This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu
After the violence of the early 1990s the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis settled down for nearly three decades of uneasy truce, tempered with low-intensity violence, and the occasional outburst of more serious fighting, and accompanied by a flawed peace process that failed to bring peace, and in the end could not prevent war. The 44-day Karabakh War in autumn 2020 changed the reality on the ground and yesterday’s winners became losers and vice versa. The Russians appeared to emerge from the 44-day war the sole arbiters to oversee the new situation, but since no one really wanted this – except the Russians themselves – an alternative has unexpectedly emerged, with the EU playing an increasingly important role as mediator and facilitator, working with the sides towards a comprehensive peace.
Whilst the war decided some issues, many details remain unresolved, and as Armenia and Azerbaijan tiptoe into a peace process these issues are coming to the fore.
Over the course of the last few days, commonspace.eu ran three op-eds dealing with some of these issues. The op-eds came unsolicited from persons with different perspectives. They touched very important issues at the heart of the current debates.
Status? What status?
Whilst the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to be ready to discuss, and in the future possibly agree, on many issues that until recently were considered impossible to achieve agreement on, including border demarcation, connectivity, trade and economic relations, and one suspects soon, diplomatic relations, there has been one issue that remains a bone of contention – not surprisingly since this was the main bone of contention that led to decades of enmity: namely the future of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, often referred to as the status question.
Writing on commonspace.eu on 7 June, the scholar Kamal Makili-Aliyev says the solution is autonomy, and he uses the successful example of the Aland Islands to make his point. “As Armenians and Azerbaijanis are finally trying to build a lasting peace, autonomy can be a powerful tool that brings people together instead of dividing them. It is important to give it a chance. Autonomy is a viable compromise that can lead to a lasting peace when it is implemented carefully and properly, with the aim of bringing the two nations together.”
Citing the example of the Aland Islands, a Swedish-speaking autonomous region within Finland, Makili-Aliyev says: “That arrangement celebrated its 101st birthday this year as a successful means of bringing Swedes and Finns together politically, culturally, in education and interpersonal relations. Its secret? Carefully thought-out structures for separating powers between the autonomy and the central government, respect for minority rights, and security guarantees in the form of demilitarization (including, no local conscription or military bases) and neutralization (the autonomy cannot participate in wars neither passively, nor actively) of the region.”
Whilst none of this is new – the example of the Aland Islands has been mentioned in the context of Karabakh very often in the past, to hear it brought up again in the present moment. Makili-Aliyev make a direct reference why autonomy has not been popular in the past, and remains unpopular today with both sides, saying that “both sides have been wary of the notion of autonomy for Karabakh Armenians. Armenians don’t trust the Azerbaijani state to respect their rights, even under a regime offering autonomy, and Azerbaijanis fear that autonomy would merely be a stalking horse for Armenians to again pursue separatism.” But what if mechanisms can be put in place that can overcome the mistrust of the two sides? Can autonomy work then? Makili-Aliyev in his op-ed goes somewhat over the top by proposing other autonomies in Armenia and Azerbaijan beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. That may not only be “wishful thinking” but also unpractical and unnecessary, but this does not lessen the importance of the points made by the author when looked at in the Karabakh context.
Read the op-ed of Kamal Makili-Aliyev in full on commonspace.eu here >>
Keeping the peace, and keeping an eye on the peacekeepers?
Building enough trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis to ensure an Aland Islands model can work in Nagorno-Karabakh is not going to be either quick or easy. For many years it was considered that an international peacekeeping force was going to be necessary. Since 1994, a group of army officers from several countries working under the grand title of High Level Military Planning Group have been working in the OSCE headquarters in Vienna to develop plans for a peacekeeping force. On 10 November 2020, the Russians ignored them completely and secured instead the agreement of Armenia and Azerbaijan to deploy an all Russian military force in Karabakh. They arrived the following day. Since then the future of this Russian presence is discussed with the same passion as the future of the Karabakh Armenians that they are supposed to protect.
Writing on commonspace.eu on 6 June, Benyamin Poghosyan says that “according to the Russian expert community, the Kremlin has no intention to withdraw them after November 2025. This may create tensions in Azerbaijan – Russia relations, as it is Baku that should decide whether to extend the Russian peacekeepers' mandate in May 2025. Russia and Azerbaijan may discuss different ways to extend the deployment of the Russian peacekeepers, including a bilateral agreement on establishing a Russian military base in Azerbaijan. However, the de jure establishment of a Russian military base in Azerbaijan will contradict the Azerbaijani position of non-alignment. It will not be welcomed by the US and probably by Turkey. The US refuses to call Russian troops in Nagorno Karabakh peacekeepers, arguing that peacekeepers should have an international mandate. Americans have not called Russian troops in Nagorno Karabakh “occupational” yet, but they may do that soon. The US believes that Russian troops should leave Nagorno Karabakh, and if necessary, a new mission should be launched with an appropriate international mandate. The withdrawal of Russian troops from Nagorno Karabakh is a part of the US strategy to weaken Russian influence in the Post-Soviet space.”
Poghosyan however points out that in the end “Russia could also be interested in having an international mandate for its troops in Nagorno Karabakh. This arrangement will allow Russia not to depend on the whims of the Azerbaijani leadership whenever an extension of Russian deployment is due. However, the Kremlin believes that the West pushes forward the issue of an international mandate to use it as a pretext to kick out Russian troops from Nagorno Karabakh.”
He says that “thus, we have an interesting situation. All actors understand that a foreign military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh is necessary to prevent new hostilities. Russia will not remove its troops from the region but would like to have some international mandate. The US is not satisfied to see Russian troops in Nagorno Karabakh and would like to replace them with other forces under an international mandate. Azerbaijan would like to see Russian troops leaving Nagorno Karabakh but understands that this will not happen. Probably from the Azerbaijani point of view, supplementing Russian troops with forces of other countries under an international mandate could be a solution.”
Poghosyan then adds a nuance, referring to the example of UNOMIG in Georgia as one possible model. UNOMIG was a UN Mission to provided oversight to an all-Russian peacekeeping force in Abkhazia until 2009.
Read Benyamin Poghosyan’s op-ed on commonspace.eu here >>
Its not our fault, it’s the rivalry of the big boys
A very dangerous trend has emerged in the public discourse in Armenia and Azerbaijan in the last few weeks. It is trying to re-invent the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis as a geo-political conflict between Russia and the EU. Some blame the Russians for this, some the EU, and some say regardless of who is to blame, it needs to stop.
Writing on commonspace.eu on Wednesday, Vasif Huseynov says, “Over the last few months, any coordination between the West and Russia in the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process faded away, and the Western sources do not expect such interaction with Russia to be possible anytime soon. These developments enrage the Russian Foreign Ministry whose spokesperson recently warned Brussels against “geopolitical games” in the South Caucasus.” Husseynov suggests that recent unfriendly Russian gestures towards Azerbaijan may be a direct result of the EU engagement with the Karabakh conflict resolution process.
He adds, “Notably, after December 14, when the EU hosted the first summit of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in Brussels, local experts warned against the transformation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process into another area of the confrontation between Russia and the West. There were concerns that such an outcome would dramatically jeopardize the peace process and cause serious instability in the South Caucasus. The reaction of the Russian Foreign Ministry to the EU mediation in the process demonstrates that such concerns are not unfounded.” Husseynov goes so far as to suggest that the anti government protests currently going on in Yerevan are the fault of the EU new engagement, and says that this is bad for Baku.
Read Vasif Husseynov’s op-ed on commonspace.eu here >>
The Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process should be pursued “through compatible mediation between the EU and Russia”
Vasif Husseynov, than proposes, “to pursue the peace process in a mode of compatible mediation of the EU and Russia”. Benyamin Poghosyan also talks about “removing the Nagorno Karabakh conflict from the list of Russia – West geopolitical rivalries”. Does one hear here a distinct nostalgia for the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair process, and the cosy relationship between France, Russia and the United States as they pursued peace in Karabakh for thirty years? What does “compatible mediation” mean?
It is completely wrong to equate what the Russians have been doing in and around Karabakh in the past and now, and the modest, and cautious steps that the European Union has recently taken to contribute towards peace in the region – steps taken one hastens to add, with the full support of the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is not geo-political rivalry. This is about whether or not Russia has a monopoly on relations with the countries in the South Caucasus.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service over the weekend, EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Toivo Klaar said that things were moving in the right direction, stressing the need for a comprehensive settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and adding that the EU supported all platforms which advanced the peace process as long as they helped move things in the right direction. This needs to be the spirit going forward.
Armenian-Azerbaijani relations are a tangled tale, burdened with the baggage of history, traumatised by the blood of thousands who died in the conflict over decades, and poisoned by toxic propaganda that keeps coming out from both sides despite the diplomatic moves towards peace. Unpacking all this will take time. Building enough trust and confidence to move forward will take longer. But the journey has started, and despite all the spoilers, even the end is now in sight.
This commentary has been prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu. It was first published on the fortnightly newsletter Karabakh Concise on 9 June 2022.