Nagorno-Karabakh: "Putting the Freeze on a Frozen Conflict"
Nagorno-Karabakh: "Putting the Freeze on a Frozen Conflict"
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 3 minutes

Nagorno-Karabakh: "Putting the Freeze on a Frozen Conflict"

When war breaks out, the international community usually wakes up too late. But what if we could stop a war before it starts? What if we could run a test of prevention, on the ground, in a real situation?

We have that opportunity in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in the former Soviet Union where Armenia and Azerbaijan are preparing to go to war. A real opportunity exists to prevent an explosion before it happens.

Once mass violence has already started, it takes tremendous effort to stop the fighting and deal with a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation. It is in everyone's interest to avoid a repeat of the last conflict there. The 1991-94 war between the two former Soviet republics left some 25,000 dead and more than a million people displaced from their homes - an incredible toll for a strip of land hardly bigger than Rhode Island. The shaky cease-fire left Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, as well as significant adjacent territory in the hands of Armenian forces, and Azerbaijan has been spoiling to take it back.

This is often called a "frozen conflict," but despite the cease-fire, several thousand people have been killed across the line during the past 13 years, and the number of breaches is growing. Both countries have been investing massively in their military. Though full-scale war may be a few years away, this is hardly an excuse for complacency in brokering a solution, especially as Iran lies next door, and a number of key oil and gas pipelines pass through the potential zone of conflict.

The two states have repeatedly delayed moves toward resolving this dispute. Each seems to believe time is on its side: Armenia sees every day of its occupation as another step in normalizing its hold on the territory, while Azerbaijan feels its new oil revenues will allow it to militarily outspend its neighbor and, in time, retake its land by force. Constant state propaganda on both sides keeps their publics opposed to any concession, let alone reconciliation.

But halting the slide toward war might not be as impossible as it would first appear, and given the stakes, it is certainly worth a try. No comprehensive agreement is likely any time soon. But if the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group of France, Russia, and the United States, which has been mediating between the sides since 1992, could take one small, realistically achievable step soon, it would ease tensions and get the parties moving in a more constructive direction than the path toward renewed war.

It may not sound like much, but if the Minsk Group could get the parties to commit to a document on basic principles, it would be a very valuable achievement. Even such a lowest common denominator agreement would help minimize the Nagorno-Karabakh issue in the 2008 elections in both countries. Removing the temptation for politicians to play with that fire during the campaign seasons will cool public resistance to talks and ease the way for leaders to start proper negotiations quickly afterward.

The basic principles include, above all, a commitment not to use violence to resolve the issue. Armenian forces would commit to withdrawing from the territories they occupy around Nagorno-Karabakh. As far as Nagorno-Karabakh itself is concerned, it would be agreed that it would obtain some kind of interim status. International actors should be ready to provide help, including peacekeepers and other steps that can assist a smooth transition. The goal would be for both countries to facilitate the return of displaced persons before eventually holding a referendum to determine Nagorno-Karabakh's final status.

On the basis of these principles, which both sides have said they generally accept, a final agreement may become reality.

Of course, several issues remain disputed, but even if some of the most sensitive of those are left to be tackled later at least the parties could agree together in writing which these are. The most important thing is that the peace process would resume and that a bond between the two states, however thin, would be maintained.

This is where international actors will have to play a decisive role. The United States and its Minsk Group partners need to pressure Armenia and Azerbaijan to overcome their current lack of political will and sign a preliminary declaration on the basic principles.

This is a rare opportunity to solve a potential conflict before it explodes into mass killing - a chance to avoid the pain, and cost, of having to say "we acted too late" or "if only we knew." We know what happened in the past, and we have the tools to avoid it happening in the future. It just takes a small investment of diplomatic energy today.

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