For fifteen years Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the assistance of the international community have tried and failed to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Over this time politics in both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been defined by the conflict with both government and opposition political elites locking themselves into a corner from which they have found it difficult to emerge. Both sides have sought refuge in seemingly irreconcilable and maximalist comfort zones, usually articulated around the principles of territorial integrity by the Azerbaijani side and self determination by the Armenians. The lack of people-to-people contacts, fragile civil societies and intense hate propaganda and distrust between the two nations have, also acted as a stumbling block to a solution.
On the ground the 1994 negotiated ceasefire – which is largely self regulated – has remained pretty much intact although regular sniper fire continues on an almost daily basis with human lives continuing to be lost. Defence spending in both countries continues to increase and the possibility of a new war cannot be ruled out.
However, recent developments in the region have challenged the perception that maintaining the status quo is benefiting each side. The 2008 war in Georgia demonstrated the risks of allowing so-called frozen conflicts to simmer as well as demonstrating the human and political costs of attempting to resolve conflicts through military force. It also reminded the west of the vulnerability of investments and projects in the region aimed a diversifying Europe’s energy supplies.
The re-emergence of Turkey as an active player has also had a considerable impact on the region. Ankara’s Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (launched in the aftermath of the Georgia-Russia war) and Turkey’s groundbreaking rapprochement with Armenia has not only brought Karabakh back to the international agenda but also has the potential to change the regional dynamic in the South Caucasus.
Moscow was quick to draw a line separating events around the Georgia conflicts from the situation in Karabakh and has taken a lead role in encouraging the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to make progress in the process of resolving the Karabakh problem, sooner rather than later, through negotiation and not war. This has been enhanced by the change of leadership in Washington and President’s Obama’s willingness to “reset” relations with Moscow, a more hands on approach from the EU in its eastern neighbourhood; and a willingness by the West to revisit the debate on European security. For the first time there is a strong and collective drive from the international community to bring this conflict to an end.
2009 has seen six meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan and even usually sceptical diplomats are now expressing cautious optimism. At the last meeting in Munich on 22 November further progress was made towards reaching an agreement on the “Basic Principles” document which the two leaders have been negotiating under the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group since 2004. With a final deal apparently almost within reach the two sides, nudged along by the international community, need to find the courage and political will to overcome the remaining sticking points – including a formula on how to deal with defining the eventual final status of Nagorno Karabakh – and, crucially important, sell the deal to their societies.
With the end so close the international community needs to make the solution of Karabakh a priority – speaking with one voice and in more robust tones to both sides including the two populations. Procrastination should not be excused further for the sake of behind the scene deals on energy, military and security facilities or trade. Benign pressure should be placed on the two leaders to ensure they start the important process of bringing on board different elements of their own societies as stakeholders in the peace process. Armenia needs to be told that the continued occupation of Karabakh and the seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories is not acceptable nor sustainable. Azerbaijan needs to be told that any attempt to take back these lands with force, without a UN Security Council Resolution, will bring the country into direct confrontation with the international community. The fact that both Azerbaijan and Armenia want to be forward looking partners of the international community, wanting to be at the heart of regional economic processes and not marginalised in global and regional politics offers the international community an opportunity to influence events.
Karabakh also represents an opportunity for the European Union foreign policy, energised by the recently ratified Lisbon Treaty, providing an early chance for the newly restructured EU diplomatic service to show it can act quickly and effectively by bringing into play the combined resources of the Union and the member states. Once an agreement on Karabakh is in place the EU should act quickly to be present on the ground, taking a lead role in a multi-faceted peace operation whilst drawing on its experiences and lessons learnt in the Balkans. The EU can also, as in Georgia, lead the way in co-ordinating the rebuilding of the conflict region. All this can happen better if France can be persuaded to allow its role as Minsk Group co-chair to operate under an EU mandate. In the search for a final settlement on Karabakh the international community will need to be flexible and creative in advancing possible solutions. The straight forward black and white solutions of the past may not be applicable. Already there are in Europe interesting examples of unusual arrangements: for example Andorra, is a duumvirate with two Heads of State; and Liechtenstein is an example of a state that delegates some of its external representation to another state, and for some purposes to two other states. In the interim creative arrangements that will give those with a legitimate interest an opportunity to interact with the international community will be beneficial to the resolution of the conflict. The international community needs to show it is ready to carry more responsibility, by making a solution to the Karabakh conflict a priority, and by offering continued support to the “Minsk Process” whilst not using the “Minsk Process” as an excuse for inertia. If the present process collapses it will take years for an alternative to emerge and reach the point at which we are today. As 2009 comes to a close we are at the end of the beginning in the Karabakh conflict resolution process. It is vital that the window of opportunity that is now open should not be allowed to slam shut.
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