launched a surprise offensive to reclaim the region.

Azerbaijani authorities said they wanted to restore order and drive out Armenian troops it claimed were in the region, resulting in gunfire and shelling. A ceasefire was later agreed upon, with separatist Armenians being forced to agree to the “dissolution and complete disarmament of its armed forces”.

More than 50,000 ethnic Armenians reportedly fled during the offensive.

Azerbaijan, which has a mainly Muslim population, claimed it was after a peaceful reintegration and would allow people to continue practicing Christianity. However, most ethnic Armenians did not take any chances and left their homes and belongings to reach the Armenian border safely.

Reports claimed that many ethnic Armenians had been driven out. “After threatening to do so for years, Azerbaijan has completed the ethnic cleansing of the region,” Armenia’s representative Yeghishe Kirakosyan said in September 2023.

Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as the Artsakh Republic, was formally dissolved on January 1, 2024. This came after a period of intense conflict in the region.

  • Ceasefire agreement: The dissolution was a condition of a ceasefire agreement that ended a large-scale Azerbaijani military offensive launched in September 2023. Azerbaijan quickly defeated Armenian forces in the region.

  • Decree by the separatist leader: The leader of the breakaway republic, Samvel Shahramanyan, signed a decree on September 28, 2023, mandating the dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh's institutions by January 1, 2024.

  • International recognition: The international community never formally recognised Nagorno-Karabakh as independent. It was internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Why was Nagorno-Karabakh contested?

Nagorno-Karabakh has been contested primarily due to its ethnic composition and historical context.

  • Ethnic composition: Nagorno-Karabakh is a region with a predominantly ethnic Armenian population but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. This demographic make-up has led to tensions and disputes over the region's political status.

  • Historical context: The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the early 20th century when Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, Joseph Stalin, then Commissar of Nationalities in the Soviet Union, placed Nagorno-Karabakh within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, despite its Armenian majority. This decision exacerbated ethnic tensions and laid the groundwork for future conflicts.

  • Nationalism and self-determination: With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence. Nagorno-Karabakh, seeking to break away from Azerbaijan, declared independence as well. This declaration led to a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, resulting in significant casualties and displacements.

  • Territorial claims: Armenia and Azerbaijan have historical and cultural ties to Nagorno-Karabakh, fuelling their respective claims to the region. Armenia supports Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence or integration into Armenia, while Azerbaijan insists on its territorial integrity and sovereignty over the area.

Latest update on Armenian and Azerbaijani relations 

While the latest reports point to easing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, regional experts are cautious. Some fear that an emboldened Azerbaijan may try to seize more land.

Foreign relations have also shifted within the region following last year’s Azerbaijani offensive, with Armenia seeking closer ties to Europe.

Armenian Prime Minister Mr Pashinyan recently said: "The Republic of Armenia is ready to be as close with the European Union as the European Union sees possible.”