A Year On – Roundup of Postwar Karabakh Developments
If you’d fallen asleep in 2020 and just woke up, you'd have missed much more than the Covid-19 pandemic. Most importantly, huge changes following the 44-day war of October-November 2020 geopolitically reset the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict that had, for so long, seemed insoluble. Now a year on, the Caspian Post sums up the key developments over the 12 months that followed in a ‘catch up’ video.
A year ago, on November 8, 2020, Azerbaijani troops took full control of Shusha after a two-day battle. It was the culmination of a 44-day war in which Azerbaijan essentially retook (partly by force, partly by agreement) the entire swathe of land that had been under Armenian occupation since the 1990s.
The reverberations of the conflict, including the innovative use of low-cost, hi-tech drones, have left strategists around the globe rethinking the arts of modern warcraft.
In Azerbaijan, the victory was the source of national celebrations. November 8th has since been declared a national “Victory Day” holiday.
The date is now used as the name of a new Baku metro station and has replaced Nobel as the title of the large seafront thoroughfare that heads east around Baku Bay.
For Armenia, the loss was a big psychological reversal which looked set to bring down the reformist Pashinyan government.
However, although returning to Azerbaijani sovereignty, a part of what had once been the self-declared republic of Nagorno Karabakh remained under de-facto ethnic-Armenian self-governance from Khankendi (Stepanakert to Armenians) - with Russian peacekeepers deployed temporarily in the now-de-occupied regions.
A snap election gave Armenians an unofficial referendum on whether or not to accept, however grudgingly, the Russian mediated ceasefire agreement of November 10 signed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Pashinyan won the vote.
In returned areas outside of the area guarded by Russian peacekeepers, ethnic Armenians almost unanimously decided to leave their villages for either Khankendi or Armenia, some burning their homes and cutting down orchards as they left.
Many other villages, and indeed whole cities like Aghdam, had been uninhabited for almost 30 years and left in skeletal ruins since the First Karabakh War.
This, along with a great many landmines, meant that any optimism among Azerbaijanis hoping for a swift return to their long-lost homes would have to wait a while.
Post-war, among several early diplomatic spats, one high-profile tussle was for Baku to gain access to a series of landmine maps from Yerevan, ensuring the safety of the de-occupied zone more quickly.
Eventually, some of these maps were handed over as Baku released several Armenian soldiers accused of terrorism for crossing the ceasefire line after the end of hostilities.
It was a swap in all but name. The demarcation process for that borderline has proved problematic, not least because there are stretches of a major road that cut to and fro across the line.
This is just one of numerous issues that have been under discussion as the former belligerents work towards opening transport links between them, restarting cross-border trade, ensuring a corridor linking Azerbaijan proper to its Nakhichevan exclave and reopening the Armenia-Turkey border that has been closed since 1992.
In the meantime, a massive series of infrastructure projects has been kick-started to prime both the physical and economic conditions necessary for an eventual return of Azerbaijani former residents to the region.
This includes a new highway and an international airport at Fizuli, built in double-quick time and already inaugurated. Culturally too, the region has seen the first sparks of a revival. While there is much to be done, and several of Shusha’s historic buildings remain in ruins, others have been restored, and the city hosted a handful of festivals during the year.
For now, the audiences have been chiefly invited from Baku and other regions as the city’s infrastructure has yet to be fully restored.
However, in future years, the festivals should grow as the residents return, and Shusha rises once again to be a symbol – not of a great battle but of a long, proud cultural heritage.