One of Europe’s Most Persistent Conflicts Simmers on in Ukraine’s Shadow
Twenty years after Armenians and Azerbaijanis signed a truce in their war over Nagorno-Karabakh, almost no subsequent progress has been made in settling what is one of Europe’s most persistent remaining conflicts. Instead, especially in the past few years, sniper attacks, shelling and land mines have killed increasing numbers of people – most recently about thirty annually. Armenia and Azerbaijan are increasing their military budgets. Baku in particular has raised its military spending from $175 million in 2003, the year that President Ilham Aliyev was inaugurated, to $3.7 billion in 2013. The crisis surrounding Ukraine, and particularly Russia’s annexation of Crimea, is making resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict even more elusive.
For Azerbaijan, the conflict keeps 14 percent of its territory occupied and 600,000 Azerbaijanis displaced. The vast majority of these are from lands around Nagorno-Karabakh that have been seized by that territory in the course of the conflict. Within Nagorno-Karabakh, the population of 90,000 to 150,000 feels increasingly sure of its independence but not of its security. Armenia is ever more dependent on Russia, with its long borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey sealed shut to trade and travel.
Since the truce of May 12, 1994, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been mediating talks between Azeri and Armenian leaders through the OSCE Minsk Group, chaired by Russian, US and French representatives. They mainly focus on trying to resolve the conflict between Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and right to maintain its territorial integrity on one hand, and the Armenian demand that Karabakh’s majority ethnic Armenian population be able to determine how they are governed. That demand has shifted over time from unification with Armenia to establishment of a Nagorno-Karabakh state. Calls to change the international negotiations format, or drop international mediation altogether, are becoming more persistent in the absence of progress.
Since 2005 the parties have come closer to agreeing to the elements of a compromise, based on three basic principles: the non-use of force, territorial integrity and the right to self-determination. The envisioned compromise includes six elements: the return of the Azerbaijani lands around Nagorno-Karabakh that have been seized by the territory’s fighters; an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh guaranteeing its security and self-governance; a land corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia; eventual determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status by what the Minsk Group leaders call “a legally binding expression of will;” the right of all displaced persons to return; and international security guarantees, including a peacekeeping operation.
But the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia remain unable to finalize the deal. Part of the problem is that they fear the public backlash that would arise if they are viewed by their societies as making any compromises. Confidence is in short supply in the region. Divisions between the two societies keep growing, as the generations that remember easy co-existence during the Soviet period get older and are replaced by ones that have been schooled in an atmosphere of hate and distrust of the other.
In a statement today on the anniversary of the ceasefire, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs point out that “a settlement will not be possible without a basis of trust and understanding between the Armenian and Azerbaijani people. We call on the sides to commit to active people to people programs and security confidence building measures to reinforce the peace process.”
Thankfully, in the shadows of the official negotiations and the overall deterioration in people-to-people relations, Azeri and Armenian civil society groups have been talking together on issues of common concern. Since June 2010 much of this dialogue has been facilitated by international NGOs within the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an initiative funded by the European Union. Meetings have involved women, youth, journalists and analytical communities—from Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also Nagorno Karabakh. Through these meetings, at least some people have been able to see beyond the hate rhetoric voiced by their media and politicians. They even have debated difficult topics like Nagorno-Karabakh’s ultimate status, considering the real differences between the options of autonomy and independence
The past twenty years of negotiations show that peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia cannot be made in closed rooms between the countries’ two presidents. A much greater involvement of society is needed. But Baku and Yerevan are not doing enough to support these track-two efforts. Instead, recent actions by Azerbaijan’s government make people-to-people confidence-building harder. On April 20, Azerbaijani authorities arrested journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov when he landed in Baku after being deported by Turkey. Days later, authorities briefly detained peace-building activists Arif and Leyla Yunus, saying they were investigating the couple for alleged espionage on behalf of Armenia. In fact, all three are engaged in an Armenian-Azerbaijani civil society project called Public Dialogues.
Events in Ukraine contribute to the sense of hopelessness. Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, especially its seizure of Crimea blatantly violates the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by the United States, United Kingdom and Russia, which solemnly promised a guarantee of Ukraine’s security in exchange for its dismantling of its nuclear arsenal. That violation makes it unlikely today that Armenia would accept similar guarantees in exchange for the territories it occupies.
Russia’s take-over of Crimea also reduces the chance that international opinion will pay any increased attention to the four United Nations Security Council resolutions passed in 1993 that call for the withdrawal of local Armenian troops from Azerbaijani lands. Crimea also suggests to Azerbaijan that it, too, might attempt a quick military operation to regain lost territory with only limited international opposition. Russia, driven by its nationalist imperialist foreign policy, has little interest in helping to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which secures its key role in the region by keeping the Caucasus from being an open transit route for western interests.
Twenty years ago the withdrawal of troops, return of refugees, and deployment of peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh looked like the logical next steps after the ceasefire’s signature. None of this occurred. Instead as the OSCE Minsk Group concludes, “the sides have shown little willingness to take advantage of the opportunities … or make the political decisions necessary for progress in this peace process.” Today the prospect of renewed fighting, which this time could have a regional dimension and pull in Russia and Turkey, seems more likely than ever since 1994.
Sabine Freizer is a nonresident senior fellow with the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and the Program on Transatlantic Relations.