Karabakh Conflict: Will There Be a ‘Window’ for a Peaceful Scenario?

Politkom.ru (in Russian), Russia
Nov 11 2013

Karabakh Conflict: Will There Be a ‘Window’ for a Peaceful Scenario?

by Aleksandr Karavayev, research fellow of the Russian Academy of
Sciences Economics Institute

The first visit following the series of elections in Armenia and
Azerbaijan of the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group to Yerevan and
Baku took place last week. The American Co-Chairman James Warlick, a
diplomat recently appointed to this office, described on his Twitter
page his first impressions as follows: “Following the meeting with
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, I believe that the first summit in
more than two years with the president of Armenia can be arranged.” We
can agree in principle, there are certain grounds for diplomatic

The organization of personal negotiations of Aliyev and Sargsyan is no
great achievement for the OSCE Minsk Group, specially since the
presidents themselves also might desire this, considering the
emergence of new factors in the current regional situation as a whole
and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in particular. Armenia’s decision to
accede to the Customs Union, the definite positive stabilization of
Russo-Azerbaijani relations -all this alters the context somewhat. But
what will follow this meeting is another matter.

The Karabakh equation could to some extent represent the function of a
triangle, where an unknown variable belonging to Russia is encountered
several times. Baku and Yerevan will determine the solution for
themselves, of course. But a very great deal, namely, the conditions
for the prefential materialization of this scenario or the other, will
depend on how Russia behaves in this conflict. Their range, from tense
expectation and the cold military confrontation of individual gunshots
to active combat operations, will depend on the assertiveness of
Moscow. This proposition earlier appeared in greater relief, then,
when the new context of mutual relations of Russia and the greater
West appeared, it began to blur. In subsequent years, following the
“seepage” of the conflict, as it were, into the broad regional agenda
of Middle East and Caspian stability, this assertion has not appeared
that obvious. But, nonetheless, this, to a considerable extent, is how
it is. Yerevan and Baku are looking very intently to Moscow, in a
varying degree of dependence and constraint. Whence, from this point,
it will be productive to take a brief retrospective look and see how
the positional arrangement in the conflict has changed in the past 20

First, the cyclical nature of events of a warming and cooling of
interest in the conflict, corresponding to the political rhythms of
Baku and Yerevan, is present as invariable constants. The second point
has to do with the permanent competition between Russia and the United
States for influence on the participants in the conflict, with the
OSCE Minsk Group being, perhaps, the sole format on the post-Soviet
territory where Moscow and Washington are institutional and legal
partners in peacekeeping. A third point is the conservatism of the
elites and national populists obstructing solutions achievable at the
level of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Twenty years ago, on 3 October 1993, Heydar Aliyev was elected
president of Azerbaijan. Practically immediately he banked mainly on
Moscow, and, in addition, a favourable moment for negotiations to end
the war arose. Aliyev not only “returned” Azerbaijan to the CIS but
also proposed a broader programme of integration in exchange for
pressure in the direction of Yerevan. It was even a question of the
preservation of Cyrillic in the Azerbaijani alphabet. Such a proposal,
even if symbolic, both then and now, could delight part of the Russian
establishment. There was within Azerbaijan also a mass of positive
expectations from the return of so experienced a political
heavyweight. There was an opportunity for compromise, thanks to the
possibility of “throwing off” responsibility for the military defeats
onto the previous regime (which, strictly speaking, was not an
exaggeration of the reality).

In turn, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who had at that time
harvested the bitter fruit of the country’s economic isolation and who
found himself under the fire of the criticism contained in four UN
resolutions, obviously wanted to conclude a peace treaty. The British
political analyst Thomas de Waal quotes in his well-known book
Armenian politicians pointing out that, after the Armenian attack on
Kalbajar in the spring of 1993, Ter-Petrosyan was disapproving of all
offensive operations of the Armenian armed forces outside of Karabakh.
The start of international pressure on Armenia was taking its toll,
and it is possible that he really was tired of large-scale
hostilities. But the conflict had already acquired its own inertia,
and Ter-Petrosyan simply lost control of the Armenian war machine.
Inspired by the successes at the front, the Karabakh Armenians began
to operate more aggressively and independently. The enclave itself, de
Waal says, “became a lesser Sparta, where the entire adult male
population served in the army.” Be that as it may, thanks to the
series of reciprocal military attacks, all of Southwest Azerbaijan,
except for Zangelan District with its 30,000-strong population in a
pocket close to the border with Iran to the south, found itself
effectually occupied. At the end of October an offensive from two
directions -Nagornyy Karabakh and Armenia -swept up Zangelan also. The
capture of Zangelan effectually completed the picture of Azerbaijan’s
occupied territories or, as they are called in Armenia, “security
zones” around Karabakh.

What’s the situation today? Ilham Aliyev has gained a new mandate of
trust for another presidential term. But he has to confirm and
consolidate it, this is why he needs forward progress on the Karabakh
issue. The shakeup in the army corps of Azerbaijan points for a number
of commentators to a prewar strengthening of the discipline and
mobilization readiness of the officer corps. Yes, the Azerbaijani army
is modernizing, but it is hard as yet to draw conclusions about its
military employment. Ilham Aliyev, like his father also, is far from
the foremost supporter of war in his country. He should rather be
called a pacifist with a capital P, considering the realities of a
public opinion ready to go to war tomorrow even and the mood of part
of the elite in accord with it.

The position of Serzh Sargsyan is to some extent reminiscent of the
situation of Armenia’s first president. The wave of criticism that has
arisen regarding Armenia’s turn towards Eurasian integration is, in
actual fact, a comparatively weak blow to his regime, far more
powerful is the fact that he is unable to show the possibility of the
new political landscape accommodating Karabakh’s security. Moscow can
and will guarantee his personal stability and the economic stability
of the elite and also the physical security of Armenia, but these
guarantees hardly extend to Karabakh itself. There remains an
ambiguity, which is not dispelled by official interviews or even
statements of the Russian military (see the Krasnaya Zvezda interview
with the commander of the Russian base in Armenia).

Whereas earlier Yerevan could have manoeuvred on this issue, citing
the interests and desires of the United States and the EU and, in a
sense, putting pressure on Moscow with its possible “flight” to the
West, now the possibilities of Armenian manoeuvre are confined to the
Procrustean bed of Russian interests. The attachment of Yerevan to the
context of the relations between Moscow and Baku is now stronger by an
order of magnitude. Of course, this has a flip-side also, increasing
the distinctive symbiotic Yerevan-Baku dependence via Moscow. In any
event, the main prize -making Stepanakert a party to the negotiations
-will hardly eventuate without some tradeoff. Perhaps it will not
eventuate at all, considering that it has not been possible to impart
to Karabakh international status all these 20 years. Moscow is not
eager to impair the status quo, constantl pointing out, at the level
of Foreign Ministry officials and notes, that it supports the
territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

Now, in fact, about Russia. All these years our country has been the
sole power capable of rapidly sending peacekeepers to the conflict
zone. The word “power” is no accident here. Only at this point on the
post-Soviet territory, perhaps, does Moscow still preserve an
overwhelming influence advantage. Earlier this was much stricter and
more obvious. In 1993 the Caucasus and Russia were still part of a
common economic space: everyone spoke Russian, and even the phones of
the old government line still supported direct communications with
Moscow. True, the most sensitive issues of the conflict were settled
at that time not by the efforts of the Foreign Ministry, rather by
coercion on the part of generals of the Defence Ministry. Now the
economic ties are part of a global context, but the Moscow dominant
persists. The prerogative of the adoption and monitoring of decisions
has migrated to the office of President Putin, and it is hardly likely
to let go of the initiative. Russia remains the sole mediator with
mechanisms of military pressure and economic management. In fact,
whatever scenarios of the deployment between the Armenian and
Azerbaijani positions of “disengagement forces” are considered, Russia
is the sole country that could effect such a deployment within a
matter of days.

There are still various theories and suppositions concerning the
Russian military’s participation on the opposite sides of the conflict
(for example, Armenia believes that Azerbaijan obtained military
assistance from Russia in the winter of 1993-1994). But, specifically,
in the spring of 1993 Russia insisted that Armenia return Kalbajar.

The saga of the Kremlin’s attempts to persuade the elite of the two
countries of the need for compromise has occurred several times. The
result for some have been losses of political influence, for others,
disintegration of the team. Ter-Petrosyan resigned when the Karabakh
military elite refused to accept his peace proposals. Then Robert
Kocharyan also was unable to persuade his clan of the need for
concessions. In Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev failed to find the arguments
for pushing through among government officials and politicians the
need for compromise. All this was compounded by the fact that the gap
between rhetoric and the actual progress of the negotiations grew by
the year. Now, at the present stage, Zangelan District could be a
subject of bargaining over the return of some territory to Azerbaijan
in exchange for the opening of supply lines with Armenia. Despite the
practice of the settlement of the buffer zone with Syrian Armenians,
these areas are empty, and possible conflicts when the two communities
interact could thus for the time being be avoided.

It is believed that military control of the territory conveys
confidence as to security. But the actual degradation of the region
cannot instil confidence as to the long-term efficacy of the chosen
tactics of ensuring security. Far more reliable, from the stability
perspective, are clear parameters arrived at in an agreement and, if
necessary, guaranteed by outside peacekeepersaĀ¦.

Generally accessible information indicates that it is planned to hold
an Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting around the end of this year or the start of
next year. Following the re-election of Ilham Aliyev and Sargsyan’s
choice of the integration vector, a unique period of quiet, in which
the countries’ political elites are not under heavy psychological
pressure and are capable of making decisions more freely, ensues.
There is no tension hanging over these elites, a period of quiet,
within which new steps may be taken, is beginning.

The economic integration of Armenia could stimulate a number of
adjustments. Russia needs an economically stronger Armenia with
development prospects. Any economic scenario of a gradual resolution
of the conflict would appear preferable and, which is important,
entirely manageable.

Of course, the conflict is, owing to the diametrically opposite
positions of the parties, admittedly already within the category of
greatly protracted, nigh-insoluble ethno-territorial confrontations
like the Cypriot, Arab-Israeli, and such conflicts. They have remained
unsettled for decades. Everything is further complicated by the fact
that some new approaches that would affect the deep-seated roots of
the propaganda sentiments in Armenia and Azerbaijan and the system of
“calibration” of civil society in accordance with this theme are today
a priori impossible. Moreover, different emphases are arranged in the
two countries upon a discussion of the Karabakh problem. In Armenia,
for example, this means the people residing on the territory of
Nagornyy Karabakh. In Azerbaijan this means the territories themselves
and the refugees. But if we try, closely-related approaches may be
found by way of dialogue. Moscow attempts periodically to resuscitate
dialogue initiatives, on the latest occasion this was aired by Mikhail
Shvydkoy during the Baku International Humanitarian Forum. But all
this has thus far been very shaky.

In my view, therefore, the sole prospect for the start of a peace
process is a “deal” at the top formalized with the mediation of the
Kremlin. Strictly speaking, it is of no significance whether the
parties reach agreement on the insertion of Russian peacekeepers in
the future demilitarized zone. It is important to provide for some
material and political background to the process. It is likely that
Baku will be forced to pay the Armenians’ “costs” through a kind of
financial guarantee in the form, for example, of investments in
Russia’s infrastructure. Subsequently, the transfer to Azerbaijan of
some localities close to the line of contact, which are simply
standing empty, is possible. Azerbaijan could in exchange agree to
concessions: grant access to part of its transit infrastructure. In
any event, Russian Railroads and Rosneft could provide for the first
trade and economic contacts between Azerbaijan and Armenia. There’s
little left to do -to resolve to do it. Experience shows that such a
scenario requires for its execution quiet, not publicity, and the
absence of public discussion. Whether such a format is possible for
Armenia and Azerbaijan, I shall not venture to say. But Serzh
Sargsyan’s Customs Union decision was in precisely this style.

[Translated from Russian]

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