Current Format of Negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Perspectives from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh
by Artak Ayunts
The research was conducted under the auspices of Armenian Committee of Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly funded by the Black Sea Trust.
The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has entered another stage of peace talks based on the Madrid Principles for conflict settlement. There have been numerous meetings between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the course of the last several years, but no tangible results in ensuring official peace agreement has been achieved.
A hypothesis for the failure is the deep gap between official and public opinion on the current matter of negotiations. Miscommunication, or the absence of any reasonable communication, between the two levels has created vast mistrust towards the negotiations package (in this case Madrid Principles) thus leaving little space for confidence among the officials to take forward the peace plan.
In order to understand the stalemate in which the parties have entered, focus-group discussions were conducted with various groups of people in Armenia to gather information on public perceptions and expectations towards the settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict based on Madrid Principles. Several other objectives were also discerned, such as: identification of the awareness on Madrid Principles among ordinary citizens and expert groups, raising wider awareness among public regarding various aspects of peaceful resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and current state of affairs of the official peace process, as well as outlying future vision of the coexistence between two nations. Refugees, people living in border region, NGO leaders, journalists, youth (including students), and women were discerned as groups directly affected by conflict.
In Armenia focus-group discussions were carried out a) with the residents of Kornidzor village located in the south of Armenia bordering with Azerbaijan (11 persons), b) with refugees from Azerbaijan currently residing in Goris (12 persons), c) with NGO leaders working in the area of peacebuilding (7 persons), d) with journalists, covering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (8 persons) and e) with youth, actively involved in the dialogue meetings with their counterparts from the other side (7 persons).
In Nagorno-Karabakh focus-group discussions were carried out a) with refugees and IDPs currently residing in Shushi (8 persons), b) NGO representatives (5 persons), c) with residents of northern and southern parts of Nagrono-Karabakh living in bordering regions with Azrebaijan (7 persons), d) with youth mainly from Stepanakert (7 persons) and e) with women both from Stepanakert and bordering regions (15 persons).
2. Main results of the focus-group discussions
2.1The awareness on the recent package of negotiations and Madrid Principles
There was a sheer lack of awareness about the Madrid Principles among refugees and residents of bordering regions in Armenia. No single respondent mentioned any of the six principles outlined in the document. However, some respondents mentioned three overarching principles related to the Madrid Principles: territorial integrity, self-determination and non-use of force. It was mentioned that those principles were even included in the curriculum of the high-school history lessons.
There was more information on the Madrid Principles among Kharabakhi respondents (people living in bordering regions, women and NGO representatives) living in different regions of Nagorno-Karabakh bordering with Azerbaijan. Mostly they were mentioning three principles: return of refugees and IDPs to the places of their former residence, return of territories adjacent to NK to Azerbaijani control and peacekeeping operation. These principles are probably the ones that ordinary Armenians consider the most controversial among others. Although a few women living in bordering regions also identified the issue of the future status of NK and Lachin corridor, the issues of refugees and territories were the most frequently mentioned ones.
Another characteristic of the groups in NK was the understanding of the situation of unresolved conflict or no-war-no-peace scenario since they live in rather close proximity to the front-line and would bear direct consequences in the case of resumption of war. To sum, Kharabakhi ordinary citizens were more aware of the principles than in Armenia.
Among the Armenian and Kharabakhi NGO community, the Madrid Principles were highly discussed. Every single participant was well aware of the Principles even though as one of the Armenian experts mentioned, the Madrid Principles were not officially published rather became available from media leaks and some international think-tank websites.
Most of the experts both in Armenia and NK mentioned that even though the Madrid Principles are known to the public to a certain extent, the formulations are not clear at all. As one of the respondents in Armenia mentioned: “We don’t know at all the details and implementation mechanisms of the Principles, while the devil is in the details and we don’t have any information on the devil”.
One common issue agreed upon by most of the respondents was the understanding that the problem of unresolved NK conflict lies not in the principles or approaches of negotiations but rather in the understanding among the parties of whether they want peace or not. “The problem is that if the authorities honestly want to bring peace in the region they can go forward based on any package on the negotiations table, call it Madrid Principles or anything else” (Armenian NGO representative).
Awareness among representatives of media was also rather high in Armenia. Along with the same line of argument related to the unwillingness to resolve the conflict, one more important point was raised among the members of this focus-group: “interest groups, in particular third countries involved in the mediation process who pursue their own agenda and thus hamper the process” (Armenian media representative).
Young people both in Armenia and NK were surprisingly well aware of the negotiation process in terms of the Madrid Principles. However, lack of trust among conflict sides was still a major obstacle for taking forward any peace deal. Several youngsters mentioned that unclear, vague and indefinite description of the principles did not provide necessary information thus enhancing current stalemate.
2.2 Return of refugees and IDPs to their former places of residence
Voluntary return of refugees to the places of former residence is one of the most controversial and challenging issues among many others in the Madrid Principles. For Armenian respondents, despite the fact of having inviolable right of return, this principle specifically refers to the return of Azeris to Nagorno-Karabakh and hence it is considered to be the most “pro-Azeri” point in the package.
For many Armenian respondents among the media and NGO sector, the return of Azeri refugees to Nagorno-Karabakh is invariably tied to the determination of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh as a precondition for possible return scenarios. “There can be no return before clear mechanisms for future status of NK” (Karabakhi NGO representative).
Other alternatives to return, such as resettlement and restitution were suggested as legitimate ways of dealing with refugees rights in the framework of international law. The group of refugees in Armenia and NK mentioned that no Armenian refugee would like to return to the places of their former residence even if security guarantees were provided. Even though a real possibility for Armenian refugees is also envisaged in the Madrid Principles to former Shahumyan region of Azerbaijan compactly populated by Armenians before the conflict, very few Armenian refugees would consider returning there at this stage of conflict. They also insisted that they are absolutely disenfranchised from the peace process and don’t consider any prospect of just peace without their ownership.
Another troublesome issue here was the problem of proper organization and logistics of all potential returnees. There was a fear in the Armenian expert community that there will be more numbers of Azeri refugees willing to return to NK than there was before the beginning of conflict. However, there was also certain understanding that return of refugees to several non-contested territories such as – Aghdam, Fizuli, Jebrail, Kubatly and Zangelan – could be possible.
The prospect of Azeris returning to Nagorno-Karabakh is seen by Armenians as largely undesirable and unjust, and as an issue that needs to be considered after clarifications are made regarding the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Among Armenian respondents, there was a clear distinction between the causes and consequences of conflict, with the understanding that if consequences (such as displacement) are addressed before the causes (such as security and identity), then the same cycle of conflict could be repeated. One of the main impediments for this is the daily deterioration of mistrust between the conflict parties that endangers even the fragile truce we have today.
In NK there was a clear message from different focus-groups that all refugees can return to the places of their former residence given they accept NKR citizenship. This implies that the problem of security for Armenians would no longer be a serious issue compared to the situation when Azeris return to unrecognized entity.
2.3 Future status of NK
Most of the respondents in Armenia and NK saw status as the only guarantor of the security of the Armenian population, since security threats along with identity issues have been perceived as the main causes of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh demanding resolution before the return of Azeri IDPs. The liberated/occupied territories around NK are increasingly considered less as a security and more as a constituent part of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. This was particularly true for a large number of respondents in NK and to some extent also in Armenia.
The issue of future status of NK is another crucial aspect of Madrid Principles. Generally, this was perhaps the most important issue among Armenian respondents. As one of the representatives of media mentioned: “If you don’t know the final destination what difference does it make to go by foot or car”.
A referendum was perceived as a key element in the future discussions over the need for security. However, the most contentious point was probably the slight but significant change introduced into the text from “a referendum or population vote to determine the final legal status of Nagorno- Karabakh” to the “final status of Nagorno-Karabakh to be determined in the future by a legally-binding expression of will”. Many NGO representatives and young respondents identified this as vague description of possible future status of NK, which did not provide any clear mechanisms at all.
Even if the peace agreement envisaged a referendum for determining NKR’s status in the current belligerent situation it is hard to imagine any condition under which Armenians would agree because the technology of referendum, i.e. who should participate, what territories it should cover, what should be the text, and when it should be scheduled is more important rather than the principle itself.
One of the respondents from the NGO sector mentioned that the same proportion of population should be kept in NK as it was before the start of conflict, “otherwise Azeris may send second and third generations thus outnumbering Armenian population and thus determining the fate of referendum in favor of Azeris”.
One respondent from NGO sector offered that the issue of status (and other) could and should be discussed given NK authorities are recognized as legitimate side at the negotiations table, “recognition is the start for other issues to discuss, it is not the end of the process”. However there was no agreement among other respondents in this group on this issue, since the future status is the most difficult question, and that’s why “we should discuss other issues first where there can be some sort of agreement between conflicting parties”.
2.4 Return of NK adjacent territories to Azeri control
According to some experts in Armenia the more hard-line approach towards the return of all territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan and the impossibility of Azeris’ returning to these territories is getting wider support among Armenians mainly because of the numbers of incidents on the line of contact and threats of war resumption by Azerbaijan to change the status quo.
Whereas, one of the major prerequisites for possible return to the remaining five regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh is the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic authorities as an equal party to negotiations with legitimacy to discuss matters related to the borders and return issues.
Among Armenian respondents there was some moderate approach towards the return of certain territories to Azeri control, especially among youth and NGO leaders. This, in general, reflects the moderate approach among Armenian public and elite. There was no common understanding regarding the return of territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, however there was a consensus that there are regions that cannot be returned (Lachin) or it will be very difficult to return (Kelbajar) in any conflict resolution scenario, meaning that remaining five regions are less contested territories in terms of their return to Azerbaijani jurisdiction.
Most of the respondents from bordering regions in Armenia mentioned that return of territories was not possible. Interestingly, since Kornidzor is bordering the region of Gubatly some of the respondents mentioned that the latter should also not be considered as a return option along with Lachin and Kelbajar. Apart from economic reasons, this stance can be explained by fear towards the other supported by the lack of trust.
But overall, the question of return of territories was widely denied especially by NK respondents supported basically by the fact of total war rhetoric and daily casualties at the line of contact caused by snipers. In this situation return of territories could bolster incidents and casualties.
2.5 Peacekeeping operation
The idea of deployment of peacekeeping mission and/or peacekeeping operation in general was not welcome by Armenian respondents both in Armenia and NK. The best security guarantee, especially for Karabakhis, but also for some Armenia respondents, was the status of NK understood as international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh state or at least its authorities.
A few other respondents were keener on peacekeeping operation given at some point (after more clarification in the question of the status) there will be need to safeguard people from possible criminal activity of ethnic kind. The idea of peacekeeping observers was even more supported in Armenia in the sense that the observers could identify, register and follow-up any kind of violations across the line of contact and between communities.
But the most sticking point in the discussion on peacekeeping operation was the unclear situation in terms of the origin of those forces. Potential discrepancy on the nations carrying out the mission among third party countries mediating the peace negotiations is so deep that the principle itself is less probable to come true at any given stage of peace process: “There is even more discrepancy among mediators and third countries on the peacekeeping issue than the future status of NK – Russia, USA, Iran and EU – they all have diagonally different stances on this issue”, “peacekeeping operation is more difficult than future status. The war will end when the war among mediators will end”.
Despite the fact that the majority of respondents expressed negative attitude towards peacekeeping operation bringing negative examples from the recent history of peacekeeping missions and highlighting violations of human rights such as gender-based violence, some agreed that given such mission would be deployed local economies would be boosted significantly.
One of the respondents representing media mentioned that recent paradigm of dealing with ethnic conflicts indicates that peacekeeping mission is perhaps the only way to provide security of diverse communities without which existing mistrust or low level of trust cannot be transformed.
2.6 Peacebuilding initiatives
Most of the respondents mentioned that peacebuilding initiatives aimed at bringing peace between two nations were extremely important in protracted deep-rooted conflicts since the enmity and hatred could be overcome only by direct engagement of societies in various initiatives and activities. “The involvement of NGO, business and community leaders in the peace process is extremely important to promote conflict transformation and overcome negative experience aimed at bringing just and positive peace” (representative of media).
A business component of multi-track diplomacy would seriously improve socio-economic conditions by opening the communications bridging Armenian and Azerbaijani economies. Representatives of youth voiced the idea of economic cooperation as a prerequisite of long-lasting peace. “Even though the fear towards each other is still present in the minds of ordinary people, the need for peace and development, is more alive, which gives hope that specific measures of dialogue meetings between conflict parties could be effective in the period proceeding signing of peace agreement” (young student).
Other respondents agreed that cooperation itself would not resolve conflicts but could create preconditions for their settlement and resolution in the long-term perspective. Specific examples were brought by the respondents living in the border region and some young participants: cheaper fuel, more business opportunities, more employment opportunities, etc. “People-to-people meetings are important. The more ordinary people know each other, the sooner the peace” (Armenian media representative).
The Madrid Principles have been criticized since their origin by Armenians for different reasons. Several points have already been presented, such as the return of refugees, return of territories and peacekeeping mission. Armenians still think that concessions made by this agreement are detrimental for the national interests of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, with perhaps the most disturbing principle being that the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh would be determined by referendum.
Balancing the Madrid Principles so that all parties feel they are equally winning or losing (unfortunately a win-win outcome is hardly possible given the peculiarities of such conflicts) is one of the most important issues in the peace process. Otherwise, Armenians may feel their basic needs are significantly less satisfied and try to preserve the status quo. More technical questions on the implementation should be discussed and presented to the public in order to bring peace by Madrid Principles closer or remove this package from negotiations table.
The lack of trust is crucial in the NK conflict. In the absence of trust any deal namely the Madrid Principles or anything else is doomed to failure. Yet the best mechanism for the transformation of conflict is the democratization of societies. Common values, common vision of future – they all lack between the conflict sides, that’s why it is not important whether we have the Madrid Principles or a different one. Genuine long-term peace is possible after societies will be able to delegate their elected leaders to the peace talks and bear the burden of concessions together with them.
At this stage unless the war of information and propaganda end and Karabakhis return to negotiations table as recognized entity there will be no peace.
Democratization of societies can lay ground for long-lasting peace in the region. Building trust is more feasible after the authorities decide they want peace. Non-democratic states are capable of popularizing signed agreement through their media making reconciliation possible.
 Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Black Sea Trust, the German Marshall Fund, or its partners.
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