This commentary first appeared in the 30 March 2023 issue of our newsletter, Karabakh Concise. If you would like to sign up for Karabakh Concise, or any of our other newsletters, click here.
A fundamental question defines the position of different protagonists over the future of Karabakh, writes commonspace.eu in this commentary. "A lot of the issues in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations can be managed easily with a little bit of imagination and good will. The future of Karabakh remains a real stumbling block." But if Armenia and Azerbaijan fail to reach a peace agreement before the window of opportunity closes and are soon back at the Kremlin's mercy, "they will only have themselves to blame".
The world watches on as Armenia and Azerbaijan hug each other and promise peace with each other one day, and exchange threats, insults and gunfire the next. International observers are concerned, bemused, or, very often, bored by this situation.
Concerns about the imminent start of a new Armenia-Azerbaijan war are exaggerated. At the moment neither side needs a war, wants it, or even more importantly, can afford it, whether it be politically, financially or socially. This fact does not stop the posturing, the sharp rhetoric, and incidents on the ground that often result in victims. What most Armenians and Azerbaijanis want these days is a peace dividend, but that has not happened yet.
A lot of the issues in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations can be managed easily with a little bit of imagination and good will. The future of Karabakh remains a real stumbling block.
Azerbaijan believes, and the international community agrees, that Nagorno-Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan. But how to handle the future of the territory and of the several tens of thousands of Armenians that live there remains a contested issue. Azerbaijan believes it has won the 2020 war, and that gives it the right to move to ascertain its authority over the territory.
On this the Armenians disagree and the international community is generally sympathetic to the Armenian concerns. The Armenian government has, in vague terms, recognised the formal sovereignty of Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh - despite heavy internal criticism - but does not think that gives the Azerbaijani side the right to move unilaterally. Everyone is hoping that through negotiations the future of Nagorno-Karabakh and of its Armenian population can be agreed. As prime minister Nikol Pashinyan keeps insisting, it is the future security and safety of this population, rather than political formulas, that is of paramount importance. Conventional wisdom says that this is only possible if any future agreement is anchored in an international framework, with international guarantees and presence. Azerbaijan rejects this – up to a point.
The Azerbaijanis have come to the conclusion that time is not on their side so they are not willing to drag this issue indefinitely. Some of their actions in recent months reflect this urge for closure.
Hovering around are the Russians. For years they wanted to have a military presence in and around Karabakh in a “peacekeeping” role. They finally got this in November 2020, having told, it appears, different things to the Armenians and to the Azerbaijanis, about what this mission is to achieve. The Russian position is to kick the can up the road, defer any serious discussions on the future of the territory “for later” and ensure that their troops remain in the region. These days there is no love lost for the Russians in either Baku or Yerevan, but neither side wants to push the Russians in the other camp either. So both sides engage in diplomatic gymnastics.
In the last year or two the issue has attracted the attention of key western leaders more than at any time before. Charles Michel, Antony Blinken, Emmanuel Macron are some of the western leaders that have spent time on this issue. They have little to show for their effort. This western effort has, among other things, strengthened the hand of the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis when dealing with the Russians.
The problem is that unlike Mr Lavrov and co., who are happy to drag out the issue, western leaders are expecting results for their efforts. This puts an obligation on the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to snap out of the current impasse and take a decisive step for peace. Otherwise they will only have themselves to blame if the window of opportunity closes, and they are back at the Kremlin’s mercy.