Vol. 3, No. 15 (August 01, 2010)

After Almaty: The future of Karabakh negotiations

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Rarely in the past have expectations that a meeting between Azerbaijani and Armenian officials would produce a breakthrough been higher than before the ministerial bilateral at the sidelines of the OSCE meeting in Almaty.  All the signs seemed to point in a positive direction, and the Minsk Group, senior officials in Azerbaijan and Turkey, and commentators there and around the world expressed the hope that the two sides would accept the revised Madrid Principles and begin the process of ending the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory.

All the stars seemed to be aligned.  The meeting of Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov with his Armenian counterpart Edvard Nalbandyan would take place not only in the company of the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, all of whom expressed optimism, but at a session hosted by Kazakhstan foreign minister and OSCE chairman-in-office Kanat Saudabayev who had expressed the hope that resolution of the Karabakh conflict would be a high point of his service in that position.  Moreover, the intensity of contacts between the two sides and officials from the Russian Federation, the United States, and the European Union had been at an all-time high.  And Azerbaijan had been very clear in stating that Baku accepts the revised Madrid Principles with a five-year timetable for complete Armenian withdrawal.

But when the meeting took place, the two sides could not even agree on a joint statement for the press, and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Mammadyarov said that the two had not made any progress and that the meeting had thus been “without result.”  Almost immediately, all those who had displayed such optimism only the day before now expressed their pessimism that there would be any progress anytime soon.  And some Azerbaijani parliamentarians and commentators not only lashed out at the Minsk Group, the Russians and the Americans for failing to deliver an accord but also suggested that now Baku would have no choice but to use military force to recover the territories Armenia now occupies.

That course of events raises three serious questions: Why were expectations so high especially given the difficulties the two sides have had in reaching any agreement at all over nearly 20 years?  Why did the talks in fact collapse in the way that they did?  And what, if any, are the likely consequences of this collapse in the negotiations both immediately and over the longer term? 

Unreasonable Expectations

In addition to the reasons mentioned above, there were three sources of the unreasonable expectations that animated discussions in the media and in government circles before Almaty, all of which were certainly knowable in advance but none of which was acknowledged in the wave of optimism that seemed to sweep through many quarters.

The first of these is rooted in the nature of diplomacy itself.  Diplomats, it has often been observed, must be professional optimists in order to continue to do their work.  That is because they are typically involved in issues where there is no easy solution: if there were an easy solution, the diplomats wouldn’t be necessary.  Their optimism is not a bad thing: it keeps them working.  But there is a real danger when they are involved on any one issue for a long period of time, and that is the tendency of their long-standing interlocutors to take the optimistic statements of the diplomats as meaning more than they could possibly mean.

That is what appears to have happened here.  The Minsk Group co-chairs and at least in public all their countries hoped for a solution, the Turkish government expected one, and many Azerbaijanis and their friends assumed the fix was in.  As a result, Azerbaijanis were swept away by an unwarranted optimism that somehow all the problems that have plagued the talks over the last 16 years could suddenly be resolved by the deux ex machine of the major governments.   

The second of these reasons involves the nature of negotiations.  Those engaged in them assume that all sides want a settlement and in the course of talks will ultimately want to find one.  That is a comforting and reassuring thought.  Unfortunately, it is wrong.  Some parties benefit from not reaching a settlement, especially if they believe that they are better off where they are than they will be with any accord that is on offer.

In the current situation, at least two parties to this dispute did not want a settlement or at least did not want one that was the product of the OSCE alone.  On the one hand, Armenia, as its foreign minister demonstrated once again at this meeting, clearly believes it is better off without a settlement than with anything now available to it.  Yerevan has not been convinced that it will benefit from an accord, something that reflects both its own limitations and the failure of the international community to show the Armenian powers that be just how much they and their countrymen would benefit from withdrawing from the occupied territories.

And on the other, the Russian Federation, even though it is one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group and even though it is on record as supporting the renewed Madrid Principles that were supposed to be the basis of a settlement at Almaty, has shown especially in recent months that it prefers to go it alone, tabling new ideas for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict and most recently dramatically expanding its military commitment to Armenia.  Consequently, the last thing Moscow would have wanted would have been a settlement it had not arranged and that would have left its relative position in the South Caucasus weaker than it is at present.

And the third reason for the unwarranted optimism lies in the new media environment.  In the constant flux of news, journalists seek either a convincing story line or even better a radical break with the past that will attract attention to what they write.  Consequently, they are more than ready to focus on any suggestions that there will be “breakthroughs” to “a settlement” that will represent “a radical break with the past.”  They thus serve, unwittingly in most cases and apparently quite wittingly in others, as megaphones for what the diplomats are saying.  As a result, ever more people assume that there is something inevitable about what they report, even though there have been so many occasions in the past when they, like the diplomats and political leaders, have been wrong.

A Problematic Venue

The unreasonableness of the expectations that dominated public discourse in the lead up to Almaty was so great that it made failure almost inevitable, not only by leading those who want an accord to assume that it would occur regardless of what they did but also by encouraging those who do not to dig in their heels and make even more demands in the hope or even expectation that the side that wants an agreement will make the final concessions in order to get one.  When that doesn’t happen—and it rarely does in international negotiations—talks collapse, as they did between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Almaty.

But above and beyond that, there were two other factors that made the Kazakhstan city a less than likely venue for an accord.  On the one hand, neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia wanted it to appear that third parties were playing the dominant role in reaching an agreement, however much they may at the same time assume that such parties will be playing precisely that role.  Thus, the presence of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and especially the OSCE chairman-in-office at and around the talks had the effect of making any accord far more difficult for either the Azerbaijani or Armenian representative to make progress toward.

And on the other, there was the basic problem that this venue, like the Minsk Group, was all about the OSCE.  Many in Moscow clearly do not want the OSCE to play an expanded role in the post-Soviet space.  Consequently, the Russian government would have little or no reason to welcome an agreement at that venue.  And at the same time, the reason the Minsk Group was created in the first place, as many have pointed out over the years, is that it was the only international organization that involved all the parties to the conflict and in the region except one—and that one—Iran—was a player that the US and many other countries wanted to exclude.

However, excluding Iran in this way has always meant that Tehran has a vested interest in torpedoing anything that the OSCE and the Minsk Group might do, either by making threats, often to Azerbaijan, or making promises, typically to Armenia, that will make it more difficult for the parties to negotiate with each other.  And even if Iran is not playing that role in fact, the possibility that it could provides a useful excuse for those who do not want an accord and the certainty that any agreement, precisely because it excluded one of the regional powers would be more difficult to achieve and maintain.

Short Term Problems, Long Term Possibilities

Not surprisingly, the first reaction in Baku to the collapse of talks was anger, in the first instance at Armenia but then also at the Minsk Group co-chair countries, particularly the Russian Federation and the United States.  Several parliamentarians and commentators suggested that Moscow and Washington had in fact undermined the talks, the first for geopolitical and the second for domestic political calculations.  Curiously, few people in Baku went on the record against the third co-chair, France, something that may matter in the future.

The second reaction was to suggest that now that the Minsk Group-brokered talks had failed, Azerbaijan could no longer count on a negotiated settlement and must be prepared to resolve the conflict by force.  That has always been a theme in Azerbaijani discourse, of course, but over the last two weeks, it has become increasingly dominant as a glance at the Azerbaijan in the World chronology will show.

And the third reaction among Azerbaijanis, albeit less widely voiced than the other two, was that Azerbaijan was going to have to go it alone, to revise its views on which foreign partners, including Turkey, it could rely, and even consider, the most radical possibility of all, that, as Vafa Guluzade put it, for Azerbaijanis now, the main enemy is not Armenia, even though it is in occupation of 20 percent of their country’s territory, but rather Russia, because without Moscow, Armenia cannot possibly continue to act in the way that it has.

Such reactions are likely to predominate over the next months, making any real progress toward a settlement extraordinarily unlikely over that period.  But there may be a silver lining in what is a very dark cloud.  This anger could lead to a serious reassessment of how to conduct talks with Yerevan and possibly open the way to new venues involving new players.  Those with a vested interest in the current arrangements will argue that such a step will throw any discussions back to square one, but in fact, that is where the current arrangements have landed Baku.

Consequently, the failure of expectations for Almaty may ultimately lead to a new approach, one that will take into consideration all the failings of the past.  Moving in that direction will not be easy, but the alternatives—continued stalemate, continued disappointment or military action—are not steps that will be easy for Azerbaijan either.  As a result, it is quite possible that there will be a breakthrough soon, not to a final settlement—that now appears further off than it did only a few weeks ago—but toward a new recognition that Azerbaijan and Armenia are going to have to address this problem directly rather than assuming that any international organization or strategic partner is going to be able to do it for them.