1 Aug 2011
Moving Forward from Kazan: Prospects for Peace Process
Summer continues with increased attention and activity around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the peace process. The international community intensified its efforts and encouragement around the June 24 talks in Kazan between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian hosted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. In the weeks leading up to the Kazan talks, several important statements were released, from the joint statement made by Barrack Obama, Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy at the G8 Summit in France to the words offered by the head of the European Union’s Executive Commission Jose Manuel Barosso. Both statements urged the leaders to finalize and agree on the Madrid Principles — the peace process framework for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A few days before the meeting, President Obama personally phoned Sarkisian and Aliyev to express his support for a breakthrough in the peace talks. Several op-eds and articles were published in leading world media outlets emphasizing the urgency and importance of an agreement. Even the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents expressed what some media sources called “cautious optimism” for a breakthrough in the days before the meeting.
The results of the talks held in Kazan were much less than the promising optimism in the days leading up to it. The statement issued by the presidents did not mention more than a “mutual understanding on a number of issues whose resolution would help to create conditions for the approval of the basic principles.” In the days that followed, the international media echoed the disappointment of “failed” talks while the local media in the two countries covered a number of blame statements from officials and commentators alike.
Despite the obvious setback in the Kazan talks, Medvedev, supported by the United States, continued to push for talks in an effort to use the window of opportunity that will close as elections approach in both countries. To keep the momentum, the Minsk Group Co-chairs made public statements with positive assessment of the Kazan talks and emphasized the work on the Madrid Principles as a priority task in the peace process.[i] Such a positive evaluation was also echoed by a number of Azerbaijani officials, including Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov who said to the Russian news agency Interfax that Kazan was not a failure and that certain progress was achieved. As part of a wider effort to support the peace process, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents while the Minsk Group Co-chairs visited Baku and Yerevan to meet with the two presidents. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivered a letter to Aliyev and Sarkisian from Medvedev with a new proposal on the peace talks. Both Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents already responded to Medvedev’s proposal although the content of both the proposal and the responses remain confidential.
But what are the real chances for progress in the peace talks right now? Is engagement and the efforts of international players enough to produce results in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? Is there a political will to make such progress on the negotiating sides, and what are the some of the major obstacles facing the peace process?
The usual suspects and Russia’s lead role
One thing the Kazan talks demonstrated was that even the strongest encouragement from the biggest players, Russia and the United States, is not enough to produce progress in the peace talks. The peace process has other important prerequisites that need to be met in order for a breakthrough to be achieved.
Interestingly, currently Russia is the only key player in the region taking an active role of mediator. The United States lacks a coherent, consistent strategy in the region and its policies are often held hostage to domestic politics — manipulated by the Armenian Diaspora lobby and now recently joined by Azerbaijan’s oil lobby — which undermine development of a sound policy in the Caucasus[ii]. Turkey, despite its ambition to assert its influence in the region and become a key player, has not been able to do so due to its complicated relationship with Armenia. The recently failed rapprochement process between Armenia and Turkey left Turkey in no position to play a lead role, and even if the process moves forward, it would likely be a long process. The European Union’s weak policy and lack of institutional and political capacity also does not put it in a strong position to play active role — something the region could benefit from. In this environment, the international community can only rely on Russia to lead the process. Whether Russia is fit to do the job is another question. Its lead in negotiating the peace talks is a double-edged sword. While Russia’s involvement and key role in achieving and maintaining peace in the region is vital, its role as a broker is likely to be perceived with caution and suspicion by both sides, even if the breakthrough is achieved. Despite the improved relations between Azerbaijan and Russia, its interest and alliance is and most importantly perceived to be with Armenia. This makes Russia poorly fit to play a neutral and trusting third party to broker peace in an atmosphere that is already full of mistrust and animosity.
Political will, political realities
The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs’ statement following Kazan calling for the demonstration of political will pointed to the obvious factor prevalent in the Kazan talks and in the peace talks generally — that there is no commitment on the end of both sides towards the process.[iii] Despite both sides’ interest in resolving the conflict, neither side has demonstrated a serious commitment — a readiness to make difficult decisions and deal with consequences. An imbalance in political will also exists, dictated by interests of the parties and political realities at home.
There is more urgency and yearning on Azerbaijan’s side to move the peace progress forward by signing the Madrid Principles, as this would expedite the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh and a gradual return of the internally displaced. This was evident in the President Aliyev’s tweets following the most recent statement by the OSCE Minsk Group, whose statements were surprisingly in a “peace-oriented” tone compared to the usual statements about the return of territories through military means. Although the usual positional and some negative statements about Armenians were made, Aliyev also said that Azerbaijan is interested in constructive negotiations and is not involved in the peace talks for the sake of imitating negotiations. He called to use this window of opportunity and clarified the first steps upon signing of the Madrid principles, citing the return of five territories, the provision of temporary status and a functioning corridor with Armenia. The usual threat of a military solution predominant in his statements was not mentioned. On a similar note, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said in an interview to a Turkish newspaper that “the war would start only with a provocation from Armenia,” which is a change from the aforementioned rhetoric about a military solution to the war[iv]. Foreign Minister Mammadyarov in an interview with the Interfax Russian media agency positively assessed the Kazan talks and proposed bypassing the signing of the Madrid Principles to immediately start negotiating on the actual treaty. This recent discourse among Azerbaijani top officials shows that despite Azerbaijan’s earlier concerns with the Madrid Principles, it is eager to change the status quo and willing to be flexible with the process.
This willingness is dictated by Azerbaijan’s interest in changing the status quo and returning the territories and is enabled by a less challenging domestic political environment in comparison with Armenia. Aliyev doesn’t face a major challenge on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue at home — neither from the opposition that is very weak nor from the public.
In Armenia, the situation is different and there is less interest in changing the status quo. Having gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories called “the buffer zone” by Armenia, it is reluctant to sign the principles, which requires the withdrawal from the surrounding territories as the first step. This reluctance stems from two factors: first, there are genuine security concerns as these territories are seen as a buffer zone that would maintain the security of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and removing this would require a level of trust and confidence in the other side, none of which exists. Giving up this “safety zone” would also be an unpopular move within Armenia and among Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, because these territories are increasingly referred to as “liberated territories” indicating a shift in public thinking that has happened during the stalemate. Given that the status of Nagorno-Karabakh will not be determined at the time of withdrawal from these territories, this move would also remove a valuable negotiating chip from the Armenian side. Finally, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have been eager to stick to the status quo with the aim of using the stalemate and time as a way of legitimizing the unrecognized republic.
In the context of already existing security concerns and resistance to change in the status quo, Sarkisian is also operating in a difficult political climate. He has to deal with considerable domestic opposition that has been challenging his authority and appearing weak in negotiations or making concessions — which is how the signing of the Madrid Principles is perceived — will further decrease his legitimacy.
In addition, Sarkisian has to also consider the voices of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians who are more openly demanding “a seat at the table” as a Washington Post article put it[v]. Although Azerbaijani politicians (and experts) deny that Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have a voice in decision making, Armenians have long been reiterating that Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have independence of decision making and often differing opinions from official Armenia. There is also support among the Armenian public for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians’ participation in the decision-making over their own fate. And while they are left out of the negotiation process, Sarkisian has to also negotiate internally before conceding to any agreement.
All these factors show that Sarkisian has very little space to maneuver, and signing the Madrid Principles could be extremely damaging for him politically.
Finally, a joint problem and major obstacle that both leaders face is the lack of readiness in both societies to compromise that makes any agreement a hard sell and implementation impossible. Military and hateful rhetoric of the past few years have created a climate of hostility and distrust and contributed to constructing an enemy image. This discourse has led to the belief among the public majorities of both countries that war is the only solution that would settle the conflict.
Issues I outlined above show that the prospects for signing the Madrid Principles and peace remain feeble even as Moscow and international mediators have increased their attention to the conflict. The Azerbaijani and Armenian leadership as well as the Minsk Group Co-chairs need to proceed cautiously as they continue the peace talks.
Futile meetings that are not meant to produce results, and the blame rhetoric that happens after, further undermines the public’s trust, not only in the negotiation process but also in their belief that peace is possible. “Failed” talks further contribute to the image of ‘intractability’ of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, reinforce negative messages about the other (with the help of statements from leaders after the meetings) and undercut any progress that might be made in secret negotiations. While it is essential to continue negotiations and keep them publicly visible, too many setbacks and negotiation secrecy may have an accumulative negative effect, thereby worsening the environment.
Following Kazan, mediators and other international officials reinstated the Madrid Principles as the main document for the peace process. Having a roadmap for a peace process is crucial to success, and the Madrid Principles emerged after years of difficult work. Given that the results of Kazan and Medvedev’s new proposal still remain to be seen, it is now the time of “wait and see.” However, if the sides fail to agree, repeated failure to achieve an agreement on the Madrid Principles raises a question about reconsidering it as a key document for the peace talks or coming up with more creative solutions for the process. Interestingly, an article by Tom de Waal published on July 28 described a different scenario from the one discussed in this article. According to de Waal, it was Azerbaijan that blocked the deal due to its disagreement with a number of points in the document while Azerbaijan was ready to sign. If true, we can conclude that the Madrid Principles is even farther from being an acceptable document to sides. Even if Sarkisian was ready to sign at the Kazan talks, he will still need to get Karabakh Armenians to agree – something the recent history shows is not likely to happen in the current climate. Despite the reversal of the roles at Kazan meetings the larger circumstances and the roadblocks remain the same in Nagorno Karabakh conflict making Madrid principles a difficult instrument for moving the process forward. Discarding the Madrid Principles will be a setback for the peace process, then again, engaging in more problem-solving and developing alternative solutions might be more productive than chasing a document that does not have a chance of being signed.
It is time to bring more attention to the most neglected and equally important issue in the peace process: the environment in which the negotiations are taking place and lack of involvement of Azerbaijani and Armenian societies and Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of Nagorno Karabakh. Without addressing this shortcoming of the peace process, any document even one with fewer issues than the Madrid Principles will not be implementable. The mediators and international players need to put significant emphasis in encouraging and supporting such measures and endorsing more peace oriented rhetoric. This might shift the environment positively towards peace – where deals may not only be made but will also stick.
[ii]Brookings Institute Report US policy. http://www.brookings.edu/articles/2001/02foreignpolicy_hill.aspx
[v] “Nagorno Karabakh Wants a Seat at the Table”, Washington Post, July 8, 2011