The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been claimed by both countries for nearly a century, has been hailed as one of the most intractable and recalcitrant disputes in the world. The past two decades of international mediation led by the OSCE Minsk Group have brought about few tangible results other than maintaining the status quo and preventing another war. So what exactly stands in the way of peace? Is the Minsk Group to blame for the lack of resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

Limitations of the Mediation Process

Since the early nineties, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has seen a significant level of engagement by external powers - Russia, France and the United States. Their interest to act as third-party mediators under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group have been motivated primarily by regional security and strategic reasons. But how successful have they been in their attempts to bring the two sides closer and move the conflict away from its intractability trademark? According to de Waal (2010), one of the most prominent experts on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Minsk Group has failed to establish a “viable mechanism” which would aim to achieve a sustainable peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The group exercises a conflict management approach rather than a conflict resolution strategy, as it lacks a long-term vision for achieving a negotiated solution to the conflict. In this context, containing violence and sustaining the situation of “cold peace” can be considered the greatest and largely the only significant achievement of the co-chairs in the peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Another often-cited weakness of the Minsk Group is the over-confidentiality of its activities (de Waal, 2010; Sammut, 2011). It is debatable though whether the inherently closed nature of the mediation process over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is limited to only a few leaders from both sides, strengthens or rather harms the peace process. On one hand it can be argued that too much unwanted attention may not help bring the parties closer and it is better to provide maximum secrecy of talks, just as it was arranged with the successful Oslo-based mediation between Israelis and Palestinians in 1993. On the other hand, the confidential nature of negotiations may contribute to misinformation and the overall atmosphere of insecurity as no one knows what exactly is being discussed behind the closed doors. The lack of clear information creates a mutual distrust, and serves as a breeding ground for rumors – circumstances hardly conducive for an informative debate on the matter of negotiations.

Another point of criticism over the Minsk Group revolves around its composition and political motives of the co-chairs. Although the issue of state mediators acting out of their vested interests can often derail peace efforts and contribute to the conflict intractability, the literature does not consider it an unusual situation (Crocker, et al., 2007). It would be naïve to think that states engage in mediation over external conflicts solely for humanitarian reasons. In fact, mediation often serves as a “foreign policy tool”, and it is not unheard of for mediators to push for certain favorable outcomes in negotiations (Crocker et al., 2007). As a matter of fact, all the three state representatives of the Minsk Group have political or economic interests in the South Caucasus, which stem from the region’s strategic location (at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East), its natural resources (oil, gas), and its importance as a hub for energy transportation. However, undoubtedly, it is the role of Russia that sparks the greatest controversy. Is Moscow more a party to the conflict or a third-side mediator? In fact, Armenia’s overdependence on Russia in the economic and energy sectors cannot make Moscow an objective third-party in the eyes of Azerbaijan. Ilgar Mammadov, a Baku-based prominent political analyst, has argued in personal communication with the author (Mammadov, personal communication, July 18th, 2012) that Russia has been obstructing rather than helping the mediation efforts within the framework of the Minsk Group. Given Moscow’s foreign policy objectives that seek to project influence over the region of South Caucasus, it is in Russia’s interest to keep the status quo intact.

So does it mean that the Minsk Group would be better off without Moscow? Not necessarily. While Russia’s commitment to the mediation process is questioned by some, in light of its powerful position in the region it is probably better to have Russia on board as a partner than as an outside competitor. It was proved in the early 1990s when the rivalry between the Minsk Group and Russia significantly hindered the mediation potential for the conflict (de Waal, 2003).

Impediments to Conflict Transformation

Although the structure of the Minsk Group and the relations between its co-chairs  have been significantly fine-tuned since the early nineties, one crucial obstacle has not been given enough attention: the high level of mutual distrust between the conflicted sides which is rooted in painful historical memories.

Ever since its establishment, the mediation team has focused on achieving a “political settlement rather than on any type of transformation of discourse or attitudes to prepare a favorable reconciliation environment.” (Gahramonova, 2009). In other words, the societies on both sides have been excluded from the peace process, and did not have a choice but remain comfortably stuck in their mutually exclusive discourse. It resulted in creating a framework of negotiations where the parties, enjoying a full support of their domestic constituencies, have been “locked in a power-based zero-sum game”, according to which one side’s loss is another side’s win. (Huseynov, 2009, p. 17).

Moving away from the mutually destructive “zero-sum” framework of negotiations is hindered by the fact that the two sides do not trust each other’s intentions. As the literature shows, distrust is a common factor in intractable conflicts; it can initiate intractability and become a major stumbling block on the road toward conflict transformation (Tomlinson & Lewicki, 2007). Designing measures to address this issue is paramount as the lack of trust taps into the parties perception of insecurity and, as a result, may block the way for adoption of fairly reasonable proposals.

Another, related, weakness of the OSCE-led mediation process is the fact that it works in relative isolation from civil society in both Azerbaijan and Armenia and the de-facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The literature shows that collaboration between state-mediators and nongovernmental organizations is an important element in dealing with intractable conflicts (Crocker, et. al., 2007) as it can help to prepare the societies for a potential peace agreement. Active participation of civil society actors in peace accords brings more legitimacy to the process and increases chances that the peace agreement will last longer (Nillson, 2012). Furthermore, in most cases where civil society did not participate in the peace process or its engagement was low, the conflict fell back into violence (A. Wanis-St John, D. Kew, 2008). According to Gamaghelyan (2005), some form of engagement of civil society in the peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh could help elevate the negotiations from a zero-sum game up to a win-win approach.

The history of peace talks has already shown that isolating the public from the peace negotiations may have disastrous consequences. The events of 1999, when under public pressure the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia had to abandon the land exchange solution to the conflict, proved that preparing the societies for a future peace deal is a key step to be taken in the peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Minsk Group attempted to open up for the public in 2006 (when the co-chairmen partially disclosed the Basic Principles in order to stir debate on the proposals), but it was an isolated event. The mediation team should work on a comprehensive strategy, which would allow for the engagement of the societies in both countries, and/or collaborate with other nongovernmental organizations, such as the London-based LINKS, International Alert or Conciliation Resources, who have already developed methodologies for involving civil societies in peace efforts.

It is noteworthy that some Azerbaijani and Armenian peace activists have been lobbying the Minsk Group co-chairs to establish an official track-two process, arguing that it would help to improve the communication between the parties and allow to build more mutual trust; however, they have achieved little success so far. Occasionally the co-chairs would meet with the local NGO leaders and civil society activists but there has been no systematic effort to incorporate any kind of track-two diplomacy or non-state-level peacebuilding under the umbrella of the Minsk Group.

Leadership Contributions to the Status Quo

However, the lack of success over the past two decades in bringing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to an end cannot be solely blamed on the mediation team. In fact, the leaders on both sides have also made significant contributions to preserving the status quo, thus making it harder to move the negotiations process forward.

It is noteworthy that certain political cultures reward the ability to maintain a firm stance and not bow to the pressure; in such contexts, leaders may be reluctant to make concessions out of fear that it will make them look weak and amount to selling out in the eyes of the public (Crocker et al., 2007, loc. 1511). Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders have been repeatedly avoiding the compromise approach, seeking to project their image as tough, uncompromising negotiators before their respective constituencies. Moreover, with the lack of a satisfying solution on the horizon, both leaders have sought to take advantage of the status quo: thanks to its high oil revenues, Azerbaijan continues building up its military potential as an alternative to a negotiated solution, whereas Armenia focuses on winning more international legitimacy for its position (Huseynov, 2009).

In addition, the continuation of the conflict may serve the interests of domestic elites in both countries. The governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia learned how to use the conflict to advance their grip on the society and divert attention from other socio-economic and political problems in their countries – such as the lack of democratization, poor economy (in the case of Armenia) and rampant corruption.

It is also important to stress that the authoritarian nature of governments in Armenia and Azerbaijan create barriers for engagement of civil society in the quest for peace. Armenia and Azerbaijan do not welcome contributions from civil society organizations and are often weary of grassroots activism aimed at changing the status quo as the elites in both countries seek to maintain their monopoly on the negotiations process. Citizens’ diplomacy and any initiatives that involve meeting Karabakh Armenians or travelling to Nagorno-Karabakh are looked upon with great suspicion, if not prevented by government, particularly in Azerbaijan. According to Eldar Namazov (2012), former Azerbaijani government official and chief negotiator for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, pressure from the governments obstruct efforts to recognize civil society as a relevant actor in the quest for peace. As Namazov noted:

“The position of international organizations could change the situation. They could give more importance to public diplomacy by supporting politically and financially organizations interested in leading public diplomacy efforts. But they also know the official positions of Azerbaijan and Armenia [on the issue] and don’t want to irritate either of these governments.”  (E. Namazov, personal communication, July 2012).

What’s Next?

The recurring question in the “who-messed-up-the-peace-process” debate is whether the ongoing framework of the mediation process under the auspices of the OSCE has exhausted its potential. Although the inefficiency of the mediation process has contributed to the intractable character of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, I argue that it is not the driving force behind the failure of the ongoing peace negotiations.

Locked in mutually exclusive discourse and deep historical grievances, the parties have perceived the peace negotiations as a zero-sum game in which one side’s loss is another side’s gain. The central issue of the conflict – the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and its political status – is closely intertwined with national identity for both Azerbaijan and Armenia, which makes any compromise politically difficult (if not impossible). Amidst intense state propaganda against one-another and with little room for civil society’s engagement in the transformation of negative attitudes, leaders of the two countries find themselves in a situation where making concessions is seen as a sign of unforgivable weakness by their respective societies.

Faced with such a complexity of the conflict, the Minsk Group has been challenged with a truly formidable task while attempting to bridge the divides between the parties. At the same time, despite the fact that the current framework of negotiations have not proved particularly fruitful, the mediators have not been willing to invest much time and resource in upgrading the process, or searching for alternative approaches.

So what is to be done? Overview of the last twenty decades of the mediation process shows that the efforts of the international actors have largely focused on achieving a negotiated solution to the conflict that would resolve the main differences between the parties. However, in light of the ongoing stalemate in the peace negotiations and the fragile situation of “no peace, no war”, there is a growing need for a trust-building component of the mediation process. In other words, the lesson for the Minsk Group is the following: less conflict resolution, and more conflict transformation. The latter would highlight the importance of transforming attitudes ahead of searching for a concrete solution to the conflict. Of course, the new strategy would require a solid participation of civil society on both sides – a development that neither the Armenian, nor the Azerbaijani regimes favor at this stage. Thus, the Minsk Group should closely work with the authorities on both sides in order to develop a mutually acceptable framework for the engagement of civil society, and mitigate the governments’ fears that having civil actors as legitimate participants in the peace process could undermine the efforts of the official negotiators. In fact, intractable conflicts do benefit from active engagement of civil society as they bring more legitimacy to the peace process and allow to transform attitudes – a key element in breaking the impasse which lies in the interests of both sides.

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Nilsson, D. (2012). Anchoring the Peace: Civil Society Actors in Peace Accords and Durable Peace. International Interactions, 38(2), 243-266. doi:10.1080/03050629.2012.659139

Sammut, D. (November 2011). After Kazan, a Defining Moment for the OSCE Minsk Process. Instituto Affari Internazionali. IAI Working Papers 11.

Tomlinson, E. C., & Lewicki, R. J. (2006). Managing distrust in intractable conflicts. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 24(2), 219-228.

Wanis-St. John, A., & Kew, D. (2008). Civil Society and Peace Negotiations: Confronting Exclusion. International Negotiation, 13(1), 11-36. doi:10.1163/138234008X297896

Personal Communication:

Mammadov, I. (July 18th, 2012), Baku, Azerbaijan.

Namazov, E. (July 20th, 2012), Baku, Azerbaijan.