Bratislava Offers Road to Nowhere on Karabakh

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The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadyarov, respectively, met for the 26th time in Bratislava, Slovakia, on December 4, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Statements were issued and news appeared which indicated that the ministers had been spinning their wheels, as usual.

The ministers have made contradictory statements while the OSCE statement has tried to paper over the differences, counting among their contributions to the parties prisoner exchanges, journalists’ visits between the two countries, the relaxation of tensions on the border and the willingness of the two ministers to meet again in the future.

After considering many plans over the years and contemplating solutions, the Azeri foreign minister has reverted to Azerbaijan’s original demands which allow no room for compromise.

Mammadyarov’s delegation has distributed a memorandum to the participating delegates, outlining Azerbaijan’s conditions for a solution: “Immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh region and other occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”

The memorandum also is recognizing the right of the predominantly Armenian population to have the “status of self-rule within Azerbaijan.”

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A party which has lost a war is asking for unconditional surrender from the victor. Where does Azerbaijan derive such a degree of unrealistic arrogance if not from its association with Turkey? Azerbaijan has enlarged the scope of the conflict to bring in Turkey.

Indeed, Ankara has made a condition of the settlement of the Karabakh issue on Azeri terms to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia and to lift its blockade.

Another reason is Azerbaijan’s internal transformation, which began with the recent dissolution of the parliament, the elimination of the old guard from key government positions and the transition of power from Ilham Aliyev to his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, who already holds the position of vice president.

Interestingly, Armenia seems to be offering another diplomatic channel to break the stalemate. Anna Hakobyan, the wife of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, last week invited Aliyeva to Karabakh. In an earlier interview, the Azeri first lady had expressed her desire to listen to Azeri folk music in Karabakh. Hakobyan said she would be welcome there like a guest of honor if she came in peace and that she herself would welcome a reciprocal visit. No answer has been received from the Azeri side.

Armenia’s foreign minister has also put forward Armenia’s position in seven points. It basically says, “Azerbaijan must assume direct commitment to the recognition of the right to self-determination of the people of Nagorno Karabakh, the outcome of which should have no limitation.”

It is unfortunate that the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, Russia, France and the US, as well as the United Nations have adhered to the Azerbaijani interpretation of the definition of territorial integrity, while the Armenian position has been that Karabakh ceded from the Soviet Union with the same legal avenue that Azerbaijan did. Therefore, the concept of territorial integrity must not become a component of the solution to the conflict. Perhaps Armenia’s representatives have been maintaining this position during the negotiations but we seldom witness its public manifestation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had met Mammadyarov and President Aliyev in Baku before arriving in Bratislava and as a result of his discussions with them, made some positive statements about the “possibilities of achieving a compromise” on Karabakh which unfortunately were not reflected in the public statements and discussions in Bratislava.

The Kremlin, and particularly Mr. Lavrov, seem more accommodating in recent months towards Yerevan’s position. When Mr. Lavrov visited Yerevan earlier, he stated that no settlement is possible without the participation of the people of Karabakh. That was a welcome addition to the “Lavrov Plan” and in a way echoed Prime Minister Pashinyan’s position on the issue.

The Russian position is more realistically explained in an article by Aram Sargsyan. The headline of the piece says it all: “Russia is dreaming to integrate Azerbaijan in the structure of the Collective Security and the Eurasian Economic Union; Azerbaijan’s price tag is Karabakh.”

In the ebb and flow of international politics, odd bedfellows have been congregating based on their national interests. Russia believes that Azerbaijan can become a convenient nexus for Russia, Turkey and Iran. At this time, Russia is not ready to pay the price Azerbaijan seeks, because it believes that Yerevan is already slipping through its fingers, with Washington’s sudden generosity towards Armenia and the passage of the Genocide resolution in Congress, which sent out many signals to different quarters.

Along with Azerbaijan’s integration into Russian structures, Moscow has been coveting the possibility of stationing its peacekeeping forces in Karabakh to complement its military base in Gyumri.

In addition to Mr. Lavrov’s private initiative to mediate between Baku and Yerevan, other voices from the Russian Duma offer hope. Constantin Zadulin, a Duma member, has come up with a plan which involves Azerbaijan’s recognition of Karabakh’s independence in return for the transfer of five regions out of the seven that were captured by Armenian forces during the war as a security guarantee. Of course, these are simple statements; otherwise the parties would have requested further elaboration of the specifics, since the devil is in the details.

The director of the Caucasus Institute, Alexander Iskandaryan, does not see the possibility of the long-term or even short-term resumption of hostilities. Nor does he find realistic the OSCE statement that the “status quo is unacceptable.” He believes the status quo will remain at the expense of continued losses on both sides. Iskandaryan states: “The parties are not ready for a compromise. Armenia’s concept of compromise does not match that of Azerbaijan. For Azerbaijan, a compromise solution is a return to the situation before 1988, which actually is a non-starter. Armenia calls a compromise the preservation of the current situation and in addition the recognition of Karabakh, which Azerbaijanis are not ready to discuss.”

Although Azerbaijan does not accept the status quo, in the final analysis the status quo works in its favor, weakening Armenia through attrition over the years.

On the other hand, the status quo saves lives for Armenia, allowing hope that someday political developments may pave the way for a more equitable solution.

The meeting at Bratislava has not led anywhere and future similar meetings will not amount to anything but spinning wheels in the sand.

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