In Nagorno-Karabakh, politicking ramps up as fighting draws down

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov [President of Armenia]

In the coming weeks, the level of diplomatic activity on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue will continue to be higher than usual, writes Stratfor.

Stratfor is a Texas-based global intelligence company.

Nearly three weeks have passed since a cease-fire put an end to the largest escalation of hostilities that Nagorno-Karabakh has seen in more than 20 years. Though the fighting between the forces of Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh has tapered off, the political ramifications of the conflict have not. Low-level clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan persist amid a flurry of diplomatic activity by larger powers such as Russia, Turkey and the West. And though talks can be expected to gain renewed momentum in the wake of the recent flare-up, a broader settlement on the status of Azerbaijan’s separatist region will remain elusive.

The latest military escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which began 1 April and ended four days later, was the most violent bout of fighting to take place there since the end of the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Casualty counts are unsurprisingly varied. According to the Armenian Defence Ministry, the conflict killed a total of 92 people. Azerbaijani officials have reported a loss of 31 soldiers, though several unconfirmed Azerbaijani reports put the number as high as 93. Since the 5 April truce, cease-fire violations along the line of contact have occurred regularly. Still, casualties have dropped, and the conflict has largely reverted to its pre-escalation state: a simmering dispute that could ramp back up at any moment.

Meanwhile, the fighting has breathed new life into diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. On 7-8 April, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev visited Yerevan and Baku to hold talks with Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. A few days later, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met to discuss the conflict. And on 13 April, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited Istanbul to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the matter.

The political maneuvering did not let up after the first week of tense peace. On 18 April, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan made his first trip to Nagorno-Karabakh since the fighting broke out. Two days later, he met with Bako Sahakyan, the leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, to talk about the conflict’s impact and implications. Then, on 21 April, Lavrov visited Yerevan to meet with Sargsyan and Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian. During his visit, Lavrov roundly criticised Turkey for its support of Azerbaijan during the hostilities, saying that statements made by Turkish officials were inflammatory and incited war. Lavrov’s comments reflect the tension currently marring the relationship between Russia and Turkey, and they were quickly followed by another meeting between the Turkish and Azerbaijani presidents that will last until 27 April.

The string of visits illustrates the geopolitical complexity of the Caucasus. The relationships of external actors there influence not only the governments that rule the region, but also the people who live there. In Armenia, for example, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Yerevan on 13 April to protest Russia’s weapons sales to Azerbaijan. (Though Moscow is strategically aligned with Armenia and has a military base in the country, it also maintains active political and security ties with Azerbaijan.) The demonstrators claimed that the weapons significantly contributed to the recent flare-up in fighting — an accusation that is not without merit, since Azerbaijan would have been less inclined to launch operations against the region’s fortified defences without having heavily invested in its own weaponry over the past decade.

As diplomatic activity and popular reaction continues in the weeks ahead, it will be important to stay focused on the primary issue at hand: the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. From a political perspective, Azerbaijan has successfully tested the conflict’s status quo by temporarily increasing tension while avoiding a larger war. This strategy serves Baku’s broader strategic interests by attracting the attention of major regional players, raising the prospects of reaching a negotiated settlement on the conflict in the process.

And indeed, the Caucasus’ biggest foreign backers are paying attention. On 18 April, the Azerbaijani president’s national adviser said an “intensive phase” of Russia-mediated talks on Nagorno-Karabakh could begin sometime in the coming days. The prediction comes as reports have emerged of what a settlement in such negotiations would look like. According to Russian daily Izvestia, Moscow’s plan would probably include the return of certain territories around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to the conflict zone, and an eventual referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.

Until now, talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan have adhered to the Madrid Principles, which the United States, Russia and France presented to the two sides in 2007. The document has been repeatedly modified in the decade since, including at a 2011 summit in Kazan that reportedly almost led to a breakthrough but fell apart at the last minute. However, despite having both a framework in place for negotiations and greater interest between the parties in reaching a deal, several formidable obstacles still stand in the way of a final agreement.

Chief among them is Armenia’s steadfast opposition to a resolution. Yerevan wants to maintain the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, as evidenced by the Armenian media’s heavy criticism of the Russian-backed solution that has been floated. On 14 April, the Armenian foreign minister said the essence of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process is that “Karabakh can never be part of Azerbaijan.” And on 25 April, Sargsyan himself added that it would be unreasonable for Armenia to resume peace talks at a time when military conflict is still ongoing. Though he acknowledged that the prospect of sending Russian peacekeepers had basis in previous talks, he pointed out that the recent escalation had diminished the chances of reaching a peace deal.

This is not to say that negotiations will not resume at some point in the future, or that bilateral talks will not continue to be held frequently. But even if the Armenian government were to give in to pressure from Moscow and agree to make some concessions, it would not go so far as to alter Nagorno-Karabakh’s current status. The issue is so emotionally and politically charged among Armenians that doing so could threaten the Armenian government, if not topple it altogether.

And despite rhetoric to the contrary, it is not clear that Russia wants to change the status quo in the disputed region either. Instead, Moscow may be more interested in perpetuating a managed conflict, neither frozen nor hot, in which Russia plays the role of primary arbiter between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such a scenario would strengthen Moscow’s influence in both countries.

In the coming weeks, the level of diplomatic activity on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue will continue to be higher than usual as regional actors exert pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan to hold peace talks. But a broader or even partial settlement to the dispute is unlikely to emerge in the near or medium term; there are simply too many complicating factors and parties with an interest in blocking a deal. As a result, military escalation will continue to be a possibility in Nagorno-Karabakh, with effects that reach far beyond the bounds of the small contested territory.

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