A Finnish perspective on the Karabakh conflict & EU’s engagement with Azerbaijan

An interview with Amb. Heikki Talvitie,
Former Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, and
Former Special Representative of the European Union for the South Caucasus

Azerbaijan in the World: You were at one point, indeed early in the process, a co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group.  Could you tell a bit more on how the Minsk Group came to be and how the composition of its co-chairmanship has evolved over time?

Amb. Heikki Talvitie: When the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis unfolded in 1988, Western states had no means available to influence the process.  But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the OSCE gradually developed an interest in crisis management in the post-Soviet region, including in the South Caucasus, and Moscow came to recognize that it could not manage the situation by itself as it had done earlier and gradually grew ready to have its efforts combined with those of the OSCE.  Within the OSCE, Italy was very prominent at the initial stage of this process, and its foreign minister, Mario Rafaelli was the first chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group (in reality co-chairman, on par with Russia).  Then Sweden, where the bourgeois government came to power, became interested in the region.  After his brief tenure, Sweden’s Foreign Ministry State Secretary Ian Eliason—a very energetic and charismatic figure in this sense—assumed chairmanship of the Minsk Group in 1993 and was in that post when the cease-fire was finally achieved in May 1994 (even though the latter was primarily the result of Russian efforts).  Later that year, the government in Sweden changed again, and the Swedes started to look for a replacement in the Minsk group.  The choice fell on Finland, where I served as Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at the time.  

At first, I was hesitant as to whether we should involve ourselves in a crisis involving Russia—a power so much bigger than Finland—so directly, but ultimately the decision was made that Finland would indeed assume co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group along with Russia, which we held in 1995-1996.  What we did to balance Russia’s influence was to enlist the support of the United States, the European Union, and Turkey.  We failed to achieve much and began to think that Finland should be replaced as a co-chair by a larger power.  In late 1996, the choice fell on the United States, which accepted the offer.  Russia was in agreement as well.  It was, however, not a simple process. For, during the OSCE summit in Lisbon in December 1996, the US stated they were no longer willing to assume co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group.  France agreed to assume co-chairmanship instead, which it did immediately that month.  Two months later, however, the US stated it was now ready to be a co-chair; consequently, the number of the Minsk Group co-chairs rose to three in February 1997 and has never changed ever since.  Immediately after assuming co-chairmanship, the United States suggested—and Russia and France agreed—that they would leave the Minsk Group aside and that only the co-chairs would actively deal with the issue.  The United States became increasingly active in the process, which led to the Key West conference in April 2001, which ultimately failed to solve the problem.  Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan turned down the proposal.  We never knew what Russians really thought about these US efforts, but, for whatever reason, they allowed Washington to go forward.  During the Key West stage, there was not much talk about territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.  But after the Key West failure and especially after Ilham Aliyev’s assuming presidency in Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan firmly pushed for the re-introduction of the principle of territorial integrity into the negotiations over the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh.  Then the French became active, something that resulted in a so-called Prague process, whereby the parties were working to develop the so-called principles for the resolution of the conflict.  Unfortunately, the Georgian war in August 2008 largely ended these efforts.  Following that conflict, however, it appears that the Russians felt that they had to do something on Karabakh and President Medvedev became very active. 

AIW: Were the Russians really interested in achieving a settlement or did they only wish to appear to be interested in conflict resolution? 

Amb. Talvitie: I think it was primarily to show their interest in the broader question.  But you cannot really facilitate unless you are in earnest.  I think there was a lot at stake for the Russians at the time.  So, I think it was a very serious effort by the Russian side.  And negotiations at this stage were also revolving around the principles of conflict resolution.  This Russian effort also collapsed, and the co-chairs of the Minsk Group were changed.  That represented a change: Earlier, there would be a change of membership, but now the three co-chair states are there forever and they have to change people.  And as it happens, it will take time before these new people come to develop a good sense of what is happening on the ground and, consequently, grow active in the process.    
AIW: Many people in Azerbaijan and outside think that the keys to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict lie with Russia.  Russia’s latest initiative to prompt the resolution, however, failed to lead to a positive outcome.  Does that mean that Russia does not in fact possess the leverage in the region that many think it does?

Amb. Talvitie: I do not think Russia can resolve the situation by itself.  No outside power has that much leverage.  It is up to Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the conflict, but they need the Minsk Group co-chairs to facilitate the process, and the international community is likely to step in again by offering its peacekeeping forces after an agreement.  Azerbaijan’s capacity and influence, both in the region and the world, is rising, and it could continue to restrict Armenia’s room for manoeuver.  Indeed, Azerbaijan may succeed in using its economic power to pressure Armenia towards an ultimate resolution of the conflict.  But at present, even though Armenia is indeed very isolated in the region, Yerevan does not seem more willing to compromise. 

AIW: If you look back onto the 20 years of conflict resolution in the region, do you think there were missed opportunities in conflict resolution over this period?  Could the conflict realistically have been resolved at any stage in the past?

Amb. Talvitie: Certainly not.  Because you have to get deeply into the NK status problem and the Lachin problem, and you have not yet even touched on these issues.  Unless you agree on what the status of the NK and Lachin is going to be, you cannot resolve the conflict in any somewhat sustainable way.  I do appreciate how difficult that is, because it is not only a political question, but one that involves two whole societies.

AIW: What do you see as key obstacles in conflict resolution around Nagorno-Karabakh then?

Amb. Talvitie: In 2008, I was also dealing with the Transdniestrian crisis, and I gradually came to realize there was no way the conflict could be resolved at that time.  Why?  Because the status of the Crimea and the status of Sevastopol were still open, and Ukrainian politics was in mess.  There was no way for the Russians to agree on the resolution in these conditions, because any kind of solution had to involve all these issues.  Today, I think the chances for resolution of the Transdniestrian problem are greater, because the issue of Sevastopol has been solved and Ukraine seems to be somewhat more stably balanced between Russia and the West.  The Americans, in turn, have been very active in pressing the Russians to re-engage with the issue and the Russians seem to have agreed to start negotiations.  The latter is a good sign, but I still don’t think that the overall situation around Transdniestria has reached the point when one could expect a final resolution.  The basic problem there is to reach a solution, which would re-unite Moldova and Transdniestria in a single polity and have whatever single polity is to emerge accepted as an EU member, on one hand, and be acceptable to Russia, on the other.  And this is a very tough question indeed.  

Now, if we try to apply similar reasoning to the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh, what we have there today, for example, is very unstable Russian North Caucasus, which Russians are trying hard to control and something that influences to a great extent Russia’s relations both with Georgia and Azerbaijan.  (Indeed, many would argue that Azerbaijan currently enjoys better relations with Daghestan than Moscow does.)  And the way Russia’s relations with its South evolve will affect a great deal the nature of Russia’s engagement with the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.  This is only one of many issues at stake in the South Caucasus, and it is really very difficult to list all the factors which are important for an ultimate resolution to take place, including for those directly involved with the conflict resolution process, intra-regional and international parties alike.  It is hard to understand, for example, what it is that Russia really wants, and I think the Russians themselves are often uncertain as to their goals.  It is often as hard to see what kind of solution the EU or the United States would feel happy about, and Obama was not active in the region during his first term as President of the United States.   

AIW: What is your view on the potential role of Iran in conflict resolution in the region, especially in light of its continuous exclusion by the West from any kind of political processes there? 

Amb. Talvitie: When I was the EU Special Representative to the region of South Caucasus in 2003-2006, I would always meet Iranian ambassadors and very much wanted to follow up and pay a visit to Iran.  I would regularly approach Solana regarding this issue, but he would always advise that, given a very tense international situation around Iran, it was not yet an appropriate time for me to do so.  So, I never went, even though visiting Tehran was always part of my agenda as the EU Special Representative to the South Caucasus, and the Iranian also wanted me to come.  

AIW: You mentioned your role as the EU special representative to the region of South Caucasus.  And the time you assumed that position in 2003 was when the EU itself seemed to have finally developed a somewhat serious interest in the region, something that expressed itself in the EU’s inclusion of the three states in the South Caucasus into its Eastern Neighborhood Policy.  Why do you think this shift happened precisely then?

Amb. Talvitie: The key motivation—and I do not doubt it—was to ensure peaceful developments within the EU’s eastern neighborhood, especially in view of the next wave of eastern enlargement in the making at the time.  So, the overall opinion that reigned at the moment was that provided that the EU could influence the situation to this effect, there was no reason why it should not attempt to do so.  But let me also mention that I think we made a mistake in the very beginning of our involvement with the region to the east of our borders, in that we stated that the inclusion into the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood Policy did not necessarily imply membership in future, even though it did not necessarily exclude it either.  That statement, now I clearly see it, does not make sense and we should have opted either for one or the other, so that the states we were dealing with had a clear idea of what there was to aim for.  Combining the two does not say anything and makes the overall situation even worse. 
AIW: What is your opinion about the attitudes and approaches within the South Caucasus region to Euro-Atlantic integration?

Amb. Talvitie: As far as the states in the region are concerned, they are very different in terms of their approach and attitude toward the EU integration.  Georgia, as we know, has been openly seeking both an EU and NATO membership, even though neither is likely to happen any time soon, particularly in view of the sense of “enlargement fatigue” in the EU, which only came to intensify with the recent economic and financial crisis.  Armenia always tried to keep an EU membership prospect open, while limiting its interaction with NATO.  Azerbaijan, as I often heard in Baku, is not really interested in membership with either, but is willing to actively cooperate with both.  I always regarded Baku’s approach as your emphasis on your present-day capacity to develop your country and your society on your own, an effort you think you do not necessarily need EU and NATO programs for.  On the other hand, Azerbaijan never wanted to isolate itself from this Euro-Atlantic stream.  Hence, the nature of Azerbaijan’s interaction with the West as it currently is.   

AIW: Do you think the EU speaks with a single voice in terms of the organization’s engagement with its Eastern Neighborhood in general and the South Caucasus in particular, or are there disagreements within the Union?

Amb. Talvitie: There certainly are differences within the EU as to what the latter’s approach towards the region should be, but I tried to balance these differences during my term as the EU’s Special representative to the region.  At that time, I approached the European Commission (with which I developed close relations at the time) trying to make a point that while Azerbaijan was emerging as the most interesting country for the EU—in view of its energy resources—EU was having a full-fledged representation in Tbilisi, an affiliate in Yerevan, and nothing in Baku.  The Commission even-handedly agreed with my reasoning, even though during my time, they always said that this was a problem of money.  I cannot tell you what the real reasons were behind EU’s long-term reluctance to opening a representation in Baku, and I do not know who and why was really opposing the idea.  Either way, we finally did see the establishment of the EU representation in Baku as well in February 2008 and the EU’s approach to the region has grown more balanced.  

Speaking about the reasons underlying the differences within the EU as to the organization’s approach towards the South Caucasus, there are, for example, some old EU powers, which have some history behind their involvement with the region.  In the case of Sweden, for example, the country’s relations with Azerbaijan trace back to the times of the Nobel brothers.  Finland, in turn, used to be a part of the Russian empire between 1808-1917, which laid the basis for its historic connections with the South Caucasus, especially in view of very close trade and tourist relations between Finland and the South Caucasus at the time.  The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the OSCE and EU positions for Finland that came with it have heightened our overall interest in the region and now one could find quite many people within the Finnish foreign ministry and other official institutions of the sort who had by now developed quite an extensive expertise on the region.  At the moment, we do not have a role to play in the region, and as it happens, this kind of knowledge quickly goes away if not applied. 

Apart from Finland and Sweden, such countries as France, Germany, and Italy, as well as the UK, are also very actively involved with the South Caucasus and had by now developed their particular positions towards each individual country in the region.  While all these great powers certainly do have some competing interests in the region, these differences could easily be coordinated within the EU framework.  But the differences are certainly there, including those rooted in history.  

AIW: You mentioned some old EU states with a special interest in the South Caucasus.  What about the new EU members from Eastern Europe?

Amb. Talvitie: Among this latter group of states, the Baltic countries have special relations with Georgia.  Now, they are actively developing relations with Azerbaijan as well.  As far as Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary are concerned, they were part of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War and hence do certainly have this regional knowledge, but I think the domestic problems from which they currently suffer and must address in the first place limits the extent of their potential involvement with the region and ultimately the level of their interest.  In this sense, the Baltic states—even though they also had difficulties in terms of their economic performance, particularly in view of the recent economic/financial crisis—do certainly have greater room for maneuver—and hence greater leverage—vis-à-vis their engagement with the South Caucasus.  

AIW: Finally, what is your opinion on the future dynamics of Azerbaijan’s relations with the EU, particularly in view of Azerbaijan’s richness in energy and a lesser extent of its dependence on EU assistance?

Amb. Talvitie: I very much like the situation when you are not dependent on anything.  I believe no one should be dependent in this sense.  And I think that provided the overall situation around the Nagorno-Karabakh, on one hand, and Georgia’s situation, on the other, could somewhat be eased, Azerbaijan would find itself in a very strong position, for you have developed the capacity to influence the course of many events, both regionally and internationally.