The Middle East is at the top of the international community’s political agenda: The “Arab Spring” and developments in Libya remain priorities. On June 24, however, the world was looking to the Russian city of Kazan, where the Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijan presidents were meeting to discuss the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Before the meeting, local analysts had expressed anxiety about a new war. They spoke of a “Caucasus Winter,” suggesting that political relations between regional countries were becoming increasingly frosty and that the region might return to the international spotlight. Other analysts have given exclusive focus to the issues raised by the Arab Spring revolutions as they might be transferred to the Caucasus, but the question of this possible “Winter” carries far more urgency.
Before the Kazan meeting, the international community shared these fears about the re-opening of the conflict and Kazan was described as the “last chance for peace.” These hopes for the Kazan meeting followed what many consider to be an unprecedented joint statement by the United States, Russian and French presidents, at the G8 Summit in Deauville, France on May 26. The presidents of Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan issued a joint statement after Kazan, to say the parties have recorded progress on the Basic Principles of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution.
It seems the main unresolved and contentious issues between the parties involved are the “basic principles” of the “Madrid Principles,” proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group in 2007. After years of debate between the relevant parties, there is still some way to go before the “Madrid Principles” are accepted as the basis for peaceful political resolution. However, the procedural parameters for the settlement as described in the Madrid Principles are clear. This is the basic formula that has underpinned all previous attempts to negotiate a deal and which has been publically accepted by the Azerbaijani government, although Baku has attempted to compromise by offering to give Nagorno-Karabakh the “highest level of autonomy” within its territory (much as Tatarstan functions inside the Russian Federation). There is certainly a feeling within government circles in Azerbaijan that the current process is payback for the past years of “failed hopes,” and in the absence of pressure on Armenia by the international community, the peace process has served only to support and solidify the status quo. This is why Azerbaijan saw the Kazan meeting as a key opportunity to establish a concrete peace process. The fear was that if this discussion fails to provide any further developments, as they have in the past, Azerbaijan may boycott future meetings.
In order to fully understand the dynamics of the peace negotiations and the current stalemate, it is important to consider the underlying basis of the Armenian position. On a practical level, Yerevan is under pressure from both Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto authorities and the Armenian Diasporas, notably in the U.S. These groups are more nationalistic and less willing to compromise than opposition parties within Armenia itself, due in the former instance to “frontier spirit,” in the latter, to the luxury of distance. These groups exercise financial, political and ideological leverage over the Armenian government and are certainly not beholden to its policies. Any pledge by Armenia to withdraw from the districts surrounding Karabakh will face staunch opposition in Khankendi (Stepanakert) and could push the Nagorno-Karabakh separatist’s military to launch attacks against Azerbaijan, as a means of disrupting the peace process. The fact that Armenia is building an airport in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan constitutes a real provocation; if Azerbaijan responds with military action, then it will be easier for Armenia to argue that Azerbaijan poses a threat to peace. The risk is that that the resolution framework will be abandoned and replaced by unilateral – and potentially military – approaches by both sides. This was demonstrated in a recent BBC Russia interview with Ter-Petrosyan, former president and the current leader of Armenia’s opposition. He argued “the Karabakh conflict has not been resolved because the people of Karabakh demonstrated a maximalist approach – they decided that this was not enough, they could push harder and get more… And not just people in Karabakh,” said the ex-president, who was forced to resign in February 1998, less than half a year after presenting his vision for ending the conflict.
It might reasonably be asked: Is this process about delineating the terms of a fair peace agreement, or is it about sustaining the status quo?
Obviously, each time the peace process has been restarted, we have heard the same kinds of hopeful statements from the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs and the same counsel from political analysts. Each time we have been told that those who criticize the Armenian position are “opponents of peace.” But each time, this flawed political process has brought us no closer to a workable solution. Perhaps it is time to imagine a different process, one that takes seriously both the security concerns of Karabakh Armenians and the rights of Karabakh Azerbaijanis, as seriously need be. In other words, the ultimate objective of the settlement process is to elaborate and define a political model and legal framework for the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan believes the process of defining any such status shall take place in normal peaceful conditions with direct, full and equal participation of the region’s entire population, namely the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities, with constructive interaction with the government of Azerbaijan and within the framework of a lawful and democratic process.
Last but not least, what the peace process procedure needs is a change in its “location”; it does not need to change its current format, only strong support and innovation can lead to resolution. Otherwise, the international political agenda will feature the war of the “Caucasus Winter,” war and chaos as seen in August 2008, or a continued silence of “no war, no peace,” as is seen internationally. The international community must bring “Spring” to the Caucasus and this means peace, constructive discussion (as in the 2001 Key West and 2006 Rambue talks). What we do not need is fruitless discussion based on copy-pasting of the Arab demonstrations. In the near future, the involvement of the international community in the peace process is a source of optimism; that is to say, the U.S., and France as a representative of the EU could bring a breath of “fresh air” to the process.
Zaur Shiriyev is a Foreign Policy Analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Baku, Azerbaijan and the Executive Editor of Caucasus International journal.
© 2011 Hurriyet Daily News