TAKING COMMAND IN KARABAKH
Transitions Online, Czech Republic
Aug 3 2007
A peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is long
overdue. Europe needs to step in and take charge of negotiations.
By most standards, the recent presidential election in the disputed
region of Nagorno-Karabakh was a success: the campaigning among five
candidates was vigorous, 78 percent of registered voters cast ballots,
and outside monitors were generally impressed.
But this was not a typical election, nor – in the eyes of the
international players trying to bring peace to this region – a welcome
exercise in democracy.
In the first place, no one except Armenia recognizes the government
of this self-declared Caucasian republic, whose status sparked a
destructive conflict in the 1980s and 1990s between Armenia and
Azerbaijan. Negotiators fear that July’s election is fueling more
resentment in Azerbaijan and will undermine already tenuous peace
The second reason for concern is that the election in Nagorno-Karabakh,
a mountainous region of 130,000 people, is a harbinger for presidential
elections scheduled next year in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Politicians in these former Soviet republics routinely use the
Nagorno-Karabakh war to rhetorical and political advantage. Like other
post-communist conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus, such bluster
can only worsen the distrust, ethnic hatreds, and nationalist fervor –
and derail efforts to find common ground in negotiations.
BEATING THE WAR DRUMS
So far this summer, the scene has not been pretty. Azeri President
Ilham Aliev declared that his nation was living in a "state of war" and
called for increased defense spending. Across the militarized border,
the favorite to succeed Armenian President Robert Kocharian is Prime
Minister Serge Sarkisian, until recently the defense minister. Both
men were leaders in the Nagorno-Karabakh separatist movement.
Frequent news reports about sniping along the frontier and political
bombast have complicated efforts by the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe to end the conflict and move toward a
normalization of relations.
It has been a tough haul since a cease-fire was declared in 1994. And
some analysts wonder whether the OSCE even has the muscle needed to
win a breakthrough.
The roots of this feud go back to the earliest days of the Soviet
Union. Through a policy of divide and conquer, Nagorno-Karabakh and
its ethnic Armenian majority were given limited autonomy within the
Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Christian Armenians and mostly
Muslim Azeris lived in relative harmony under Soviet hegemony for
more than 60 years. But as the Soviet Union began to unravel, Armenia
staked its claim to Nagorno-Karabakh, enraging Azeri authorities.
Soviet troops first attempted to intervene; later, Soviet military
hardware fueled the fighting. Since then, voters and the separatist
leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh have pursued their independence.
The war killed 30,000 people, creating a refugee crisis of epic
proportions, and contributed to the dire economic problems that
followed the Soviet collapse.
Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh militias won a strategic victory, seizing
one-sixth of Azeri territory. But victory came at tremendous cost to
this young nation’s potential. Today, Armenia is boxed in on two sides
by avowed foes – Azerbaijan and Turkey. It retains close economic,
energy, and military ties with Russia, but dividing them along the
Caucasian spine is anti-Moscow Georgia. Armenia has trade and energy
deals with neighboring Iran, yet is ever careful to balance these
relations so as not to offend an important benefactor – the United
In Nagorno-Karabakh itself, Stepanakert is a handsome seat of
government, a valley city surrounded by a stunning landscape of
farmland and mountains. But there are few jobs for young people, and
the former capital, Susha, is a desperate mountain town of rubble and
bombed-out buildings. The enclave relies almost exclusively on Armenia
and the diaspora for survival, and it has almost no international
sympathy for independence.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan may one day wake up and see that they
have far more to gain from working together than prolonging their
hatred. Armenia needs energy and trade to sustain its economy;
Azerbaijan has plenty of oil and natural gas to sell, and by living
in harmony with its neighbor, it would gain a direct overland route
to Nakhichevan, a part of its territory that is cut off by southern
NEW COMMANDER NEEDED
The OSCE has been able to keep the two sides talking (sometimes). But
that’s about it. Achieving a breakthrough settlement will take greater
statesmanship on the part of the Armenian and Azeri leaders than either
has shown, and more diplomatic weight than what the OSCE can offer.
So far, the European Union has observed from a distance, prompting
the respected International Crisis Group to urge it to take a more
commanding role. The Brussels-based conflict-monitoring organization
has warned that Nagorno-Karabakh and two other regional conflicts,
in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, "have the potential to ignite into
full-fledged wars in Europe’s neighborhood" if the EU does not take
Brussels has the financial, political, and economic wherewithal that
the OSCE doesn’t have. The EU, for example, could set strict benchmarks
for the Azeris and Armenians, both of whom are earnestly competing
for stronger ties to Western institutions. Europe, working with NATO,
could use their concerted influence to seek normalized relations
between Armenia and Turkey, which has close ethnic and economic ties
with the Azeris. If the peace process progresses, Brussels could
offer economic incentives, such as rebuilding the rail and transport
networks between Armenia and Azerbaijan to facilitate trade.
An end to the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is long overdue.
Renewed hostilities in the Caucasus would bring more human suffering,
wreck economic progress made in both countries, and threaten vital
Caspian energy supplies and Caucasus pipelines. The EU has a vested
interest in helping this region; it should start by taking command
of the peace process.