Conflict is an inevitable reality of political territorialism and sovereignty of nations. Political theory dictates that the material basis of a state is based on two elements population and territory. Innumerable theories have dictated, most notably Machiavellian theories, that the tendency to expand and acquire new territory is the marker of a healthy state. However, with each state having expansionist tendencies, conflict and violence becomes an unavoidable conclusion. The aftermath of the World Wars, however, managed to establish peace as the goal. Regardless, in domestic interests and often due to the irrefutable cultural histories associated with its resident ethnicities, nations continue to fail to agree upon international borders. These disputed territories consequently assume problematic dimensions as an issue affecting not only two parties but also regional stability and economic prosperity. Oftentimes, agreements brokered or negotiated between the two conflicting factions or territories become a welcome respite to the constant violence and war affecting such regions. However, in retrospect and on further analysis, peace treaties may not turn out to be as successful as they seem at face value and sometimes it is just a façade for the subjugation of one at the hands of the other. It is in light of these observations, that the Bishkek Protocol is hence analysed.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
The Nagorno-Karabakh Region that is legally located in Azerbaijan is at the crux of the dispute that the Bishkek Protocol sought to de-escalate. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous region, consisting of a 95% Armenian population, within the territory of Azerbaijan. The Stalin Government managed to successfully prevent and deal away with a firm hand any territorial skirmishes or unrest that arose between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the area of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia refers to as Artsakh.
However, with the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its intentions to join Armenia despite being a part of the legal territory of Azerbaijan and later declared independence as the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh. With the Soviet Union no longer existent to keep disputes in check, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated to the point of violence. War erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region, leaving roughly 30,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees. By 1993, Armenia controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied 20 percent of the surrounding Azerbaijani territory. In 1994, Russia brokered a cease-fire which has remained in place since.
The Bishkek Protocol
The Bishkek Protocol is the aforementioned provisional ceasefire agreement that was brokered by Russia with the aim of de-escalating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 1994 at Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.
A Brief Timeline
Before a Protocol for ceasefire could ever have been conceived, Azerbaijan had previously shown no intent of compromising on its stand or committing to any semblance of peace agreements. Owing to its unbeaten military power as compared to that of the Republic of Artsakh as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan had aimed to resolve the conflict through military power alone. However, it was only in 1994 when the Artsakh defence forces managed to successfully repel and consequently undermine Azerbaijan’s military prowess, that the conditions for any agreement came into fruition.
Although a number of temporary ceasefires were negotiated prior to the Bishkek Protocol, these were used merely as instruments to temporarily escape conflict and recover from the damages of war before resuming cross-border disruptions.
On May 5, 1994, on the occasion of the CIS Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict was up for discussion, and a Protocol for Ceasefire, that is, the Bishkek Protocol, was subsequently signed and it came into force on May 12, 1994. However, the indefinite nature of the agreement was confirmed through an additional agreement signed on July 27-28, 1994, and it was the indefinite nature of the ceasefire regime that essentially distinguished it from the previous ceasefire agreements that had turned out to be ineffectual.
The signatories to the Bishkek Protocol were all stakeholders in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are as follows,
In summary, the provisions of the Bishkek Protocol sought to achieve three things:
Although the purpose of the Bishkek Protocol was to ensure an indefinite ceasefire until the resolution of the Artsakh dispute, that has not prevented the simmering of tensions in the region and skirmishes in the same area.
In 2016, Azerbaijan escalated low-level tensions into full-scale war in a move that was widely criticized by international observers. Commonly termed as the April War or the Four-Day War, the escalation caused civilian casualties on both sides. Azerbaijan claimed that it had taken back around 2000 acres of its territory—a claim which Armenia denied.Azerbaijan suffered losses to its military power and thereafter, asked the Russian Federation to mediate. Russia, for its part, called for restraint on both sides.
Although, this flagrant violation of the Bishkek Protocol was met with strict censure internationally, all the same, each breach of the Protocol has the effect of undermining its existence. Perhaps, realizing so, internationally, there were calls for strict adherence to the Bishkek Protocol in order to ensure stability in the South Caucasus region.
The Bishkek Protocol: A Critical Evaluation
Undoubtedly, the Bishkek Protocol has played an indispensable role in protecting peace in the South Caucasus region for 25 years, but whether this peace is illusory and transient or lasting is an uncomfortable question that is probably better unasked. Politically motivated actions often have unintended long-lasting effects. Stalin’s allocation of the Armenian population to the Nagorno-Karabakh region and his inclusion of the region within the geographical boundaries of Azerbaijan in order to preserve Russian interests effected, in essence, a domino effect whose conclusion is a frozen conflict half a century later.
It is noteworthy, that the primary aims of the Protocol have not yet been achieved. Apart from the ceasefire provisions, there has been no demilitarisation or return of Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenia, nor has there been the promised return of refugees. Furthermore, the dispute has been frozen in time with no signs of its resolution regardless of the meetings conducted thereafter. Azerbaijan’s behaviour has demonstrated that it is waiting for the opportunity to take back its geographical territory from Armenia. Further complicating the situation is Russia’s involvement in the issue. Russia is the primary arms supplier to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In fact, in this political limbo, the only beneficiary is Russia. As the Nagorno-Karabakh region belongs to neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan in the conflict (effectively functioning as the Republic of Artsakh), Russia has no need to incur expenditure in maintaining the status quo which allows it to keep its other stronger South Caucasus neighbours such as Iran at a safe distance. In fact, Russian presence in Armenia is primarily, in the current scenario, to protect against Turkish aggression. Moreover, owing to the frozen status of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Russia need not protect its interests and act on its support of Armenia which is heavily reliant on Russia for its military power.
If one were to analyse the effects of the Bishkek Protocol, it would seem that the only real success of the protocol has been in brokering a peace profiting Russia without resolving the real Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict or promoting any of their political, cultural, or economic interests. Instead, the Protocol, undermined at will through skirmishes and breaches, has unintentionally plunged the region into a winter of uneasy tension, albeit de-escalated. One may, hence, wonder, whether it would have been the lesser of two evils to affect a resolution of the conflict with minimal violence than allow for an illusory peace Protocol to draw out same levels of violence for almost half a century.
The Bishkek Protocol is one of many such international treaties and protocols that maintain the delicate power balance in the world. However, from the foregone analysis, certain questions arise such as whether the Protocol served its purpose or not, and to what extent did it benefit the parties that it was essentially intended for. Furthermore, would a scenario without the Protocol be preferable to the one at hand. Although it might to be tempting to take this stand, only those who have known the cost of war know the cost of peace. An objective retrospective analysis may deem the costs of war to be less than that of illusory peace, nevertheless, the stability accorded to the region by the implementation of the Bishkek Protocol cannot simply be overlooked. It must be given its due importance despite the costs of sustaining a frozen conflict in which a third party is the principal beneficiary.
“Si vis pacem, para bellum”
(If you want peace, prepare for war)
Global Conflict Tracker, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Council on Foreign Relations (Jun. 29, 2019, 4:48 PM), https://www.cfr.org/interactive/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/nagorno-karabakh-conflict.
Masis Mayilian, The Nagorno-Karabakh Ceasefire at 25, The National Interest (Jun.29, 2019, 5.00 PM), https://nationalinterest.org/feature/nagorno-karabakh-cease-fire-25-57522.
BBC News, Nagarno-Karabakh violence: Worst clashes in decades kill dozens, BBC (Jun. 30, 2019, 10:55 AM), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35949991.
Submitted by Anomitra Debnath