Vol. 4, No. 13 (July 01, 2011)

Karabakh after Kazan

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

No meeting of Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in the past decade generated such widespread expectations that there would be a breakthrough toward a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as did the June 24th session of Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan hosted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Kazan. 

To a large extent, this reflected not so much a change in Baku or Yerevan, but rather the actions of the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries, whose leaders not only issued a joint statement at Deauville calling for progress toward a settlement, but also personally lobbied for a breakthrough in Kazan, telephoning or meeting with the presidents and other leaders of the two sides in advance of the meeting. 

But while the summit appears to have been more successful than some earlier meetings—the session lasted longer than most recent meetings; the sides did manage to produce a joint communiqué, something that has not always happened; and spokesman for both sides and for the OSCE Minsk Group countries, while expressing disappointment, nonetheless said that there had been progress—it did not achieve the progress even on the basic outline of a resolution of the conflict.

On the one hand, of course, boosting expectations in advance of talks is simply a normal diplomatic tactic designed to put pressure on the sides to come to an accord.  But on the other, the failure of the Kazan meeting to result in a breakthrough has been all the more disappointing because of just how high these expectations were and because they were raised by the remarkable joint action of the presidents of the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries.  And those factors, in turn, have contributed to a deepening of widespread skepticism that any negotiated settlement is possible anytime soon.

Officials in both Azerbaijan and Armenia and in the three OSCE Minsk Group countries have sought to put the best face on things, suggesting that significant progress did occur at Kazan, even though all of them expressed disappointment that there had not been more.  And they have suggested that the Kazan talks set the stage for more progress toward an agreement on principles for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict at future negotiations in the OSCE Minsk Group format.

Moreover, this view has been reinforced by some commentators in each of the three OSCE Minsk Group countries who argue that Moscow is losing patience with Armenia—which unlike Azerbaijan has not accepted the modified Madrid Principles—and may be prepared to apply more pressure to its longtime client state in the South Caucasus or who suggest that Yerevan will sooner or later have to yield to the united front of Russia, France and the United States.

If in fact the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries do maintain a united front on the modified Madrid Principles and if they are willing to put real pressure on Armenia and force Yerevan to agree in the next few months, then the optimism of these officials and commentators may prove justified.  But if there is no progress of that kind and soon—and progress would have to include both Armenian withdrawal from the majority of the Azerbaijani territory Yerevan now occupies and an Armenian commitment to a timetable for the restoration of full Azerbaijani sovereignty over the rest—then the voices of skeptics about the OSCE Minsk Group process and more generally about a peaceful resolution of the conflict are likely to become even more insistent.

In the days since Kazan, these skeptics have suggested that if the combined efforts of the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chair presidents to achieve a settlement did not work at that meeting, such efforts are unlikely to work in the future or even to continue, given that the three do not have an identical set of interests in the South Caucasus.  And at the same time, they have argued that the international community has not given Armenia any reason to change its position that is based on the idea that with each passing year, the settlement of the conflict on the basis of a return to the status quo ante becomes more difficult rather than more likely.

Such commentators, in turn, have suggested that the failure at Kazan reflects a deeper failure, that of the OSCE Minsk Group itself, a body that one Azerbaijani parliamentarian suggested was little more than a “touristic” enterprise and that other commentators have pointed out has achieved little beyond avoiding a new war.  But they have divided as to what should be done.  Many, despite their skepticism about the Minsk Group, argue that the two sides have no choice but to go forward with it, given that all the alternatives are perhaps worse.  Others argue that a new negotiating forum should be created, with the possible inclusion of Turkey and Iran, and possibly a new road map as well.  And still others say that Armenia’s unwillingness to agree at Kazan means that a military solution is the only one Azerbaijan has been left with.

Such statements, of course, reflect real views and represent diplomatic feints designed to put pressure on one or another of the sides.  But the increasing frequency and volume with which they are voiced suggests that time is running out for the OSCE Minsk Group approach and that unless the Minsk Group countries move quickly to force Armenia to agree to the principles everyone else has accepted, Kazan will indeed be remembered as a turning point in the Karabakh conflict—but not in the direction that the OSCE Minsk Group countries and their leaders want.