Armenia and Azerbaijan Are at it Again

Why Nagorny Karabakh (a place you've probably never heard of) is more important to US interests than Bosnia ever was.  

In diplomacy, the moment is everything. This obvious truth struck me again in the run-up to the tenth anniversary of the Key West talks, when the United States made its biggest push to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh— a piece of highland territory in the south Caucasus that the two states have long been fighting over. But after a promising start, it all dissolved. Then-Azerbaijani president, Heidar Aliev (he has been followed into office by his son), was in poor health and began to back away from the peace plan as soon as he got back home to Baku. Both leaders had done nothing to prepare their publics for the great compromises they were negotiating.

On March 28, Carey Cavanaugh, who was the lead U.S. negotiator at Key West, spoke about the talks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at an event on which I was also on the panel. Cavanaugh argued that circumstances were far more favorable for peace in Karabakh at Key West than they are now. The two presidents, Robert Kocharian of Armenia and the elder Aliev had a good working relationship. They were also discussing the outline of a plan they had worked up themselves, not one given them by outsiders. There was “no competing international crisis” and it was a lot easier to find money to finance a post-conflict settlement. In 2011, there is deadlock. The current Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents temporize and avoid signing up to an agreement whose outline has been obvious for around six years now—gradual withdrawal of Armenian forces from the territories around Karabakh in exchange for the promise of a referendum in the future— because they are either afraid or unwilling to agree to comprises that carry too many risks for them.

If Key West was Karabakh’s missed “Dayton moment,” the differences are instructive. To make the Dayton peace for Bosnia work, Richard Holbrooke had many instruments at his disposal which the Karabakh mediators do not.

One was the glare of publicity on Bosnia. The organized massacre at Srebenica and the rocket attack on Sarajevo market got prime-time television coverage—too late to save the victims but enough to mobilize public opinion. Belatedly, the world cared about Bosnia and there was a perceived cost to letting the war continue and the Bosnian Serbs continue in their bloody practices. Compare that to a war in the Caucasus that most people cannot locate on the map and where major fighting was halted by a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The Karabakh conflict is mistakenly labeled “frozen.” That obscures the fact that several dozen young Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers die each year in shooting incidents across the Line of Contact. But it is a sleeping volcano, not an erupting event that draws all eyes to the crisis.

Richard Holbrooke was also able to leverage international attention into resources for Bosnia. Of course they weren’t all–or even primarily—American resources. The European Union became the paymaster for a European post-conflict settlement. The United States did send troops to Bosnia but as part of a multilateral mission. Even so, Holbrooke relates in his memoir To End a War, how at least two senior U.S. officials told him, “We do not have a dog in this fight” and he fought intra-Washington officials to try to get an international mandate strong enough to enforce the post-Dayton peace. Again, compare that to the interest in a post-conflict settlement for Karabakh. Currently the 110-mile-long ceasefire line, with more than 20,000 troops on each side, is monitored by just six unarmed observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Armenia and Azerbaijan are in nobody’s backyard, nobody’s first strategic priority—not even Russia’s anymore. It will be much harder to get resources to stabilize a peace deal here.

Yet a third point of comparison is the most curious one. The United States has no strategic interest in the Western Balkans per se. Compare that to Karabakh. The conflict zone has Georgia and Russia to the north, Turkey to the west and Iran to the south, including a troublingly long section of unmonitored border between Iran and empty Armenian-held Azerbaijani territory. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs just 12 miles to the north of the Line of Contact. Azerbaijan is a key troop transit point for Afghanistan. All that before we even mention that the Armenian-American community is one of the most politically vocal in Washington.

In other words, this is, objectively speaking, a conflict of greater strategic importance to the United States than Bosnia ever was. Yet at the moment, U.S. bilateral interests in Armenia and Azerbaijan are factors that constrain a more aggressive push to force the reluctant presidents to make a deal. Turning the gun-turrets of the Armenian and Azerbaijani lobbies in Washington to point towards peace, rather than at each other, is half the battle for a Karabakh settlement.