Azerbaijan and Armenia were actually pushed into conflict
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a result of the ensuing war, in 1992 Armenian armed forces occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
The 1994 ceasefire agreement was followed by peace negotiations. Armenia has not yet implemented four UN Security Council resolutions on withdrawal of its armed forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts.
The escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, sometimes called “the four-day war,” took place in April 2016 and, obviously, did not come out of the blue. There have been a number of major incidents on the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh. A dramatic increase in the number and intensity of the incidents was observed long before the April events: since 2014, tension started to increase, both in terms of quantity of incidents and the nature of the weapons used. By spring 2016, a combination of internal and external factors made the military escalation more likely than ever.
In order to deeply discuss and gain an insight of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict we have talked to George Niculescu who is the Head of Research at the European Geopolitical Forum.
No peace and no war. How long can this situation last? Do you think that the changes in executive power of Azerbaijan and Armenia can lead to peace or war, or at least, some significant changes in the region?
GN: Unfortunately, the current situation of “no peace and no war” has already lasted for too long at the expense of both conflicting parties. This was mainly since, on the one hand, there was no political will on either side to accept a compromise solution, and, on the other hand, since, over the last 23 years, the dynamics of the regional balance of power did not facilitate an effective conflict resolution process leading to a jointly agreed peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, under strong international guarantees.
However, it would be naive to believe that changes in the executive power of Azerbaijan and/or Armenia (even at the top levels) would facilitate the finding and implementation of a compromise solution to the NK conflict.
Both Azerbaijani and Armenian societies have become so entrenched within this conflict that even for two well-experienced presidents, like Ilham Alyiev and Serj Sargysan, any proposal for a peace compromise has become a politically risky statement.
However, to get out of the current political stalemate in the NK conflict resolution, each party to the conflict should demonstrate its political will to take risks while accepting a compromise solution. That would involve ceasing to demonize and threaten the other party, and adopting a changed narrative on conflict resolution reflecting a constructive, dialogue-oriented approach.
As long as one side demonizes the other, there will be no way for presidents Alyiev and Sargsyan to achieve a political break-through, nor will they be able to demonstrate to the other president that they are able to persuade their people to accept a compromise solution. A dialogue on economic issues may have an important role to play in preparing the political and psychological conditions for readying wider circles of Armenian and Azerbaijani societies to accept a negotiated compromise solution. Any progress in the NK conflict resolution would require a broadening of the constituency of peace in both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani societies. Otherwise, in spite of the contradictory claims of both sides against the other side, any changes of the executive powers would hardly lead towards conflict resolution.
What is the possibility that Armenia will withdraw its army from 7 surrounding districts of NK? Will Azerbaijan be satisfied with this? And is it realistic to imagine that Azeris and Armenians live together in peace and harmony in NK?
GN: It is well known that the inability to solve the NK conflict, so far, was to a large extent linked to the dilemma regarding the prevailing legal principle that would be applicable: preserving the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, or the right to self-determination of the Armenian population in NK.
In this context, the Madrid Principles (including their subsequent updates) proposed by the co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group have been a “golden missed opportunity”, since they would have provided both the application of the principles of self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh itself, and of preservation of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan with the return of the seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. However, neither Baku nor Yerevan have manifested enthusiasm for the revival of this “golden missed opportunity”, although both of them would theoretically agree with it.
As to whether it is realistic to imagine Azeris and Armenians living together in peace and harmony in NK, I would recall the European Geopolitical Forum (EGF) research paper on “A Pragmatic Review of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Resolution: Could Economic Incentives Help Break the Current Stalemate?” highlighting the view that joint economic projects of Armenia and Azerbaijan could become “a key element of a new vision for peace in the South Caucasus reinforced by comprehensive, integrated and sustainable cooperation, which would ultimately enable the free movement of people, goods, services and capital at the regional level, lead to economic integration and the opening of all closed borders”.
Subsequent exchanges of views with Armenian and Azerbaijani stakeholders led us to the assumption that joint economic projects may result in the return of (one or more of) the seven districts around NK to Azerbaijan by combining the vision of an economically integrated South Caucasus with a number of very broad and uncontroversial principles. We referred to these principles as the Brussels Consensus on post-conflict regional integration scenarios in the South Caucasus, which would provide for:
- the right of all people to live in peace and security;
- a shift from preparing for war to building enduring peace;
- good neighborly relations as a basis for peace building;
- the right of all people to strive for economic prosperity;
- The right of all IDPs and refugees to return to their homes and/or lands, and live there in peace and security.
Indeed, these principles, which emerged out of an Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue session, held in Brussels in March 2014, set the foundations for a subsequent phase of our research on NK conflict resolution.
Our aim was to develop an alternative narrative on NK conflict resolution through Track 2 diplomacy. The outcome of this research was meant to offer a necessary element of flexibility to help decision makers on both sides work towards a political compromise by highlighting the commercial and economic value of peace. In short, I’m positive that Armenians and Azeris could, over the longer term, live and work together in NK and elsewhere across the South Caucasus, but we are still far from getting there.
As we know, the conflict began in 1988 and escalated in 1992. This was the period of dissolution of the Soviet Union. Do you believe that Russia was the warmonger?
GN: The NK conflict is one of the tragic consequences of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. More concretely, it resulted from the so-called policy of “Glaznosti” promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980’s. Thereby, in the name of liberalizing the former communist world, the different national identities of various ethnic groups living in the former Soviet Union were not anymore suppressed by the Soviet regime.
While some causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K) conflict reach back to the pre-Soviet period, its primary causes are closely linked to the political, socio-economic, and administrative forces driving the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. Armenia and Azerbaijan were actually pushed into conflict with one another because of the inability of the former Soviet Union to manage the political contradictions inherent in NK by the late 1980s.
The heavily centralized Soviet system had almost no mechanisms for resolving a dispute between two ethnic communities through dialogue and democratic governance. The consequences of the 1991-94 war, i.e. the Armenian military victory resulting in Armenian control of NK, the further occupation of seven districts surrounding it, and the uncertain situation of post-war Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) on both sides, have added to the complexity and difficulties inherent into solving this fundamentally territorial conflict.
The Russian Federation considered itself as an independent actor against the NK conflict, and has become one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, the main framework within which Baku and Yerevan have conducted formal dialogue on the peaceful resolution of their conflict.
However, according to relevant sources directly involved in the work of the OSCE Minsk Group, fair and unbiased cooperation between the co-Chairs in leading the peace negotiations proved rather difficult, in particular because Russia has had a different range of interests to defend in the South Caucasus compared to France and the US.
In fact, Russia was directly interested in maintaining the NK conflict in a state of “no peace, no war” since Moscow needed to maintain a precarious level of regional security which would have a minimal adverse effect on its own security, but which would prevent NATO and EU expansions into the South Caucasus region. In addition, Russia used the NK conflict to maintain strong leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, by offering security guarantees, economic investment, and military equipment to the former, and some level of political cooperation and military equipment to the latter. In conclusion, I wouldn’t go as far as to consider Russia as a warmonger, but Moscow is for sure the main regional power who has born the largest responsibility for the precarious state of regional security in the South Caucasus, including the perpetuating of ineffective (some would say, by preventing) NK conflict resolution.
Russia and Iran actively show their presence in the region and express their willingness to find the solution to the conflict. How can these 2 countries that divided Azerbaijan into two parts in 1828 be the mediators of reunification? How can they unite the country when they destroyed it?
GN: Iran might play a significant role in the post-conflict regional cooperation in the South Caucasus but its role in the NK conflict resolution is bound to remain very shallow.
This is the case, on the one hand, since the Caucasus is not a priority area for Iranian geopolitical expansion, and, on the other hand, since Russia (and the West) would be wary of a deeper Iranian engagement in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution.
Apparently, neither Baku nor Yerevan seem to understand the limited interest, and ability of Teheran to play a major role in the NK conflict resolution. More recently, I noted that an apparent closer technical-military cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan has persuaded authorities in Yerevan to pursue closer political-diplomatic cooperation with Iran (allegedly to balance the involvement of Israel on Azerbaijan’s side). However, Iran has neither the interest nor the appropriate means to support Armenian positions in the NK conflict resolution.
The UN has 4 resolutions related to the conflict. They claim the unconditional withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from Karabakh; but these resolutions have not been implemented. What is your opinion? Is this an indicator of the UN’s weakness?
GN: There are two main issues with the implementation of the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on the NK conflict:
a) The regional issue, that is the South Caucasus region, where NK belongs, has been rather marginal to the geopolitical and strategic interests of four out of five permanent members of the UNSC. The only one which has been genuinely interested in this region has been Russia, who, in exchange, as I had explained before, was not interested in NK conflict resolution. Therefore, Russia has never taken serious action with a view to the implementation of the UNSC resolutions either within or outside the UN system.
b) The structural issue of the UN that was created upon the needs of the Cold War era and has been, for the last 25+ years, unfit to meet the needs of international security in the post-Cold War era. This has been mainly due to the evolving dynamics of the regional and global balances of power, as well as the changing nature of the main security threats since 1945, while the UN structures and rules have remained the same as 80 years ago. This has led to a very high degree of ineffectiveness of the UN bodies (including the UNSC) in resolving the conflicts of the post-Cold War era.
Consequently, we have witnessed repeated UN failures in conflict resolution from the Balkans to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, more recently, while the NK conflict, as well as many other post-Cold War era conflicts have also remained unresolved. In conclusion, relying on the UN system for solving the NK conflict is rather a pipedream.
Unfortunately, neither is the OSCE (with its Minsk Group) in a better shape as far as effective NK conflict resolution is concerned. Therefore, unless one was prepared to wait until the UN and OSCE collective security systems would be fixed, solutions for NK conflict should be rather sought “outside the box”, which obviously doesn’t mean in any way through unilateral/warfare methods. On the contrary, solutions to the NK conflict must be still developed and implemented in multilateral frameworks; but ad-hoc informal formats (“coalitions of the willing”) could prove more productive than global (UN) or regional (OSCE) formats in spearheading the breakthroughs.
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