On July 10, at the conclusion of the G-8 summit in Italy, the presidents of the three countries who occupy three co-chairmanships of the OSCE Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh – US President Barak Obama, Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy – delivered what many observers are calling an almost unprecedented “ultimatum” to the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia, “urging” them “to resolve the few remaining differences between them and finalize their agreement” on “a renewed version” of the November 2007 Madrid Principles, “which will outline a comprehensive settlement.”
Those principles, according to a fact sheet released by the White House, include:
The return of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control;
An interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance;
A corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh;
Future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will;
The right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and
International security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.
Endorsement of these Basic Principles by Baku and Yerevan, the White House statement continued, “will allow the drafting of a comprehensive settlement to ensure a future of peace, stability, and prosperity for Armenia and Azerbaijan and the broader region” (White House 2009)
This unusual declaration raises many questions, three of which deserve immediate attention. First, why did the three powers decide to issue it now? Second, can the two presidents in fact agree on these principles given their statements and the attitudes of key constituencies? And third, given the internal contradictions contained within this set of principles, would any such agreement in fact point toward peace or alternatively to an armistice likely to be broken by one or another group in the future?
In what is far and away the most thoughtful exploration of this question, Sergey Markedonov, a leading specialist on ethnic issues at the Moscow Institute for Political and Military Analysis, says that in addition to a general weariness about this long, drawn out conflict and the general desire of great powers to solve “headaches” they cannot readily exploit, each of the three leaders involved in this declaration had his reasons (Markedonov 2009).
The new American President Barak Obama clearly wanted to demonstrate, Markedonov suggests, that Washington under his leadership will pursue a “realistic” and “pragmatic” course in foreign affairs, one that will be open to compromise rather than driven by a single ideological line. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also had good reasons to sign on to this declaration. Not only could he thus demonstrate that Moscow is not a revisionist power as its actions in Georgia last year appeared to show, but he can boost his own standing at home and abroad by showing a willingness to seek agreement rather than conflict with others. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy, although definitely the third man in this action, certainly cherishes the reputation he won last year in the Georgian war as “an honest broker,” a reputation that increases his clout not only within Europe but more generally.
And while Markedonov does not stress it, the “renewed” Madrid principles offer something for everyone as they attempt to square the circle by nodding both to the legitimacy of internationally recognized borders, something Azerbaijan and the Minsk Group has insisted upon, and the right of nations to self-determination, a principle that lies at the foundation of the Nagorno-Karabakh movement and Armenia’s approach to this conflict. Consequently, each of the three leaders, just like leaders in Baku and Yerevan, can point to various parts of the declaration and claim victory for his position.
Can Baku and Yerevan Agree?
For three reasons, it is entirely possible that President Ilham Aliyev and President Serzh Sargsyan will be able to agree on this renewed declaration at their upcoming Moscow meeting or soon thereafter. First, agreeing on this will please the great powers while committing them to little more than continuing to talk because neither side would have to take any action until a final agreement is worked out. Second, each side will interpret the principles in its own way, stressing the importance of one over the other or defining any particular step in ways that will maximize benefits to himself and his country. And third, there could be real costs to either or both by not agreeing now, whatever they plan to do in the future. If they were to turn this proposal down, international attention to the issue might decline, the Minsk Group could disintegrate, and the dangers of a new explosion of violence could increase.
But if there are powerful reasons for them to agree, there are also three reasons why they might not. First, both leaders have taken an increasingly hard line in recent months, specifying that they are prepared to wait until they get what their side wants or even use violence if that is the only way to achieve their goals. Any backing away could have serious consequences domestically, prompting those who are most committed to the respective national positions to assert themselves in one or another ways.
Second, while each leader certainly benefits from the political cover that international pressure can provide domestically, neither wants to be seen by his own people as anything but an independent actor on the world stage, one capable of defending and advancing the interests of his nation. And third, the two leaders in the room are not the only players in this game, even if they are the only ones with a seat at the table. On the Azerbaijani side, there is the Movement for the Liberation of Karabakh; and on the Armenian side, there are both opposition groups who hope to exploit any agreement even on principles and the powers that be in Nagorno-Karabakh itself who will almost certainly try to torpedo any accord, even a preliminary one, that they believe is not in their interest. 
As the leaders of outside powers have sometimes appeared to forget, for Azerbaijanis and Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh is not a side issue. It is an existential struggle that defines who and what each of these nations are and even more what they have been and can become. That reality, one that as Markedonov says is “neither good not bad” but just is, can play havoc with the careful calculations of diplomats who sometimes make too much of legal niceties and logic and ignore the powerful forces of historical memory and current emotions.
Will these Principles lead to an Agreement and Such an Agreement to Peace?
But however that may be, the most intriguing and beyond any doubt most important question is whether these “renewed” principles can lead to a final agreement, or whether this declaration and even its acceptance will be just another milestone on a road without any clear end.
Because these principles seek to offer something to both sides, they are internally inconsistent or extremely ambiguous and uncertain. The most obvious inconsistency is between the call by one principle for the return to Azerbaijani control of territories surround Nagorno-Karabakh and the call by another to create a corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, something that did not exist before the conflict but that Armenia would not want under Azerbaijani control.
A second is between the call that Nagorno-Karabakh’s “final legal status” could be determined by “a legally binding expression of will” and the call for the right of all IDPs and refugees to return. On the one hand, if there is to be a vote, it is very much an open question as to who would take part. And on the other, if the vote called for Nagorno-Karabakh to be independent or part of Armenia, it seems unlikely that the right of those displaced could or would be respected.
And a third involves the big question of how Nagorno-Karabakh’s “interim status” would be defined, how its “security and self-governance” would be provided for, and who would make up the “peacekeeping operation” that the principles say would represent “international security guarantees.” Will the current rulers in Khankendi be allowed to police the interim arrangements, and will Russia be willing to allow any other country to provide peacekeepers – and will any other country be willing to do so?
Any of these questions could be deal breakers even if the two presidents agree to what the leaders of the three great powers have proposed, an indication of both the extraordinarily difficult task involved in solving a conflict like the one over Nagorno-Karabakh and of the extraordinary obstacles even the strongest powers have in imposing their will on those who have their own goals and agendas and are not willing to give up what they consider most important.
Markedonov, Sergey (2009) “Стратегия Миротворческого Ускорения” [“A Strategy of the Speed-Up of Peacekeeping Efforts”], Politcom.Ru, 13 July, available at http://www.politcom.ru/8492.html (accessed July 14, 2009).
RFE/RL (2009) “Medvedev Signals Support For Acting Ingushetian President”, RFE/RL, 15 July, available at http://www.rferl.org/archive/The_Caucasus/latest/963/963.html (accessed 14 July 2009).
White House, the (2009) ‘Joint Statement on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict’, 10 July, available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Joint-Statement-on-the-Nagorno-Karabakh-Conflict/ (accessed 14 July 2009).