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Time to change of ‘status quo’ in Karabakh conflict

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Peace talks to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been under way for more than a decade with virtually no tangible progress. The last few weeks looked like a crash course in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, replete with the grandeur of talks and lofty speechmaking by even those most committed to the peace process.

In Yerevan on Sunday, OSCE co-chairs met with Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbadian to further discuss the basic principles for the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Armenia has so far declined to publicly clarify its response to the still unpublicized changes made in the so-called Madrid document. It seems strange that on one hand, Armenia states it is ready to discuss the updated Madrid principles, but on the other hand, it argues that the fundamental provisions of this package are not suitable enough.

The Madrid principles were put forward by the foreign ministers of the countries of the Minsk Group at the OSCE ministerial meeting in Madrid in 2007. An updated version of the principles put forward in late 2009 has been the subject of discussions between the mediators, Armenia and Azerbaijan ever since. The Madrid principles include the return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, an interim status for Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance, and the future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh though a legally binding expression of will. Azerbaijan accepts the updated principles in general. But there are two issues are important for the Azerbaijani side that Armenia doesn’t accept.

Firstly, there are the relevant decisions of the OSCE to hold negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In the current stage, the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh cannot join the peace process (according to a March 1992 decision by the at the Helsinki meeting of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe: “Elected and other representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh will be invited to the [Peace] Conference as interested parties”).

It should be noted that the controversy over the question of who are direct parties to the conflict and who are “interested parties” concerns not the substance of the conflict, but the strategic political calculations of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani parties. Most independent observers agree that the Karabakh conflict is an inter-state conflict directly involving Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Secondly, the referendum (Madrid document does not explicitly mention “referendum”) on the status of the disputed territory is one of the stages of peace settlement, as set out in the Madrid principles for resolving the conflict. Holding a referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh is considered “illegal,” as under Azerbaijan’s constitution any referendum in the country must cover the entire territory of the country, not just one part.

Recent developments in the peace process have challenged the perception that maintains the status quo is benefiting Armenia, for example Armenia’s efforts to consolidate the status quo of occupation and particularly its continued illegal settlement and drug trafficking (according to the 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report) in the occupied territories. Meanwhile, Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council’s four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the surrounding occupied territories. Karabakh Azeris stand out as the most obvious losers from the protraction of the current status quo. Karabakh Azeris believe the status quo harms their interests by increasingly depriving them of the opportunity to influence decisions directly affecting them and diminishing their chances of returning to their homeland.

The three mediators of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process so far seem successful in pushing Armenia and Azerbaijan toward a compromise. The parties are expected to sign a framework document later this year as an initial step of a long settlement process.

It’s clear that the final deal apparently is almost within reach of the two sides. Nudged along by the international community, they 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. The power sharing in Karabakh in the initial post-conflict stage would most probably take the form of extreme consociationalism, as in Bosnia from 1995-1997. Considering the recent memories, low levels of trust, and weak association of the parties’ interests, this arrangement would have a strong inclination toward elements of self-rule.

Demographic separation of the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in the initial phases is also necessary for dampening the security dilemma associated with intermingled settlement patterns. A middle ground between the need for certain ethnic partition and the right of the forcefully displaced Azerbaijani population to return to their homes can be found in forming two ethnic Armenian and Azeri zones. However, it is very important not to repeat mistakes of power sharing in Cyprus (1960-1963) and Bosnia (esp. during 1995-1997).

The common negative feature of these power-sharing arrangements was that they did not provide enough incentives for the conflicting ethnic groups to cooperate in common governing structures. Despite the seemingly irreconcilable position of Armenia, a solution to the Karabakh problem does not necessarily imply win-lose outcomes. Common ground can be found even in the sine qua non positions of the parties. There is a historic chance of making real progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, which is likely to make the Caucasus a better place to live.

Finally, 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 peace process.

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