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Endgame or Game End? The OSCE Minsk Group and the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

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Never in the period of its existence has the OSCE Minsk Group been subjected to as much criticism as it has been in the last several months, a development that has led some to conclude that this structure, set up to find a resolution of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Karabakh and the other occupied territories, has had its day, should be replaced by some other entity, or, because of its failure to achieve its goals, has opened the way to new military action.

Any of those directions is of course possible, but an examination of current complaints about the Minsk Group and their sources suggests that what may be going on instead is not the end of this game but an endgame, with various players positioning themselves to deal with the likelihood that a new constellation of geopolitical forces may actually allow for the resolution of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict on something very much like the revised Madrid Principles that the Minsk Group is now pushing.

There are three distinct categories of criticism, each of which should be considered in terms of whether it reflects a commitment to push forward with the Minsk process or to dispense with it and try a different approach.  First, and perhaps paradoxically, are the three co-chair countries, Russia, France, and the United States.  While all publicly declare their support for the Minsk Group, each over the last few months has sought to present itself as uniquely positioned to promote a settlement.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev has intervened to organize bilateral talks between the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Russian diplomats and commentators have pointed out that only Russia has chosen to have its president actively involved in the negotiations, statements that either represent an effort by Moscow to position itself to arrange a settlement or to take credit for one that the Minsk Group may achieve.  At the same time, given Moscow’s historical links to Yerevan, Medvedev’s actions are clearly intended to signal to the Armenians that Russia will not support any outcome in which their interests would be sacrificed.

At the same time, and again while professing support for the Minsk Group process, France has signed a military agreement with Armenia and offered to sign one with Azerbaijan, something that could possibly give Paris unique leverage in the South Caucasus and also put it in place either to take credit for a Minsk Group-brokered outcome or to promote one of its own.  Finally, the United States has repeatedly stressed its support for the Minsk Group but also indicated that President Barak Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are committed to resolving the conflict, again positioning Washington to take credit for what may happen.

The second source of criticism is more direct.  It comes from two countries that believe they should be allowed to play a bigger role in the process.  On the one hand, Turkey has been seeking to become a co-chair of the Minsk Group, a move that Armenia would certainly oppose.  And on the other, Iran has pressed its case for playing a bigger role in the South Caucasus, declaring its support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity despite Tehran’s longstanding ties with Yerevan.  In each case, the criticism of the current Minsk Group looks more like positioning for a post-settlement world than an attack on the modified Madrid principles.

And the third source is from Azerbaijan where officials from President Ilham Aliyev on down have argued that if the conflict is not resolved soon, there will be no choice but to use military force to reclaim the occupied territories.  Because any such use of force would destabilize the entire South Caucasus and threaten the flow of hydrocarbons out of the Caspian Basin, these threats have received a great deal of attention in the West, with many seeing them as a rejection by Baku of any compromise brokered by the Minsk Group.

But that reading almost certainly is incorrect.  Baku’s declarations in this regard are certainly intended to put pressure on the Minsk Group and on Armenia to settle the conflict on the basis of the recognition of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, something the modified Madrid Principles already require.  And thus what may appear to some as a rejection of Minsk Group in reality should be seen as part of an endgame, as an effort to reach an accord on a conflict that has lasted two decades.

The reasons behind this more optimistic reading are three: First, as a result of the Georgian war, Armenia lost its land route out.  That has forced it to seek a rapprochement with Turkey, something that Ankara has made completely clear will be possible if and only if there is real progress on the occupied territories.  Second, having destabilized the Caucasus by its military action in Georgia, Russia has an interest in presenting itself as a peacemaker rather than a troublemaker in the Caucasus.  Moreover, for Moscow now as in the past, as one wise Azerbaijani put it, “Georgia is the way, Armenia is the tool, and Azerbaijan is the prize,” something that a settlement on the basis of the Madrid Principles might put Russia in a position to claim.

And third, no one, not the three Minsk Group co-chairs nor Azerbaijan nor Armenia nor any of the region’s neighbors, wants to see the conflict reignited.  Were that to happen, there would be a very great danger that what started as a limited military effort by Azerbaijan to reclaim the Armenian-occupied territories would grow into a war that would have the most negative consequences on far more countries than those just immediately involved.
Consequently, there are good reasons to think that the Minsk Group and its proposals may succeed, but perhaps equally good reasons to fear that it has only a limited window of opportunity, one that if it shuts could transform the current endgame into something else, the end of the current game and the beginning of a much larger and inherently more dangerous one.

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