Since the 1994 cease-fire, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has been frozen. International mediators–individually, collectively, and on multiple tracks – have proffered a variety of peace proposals, yet no tangible results have been achieved. The peace process led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has thus far failed to provide an effective mechanism to buttress a settlement, while each conflicting side insists that the other meet its primary requirement before discussion of any other issue. Azerbaijan calls for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh before it will discuss the status of the region. Armenian side asserts that it will consider the troop withdrawal only when status of the region is determined in a way acceptable to Karabakh Armenians. Nagorno-Karabakh, now de facto independent from Azerbaijan and with a territorial link to Armenia, believes that Azerbaijan and the international community will eventually recognize de jure what de facto exists today. For eight years, the stalemate has remained in place and the situation at times appears immovable.
However, several factors suggest that there may be some movement in the stalled peace process, most likely after the upcoming presidential elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. First, the cease-fire, maintained without serious infringements and in the absence of observers or peacekeeping forces, rests on a politico-military equilibrium that discourages the recurrence of warfare and provides strong evidence of the unwillingness of either Armenia or Azerbaijan to renew fighting. Second, in the last two years the parties have come under increasing pressure from the international community to reach a settlement. Third, the efforts of the Minsk Group (a subset of the OSCE dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process) in search of a workable solution have grown more assertive. Fourth, Russia and the West seem to have narrowed their geopolitical differences in the south Caucasus since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and seem to be more serious about coordinating their peace efforts in the conflict. Finally, Presidents Robert Kocharian and Haidar Aliev seek to resolve their remaining differences by engaging themselves in an ongoing direct dialogue.
Nonetheless, what is impeding the peace settlement, and what can be done to bring about a breakthrough?
One problem is the hierarchic approach adopted by the international community towards the two equivalent principles of international law, which has placed territorial integrity of states over the right of people to self-determination. Prioritized by the United Nations when the issue was emancipation from colonial domination to gain independence and national sovereignty, self-determination is fully applicable to Nagorno-Karabakh’s quest for self-government, since it emerged as a leading actor in de-colonization and break-up of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s.
Fearful of setting a precedent for other conflicts or minority groups, international mediators have invested little in trying to reconcile these two seemingly incompatible principles in order to achieve a settlement acceptable to the parties. Rather, they have adopted an approach rooted in pragmatism and have tended to assess settlement options in view of their own national interest and a possible cumulative effect that a settlement could have on the balance of power in broader region and on the world order. For instance, the mediation undertaken by Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States, and other OSCE member states at one or another time, was motivated in large part by problems with minority groups in some of these countries or by their competing geopolitical, economic, and partisan interests.
Another problem is Azerbaijan’s refusal to negotiate with Nagorno-Karabakh as a full and principal party to the peace talks. In virtually all other post-Soviet conflicts, the national government sought at various points to enter into direct dialogue with ethnic or administrative entities claiming self-government (as in cases of Georgia or Russia in regards to Abkhazia and Chechnya, respectively), in order to seek for a possible settlement option. Azerbaijan, however, has preferred to negotiate only with Armenia. As a result, Azerbaijan has come to deal with the conflict as an international problem rather than nominally an internal affair, which contributed to a belief that Nagorno-Karabakh and its people were peripheral to the national identity of the Azeris. Most importantly, the refusal has made the Armenians feel doubtful about Azerbaijan’s eagerness to search for a settlement and has reinforced their sense that Azerbaijan’s insistence on the primacy of its territorial borders over the will of a people was merely a cover for the re-imposition of its domination over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The next problem is the prevailing practice of the international mediators to seek a major agreement on non-political issues–demilitarization, return of refugees, security guarantees, and lifting of blockades–before resolution of the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh. This has created enormous difficulties in the search for a settlement since all the problems stemming from the conflict–non-political and political alike–were of a multiple character and sturdily interrelated. This approach prompted the parties to adopt intractable negotiating positions in the peace talks and has thus proven to be unrealistic. While the most recent peace proposal introduced by the OSCE Minsk Group has called for the creation of a “common state”–a loose confederation between Azerbaijan and a fully self-governed Nagorno-Karabakh, it has only vaguely addressed the status of the region.
The major problem, however, is the setback in liberal reforms in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, which has weakened the ability of each president to forge a compromise. Problems in democratic consolidation and associated lack of broad-based popular support have often led to a hardening of the president’s respective position on Nagorno-Karabakh. In Azerbaijan, a series of flawed elections and a dubious constitutional referendum have eroded Haidar Aliev’s legitimacy, and opposition groups have strengthened their criticism of the regime. In Armenia, lawlessness has led to political apathy among the populace. While Robert Kocharian has regained control over the political scene after a long period of turmoil following the assassination of the country’s prime minister and speaker of parliament in October 1999, his position is still far from strong, despite the fact that Karabakh Armenians today dominate Armenia’s politics. Even if the two presidents found the courage to agree to a compromise in their present status, an outburst of indignation and accusations of treachery might follow.
One possibility for breaking through the impasse would be an interim agreement on a set of common principles along which the conflict is to be settled. Intended to initiate a series of intense negotiations for the peace accord, the agreement would incorporate a rudimentary deal on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh to suit the major requirement of the Armenian side, and a plan for withdrawal of troops to fulfill Azerbaijan’s demand. The lifting of all economic embargoes would possibly follow these two arrangements.
To be workable, the interim agreement should be backed by a financial commitment from the West for reconstruction and investment, and be enforced by an arrangement in which Armenia and Azerbaijan would be bound to cooperate militarily in order to ensure their security and the security of Nagorno-Karabakh. The arrangement could be set as a collective security infrastructure within NATO, possibly utilizing the instruments available to the south Caucasus nations in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Alternatively, it could be placed within an entirely separate, newly created regional infrastructure, including the United States, Russia, all countries of the south Caucasus, and other states bordering the region. Except for being a consolidating framework for conflict resolution and confidence building, the arrangement could essentially serve as an example of a non-military, constructive intervention of a politico-military infrastructure in regional economic development, integration, and the opening of transit routes.
While international mediation and post-conflict support are crucial, the actual breakthrough will have to be achieved by the conflicting sides themselves. Any compromise is likely to be out of the range of public expectations in either Armenia or Azerbaijan. However, it must include three major components reflecting the existing realities in the conflict. First, an equal degree of sovereignty of each of the parties to the conflict and a mutually agreed status for Nagorno-Karabakh with territorial access to Armenia. Second, withdrawal of troops and return of refugees and internally displaced persons from both sides. Third, firm security guarantees by the international community for all parties, enforced by deployment of an observer mission and a multinational buffer force along the line of contact.
Finally, in order to secure an environment conducive for a compromise, the international community needs to support onward democratic movement in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. It may be that only after the liberal transitions of power in both countries will the combination of state authority, government legitimacy, and a popular mandate for the governing elites be in place to achieve a comprehensive settlement to the conflict.
Tigran Martirosyan is director of programs at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, a Washington DC-based policy research center affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University-SAIS. Prior to this, Mr. Martirosyan held a senior diplomatic post in Armenia, specializing in the assessment of U.S. foreign and national security policies toward the South Caucasus.