Can 'make trade not war' become a new reality in the Caucasus?

Can 'make trade not war' become a new reality in the Caucasus?
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On Sept. 27, 2020, stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh turned into a military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. For a long time, relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan had been tense over this territory, which is recognized internationally as a part of Azerbaijan but has been occupied by Armenians since 1994. That “Second Karabakh War” lasted 44 days and ended with a peace deal signed by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia on Nov. 10 last year. The deal allowed Azerbaijan to hold on to areas recaptured during the conflict and included the commitment of Armenia to withdraw from several other areas in the Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan is now trying to cope with one of the biggest challenges it faces in the territories liberated from Armenian occupation after 30 years: There are still mines in the territories recaptured. Baku has demanded maps of mines Armenia laid during the war. In 2012, NATO Trust Fund projects helped Azerbaijan in clearing unexploded ordinance and mines left from the Soviet army between 1955 and 1991.

This time, Azerbaijan has only received help from Turkey, a NATO ally, to clear mines threatening security and livelihood in the areas liberated from Armenian occupation. Azerbaijan is a member country of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) Programme and has been since 1994. Azerbaijan has contributed actively to NATO-led peace support opearations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Azeri troops recently withdrew from Kabul airport after completing their mission in Afghanistan as a partner country to PfP of NATO.

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Post-war reconstruction continues in areas recaptured from Armenia, but clearing mines from these areas more quickly could facilitate further reconstruction efforts. Unexploded mines are a significant obstacle in resettling the territories and establishing transport and infrastructure — not only in Azerbaijan, but also between Azerbaijan and other countries in the region. Such joint initiatives and projects have potential to provide much needed stability, peace and prosperity for the region.

Maybe it is time again for NATO to assist Azerbaijan with the demilitarization of unexploded ordinance and mine clearance.

Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia — along with Turkmenistan, Krygzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria — are already partners of the EU-financed Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia Project (TRACECA corridor). Stability and peace in the Caucasus could revitalize these kinds of projects, improve logistical infrastructure, and make reaching Asian and European markets easier for trade.

This August, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called for a new era with Armenia — if Yerevan shows its willingness. Both leaders said they are ready to cooperate with Armenia through developing economic relations and establishing multimodal transport lines that could facilitate trade among their countries.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian seems inclined to go along. Armenia’s problems with Azerbaijan and Turkey have meant their shared borders have been closed since the 1990s. If Pashinian adapts his foreign policy to this new reality, he may pave the way for Armenia to become a “land-linked” country for trade in the near future. 

In his statement, Pashinian emphasized the importance of opening regional transport. Any project that helps to link Armenia though multimodal transportation to its neighboring countries Azerbaijan and Turkey would also be significant for trade. Every year Armenian youth emmigrate abroad due to economic difficulties at home. This new foreign policy approach based on “make trade, not war” could create a win-win situation.

There is a negative correlation between trade and conflict. Trade agreements that improve trade lessen the likelihood of conflicts and instabilities. Economic interdependence created by trade can prevent future conflicts and contribute to peace.

It seems that there is a willingness from all sides in this case to make these aspirations concrete. Similar statements from Erdogan, Aliyev and Pashinian should be read from this perspective, I think.

In 2009, Turkey and Armenia signed an agrement to normalize relations, but never ratified it in their respective parliaments. This time, the opportunity that has emerged after the Second Karabakh War should not be missed — but its realization depends on not breaching the ceasefire and fulfilling the commitments of peace deal.

Aylin Unver Noi is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network and an associate professor on international relations at Halic University in Istanbul. From 2014-2018, she was senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University SAIS.