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Five ways the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will change the map

Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to a ceasefire after six weeks of fighting

- November 15, 2020

The guns are finally silent in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory in the South Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In late September, the long-standing conflict in the territory re-erupted into a six-week war that left thousands dead.

With local Armenian forces collapsing after a relentless Azerbaijani assault from the air and ground, the warring parties signed a nine-point cease-fire last week. Facilitated by Moscow, the agreement authorized the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces to the region to establish new borders within the territory.

The implications of these borders, however, extend well beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. As both sides bury their dead, here are five significant ways the 2020 Karabakh war will change the map of the South Caucasus — and the crucial questions that remain unanswered.

The fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh is about local territories and wider rivalries

Azerbaijan captured a symbolic town

The turning point in early November was the capture of a much-coveted strategic town by the Azerbaijani army. Known as Shusha to Azerbaijanis and Shushi to Armenians, this mountain fortress has a storied past as a vibrant center of learning and culture in the South Caucasus. As ethnonationalism engulfed the region in the early 20th century, it was also the site of violent pogroms. An Azerbaijani majority town within an Armenian majority district within Soviet Azerbaijan, the town fell to Armenian forces in May 1992 during the Karabakh war of 1988-1994.

Since then the town has been in Armenian hands, lying largely in ruins until the mid-2000s when some investments were made, and Armenian settlers began to build lives there. The place overall, though, remained a shadow of what it once was.

Dominating the upper section is a famous cathedral belonging to the Armenian church. Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of deliberately targeting the cathedral with two precision missile strikes on Oct. 8 that severely damaged the cathedral.

Shusha is now in Azerbaijani hands — a massive blow to Armenians not only locally but also within Armenia and worldwide. Only a few months ago, the newly elected president of the unrecognized state created by Armenians in Karabakh was inaugurated there in a ceremony choreographed to project Armenians’ ancient ties to the region and legitimate its statehood. On Sept. 19 he announced its parliament would move to Shushi.

Instead, former Azerbaijani residents are now likely to return. Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, may even visit. Shusha is strategic because it overlooks the largest town in Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert. This fact will strike fear into that town’s remaining residents.

Nagorno-Karabakh will now be partitioned

Nagorno-Karabakh is a name for many territories. In Soviet times, it was the name of an autonomous oblast. When local Armenians unilaterally proclaimed a separate republic in 1991 they claimed further territory. In the subsequent war, they acquired territories never initially desired but later deemed “liberated” from Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has long insisted all the various lands controlled by Armenian forces are “occupied territories.” The conflict pitted the Armenian vision of Karabakh against the Azerbaijani vision. The nine-point cease-fire provides a template for a newly partitioned Nagorno-Karabakh, largely along the lines of Azerbaijan’s vision.

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For Armenian residents who before the war held an expansive vision of Nagorno-Karabakh territory, this is a bitter new reality. Scores of settlements and dozens of cultural sites previously viewed as part of their homeland are now either controlled by Azerbaijan, or scheduled to come under its control soon. This has a sparked a fearful exodus of Armenians from these areas, with some burning their homes as they depart. Whether cease-fire lines institutionalize a hard or soft partitioning of space is unclear at this point. But new transportation corridors designed to sever Shushi from neighboring Stepanakert suggest hard borders in sensitive locations.

An estimated 100,000 Armenians from Karabakh have recently fled the territory, leaving little more than 30,000 residents left. Many of the displaced may not return, after the trauma of huddling in basements to avoid artillery, drones and cluster bombs. Home will no longer feel like home.

Armenia has in effect lost

Control of Nagorno-Karabakh is central to the national image of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. With the effective defeat of Armenian forces by Azerbaijan, the sentiment surrounding those national images has suddenly shifted. Travelers to Armenia inevitably encounter cartographic images, what scholars term logo-maps, that present the internationally recognized territory of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh as one unitary space, an augmented Armenia.

That image is shattered, and it’s unclear what the implications will be for Armenia. Recriminations against the leadership of Armenia are ongoing — including demands that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan resign.

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But the suddenness of the capitulation of Armenian forces in Karabakh also has shaken Armenians across the world. How all Armenians process this loss — adjusting their image of Armenia to the new realities on the ground or pledging to retake lost territories — remains an open question.

Azerbaijan now claims territorial integrity

The cease-fire will allow Azerbaijan to claim complete territorial integrity, with no concession of any special territorial status for what remains of Armenian Karabakh — though crucial questions remain.

In seeking renewed legitimacy through battlefield glory, Aliyev has unleashed expectations in Azerbaijan of a successful return of all those displaced during the 1988-1994 war to their former homes. But nearly three decades have passed. Most of these homes no longer exist; many once thriving settlements lie in ruins.

Rebuilding ghost towns will be an enormous challenge for the Azerbaijani government. Further, the returns process is likely to be an illiberal one, one where internally displaced people have limited say over the terms of their return (or choice not to return).

Regional strongmen triumphed in 2020

Two outside powers decisively shaped the Karabakh War of 2020: Russia and Turkey. This suggests an era of deals between regional strongmen is returning, with Europe and the United States on the margins.

The introduction of Russian peacekeepers to enforce the new map enhances the Kremlin’s leverage in the South Caucasus. But their mission may prove difficult and entangle Russia in the bitterness of an intractable conflict. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan also enabled the remaking of Karabakh and the South Caucasus.

War can be a brutal cartographer. Authoritarians are once again drawing lines on maps — and everyone else is adjusting.

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Gerard Toal, professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech’s campus in Arlington, is the author of “Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus” (Oxford University Press, 2019) and co-author of “Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal” (Oxford University Press, 2011).