Ceasefire 20: Two decades of ‘neither war, nor peace’ after cessation of Karabakh hostilities

May 12 marked the 20th anniversary of the establishment of ceasefire in the Karabakh conflict zone that put an end to hostilities and bloodshed in a war that lasted for nearly three years.

But after two decades of the “neither war, nor peace” state, the still simmering conflict continues to hang as a sword of Damocles over the heads of the peoples in the region.

The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that originated still at the beginning of the 20th century, but was ‘frozen’ during the Soviet period, burst out in 1988, devouring thousands of lives, whose blood has drawn the current borders in the region.

In the active phase of the conflict that lasted from 1988 to 1994, including the 1992-1994 military operations, the Armenian side, including the armed forces of Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh defense army and self-defense units, lost 6,500 lives. According to the data released by official Baku in January 2014, the number of victims on the Azerbaijani side was 11,557. But still back in 1993, Azerbaijan’s then President Heydar Aliyev spoke about 16,000 victims. And in February 2007 a number of Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations and experts reported about 24,000 victims and 4,000 missing soldiers.

Ruined towns and villages, displaced people, distorted fates, but also a liberated homeland and achieved independence… Finally, a cease-fire agreement was reached in May 1994. The document signed first in Bishkek between representatives of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan with Russia’s mediation and then reaffirmed in Moscow marked the beginning of a new period of tensions – a war of nerves.

On May 5, 1994, in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, heads of the parliamentary structures of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh signed what later became known as the Bishkek protocol that called for a ceasefire beginning on May 9. The same day, the Russian president’s authorized representative to Nagorno-Karabakh Vladimir Kazimirov arranged a ceasefire agreement for an indefinite period of time that was signed by Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Mamedrafi Mamedov; on May 10, in Yerevan, it was signed by Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sargsyan, and on May 11, in Nagorno-Karabakh it was signed by Nagorno-Karabakh Army Commander Samvel Babayan. The written ceasefire agreement entered into force on May 12, at midnight.

Many believe that the absence of major hostilities between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh in the past 20 years is the one single big achievement of international mediation set up to broker a durable solution to the conflict.

But nearly 20 years after the conclusion of the agreement the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in its annual report for 2013, acknowledged that the search for a lasting political settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains “one of the most complex challenges” in the OSCE region.

“Despite the declaration of a ceasefire in 1994, shooting incidents in the area are frequent and violations of the ceasefire are reported on an almost daily basis. Five civilians and 32 servicemen were reported shot and wounded in 2013 and another 14 servicemen killed. In that same period, Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk’s team visited the Line of Contact 16 times, and the border nine times,” the OSCE report released earlier this month said.

Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan says that the 1994 ceasefire agreement was important for Armenia, but he regrets that it is not viable and has not become a full legal document.

“Our decisions and opinions are always the same: we want peace and we have always advocated this position. It would be good if the opponent also had this approach,” says Hovhannisyan, noting with regret that after the signing of the ceasefire agreement the Armenian side has annually had up to a dozen victims because of violations by the Azerbaijani side.

“However strange it may be, but the opponent has forgotten that in 1994 it was the one that asked for the ceasefire, we have the copies of that appeal,” the Defense Ministry spokesman added.

Years ago former Russian co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group Vladimir Kazimorov wrote about this on the Russian Regnum news agency’s website. He said that Azerbaijan’s then Parliament Chairman Rasil Guliyev, Deputy Chairman Afiyatdin Jalilov stated in Moscow and Bishkek that it was urgently necessary to sign a ceasefire agreement. According to Kazimirov, in 1994 Baku was only thinking about how to keep Terter and Barda to stop the Armenians from reaching the Kur river.

Till today many in Armenia continue to insist that the ceasefire agreement was the first concession made by the Armenian side as it was more necessary for Azerbaijan that had found itself by that time in a state of utter decay and its military had been totally demoralized after suffering a number of heavy defeats. Many also believe that the Armenian military, despite the shortage of manning and material resources, had fulfilled its tasks and, but for that agreement, the Armenian units would have had much more favorable positions on the ground today and Azerbaijan would have been compelled to sign a pro-Armenian peace deal.

Political analyst Tigran Abrahamyan thinks that war is still not the way for settling the conflict and from this viewpoint alone concluding the ceasefire agreement was necessary and important for all parties. By that time, says Abrahamyan, the conflict had taken huge resources from both Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as from Nagorno-Karabakh where major problems had been accumulated as well.

“The signing of the agreement established relative peace in the region, which, however, was not yet a guarantee against renewed hostilities. Nevertheless, the agreement allowed the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to shift the settlement process onto the field of peaceful negotiations,” said the analyst.

Director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies Manvel Sargsyan, who in 1992-95 was Karabakh’s permanent representative to Armenia and in 1994 was also advisor to the NKR foreign minister and participated in the post-war negotiations, says the war has never ended, as it started still with Turkey and will probably continue indefinitely. According to him, the Armenians just managed to stop that war for some time.

“We were able to create the most important thing – the army. We managed to keep the balance on the basis of the army power, which is very essential. It is an unprecedented situation in the history of Armenia when we managed to defend ourselves. If you allow another party to enter the territory, they will disarm you and you won’t be able to do anything,” says Sargsyan.

According to Armenian political analysts, the number of ceasefire violations along the Line of Contact increases and decreases depending on Azerbaijan’s attempts to show to the international community that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not frozen. Besides, they say, by committing violations Azerbaijan also tries to overcome the moral and psychological problems that emerged in the country after the end of the war. Observers find that before the ultimate solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Azerbaijan’s aggressive behavior will not cease and that in such conditions Armenia needs to create effective mechanisms of defense.

“Already for two decades our army and the entire Armenian people have lived in a state of ‘neither war, nor peace’, it is a particularly difficult situation for any army and for every soldier and officer taken separately. But during this whole period our army has fulfilled its mission with honor,” Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said in his congratulatory address on the occasion of Army Day marked on January 28.