Author: Namig HASANOV
“The year 2019 will give a new impetus to the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process,” President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said on Twitter after his talks with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In turn, the Russian diplomat noted that he felt a sincere attitude of the Azerbaijani President to resume negotiations and search for ways of compromise. This can be viewed as a good sign, since for the most of 2018, the negotiation process has been actually frozen.
The Lavrov Plan
Sergey Lavrov, who arrived to Baku to take part at the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, could not at all touch on the subject of Karabakh, as there are many other issues in the big Black Sea region that deserve close attention of Russia and regional countries. But in the existing situation, the issue of resolving the Karabakh conflict is a matter of image for Moscow. Freezing of talks on this issue due to the change of power in Armenia and the increasing signals about the drift of Yerevan towards the West may imply the weakening of the Kremlin’s influence in the South Caucasus. Therefore, Russia, represented by its minister of foreign affairs, hint at the end of the year that there would be peace in Karabakh, and this would happen under the auspices of Moscow. But it is not difficult to guess what kind of peace this will turn out to be: unofficial renaming of the Madrid Principles into the Lavrov Plan clearly points to the key mediator in the peace process.
“We are not going to look for fundamentally new solutions, as the basic principles of settlement are well known. Rather we will try to find such tactical and creative ideas that can help build a consensus”. It is this statement of Lavrov, which he has made after meeting with President Aliyev, that bears the underlying concept of resolution for the upcoming year of negotiations.
Pashinian and elections
As mentioned above, the reason why the negotiation process was frozen is very clear. One of the parties to the conflict had a period of internal political instability, and in fact a change of power. At the beginning of the year, it was still quite realistic to reach peace in Karabakh. Intensive meetings at different levels between0 Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia gave some optimistic hopes. Serzh Sargsyan came to a clear understanding that without peace with Baku, Armenia will long remain in the Middle Ages. Russia has in fact managed to bring the interested parties to peaceful resolution of the conflict, appealing to the fact that the real situation is absolutely not reflecting global integration projects. Accordingly, the status quo stubbornly supported by Sargsyan, was no longer beneficial for both Russia or Armenia.
However, the processes of extreme radicalisation of Armenian population initiated earlier by the former leader of Armenia, have suddenly gave the opposite effect. Demonstrations in Yerevan in April 2018 took place out of the blue. Possible concessions to Azerbaijan in the Karabakh issue have become one of the main claims of the Armenian opposition to the authorities. Back in 1998, it was the same argument that the Karabakh clan of S. Sargsyan manipulated to overthrow Levon Ter-Petrosian. Twenty years later, skilfully using the factor of Armenian nationalism, Pashinian and his supporters put the country's leadership in an unpleasant dilemma: either to transfer power, or to face yet another bloodshed in Yerevan, right before the tenth anniversary of the sad events of 2008.
Sargsyan chose the first, hoping that his voluntary surrender would be appreciated. However, subsequent events showed that new Armenian democrats crave for blood no less than their predecessors. For example, the infamous scandal around Yuri Khachaturov, who has been recalled (later arrested) from his post as Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and the arrest of ex-president Robert Kocharian are notable events that the change of power entailed. Taking his son to serve in the Karabakh military, as well as Pashinian’s indicative refusal of the exchange of prisoners of war and inspection of military facilities were attempts to snap back at not Azerbaijan, but first and foremost at his own voters.
Pashinian’s aggressive rhetoric gave him an absolute advantage in the domestic political arena, which also contributed to the results of special elections. On the other hand, the same rhetoric turned the CSTO leaders against him. They made it clear that no one would fight for Armenia in Karabakh against Azerbaijan. After all, a change of power does not mean that the country has the right to abandon previous agreements. And no one seriously believes in the statements of Armenian radicals about the withdrawal from the CSTO or expulsion of the Russian military base in Gyumri, for they know that Yerevan will never go against Moscow openly. No matter how pro-Western Pashinian and his supporters may be, they are well aware that, having lost their Russian patron, they will soon be forced to run towards Russia or Turkey. This obviously means a suicide for any Armenian government.
The Minsk Group: To be or not to be?
Russia's efforts to solve the conflict peacefully, in fact, reduce the formal work of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs. During the year, the ‘peace camp’ has occasionally voiced its doubts about the expediency of this contact group, at least in its modern form.
The Minsk Peace Conference, scheduled for June 1992, did not take place due to the exacerbation of hostilities in Karabakh, and the countries continued to work within the framework of a contact group. During the years of the truce, the three co-chairmen — Russia, France, and the United States — tried to find common formulas for a peaceful settlement. Contradictions between Russia and the US, Russia and Europe, Europe and the US led to the only real compromise that would satisfy all parties to the conflict – preservation of the status quo. But as in any formula with three unknowns, the equilibrium is violated when function of one of the components changes.
In this case, the whole equation changed following Russia’s loud declaration that it was not happy with the current state of affairs in the Karabakh conflict. Russia in fact has put certain efforts to overcome the situation. The US, represented by National Security Adviser John Bolton, openly said to Armenia that it would have to reconcile with Azerbaijan. There were calls in Washington to abolish the 907th amendment defective for Azerbaijan. Even France, which until then had openly lobbied for Armenian interests, suddenly decided to establish military-technical cooperation with Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted a resolution On the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, which confirms the EU’s commitment to support the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of partners, stresses the need to resolve all frozen conflicts based on norms and principles of international law. The efforts of the Armenian side to include in the document the principle of ‘the right of nations to self-determination’ have failed.
The four-day April 2016 war clearly showed that the Karabakh conflict is far from frozen and could flare up with a new force. This will affect the interests of not only Azerbaijan and Armenia, but also global players who are interested in the stability of the region, the safety of the transport and energy infrastructures of Azerbaijan.
The situation with the emergence and collapse of ISIS has clearly demonstrated that if the US, Russia and Europe agree on something, the problem could be solved anyway. So, the hopes for the OSCE Minsk Group activity are quite conscious and promise a tangible result.
On the eve of the Minsk Peace Conference
For many years, the expert community has been wondering what the future peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia would be. It is clear that Baku will never be happy with the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh as an administrative-territorial unit within Azerbaijan. It is also clear that Armenia is not ready to agree to return to previous state of affairs, since then it would be unclear why 20 thousand Armenian militants died in the conflict.
Over twenty-five years of negotiations, several possible compromise plans have been considered to establish a lasting peace in the region. The Madrid principles proposed to the conflicting parties in 2007 were the culmination of the joint efforts of the Minsk Group. Over the past years, the principles voiced by the Minsk Group became public and rooted in the minds of populations in both countries of the conflict. The ‘package-phased’ principle of resolving the conflict provides for the gradual withdrawal of Armenian forces and the demilitarization of the regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, a special regime for Lachin and Kalbajar regions, which Armenia considers a corridor for maintaining communication with the Karabakh Armenians, entering peacekeepers in the conflict zone and holding a referendum on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The details of the referendum will be negotiated if Azerbaijani refugees return to Karabakh. But how this will take place, whether it is worth considering the children of refugees who were not born in their native lands as refugees, what to do with Armenians who have been come to Karabakh from other places will become the main topic of negotiations in the future. Everything else looks not just real, but even quite obvious, accessible and logical. In any case, it is precisely to this that all interested parties are pushing, including the partners of Armenia in the CSTO. Eventually, the efforts of mediators should lead to the Minsk Peace Conference, as required by the OSCE decision. Minsk should become “new Paris” for Armenia and Azerbaijan, and this is only a matter of time.
‘Meeting on the move’ of the President of Azerbaijan with the new leader of Armenia in St. Petersburg, as well as negotiations between the foreign ministers of the two countries in Milan were positive signals. The statement made by the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov after a meeting with his Armenian counterpart Zohrab Mnatsakanian is one of the evidences of this positive move. “I think that at the last meeting in Milan with my Armenian counterpart, we reached a mutual understanding for the first time in a long time,” E. Mammadyarov said. Apparently, the new Armenian leadership comes to an understanding of the inevitability of an early resumption of active negotiations and their translation into substantive channel.