Shpend Kursani (top left) is a Docent / Lecturer in the Institute of Political Science, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Leiden University
Eiki Berg (bottom left) is a Professor of International Relations in the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu
It has been over a month since the conflict between Azerbaijan and the Armenians began over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region run by the Karabakhi Armenians as a de facto independent state but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. While not new, the recent military conflict marks a warm-up of a frozen “no war, no peace situation”, characterised by irregular flare-ups along the Lines of Contact. This one now appears to last longer and with major infrastructural damages and human casualties on both sides of the conflict since the ceasefire agreement of 1994. Azerbaijan has been growing economically and militarily in the past decades, and has been developing military partnerships with two other regional powers, namely Turkey and Israel. For the Karabakhi Armenians, therefore, the ongoing conflict, and perhaps its magnitude, could not have been entirely unexpected. Entities like Nagorno-Karabakh constantly face the unpredictability of their parent state’s actions. More than half of some 30 such de facto independent entities which have emerged at some point after WWII have already been reintegrated back into their parent states’ authorities. The latter have constantly used international norms in order to justify their hostility while taking control over their lost territories.
Liberated/occupied territories in a “land swap” scenario
Mediators to the conflict under the OSCE Minsk Group format, have attempted different diplomatic formulas in the past two and a half decades to resolve the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. However, there has been little readiness from either of the parties to move beyond their hard all-or-nothing stances. One of the solutions, among many others, that has emerged in various points since 1994, has been the idea that Nagorno-Karabakh swaps some of the land it controls in exchange for peace with Azerbaijan.
In a recent article, we have studied the actual possibility of land being exchanged for peace between de facto states and their respective parent states. We did so through an analytical lens which suggested that for “land swap” agreements to be possible in cases of de facto states, there needs to be a right balance struck between, what we have called, crucial and supplementary conditions. Our study came out just a few months before the recent conflict erupted. Our conclusion, including for the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, was that the readiness for de facto states to make territorial compromises in exchange for the recognition of their self-determination claims was low. This is because both tangible and intangible values of respective territories outweigh the potential for peaceful reconciliation.
The conflict’s aftermath and the conditions for a “land swap”
Following closely the ongoing conflict between the Armenians and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, we suggest that the unfavourable alignment of conditions for a land swap deal which existed prior to conflict’s onset, can be altered. The extent and the direction to which these conditions will change will depend on the conflict’s balance in its aftermath. Azerbaijan is already scoring some territorial gains, especially over the Eastern and Southeastern strips of lowlands. Most of these territories are the ones which Nagorno-Karabakh could have surrendered peacefully in exchange for a recognition of its self-determination claim in a “land swap” deal. If the Azeris manage to maintain these lands at the end of the conflict, then there is little that remains to be swapped in terms of territories. But this is difficult to say at the moment as the Karabakhi Armenians could engage, like it has been previously the case, in a counter offensive to take back their lowlands.
Even if the conflict ends with the territorial status quo (i.e., without any gains or losses by any of the sides), we believe that the intensity of the current conflict may play a role in changing parties’ stances on their readiness to struck a deal. This is because Azerbaijan’s assertiveness in this conflict could serve as a signal to the Karabakhi Armenians that they may simply not be able to sustain another offensive in the future by the continuously growing Azeri army with their regional partnerships. What the end of conflict could change, therefore, is the readiness of both parties to recognize the potential that peaceful reconciliation, through a land swap, could outweigh the benefits that both parties, and in this case Nagorno-Karabakh has put on parts of its territories just before this conflict.
For further information on this matter, read the author’s recent article, which can be found here: Land for peace: can territorial adjustments bring about recognition of self-determination claims? (2020) in Territory, Politics, Governance by Shpend Kursani and Eiki Berg (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21622671.2020.1781686)
 Shpend Kursani, “Reconsidering the Contested State in Post-1945 International Relations: An Ontological Approach,” International Studies Review 0, no. 0 (October 16, 2020): 1–27, https://doi.org/10.1093/isr/viaa073.
 Shpend Kursani and Eiki Berg, “Land for Peace: Can Territorial Adjustments Bring about Recognition of Self-Determination Claims?,” Territory, Politics, Governance 0, no. 0 (July 9, 2020): 1–21, https://doi.org/10.1080/21622671.2020.1781686.
 JAMnews, “Maps of the Karabakh Conflict: The Situation on the Ground According to Armenia and Azerbaijan,” English Jamnews (blog), October 25, 2020, https://jam-news.net/maps-of-the-karabakh-conflict-what-happens-what-was-before-armenia-azerbaijan/.
 Richard Giragosian, “Azerbaijan’s next Move Will Make or Break Karabakh War,” Asia Times (blog), October 26, 2020, https://asiatimes.com/2020/10/azerbaijans-next-move-will-make-or-break-karabakh-war/.
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