Dennis Sammut: "Put people at the heart of a Karabakh solution"

Dennis Sammut, executive director of LINKS, a British NGO, has called on the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to prioritise the welfare of the conflict affected communities as they pursue a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  Dennis Sammut was speaking at during a lecture at the ADA University (Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy), in the Azerbaijani capital Baku. Diplomats, academics and members of the ADA student community attended the event.

The following is the text of Dennis Sammut's presentation:

It is twenty years, nearly to the day, since my first visit to Azerbaijan in 1996 and much has changed in Azerbaijan since.

Unfortunately this means that I am now twenty years older but otherwise most change has been for the good. The transformation in Azerbaijan has been impressive.

This is often depicted through pictures of the changing landscape of Baku, yet the change has been much deeper than that, impacting the people as much as the architecture. 

As Azerbaijan became more confident its ambitions in the international arena have also increased, and there were some notable successes: the election to the United Nations Security Council as a non permanent member for the years 2012-13, the successful hosting of the Eurovision Song Festival in 2012, and of the 1st European Games in 2015.

This sense of confidence is a far cry from what I sensed when I came here the first time when the mood was one of defeat and despair.

Yet even more significant is the transformation that has taken place in past two decades in the people: in the way they think, in their expectations and wishes, and in their relationship with each other and the institutions of their country. 

The extent and the implications of these changes are difficult to define precisely, but it is already clear that the impact of this transformation will have consequences not just for Azerbaijan but also for the wider Caucasus region.


The wider context

Azerbaijan enters 2016 facing a number of political, economic and social challenges. These processes cannot be seen in isolation. They are part of wider ongoing global processes.

When the cold war ended, for a fleeting moment there was a sense of hope for a new, peaceful world that was not divided by ideology, where nations could feel secure within their borders, where universal values could be upheld by the collective will of the international community, and where it was expected that countries’ prosperity could somehow rub off on their neighbours.

Nowhere was this sense of optimism felt more strongly than in Europe. Unfortunately, reality has turned out differently. The hopes of peace of the 1990s have been shattered. The world is now at its most dangerous moment since the end of the cold war, and Europe is no longer a spectator. Many of the conflicts of the last twenty five years have been fought on European soil, in the Balkans, in the Caucasus and in Eastern Europe.

In the west we often blame Russia for much of the instability of recent years on the European Union’s eastern borders.   Attempts to engage Russia as a partner rather than an enemy seemed to be succeeding for a short time, but facts on the ground show that this strategy has largely failed. For nearly a decade now, Russia has acted as a revisionist power. It is challenging the status quo that emerged at the end of the cold war, often at the expense of its far smaller and weaker neighbours. Russia has torn up the agreements on which Europe’s peace depended.

At the same time, on Europe’s Southern borders, in the Middle East and North Africa, the regional order, a relic of the Cold War, has collapsed, leaving space for a nasty form of religious extremism to emerge.

The result is an arc of crises stretching from Ukraine and the Caucasus to the Levant and Maghreb.

As we have seen recently, there is now also a serious risk that large countries like Russia and Turkey can easily become directly involved in confrontation with each other. The global response to the new reality has been inadequate. There is too much distrust, and too many divisions between important countries. Diplomacy has failed too often.

Nowhere is this failure seen more starkly than on the European continent. The Helsinki Final Act, the landmark document agreed by all the states of Europe and North America in 1975, laid the foundations for the new European order. It ended the dangers of nuclear holocaust and ushered in a period of peace and prosperity. Forty years later, it is in tatters.

This failure of diplomacy has long-term consequences, and we are nowhere closer to building a new European security architecture than when we started talking about this in the early 1990s. The most recent attempt to develop a vision for the future was a report by “eminent persons” instigated by the OSCE, as part of its “Helsinki +40” strategy. It was published last month, and is hugely disappointing.

The document lacks vision, telling us lots about where we are coming from, but very little about how to go forward. But even this bland document could not be agreed on unanimously, the Russian member disassociating himself from the report before it was published. Thus it symbolises the problem rather than a potential solution.

The South Caucasus sits uncomfortably at the heart of this crisis in a situation somewhere between war and peace, a tinderbox waiting for somebody to throw a match on it by accident or design.

The Karabakh conflict is the most serious problem facing the region at present. For this audience I do not have to spell out how this conflict started or the dire consequences it has had. You lived through it, or if you were too young, your parents would certainly have told you of the harsh and bitter pains it created throughout Azerbaijani society. More than two decades after the initial cease-fire, there is still no solution in sight. It is not a “frozen conflict” as some have suggested. Fighting occurs regularly, with soldiers and civilians dying every year in increasing numbers, and the situation becomes more dangerous each year.

Some of the most advanced weapons in the world are in the conflict zone, including tanks, planes, artillery and other pieces of equipment with the ability to create havoc and mass destruction, often supplied to both sides by the same source. If conflict reignites, the areas affected will no longer be limited to the areas around Nagorno-Karabakh. Both sides have the capacity to bring the war to each other’s remotest village or town.

In the corridors of diplomacy there are two schools of thought about how to deal with the Karabakh conflict. One school of thought says the sides in the conflict are so deeply locked in their maximalist positions, and the causes of the conflict so deeply entrenched in the psyche of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, that it is not possible to solve it. They suggest the best way to deal with it is to manage it, to ensure there is no large-scale escalation, and to try to mitigate some of the consequences. After twenty-four years of failed negotiations under the Minsk process, this school of thought now has a lot of support.

A second school of thought, and one which I unashamedly declare I belong to, rejects this premise. It argues the conflict is solvable. It recognises that the process of advancing a long-term solution may entail risks, but smaller risks than allowing the conflict to simmer. It recognises the status quo carries a danger of imploding without warning, either by accident or after being provoked by outside factors.

Those who accept this school of thought often say the present situation is unsustainable. I will go a step further and say that the status quo is both unsustainable and unacceptable. Too many people continue to suffer as a result of the conflict, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and the two nations and the wider region are held hostage to its consequences.

The assumption that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan wants to start a conflict, and that Russia can prevent them from doing so anyway, oversimplifies a more complex reality. All the ingredients for renewed hostilities exist, and a variety of different circumstances could result in unpredictable developments that can easily trigger renewed large scale hostilities. Only a durable peace arrangement will address this risk.

The Karabakh conflict needs to be resolved. Simply managing it is not enough. Of course this is easier said than done.  The mediators   speak in frustration of the lack of political will among the leaderships in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan on the other hand blame each other; sometimes Azerbaijan blames the mediators for not doing enough, and the international community of using double standards. Everybody blames Russia on and off, and sometimes the United States. Recently some have started blaming the European Union too, even though as yet it is not directly involved in the process of resolving the conflict. Every side blames everyone apart from itself.

There is probably an element of truth in all these accusations, and the first challenge is for all sides concerned to accept part of the blame for the lack of progress, and to examine first how much they themselves can do more before blaming others. This will only happen if the debate is taken to a different level, both in the societies of Armenia and Azerbaijan and in the international community.

At present there is a comfort zone of fixed positions and slogans that has developed, safe positions of things you are able to say without being criticised by anyone relevant to you. Very few people are ready to leave this comfort zone, and the harsh truth is that before that happens, there can never be a solution to the conflict because the basis of a solution can never be the fixed positions that currently exist, and that goes for the international community as much as for Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The journey from this comfort zone to the more difficult territory of creative thinking and towards that difficult word that some people find so hard to use – compromise – is  going to be a tough one, but the journey must start. I want to make some tangible suggestions of how this can happen:

In diplomacy there is one tool that can help us on our way – that of constructive ambiguity.

 Henry Kissinger coined the term “constructive ambiguity” many years ago, and it is often summarised as a situation when two parties to a conflict use deliberately vague language in order to make diplomacy possible. Constructive ambiguity has many admirers, and many critics. I support it in the context of the Karabakh conflict in one particular regard: that of emphasis. We need to shift the emphasis to people, and make them the central issue for resolving the conflict. By people I mean refugees and IDPs, and the communities directly affected by fighting in the conflict zone and nearby.

This will mean Azerbaijan putting less emphasis on territory, and Armenia putting less emphasis on status, and both making more emphasis on measures, permanent or interim, that will improve the lives of people affected by the conflict. This will not mean the sides must abandon any of their positions, but simply shift their priorities.

This shift can only happen if the societies of both Armenia and Azerbaijan demand it, and it is civil society that can do so. Civil society is not a panacea. It is a very imperfect part of a nation’s construct, yet is an essential bridge between government and people. In the context of the Karabakh conflict, civil society has a key role to play.

  This is already partly recognised by the governments in Armenia and Azerbaijan but I regret to say we also sometimes get contradictory signals. On both sides from time to time, people who engage in dialogue with adversaries are branded as traitors. People who try to introduce new arguments in the discussion are often told to shut up. This is wrong. We need a much more intensive program of people to people conctacts and dialogue across the conflict divide and at all levels. We need new ideas, we need new emphasis, and we need to take risks.

This message goes to the international community as much as to the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Minsk Process and the co-Chair of the Minsk process are tools of diplomacy. They are not sacred cows. The process and those who lead it need to be put under constant scrutiny. The co-chair need to reflect if they can do their job differently. The model of the last twenty years has clearly not worked.

The carousel of meetings has taken the form of a ritual. Some see value in maintaining the pattern, I see value in breaking the pattern. The peace process, like the lines of thinking in the national capitals, is also in dire need of new ideas, new emphasis, and a willingness to take risks.

Some time ago I put forward the suggestion that it was now time to convene the Minsk Conference on Nagorno-Karabakh as was envisaged when the Minsk group was set up in 1992. Let me explain how this can happen, and why it is useful. First of all the conference will have to unfold over a period of time, say from 12 to 18 months. It will meet in plenary and in working groups, covering a number of issues simultaneously.

There will be pauses between sessions for reflection and consultation. There will be deadlines to which the sides will be expected to adhere. The conference will involve several dozens of people from both sides at the level of working groups, and plenaries led by the foreign ministers or their deputies, and will work under the modalities of the OSCE, with the international community participating in key moments to add support.

When I initially made this proposal I was told I was naïve. I was asked how a conference could solve such a problemOthers said raising expectations when one could end up delivering failure carries too much risk.

I do not accept the first criticism, but I do recognise the second. There are risks when embarking on such a high profile course, and these need to be managed, but the risks of not doing anything outweighs the risks of trying new initiatives. The Minsk Conference can help focus minds, bring a sense of urgency to negotiations, and increase the accountability of all concerned. It will not require a new international mandate. The co-Chair already have a mandate to convene the Minsk Conference when they think the time is right, so the onus is on them.

 The peace process needs to be energized, with a focus on achieving peace and not simply managing the conflict  This will probably require a reconfiguration of  existing arrangements within the Minsk Group, of the sort I am suggesting.   Currently there is little appetite in diplomatic circles to do this, and people ask where such a new initiative can come from.  My answer is the European Union.

Because of its proximity to the conflict, its influence in institutions such as the OSCE, and its direct and indirect interests in the region, the EU is the only international player apart from the co-Chair countries, that can trigger a new approach, and which has enough reasons to do so.  It should.

The absence of the European Union from the Karabakh peace process is now clearly an anomaly. Regardless, the EU should be leading with innovative initiatives,  and not simply endorsing a peace process that often looks moribund.  It is true the European Union lacks some hard power tools, such as a standing army, and has a decision making process that is cumbersome, yet Europe’s civil society is stronger than that of any other actor.

For the last five years the EU’s EPNK programme has created a space for European NGOs to work with counterparts in Armenia and Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue. Hundreds of activities were held involving thousands of participants from right across the conflict divide engaging people in all spheres of society. After a short break this initiative is about to be re-launched for a further period of three years.

It is a good example of work that can be done at different levels, and this work is just as necessary and relevant as the work of peacekeepers or monitors, and yes, dare I say it, of diplomats. For in the medium to long term, a peaceful and durable solution of the Karabakh problem can only be achieved through a deeper transformational process based on modernisation, good governance and prosperity. It is the EU, using its soft power skills and experience, that is best placed to accompany Armenia and Azerbaijan on this journey.  


Europe and the South Caucasus

 As a final comment, let me therefore address the issue of relations between the European Union and the South Caucasus generally, and more specifically the relationship between the EU and Azerbaijan. I have watched this relationship at close quarters over the last twenty-five years, from the first humanitarian aid packages arriving in the region after the devastation of conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, to the high point recently when Georgia became an associate member of the EU.

Reflecting on this, one cannot help come to the conclusion that it has been a clumsy relationship, like two dancers out of step with each other not because they are not both good at dancing, but simply because they have not made the effort to get their act together.

Some will dismiss this as unfair criticism, citing the hard work done by diplomats and others to improve relations over the years, as well as successful co-operation in a number of fields. In European Union circles, one is usually only a few seconds into this conversation before being bombarded by a raft of statistics about the amount of financial aid the EU has given the countries in the region. This smugness is uncalled for.

2014/15 saw a crisis in relations between the EU and Armenia and Azerbaijan. Brussels preferred to understate the crisis because it had its hands full with Ukraine, and more recently the migration problem. Ambitious plans  of bringing the region closer to the EU through the framework of Association Agreements, made five years ago, have long since been abandoned. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have now identified three different trajectories for their relations with the EU.

With Armenia and Georgia these trajectories are now clear, even if in opposing directions. Georgia is now an EU associate member. It is vital for both sides to ensure that this relationship is meaningful, especially for the Georgian people.

This requires long term strategic restructuring to make sure Georgia is able to benefit fully from the provisions of the new agreement, but also means making sure the benefits of this relationship reach the Georgian people quickly. I am encouraged by what I see so far in this regard, but there is a huge amount of work to be done, both on making sure change takes place quickly, and making sure Georgia and the EU are not distracted by other issues.

Armenia first wanted to follow the Georgian path, then abruptly changed course. On 2 January 2015 it became a full member of the Russia led Eurasian Economic Union. It is also a full member of the Russia led military alliance, the CSTO. Many in Azerbaijan ask me why the European Union bothers with Armenia after all this.

The answer is simple. The EU is not and has never been, on some sort of crusade to bring other countries into its fold. Those who joined the European Union as members or associate members did so of their own free will, and often after working very hard to ensure they fulfilled all the membership criteria. Some countries such as Norway and Switzerland have simply said no thank you. If Armenia changed its mind in 2013 that is fine, and does not turn Armenia into an enemy. The EU will deal with Armenia normally as a neighbouring country.

Is there a crisis in EU-Armenia relations? Many in Brussels will say “Crisis? What crisis?” One senior official even described the relationship as exemplary. I disagree. I think 2013 triggered a crisis, one some argue, that could have been avoided if the EU had sharper political antennae, and a quicker response mechanism. I believe in the long term Associate Membership of the EU would have been in the interest of the Armenian people. What is happening now, with the two negotiating a new relationship, is better seen as crisis management than the execution of considered policy.

I hope these negotiations are concluded speedily so we will have some kind of contractual arrangement between Armenia and the EU. Whatever is agreed, it is important to then make it work properly.


Azerbaijan and the European Union

Azerbaijan has been consistent in rejecting both an Association Agreement with the EU as well as membership of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Yet Azerbaijan has said many times it wants a strategic relationship with the EU and that it wants to translate some of the work it has done bilaterally with the EU member states into an overarching strategic agreement.

The EU on its part has said it is ready to start working on developing this kind of relationship, even if no one is quite clear what sort of document the two sides are going to end up with.  It is therefore a good time to reflect a little on this relationship, and on why EU – Azerbaijan relations have recently passed through some difficult moments.

Governance issues have turned out to be the main stumbling block in relations between Azerbaijan and Europe so far. In Europe the situation in Azerbaijan is often exaggerated. This is a mistake since if we do not understand the problem accurately, we can hardly contribute to solving it.

On the other hand, in Azerbaijan, issues that are perceived as being very serious by outsiders are wrongly dismissed as interference, or worse as part of some kind of enemy strategy. For the last two years it seemed as if the problems were getting bigger and more complicated day by day.

There are false expectations of what Europe can and should do when it comes to  addressing shortcomings in the governance sector in Azerbaijan. I believe Azerbaijan’s problems have to be solved in Baku, Ganca, Lenkoran and other parts of the country, not in Brussels, Berlin or London.  However it is unrealistic either to think sections of European public opinion will not have a position on things happening in this country, and that they would not express these positions vocally. Those who think this should not happen in this age of globa connectivity better join the 21st century quickly.

I do not want to underestimate the differences that exist between the EU and Azerbaijan at the moment on a raft of issues. But I do believe there is still a chance to turn this situation into an opportunity. Europe and Azerbaijan need to take one step back and to re-engage more efficiently.

The European Union remains the best partner that Azerbaijan has, and can have more of in the future, as it embarks on the next stage of its modernisation and reform agenda. Europe needs to develop a set of packages that it can offer to Azerbaijan in the fields of education, science, health, youth, culture and other sectors.

The new strategic agreement can offer an opportunity for co-operation in new spheres too, including regional security issues. The EU is not a military alliance, and Azerbaijan has declared itself a non-aligned country not wanting to join military alliances. But the two have very similar security interests, so co-operation in this sector needs to be seriously expanded. This can only happen through intense political dialogue at the highest level. This strategic partnership can be a model that can later be used with other countries.

It should include targeted co-operation on issues that are of common concern, including gender equality, combating Islamophobia, addressing Human Rights concerns in Azerbaijan, and more. Trust has collapsed between the two sides on some of these issues, and must now be restored. Some practical intiatives, such as establishing a new joint fund between Azerbaijan and the EU for transparent  civil society work, from which both European and Azerbaijani NGOs can benefit through joint projects, should be considered

Also, all sides need to make an effort to ensure that the gap which has emerged between Azerbaijan and European institutions such as the Council Of Europe, ODIHR and the OSCE is narrowed and eventually eliminated. There is a need to initiate a comprehensive dialogue between large and influential European civil society organisations such as Amnesty International, and the government of Azerbaijan on a range of issues, including human rights, Nagorno-Karabakh, Islamophobia etc. LINKS is ready to play its part in initiating and facilitating this dialogue.

Azerbaijan has changed dramatically over the last two decades. Most changes have been for the better. I have seen these changes with my own eyes. Those sectors that have remained unreformed and unchanged now threaten to frustrate the work done in those sectors that have reformed successfully. 2015 showed this clearly. Azerbaijan can use these challenges as an opportunity for political renewal, with the government open to ideas from all quarters. In particular, civil society needs to be seen as a partner not an enemy. The constitution could be updated after a period of national dialogue. Most countries go through a political renewal process periodically. This is not revolution. In fact revolution often happens in countries that fail to understand the importance of renewal.

In Europe as much as in Azerbaijan, we live in challenging times. 2015 has been described as a year of crises. However as Winston Churchill put it, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty”. It is time to approach EU-Azerbaijan relations from an optimistic perspective and seize the opportunities that the difficulties have created.


source: Dennis Sammut, Director of LINKS (Dialogue Analysis and Research) delived the lecture at ADA University in Baku on 26 January 2016. 


Related articles

Editor's choice
Borrell tells the European Parliament that the situation in Afghanistan was critical, but the EU will remain engaged

Borrell tells the European Parliament that the situation in Afghanistan was critical, but the EU will remain engaged

Borrell underlined that the European Union will make every effort to support the peace process and to remain a committed partner to the Afghan people. "Of course, we will have to take into account the evolving situation, but disengagement is not an option.  We are clear on that: there is no alternative to a negotiated political settlement, through inclusive peace talks.
Landmine Free South Caucasus campaign releases educational videos on consequences of landmines in five languages

The regional campaign LANDMINE FREE SOUTH CAUCASUS has released a series of educational cartoons on the consequences of landmines and explosive remnants of war in the South Caucasus.

The videos have been produced in five languages: Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, English, and Russian.

The Georgian version can be viewed here.

The Armenian version can be viewed here.

patrickn97 Mon, 05/29/2023 - 13:13


Landmine Free South Caucasus campaign releases educational videos on consequences of landmines in five languages

The regional campaign LANDMINE FREE SOUTH CAUCASUS has released a series of educational cartoons on the consequences of landmines and explosive remnants of war in the South Caucasus.

The videos have been produced in five languages: Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, English, and Russian.

The Georgian version can be viewed here.

The Armenian version can be viewed here.

patrickn97 Mon, 05/29/2023 - 13:13