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Nagorno-Karabakh: Why diplomacy failed

Outside observers often find it difficult to understand why the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has been so intractable and resisted a peaceful resolution. There is a complex combination of several complicating factors, but the ultimate culprit has been the blatant failure of diplomatic efforts, both at the level of the international community and the conflicting parties.

November 3, 2020 - Murad Muradov - Articles and Commentary

Ganja, Azerbaijan's second city, has been on the receiving end of ballistic missiles during the ongoing war. Photo: Ilkin M-zade (cc) wikimedia.org

Editor’s note: At New Eastern Europe we aim to bring to you information and analysis on all issues related to our region of Central and Eastern Europe, this includes publishing voices from the region itself. However, our region is one of many unresolved conflicts and war. The case of the Nagorno-Karabakh is one that raises high emotions on both sides of the conflict – Azerbaijan and Armenia – and it is nearly impossible to get an objective point of view on the conflict from either side.

Yet, we understand the importance of providing some context and local perspective, even in the case of conflict. That is why, we have asked independent experts from Azerbaijan and Armenia to comment on the situation from their perspective with the aim of being as analytical as possible. It is our hope that with these perspectives, you – the readers – can have a more informed understanding of the complex and serious situation faced in this part of the world.

Around 6am on September 27th intensive fighting, featuring large-caliber weapons, mortar launchers and artillery, erupted along the line of contact between Azerbaijan and its separatist territories controlled by Armenia and its satellite, the self-proclaimed “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”. Both sides would later declare the adversary responsible for breaking the ceasefire. Severe shelling of Azerbaijani villages close to the frontlines resulted in a number of casualties among civilian Azerbaijani population. The response of Azerbaijani forces grew into a large-scale offensive which is undoubtedly the most intense episode of fighting since the 1994 ceasefire and is widely considered a full-fledged war. All experts now agree that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, one of the most protracted ones in the world, has entered a qualitatively new phase and absolutely new solutions must be offered to make a new peace process possible.

Outside observers often find it difficult to understand why the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has been so intractable and resisted a peaceful resolution. There is a complex combination of several complicating factors: an exclusive and radical version of nationalism preached by the Armenian side; the absence of local mechanisms of civil representation and dispute resolution which could help establish a dialogue between the two communities; the factor of Russia which has capitalised on the hostile status-quo to entrench the dependence of both Azerbaijan and Armenia for its security guarantees. All these factors have formed a rock-solid perception in the mind of both peoples and national elites that the conflict has no viable or acceptable resolution. But maybe most importantly, the ultimate culprit has been the blatant failure of diplomatic efforts, both at the level of the international community and the immediate parties.

Given both a very adverse dynamic on the ground, as well as the destructive role played by Russia, the only viable hope for a breakthrough has always rested with a pro-active and principled position of the larger international community. However, this hope would never come to fruition. Back in 1992, when the conflict was still in the phase of expansion, the OSCE established a special body in order to mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia and help them in finding a solution. From the place of its first gathering, it was dubbed the Minsk Group. 28 years later, it has yet to claim any tangible success. Even the 1994 ceasefire agreement, which unfortunately remained the single most successful episode in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations, was largely mediated by Russia. 

Since then, the Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the United States and France, has become known for one particular skill: muddling through and avoiding any meaningful and innovative ideas. In fact, since the 2000’s the only mission of the group was to monitor the situation along the contact line, which in the absence of permanent international observers could have hardly exert any influence on the parties. The figure of Andrzej Kasprzyk, who has unchangingly served as the OSCE Special Representative in the Minsk Group for 23 years, has become a staple of anecdotes. His frequent visits and grudgingly similar statements became an increasingly irritating factor in the environment of rising tensions and a growing sense of unfairness in the status quo in Baku. In his article written in 1996, John Maresca, a US Special Representative for Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations, pointed to the perennial weaknesses of the Minsk Group which was kept too low key in its status, represented little political will of the countries which were supposed to stand behind it and was constantly ridiculed and pushed back by high-level Russian authorities. However, its format and mandate have remained unchanged ever since.   

The relative calm that reigned in the conflict zone between 1994 and 2014 was often presented as the success of diplomacy, which completely ignored the fact that this calm mainly had to do with the unwillingness of the both parties to risk a renewal of hostilities as well as the specificities of the unipolar global order which posed very hard obstacles to the use of power. As soon as this order started to show cracks after the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, the whole balance of power shifted and it suddenly turned out that large-scale violence in Nagorno-Karabakh could be possible and the Minsk Group is poorly equipped to prevent it. Given the growing polarisation in the world between major centres of power, the fact that three co-chairs of the group have retained miraculous unanimity on the peace process, attests not to its success but rather the careless and superficial attitude of the international community as big countries simply have not bothered to clash over such an “unimportant” matter. This development has strong parallels with the quagmire that is gradually sinking another Minsk process – the one that was convened to resolve the war in Donbas. The reaction of the three co-chair countries to the current escalation exemplifies the reasons why it cannot be an efficient tool: Russia provides huge amounts of arms supplies to Armenia and then prefers to do nothing except for expressing “deep concern”, while France openly endorses Yerevan by promising to prevent the restoration of Azerbaijani territorial integrity by force (without offering means to do it peacefully), and the US seems to be disengaged altogether. 

The United Nations has been no better in finding a way out of this impasse. The Security Council was seemingly very active during the most intensive phase of the war in 1993 and issued four resolutions (N 822, 853, 874 and 884) which emphasised commitment to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and called for the withdrawal of Armenian paramilitary forces from Kalbajar, Aghdam, Fizuli, Jabrayil, Gubadly and Zangilan regions. However, these benign declarations would not materialise. The Nagorno-Karabakh problem never found its Dayton: the global powers simply decided to freeze the conflict until better times, which, as it is clear now, would never come. 

The international community’s lukewarm efforts to resolve the conflicts in the South Caucasus, perceived as a deep backwater, represented an obvious contrast to its active position on the Yugoslav wars, which were unfolding in the immediate vicinity of the West. In the above-mentioned article, Maresca openly claims that the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process was left by the West to Russia as a consolatory prize, as it took on the biggest one – Yugoslavia. These double standards left a lasting scar on the societies and political elites of Azerbaijan and Armenia and put significant obstacles to their normal development. In Azerbaijan, this attitude instilled a conviction of the profound injustice of the world order, as well as its inability to be inclusive and serve the most pressing needs of small nations. It has been widely perceived that calls for peace and reconciliation without putting any pressure on Armenia to make necessary compromises – liberate at least seven adjacent districts around Karabakh and start the process of the return of IDP’s to their homeland – merely disguised the cynical worldview where conflicts and suffering which did not immediately harm big powers, do not really matter.

In Armenia, getting away unpunished after having gained three times more territory than initially planned and having committed a number of war crimes, created a growing sense of “justice by force”, the normalisation of the conflict outcomes by the mere fact that the world makes no tangible efforts to resolve it. These feelings among Armenians gradually led to the triumph of the maximalist position that they have no need to compromise at all. This “double movement” in the conflicting countries narrowed down the negotiation space until in the 2010’s it was no more possible for Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders to find common language. As British expert Tom de Waal writes, the last round of substantial negotiations with the potential to come to an ultimate solution took place in Key West in 2001, when Azerbaijan was still represented by the previous President Heydar Aliyev. In almost 20 years since then, the peace process bceame less and less substantive, and after the 2012 Sochi meetings between the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia it would not be paid even lip service (excluding the short-lived period of false hopes in 2018). That is why in his first statements after the escalation of violence Azerbaijani President Aliyev emphasised the ultimate failure of old formats which have utterly discredited themselves. 

There has been also a multiple intersection of different, often contradicting narratives and strategies that distorted the proper resolution process in Nagorno-Karabakh. Probably due to the fact that Armenia is a small economically feeble state, the fact that its behaviour towards Karabakh mirrors that of Russia in Abkhazia, South Ossetia (at least before their recognition in 2008) and Donbas has been largely passing under the radar of global opinion which in the previous cases was happy to side with Georgia and Ukraine against an obvious aggression of a much larger and more powerful state with an ambition to restore the superpower status. Yerevan managed to capitalise on this cognitive dissonance, building an image of a country that, being three times smaller than its rival in terms of both territory and population, had been constantly threatened and cornered and thus arguing that the Karabakh movement was a struggle for liberation of a brave small people.

This narrative worked well with the audience largely unaware of the complex regional realities and thus preferring to contextualize the regional conflicts within the abstract frameworks of post-colonialism and Orientalism. Later on, the Armenian side also started to employ the rhetoric of the “clash of civilisation” that grew popular in the 2000s with the global war against terrorism declared by the US and general destabilisation of the Middle East. For the right-wing public, Yerevan was happy to play out the narrative of a heroic Christian nation guarding European values in this exotic corner of the world. Hence, the western public never came to assess the human toll of the conflict, the fact that human rights of Azerbaijanis were being viciously violated and also to appreciate the cynical power play of Russia here – and so it never developed a strong lobby for pro-active position on Karabakh, as it happened with Yugoslavia in the 1990s. This success pushed Yerevan to a more uncompromised stance in the negotiations and at the same time made it oblivious to the growing geopolitical and diplomatic isolation of Armenia, as against Baku. So, at the time when Yerevan had most pragmatic reasons for rejecting its maximalist ambitions, it had the least willingness to do so. This trend can explain why the last 10 years of the peace process have been so disappointing.

Hence, the fierce fighting that has erupted in the conflict zone is primarily an outcome of the chronic mismanagement of the peace process. It has further demonstrated the deep hypocrisies and contradictions that the beneficiaries of the current world order have long tried to sweep under the carpet. Abstract and toothless calls for peace in the situation when the status quo is deeply skewed in favour of one party at the expense of the other, in fact encourage the aggressor which can pose as peace-loving for the mere reason that it has already gained everything it wanted by force – and at the same time alienate the losing side whose calls for restorative justice can be easily presented as aggressive.

The promotion of ultra-pacifism in such a situation legitimises post-factum the use of force and “the right of force”. Although some politicians and experts used to warn for many years that this approach is unsustainable, only now the international community starts to recognise the risks it bears. Hence, in order to prevent the conflict from further escalating, and prevent other “boiling” conflicts from such unfortunate developments, interested parties must urgently deploy qualitatively better efforts than they have done for the 26 years that passed, and stop engaging in self-deception by confusing the lack of war with peace and equating parties which are in an inherently unbalanced position.  

Murad Muradov is the co-founder and deputy director of Topchubashov Center, a Baku-based think tank in Azerbaijan. An alumnus of the London School of Economics (2015), he covers European politics, politics of identity and nationality and international political economy.

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