The United States, the European Union and Russia don’t seem to agree on much these days. But in the volatile South Caucasus, they concur that Armenia and Azerbaijan need to sign an agreement on Friday if they are serious about finding a peaceful solution to the decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia has invited the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to the city of Kazan on Friday and expects they will finally put their signatures on a “basic principles” text they have been wrangling over since 2007. This will be the ninth meeting that Medvedev hosts with his Caucasian counterparts.
To some, the deal on the table may not seem like much. After all, it would still only mark the start of a process, not its conclusion. But if Medvedev can get them to put ink to paper, it will be a rare and significant step forward in this confrontation and a validation of the Russian leader’s persistence.
The signs seem promising. In a strongly worded statement issued at the May G-8 summit meeting in Deauville, France, Presidents Obama, Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, representing the mediators of the “Minsk Group” charged with settling the dispute, highlighted the Kazan meeting and demanded no further delay. Indeed, time is running out because this autumn campaigning will begin in the region and in the Minsk Group countries for 2012 and 2013 elections, thus complicating matters for some and driving the issue lower on the priority list for others.
Nagorno-Karabakh has been pushed down the ladder for too long. It has often been described as a “frozen conflict” ever since a cease-fire deal was signed 16 years ago leaving Armenian forces in control of the mountainous territory and surrounding areas, at least 13 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. However, shooting across the line has been killing dozens of people every year. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been trying to outdo each other buying sophisticated weapons — with Azerbaijan spending as much on arms as Armenia’s total state budget — in expectation of a major war. Pressure to reverse the status quo by force is especially increasing in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital.
A final settlement would allow some 600,000 internally displaced people to return to their homes and offer a sense of security for the approximately 150,000 people currently living in Nagorno-Karabakh. It would put an end to fears of a regional war, in which, because of existing security accords, Russia could step in on Armenia’s side and Turkey on Azerbaijan’s, and Iran would be unlikely to stay on the sidelines.
It is now up to President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to decide if war or peace is more threatening. They have done very little to prepare their people for peace and a lot to prepare them for war. But they could still convince their citizenry of the advantages of compromise. If a deal is forthcoming in Kazan, they will need to do a lot to prevent spoilers from surfacing.
The deal on the table includes withdrawal by Armenian forces of most of the Azerbaijani territory they occupy around Nagorno-Karabakh, the deployment of international peacekeepers, the establishment of an Armenian security corridor, return of displaced persons, interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh, and the promise of a “legally-binding expression of will” to determine the future status of the territory at the end of the process.
This is very balanced. But it will take 10 years or more to implement. Armenians and Azerbaijanis have spent the past two decades building up reservoirs of hate and don’t trust each other to respect their commitments. The Armenians want quick implementation to ensure that Nagorno-Karabakh gets independence, Azerbaijanis are in no rush to let go of a territory that Aliyev says will remain part of his country as long as he is president. Even with a deal, the United States, the European Union and Russia will have much to do after the ink is dry. They may have to begin the painstaking work of drafting a comprehensive peace agreement and start physical planning for implementation. The occupied territories have been destroyed, massive reconstruction will be needed, as will international peacekeepers. The E.U. especially will need to quickly provide civilian, military and economic assistance. If there is no speedy follow up to an agreement in Kazan, and firm international commitment to support it, the deal risks unraveling.
Or, if the presidents don’t sign, the international actors will have to start preparing for a renewal of fighting that would be drawn out. With so much violence already happening in the broader region, this is not an eventuality that the United States, the E.U. and Russia can afford.
Sabine Freizer is Europe program director of the International Crisis Group.
The International Herald Tribune