Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 24

After rather a calm year in 2007, conflict over Karabakh is once again emerging as a primary foreign policy focus in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Last year, Azerbaijani and Armenian politicians, as well as international mediators, struggled to find a breakthrough in the peace talks over the ongoing conflict for control of the region but achieved few results.

Several factors have blocked a resolution, including the May 2007 parliamentary election in Armenia. International actors and local policymakers were distracted by the political unrest in Georgia, the U.S.-Russia talks on the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan, and the launch of the Baku-Kars-Akhalkalaki railway. Thus, the Karabakh conflict was put on the backburner, although both the presidents and foreign ministers of the warring states met on numerous occasions to continue the dialogue.

The year 2008, however, started with some real efforts to finalize the talks. On January 21, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov published an op-ed, “The Caspian Moment,” in the Wall Street Journal in which he argued that it is high time to resolve the Karabakh conflict and that any further delay in the negotiations will negatively hurt regional oil and gas projects, damage the region’s business climate, and obstruct much-needed collaboration in the fight against terrorism, transnational threats, and environmental dangers.

Ilgar Mammadov, an independent political expert in Baku, believes that the government is sending signals that it would like the West to pressure Armenia in exchange for Azerbaijan’s possible membership in NATO. In an interview with Azadliq radio, Mammadov argued that the recent challenges to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili showed that Tbilisi’s pro-Western policies will continue and will eventually lead to Georgia becoming a NATO member (Azadliq, January 21). Azerbaijan, Mammadov believes, will have to make a choice at some point to join this trend or not. Thus, Azerbaijan seems to be asking for more help on the Karabakh conflict in exchange for eventually choosing Brussels instead of Moscow.

According to local pundits, there is another reason for the emergence of Karabakh as a major bargaining topic in 2008. Both countries have presidential elections scheduled this year (Armenia on February 19 and Azerbaijan October 15), and Western powers reportedly hope to seal some sort of written agreement, even if merely a framework, before the voting takes place. It is not a secret that the Western governments are putting pressure on the political leadership in both Baku and Yerevan to find areas for compromise. In the case of Armenia, these pressures are also associated with the possible transfer of power from President Robert Kocharian to his designated successor, Prime Minister Sergei Sarkisian. If the political regime in Yerevan agrees to make painful, but much needed concessions at the negotiating table, the West would be more inclined to support such an orchestrated transfer of power, in order not to jeopardize these fragile achievements.

Meanwhile, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel, who is currently the acting chairman of the European Union, visited Baku on February 4 and met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Benito Ferrero-Waldner, EU Commissioner for External Relations, also took part in the talks. Both sides discussed the ever-growing relations and partnership between the EU and Azerbaijan and praised the recent opening of an EU office in Baku. They also discussed the Karabakh conflict. According to the Day.az website, Rupel declared, “We hope that the presidential elections will not negatively affect the peace process. We would be pleased if both sides came to an agreement” (Day.az, February 4). Ferrero-Waldner added, “The sides must understand that the soonest resolution of the conflict will lead to the development of both countries with high rates.”

APA news agency reported that the Special Representative of the OSCE Acting Chairman Andrzej Kasprzyk had stated that the OSCE Minsk group’s co-chairs would present a new proposal to Azerbaijan and Armenia after the OSCE’s acting chairman, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilk Kanerva, visits the region (APA, February 4).

Despite the recent momentum in the talks, realists believe that nothing tangible will emerge due to Russia’s tough position in the Caucasus and the widening gap between the public and political leadership in both Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding the ways to solve the conflict. Writing in European Voice, Sabine Frasier of the International Crisis Group warned that the war might resume in 2012, when Azerbaijan’s ongoing military buildup should reach sufficient levels (European Voice, January 31).