The failure of the tripartite Kazan summit on June 24 to resolve the standoff in Karabakh will undoubtedly have serious regional repercussions. Certainly they cast the insight and capability of Russian diplomacy and President Dmitry Medvedev’s leadership into question. Moscow clearly anticipated and even publicly stated that it expected some kind of breakthrough (Interfax, June 23). Apparently this was to be a statement of principles by which the logjam was to be broken (Kommersant, June 24).
Yet, it evidently failed to take sufficient account of the domestic pressures on both Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. Having invested considerable effort and prestige in arranging and fostering this summit that ended with continued standoff, President Medvedev also loses some of his luster. But this failure also suggests the growing limits to Russia’s ability to serve as the security manager for the South Caucasus because the summit showed that Moscow could not push either state on questions pertaining to their vital interest beyond their previous positions. Had Medvedev successfully achieved this breakthrough, it would have confirmed Russia as the regional security manager and further weakened the US position there as well as increasing the isolation of Georgia.
Clearly, there are compensations for Moscow. Its base agreement in Armenia has been ratified until 2044, ensuring its long-term political and military presence (Interfax-AVN, June 22). Moreover, there were no public recriminations against Moscow’s role in this unsuccessful mediation. Thus, the way is still open for it to woo Azerbaijan back into its fold, especially as the US seems congenitally incapable of seeing that country as anything more than a refueling stop on the way to Afghanistan and ties are still characterized by discord. But probably these compensations do not fully make up for the risks to regional security that Medvedev’s failure magnifies.
First, as Sargsyan admitted, Armenia’s relations with Turkey are deadlocked and will remain so despite pleas to reignite the earlier negotiations and find a way back to mutual cooperation (Anatolia, June 21; Interfax-AVN, June 22). Consequently, the Armenian issue will now return to Turkey’s political agenda and in a negative way (Hurriyet Daily News Online, June 19). Since the abortive 2008-2009 effort to revive Turkish-Armenian relations, Karabakh and Azerbaijan’s opposition to any solution omitting progress there have obstructed the normalization of such frozen bilateral relations. Second, the failure of these talks strengthens the hand of all the forces in each country that oppose any concessions to the other side. Not surprisingly each side immediately started blaming the other for its incapacity to make genuine concessions, and they are probably both correct (Novosti Armenia, Interfax, June 25). But that does not matter. Azerbaijan’s show of force the day after the talks failed and statements that it will do everything it can, including military action, to retrieve its lost province may be seen as domestic posturing for internal consumption (Interfax, Azerbaijani TV, June 26). But such statements generate a corresponding internal demand for action and the time they buy is valuable only if used in a more positive way than has hitherto been the case.
Therefore, in the absence of progress on Karabakh, Turkey’s embargo on Armenia will continue, grievously penalizing the Armenian economy, and so will the temptation, particularly in Baku to invest heavily in the belief that it can ultimately bring enough military power to bear to alter the facts on the ground. Baku may also try to manipulate Russia to its side by hinting that it will only renew the lease on the important radar facility at Gabala if Moscow either pays a lot more money or inclines to its view of what a solution should look like (Baki Xabar, June 14). It may also be the case that the EU and Washington (both urged each side to make a deal) will believe that there is nothing more that can or should be done and leave the two states to their own deserts, confirming Moscow as undisputed boss of the region.
None of these alternatives are particularly palatable to the West or even to Turkey, let alone to the citizens of both countries who suffer from the unresolved tension. And these alternatives pale before the real possibility that the crisis might slip out of control because there are some, particularly in Baku, who might think that a show of force will compel the international community to act on behalf of the Azeri cause. The South Caucasus is already a highly flammable region and we have learned that it does not take much to unfreeze supposedly frozen conflicts. Indeed, Moscow and Tbilisi are currently trading accusations that the other side is attempting to subvert the governments in Tbilisi or Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Georgia with characteristic recklessness is baiting the bear by inserting itself diplomatically in the North Caucasus. With all this dry timber lying around, it would not necessarily take much of a spark to set off a general conflagration, but even one in Karabakh alone is enough to trigger a general crisis. While it is encouraging that both sides will continue negotiating, we have heard this before over the last 18 years and to no avail. Hopefully, this time they will prove themselves to be more sober statesmen than has hitherto been the case.