Given all that is happening in the Middle East and Ukraine, no one seems to have the patience for escalation, casualties and bloodshed any where else.
During the past two weeks, the ceasefire violations at the line of contact between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces went well beyond the usual and minor skirmishes, causing two dozen casualties on both sides.
The moment that the long dormant, but simmering, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the Caucasus began to show signs of eruption, the UN, the US, Russia, the EU, Iran and many other countries rushed to urge restraint, respect of the ceasefire agreement, and an immediate resumption of interrupted negotiations.
Indeed, on August 9 and 10, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, met in the Russian resort city of Sochi. No doubt, respecting the ceasefire and advancing the peace process were the main agenda items. Committing to these goals is one thing, fulfilling them is another. The prevailing circumstances, however, are hardly conducive for their realisation.
The maintenance of the self-regulated ceasefire – the only one of its kind in the world – since 1994, succeeded for two reasons: the military balance between the opposing sides, and hope in the ongoing negotiations. Over the last three years, both of these deterrents have been seriously undermined.
Given today’s enormous discrepancy in the defence budgets of Azerbaijan on the one hand, and the Armenian side (Armenia and Karabakh) on the other, and the Azerbaijanis’ disproportionate purchases of military hardware, there is, in Azerbaijan, a belief that they have the upper hand in the military equation.
Additionally, the futility of the peace talks in the recent years during which the differences and disagreements between the parties have grown deeper and wider, coupled with long interruption of high level talks, has implanted a sense of despair about the prospects for a peaceful resolution.
So it is highly likely that the recent escalation intended to test the military balance and attract the overstretched attention of the major players back to the conflict and force a resumption of high level talks.
Right to self-determination?
There are three elements that have always affected the peace talks and the settlement process, and continue to do so: One is the global and regional interests of the major powers and their present interrelationships; second is the dominant trend in international relations as manifested in the agendas and decisions of international organisations (such as the UN and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe); third, is the conflicting sides’ own present political and economic situations and their capacity and will to shape the peace process.
Over these 20 years, during each successive stage of diplomatic activity, these three factors have always been consequential, although never as significantly as today. Worse, never have they all been in such a state of great and unpredictable flux.
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Russia and the US, two of the three mediators in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks, are at odds and can’t see eye to eye over major global issues, including Ukraine and Syria. Their interests in the Caucasus are not in harmony either. This situation is interesting and could be a double-edged sword. One might assume that the ongoing tug of war between them will spill over into the Karabakh talks, but it is also possible that both sides use this as an opportunity to mend fences. It all depends on how it will play out. But the waters are further muddied considering the conflicting positions Russia and the US have taken on ethnic conflicts and self-determination movements.
Russia, which opposed what it considered to be the unilateral legitimisation of sovereignty in Kosovo, did the same by recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Most recently, it hurriedly recognised Crimea’s referendum results by incorporating the region into Russia.
In other words, while both the West and Russia support self-determination efforts, they do so selectively – and unilaterally. Therein lies the danger. This contradictory situation created by conflicting approaches by the major players will require delicate diplomatic manoeuvring by the sides and the mediators. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, the population of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, 80 percent Armenian, opted for self-determination by conducting a referendum and declaring secession.
Within international organisations, there are conflicting directions. Despite the fact that several self-determination movements achieved independence and statehood in the past decade, such as East Timor, South Sudan and Kosovo – the first two with membership in the United Nations – the global organisation remains selective and ambivalent about the self-determination phenomena and still lacks criteria, guidelines and legal framework for a more evolved and enlightened policy.
One thing is clear however: The very early assumptions about the root causes of self-determination claims (ethnic and religious hatred, extreme nationalism, irrelevant historical claims, outside manipulation) and their resolution framework (one-size-fits-all, fear of the domino effect, quick democratisation, ethnic groups lowering their goals with the promise of democracy, human rights and prosperity) have all been questioned, challenged and undermined. The evidence is the independence of some of the movements and the persistence of the many others, among them Nagorno-Karabakh.
The ultimate question is what is to happen to this no-peace, no-war situation. What is the end game? Is there a viable political solution?
There are three possible – and not very novel – scenarios. One is the continuation of a sustainable status quo. The second is the eruption of war and a new situation on the ground. The third is a negotiated solution.
This is the challenge facing Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. A lasting peace will come when each side acknowledges the other’s minimum requirements, not their belligerent and maximalist demands.
Although most of the international community, including the mediators, will automatically reject the first scenario as unacceptable and unsustainable, this is not necessarily the case. There are many historical examples when yesterday’s unrealistic alternative became today’s preferred and realistic solution.
The second scenario – war – is difficult to imagine. Armenians have no reason to start a war. If the Azerbaijanis start a war, this will be the third time they will have tried, and they will only succeed if they aim for a “final solution”. That would be a huge risk for Azerbaijan, greater than for the Armenian side, given their total reliance on their role as an energy producing and transit country.
And finally, there is the third scenario – a negotiated solution. This is obviously the most desirable, but would require substantive compromises. These negotiations have already gone on for 20 long, intense years, during which five serious proposals were presented. Four were rejected; one is still on the table.
Resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict peacefully requires two parallel steps: A guarantee of non-resumption of military hostilities, and a clear, mutually binding blueprint for reaching a final settlement.
This is the challenge facing Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. A lasting peace will come when each side acknowledges the other’s minimum requirements, not their belligerent and maximalist demands. Before this can happen, each side must achieve sufficient internal consensus on its bargaining position. This hasn’t happened yet.
Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.
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