Nagorno-Karabakh: Imminent breakthrough or yet another stalemate?
By Emil Danielyan
The stalled Nagorno-Karabakh peace process appears to be entering a critical stage with growing international efforts to end the ten-year-old dispute. Russia, the United States and France are in the forefront of a diplomatic offensive that began last May. They are the co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which is sponsoring the negotiations. An Armenian-Azerbaijani summit is expected to take place in Moscow this month or next. Attended by Russian, French and possibly American leaders, it will put the diplomatic abilities of these three international heavyweights to the test. U.S. under-secretary of state Stuart Eizenstat was recently quoted as saying that a "first-phase agreement" may be possible this year and that "real progress" is being made in the negotiations.
All this has led some commentators to suggest that a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute may be on the horizon. Some recent developments provide further reason for such hopes. Russia and the west seem to have ended their squabble over Russia’s claim to a "special role" in the region and to have agreed to coordinate their peace efforts. The activities of the Minsk Group have grown more assertive and there has been a significant increase in the status of the envoys. A Minsk Group delegation that visited the region in June included U.S. deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott and his Russian counterpart, Boris Pastukhov. The warring sides have also reportedly come under much stronger pressure from the international community to reach an agreement.
Most importantly, Armenia and Azerbaijan support the recent shift of the mediators’ strategy: from the so-called "package" to the "step-by-step" solution. The package approach envisages that all contentious issues — including Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, the main sticking point of the conflict — will be settled by a single comprehensive peace accord. The step-by-step solution postpones any decision on status until the last phase of the peace process, which should be preceded by the withdrawal of armed units from the six Azerbaijani districts occupied by Karabakh forces, the lifting of Azerbaijan’s blockade of Armenia, the return of refugees, and other confidence-building measures. Such a change of strategy came after the Minsk Group’s package plan put forward last June failed to satisfy the sides to the conflict. A phased solution, the mediators now believe, will facilitate eventual agreement on the region’s status by laying the foundations for a lasting peace and building trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
This approach seems all the more appropriate in the wake of conciliatory statements made by Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian at news conference on September 26 in Yerevan (the first in five years). As well as backing a step-by-step solution, Ter-Petrosian said "unilateral demands" for Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence or its unification with Armenia were unrealistic. Such demands would not be tolerated by the international community, nor would the international community allow the current status quo to last forever. Ter-Petrosian indicated that the Armenian side must be ready for serious concessions if it wanted to live in a "normal country" and not to lose more in the long run. Ter-Petrosian made an analogy with the Croatian Serbs who lost their unrecognized republic in 1995 following an offensive by the Croatian army.
Many interpreted Ter-Petrosian’s remarks as a sign of Armenia’s readiness to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, a step that would remove a key obstacle to the settlement. However, the position adopted by the third party to the conflict — the government of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh — could undermine hopes for a breakthrough. The Karabakh Armenians have officially rejected the Minsk Group’s latest peace plan, arguing that it fails to meet their security concerns and insisting on a package solution. They contend that the phased solution is too risky because it would oblige them to pull out of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan proper (Stepanakert’s main bargaining chip) but would not ensure that Baku did not attack Nagorno-Karabakh once the first phase of the peace process was over. Having regained its lost territories, they say, Azerbaijan might take a harder line and try to resolve the conflict by force. The Karabakh authorities argue that, despite its failure to date, the "package" approach is not inherently flawed and has not outlived its usefulness.
This divergence of opinion seems to signal growing differences between Armenia and the Karabakh Armenians over how to end the dispute. Ter-Petrosian’s warnings against "unilateral" secession from Azerbaijan were received with scarcely hidden discontent in Nagorno-Karabakh. Though Karabakh officials have played down any suggestion of discord with Yerevan, Ter-Petrosian’s statements raised questions about his commitment to the Karabakh cause. Suspicion about plans to "sell" Karabakh to Azerbaijan continued even after Armenian officials gave assurances that Yerevan would sign no document that was unacceptable to Stepanakert and that Armenia’s support of the step-by-step solution did not amount to a recognition of Baku’s sovereignty over the enclave. Karabakh continues to reject any idea of "vertical subordination" to Baku as far as its future status is concerned. Karabakh refuses to go any farther than its offer of "horizontal ties" with Azerbaijan, and it continues to demand the preservation of a land corridor with Armenia and the right to keep its own armed forces. While professing its readiness to give up part of its "de-facto independence," Karabakh wants to be a "subject of international law."
Equally important is the position of the highly influential Karabakh military. Earlier, the commander of the powerful Karabakh army, Lt. Gen. Samvel Babayan, predicted that, if deadlock dragged on for a year or two, the conflict would be resolved only by another war with Azerbaijan. This, he said, would threaten Baku with military defeat. The military have been reluctant to release the occupied Azerbaijani territories, let alone to submit to Baku’s sovereignty.
Ter-Petrosian’s comments also sparked heated public debate within Armenia itself. Most political parties and prominent figures condemned the president’s words. The squabbling Armenian opposition united against what it deplored as the "capitulation and surrender" of Karabakh. The Armenian media these days are full of commentaries against a possible return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. There is speculation about the possible creation of a mass movement in support of Karabakh. But even securing the backing of his own entourage will not prove easy for Ter-Petrosian. Two senior Armenian officials, Prime Minister Robert Kocharian and Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sargsian, were wartime leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh and are therefore unlikely to be enthusiastic about concessions to Azerbaijan. Kocharian has publicly acknowledged that he disagrees with the president and favors the package solution. He does not share Ter-Petrosian’s view that Armenia’s economic development is impossible without peace with Azerbaijan.
Moreover, hard-line Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian, one of those closest to Ter-Petrosian, is reported to be vigorously opposed to the Minsk Group’s plan. Sargsian’s objections concern not only Karabakh’s status but also which Azerbaijani districts should be returned. He has openly backed Karabakh army demands that all Azerbaijani territories lying between Armenia and Karabakh must remain under Armenian control. This refers to the Kelbajar and Lachin districts which, taken together, are equal in size to Nagorno-Karabakh. The OSCE plan envisages an unconditional withdrawal of the Karabakh forces from the six Azerbaijani districts, Kelbajar included. As for Lachin, it would reportedly be placed under international control as the shortest land corridor with Armenia. Sargsian’s insistence that there can be no talk about returning Lachin or Kelbajar could further complicate the search for a compromise.
It is therefore reasonable to predict that President Ter-Petrosian will find it difficult to pursue his ideas on the settlement. But some Armenian observers have come up with a different version of what is now happening. They suggest that Ter-Petrosian’s recent discourse may be a diplomatic trick aimed at warding off international pressure over Armenia’s refusal to recognize Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized territorial integrity. Shifting the blame on to the Karabakh Armenians, these observers say, Ter-Petrosian wants to avoid international sanctions that could have a devastating effect on his country’s battered economy. He seeks to project the image of a flexible politician struggling against extreme nationalists. Some comments made by Defense Minister Sargsian seem to support this interpretation. Asked to comment on the president’s position, Sargsian indicated that diplomatic considerations prompt Armenian leaders "to say one thing, think another, and do a third." Another Ter-Petrosian comrade-in-arms, Yerevan mayor Vano Siradeghian, also hinted about a diplomatic game and advised local reporters not to draw premature conclusions.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that, with the principle of inviolability of borders being virtually non-negotiable among the international community, the Armenian side is at a disadvantage regardless of the justice of its cause. It is also obvious that none of the existing forms of autonomy is likely to be acceptable to the Karabakh Armenians, who have been effectively independent of Azerbaijan for almost ten years. This is also likely to be true for the majority of the population of Armenia, though there are no exact figures as to whether the public still supports the demands of their Karabakh brothers to the same overwhelming extent as before. What is certain is that, with virtually no exceptions, there is no organized force in Armenian society that favors the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani rule in exchange for economic benefits. And, if there is one point on which the various political and intellectual elites both inside Armenia and in the diaspora agree, it is that Nagorno-Karabakh must never again be part of Azerbaijan.
The enmity between the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples is too strong to be eradicated in a few years. If President Ter-Petrosian is really sincere about ending the conflict by means of serious concessions, the only factor he can count on is his people’s fatigue. The people have suffered enormous deprivations throughout the war and blockade. If the Armenian president has indeed embarked on a diplomatic game then he has some grounds to believe that his country may avoid an international isolation and ostracism. The Karabakh Armenians are not perceived by the international community in the same light as, say, Bosnian Serbs led by indicted war criminals. Consequently, neither NATO or Russia is likely to resort to air strikes on Karabakh targets or to demand that Armenia seal its borders with Karabakh. Geography may also play a role here: Karabakh looms less large than Bosnia on the radar screens of NATO leaders, while Russia has not until now appeared averse to a situation that has kept Armenia and Azerbaijan at daggers drawn. The Armenian leadership may also expect Russia, with which it has traditionally close ties, to block any international action against it. The landmark Russia-Armenia treaty signed in August was seen by many as part of Yerevan’s wider effort to become a sort of Russian bulwark in the South Caucasus in exchange for Moscow’s support in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
However, two questions arise in this regard. Will Armenian diplomacy succeed in outmaneuvering Azerbaijan and the international community? Will Russia bank solely on Armenia at the expense of its geopolitical and economic (i.e., oil) interests in Azerbaijan? Answers to these questions may be available soon, as a diplomatic showdown seems to be on the cards. It may be that countries such as the United States, Russia and France, which have a stake in Azerbaijani oil projects, will get all the parties to reach a peace agreement. Failure to do so will increase the danger of a new war even more bitter than the previous one. A further possibility is that the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute will drag on for many years, like the decades-long conflicts in the Middle East and Cyprus. Surely, these are not encouraging prospects for the transnational oil giants that have invested billions of dollars in Azerbaijan.
Emil Danielyan is a political scientist and freelance writer living in Yerevan.
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