The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh lies within the borders of Azerbaijan, but its population is almost wholly Armenian. Fighting over the territory broke out in 1987, while Armenia and Azerbaijan were still part of the Soviet Union, and continues sporadically. Armenia, with Russian overt and covert support, exercises de facto control in Karabakh and has a military presence in Azerbaijan proper which Azeri forces have been unable to dislodge. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a regional-security grouping that originated outside the United Nations system as part of East-West detente during the Cold War, has tried to mediate the Karabakh dispute since the early 1990s. After a long hiatus during changes of government in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the OSCE mediation group of Russia, France and the United States returned to the region in November with new proposals.

In the past the OSCE had supported a staged approach to a settlement, in which withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijan proper would precede a political resolution of the Karabakh conflict. This time, however, the mediation group, apparently under Russian leadership, proposed that both issues be addressed simultaneously. Authorities in Armenia and Karabakh favored this idea, believing it increases Armenia’s ability to extract political concessions on Karabakh in exchange for withdrawal from Azeri lands. In Azerbaijan, the plan found a cold reception for exactly the same reason.

OSCE mediators also proposed that Azerbaijan and Karabakh form a “common state,” some new and undefined legal creation which involves neither Azeri nor Armenian sovereignty nor Karabakh’s independence. Foreign-policy officials in Azerbaijan derided the idea as hopelessly ambiguous: “One can construe it in any way one chooses.” The same ambiguity makes the concept attractive to Armenia, as a way to muddle the principles of territorial integrity and national self-determination. With Azerbaijan rejecting and Armenia essentially accepting the mediators’ plan, the diplomatic struggle over Karabakh is set to resume at the year-end OSCE summit.