Vol. 2, No. 23 (December 01, 2009)

Endgame on Karabakh?

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s statement that Baku would use force to recover the occupied territories if an agreement on their return is not reached soon, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s suggestion that Yerevan would recognize Karabakh as an independent state if any force were used against that enclave, repeated media suggestions that one or another parties in the dispute is going to turn away from Russia or from the West depending on what occurs next – all these and many other events over the last month have sparked speculation that the South Caucasus is on the verge of a new outbreak of violence.
That is of course possible in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods, but there is another possibility, one that students of negotiations would find more probable: As talks on a conflict that has dragged on for two decades approach a key turning point on the resolution of the most fundamental issues, participants tend to strike the most intransigent positions in public, leading those who have not followed the negotiations closely to assume that what they are seeing is not an endgame but rather an end of the talks.

There are three reasons for those involved to do so.  First, taking a hard even threatening line in public may help to extract some last concessions from the other side.  Second, doing so reassures those supporting one side or the other that their leaders are not going to sell them out by making concessions they cannot live with.  And third, if the agreement later collapses, having taken such a stance at the end of talks provides a justification for renewing the conflict if an accord is reached and then falls apart for one reason or another.

Those calculations would explain all the statements and actions of the parties over the last weeks or even longer, all the more so because various officials, authorized or not, have released details on what appears to be the shape of an accord on the occupied territories.  Their comments suggest that the agreement, which could be announced in the coming weeks, will include the following features:
An immediate Armenian withdrawal from five and a half of the seven Azerbaijani districts that have been under its control since the early 1990s;
A continuing Armenian presence in part of Lachin and in Karabakh itself for a still undetermined period at the end of which there will be some possibility for its residents to express their will about the future; and
A drawing down of forces and various confidence building measures, allowing for the opening of borders and equally important transportation arteries crossing these borders, not only between Armenia and Turkey but between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhchivan.
Such an accord, if indeed it happens, will create a variety of new challenges: Azerbaijan will have to deal with the reconstruction of an enormous region and the return of some but initially not all of the internally displaced persons.  It will have to document acts of genocide on its territory that have taken place under the occupation.  And it will have to deal with a significantly larger ethnic minority than in recent times.  (Indeed, one of the reasons for thinking the situation is at an endgame is that the Milli Majlis this month began consideration of a law on national minorities).

Armenia will have to confront another set of problems, perhaps equally difficult.  It has maintained itself over the last 15 years by arguing that it is surrounded by enemies.  When that is no longer true, the government will have to deliver on its promises.  Yerevan also will have to cope with the costs of withdrawal and with the psychological impact of the Masada-like complex so brilliantly described in Franz Werfel’s novel The 40 Days of Musa Dagh.  And it will have to redirect the anger of Armenian maximalists both at home and in the diaspora who have seen its policies in Azerbaijan as a signal that Armenia will never retreat.

Moreover, both sides, albeit to a different degree, will have to cope with a changed international environment.  On the one hand, much of the international community may decide that after a partial agreement is reached, there will be little reason to keep the pressure on to get a final one.  That could work to Armenia’s benefit, but Yerevan may find there is less interest in it in some quarters because as one South Caucasus commentator put it, for Russia in the South Caucasus, “Georgia is the way, Armenia is the tool, and Azerbaijan is the prize.”

On the other hand, each country will have to work out new relations with its allies and competitors, each of whom will be recalibrating relations with one or the other or both.  And that means that the months following any accord could prove just as diplomatically complicated as those which have just passed.  Consequently, even if an agreement is reached, it may not lead to the celebrations some now hope for or many expect.

And that in turn means that there may not in fact be an agreement as soon as the standard model of negotiations suggests.  But there is one last indication that the endgame on Karabakh is near: The Azerbaijani foreign ministry reminded the world that Baku is proceeding on the principle that “nothing is agreed to until everything is,” yet another way of putting pressure on Yerevan for an agreement but also another indication that a great deal of that “everything” has been agreed to already.