All Azerbaijani Captives Returned Under Karabakh Deal, While Some Armenian Captives Still Await Return

As of January 18th, 2021, Armenia has returned all Azerbaijani prisoners from the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The six-week struggle last year ended with a ceasefire agreement initiated by Russia, says Reuters. An end to the violence required both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces to exchange all prisoners. However, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov reports that progress has stalled on the return of Armenian prisoners. Armenia claims many of its prisoners remain in Azerbaijan well after the 2020 conflict ended. Lavrov clarified that the reason Armenian prisoners have yet to be returned is due to lack of communication between the two sides and Armenia’s failure to produce a list of prisoner’s names in a timely manner. Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan announced the return of four Armenian captives on December 28th, 2020 through mediation by the International Committee of the Red Cross of the Russian Federation, but many still await their release. Russian peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh region are working to uncover the location of remaining Armenian prisoners and ensure their safe return. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, an effort established in 1994 to resolve the land dispute, is aware of the Armenian prisoners that remain in unlawful captivity.

The sluggish exchange of prisoners reflects the inefficacy of previous ceasefires. The peace agreement in November 2020 “leaves many key aspects of the simmering conflict unresolved,” says the Washington Post. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan labels the agreement as “incredibly painful both for me and for our people.” The November truce was a triumph for Azerbaijan but caused outrage and protests against Prime Minister Pashinyan in Armenia. According to the Washington Post’s recount of a January 11th meeting with Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the Russian-brokered deal also worked out the reopening of transport routes in the region. Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey shut their borders to Armenia at the beginning of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and land-locked Armenia will now supposedly be able to improve their economy with reopened borders. The new border policies will likely contribute to resolving the issue of Armenian prisoners that remain in Azerbaijani captivity. Russian President Vladimir Putin argues “the implementation of those agreements will benefit both the Armenian and Azerbaijani people and the entire region” and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agrees, stating “it opens completely new perspectives that we couldn’t even imagine in the past.” Prime Minister Pashinyan disputed these claims by maintaining that the region’s status is unclear, but also recognized the reinstated transit routes.

Productive dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan must continue to reach peace in the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Both sides struggle with communication, a crucial element in negotiating disagreements in the region. To arrive at a permanent solution to the violent outbreaks, both sides must agree upon a resolution that ends the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for good.

Conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has persisted for several decades. During the 20th century, fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan was kept in check under Bolshevik rule. However, as the Soviet Union began to dissolve, the autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh region declared independence and war between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted soon after. As stated by the Council on Foreign Relations, fighting over the region spanned from 1988 to 1994, resulting in 30,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees. In 1994, Russia brokered a ceasefire that remains in place. Though Nagorno-Karabakh has been classified a frozen conflict since 1994, breaches of the peace agreement have occurred in recent years. The most intense fighting since the ceasefire broke out in early April 2016, effecting dozens of deaths and over 300 casualties. Following four days of violence, the two sides consented to a revised ceasefire agreement.

Tensions heightened again in July 2020, and fighting then escalated in late September 2020, resulting in deaths of over 1,000 soldiers and civilians. The United Nations, United States and Russia encouraged new peace agreements in light of the violence, but both parties rejected such advice and continued to fight. The struggle intensified when Azerbaijani and Armenian forces transitioned from cross-border shelling to heavy weaponry, including long-range artillery. As of October 2020, several new ceasefires have been negotiated via communication with France, Russia and the United States. Infringements of the truce continue as fighting persists in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. While both opposing sides accuse each other of breaking the ceasefire, Russian peacekeepers argue the arrangement is working thus far.

The exchange of Azerbaijani and Armenian captives is a step toward peace in the region. However, future relations between the two sides remain uncertain. Putin deems the November 2020 peace deal as a “necessary basis for a long-term and full-format settlement of the old conflict,” says the Washington Post. While mediators like Putin are optimistic about relations in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, current resolutions may not bring an end to struggles between Armenia and Azerbaijan.