Nagorno-Karabakh: Getting To A Breakthrough


Europe Briefing N°55
7 October 2009


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 additiona einforce pledges to refrain from use of force
by allowing the mandate of the tiny OSCE observer mission to be
significantly broadened, for example to authorise investigation
of claims of violations, and allowing a larger monitoring force on
the ground that could facilitate establishment of an international
peacekeeping force once an agreement is in place.

* Azerbaijan should review its position and accept OSCE proposals,
apparently agreed by Armenia, to remove snipers from front line
areas, and both sides should stop advancing their trenches towards
the other’s positions.

* Armenia, together with the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities and
Azerbaijan, should begin contingency planning on the mechanisms and
procedures for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the districts
of Azerbaijan outside of Nagorno-Karabakh they continue to occupy.

* The Armenian and Azerbaijani governments should formally endorse by
the end of 2009 the document on basic principles and fully disclose
its contents in public forums. Armenia should encourage the de facto
Nagorno-Karabakh authorities to uphold the agreement.

* Azerbaijan should allow Karabakh Azeris to play a bigger role in
the negotiations and the internal political process, including by
passing legislation allowing them to elect the head of their community.

* All sides to the conflict should consider an inclusive and
multi-layered negotiation format envisioning direct contacts
between the Azerbaijani government and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh
authorities, as well as between the Karabakh Armenians and Azeris.

* External actors, particularly the U.S, France (and, broadly, the EU)
and Russia should intensify their collective efforts to encourage
Armenia and Azerbaijan to formally endorse the basic principles
document and move on at once to negotiating the peace agreement.

* Donors involved in developing, implementing or funding peacebuilding
should engage greater numbers of people in their projects, inc ctronic
media and joint public forums.

* The de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities should end their support
for settlement of formerly Azeri majority areas with Armenians,
including an end to privatisation, infrastructure development and
the establishment of local government structures in those areas.

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