Karabakh Conflict after Kosovo: No Way Out?

Vicken Cheterian. Nationalities Papers. Volume 40, Issue 5, September 2012.

The year 2008 was a turbulent one, rich with dramatic events, which put new pressure on the hot spots of unresolved conflict in the Caucasus. The opening came with the 17 February declaration of independence of Kosovo, which, normatively, introduced a new practice into international relations in the recognition by major powers of the sovereignty of sub-units of former socialist federative states and their accession to statehood. Until Kosovo, only federative units of former states such as Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union were recognized as sovereign states by the international community. The Kosovo case posed a new challenge to the conflict sides as well as to international mediation efforts negotiating to resolve similar territorial conflicts between central authorities and de facto independent regions. In August 2008, a few months after the self-declaration of Kosovo, there was a war in the Caucasus. Tension in and around the region of South Ossetia in July and August developed into a major war, first between the Georgian armed forces and the Osset militias, then starting from 8 August the conflict became an inter-state war with the introduction of the Russian federal forces. The “Five-Day War” sent shock waves across the Caucasus, raising fears of a “new cold war,” and invited the intervention of leading politicians and diplomats to reach a cease-fire. Following the war, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev declared Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states, formulating arguments similar to those given by Western states in the justification of their recognition of Kosovo.

This series of events in a short period of time created apprehension that it could have negative effects on the other conflict zone in the Caucasus, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Soon, this fear was transformed into hope that the events of 2008 had moved the Karabakh conflict away from its “frozen” status, that major powers such as Russia and Turkey were convinced that the Karabakh status quo was no longer desirable, and that the changes away from the status quo were in a positive direction. Now, four years after those events, we see that the hopes and efforts invested in bringing change to the Karabakh conflict situation, efforts to take at least one straw away from the blocking of conflict resolution, have failed, and we are back to square one.

This article aims to study the reason why the major changes, both international (Kosovo declaration of independence) and regional (August war; Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), as well as diplomatic efforts (Russian mediation between Armenia and Azerbaijan; Armenian-Turkish protocols), have failed to bring any change in the fundamental elements and the various positions that preserve the Karabakh conflict. I will attempt to present the factors blocking a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict. I will conclude with some remarks on what the events since 2008 have introduced into the Karabakh conflict, both on the level of diplomatic effort as well as new geopolitical elements that could influence the security situation in and around the conflict zone. The paper will proceed in four parts: first by discussing the nature of Karabakh conflict and the efforts to resolve it; then moving into the chain of events in 2008 relevant to the Karabakh case; third, presenting the Russian and Turkish initiatives to bring change to the conflict resolution efforts; and concluding with the forces that are slowly eroding the status quo and the chances of war and peace.

This paper does not have the ambition or the necessary space to revisit the existing literature on negotiation processes, conflict resolution, or mediation. Yet, it can serve as a case study for those testing theoretical constructions by providing a detailed discussion of a case where intensive mediation efforts failed to produce the required results.

The Making of a Conflict

Every article about the Karabakh conflict asks two fundamental questions: When did the conflict start? And what are its root causes? Apparently, the Karabakh conflict started on 20 February 1988—or at least its latest manifestation, with the local authorities in Karabakh voting for the unification (miyatsum) of the region with neighboring Soviet Armenia. During a period of four years (1988 to 1991), the conflict developed from political conflict to ethnic violence, and finally into low-intensity war. The national question gave the intelligentsia first in Yerevan and then in Baku a cause to mobilize as a political force. They came out in opposition not only to the local party apparatus, but also to the central authorities and Gorbachev’s plans to reshape the Soviet federation (Suny 127-28).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, what had been a conflict internal to a state emerged as a de facto international conflict. The military situation escalated following the failed August putsch in Moscow; Soviet troops did not have a clear political leadership, and shifted their position from one of preserving Soviet legality—and therefore Azerbaijani authority over the region—into open sympathy with the Armenian cause. The retreating Soviet Army soldiers passed the major part of their armament to the Armenian forces, who went on an immediate offensive, taking over most strategic positions within the enclave (winter-spring 1992) and even establishing a corridor linking Karabakh with Armenia after overrunning the strategic towns of Shushi/Shusha and Lachin (May and June 1992). The Armenian military successes led to a severe power struggle in Baku, culminating in opposition leader Abulfaz Elchibey’s successfully taking power in June 1992. Elchibey reorganized the Azerbaijani fighting forces and went on an offensive in the summer, succeeding in breaking Armenian lines and taking over the north of Karabakh. But the Azerbaijani successes were temporary; by the next winter, Karabakh Armenian formations had regrouped and restructured their forces under unified leadership, and with the support of Armenia in men and arms, they first attacked the Kelbajar district—a province in Azerbaijan proper, situated in a mountainous region between Armenia and Azerbaijan to the north of Lachin—and then took the initiative to occupy a number of towns in Azerbaijan proper, culminating in the occupation of Aghdam, the headquarters of Azerbaijani military operations. The Azerbaijani defeats led to yet another severe power struggle in Baku, resulting in the return to power of the Soviet-era ruler of Azerbaijan, Heidar Aliev. He in his turn initiated another major counterattack, which caused high numbers of casualties but no major change in shape of the front line. The military phase of the conflict reached an end with the signing of a cease-fire agreement in May 1994 through Russian mediation.

The Karabakh movement was the first independent and popular mobilization during perestroika, casting a long shadow on the reforms under way. Several schools have developed to explain why the Karabakh conflict occurred. One sees its roots in history, originating for example “in the late nineteenth century” or even “earliest times as the Transcaucasus became a cauldron of ethno-cultural diversity and a locus of imperial rivalry” (Croissant 1). The Karabakh conflict is also seen as continuation of Armenian-Azerbaijani antagonism which evolved starting from the late nineteenth century but was suppressed by the Soviet authorities: “The situation in Nagorn-Karabakh provides the most extreme example of the inherent dangers when the conflicts contained during the Soviet period become active once again” (Goldenberg 8). A second interpretation is a planned Karabakh Armenian rebellion with origins in disagreement with the decision to place the region under Azerbaijani rule, and, using the opportunity of Gorbachev’s reforms, putting the territorial issue on the political agenda (de Waal, Black Garden 15-17). An addition to the historic-antagonism interpretation is nationalism, or “strengthening group identity” and conflict over territory that has virtual (symbolic) as well as tangible value for the control over regions with ambiguous (autonomous) status (Cornell 51, 55). Azerbaijani officials and intelligentsia alike were surprised by the eruption of the Karabakh issue, and saw in it elements of “coordination and planning” (Altstadt 195). The initial activists were often members of the cultural intelligentsia in Karabakh, who found difficulties expressing themselves within Soviet Azerbaijan, due to the state policy of favoring the titular nation and its culture, while its contacts with neighboring Soviet Armenia were blocked by Baku (Saroyan 14-29).

Yet, the historic past in itself is not enough to explain the eruption of violence in Karabakh. “Based solely on patterns of violent mobilization and conflict in the 1940s, one would have anticipated that the Balts, Ukrainians, Chechens and Germans” would be potential candidates for violent conflicts in the era of perestroika (Beissinger 281). It was the unfolding political movement, the making and breaking of institutions, and the eruption of social movements that conditioned and shaped the emerging conflict: impulses for reform coming from the center encouraged Karabakh Armenian intellectuals—some of them living outside Karabakh itself—to push for their demand of unification of the oblast with neighboring Armenia.

Yet, the position of Moscow trying to preserve the territorial status quo was in favor of Azerbaijan and the local nomenclature, but took away all legitimacy from the Armenian nomenclature. As a result, the opposition Karabakh movement came to power without much resistance from the Armenian communists, while in Azerbaijan the local nomenklatura preserved its domination until well after the collapse of the Soviet state (Hunter 225-60).

Another interpretation of the conflicts is through state collapse: “The Caucasian wars of the early 1990s were essentially the result of a double process: state collapse and state building” (Cheterian, War and Peace 7). The weakening of the Soviet Union under the reforms of Gorbachev and its collapse left a political and institutional vacuum which was filled by nationalist forces. Unlike in the Balkans, where the nomenklatura converted to nationalism to preserve power, nationalism in the Caucasus was the result of grass-roots mobilization that threatened the power of the nomenklatura but also the Soviet territorial division. In Azerbaijan, the failure of the nationalist leadership of Abulfaz Elchibey led to the return to power of symbols of Soviet nomenklatura. Yet, Heidar Aliev returned to power in Baku in 1993, to rule, not in the name of the working class and the October Revolution, but in the name of the Azerbaijani nation.

Ups and Downs of the Negotiations Process

Mediations and negotiations during the violent phase of the conflict tried to bring the parties to a cease-fire agreement. After May 1994, when a cease-fire was announced through the mediation of the Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev, mediators focused on finding a political solution to the conflict. At the heart of the problem lay the issue of the legal status of the former autonomous region. Was it going to be independent?—join Armenia?—or remain within Azerbaijan? The Armenian side put forward the principle of self-determination of nations, while the Azerbaijani side insisted on the principle of territorial integrity of states, which principle found the stronger echo within the international system composed of states and striving to preserve the status quo. The first stages of the negotiations were formal: each conflicting part tried to mark points rather than to engage in serious exercise to find a way out of the conflict. But overall, the Karabakh negotiation process since 1994 has witnessed a very serious diplomatic engagement, trying various directions and approaches, with moments where there could have been a serious breakthrough, followed by periods of falling back to initial positions and a return to pessimism. The central problem of the negotiations has continued to be the final political status of the province. Other thorny issues throughout the negotiations have been the status of towns such as Shushi and of the two regions of Lachin and Kelbajar (located between Armenia and Karabakh), as well as security guarantees and the question of return of refugees. Finally, the methodology of conflict resolution—package deal, step-by-step, and so on—has taken much of the negotiation effort.

In March 1992, the role of mediation in the Karabakh conflict was entrusted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, (CSCE), later renamed the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The international body decided to organize a special conference dedicated to Karabakh conflict resolution, to be held in Minsk; but they soon found that the situation was not yet ripe and needed further mediation. They founded the “Minsk Group” as a special body for this purpose. During the armed-conflict phase, the Minsk Group was in competition with the Russian leadership, each side trying to broker a cease-fire agreement (including the introduction of a peacekeeping force) on its own terms. This competition was finally mitigated with the introduction in December 1996 of co-chairmanship composed of an American, a French, and a Russian diplomat.

The Minsk Group has proposed all kinds of offers to the conflict parties. During the 1996 Lisbon summit of the OSCE, the organization proposed resolution of the conflict by granting Karabakh the “highest level of autonomy” within the territorial framework of Azerbaijan. This resolution was vetoed by the Armenian side, which argued that by defining the final outcome of the conflict resolution the OSCE was jeopardizing the process. The next year, the OSCE proposed a “package solution” which proposed simultaneously the necessary steps as well as the final status of Karabakh, a proposition rejected by the de facto authorities of Karabakh, while accepted by Baku and Yerevan as a basis for negotiations, although with reservations (Huseynov 158). In 1997, Armenian President Ter-Petrossian published an article arguing that Armenia needed to make major concessions to resolve the Karabakh conflict, that time was not in favor of Armenia, that Azerbaijan’s standing in global affairs was increasing due to its hydrocarbon exports, and that it was better for Armenia to make concessions from a position of strength rather than being forced to do so. Ter-Petrossian’s declared aim was to initiate a debate on the Karabakh conflict, but instead he unleashed strong opposition to his policy, culminating in a palace coup which brought his prime minister, Robert Kocharian, to power.

Although he was later considered a “hard-liner,” Kocharian entered a long cycle of face-to-face meetings with his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliev, culminating in the Key West summit. Over the entire negotiation process, Key West was the moment when the parties were closest to reaching a deal. The reasons for the failure remain in dispute. It seems Heidar Aliev was ready for major concessions—Thomas de Waal says he was “ready to give up Karabakh” in return for the occupied Azerbaijani provinces—but opposed by his close collaborators, who objected to the nature of the concessions (de Waal, Black Garden 5). The fate of Key West reminds us of another episode of the Karabakh negotiations: that of the forced resignation of Ter-Petrossian, under pressure not from his political opponents but from three of his closest collaborators, who were pressing him to change his position on the concessions to be made, rather than be overthrown (Libaridian 50-51).

Negotiations were frozen following Key West, with the health of Heidar Aliev in rapid decline and his succession by his son Ilham Aliev in 2003. Negotiations were restarted in April 2004, under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group, becoming known as the “Prague Process,” where the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mamadyarov, met without any set agenda but considering all aspects of the negotiation process and obstacles to peace agreement. These negotiations led to the declaration of the “Madrid Principles” which were presented during the OSCE ministerial conference in November 2007. Media leaks reveal that the principles proposed a “phased” solution, starting with withdrawal of Armenian forces from five occupied regions, demilitarization of those regions, establishment of communications between the conflict parties, and a donors conference to rehabilitate those territories. For the second phase, the principles proposed further Armenian withdrawals from the regions of Lachin and Kelbajar, the return of refugees and internally displaced populations, and the introduction of peacekeeping forces. In the third phase they proposed public consultation to define the future of the political status of Mountainous Karabakh. The two sides seem to have had different conclusions about the third phase and the parameters through which the final status should be defined. While the Armenian side insisted that the process be a referendum organized in Karabakh, Azerbaijani sources talk about “a high level of autonomy” which does not contradict Azerbaijan’s territorial unity (see Fuller, “Former Armenian Foreign Minister,” “Azerbaijani Foreign Minister”). Media reports show Armenian official hesitation and vehement criticism from the opposition of the principles, with Levon Ter-Petrossian describing it as “treason” (Fuller, “Armenian Opposition Alarmed”). Here again, we have the de facto authorities of Mountainous Karabakh opposing the principles.

The negotiation process was not dead, but numerous tensions were revealing its crisis as we approached 2008. After over a decade of active diplomatic mediation, the sides did not manifest any change in their positions. More serious was the increasing shift in the geopolitical balance. Since signing a major oil deal with a consortium of mainly Western companies in September 1994, known as “the deal of the century,” the Azerbaijani leadership was thinking that time was playing for its side, and that eventually Azerbaijan’s importance would increase in global politics, weighing on Armenia for major concessions. This notion became tangible after the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline was finished in May 2005 and the system started exporting oil a year later. The petrodollars reaching Baku fuelled an unseen arms race, whereby the Azerbaijani defense budget, which was constant between 1992 and 2003 at between US$125 million and US$135 million, exploded to US$1.85 billion in 2008 (International Crisis Group 2-4). In the period of 2003-2009, Azerbaijan spent some US$7 billion on its defense efforts (Today.az).

Parallel with the increase in defense spending, the Azerbaijani leadership increased its threats of military action in case the negotiations process did not conclude on its terms, which were the return of territories lost during the war by Azerbaijan, and the granting of autonomous status to Karabakh. Azerbaijani officials also made remarks about Zankezour and even Yerevan being historic Azerbaijani land, further increasing the tension in an already difficult context (News.az). The Armenian side answered these verbal threats with similar threats about destructive counterattacks in case Karabakh was aggressed. While Baku and Yerevan were exchanging threats, there was another track of secret meetings taking place between Armenian and Turkish diplomats on normalizing relations between the two neighbors, talks which would acquire new momentum after the August 2008 war.

The Year 2008: The Kosovo Declaration and the August War

The Kosovo unilateral declaration of independence on 17 February 2008, and the support it gained from a large number of major Western countries, introduced a new dimension to the conflict-resolution processes in the post-Soviet regions. It seems to have had a certain influence in destabilizing the situation in Georgia, and an indirect impact on the Karabakh negotiation process. Although Western countries argued that Kosovo was situation sui generis, that its recognition should not constitute a precedent with respect to other cases of territorial conflict, yet we can detect a certain anxiety at the time about the possible impact of Kosovo on other conflict areas. In 2006, for example, the head of EU foreign policy, Javier Solana, had already expressed his fear that Kosovo’s independence would have a negative impact on Georgia, and that he had received complaints from Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili: “We are trapped here … President Saakashvili is trapped, all of us are trapped in a double mechanism that may have good consequences for one, but not for the other. It may not be a win-win situation—although we should be able to look [for] and find a win-win solution. But it will not be easy” (qtd. in Lobjakas).

The Kosovo declaration of independence led to a “war of words” in the South Caucasus, and especially between Georgia on the one side and Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other. On 18 February, the Georgian president issued a harsh statement in which he threatened all those who might take steps to profit from the Kosovo case: “I want our people, as well as the international community, to understand that we can and we have the power to undertake effective action in response to the moves directed against Georgia in this [Kosovo] context,” the statement said (Civil Georgia, “Saakashvili Warns”). In its turn, the Abkhaz parliament issued a communiqué addressed to the international community, calling for the recognition of Abkhazia, in the wake of the Kosovo recognition in the Caucasus (Civil Georgia, “Abkhazia Calls”). The Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, also had very harsh words, saying that Kosovo would “come back to knock them [Western leaders] on the head.” In the same statement, Putin saw in Kosovo an event that would destabilize the international order: “The Kosovo precedent is a terrifying precedent. It in essence is breaking open the entire system of international relations that have prevailed not just for decades but for centuries. And it without a doubt will bring on itself an entire chain of unforeseen consequences” (Associated Press). The Russian leader accused the West of once again using double standards, and many in the West feared immediate Russian retaliation by recognizing Transnistria or the de facto entities of South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Yet, this did not happen. After the threats, Russia seemed to soften its position and adopt a pragmatic approach.

Russia did not have any interest in recognizing theses entities, as it would not gain any new dividends by doing so: it would neither bring additional stability, nor increase its own influence over Eastern Europe or the Southern Caucasus. It was the ill-advised August war in Georgia, when Georgian troops tried to take the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, that triggered a change in the Russian position. Moscow considered that the Georgian attack had overthrown the status quo and committed mass violations of human rights (Russia initially accused Georgia of committing “genocide”); consequently, it shifted its position (Terekhov). On 25 August 2008, less than three weeks after the start of hostilities, the Russian State Duma passed a motion calling on the Russian president, Dimitri Medvedev, to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The next day (26 August) Medvedev signed two separate decrees recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and called on other states to follow the example.

More significant is the change in course of the Azerbaijani leadership following the August 2008 war in Georgia. Baku seems to have made a number of conclusions from the Georgia war. The first was to revisit its increasing military collaboration with Washington (Ismailzade). One significant event was the way the US vice president was received in Baku during his visit to the Caucasus, on 4 September 2008. The highest US leader ever to visit Azerbaijan, Dick Cheney, was met by Foreign Minister Elmar Mamadyarov, not by the head of state, Ilham Aliev, nor even by Prime Minister Artur Rashizade. Moreover, Cheney’s demands for Azerbaijani support for the Nabucco gas project (to transport Central Asian natural gas to European markets, in competition with Russian projects) seem to have received no positive answer (Gabuev et al.).

A second Azerbaijani reaction could have been to revise its military strategy. The Russian projection of force into the heart of a former Soviet republic seems to have shaken Azerbaijani strategists at least in two ways: first, in its attempts to tilt the strategic balance of power in its favor by a massive arms buildup, as this balance could be offset by outside intervention, with Russia linked to Armenia by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); second, it revealed its security vulnerability, with “over 70 percent of its forces … manning the Line of Contact (LOC) with the occupied territories, leaving the rest of the country thinly defended” (Wikileaks, Viewing Cable 09Baku776)—and mainly its frontier with the north. It is probable that the Azerbaijani leadership remembers how in April 1920 the Red Army invaded Azerbaijan without being confronted by any major resistance, as Azerbaijani troops were engaged in fighting with Armenian forces in the mountains of Karabakh, leaving their northern borders defenseless.

Similarly, Armenia went through existential vulnerability during the short August war. Its major communication lines through Georgia were cut, leaving the country in isolation as its borders with Azerbaijan as well as Turkey remained under blockade as a consequence of the Karabakh conflict. Armenia’s exchanges with Russia in both the economic and the military domains were further disturbed as a result of the 2008 conflict. A major strategic problem for both Armenia as well as Russia continues to be how to bring in armament and military supplies, especially to the Russian military based near Gumri in northern Armenia.

Post-2008 War Diplomatic Activism

The August 2008 war sent shock waves through both Baku and Yerevan. Both leaderships realized in a qualitatively new way how vulnerable they were, and that they should do something to enhance their national security. Similarly, Ankara and Moscow also realized that they needed to revise their policies, each for a different reason. Although the war was a sign of a certain return of the Russian power in the region, or, to put it another way, and end to the continuous retreat of Moscow’s influence over the Transcaucasus that had started exactly two decades earlier, it was a projection of negative power which Moscow later tried to mend. Turkey, in its turn, discovered that its South Caucasus policy was heavily Azerbaijan-centric and completely ignored the existence of Armenia. Since the early 1990s, with the collapse of the USSR, the emergence of the new states, and the simultaneous eruption of the Karabakh conflict, Ankara chose to support the Azerbaijani perspective, made common cause with Baku in imposing a blockade on Armenia, and refrained from having diplomatic ties with Yerevan. The 2008 war took place in a moment when Turkey was moving away from Kemalism into what some called “neo-Ottomanism” or “Pax Ottomana,” and starting from May 2009 a new foreign policy orientation under Ahmed Davutoglu, with Turkey looking to ameliorate its relations with its neighbors. This also coincided with change of guard in Armenia, where after contested presidential elections marked with opposition demonstrations bloodily repressed by Armenian security forces, Serge Sarkissian took over the presidency from Robert Kocharian. Sarkissian needed to boost his image abroad—on which Armenia depended for both its security and its economic survival. In the days following the Russo-Georgian cease-fire agreement, all those uncertainties and changes placed the region on the edge of diplomatic revolution.

Immediately following the August 2008 war, two diplomatic initiatives tried to redraw the political map of the South Caucasus. The first was an intensive Russian mediation, with the active participation of the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, to find a solution to the Karabakh conflict. The second was a Turkish initiative to open up its borders with Armenia and establish normal relations with Yerevan, and by doing so to play a positive role in solving the Karabakh conflict.

Both Kosovo and Georgia did have an impact on Nagorno-Karabakh, by creating an atmosphere where both sides as well as the major powers involved accelerated conflict-resolution efforts. Immediately after the August war, Medvedev invited his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts to Moscow for talks to regulate the Karabakh conflict. This sudden peace initiative coming from the Kremlin, following the hostilities in Georgia, suggests a Russian desire to improve its image abroad. On 2 November 2008 the three presidents signed the “Declaration on Regulating the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.” This was a major achievement, in the sense that it was the first time since the cease-fire agreement of 1994 that the two sides had put their signatures on the same document concerning regulation of the conflict. Yet, the “Moscow Declaration,” as the text became known, has general principles such as refraining from military action and seeking peaceful regulation of the conflict, which could not have a direct translation on the ground. Moreover, and unlike in the case of the cease-fire agreement, the signature of the de facto authorities of Karabakh was absent. In the declaration the two sides also engaged in “creating a more healthy situation in the South Caucasus” (Fuller, “‘Moscow Declaration'”).

The intensive Russian mediation efforts continued for the next two years. On 22 November 2009, under Minsk Group auspices, the two presidents met for four hours, discussing again the “Basic Principles.” At a second meeting between the three presidents, in Sochi on 25 January 2010, they gave the impression of advancing in their negotiations; the sides declared that they had agreed to the wording of the preamble of the latest version of the “Madrid Principles” (Babayan). And on the sideline of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Medvedev brought together the two presidents on 17 June 2010 for further talks.

Alongside the Russian efforts, the Turkish overtures toward Armenia added to the diplomatic dynamism and the generated optimism. In August 2008, Ankara launched its “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform,” as part of its new foreign policy orientation towards the east. This was part of an overall revitalization of Ankara’s foreign policy, looking toward the south and the east, as well as for a peacemaker’s role. Such a policy was contradicted by its 16-year blockade of Armenia and refusal to establish diplomatic relations. The Turkish diplomatic tempo continued with President Abdullah Gül accepting the invitation of his Armenian counterpart to visit Armenia on the occasion of the Armenian-Turkish football match for the World Cup qualification. Gül visited Armenia accompanied by a high-level delegation, and left his foreign minister, Ali Babajan, behind for further negotiations. The diplomatic encounters that followed were labeled “football diplomacy” by the mass media (Tait). It should be noted that from 2007 a series of secret meetings between Armenian and Turkish diplomats, with Swiss mediation, facilitated the diplomatic efforts once a political decision was taken to move forward.

Following Gül’s visit to Yerevan, intense negotiations between the two foreign ministries continued, raising hope that a rapid normalization of the relations was in the making. But with the coming of the cold winter and the local elections in Turkey, Gül and Erdogan did not take concrete steps, and “delayed opening Turkey’s border with Armenia after nationalists in Turkey and Azerbaijan protested” (Abramowitz and Barkey 123). Then, all of a sudden, the foreign ministries of Turkey, Armenia, and Switzerland (the mediator between the two) announced that a “road map” had been reached to normalize bilateral relations. The expression was in bad taste, as it referred to the catastrophic “road map” produced by the George W. Bush administration in pretending to seek normalization between Palestine and Israel. More problematic was the timing: it was announced on 23 April, just one day before the traditional commemoration day of the Armenian Genocide, when the US president was expected to pronounce his speech; and instead of characterizing the 1915 events as “genocide,” as he had promised during his campaign, Obama chose to use the Armenian expression Medz Yeghern (the great tragedy). The timing of the “road map” suggests behind-the-scenes pressure and Ankaran intent to avoid a US genocide recognition, which could have had legal as well as political consequences. After April, there was a feeling that Ankara had backtracked again, with Turkish officials linking the opening of borders with “progress” in the Karabakh negotiations (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Is the Armenian-Turkish”). Again, the two sides, with Swiss mediators, announced the culmination of their negotiations and posted a four-page description of two protocols on their ministries’ Web pages on 31 August 2009. They announced a six-week period of consultations before their ratification.

The Armenian authorities presented the protocols as a major success. “The basic Turkish demand going back to 1993 was the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Kelbajar and Karabakh, and the regulation of the conflict according to Azerbaijani positions,” according to Arman Giragosyan, the deputy foreign minister of Armenia, and the chief negotiator with Turkey, who added: “this precondition is not present in the protocols.” Opposition started building up in the diaspora, as well as in Armenia. One of the governmental parties, the Tashnaktsutyun, left the coalition, protesting the April announcement of the “road map.” In spite of the diaspora opposition, the protocols were signed in Zurich on 10 October 2009 by Armenia’s foreign minister, Eduard Nalbandian, and his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, in the presence of such celebrities as the US, Swiss, Russian, and French ministers of foreign affairs (Hillary Clinton, Micheline Calmy-Rey, Segey Lavrov, and Bernard Kouchner) and Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief (Cheterian, “Armenia-Turkey”).

The Zurich ceremony was marred by tensions. Initially, the Armenian foreign minister refused to join the event, protesting against a planned Turkish press conference insisting on linking the protocols with the resolution of the Karabakh conflict. Even after the signing of the protocols, Ankara revealed that it was running a short-term policy toward Armenia, rather than a strategic initiative to bring change to its eastern borders. Its political aim seems to have been to maneuver against international (and mainly US) official recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and in return for normalizing its relations with Yerevan to force concessions on the Karabakh issue. Both of those objectives are reminiscent of the Turkish Caucasus policy of the 1990s, rather than a new approach. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went as far as to threaten to expel the 100,000 “undocumented” Armenian workers in Turkey in the case of genocide recognition (Hürriyet Daily News). In demanding steps on Karabakh conflict resolution before ratifying the two protocols on establishing diplomatic exchange with Yerevan and opening the border (Kardas; Abrahamyan), Ankara retreated to the status quo ante. A symbolic ending to the saga of the Armenian-Turkish protocols was the order given in early 2011 by Erdogan to tear down a statue, in Kars in eastern Anatolia, dedicated to friendship between Turks and Armenians.

“The expectations of the various sides were based on wrong calculations,” in the words of Tatul Hakobyan, a researcher in Yerevan. “The Armenian side thought it was possible to change the status quo on Armenian-Turkish relations without changing the status quo on the Karabakh issue. Turkey thought that dialogue with Armenia would lead to Armenian concessions on Karabakh. And the international community did not pay enough attention to details.” First, Turkey seems to have underestimated Azerbaijani opposition to such a change of position in Turkish diplomacy, or overestimated its own capacity to resist pressure from Azerbaijan. Ankara also considered that a change in the nature of Turkish-Armenian relations could create a new atmosphere of confidence which, in turn, could help resolve the complex conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The reaction from Baku against Turkish diplomatic revisionism was violent: it threatened to raise the price of natural gas it delivered to Turkey, introduce a visa regime, and look north for future pipeline projects to export hydrocarbons from Caspian sources to European markets. At the time of signing of the protocols, it was already clear that Turkish attempts to create a new diplomatic space in the South Caucasus had failed, and Turkish leaders, starting with Prime Minister Erdoghan, insisted that the ratification of the protocols by the Turkish parliament would have to follow the resolution of the Karabakh conflict.

Yerevan, in its turn, had risked assenting to the protocols based on assumptions which turned out to be unrealistic. Armenian diplomacy had hoped to separate the Turkish-Armenian negotiation process from the efforts toward a peaceful solution of the Karabakh conflict. Yet, at the end of the day, such a separation seemed illusory. Lastly, the international community and its first-rate diplomatic figures, who were present during the signing ceremony for the protocols, seemed to be satisfied with the ephemeral limelight: it was enough to assist the signing of an agreement, to make the headlines, although it should have been clear by then that profound disagreements persisted. No efforts were made following the signing ceremony to bridge the gap between Ankara and Yerevan, or to soften Azerbaijani opposition to it. The failure of the protocols is a deeper failure for Armenian diplomacy than it might seem: this was the third diplomatic approach in Yerevan to dealing with its western neighbor Turkey since independence, and the third consecutive failure. Instead of separating the relations with Turkey from the Karabakh question, the protocols caused a deep schism between Yerevan and the powerful Armenian diaspora (Cheterian, “Histoire, mémoire”).

The same year also witnessed the frustration of the Russian president’s efforts, as well as those of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, in Karabakh negotiations. Already in September 2010 there were signs of the failure of both the Russian initiative and the Minsk Group’s efforts; Azerbaijan had planned to bring the Karabakh issue to the UN General Assembly, but withdrew the plan after coming under pressure from the three chairs of the Minsk Group. When Medvedev hosted yet another Karabakh summit, in Astrakhan on 26 October 2010, it was rather in an attempt to stop the military escalation on the Karabakh front lines, rather than hoping for an immediate breakthrough in the negotiation process. By June 2011, after nine face-to-face meetings, Russian media leaked Medvedev’s frustration with the lack of progress in the negotiations, saying that Russian mediation would be ended if the sides did not show willingness to progress (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Russia’s Medvedev”).

Structural Problems of the Negotiation Process

How do we explain why after intense negotiation processes, both Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations failed to bring even a minor change, in spite of the engagement of two major powers? It is difficult to attribute the lack of progress to lack of communication between political leaders, given the high number of face-to-face meetings between the two presidents, as well as their foreign ministers. Nor was there a lack of international attention, with the positive attempt of the Russian president to play a role in solving this conflict. Yet, the long years of negotiations, the different attempts and their failures, reveal structural obstacles on the way to conflict resolution.

A major problem over the years continues to be the two classes of interested parties who are absent from the negotiation table. The de facto authorities of Karabakh are the most evident ones. As the political and military force controlling the Karabakh mountains, they are the ones who will carry the weight of such a deal on both political and security levels. Yet they have been left out of the negotiation process. And on several occasions, such as in 1997 when the OSCE proposed various formats of conflict resolution, the de facto authorities opposed them even when Baku and Yerevan were approaching agreement albeit with some reservations. Baku, Yerevan, and the OSCE are responsible for this omission. Azerbaijan officially considers that its conflict is with Armenia’s aggressive policy and its attempt to grab part of Azerbaijan’s land. It considers the Karabakh Armenian de facto government to be no more than a representative of the local community, equal to the Karabakh Azerbaijani community—now internally displaced. Therefore, Baku refuses to negotiate with Stepanakert, or even to recognize its existence as an independent actor. Baku fears that such a recognition would weaken its claim over Karabakh and prejudice the final solution in favor of its opponents. Armenian policy toward Karabakhi participation in the negotiations process is even more curious. The official position of Yerevan is that it is not a party to the conflict, which it describes as one between Karabakh Armenians and Baku. Yerevan considers itself to be only an interested party. Armenian diplomacy has monopolized the negotiation process of a conflict it pretends it is not part of. Moreover, Armenia officially does not recognize the Karabakh self-declaration of independence, yet it provides both military aid and financial support to the Karabakh de facto authorities. Yerevan’s contradictions go farther than that. Back in 1993 Armenian president Ter-Petrossian invited high-level Karabakhi officials to occupy leading governmental posts in Armenia itself. The two major figures here are Serge Sarkisian, who was the de facto defense minister in Karabakh, and was invited to Yerevan in 1993 to become the defense minister of Armenia; and Robert Kocharian, the president of the “Mountainous Karabakh Republic,” who was invited to Yerevan in 1997 to become prime minister of Armenia. Kocharian became the second and Sarkisian the third presidents of Armenia. The same schizophrenic situation continues with the Minsk process: while Karabakh Armenian de facto authorities do not take part in its meetings, during each visit from the three co-chairmen, they visit Stepanakert and meet with officials there.

The other absentees from the negotiation process are the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Not only they are absent, but also they lack elementary information about the negotiation process. For example, although for years the media of both countries have regularly spoken of the “Madrid Principles,” you cannot find those brief documents on any official site of the Armenian or the Azerbaijani administration. The negotiation process is the private domain of the presidents and their foreign ministers—as if the public were too immature to be informed about it. Yet, any concession touches the national feelings of both peoples, and they need to see their own advantage in the future peace agreement; without active participation, public rejection of any peace agreement will remain high.

The Armenian negotiating position equally carries a dilemma. The Armenian side argues officially that the seven Azerbaijani districts outside the administrative border of Karabakh and occupied by Armenian forces (whether Karabakh forces or the regular army of Armenia) are security guarantees which will be returned once an agreement is reached on the political status of Karabakh. The only exception to this is the “Lachin Corridor” linking Mountainous Karabakh to Armenia proper. Yet, this official Armenian position contains a certain ambiguity. Is Lachin the only “corridor” Armenian negotiators are asking to preserve, or are other regions lying between Armenia and Karabakh included, such as Kelbajar? There is a deeper dilemma here: the Armenian side, by going to negotiations, is basically discussing giving away what it considers its security guarantee: the Azerbaijani territories it conquered during the war. Considering that the entire population of Karabakh is about 150,000, while that of Armenia is 3 million, contrasted to the 8 million or more in Azerbaijan, those territories do become significant in a psychological sense. What kind of guarantees can the Armenian side and specifically Karabakh receive to feel it can do away with its “security guarantees”?

In the case that Karabakh Armenians have difficulties in giving away the occupied territories, because of fears for their security, the Azerbaijani side seems to have little to give in return. Officially, Baku is ready to give “the highest level of autonomy” in return for a peace agreement in which it will receive back the seven occupied districts, without de jure recognizing Karabakhi independence. This position has two shortcomings. One is that it is not different from the situation before 21 February 1988, when the Karabakh movement started. Practically, Baku is asking to go back to the status quo ante, before the eruption of the conflict, in spite of what happened in between. The second problem is that the nature of the political system in Azerbaijan does not allow any form of political autonomy. In a country where the opposition does not have a place in the Milli Mejlis (parliament), where elections are characterized by massive fraud, where the independent media suffers constant harassment, and in a political system where we witnessed the emergence of the first post-Soviet dynasty, the promise of a high level of autonomy sounds hollow, and is void of substance. At least publically, it is not clear what Baku is offering to the other side(s) in return for its demands. Promises of autonomy to the Armenians of Karabakh are also in contrast with the real policies practiced in Baku: ethnic Armenians are not tolerated in Azerbaijan. Any individual with Armenian background trying to visit the country without having official permission would be arrested and deported. Azerbaijani authorities seem intolerant even of Armenian cultural artefacts: in 2005, that is 11 years after the cease-fire in Karabakh, the Azerbaijani military destroyed the century-old cemetery in Julfa (Nakhichevan) with its 2000 unique khachkars (tombstones) (Ghazinyan).

As the negotiations drag, each side is convinced that they have the upper hand, and that they go to negotiations to impose their perspective, rather than to reach a compromise. The Armenian side is still proud of the military victories they scored against the Azerbaijani army and the volunteer militias during 1992-93, which led them to dominate not only the highlands, but also the Azerbaijani territories to the west, south, and east of Karabakh proper. From their point of view, compromise means giving up some of the occupied territories in return for Azerbaijani recognition of their independence, which was the essence of their struggle. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, does not see itself vanquished on the battlefield. It sees the 1992-94 war as only one episode of the conflict, and its oil deals with major powers as a continuation of that struggle. Azerbaijan sees time on its side; while declaring yet another increase in military spending, to US$3.2 billion for the budgetary year 2011, President Ilham Aliev had the following comment: “At present, the Azerbaijani army is the strongest and most battle-worthy in the South Caucasus…. In 2011, our military spending will be more than Armenia’s whole state budget. But we will not stop here. We plan to increase our defense spending further” (Abbasov, “Azerbaijan”). In 2008 Azerbaijan organized a military parade, the first since 1992, to show its new military might. If Azerbaijan is in such a powerful position, and if it can only get stronger in the future thanks to growing oil revenues, then why compromise today?

In a paper discussing the paradox of the Karabakh negotiations, de Waal sees a contradiction between the long-term interest of the sides in reaching a solution, while short-term calculations keep them away from signing a deal, “calculating that the risks involved in making compromise are too great” (de Waal, “Karabakh Trap” 2). The contradiction between the short term and the long term is deeper. In both countries, popular mobilization at the moment of Soviet collapse took shape around the issue of Karabakh. The Karabakh question constitutes the cornerstone of contemporary national ideology for both countries, and has enough symbolic value to serve as the central element in legitimizing the political institutions that arose after independence. In the past, governments were toppled—that of Ayaz Mutalibov in 1992 and of Abulfaz Elchibey in 1993—after military defeats on the war front. Therefore, being seen by their public to be compromising on the symbolically charged issue of Karabakh could sap the little legitimacy both Aliev and Sarkisian enjoy back home.


Neither the self-declaration of independence of Kosovo, recognized now by some 85 UN member states, nor the Russian recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia brought any change to the status of Mountainous Karabakh, or to the negotiation process. This comes with no surprise; neither the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, nor that of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, means a revision in the fundamental structure of international relations, de-emphasizing the territorial integrity of states to the profit of the right of nations to self-determination. In the cases of Kosovo and Abkhazia/South Ossetia recognition was possible because of the heavy military and political involvement of outside powers (the US and EU in the first case; Russia in the two others) who thought to bring political stability to a conflict region through the act of recognition. In the case of Karabakh we do not have a single hegemonic foreign power with enough military influence to impose its own version of the political outcome, and therefore changes in conflict regulation or even modalities of recognition of new states can have only theoretical influence over the course of Karabakh mediation.

What is interesting in the case of Karabakh conflict negotiations is the hope for a rapid resolution that the series of events in 2008 aroused—and their frustration. The diplomatic efforts are interesting because they give insight into the inner workings of the Karabakh conflict, as well as posing some fundamental questions. We should start with the question: Why did the double initiatives of Ankara and Moscow to revise the regional status quo fail?

The current status quo proved to be much more durable and massive than the forces pushing for change, any efforts to change, and any forces that wanted an end to the conflict and the achievement of peace. In fact, one of the major sources of tension is the continuous efforts toward conflict resolution: before each major meeting where Karabakh negotiations are on the agenda we have commentators raising expectations, only to be frustrated at the end. Repetitive failure of negotiations is creating deep disappointment in the public opinion in both constituencies, and radicalization of their views toward what compromises are possible. Opinion polls in Baku show that only 0.1% support Karabakh independence, and 0.9% the “highest form of autonomy”—although this is state policy abroad; those opposing any compromise amount to 70.8%. Similar hardening of views can be detected among Armenian youth.

Various reports and analysts with the intention of finding a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict often quote such figures, as well as noting the increasing militarization and economic cost of the conflict, to argue that “the ‘frozen’ nature of the conflict does not benefit anyone” (Abbasov, “Karabakh 2014” 13). If we put aside our prejudices and emotions in the form “peace is better than conflict,” we can have a different reading of the current realities of the Karabakh situation and the possible outcome of negotiations. Both the geopolitical situation of the distribution of forces around Karabakh, and the nature of political institutions, do not favor any change in the status quo.

Karabakh is also the most important factor shaping an evolving national identity in post-independence Armenia as well as Azerbaijan. In Armenia it was possible for Serge Sarkisian to consider concessions on the issue of Armenian genocide with neighboring Turkey to normalize relations (accepting borders; a commission to discuss “history”), yet he was unable to provide even limited concessions on Karabakh that could have facilitated the procedure of rapprochement with Turkey. For public opinion in Armenia, the debate on the genocide is largely linked to the past, yet the Karabakh issue is part of contemporary politics: it is the cornerstone of the movement that led to independence in 1991, and any concessions on the issue could cast a long shadow on the legitimacy of those institutions. Similarly, the Karabakh issue is shaping modern Azerbaijani identity in a curious fashion, by imitating what is perceived to be the strength of the enemy. Azerbaijan too has a day of remembrance of its “Genocide,” referring to the massacre in the locality of Khojali during the Karabakh war, while the Azerbaijani authorities are actively promoting their own “diaspora” as a counterweight to the Armenian diaspora and its perceived influence in the US, European capitals, and Russia. The Karabakh conflict is still an active source of the forging of modern Armenian and Azerbaijani political identities.

In other words, for the conflict parties the short-term benefits of keeping the situation as it is without introducing any change are preferable to the huge uncertainty and even risks entailed by any attempt to change the realities on the ground, and being seen by competing forces as having compromised on the question of national identity. Signing a deal on Karabakh could secure the current rulers of Baku and Yerevan from external security threats, but expose them to uncertainty internally.

The Karabakh conflict is also a “resource” for the top ruling circles in Baku and Yerevan. Both are contested internally in what concerns the fairness of electoral processes, sapping their claim to legitimacy; the Karabakh conflict constitutes for them a source of legitimation both internally and in the international arena. The closed nature of the negotiation process gives the ruling elites advantages over competing political forces and their population in general. It also provides resources to protect them against local and international criticism over other aspects of their policies. For example, following contested presidential elections in Armenia, which included bloodshed against peaceful demonstrations, Serge Sarkisian was accepted by the international community and integrated in various forums thanks to the ongoing Karabakh negotiations as well as the Armenian-Turkish talks. Similarly, Azerbaijan counters criticism on its domestic situation and human rights or freedom-of-media issues by turning the tables: insisting on the failure of those international organizations or foreign diplomatic missions, and demanding more active steps to support its stance on the Karabakh question (see Wikileaks, “Cable 08BAKU652”). A number of analysts have already suggested that the peaceful resolution of the Karabakh question necessitates a change in political institutions, which will help the cause of democracy in the region. The contrary argument is also correct: the preservation of the conflict helps preserve the current institutions, the opaque politics, and the monopoly on the political sphere held by a small circle of insiders. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan spend a substantial portion of their gross domestic product on the military, a sector which is notorious for its lack of transparency.

The problem of Karabakh conflict resolution is larger than the elites in power, the lack of popular legitimacy of the rulers, and the resources at their disposition. We also notice that there is no social demand for peacemaking. Most of the studies pondering the possibilities for peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict quoted above, whether written by experts from Armenia, Azerbaijan, or other backgrounds, are funded by sources from outside the region. Nor did we see any demonstrations in the streets of Baku or Yerevan pushing the authorities to take all necessary measures to reach peace with their neighbors, parallel to the ongoing diplomatic activities, nor mobilization to demand either more transparency regarding the negotiation process or the participation of the public in formulating national policy regarding the Karabakh issue. Is it possible to resolve an ethno-territorial conflict with instruments that are exclusively nationalistic?