Analysis - Monday, August 1, 2011 0:06 - 0 Comments

From Kazan to Nowhere: A Reality-Check for Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict?

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Even though the latest Armenian-Azerbaijani talks held in the Russian city of Kazan, mediated by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, have recorded zero progress towards the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh peaceful resolution process, they should not be considered to have yielded no results.

The meeting attracted much attention from both societies and the international community mainly because of an information leak suggesting that a breakthrough document on the basic principles (known as the Madrid Principles) would be signed in Kazan. Indeed, unprecedented pressure[1] was put on both sides by the mediating countries –Russia, France, and theUS — to finally make a decisive step forward this time.

However, the statement issued right after the meeting revealed nothing, as did many other statements made after similar meetings previously held. A photo taken by a mobile device of the official document was even tweeted[2] by the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman, thus ironically showing the null value the signed document had against the hopes and concerns of many those holding their breath and wondering what would eventually be signed.

Yet the meeting inKazanhad another, very important result, though apparently not what Nagorno-Karabakh peace process optimists would have loved to see. In a more blatant manner than ever before, it demonstrated how far the conflicting sides are from making concessions and getting closer to the final resolution. This was especially vivid in Armenia, not least because the possible signing of a document reflecting the Madrid Principles would cause the first difficult concession to be made on the part of Armenia: the basic principles imply the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Armenian-controlled areas surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, while these areas are perceived by the Armenians as an important security buffer-zone for Nagorno-Karabakh.

As news about a possible deal in Kazan started to loom, an internal debate started in Armenia on whether this is a step Armenia could “afford” to make. It was probably the first time over the several last years that the possibility of concessions was being so intensely discussed in Armenia. Almost all existing political powers, media, and the wider public criticized possible concession in the form of Armenian troop withdrawal. There was especially strong debate in the media and social networks, where journalists, analysts, and ordinary people were critical to any unilateral concessions thatArmeniacould make. Publications that appeared in the media even suggested that any Armenian president that would go for “betrayal” could face the fate of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In contrast, the expectations from theKazanmeeting were naturally more positive inAzerbaijan, since hopes were that the would-be document might finally lead to withdrawal of Armenian troops from the surrounding areas.

However, the “concession threat” is not only haunting for Armenia. Similarly, reactions could be harsh inAzerbaijanwhen it comes to more realistic debates about the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the same Madrid Principles, after the withdrawal of Armenian troops, international peacekeepers would be deployed there to guarantee the safe return of Azerbaijani refugees back to their homes in Karabakh. An interim status of Karabakh would be preserved until the final status is decided through a legally binding “expression of will.” Even though the very details and the form of the expression of will remain unclear for now (ideally, that would be a referendum), a look at the pre-war demographics of the region (i.e., predominantly Armenian) might give an idea about the possible outcome of a referendum. In this regard, further stages of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution based on the principles could be highly disappointing for people in Azerbaijan, as well as the Azeri community/refugees of Karabakh waiting to go back to their homes, who have been continuously assured now for 20 years that Karabakh will never be outside the borders of Azerbaijan.

It is because of these painful mutual concessions that many experts and politicians have been talking a lot about the need to prepare the two nations for them. However, as we can see, not only are the two sides not taking any steps in this direction, but little is also being done by the mediators that have predominantly focused their efforts on the state regimes in Armenia and Azerbaijan while completely neglecting the need for wider dialogue and understanding at the grassroots level. The reactions inArmeniademonstrated this very drawback that the whole Karabakh resolution process has been experiencing since the very beginning.

The Kazan “failure” thus demonstrates something that has been quite obvious before: the critical need for a more realistic understanding of the current situation — a stalemate notwithstanding the ongoing negotiations and optimistic expectations, and for a reality check that should be done in order to understand how feasible or not the signing of a peace document is at the moment. The following lines will particularly discuss the general prevailing attitude towards the concessions inArmenia, since, as discussed above, it isArmenia that is supposed to make the first painful concession based on the famous Madrid Principles.

There are a couple of factors in Armenia that practically make any concession from the Armenian side almost impossible, even if there is a will by the ruling authorities or external high-level diplomatic pressure to make those concessions.

The first one is characteristic of both sides, namely the absence of any sincere constructive and pro-peace atmosphere in the whole resolution process. It is needless to discuss the complete lack of trust in the other side due to the continuing state propaganda and existing hatred towards each other among the two societies. Within this logic, the very withdrawal of Armenian troops without getting guarantees for Karabakh’s independence is perceived by Armenian society as a unilateral concession. There are mainly security concerns among the Armenians, especially in light of the increased military budget inAzerbaijan, and the almost daily war rhetoric coming fromBaku. In a situation where the sides approach the conflict resolution in zero-sum game terms, a possible withdrawal of Armenian troops is perceived as a “defeat” for the Armenian side and “victory” for the Azerbaijani side.

The second thing to consider — stemming from the above-mentioned point — is the strong domestic opposition against concessions. Though there is no lack of discussion on the Karabakh issue inArmenia, apparently there is a lack of a more serious internal debate on what Armenia is and is not ready to actually concede. While some realize the inevitability of mutual concessions, there are also hardliners that do not accept the possibility of any concessions at all. Among them are quite influential political powers and individuals, including the military, that directly participated in the Karabakh war and tend to claim that it is impossible to “give away what has been achieved with the price of blood,” even the areas around Nagorno-Karabakh.  Therefore, even with the best intentions, it is impossible not to take into account the factor of domestic opposition and underestimate how far this opposition could go.

What makes this opposition even stronger is the lack of legitimacy of the Armenian authorities that do not actually have the mandate of making vital decisions in the name of Armenian society. The post-February 2008 political crisis as a result of falsified elections, opposition protests, and clashes between demonstrators and police that resulted in 10 deaths still continue to dominate the political agenda of the country. This makes the authorities even more vulnerable to domestic pressure in terms of preserving their power they are so attached to. Any unpopular decision would add fuel to the crisis and lead to a revolution in the country, especially as all socio-economic prerequisites necessary for a revolution to happen inArmenia are there. In this context, no political will or international diplomatic pressure can change the general public stance on the Karabakh issue.

Since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict involves more complicated relations in the region at large, such as those between Turkeyand Armenia, the Turkish factor plays its role when it comes to making concessions. No matter how well we understand the natural interests of Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with Azerbaijan, its interference in the form of closing its border with Armenia has not only failed to result in anything, but it has made the Armenian official position, as well as the perceptions of society, even less flexible. There is a clear understanding in Armenia that the country’s blockade is the price that Armenia had to pay for Karabakh’s de facto independence. Yet people will not understand why this price had to be paid for so long only forArmenia to eventually give in and implement the “condition” for removing the blockade. This fact has created a kind of “no way back” situation where, when we also add the problematic Turkish-Armenian bilateral relations, a concession made toAzerbaijan is also perceived as a concession made toTurkey.  This makes the situation around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict even more complicated.

Finally, although all the above-mentioned factors can be attributed to the societies in both Armeniaand Nagorno-Karabakh, there is a strong need for all sides, including the Armenian, to realize that the reconciliation process is not just about Armeniaand Azerbaijan, and the position of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic must also be considered. The general perception in Armenian society is that whatever they think is good for Karabakh is good for Karabakh. It was this logic that made the ex-president of Armenia Robert Kocharyan to oust Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiations back in 1998. Now Azerbaijan does not want to negotiate with Nagorno-Karabakh out of fear that this would mean de facto recognition of the enclave’s independence. Though bringing Karabakh back into the negotiation process has been previously argued, it seems that the Kazan “failure” is the critical point to make all sides realize that. Just before the meeting in Kazan, a number of Karabakh NGOs issued a statement about the unacceptability of any document based on the Madrid Principles that could be signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The statement made by the foreign minister of the unrecognized republic Georgi Petrosyan, who declared that the Madrid Principles are unacceptable to Stepanakert, was more alarming. This was actually the first such high-level statement from Karabakh denouncing the principles. Basically, Karabakh is not accepting the document that official Yerevan is using for its negotiations with Baku. Even though this reaction attracted little attention among all sides, including Armenia, how have the sides been negotiating over the last five years on something that Karabakh will not apparently accept when asked about its position?

The meeting in Kazan, thus, was an opportunity for a reality-check rather than a failure because it has inadvertently revealed the drawbacks of the Nagorno-Karabakh resolution process that have so far been either neglected or not fully recognized. However, it might actually mean that most of the peace process pursued all this time can be voided if some factors continue to be neglected. The number one factor is, surely, the impossibility to ignore the need to involve Karabakh Armenians in the negotiation process.[3] There are also some other questions that arise, in particular: Are the Madrid Principles the best framework for the solution to the conflict? Do they provide a win-win solution for everyone? Does the current peace process reflect a sincere political will of all parties? Particularly, is it just a means to avert war at any rate or, on the contrary, an exercise to gain time in a war preparation effort?

The sincerity of both sides should therefore be questioned. In the case ofArmenia, the question is how sincere officialYerevanis when it is negotiating something that clearly is not acceptable for the publics both in Armenia and Karabakh and thus it has no de-facto mandate to sign a deal on it. In the case ofAzerbaijan, the issue is how sincere officialBakuis about going on with the Madrid Principles if it continues to reject any possibility of recognizing Karabakh’s independence one day. In other words, does  Azerbaijanwant all possible concessions from Armenia without being ready to make a concession itself? In this light, Armenians see no clear readiness on the part of Azerbaijan to make a concession that would make them feel comfortable about making their own concession. Thus, there is a clear need for wider public debate in both countries on the resolution framework based on the Madrid Principles.

And finally, the most important conclusion from the Kazan meeting that should be drawn is that an artificially imposed peace deal could cause more risks for war than the current status-quo since it might cause instability inside the conflicting countries (for Armenia, as previously discussed) as well as on the frontline.

The realization of these facts, however, are more alarming than anything, not least because they demonstrate an urgent need for radical revision of the whole peace process. Otherwise, the optimism of the mediators will not be justified in the near future as Armenia and Azerbaijan go on pretending they are negotiating for peace while preparing for war.

 


[1] For more on this, see “U.S., Russia, France press for progress in Karabakh peace talks,” ArmeniaNow, June 24, 2011, retrieved from http://www.armenianow.com/karabakh/30596/us_president_barack_obama_sargsyan_phone_call

[2] See http://twitpic.com/5g78hb.

[3] In this case Armenians might need to be ready to accept a possible involvement of some representatives of the Nagorno-Karabakh Azeri community into the negotiation process as well.



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