Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh and the Gordian Knot

Is this an opportune moment for Eurasian powers to tackle the festering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the single leading hindrance to further integration of the South Caucasus with the West, writes Goksel [AFP]
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the single leading hindrance to further integration of the South Caucasus with the West, writes Goksel [AFP]

The annexation of Crimea by Russia and the continued crisis in Ukraine has stirred the Western policy community to rethink other unresolved conflicts in the post-Soviet space, such as those in Moldova and Georgia. Among these conflicts is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflictbetween Armenia and Azerbaijan. The dispute has been “frozen” since a ceasefire in 1994 to end the war which had broken out during the dissolution of the Soviet Union over the territory formerly known as “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” in Soviet Azerbaijan.

April 24 will mark the 99th anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Anatolia, Turkey, bringing the troubled relations between Turkey and Armenia to the front. As these two stalemates limit Euro-Atlantic leverage in the South Caucasus, it is timely to take stock of the risks and opportunities involved in revisiting resolution scenarios.

At the beginning of this year, 20 years after the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a promising new start towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was hailed. Meeting in November 2013 for the first time in nearly two years, the two presidents made statements that were interpreted as refreshingly positive. Moreover, Switzerland taking on the presidency of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2014 fed into the short-lived cautious optimism about the chances of a negotiated settlement to the Karabakh conflict.

The Swiss facilitated the 2008-2010 Turkish-Armenian normalisation process, which did not reach fruition, and illuminated the interconnection of Armenia-Azerbaijan and Armenia-Turkey relations. This experience, it was thought, might enable Swiss diplomats to breathe fresh air into the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair mediation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has been ongoing since 1997.  

US domestic politics

Enter US domestic politics. Every year as April nears, pressure mounts in Washington for the recognition of April 24 as a day of Armenian genocide commemoration. On April 3, a new resolution that “condemn[s] and commemorate[s] the Armenian Genocide”, came to the floor of the US Congress. On April 10, it passed the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

At this time of regional geopolitical flux, for Western capitals to expect Ankara, Yerevan, or Baku to act against their perceived self-interests could backfire in ways that play into Moscow’s hand.

If there were a functioning independent commission that could bridge the gap between Armenian and Turkish historical accounts, the White House would supposedly hold off on characterising these events as “genocide”. Because Yerevan has linked its support for such a joint historical study to Turkey opening its border with Armenia, and because Azerbaijan sees this prospect as a blow to its negotiating position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a Gordian Knot has been tied.

In 2009, the protocols signed between Ankara and Yerevan, which – had they been enacted – would have restored diplomatic relations and opened the border, strained Ankara’s relations with Azerbaijan. Since then, to ensure neither is lost to the other, Ankara and Baku have embarked on further political alignment and economic integration between the two countries.

Finding a formula that will unlock both conflicts at once has been on the agenda for the past few years. Though details of the talks between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials are not made public, the parameters discussed for a negotiated settlement are more or less known: Armenia’s withdrawal from a number of districts beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, the return of Azeri internally displaced persons to these territories, a regional integration scheme to open transportation routes and communication channels across the region, including Turkey, and an eventual referendum to settle the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

While stalled on issues such as how many districts will be returned to Azerbaijan and when the referendum will be held, the two sides gamble on strengthening their bargaining hands. Meanwhile, Russia has established itself as the single most decisive player in the Nagorno-Karabakh resolution process, using its leverage to keep this region in its orbit and curb Euro-Atlantic influence in the South Caucasus.

In the last couple of months, the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine has further dimmed hope for constructive cooperation with Moscow regarding other frozen conflicts in the neighbourhood. Arguably, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the single leading hindrance to further integration of the South Caucasus with the West. Energy geopolitics is one reason for the increased attention today. The need to decrease European energy dependence on Russian supplies of gas is a leading take-away from the crisis in Ukraine. Accordingly, Azerbaijan’s gas and financing of the Southern Corridor gas pipeline rises in importance.

When the US first got involved in solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, arguably it was to ensure energy companies would not shy away from investing in the East-West corridor due to the risk of renewed violence. The conflict was not solved but actualisation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline has enabled Azerbaijan and Georgia to stand up to Russian pressure at critical junctures. Today an even more strategically important pipeline project is in the making, the Trans Anatolian pipeline (TANAP) and TAP, which will carry Azerbaijani natural gas to Europe, potentially to be joined by Gulf and East Mediterranean natural gas.

Because Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in 1993 in reaction to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war escalating beyond Nagorno-Karabakh into undisputed territories of Azerbaijan, the issue of Turkey-Armenia relations has become interlinked with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Armenia’s economic and strategic dependence on Russia has become incrementally deeper, culminating most recently in Yerevan’s fall 2013 decision to opt for Russia’s Customs Union rather than an association agreement with the EU. Integration between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey with infrastructure projects has gained strategic relevance for the West in this context.

Unlocking the stalemate

Recently, when asked what their expectations from Turkish foreign policy in 2014 are, high-level representatives of both the US and an involved European country cited normalisation of relations with Armenia in the top five expectations. Indeed, it is in Western interests for the Turkey-Armenia border to be open. But opening this border without also unlocking the Armenia-Azerbaijan stalemate can upset regional balances that are shaped around the Turkey-Azerbaijan axis, and provide new inroads for Moscow that are not in line with Western strategic interests on this most Eastern frontier of Europe.

Besides this geopolitical calculus, an additional complexity is Turkey’s domestic political situation, with presidential and parliamentary elections to be held by spring 2015. Because the general Turkish public is highly sensitive to any potential fallout for Azerbaijan and genocide resolutions are widely perceived to be hostile, risk of increased tensions can be expected until mid-2015, the centenary of the 1915 genocide, when Armenian leverage over Turkey is expected to peak.

On the Armenian side, the assumption that Turkey can be pressured to open its border with Armenia may hold Yerevan back from so-called compromise on the Nagorno-Karabakh front. As its military gains strength, in terms of power balances, Baku also assumes time is on its side. Accordingly, all sides can be seen holding their breaths. Seen from this perspective, at this time of regional geopolitical flux, for Western capitals to expect Ankara, Yerevan, or Baku to act against their perceived self-interests could backfire in ways that play into Moscow’s hand.

On the other hand, for the West not to pay sufficient attention to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also leaves the scene open to new risks. The current fear is that Russia will use its base in Armenia’s Gyumri district and the Armenian minority in Georgia to ignite challenges to the East-West corridor that plugs Georgia and Azerbaijan into Europe.

The Ukraine crisis has fuelled debates about how the West can develop stronger and smarter policies east of Europe. A credible EU enlargement policy is one answer. Although recent Turkish domestic political developments are discouraging, injecting viability into Turkey’s EU membership bid can significantly tip regional balances, reduce the range of unpredictability in the region and empower pro-European forces, not only in Turkey, but also in the Caucasus.

Ultimately, it is also a Europeanised outlook on history and minorities that can render the resolution of conflicts in this region sustainable. In the short term, though, the overwhelming view across the South Caucasus is that without firm political commitment and a hard power component in Euro-Atlantic regional policy, Moscow will be the puppet-master.

Diba Nigar Goksel is editor in chief at Turkish Policy Quarterly. She writes mainly on Turkish foreign policy, Turkey-EU relations, the Caucasus, democratisation and gender rights.

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