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Karabakh After Astana Summit

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Despite widespread hopes and even expectations that the OSCE summit in Astana would bring progress toward the resolution of what has become known as the Karabakh conflict, that did not happen.  And while some diplomats are already seeking to put the best face on things by noting that “at least” there was a meeting between Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, something that was uncertain until the very last moment, the failure to make discernable progress in the negotiations raises some serious questions about the future of that conflict and the role of the OSCE’s Minsk Group in those discussions.

To understand why expectations were so high, it is necessary to recall three things.  First, because Kazakhstan was OSCE chairman-in-office during the last year and because Astana had made it clear that progress on Karabakh was near the top of its agenda, many assumed that it very much hoped to orchestrate an accord to be announced at this summit meeting.  Second, the intensity of visits and meetings of the OSCE Minsk Group, which consists of an American, French and Russian co-chair, has rarely been greater than over the last few months, a pattern that suggested the parties were making progress.  And third, in support of the Minsk Group and the presidents of the two other co-chair countries, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had taken a more active role in recent times, something many commentators have suggested is a pre-condition for progress.

Moreover, pressure seemed to be growing on Armenia to accept the modified Madrid Principles that would lead to Armenian withdrawal more or less immediately from five Azerbaijani districts and parts of a sixth as well as to an ultimate Armenian withdrawal from Karabakh itself.  Turkey had made it clear that its opening to Yerevan would not really take off until Armenia agreed to this arrangement and began to implement it.  Ever more countries, including Iran, and international organizations, such as NATO and the European Union, have adopted increasingly toughly-worded resolutions in support of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.  And Russia, despite its cultural sympathies with Armenia, has demonstrated that it is more interested in Azerbaijan as the ultimate prize of its Caucasus policy.

But despite that, there was little or no movement.  Azerbaijan has already agreed to the renewed Madrid principles, but Armenia’s leaders, apparently concluding that they have nothing to lose by simply maintaining the status quo, refused to make any significant steps in the direction of a final accord, despite the president of one Minsk Group co-chair country, the prime minister of a second and the secretary of state of the third and despite the hopes and even expectations of many who are concerned that the OSCE must demonstrate its ability to solve such conflicts or become increasingly irrelevant.

When it became obvious that no agreement was going to take place in Astana, the co-chair countries issued a statement which “recalled the joint statements of the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, with the President of the Russian Federation, on November 2, 2008, in Moscow, and on October 27, 2010, in Astrakhan.  They further agreed that a peaceful, negotiated settlement will bring stability and security and is the only way to bring real reconciliation to the peoples of the region.  “The Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan reaffirmed their commitment to seek a final settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, based upon: the principles and norms of international law; the United Nations Charter; the Helsinki Final Act; as well as the statements of Presidents Medvedev, Sarkozy, and Obama, at L’Aquila on July 10, 2009, and at Muskoka on June 26, 2010.”

And “the three OSCE Co-Chair countries pledged their support for the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia as they make the necessary decisions to reach a peaceful settlement.  They urged the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to focus with renewed energy on the issues that still remain in the Basic Principles, and instructed their Co-Chairs to continue to work with the parties to the conflict to assist in these efforts.  In order to create a better atmosphere for the negotiations, they called for additional steps to strengthen the ceasefire and carry out confidence-building measures in all fields,” the kind of language diplomats use to conceal failure rather than to trumpet success.

President Aliyev was more openly angry about Armenia’s failure to move toward a resolution of the dispute.  “Today,” he declared, “Armenia uses force to keep the occupied territories under its control and to block the return of internally displaced persons to their homelands.  Nevertheless,” he said, “Azerbaijan remains committed to peace talks and the principles laid out by various international organizations.”

Unfortunately, the Azerbaijani leader continued, “instead of conducting negotiations toward the resolution of the conflict, Armenia continues to prefer to escalate the conflict, violate the ceasefire regime, conduct military exercises in the occupied territories, change the names of [Azerbaijani] cities and villages, pursues an illegal settlement policy, and attempt to transform the peace process into a senseless exercise.”

“Such behavior,” President Aliyev said, “gives grounds for thinking that Armenia does not intend to free the occupied territories but instead wants to maintain the status quo for a long period and make the talks conducted with the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group into something meaningless.”  We have been talking “for 20 years,” he said, “but there is no result.  We are ready to continue negotiations, conclude them quickly and reach an outcome based on the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and corresponding to international norms and principles.”

What is this failure going to mean for the future of the Karabakh conflict in general and for the OSCE Minsk Group in particular?  Many officials and political leaders in Azerbaijan, from President Aliyev on down, have stressed that they are not prepared to wait forever for the return of the occupied territories and that Baku has the resources to take them back by force if Armenia refuses to negotiate in good faith.  Usually, statements in this regard have been seen as part of the negotiating process, as the sticks behind any carrots, rather than as an actual threat of imminent action.

But clearly, Armenia’s unwillingness to be more forthcoming at Astana will lead to an increase in the volume of such statements, and Armenia may find itself confronted with the need to increase its own military effort or, more likely, to defer even more to an expanded Russian military presence, something that might prevent a conflict in the short term but that would expose Yerevan to even greater Russian influence over time, influence that Moscow would likely use eventually to secure a settlement in Karabakh that Azerbaijan would be happy about.

(Many analysts have long assumed that because of the religious and cultural ties between Russians and Armenians and because Moscow in
the past has benefited from tensions in the region that the Russian government will never change its position.  But as one extremely wise Azerbaijani observer put it not long ago, in the South Caucasus, for Russia, “Georgia is the way, Armenia is the tool, but Azerbaijan is the prize.”  Consequently, if Moscow does conclude that it stands to gain enormous influence in Azerbaijan by shifting away from Armenia, it is a near certainty that Russia will do just that.)

A military conflict is thus not likely in the short term unless something terrible goes wrong, and that is in itself a kind of victory.  But if the guns are not going to fire, ever more people are going to ask some serious questions about the negotiations themselves, given, as President Aliyev pointed out, their lack of progress over almost a generation.  And that means there may be calls for organizing a new grouping, especially as many of the participants at Astana pointed out that the OSCE should be renamed, reorganized, or otherwise transformed.

A shift on this point in the very near term may be unlikely as well.  But as the actions of Russian President Medvedev have shown, the role of individual countries may expand at the expense of the Minsk Group.  That may complicate matters, especially since the Minsk Group was drawn from the membership of the only international organization in which all the countries of the South Caucasus region or abutting it are included except Iran.  Clearly, Iran like Turkey is going to want to have a larger role than it has had in the past, and that too will put pressure on all the parties for a new venue.

What form this might take is unclear, but it seems likely that there will be more bilateral efforts and somewhat fewer multilateral ones, a pattern that will reflect growing recognition of a fundamental reality: Ultimately, the two countries most immediately involved are going to have to agree, regardless of what the international community says.  Azerbaijan, as President Aliyev said, is ready to do so.  Astana showed that Armenia is not.

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