A moment of truth in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks?
A moment of truth in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks?
The Days After: Humanitarian Crisis and Prospects for Peace in Karabakh and the Region
The Days After: Humanitarian Crisis and Prospects for Peace in Karabakh and the Region
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 5 minutes

A moment of truth in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks?

The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has reached a “make or break” point. There is a real opportunity for Armenia and Azerbaijan to achieve a breakthrough in the protracted conflict in the coming few months by formally signing the framework agreement on the basic principles outlined by the OSCE Minsk Group mediators. However, as negotiations have gained momentum, expectations of an imminent breakthrough in the talks have been called into question as the Armenian and, to a lesser degree, Azerbaijani leaderships deal with domestically entrenched maximalist forces opposed to a compromise. If the talks fail now, Armenia and Azerbaijan may find themselves trapped in a spiralling military escalation which will have unpredictable consequences for both countries and for wider regional security.

Most of the optimism still present about a possible breakthrough in the talks stems from the fact that the international climate today is arguably more favourable to a peaceful resolution than at any time in the past. The US, Russia and France, as co-chairs of the Minsk Group, have joined efforts to facilitate a negotiated solution, sharing a similar vision based on peaceful resolution of the conflict within the framework of the “basic principles” document (also known as the “Madrid proposals”). Importantly, both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides have largely accepted the basic principles as a framework for negotiations, which make it harder and politically more risky than before for either party to the conflict to reject it and expect to start negotiations on different grounds.

Two major regional developments – the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 and the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement – have increased international attention on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the sense of urgency to achieve a breakthrough in the stalemated talks.

The August 2008 war in Georgia demonstrated that the regional status quo is fragile, unsustainable and threatening, not only to the South Caucasus, but also to wider European security. Facing seemingly insurmountable differences on Georgia, the US/EU and Russia have shifted their focus to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a more promising area for common action in the Caucasus, thus helping them to “reset” their relations.

Russia retains its desire to dominate the region and keep it within its “sphere of influence”. However, it has also come to understand that its long-term interests are better served by leading the international effort to peacefully transform the unsustainable Nagorno-Karabakh status quo. In this sense, Russia also views its mediation efforts within the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) Minsk Group as a means to promote its regional influence.

The Turkey-Armenia normalization process has further focused international attention on the Nagorno-Karabakh talks. Turkey has made it clear that it will not improve relations with Armenia at the expense of damaging relations with Azerbaijan. According to Ankara, reopening the Turkish-Armenian border, which is a key element of the protocols signed by the leaders of the two countries in October 2009, will require some sort of a parallel progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks. To sustain the Turkey-Armenian normalisation, the Minsk Group mediators face a new sense of urgency to achieve parallel progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks.

However, while there exist implicit connections between Turkey-Armenia normalisation and the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations, both these processes are quite complex in their own right. If they are tied together too much, both may be further complicated which is in nobody’s interest. Given the differing complexities of the issues (opening of the border and withdrawal) it would be wrong to assume that Turkey will open its border with Armenia only after a final resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or withdrawal from most of the occupied territories by Armenian forces. Opening the Turkey-Armenia border is a quickly implementable measure, while an Armenian withdrawal and agreement on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh is a much more complex, long-term process.

Therefore, it seems that the “progress” that Ankara is looking for does not necessarily have to be an actual start of Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijani occupied territories, as it insisted in 1993 when it closed the border due to Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory, but could rather be an agreement on the framework agreement on the basic principles proposed by the Minsk Group. If Turkey wants to reopen borders with Armenia without burning its bridges with Azerbaijan, it is important that Baku also accept that a framework agreement is sufficient to accept Turkey-Armenian border opening. Yerevan’s cooperation on, and acceptance of, the basic principles document is key for both processes to move forward.

In contrast to the favourable international environment, the domestic circumstances in both Armenian and Azerbaijani societies remain the biggest obstacle to a resolution. Contrary to some arguments, the source of the problem is not the general public and their alleged “unpreparedness” for peace. Rather, the problem lies with the political elites, both within the government and the political opposition, which have fomented public fears and concerns in order to gain/retain political power and also to gain more trump cards at the negotiation table by using segments of their power base as political pawns. This is a vicious circle, however. By perpetuating maximalist expectations within their populations, the elites push themselves further into a corner. They are becoming hostage to their own maximalist rhetoric and are increasingly unable to reconcile domestic and international pressures.

Most importantly in the immediate future, the leadership both in Armenia and Azerbaijan need to gain public support for this phase of the peace process – agreeing on a document on basic principles – by explaining to their publics that the principles in themselves do not represent a final peace deal, but are rather a first step in a negotiation process with no predetermined decision on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Because of deliberate misrepresentation and a lack of public discussion, the basic principles have been largely viewed as a plot to legitimise Nagorno-Karabakh’s secession in Azerbaijan, while many Armenians believe the principles would lead to Nagorno-Karabakh’s reintegration with Azerbaijan against the will of the people who live in the region. As a result of these perceptions, the dynamism in the peace process and talk of an imminent agreement on the basic principles do not resonate well with the wider population. On the contrary, they are regarded with suspicion and increase the sense of insecurity. Without bridging this gap between the international and domestic perceptions of the peace process, it will be impossible for the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments to sign the basic principles agreement.

At this crucial time, it is of utmost importance that the international mediators keep up their concerted efforts to encourage the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments to agree on the framework document on basic principles that would form a basis for an eventual peace agreement. Most importantly, the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments should engage their populations in a genuine debate about the existing options on the negotiation table and make a genuine effort to persuade them that the gains to be achieved from a peaceful and gradual change in the status quo far outweigh any perceived advantages of clinging to the status quo. Greater public awareness on the issues and options and their implications would diminish feelings of insecurity which, in turn, would untie the hands of the negotiators and allow them to move forward.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.