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Karabakh peace talks after the Vienna meeting

In a new round of negotiations, both Armenia and Azerbaijan appeared to express their intentions to make peace among themselves and resolve their long-disputed territory claims. It did not take long for the negotiation process to get spoiled by the jingoistic and nationalist rhetoric against the very idea of negotiating peace for Nagorno-Karabakh.

May 7, 2019 - Ayaz Rzayev - Articles and Commentary

Reminders of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Shell-pocked facade in Stepanakert/Khankendi Photo: Adam Jones (cc) flickr.com

The first meeting between Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan under the auspices of the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group that took place on March 29th 2019 in Vienna was set against the backdrop of cautious optimism. This optimism was reinforced in January when the Co-Chairs announced that the Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers “agreed upon the necessity of taking concrete measures to prepare the populations for peace”. The statement, released after the March 29th meeting, strengthened this feeling even more by describing the atmosphere of the negotiations as “positive and constructive” and noting that both sides agreed to bolster the ceasefire and undertake measures in the humanitarian area.

A short-lived peace process

However, any optimism about the prospects for Karabakh peace talks was quickly shattered once Armenian Defence Minister David Tonoyan, speaking in military uniform in front of an audience in New York on the same day, declared that the Armenian government will replace a “territories for peace” formula with a “new war for new territories” approach. Commenting on Tonoyan’s “new war-new territories” formula, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted that the statement was “provocative in nature” and contradicted “the efforts of the international community through the OSCE MG Co-Chairs”. 

The rejection of what the Armenian side defines as a “territories for peace” formula (transferring areas around Karabakh to Azerbaijan in return for signing a peace treaty) is not unusual for the Armenian side. In his October interview, then-U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills noted that he was struck by how most Armenians he met “were adamantly opposed to the return of the occupied territories as part of a negotiation settlement”, warning that “any settlement is going to require the return of some portion of the occupied territories”. In January Pashinyan rebuffed this argument, declaring that a “territories for peace” formula is beyond discussion.

What’s more, such an approach is not just confined to the rhetoric of the Armenian side. In recent years, one of the major concerns voiced by the Azerbaijani side has been settlement activities in the occupied territories. In 2016, Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a report that scrupulously described “consistent measures undertaken by Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan with a view to further consolidating the current status quo of the occupation”. According to the report these activities “are carried out in a pre-planned and organized manner with clearly defined objective and geographic focus”.

Digging in on both sides

The Azerbaijani government has repeatedly emphasised that the establishment of Armenian settlements in the occupied territories is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, which serves to prevent the Azerbaijani community of Karabakh from returning to their homes by creating new “facts on the ground” and imposing a fait-accompli – the ultimate goal that many on the Armenian side do not even hide. On March 1st while visiting Karabakh, Armenia’s National Security Director Artur Vanetsyan openly declared that such resettlement programs “send a clear message to all our people and the world that we have no intention to give an inch of land”.

The fact of the matter is that the current situation around Nagorno-Karabakh is not sustainable. The four-day war of April 2016 highlighted the underlying weaknesses of the existing status quo and showed how the conflict believed to be frozen might reignite with even more power at any given moment. At the same time, the Velvet Revolution in Armenia has opened up a small but realistic prospect of reviving the peace process, which has been stuck for years. During the revolution the Azerbaijani government stated that they were ready to negotiate with “sensible forces” in Armenia’s new leadership that would take a constructive position on the issue of the Karabakh conflict. Throughout the negotiation process Azerbaijan has advocated for both the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities of Nagorno-Karabakh to be the interested parties of the conflict and repeatedly declared that it is ready to offer the region the highest level of self-governance within the borders of Azerbaijan to allow both communities to exercise their political and cultural rights to the fullest extent.

However, Armenia’s previous regime continuously rejected those offers despite comprehensive international security guarantees to protect the exercise of those rights. Unfortunately, at least for now, it seems like Pashinyan’s post-revolutionary government is also unwilling to or cannot break away from the previous regime’s deeply outdated foreign policy patterns. These foreign policy patterns are based on what Eduard Abrahamyan defines as “Armenia’s self-isolationist, uni-vector foreign policy course, seeking to advance no strategy-level relations with any country other than Russia”.

Not-so-revolutionary Armenia?

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has cost Armenia dearly, resulting in a missed opportunity for economic development and growth. In his October interview then-U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills talked about the negative effects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and warned that “the status quo is no longer in Armenia’s favor – from closed borders to the strain on the country’s material and human resources to corruption risks associated with the conflict”.

During his interview with France 24 in October, Nikol Pashinyan himself noted that until the Velvet Revolution “it was not the people that decided who ruled but a dominating elite they decided who got to rule”. And while it made sense for the old elite to favor the status quo over the conflict resolution since it justified their hold on to power, the unresolved conflict constitutes a substantial burden to Pashinyan’s own reformist agenda. The Velvet Revolution did not eliminate the reality that, without the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a range of political and economic reforms which Pashinyan wants to carry out will not have a far-reaching effect on the Armenian people’s life. However, from Baku’s perspective, the recent statements from Armenia’s new leadership not only do not help to solve the conflict but aggravate it even further, undermining any attempt at reaching a peaceful resolution.

Ayaz Rzayev is a Baku-based independent researcher covering security issues in the South Caucasus.

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