Karabakh Negotiations Revisited: Can Perpetual Motion Lead Anywhere?

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For international observers, the Karabakh conflict is viewed within the perspective of the Kashmir and Korean issues, where militarized camps are always on the brink of war.

After meeting five times in 2019, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met again in Geneva January 28-30 for a total of 12 hours. The intensive pace of negotiations and the fact that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk group co-chairs, who have sponsored those negotiations, have issued the code words “preparing the two nations for peace,” indicate some kind of compromise is in the offing.

However, the details of the negotiations are being kept under wraps, leaving pundits and analysts in complete limbo to reach their own interpretations of the developments.

Some domestic and international issues always impact on the course of the talks. The fact that the peoples of Karabakh and Azerbaijan are in the process of preparing for elections rule out the potential for imminent escalation.

Another factor is a departure from the rhetoric of the previous administration in Armenia, which always avoided a war of words, or, at the very least, kept it to a minimum.

This time around, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan himself has announced that Armenia has recently acquired large quantities of sophisticated military hardware. The military brass in its turn has announced that it was in the process of revising its military doctrine to wage war on the enemy’s territory.

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Pashinyan, who has long insisted on the participation of Karabakh representatives in the negotiation process, has challenged all the presidential candidates to come up with their platforms for the resolution of the conflict, and to no one’s surprise, they have responded with belligerent statements, particularly on the issue of territorial concessions.

Turkey, which drives Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, is in the process of recalibrating its own direction; after the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan felt that the US meant business when it opposed the deal and he was not able to cajole President Donald Trump to look the other way. Therefore, he has come up with some anti-Russian remarks and statements. On his recent trip to Ukraine, he announced that Turkey does not recognize Crimea’s annexation by Russia and is still concerned with the plight of the Tatars in that territory. Next, he was worried that Syrian forces, which have been carrying out the major job in Idlib of liquidating all Islamic State fighters, are sponsored by Turkey. Russia is in a joint operation in that campaign with Turkish forces. Therefore, Erdogan’s warning is also directed toward Moscow.

On the Libyan war theater, Russia, along with Egypt and the other Arab countries, is supporting Marshal Haftar, while Turkey is sending forces to that war-torn country to support the competing Tripoli government. Last but not least, Russia and Turkey have landed in opposing camps with regards to Trump’s “deal of the century” dealing with the Palestinian question.

All these issues will be factored into Russian-Turkish relations in dealing with all regional issues.

Since the negotiators hold their agendas so close to their vests, the media and the politicians have been left with only the option of speculation.

Most of the speculations revolve around the Madrid Principles. When asked about that plan, Pashinyan answered with his own question as to what Azerbaijanis themselves think about it. At this point, no one is aware whether Pashinyan has his own plan or what he thinks about the other plans under discussion. Critics question his capacity to encapsulate the entire range of issues, while others believe that his keeping quiet and letting the advisors guessing, is sound policy.

After the Madrid meeting in 2007, other documents were also produced at subsequent meetings in St. Petersburg and Kazan. Even the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov floated his own eponymous plan, which constitutes a derivation of the Madrid one.

The reason that there is so much persistence about the Madrid Principles is that many parts of it have been discussed and have even enjoyed acceptance by both sides. Yet, the parties remain estranged from embracing the entirety of the plan, which is the comprehensive total of its different components.

The Madrid Principles were drafted in November 2007 by the OSCE Ministerial Council. The plan’s preamble is based on the Helsinki Final Act of 1975: refraining from the use of force, the concepts of territorial integrity and equal rights and self-determination of peoples. Although the last two concepts are contradictory in and of themselves, the remaining political statements are even more challenging. “The final legal status of Nagorno Karabakh will be determined through a plebiscite allowing the free and genuine expression of the people of NK.” In the meantime, the region will enjoy an “interim status.”

In return, the Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno Karabakh will be returned to Azerbaijani control, with special provisions for Kelbajar and Lachin.

Although Armenian political rhetoric excludes any territorial concessions, all successive administrations have agreed to the principle. But the question is the application of the plan, which also calls for peacekeeping forces to avoid clashes with the returning refugees.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan refuse to allow Russian peacekeepers, in deference to the West, so as not to allow another foothold for Moscow in the region. Had Armenia had agreed to Russian peacekeepers, Moscow could tilt towards Armenia but the current policy keeps the parties at loggerheads, which is also reflected on the co-chair level.

Armenia’s reluctance to bet on a future plebiscite emanates from the fear of the shrinking Armenian demographic.

Thus far, Baku has never signed off on the plan, at least publicly, only offering to the people of Karabakh the “highest level of autonomy” under Azerbaijani rule.

After the pogroms of 1905-7, 1920 and 1988, Armenians will never offer their necks willingly to the Azeri sword.

Armenia’s silent partner in refusing territorial concession to Azerbaijan is Iran. Tehran can rely on the Iranian-Armenian border as a peaceful one. Shortening that border to the benefit of Azerbaijan will impose more military tensions on Tehran, because the Aliyev dynasty has turned its country’s territory into  a proving ground for the Israeli military and a potential launchpad in case Israel decides to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Therefore, Tehran must tacitly approve any deal at which Armenia arrives with Azerbaijan, to say nothing of all other interested parties.

From all appearances, it looks like some agreement has already been achieved. Or could it be a temporary lull, due to wariness and the busy involvements of the regional forces?

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