Nagorno-Karabakh: Getting to a Breakthrough

Nagorno-Karabakh: Getting to a Breakthrough

Europe Briefing N°55
7 October 2009

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A preliminary breakthrough in the two-decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – a framework agreement on basic principles – may be within reach. Armenia and Azerbaijan are in substantial accord on principles first outlined by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group in 2005. A basic principles agreement, while only a foundation to build on, is crucial to maintain momentum for a peace deal. Important differences remain on specifics of a subsequent final deal. Movement toward Armenia-Turkey rapprochement after a century of hostility has brought opportunity also for ending the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate. Sustainable regional peace requires compromises on all the quarrels, but there is backlash danger, especially in Armenia, where public discontent could derail the Nagorno-Karabakh framework agreement. Presidents Sarkisian (Armenia) and Aliyev (Azerbaijan) need to do more to prepare their publics. The U.S., Russia and France, Minsk Group co-chairs, have stepped up collective efforts, but more is needed to emphasise dangers in clinging to an untenable status quo.

Although a deliberate military offensive from either side is unlikely in the near future, the ceasefire that ended active hostilities fifteen years ago is increasingly fragile. There has been a steady increase in the frequency and intensity of armed skirmishes that could unintentionally spark a wider conflict. Though the ceasefire has helped prevent return to full-scale hostilities, it has not prevented some 3,000 deaths along the front line – military and civilian alike – since 1994.

The official negotiations have also not significantly tempered the great scepticism and cynicism among both Armenians and Azerbaijanis about a possible end to the conflict. There is deep distrust of the mediating process, and many on both sides are suspicious that the talks are little more than window-dressing. Many also complain about what they perceive as the secretive nature of the talks. This gives rise to suspicions that a peace deal equates to surrender and that leaders who would take such action would be guilty of treason. These fears have been fuelled by years of official and unofficial propaganda on both sides, and particularly in Armenia, there is a growing sentiment that a change in the status quo could create new security threats. Notably, there is concern even among some government officials that Armenia is being pressured to give up something tangible – the occupied territories – in exchange for mere promises of security. These feelings are especially acute in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The presidents are believed to have broadly agreed on the need for an eventual pullout of ethnic Armenian forces from districts of Azerbaijan outside of Nagorno-Karabakh they currently control. Azerbaijan has also given indications that it is not opposed to a corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. There have been differences on a timetable for the return of ethnic Azeri refugees to Nagorno-Karabakh. The most contentious issue, however, is the region’s final status. There has been some movement towards defining an “interim status” for Nagorno-Karabakh, but Azerbaijan still insists that it must always remain legally part of its territory, while Armenia (and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities) insist that residents of the region have the right to determine their own status, be it as part of Armenia or as an independent state.

The Armenian and Azerbaijani governments should engage their populations in genuine debate about the options on the negotiating table, as well as the risks of letting the current situation linger. Civil society organisations involved in peacebuilding should revamp their efforts to facilitate constructive, wider discussion. International NGO projects have involved a miniscule percentage of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Often the same “experts” have been involved for over a decade in conferences that have largely failed to create the greater public awareness on issues, options and their implications that could diminish insecurities and so free the hands of the negotiators.

Furthermore, Armenia and Azerbaijan should gradually involve Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto authorities and the Nagorno-Karabakh Azeri representatives in the peace talks to secure their buy-in to decisions that would directly affect them. An inclusive and multi-layered format envisioning direct contacts between Azerbaijan and Karabakh Armenians as well as between the Karabakh Armenians and Azeris could help promote a more efficient dialogue.

Specific additional steps that should be taken include: