Date: 19 August 2019
No Chance of Breakthrough on Nagorno-Karabakh
Another round of talks on Nagorno-Karabakh was held in June in Washington, bringing together the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss peaceful solutions to the thirty-year-long armed conflict in the region. Although June saw a relatively quiet situation on the front line, soldiers still die in sporadic battles fought on both sides. But is U.S. diplomacy likely to help establish peace in the Caucasus?
Armenia’s new leadership, which came to power in the spring of last year, raised interest in holding talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the framework of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, a mechanism co-chaired by the United States. More than a year has passed since, with Azerbaijan and Armenia – both of which entangled in the conflict – having managed to discuss the issue during several official meetings, of which one at the head-of-state level. And what is more, the atmosphere around the negotiations has improved, with Azerbaijan no longer referring to Armenia’s ruling team as “fascist junta,” while concrete results have been produced, making it possible to restore dialogue between Armenian and Azerbaijani decision-makers and exchange prisoners between the two countries. Given all this, it would seem that the negotiation process is undoubtedly going in the right direction. So what is still restraining these two from concluding a lasting peace agreement?
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The main problem is that, regardless of all mediation activities being currently carried out, none of the contending parties seems willing to make concessions. For their part, Caucasian journalists sometimes compare the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both of whose initial ideas were said to have failed, eventually bringing the disputed parties to a permanent standstill. In both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is of crucial importance for “ordinary citizens” and any attempt to make concessions could spark social outrage.
Armenians, who for 25 years have seized control over Nagorno Karabakh and the Lachin corridor, a passageway connecting Karabakh to Armenia, do not even acknowledge the possibility to be the first to retreat from at least some of the disputed territories. They argue that any security guarantees from Azerbaijan allegedly will not correspond to the reality, an issue that prevents Baku from giving the occupied lands back to Armenia. Instead, Armenia would insist as indicated by the current government in Yerevan that representatives of the internationally unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic sit at a negotiating table while “acknowledging the right to self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Azerbaijan, which administers the debated territories in the light of international law, firmly rejects Armenia’s stance, saying it cannot accept the independence of Nagorno Karabakh in exchange for the promise of future concessions. Also, Baku claims that the status of the said lands should serve as a starting point for further rounds of talks only if treated within the framework of the state of Azerbaijan. And this cannot be reconciled with Yerevan’s expectations.
What can Washington do?
The impasse over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict does not mean that Washington should not arbitrate in the peace process; it seems quite the opposite, especially if considering the U.S. meditation potential to have been insufficiently emphasized. Russia has for years overtaken peace talks on Nagorno Karabakh, making efforts to push forward its own initiatives, including the Lavrov Plan, outside the OSCE Minsk Group’s agenda. And on the other hand, Washington should aim at counterbalancing Russian influence while ensuring that all financial conclusions are made within the framework of the OSCE as an internationally recognized body.
Regardless of no current prospects for resolving the conflict, the U.S. commitment to at least keeping the status quo and preventing tensions from running high in the region remains itself a great value. Although what has taken place in Nagorno Karabakh is referred to as a “frozen” conflict, a few past years have seen up to several people killed on both sides of the front line. The current death toll has not changed ever since but is by no means conducive to prevent wide-ranging battles from being resumed. For just as politicians cannot admit making concessions in front of their own citizens, they may also seek to play the “Karabakh card” in a bid to consolidate public support. And even provocative gestures made by both parties to the conflict before subsequent rounds of peace talks, including among others unannounced military drills or meeting of Armenia’s Security Council in Nagorno Karabakh, may raise well-founded concerns.
A group of mediators, including the United States, should do their utmost to prevent the situation in the region from slipping out of control in an unexpected manner. This may seem little but allows carrying out further minor projects such as mine-clearance missions in front line zones, a step that might soon develop a trust-building process on both sides of the front line.
Mateusz Kubiak – a graduate of Eastern Studies and International Relations at the University of Warsaw. He runs a blog “Kaukaz Kaukaz” dedicated to events from the region.
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