Aghdam is a quiet, sad place at sunset, with the empty archways that line its once-bustling central street casting long shadows. Just three decades ago, the historic city was home to nearly 30,000 people, and a centre for agriculture and industry – now, it’s a ghost town, the remains of hundreds of buildings half-hidden by the undergrowth.

Captured by advancing Armenian forces during a brutal war over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1989, the ethnic Azerbaijani population was forced to flee. Over the thirty years that followed, Aghdam was stripped of anything of worth and left to crumble into ruins. Formally inside Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognised borders, but held by Yerevan-backed separatists as a “buffer zone,” the area of land – the size of Lebanon – was protected by fortifications and rows of landmines that helped keep the conflict frozen.

That all changed in 2020 when Azerbaijani troops rolled across the front lines at the start of a brief but bloody war that saw them take back swaths of territory before a Russian-brokered ceasefire came into force. Since then, the Karabakh Armenians have been confined to Stepanakert, the capital of their unrecognised “Republic of Artsakh,” and the towns and villages around it, connected to Armenia by only a precarious road link. Now, they fear Azerbaijan is intent on resolving the standoff once and for all.

“Karabakh is Azerbaijan,” reads the message emblazoned on pedestrian footbridges in the capital, Baku, on the side of taxis and even printed on water bottles. For thirty years, taking back lost territory, including cities like Aghdam, has been an all-encompassing national mission. The government has reaped a wave of popular support for the outcome of the 2020 war, and has made it clear it intends to finish the job – asserting control over all of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“What does the return of Karabakh mean for Azerbaijan? I’ll give you two words – national pride,” Emin Huseynov, the Presidential Special Representative for Karabakh Region, tells me at a meeting in his compound not far from the front lines. A Harvard-educated economist, he has been charged with integrating the so-called “liberated territories” and turning them into a lucrative economic and energy hub. 

Aghdam, Azerbaijan

“I remember the times when, during the occupation years, we attended international events at places like the World Bank and the IMF. Armenian delegations were represented there as well. And you could see that in their eyes, they would look at you as a loser,” Huseynov says.  “When we were claiming that this is unjust, it’s unfair, we had been subjected to aggression and occupation, we had colleagues who would say ‘you lost, just accept it’, as if nothing can be changed. But that’s not true. Now that we have reversed that, we feel like, we did it, we can do it. We can do anything.”

Intent on reversing what it sees as a historical wrong, Azerbaijan is now forcing Armenia to make tough choices. Just over a fortnight ago, its army began shelling targets across the frontier and moved in to capture a number of strategic heights inside Armenia proper, warning that without an agreement recognising its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, none of the region’s borders are inviolable. Those Armenians still living there fear that, if Yerevan pulls its support, they will in turn be pushed out of their homes – or worse. 

On Thursday, the leaders of the two countries, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, sat down for a head to head on the fringes of the European Political Community meeting in Prague in an attempt to avert another all-out war. “If the Armenian side has the will, a peace agreement can be signed before the end of this year,” Aliyev announced following the talks, sparking hopes Baku is still seeking a diplomatic, rather than military, resolution to the conflict. But, Aliyev warned, “time is running out.”

The negotiations come amid increased international interest in the region. Russia may be the only external power with boots on the ground – and insisting on maintaining its sphere of influence in the region – Moscow has been all but shut out of the peace talks. Distracted by its increasingly bloody and catastrophic war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has so-far refused requests for intervention from Yerevan, despite Armenia’s membership of its CSTO military pact. 

Instead, world leaders including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, France’s Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Charles Michel came together to help mediate between the two parties at the Prague summit. Just weeks before, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, touched down in Yerevan to pledge support for Armenia, painting the conflict as a struggle between “democracy and autocracy.”

The talks are the product of an unlikely coalition, given Turkey openly supports Azerbaijan and Brussels is increasingly dependent on Baku’s fossil fuel exports to replace Russian oil and gas. However, with Armenians fearing Aliyev could launch a full-blown invasion of their country, it is clear Pashinyan is open to discussions, and the EU has confirmed that a civilian delegation will be dispatched to the region to monitor the situation and contribute to the demarcation and delimitation of the border.

But whether negotiations can ultimately avert more bloodshed remains to be seen – a spate of clashes have been reported even since the summit in Prague, as recently as Monday. Azerbaijan has made clear it is intent on securing its borders and asserting control over all of Nagorno-Karabakh, and will use whatever means are at its disposal to do so. Since the 1990s, regaining towns like Aghdam has become a symbolic struggle and, having taken back swaths of territory, few in Baku are calling for anything short of a total victory.

Armenia’s position, meanwhile, is far less clear. It has no formal claim over the region and, since the 2020 war has watered down its position to merely advocating for the rights of the Karabakh Armenians, despite Aliyev insisting they will have no special treatment or autonomy. In September, as the tentative ceasefire came in, rumours spread that Pashinyan was preparing to recognise Azerbaijan’s internationally-agreed borders, effectively acknowledging its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. Within hours, mass protests had been organised on the streets of Yerevan and the embattled Prime Minister was forced to deny any deal was in the works.

For many Armenians, just over a century on from the genocide that saw an estimated 1.5 million of their family members exterminated on the territory of the former Ottoman Empire, the issue is an existential one. If the armed forces in Karabakh lay down their arms and Azerbaijani troops move in, they fear, history will repeat itself. And, with mainland Armenia now being targeted, thousands of ordinary people are signing up for paramilitary groups to learn how to fight in what they see as an inevitable battle for the survival of their nation. In that environment, political concessions are unlikely to find popular support and it’s unclear if Pashinyan could ever sell them back home.

“Russia isn’t happy that these talks are taking place on a Western platform, and many radicals inside Armenia aren’t content with the peace process,” says Farid Shafiyev, a former Azerbaijani diplomat who now serves as Chairman of the influential Center for Analysis of International Relations think tank in Baku. “However, I believe the Prague meeting potentially could ultimately end all possible military clashes. People in Azerbaijan are tired of the conflict and tension, aggravated by the effect of global economic problems. We have a chance to build new Caucasus.”

For the EU, averting a war in the region avoids pressure to sanction Azerbaijan’s oil and gas – a move it can ill-afford to make given the pressures of giving up imports from Russia. It also helps Brussels plant its flag firmly in the former Soviet Union, challenging Russian influence there. A peaceful settlement also plays well for Turkey, enabling it to use its growing leverage elsewhere and avoiding another rift with the West, while Ankara is clearly confident its ally can get what it wants around the negotiating table.

However, with trust in short supply though on both sides of the border, it appears that only with the support of the international community can Armenia and Azerbaijan avoid a conflict. But, for the time being, with no indication of what a deal could include, the future looks very uncertain for the Karabakh Armenians who fear their homeland may soon end up looking a lot like the ghost town of Aghdam.

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