A Close Call in the Caucasus

April 22, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Eurasia Tags: Nagorno-karabakhArmeniaAzerbaijanRussiaSecurity

A Close Call in the Caucasus

Just days ago, Nagorno-Karabakh almost boiled over.

The NKR was excluded from peace talks in 1997, but their participation should be reconsidered as a means of kick-starting a final settlement. Even though the last two Armenian presidents were born in Karabakh, important differences on key positions exist between Yerevan and Stepanakert. For this and other reasons, the logical step is to allow them in. President Aliyev can spin it any way he likes, such as “We humiliated them on the ground in April and now I have forced them to come to the table,” but flexibility on this issue may help move the process forward.

There are a number of other creative possibilities, such as placing Nagorno-Karabakh under some form of international supervision until a final settlement is arrived at. I brought up the subject in 2009 when I met Georgi Petrosyan, who was at that time the foreign minister of the NKR. He brushed this aside, however, by returning to the issue of Karabakh’s status in negotiations, saying, “If Karabakh’s representatives are not going to be at the negotiating table, then there is a hardly a chance that there will be anything viable reached.”

Something should be said about Russia’s motives and its ambitions in the region, as well as the widespread belief on social media in Azerbaijan that, somehow, the Kremlin is behind the recent crisis.

Russia has managed to maintain relatively good relations with both Baku and Yerevan (although the allegedly malevolent shadow of Russia is one thing that both ordinary Azeris and Armenians seem to agree on), and has supplied weapons to both sides. The biggest asymmetry is Moscow’s long-standing defense pact with Armenia, although the terms of the agreement leave enough ambiguity that some analysts do not believe Russia would be obliged to come to Armenia’s aid if Azerbaijan launched an all-out attack to take back Karabakh. This ambiguity may give Russia the latitude to dictate terms in its favor if such a conflict does occur.

Russia has, however, worked in concert with its Minsk Group partners to find a way out of the unstable Karabakh stalemate. During his time as president, for example, Dmitry Medvedev (Russia’s current prime minister) made repeated efforts to achieve a breakthrough. The United States should strive to involve the Kremlin once again in applying pressure on both parties and bringing to the table a new set of demands.

If they possess any vision at all, President Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, President Serzh Sargsyan, will—sooner rather than later—have to prepare their people for peace terms that are difficult to swallow. This is surely preferable to agitating for war, as Aliyev has done repeatedly since taking office in 2003. The superstructure of hatred in both countries that feeds upon itself, distorting history and spawning acts of intolerance or far worse, should be dismantled, but this is probably a lost cause. Suffice it to say that the presidents will find it all but impossible to implement a permanent solution that they eventually agree to if their people have been manipulated into never accepting compromise.

Karl Rahder has taught international relations at universities in Baku, Tbilisi and the United States. As a journalist and regional analyst, has covered conflict, geopolitics and human rights in the former USSR and the Balkans since 2004.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Marcin Konsek