The Russian-Armenian-Azerbaijani summit in Kazan on June 24 was intended to be an event of greater significance than any of the long series of trilateral meetings that had much elaborated the “agreeing-to-disagree” agenda. A leak from the Kremlin indicated that the two Caucasian states that had been locked in confrontation since the collapse of the USSR 20 years ago were ready to sign a “road map” of steps towards a solution to the conflict around Karabakh (Kommersant, June 24). Skeptics expertly pointed to the solid record of failed attempts, and indeed the hopes for a symbolic deal at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Astana last December were proven false much to the disappointment of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who grandly presided over that all-European gathering (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, RIA Novosti, June 24). Skeptics were proved correct yet again as the Kazan “road map” remained an unsigned draft, but there is more to this failure than just another setback to best intentions caused by parochial animosities.
One significant difference is created by the eruption of revolutionary energy in the Middle East and North Africa since the start of this year, which has shown with shocking clarity that stagnant dictatorships can collapse from absurdly insignificant triggers with no external conspiracies. This impact is less pronounced in Armenia, where political opposition was able to stage massive protests on many occasions, but more so in Azerbaijan, where the corrupt hereditary regime resembles too closely the Arab oil monarchies (Moskovskiy Novosti, June 23). President Ilham Aliyev used to be treated as a guest of honor in Western capitals, but now he is perceived as just another authoritarian leader smoking hookah on a tinderbox. Moscow has assumed that it would make him more dependent upon support from Russia and thus more agreeable in strategic bargaining. Aliyev, however, assumes that the messy violence in Libya, Syria and Yemen is changing the attitude to the “Arab spring,” so now he is pushing for an official visit to Washington (Regnum, June 23).
Another change is the decline of the geopolitical profile of the South Caucasus as the competition between the US and Russia has essentially disappeared. Local political elites have fancied their intrigues as a contribution to a “Great Game,” but now they discover that their options for playing on the differences between the “majors” have narrowed to irrelevance. For that matter, the postponement with implementation of the Nabucco pipeline project, which was one of the key symbols of geopolitical struggle for resources, has produced little if any impression (Ekspert, May 10; Kommersant, June 8). Moscow obviously is interested in asserting its central role in managing the Karabakh conflict, but instead of inventing its own solution, it insisted on the basic principles adopted by the OSCE mediators in 2007 and reiterated by US President Barack Obama at the G8 Deauville summit in May (The Moscow Times, June 24). Neither party to the conflict is prepared to make all the required concessions, nor can Russian guarantees convince them to accept the risks.
The fiasco in Kazan is a very personal setback for President Dmitry Medvedev who has invested much effort in this mediation seeking to gain a better entry in the history books than a Commander-in-Chief who took holidays on the eve of the war with Georgia and compensated by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states (Regnum, June 24). Despite the persistent networking, he has not developed good chemistry with either Aliyev or Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, but more importantly he has gained little respect from either. They cannot see him as a leader who has authority to make real decisions, but can see through his urge to score a diplomatic triumph before the fast-approaching reconfiguration of Russia’s leadership. They also understand that his chance for staying in the second presidential term is slim at best, so his reassurances would expire in less than one year. Russia commands serious influence in the South Caucasus, but Medvedev is not a credible messenger.
The non-agreement in Kazan was perfectly amicable in the sense that Armenia and Azerbaijan blamed one another in deliberate sabotage and confirmed readiness to continue the trialogue. There is, however, a risk of a breakdown of the fragile ceasefire that has held since mid-1994 without any international monitoring. The status-quo is more unacceptable for Azerbaijan than it is for Armenia, and the balance of military power is also shifting in its favor as in 2010 it spent 3.5 times more on defense than the “enemy” and has increased its 2011 military budget by as much as 50 percent (www.newsru.com, June 26). Aliyev has flatly turned down Medvedev’s idea to energize the peace process by signing a legally binding document on non-use of force and maintains the position that his country has the right to liberate the occupied territories by military means (RIA Novosti, June 24). Azerbaijani elites are enjoying the petro-prosperity too much to contemplate a “total war,” but a limited military operation aimed at capturing a symbolically rather than strategically significant piece of no-man’s-land could be attempted. Armenia, deeply worried about Azerbaijan’s rearmament, cannot afford even a minor defeat and so would have to respond disproportionally setting in motion a spiral of escalation.
Experts have been speculating about such scenarios for years measuring the grain of salt to take with the increasingly militant official rhetoric in Baku, and this created a body of prophecies, which could turn out to be self-fulfilling. Medvedev cannot check these dangerous dynamics but the problem is more than just his inability to compel the two parties to behave. It is useful to remember that Moscow’s failure to organize a peacekeeping operation in Karabakh back in 1994 was caused by the deepening instability in the North Caucasus leading to the first Chechen war. The North Caucasus is now again engulfed by violence, which cuts into the much-valued political stability of the country and threatens to undermine its integrity. Stagnating Russia cannot project any stability in its neighborhood, the feebleness of its leadership aggravates every conflict from the brewing revolution in Belarus to the state failure in Kyrgyzstan, and Karabakh could become an “angry bird” that hits the shaky construct of collapsible institutions.