Vol. 6, No. 5 (March 01, 2013)

Approaching "red lines" on the Karabakh conflict

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Armenia’s plan to open an airport in the occupied territories crosses “red lines” both for Azerbaijan and for the international community.  If Yerevan goes ahead, Azerbaijan will be forced to respond to this flagrant violation of international law, possibly through the use of force if increased diplomatic pressure does not work.  But more significantly, because the reaction of the international community will affect the Azerbaijani decision, the international community, which up to now has invested so much hope in the OSCE Minsk Group, will be compelled to reconsider its approach given that that body has failed to achieve a breakthrough in the 25-year-old conflict.

Many commentators and officials in Azerbaijan have been expressing increasing skepticism about the Minsk Group, and some of their counterparts in Turkey, Iran, and the co-chair countries have done so as well.  Consequently, even though the three co-chairs themselves have stressed that at least their work has prevented the situation from deteriorating into violence, fears in their countries that Armenian actions may call even that limited success into question are driving some of those involved with talks about a settlement to think about making some change in the format of talks between the sides.
Azerbaijan itself has increased pressure on the Minsk Group countries and the international community not only by its implicit threats to take unilateral action if the Armenians do so with the opening of an airport, but also by its international campaign to gain recognition of the February 1992 massacre in Khojaly as an act of genocide, a campaign that has already had some success and that raises the stakes about anything connected with the future of that Azerbaijani city.
Speaking at a February 18th meeting with members of Germany’s Bundestag, for example, Parviz Shahbazov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Berlin, underlined these twin concerns.  He stressed that Armenian plans to open the airport at Khojaly “demonstrate the effort of Armenia to freeze the status quo,” rather than to follow either the decisions of all international forums and the Madrid Principles of the OSCE Minsk Group and end its occupation of Azerbaijani territory. [1] 
And the ambassador stressed that “the mass murder by Armenian armed formations of the Azerbaijani civilian population of the city of Khojaly on February 26, 1992 must be recognized, [because] only on the basis of historical truth can the process of long-term reconciliation take place.  Armenia, which itself complains about a genocide committed against it, must show understanding of the problems of the Azerbaijani people.”  Opening the airport at Khojaly shows no such willingness; instead, it rubs salt in the wounds of the Azerbaijanis and shows that Armenia intends to keep its forces in the occupied territories for a long time to come.
What are the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries likely to do?  For the moment, they are joining the international chorus of denunciation of Yerevan for even thinking of opening an airport in the occupied territories, thus highlighting Armenia’s growing international isolation and putting new pressure on Yerevan to negotiate more seriously within the framework of the renewed Madrid Principles which call for Armenian withdrawal from the occupied territories, the restoration of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty within its internationally recognized boundaries, and the provision of broad autonomy for the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and adjoining areas.
Baku has long accepted these terms, but Armenia is once again demonstrating that it is not willing to do so.  Consequently, the Minsk Group co-chairs by doing no more than re-asserting them risk becoming an irrelevancy, diplomats who visit the region periodically but are unable to push things forward.  Given the risk that Armenia is now passing these “red lines,” the international community clearly has to come up with a more effective strategy.
That will require in the first instance a re-examination of some of the problems with the Minsk Group from the beginning.  Instead of treating Armenia’s invasion and occupation as an act of aggression that must be reversed, the Minsk Group has invariably talked about squaring the circle between the right of every country to live within internationally recognized borders and the right of every nation to self-determination of one kind or another.  That may be a useful tactic, but as a strategy, it has failed: Instead of pushing Armenia to withdraw, it has encouraged Armenia to assume that it can simply delay and create new “facts on the ground” which the international community will have no choice but to accept.
Moreover, as the historical record suggests, the co-chair countries are anything but united in their preferences for the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  Instead of putting consistent and unified pressure on Yerevan to live according to the universally acknowledged principles of international law, one of the co-chair countries has continued to provide arms and even troops for the Armenian side.  And instead of supporting Azerbaijan in its quest to restore its sovereignty, other co-chair countries have seemed more interested in criticizing the domestic problems of Azerbaijan, criticism that may be reasonable but that is with regard to this issue irrelevant.
That reality is gradually sinking in.  British MP Chris Pincher notes that, “no one disputes the right of civilians to free movement.  But surely the right time to start talking about re-opening the airport is once the hostilities are over.”  In other words, as a Caspian Research commentator cite, “the airport should not be a tool in the conflict: it should be an achievement at the end of the process, able to deliver inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh—Armenian and Azerbaijani—to the wider world.” [2] And as Sergey Markedonov, a Russian analyst now working at CSIS in Washington, notes even more bluntly in a recent commentary, “the OSCE Minsk Group as a whole and also the three co-chair countries by themselves do not have sufficient resources in order to realize in practice any model” for the resolution of the conflict. [3] 
Consequently, before it becomes too late, it is time for the international community to modify its approach, either by expanding the Minsk Group to include other interested countries or by replacing that body with one that will force the two countries directly involved to negotiate directly an end to the conflict according to international law.  That will not be easy, but it is necessary if Armenia is to be prevented from crossing these “red lines” and sending the region into a period of new and greater violence.


[1] See http://www.vestikavkaza.ru/analytics/Otkrytie-aeroporta-v-KHodzhaly-budet-oznachat-perekhod-krasnoy-linii.html (accessed 27 February 2013).

[2] See http://caspianresearch.com/2013/02/20/khojaly-airport-threatens-fragile-karabakh-peace/ (accessed 27 February 2013).

[3] See http://politcom.ru/15355.html (accessed 27 February 2013).