Speaking at an international event on November 27, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said: “We are entering a new stage, a stage of reconstruction and rehabilitation, a stage of restoration of peaceful co-existence.” While it is hard to reconcile this statement with a wide array of political and security issues that are left to linger in the immediate aftermath of the Second Karabakh War, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as merely a political rhetoric. This statement reflects official Baku’s strategic thinking and sense of direction in the post-war period.
The Russian-brokered agreement of 9/10 November and the subsequent deployment of a Russian peacekeeping contingent in parts of Karabakh region provided the necessary hard security guarantees and ensured that the sides avoid direct military confrontation. Although this agreement was much more than just a ceasefire, it certainly is not a peace agreement either. Rather, the agreement, despite its flaws, should be regarded as a hard security foundation on which future efforts aimed at stabilization and normalization can be built. Or, as scholar Laurence Broers expressed in a recent interview, “[the Russian-brokered agreement] is more about the hard arrangements…You need a lot of ‘soft infrastructure’ around that for it to be viable.“
This “soft infrastructure” that needs to complement the hard security arrangements covers wide-ranging issues, including humanitarian assistance, socio-economic development, peacebuilding and governance. Within the limitations of this paper, I will discuss only some of the most pressing humanitarian and development needs concerning post-war recovery in Karabakh in the near- to mid-term (i.e. the first five years).
The main argument I make in this paper is somewhat self-evident, but requires clear expression and fleshing out: in order to be effective and contribute to sustainable socio-economic development and political stabilisation in the region, the relief, reconstruction and recovery assistance in Karabakh should pursue a comprehensive strategy based on the post-war reality on the ground and integrate shorter-term humanitarian and longer-term developmental assistance to both Armenian and Azerbaijani populations of Karabakh.
1. Context: A New Status Quo
Before discussing specific issues and policies pertaining to relief, reconstruction and recovery in Karabakh, it is important to note that all of these efforts will take place in the context of heavy militarisation and consolidation of ethnic partition within the broader Karabakh region. Given the ongoing security concerns, the Azerbaijani Army will retain its heavy presence in all territories over which it recently regained control. Although the 9/10 November agreement prescribed the withdrawal of Armenian forces in parallel with the deployment of Russian peacekeepers, a large Armenian military force is likely to remain in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, at least in the immediate term, disguised as local “Artsakh forces”. (NB: This paper uses the outdated term “Nagorno-Karabakh” for practical convenience, to refer to the administrative boundaries of the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, NKAR.)
Unable to resolve the final status immediately, the sides are likely to postpone its resolution to an indefinite future, while choosing to gradually normalise relations in other less intractable areas. Despite a degree of normalisation, this arrangement will result in two “Karabakhs”: an Azerbaijani-administered Karabakh under direct Azerbaijani sovereignty, with an Azerbaijani-majority population (including near-future returnees) and no Russian peacekeeping presence; and an Armenian-administered Karabakh, populated almost exclusively by ethnic Armenians, with an unclear status within Azerbaijan, where (local) Armenian self-proclaimed and self-governing structures are likely to continue to exist, under a watchful eye of the Russian peacekeepers.
Despite inevitable ethnic partition, we should also consider important positive aspects of a new status quo post bellum in Karabakh. The most important positive aspect is that, contrary to some initial assessments, the Karabakh conflict will not be simply “re-frozen”, but rather will transform into a less violent, or perhaps even non-violent, political dispute with inter-state (Armenia-Azerbaijan), intra-state (Azerbaijan-Karabakh Armenians) and inter-communal (ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis within Karabakh) dimensions. Some early signs of such conflict transformation can already be seen in the recent joint efforts at demarcation and delimitation of Armenia-Azerbaijan international border in Kalbajar district, when Armenian and Azerbaijani servicemen – grudgingly, but non-violently – carried out some initial border demarcations (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This was the first time the sides resolved their territorial disputes peacefully and was an unprecedented phenomenon since the two countries regained independence in 1991. This important development signals that the sides are likely to engage in some form of new peaceful modus vivendi in the months and years to come, despite lingering territorial and political disputes.
2. Priority Humanitarian and Early Recovery Issues in Post-War Karabakh
Based on the available secondary data, the following priority areas for the near-term relief and recovery can be identified.
Demining is one of the most pressing humanitarian concerns in the post-war Karabakh. It is also distinctly pertinent to the territories regained by Azerbaijan, because most of the hostilities took place in these territories. Even before the war, the entire 200-km-long contact line was heavily mined by both sides. During the war and in the immediate aftermath, as the Armenian forces retreated, they left behind new mines and booby-traps.
It is no surprise therefore, that only days after the war ended, several Azerbaijani civilians, especially those who impatiently returned to see their native homes, fell victims of landmines. A total of five civilians were killed and four (including two sappers) were wounded due to mine explosions in three separate incidents on 2 November in Mehdili, Jabrayil district; 14 November in Alkhanli and 28 November in Ashagy Seyidahmedli, both in Fizuli district. Following the latter accident, Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued a joint warning calling on citizens to avoid travelling to the recently de-occupied territories for the time being.
ANAMA, Azerbaijan’s mine action agency, estimates it may take up to 15 years to completely clear the territories returned to the Azerbaijani control from landmines.
As such, the international donors and aid actors should offer priority support for mine surveys and humanitarian demining as part of a comprehensive strategy for supporting a return to normal life.
2.2. Displacement, Return and Shelter
The following five broad population groups of concern can be identified:
- Ethnic Armenian residents of Karabakh, internally displaced within the region;
- Ethnic Armenian residents of Karabakh, displaced into Armenia and not willing or unable to return in the foreseeable future;
- Ethnic Armenian residents of Karabakh, who were directly affected by the war (damaged property, loss of a livelihood source etc.), but remain in their places of habitual residence;
- Ethnic Azerbaijanis, who choose to return early to previously occupied territories (formerly displaced early returnees);
- Ethnic Azerbaijani residents of frontline areas, who were directly affected by the war (damaged property, loss of a livelihood source etc.), but remain in their places of habitual residence.
2.2.1. Ethnic Armenian Population of Concern
Ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh has been particularly affected by the outcome of the war. At the height of the war, Armenian sources claimed some 90,000 out of 150,000 inhabitants had to flee Karabakh (Azerbaijan disputes these numbers as exaggerated, saying the total number of Armenian civilians in pre-war Karabakh was not more than 65,000). According to Russian peacekeepers, as of 3 December, app. 30,000 Armenians have returned to Karabakh from Armenia.
In addition, Armenian sources claim some 25,000 ethnic Armenians were displaced from parts of Karabakh, which were militarily retaken by the Azerbaijani Army and thus, face unclear prospects of return. Majority of these displaced are from Hadrut and other parts of Khojavend district, as well as villages north-east of Agdere (Talish, Sugovushan), where local ethnic Armenians have traditionally lived. It is also likely that this number includes ethnic Armenians from Armenia and Diaspora, who settled in these territories over the last 27 years (particularly, in parts of Agdam, Zangilan, Gubadli, Kalbajar and Lachin districts), incentivised by politically-motivated assistance programmes of the Armenian government and Diaspora organisations.
The ethnic Armenians displaced either internally within Karabakh or externally to Armenia are currently the most vulnerable group in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. The arrival of winter season makes provision of shelter, winter clothing, blankets and other necessary items more urgent. Currently, these needs are partially met by the Russian peacekeeping contingent and the so-called Inter-agency Centre for Humanitarian Response, run by the Russian Ministry of Emergencies. ICRC has also announced it plans to significantly scale up its operations in Karabakh in the near future.
2.2.2. Ethnic Azerbaijani Population of Concern
In a twist of fate, the outlook now seems more hopeful for the vast number of Azerbaijani displaced. Over 600,000 Azerbaijani IDPs will be able to return to their original homes. As such, Azerbaijan will no longer be characterised as a country with “one of the highest concentrations of IDPs per capita in the world.”
Creating conditions for speedy return of IDPs will be a priority task for the Azerbaijani Government in the next several years. Azerbaijani experts say it may take 3-5 years for people to be able to return in significant numbers, pending demining and reconstruction of basic physical infrastructure.
However, it should be understood that the return of Azerbaijani IDPs will be an uneven and phased process and will have different levels of complexity, depending on the local geography and political-security context.
In the first phase, government will aim at ensuring conditions for sustainable return to lower Karabakh – Agdam, Fizuli, Jabrayil – and further on to Gubadli and Zangilan. These areas are geographically contiguous to the rest of Azerbaijan and will be easily reintegrated.
In the second phase, return to Shusha, Lachin and Kalbajar will be carried out. Reintegration of Lachin and Kalbajar is likely to be more challenging process given their mountainous terrain and geographic detachment from the rest of Azerbaijan by the Murov mountain range in the north and a strip of Armenian-controlled territory of Karabakh to the east. Reintegration of Shusha will be a major national project, and significant government resources have already been allocated for this purpose. But as official Baku admitted recently, it will take at least 1.5 years to complete a new Fizuli-Shusha road, which will provide an Azerbaijani-controlled road link between Shusha and the “mainland” and thus, will enable the safe return of civilians to the city.
Unlike ethnic Armenian displaced groups in need of immediate humanitarian assistance, the Azerbaijani IDPs and returnees will need to be supported primarily by longer-term developmental programmes (e.g. rebuilding infrastructure, stimulating public employment, capacity-building for local governments etc.).
The only vulnerable group of Azerbaijani civilians in need of immediate humanitarian assistance are the communities, which lived in direct proximity to the frontline areas, whose houses and properties have been either destroyed or significantly damaged. This particularly applies to the population of heavily shelled Terter town (population app. 20,000) and some smaller villages in Terter, Agdam, Fizuli and Goranboy districts.
During the war, tens of thousands of Azerbaijani civilians had to flee the areas adjacent to the contact line due to intense shelling, which did not spare civilian areas. Some still live in temporary shelters, unable to return due to destruction of their houses. In some areas, gas distribution networks have been damaged, leaving people without natural gas on the eve of the winter season. For the most part, the needs of these population groups are currently being met by the Azerbaijani Government and/or citizen volunteer groups. Based on the preliminary available data, the most pressing needs of this vulnerable group are construction materials, fuel and medicines.
2.3. Food Security and Poverty
Food security will be a major concern that soon will be felt acutely not only in Armenian-populated parts of Karabakh, but in Armenia itself. As Artur Khachatryan, former Armenian agriculture minister recently said, of 200,000 tons of wheat that Armenia produced yearly, 150,000 (75%) was produced in Karabakh (mainly in lowland areas). Considering that Armenia was a net importer of wheat, this loss will be a further burden to the state budget, as the government will have to import even more wheat from abroad (mainly from Russia). The economic adjustment is likely to be distressing for the general public in the next several years.
Unless the sides choose to open up transport communications and trade, the existing barriers to supply of food in Armenian-populated parts of Karabakh, as well as in remote hard-to-reach Azerbaijani-controlled parts of Karabakh – in Kalbajar, rural Lachin and Shusha (pending the construction of a new road) will only serve to increase the extent of the problem.
2.4. Physical Infrastructure
Degree of infrastructural destruction varies greatly across Karabakh. The physical infrastructure is relatively intact in most of the Armenian-populated parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, although a number of civilian buildings have been damaged during the war. Contrary to initial Armenian claims of widespread destruction of captured towns and villages inside Nagorno-Karabakh, subsequent body of evidence showed that the Azerbaijani Army had taken control of these settlements in such a manner, so as to minimise damage to the civilian buildings and infrastructure, as evidenced from multiple video footage from Hadrut, Shusha, and other villages (2, 3, 4).
By contrast, the scale of destruction in most of the areas around Nagorno-Karabakh is hard to overestimate. Entire Azerbaijani towns and villages have been systematically looted and razed to the ground, most popularly symbolised by the ghost town of Agdam, dubbed “the Hiroshima of the Caucasus”. The level of infrastructure damage was further aggravated by the fact that the Armenian military and civilians deliberately destroyed property – burning houses and buildings, tearing down the electricity poles etc. – prior to their departure from Agdam, Kalbajar and Lachin districts.
President Aliyev said on 1 December the Azerbaijani government is soon to start appraisal of the material damage caused by nearly three decades of Armenian occupation. Initial estimates of such damage range from 100 billion USD to 1.3 trillion USD.
Rebuilding of physical infrastructure – roads, housing, schools, health facilities, sanitation (water provision, waste disposal, sewage), energy and telecommunications – to revitalise the de-occupied territories will be a colossal task. To cope with this enormous challenge, Azerbaijan will need significant international developmental assistance, low interest loans and infrastructural investments in the years to come.
3. Conflict Sensitivity Considerations
Effective delivery of humanitarian and developmental assistance in post-war Karabakh will inevitably be tainted by a highly politicised environment, given that the sides will continue disputing the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh and will instrumentalise the issue of return of their respective displaced populations to this end.
In such highly charged context, the humanitarian and developmental actors, as well as non-aid actors (e.g. UNESCO), planning to operate in Karabakh will need to develop a comprehensive and conflict-sensitive strategy. This strategy should be framed around the following principle: successful post-war recovery in Karabakh should go beyond providing humanitarian aid, rebuilding infrastructure and social resilience within the affected communities. It should have an overarching theme of laying the foundations for longer-term socio-economic development in such a way that would minimise the chances for future generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis waging yet another brutal war.
From a political standpoint, Azerbaijani Government’s primary concern will be to assert its political sovereignty in all of Karabakh, including – even if symbolically – in Armenian-dominated areas. Official Baku would be more inclined to accept greater presence of international aid actors in Nagorno-Karabakh, if it is convinced that such presence would not constitute a threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty, and would not be misused as a “backdoor” for empowerment and legitimation of local separatist forces. Therefore, the aid actors should ensure that their programming does not serve – overtly or inadvertently – to empower or entrench the Armenian separatist leadership.
From a societal standpoint, focusing bulk of international humanitarian aid primarily on Karabakh Armenians, – while justified from a purely needs perspective, – may create a distorted perception among Azerbaijanis that international humanitarian actors neglect the Azerbaijani civilians. So, the aid actors will need to carefully balance their programming and public messaging to ensure their work is properly understood and accepted by the host societies. Particularly, assistance to Azerbaijani frontline communities, which have suffered from the effects of the war, as well as the displaced communities wishing to return to their former native towns and villages would help alleviate potential misperceptions about unbalanced assistance to various affected populations.
The aid organisations should also avoid clustering their physical presence in one place, e.g. the regional capital Khankendi. Offices should be opened and staff should be deployed in various locations across Karabakh, including in Khankendi, Shusha, Agdere and/or Khojavend in “Nagorno-Karabakh”; Lachin and/or Kalbajar in “western Karabakh” and Agdam and/or Fizuli in “lower Karabakh”. Such de-centralised approach would ensure that the aid agencies are better informed, connected and more responsive to their beneficiary populations. (And relatively short distances should not be a hindrance to convening for regular coordination meetings, e.g. in Khankendi and Shusha.)
Localisation, i.e. hiring staff from the local communities, should also be given importance. This would enable local acceptance, would allow tapping into local knowledge in assessing and effectively responding to issues, and would also help build local social capital. The Azerbaijani Government and the international agencies alike should treat local communities, including the early Azerbaijani returnees, which will be highly motivated to re-establish themselves in their places of habitual residence, as “first responders” and partners in the post-war recovery effort.
4. Moving Forward: Normalisation through Building Positive Inter-dependencies
The geographic focus of this paper on the wider Karabakh region, rather than on an outdated notion of Nagorno-Karabakh, was not accidental and served a purpose. From the development perspective, the wider Karabakh region, with its upland and lowland parts, is more than just an area affected by war. Karabakh represents a geography, which can sustainably develop and become a prosperous region only if its two integral parts – upland and lowland areas – are closely intertwined in a socio-economic web of joint production, open transport communication and free trade.
President Aliyev, in his 1 December address, stressed the importance of geographic attachment in shaping the future of Karabakh: “How long will a trip from the capital of Armenia to Khankandi take? Perhaps ten hours by car…through mountain roads. From Agdam to Khankandi, it will take half an hour. This will precondition our future prospects.“
In defending this point, I am not denying a possibility of existence of an autonomous political entity within the wider Karabakh region. Rather, the point I want to make is that political arrangements – whichever institutional shape they take in the future – should not create hindrance for positive socio-economic linkages and inter-dependencies within the broader region.
To promote such linkages and inter-depencies, the following areas should be prioritised by the Azerbaijani Government, international donors and aid actors:
4.1. Opening of Communications
The critical transport links that already exist and if re-opened – with adequate security guarantees by both sides – would represent “small cost, big value” projects in Karabakh include the following:
- Shusha-Khankendi-Agdam highway;
- Terter-Agdere-Kalbajar highway;
- Agdere-Drombon-Vardenis highway.
In addition, the Azerbaijani Government has announced start of several important transport infrastructure projects, which will jumpstart rehabilitation of the war-torn territories. These include:
- Fizuli-Shusha highway, 101.5 km;
- Terter-Sugovushan highway, 10 km;
- Barda-Agdam railway, app. 50km;
- Horadiz-Minjivan-Armenian border highway; app. 70km,
- Repair of high-mountain roads across the Murov mountain range into Kalbajar.
In the near- to mid-term perspective (next 2-5 years), Azerbaijan also plans to undertake the following transport projects, as derived from the 9/10 November agreement:
- Restoration of highway and railway between “mainland” Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan exclave via Armenia;
- Alternative land-based corridor and highway for safe Armenian passage bypassing Lachin town.
In the context of re-opening of transport communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the restoration and re-opening of the Ijevan-Agstafa railway would also be an important transformative project, greatly benefiting Armenia.
Opening of transport links within the broader Karabakh region and between Armenia and Azerbaijan (and also, between Armenia and Turkey) would have enormous positive effect in terms of alleviating short-term food insecurity in parts of Karabakh and in Armenia, developing trade and enhancing peaceful social interactions.
4.2. Agriculture and Tourism: Key Productive Sectors
Longer-term development assistance and investment in Karabakh should prioritise agriculture and tourism, since these two sectors have the biggest potental for spurring sustainable growth.
In terms of agriculture, the region’s fertile soil provides great potential for producing grain, grapes, cotton, fruits and vegetables and offer favourable conditions for cattle breeding. Investment in repairing the irrigation infrastructure, vineyard restoration, supporting the development of environmentally-friendly organic agriculture for local food producers and other similar developmental projects would be highly effective and profitable. The government and aid actors should prioritise small local food producers, including from among the returnee populations.
In terms of tourism, Karabakh’s magnificent nature, rich historical heritage and even much talked-about recent war experience are likely to serve as magnets for both regional (from “mainland” Azerbaijan and Armenia) and international tourists. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that, if Armenia and Azerbaijan succeed in normalising their relations, Karabakh may witness a tourist boom in a short period of time. This would spur the economic development of the region by bringing a constant flow of foreign currency, creating new service jobs for local populations and attracting further investment to local infrastructure. Turning Karabakh from a conflict into a tourism hotspot would also help transform the inter-ethnic dynamics between local Armenian and Azerbaijani communities by providing them socio-economic incentives for maintaining stability.
As with agriculture, the government and international donors should prioritise people over profits, by developing – at least initially – Karabakh’s tourism in such a manner, so as to primarily benefit local population and smaller businesses, rather than large tourist operators.
This paper does not share the view expressed recently by some experts, who suggested the Karabakh conflict will simply “re-freeze” after the 9/10 November agreement. Defining the post-war situation in Karabakh simply as a “frozen conflict” fails to appreciate the complex political, social and economic transformations that are taking place and will take place in the near future, which will change the outlook of the region – not only within Karabakh, but more widely between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Considering these profound transformations that will be seen more clearly in the near future, the international community – the international donors, aid and development agencies – can and should play a major positive role in ensuring that they contribute their share in post-war reconstruction and socio-economic recovery. As I argued in this paper, the overarching theme of all these external interventions – relief, developmental, peacebuilding etc. – should be laying the foundations for longer-term socio-economic development in Karabakh in such a way that would help avoid a relapse into conflict in the future.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author and the source.