Nagorno-Karabakh crisis continues as Armenia determined to gain control

If Armenians stay in Karabakh under the Azerbaijani flag, it would represent an exception to the otherwise zero-sum game of territorial control in the region.

The Armenian government is effectively conceding that Armenians will not be able to retain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, paving the way for Azerbaijan to regain full sovereignty over the territory and boding an uncertain future for the area’s current ethnic Armenian residents.

The concession has not been made explicitly, but rather via a conspicuous shift in official rhetoric from Yerevan.

After Azerbaijan in mid-March offered a new framework for resolving the conflict, which included a mutual recognition of the territorial integrity of both countries – which would in effect mean Armenia recognizing Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh – Armenia said it did not object, adding only that it also expected some “guarantee of the rights and freedoms” of the Armenians living there.

“For us, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not a territorial issue, but a matter of rights,” Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said.

That followed statements in recent months that were less explicit, but in the same vein, by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. He has emphasized that the United Nations recognizes Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and said the rights of the former Azerbaijani residents of the region had to be respected.

For decades, the question of Karabakh’s status – whether it would be controlled by Armenians or Azerbaijanis – has been the core sticking point between the two sides. Both sides have presented it in nearly existential terms, with what diplomats working on the issue call “mutually exclusive positions and completely contrary narratives.”

The recent shift in rhetoric amounts to a concession that Yerevan will not be able to secure a status for Karabakh outside Azerbaijan, but “in a way vague enough to be acceptable to the general public,” said one Yerevan-based analyst, speaking to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Officially, Yerevan denies that it is conceding anything. “Armenia’s position is that the status of Nagorno-Karabakh should be discussed and it should consider ensuring all the rights of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “Saying ‘all’ means including their right to self-determination as well.”

It’s not clear what the shift would mean for the roughly 150,000 ethnic Armenians who had been living in Karabakh since Armenian forces won control of the territory in a war in the 1990s. Until the 2020 war, in which Azerbaijan retook most of that territory, Baku had been saying it was willing to offer some sort of special autonomous status for the region as long as Armenians recognized it as Azerbaijani territory.