Joint Russian-Turkish Karabakh Monitoring Center Opens Amidst Fresh Controversy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 20

Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh (Source: AP)

Four days ago (February 1), the Joint Russian-Turkish Center for Monitoring the Ceasefire in Karabakh opened in Qiyameddinli (in the Agdam district of Azerbaijan), a village Baku recovered after the recent fighting. In attendance were Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Gasanov, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin and Turkish Deputy Defense Minister Yunus Emre Karaosmanoğlu. The ceremony was upbeat about the Center’s future role, one that will rely on surveillance drones and involve up to 60 soldiers each from the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey. But its opening—mandated by the November 9, 2020, Azerbaijani-Armenian-Russian ceasefire summit declaration and subsequently recapitulated by Baku and Moscow in early December—has been much delayed because of differences between Moscow, on the one hand, and Baku and Ankara, on the other (Interfax, January 30).

On the occasion of the opening earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, to “express the hope that the activity of the center will make possible the further stabilization of the situation around Karabakh and the close observance of the agreements fixed in the declaration of the presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan and the prime minister of Armenia on November 9, 2020” (Interfax, January 30). But the road to the opening of the ceasefire monitoring center suggests that even reaching this point had been anything but easy.

At the end of December, Aliyev proudly announced that the Center would open “within 10 to 14 days” (Interfax, December 31, 2020). Nonetheless, the opening was postponed both by differences about where it should be located and what role it and its staff should play—an indication that, despite the celebrations earlier this week, many of those same points of contention might still reemerge going forward. Indeed, some Russian commentators are already speculating that the Center itself may become another apple of discord in a region already full of them.

According to diplomatic sources contacted by the Russian service of the BBC at that time, Moscow wanted the center to be located either in Ganja or Barda. The former is a major population center in Azerbaijan, with more than 300,000 residents; while the latter is a much smaller municipality, with only about 40,000 inhabitants and much less developed infrastructure. But Azerbaijan and Turkey opposed both of these places because they are far from the portions of Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh in which Russian peacekeepers are operating and thus would be less able to support the kind of monitoring those two countries believe is necessary. At the same time, Moscow was adamant that the center not be located in Karabakh itself, evidently opposed to siting it either in Russian- or Azerbaijani-controlled areas of that district (BBC News—Russian service, December 4, 2020).

Finally, apparently only a few weeks ago, the three countries agreed on opening the Joint Center in Qiyameddinli, an Azerbaijani village of fewer than 2,000 people without the facilities the other cities offered but one closer to the Russian-controlled separation line. Yet that was far from the only dispute that had to be overcome or may still be simmering. The three governments also disagreed on the size and mandate of the Center, with Russia seeking to ensure that Turkey’s presence would be small. Moscow’s preference seems to be driven by concerns that any Turkish troops on the ground in Karabakh might be another step to permanently basing Turkish units in Azerbaijan, something Baku and Ankara have both denied is currently in the works (see EDM, February 3, 2021).

Although the November declaration and the succeeding December agreement specified that the Joint Center would use both drones and on-the-ground surveys to monitor the ceasefire, Moscow has insisted—over Azerbaijani and Turkish objections—that no Turkish military personnel attached to the Joint Center would have the right to visit Karabakh. That caveat will necessarily reduce this monitoring effort largely to surveillance from the air unless, of course, Azerbaijani ground forces provide the additional data that the Center would seem to need to do its job. In addition, the Russian side apparently has succeeded in limiting contacts between the Joint Center and the commanders of the Russian peacekeeping detachment to telephonic ones rather than in-person briefings, thus further isolating the ceasefire monitoring cell and reducing its role in Karabakh (BBC News—Russian service, December 4, 2020).

According to a Russian defense ministry press release issued just before the Joint Center opened, “[T]he Center will carry out the collection, generalization and checking of information about the observation of the ceasefire and about actions that violate the agreements reached by the sides.” It will do so, the Moscow agency said, “by the use of drones and also by the assessments of data received from other sources.” It left without clarification just what those “other sources” might be, thereby pointing to yet another area where apparently the three sides are still at odds (Interfax, January 30, 2021).

In an indication of more disputes ahead, Moscow-based commentator Stanislav Tarasov now suggests the functioning of the Center will be affected by two other larger issues, the realization of the ceasefire itself and the continuing role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group in resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. He says that the trilateral (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia) working groups on Karabakh, set up at the January 11 Moscow summit (see EDM, January 12), may, in particular, play a role in this regard. At the same time, he points to the Minsk Group, whose co-chairs, other than Moscow, have continued to insist on the need to discuss a final status for Karabakh; this is something Moscow opposes, asserting that opening that issue back up now could lead to a resumption of violence (TASS, February 1; IA REX, February 2). Movement in either of these places, Tarasov implies, could affect the operations of the Russo-Turkish Joint Center.

Such observations highlight an important reality that many do not want to face: the Karabakh dispute has been so intractable because almost every aspect of it is connected to everything else; and if disputes in one area arise, it is likely that they will spread to others. For that reason, the most important role of the Joint Center may not, in fact, be as a monitor of what is happening along the new line of separation the Russian peacekeepers are patrolling but as a barometer of where and how the conflict may ease or reignite.