By Jirair Libaridian

[A shortened version of this talk was presented on October 31, 2020 during the one-day international conference/webinar titled “Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh and the Palimpsests of Conflict, Violence, and Memory,” organized by the Armenian Studies Center of the Promise Armenian Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.]

The issue I have been asked to address, “Why Negotiations Failed,” is one of the easiest and, at the same time, one of the most difficult to discuss. Easy because there are so many reasons for the failure of negotiations to choose from. Difficult, because the choices bring with it a measure  of responsibility for the actors in question, a responsibility all the more difficult to accept considering where that failure has led us, the disastrous historical events we are witnessing.

Therefore, in addition to the limitation of the time available, my presentation will be constrained by two factors: (1) the restraint appropriate for a time of war, and (2) my strong sense that the parties to the conflict, that includes the Armenian side, are not yet ready, if they will ever be, to accept their share of responsibility in this failure.

First, who are the parties to the conflict: Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh, and Armenia. And now Turkey.

What other actors have a direct interest in the outcome,? Russia, Turkey, Iran, the US, China, Georgia and other countries with secessionist movements; the OSCE and EU, the UN, NATO, the Organization of Islamic States; British Petroleum and other major oil and gas companies that have invested in the exploration, exportation, transportation, and use of Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon resources. And the diaspora.

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Who has attempted or otherwise been involved in negotiations at various times? Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Turkey, Italy, Sweden, Finland, France, Germany, the US, the UN, even, at one point, the International Olympic Committee, as odd as it may sound.

Who has attempted or actually mediated?  Russia, Russia and Kazakhstan, Iran, the US, Turkey as direct intermediaries; Russia, the US, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia in secret negotiations in Geneva; advisors of the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia in confidential consultation. The winner has been the OSCE through its Minsk Conference, reduced to the 3-way co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group, the current Group of actors: Russia, France and the US.

What have been the elements of the conflict under negotiations?

  1. Cease-fires during periods of active warfare
  2. The future status of Nagorno Karabakh or Artsakh
  3. Seven districts around the Soviet era NK Autonomous region not populated by Armenians within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan, districts that came under Armenian. Control by the summer of 1993. This is one dimension of this conflict that is different from similar other Soviet era conflicts.
  4. Security guarantees for any agreed upon status and for civilian populations impacted by any agreement. And to a lesser degree,
  5. Refugees and internally displaced persons largely from Nagorno Karabakh and the seven districts in general.

It should already be obvious that we are dealing with a complex issue, with parties to the conflict unwilling to make the necessary concessions or with ineffective mediations. The answer is probably all three.

It is possible to separate the time span from 1991 to 2020 into two distinct periods as far as negotiations on the Karabakh conflict are concerned.

The first is from 1991-1997, during the administration of the first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian. During that period Armenia thought that the war had not ended with the cease-fire of 1994, that the balance of power was likely to change in favor of Azerbaijan, that all things considered time was not on our side, that if concessions had to be made they are better made when the Armenian side was in the stronger position. The Ter-Petrossian administration considered (a) the problem to be primarily its own and supported the work of the mediators with its own initiatives and ideas, (b) the conflict to be primarily an issue between neighbors without ascribing to it any symbolic global significance, (c) the problem one that must be resolved above all else, otherwise all other issues—democratization, economic reforms, strengthening of state institutions, normal relations with all neighbors as the best guarantee for Armenia’s long term security—to be threatened if not impossible to achieve, and (d) that it was impossible to reach agreement on the status of Karabakh but peace could be achieved in two phased negotiations, and peace would be secured in the first phase.

The Ter-Petrossian administration labored toward this goal intensely and as an urgency, at times facing the disagreement, even the active opposition, of the Karabakh leadership. On two or three occasions it brought Azerbaijan close to an agreement that would establish peace through mutual concessions. To do that this administration avoided many of the pitfall that would become problems in the second period, discussed below. On these occasions Azerbaijan balked at the end, hoping that it could get a better deal. The last such occasion when an agreement seemed very possible, was the September 1997 proposal offered by the Minsk Group. That document was likely to be accepted by Azerbaijan and Armenia as a basis for constructive negotiations. But this time it was a group within the Ter-Petrossian administration that vehemently opposed the proposal, and left no choice to the president but to resign. The group opposed the document because it did not think the Armenian side needed to make any concession, regardless of what it received in return.

The second period extends from 1998 to the present. In general terms, the following problems stand out as factors that have made negotiations for the most part unproductive during this period:

  1. The parties to the conflict see this conflict as the continuation of previous episodes of armed hostilities going back to 1905-1907 and as integral to their state and national identity formation, especially in the case of Azeris
  2. Thus, they have invested their identities, historical perspectives, and cultural sensibilities in the conflict and not just their interests making concessions equivalent to a loss of identity.
  3. The conflict, the fortunes of war on the ground, and possibilities of resolutions have been instrumental in the domestic politics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, legitimizing or delegitimizing leaders of governments, a process that has pushed populations toward more nationalistic and maximalist positions, making concession more difficult and providing leaders excuses for not making any concessions.
  4. Also, as a consequence, societies have become alien to each other, unwilling to understand each other, each seeing the other as completely untrustworthy, to say the least. In the case of Azerbaijan, the loser of the first major round of battles, this alienation has become outright hatred with racist overtones. Although the Armenian side has increasingly equated Azeris with Turks, hence genocidal by nature, the Armenian side has not imitated the Azerbaijani campaign.
  5. Furthermore, when considering ideas, proposals, possible solutions, each side imagined the worst possible scenarios that would follow, not having grounds, each believed, to trust the other. And ascribing the worst possible intentions to the other. Thus, the whole process of negotiations was undermined by the fallback position of taking chances with war rather than with peace.
  6. For the most part, the parties to the conflict defined their maximum demands but not their minimum ones, making negotiations slippery. Thus, they went after what they wanted and not what they needed. When one party was ready to be flexible the other was not. Thus, they both missed opportunities to benefit from each other’s flexibility. In doing so each party to the conflict relied on their version of history, on their sense of victimhood, but above all on principles of international law, each highlighting the ones that support their demands. Each wanted to believe, mistakenly, that international principles were adopted to protect the interests of small nations, when in fact they are formulated by the big ones, they serve the interests of the big ones, and they can be used or discarded at will by them.
  7. The parties ignored the fact modern communications technologies do not allow for distinctions between words and rhetoric intended for domestic consumption and those uttered for an international audience. More often than not, each side found comfort in the populist and extremist public utterances of the other’s leader to justify their lack of readiness to make concessions and to invest the necessary energy, imagination, patience and political capital on negotiations.
  8. Each party to the conflict imagined that time was on its side. Each side convinced itself of the validity of its argument. Azerbaijan was confident time would deliver the benefits of its oil diplomacy and oil income to secure continued international support for its position and to prepare for the next war. The Armenian side thought of the diaspora as the equivalent resource that countered the Azerbaijan’s assets. The Armenian diaspora did nothing to disabuse Armenia and Artsakh of their illusions. Evidently, some arguments were obviously more valid than others. Meanwhile opportunities were lost.
  9. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the two peoples tended to replace the so-called socialist ideology with nationalism, and Politburo Moscow with Republican Moscow, Brussels, and Washington. That left no room for the development of a sense of regionalism and common regional interests beyond their differences on the conflict.
  10. The dissolution of the Soviet Union did put an end to the ideological underpinnings of the Cold War but not to the geopolitical rivalries. The dissolution of the Soviet Union had opened new areas for contention and control. The South Caucasus was one of them.
  11. We are faced with an interesting paradox: The Minsk Group mediators, Russia, the US and France, had conflicting interests and pursued opposing goals with regard to a variety of global and regional issues; yet they achieved a rare unanimity on the basics regarding the two most important issues of the Karabakh conflict: withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven districts accompanied by measures to provide for the security of the population of Artsakh, with the understanding that negotiations on the future status of the region would follow.

Yet the US and Russia often checked each other when it came to the details and other aspects of the plan. Each wanted to make sure that any plan would maximize their interests and influence in the region  and minimize those of the other. In other words, the mediators tried to resolve issues of their own, beyond the Karabakh conflict itself.

The result was an ineffective mediation. It became impossible for them to bring about the equivalent of the Dayton Accords, that settled the conflict of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this case the mediator, the US used all of its influence and resources to force the parties to make concessions in order to reach an agreement. In this case the three mediators, that is three of the five members of the UN Security Council, one superpower and two major powers, did not perform any better than any set of three other states might have. Each mediator was concerned that exerting pressure on one of the parties might drive that party to the other.

What we are witnessing today is a repetition of that pattern. The three Minsk group Co-Chairmen are trying hard to bring about an effective cease-fire. All three think that the first order of business should be a cessation of military operations on the ground. On this, they agree with Armenia, while Azerbaijan and Turkey disagree. Russia is trying to station its own peacekeepers in a region that has considerable geopolitical significance for them, and the US is opposing the idea proposing, instead that Scandinavian peacekeepers be deployed when. And if there is agreement on such forces. The result may be total inaction.

Some brief observations regarding the first four items on the list of negotiation items:

Cease-fires during periods of active warfare

There have been two periods of significant warfare: 1991-1994 and the current one that was started a month ago. The first period lasted as long as it did because Azerbaijan refused to agree to a cease-fire because it started to lose territory and it continued to fight in order to recoup what it had lost; and, in the process, lost more. The Armenian side offered cease-fires at every step. Azerbaijan resisted thinking that a cease-fire would freeze the situation and that frost might last too long. That is until 1994 May when it was no longer capable of fighting.

At this time too Azerbaijan is refusing to abode by any cease-fire, but this time because it is gaining ground and sees no reason to stop. Azerbaijan thinks they can improve their advantage on the ground and leave as little as possible for the negotiating table.

The future status of Nagorno Karabakh or Artsakh, the central issue

Azerbaijan has insisted on the principle of territorial integrity, that is, the status of Karabakh, whatever is negotiated, had to be as part of Azerbaijan. It is important note that at times it has retreated from that categorical insistence and to leave the final determination to second stage negotiations.

The Armenian side has on occasion indicated willingness to leave the final status to a second phase of negotiations but otherwise has insisted on independence for Karabagh or agreement by Azerbaijan to the right of self-determination for the people of Artsakh through a future referendum, which amounts to the same thing.

It is obvious that under the circumstances an agreement on the status is impossible. Insisting on it at this time means certain failure of negotiations. The only solution would be to leave it to the future.

The international community, including the mediators, have unanimously sided with Azerbaijan on this issue. When  compelled to articulate their position in a proposal to the parties, they have consistently insisted on the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, that means some kind of autonomous status for Karabakh within Azerbaijan. However, realizing that agreement between the sides on this issue is impossible at this time, they prefer to postpone status negotiations for later.

The seven districts around Artsakh under Armenian control.

If status negotiations should be left to a second phase, what would a first phase entail? Primarily and mainly the return of those districts to Azerbaijani or possibly, for one of them, Lachin, international control.

Azerbaijan has made it clear that regardless of when the status of Karabakh would be determined or what that would be, it would never acquiesce to those seven districts remaining under Armenian control. That it would go to war for those districts faster than for Karabakh. It has also made clear over the past 25 years that when it did go to war for them, it would have no obligation to stop at retaking those seven districts; that since it considered Karabakh part of Azerbaijan, it would also take Karabakh militarily, and then see what is left to negotiate.

The Armenian side has justified the taking of these districts as necessary for the immediate security of the population of Karabakh when during the first big war Azerbaijani forces were using these heights to bomb that population. Subsequently control of these districts were justified as bargaining chips, although for some it was a bargaining chip to secure permanent peace, while for others these should be ceded only in return for the recognition by Azerbaijan of Artsakh’s independence, once more an impossible quest. But at the end these districts came to be described as liberated territories, including by government officials in more than one administration,  as territories that could never be returned, thus transforming the Karabakh issue from a matter of self-determination and security of a people to one of territorial aggrandizement with all the consequences that shift entailed. Those who thought otherwise were characterized as defeatists and traitors.

On this issue too, the international community, including Russia, the US, and France, made it clear that under no circumstances would they agree for these districts to be left under Armenian control. They have said so consistently for over two decades. Thus, the international community has sided with Azerbaijan on the two core issues of the conflict; there are no “friends” of Armenia to be found here.

Equally important, it is important to note that Armenian control of these districts initially taken for the security of our people became a powerful irritant դհադ produced more insecurity than security.

In summary, there is a simple, stark and crucial difference between the two periods, 1991-1998 and 1998-2020, as far as negotiation strategies are concerned: During the first period, that is the Ter-Petrossian administration, the policy with regard to the conflict was to actively seek a resolution of the conflict. During the second period, that is the Kocharyan, Sargsyan and Pashinyan administrations, the policy was essentially to preserve the status quo.


I will end my observations on the major issues that were being negotiated with a few comments.

  1. The contemporary phase of this conflict started in 1988 with a political campaign in Stepanakert and then in Yerevan. Azerbaijan bears the responsibility for the brutalization and then militarization of the conflict.
  2. If we are to get to the essence of the conflict, we could find it in the following difference: The Azerbaijani side sees the Karabakh problem as one of territory that must bring under its control, with or without its Armenian population. The Armenian side sees it as a problem of the right of the Armenian people of Artsakh to live free and secure on their lands. This difference also dictates the militaristic policies of Azerbaijan. It does not make them legitimate but also does not make them less real.

The reader will have realized, nonetheless, my observations recognize a few realities. I will present three of them here:

  1. That the Armenian side is an active participant in the development of the conflict and in negotiating process, which means that what it said and did mattered; that no outcome was predetermined. The position and policies of the parties evolve and they do so partly on the basis of what the other side is doing and saying. These premises run counter to the narrative that says that Azerbaijan and now Turkey were going to do what they are doing regardless of what we said or did. Had that been so, we should not have said or done anything; we should have just waited for our destiny to come to us.
  2. That what is fair and just, what we deserve and should be given to us, what is cruel or uncivil, what can be characterized as pure indifference by the international community do not matter in these negotiations.
  3. That we ignored what the international community, including the Minsk Group Co-Chairs, especially Russia have been telling us clearly and for so long regarding what they think the solution to the problem should be and we should be doing. We acted that they do not matter. And yet now we are appealing to them to save us, and to so on our own terms. This observation has nothing to do with my personal preferences, with my idea of an ideal solution, what I wish would happen, or my dreams. None of these actors, beginning with Azerbaijan all the way to countries that like us or hate us, have any responsibility toward me or to making my dreams real. We ignore these facts at our own peril.

It is obvious that it is not a single event, word or attitude that will explain the vicissitudes of negotiations and, at the end, their failure. All the more important for small nations like ours to try and get all the elements right. That includes the position or positions in the diaspora which have played some role in the perceptions of Armenia and Artsakh as a resource that could balance the resources Azerbaijan has. I do not think I will be mistaken in asserting that the diasporan positions have been maximalist and to say the least, have not contributed to a more realistic assessment of the situation in the homeland. I am not aware of any political organization or any institution in the diaspora that has advocated a more circumspect policy than the one advocated by the political groups that claim to speak on behalf of the diaspora.

More importantly, it has been impossible to find any scholar—historian, political scientist, or other—who has articulated a critical view of such extremist policies in any article, book or public presentation during the 20 or more years. The state of war cannot be an excuse here, since between May 1994 and September 27, 2020 there were less than 10 days when we had active war. What we have from scholars are at best descriptions of policies on Karabakh. And our historians and political scientists should know our history better than what exists in popular imagination. Examples abound in our history of disasters that follow serious miscalculations. It is possible to argue that we are scholars and we just watch and describe. Then we would have to explain why so many scholars engage in harsh criticisms of those who present a view other than the maximalist.

In substance one can find the basic points made above in my writings and presentations during the past 20 or more years, and I stand behind every position I have taken in those pieces, even more so today than at the time of their writing. Still, I found it important to make these points here, because we are at a critical juncture and the prime minister of Armenia will have to make some hard decisions that will reflect the situation on the ground rather than any other consideration. It is not clear how much leeway he will have at any given moment, that is, to what extent, if any, the future will depend on him or Armenia and Artsakh. I certainly hope it will not be too late to have a say-so in the solutions. And he will need our understanding and may even need our help.

Scholars and community and the wider diaspora will have to rethink their positions; they will have to find a new voice to be able to contribute to the solution of the problem rather than being part of it by actively pushing for maximalist positions that assured a path to war or by their silence. Scholars and intellectuals should not participate in the art of escaping realities and facts, an art that is more characteristic, but no less disastrous, to politicians.

Repeating the mistakes of the past expecting a different result is not the mark of a nation that knows its history.

Thank you.

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