The new Karabakh war of 2020 and the Azerbaijani military victory has redrawn the landscape of the South Caucasus and fundamentally changed the dynamics of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
Yet the dispute over Nagorny Karabakh, now more than a century old, remains unresolved, and some kind of international peace process will continue to try to forge a full peace agreement.
The choreography of the peace process is complicated. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly said that the November 9/10 agreement “resolved” the conflict, suggesting that there is nothing important to discuss. It is a similar message to the one many Armenians gave after their military victory and the ceasefire of 1994. Yet, we should not take his words fully at face value. President Aliyev invited the Minsk Group co-chairs to visit him in Baku and has not called for the dissolution of the Minsk Process.
The Armenian position is of course entirely different. In Moscow on January 11 Armenian Prime minister Nikol Pashinyan contradicted Aliyev, declaring that the conflict was not resolved as the status of Karabakh had not been decided.
On January 18 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concurred that conflict resolution efforts must continue—but with some caveats. Lavrov said that the status issue was best left “for the future” and made it clear he thought independence was not up for discussion, as no one, including Armenia, had recognized the independence of Nagorny Karabakh. “I very much hope that now emotions will recede into the background. That is the reason it is not the best time to make the status of Nagorny Karabakh a topic for immediate discussion, it will remain for the future.” [“Я очень надеюсь, что сейчас эмоции будут отведены на второй план. Кстати, ровно поэтому сейчас не самое лучшее время выдвигать в качестве приоритетной тему статуса Нагорного Карабаха, она остается на будущее”]
Lavrov may be the most public face of Russia on this conflict, but different Russias have been on display over the last few months, giving different messages. There was a Russian-Turkish axis, which Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan evidently expected would replace the Minsk Group co-chair process and become the main mechanism for the conflict. The way Putin and Erdoğan conducted secret bilateral talks will have had sinister echoes for many people in the Caucasus of Great Power diplomacy of the 19th century or how Lenin and Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) bargained in 1920 and 1921 ahead of the Treaty of Kars. What the two presidents agreed we shall never know but it seems Turkey is now disappointed with the outcome.
A second Russia, personified in the Ministry of Defence, intervened unilaterally and quickly on November 10, is now keeping the peace on the ground in Karabakh. This Russia has already conducting activities which were not defined in the agreement—and does not seem very concerned about consulting with other international actors or keeping to the old OSCE framework.
A third multilateral Russia, personified in Lavrov and the Foreign Ministry, is the main international face of Moscow for the conflict. Lavrov was insistent that the Minsk Group co-chairmanship continues in its old form, despite the demands of Turkey to play a new role
But there is great uncertainty about what shape the OSCE process now has and what the Minsk Group co-chairs can and should be doing.
The European co-chair, France, is constrained by its pro-Armenian stance during the conflict, and besides has been the least active mediator for many years. That gives it very little influence over Baku. The United States was very passive on this conflict under the Trump administration—with the exception of one initiative by John Bolton in 2018 that he linked to U.S policy on Iran. The Biden administration is likely to try to reactive its role and use its co-chairmanship to exert influence again– but that will not be easy.
If the status of Karabakh is no longer the immediate issue then the co-chairs will need to work on other elements of an eventual Armenia-Azerbaijan peace agreement. Russia (via a new trilateral working group), is already working on the issue of economic connectivity, but this is a big issue where other actors, including the EU and the United States can offer funding and assistance. There seems to be little interest in the region or in Moscow in tackling the important issues of post-conflict justice and human rights accounting, which were central elements of the peace processes in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, for example. Civil society and Track 2 efforts were marginalized by the new war, but will be essential if there is to be reconciliation in the long term.
Thanks to the November agreement, Russia has dramatically enhanced its role in the Karabakh dispute. Yet its influence is tempered by one element that is not present in the other post-Soviet conflicts: the fact that the peacekeeping mandate for Russian forces is due to be renewed after five years and its extension can be vetoed by one of the two sides, presumably Azerbaijan. Although we can expect the Russians to find strong arguments why they should stay, this gives Azerbaijan leverage. Theoretically it also gives the other two co-chair countries, France and the United States, greater influence as that five-year deadline approaches and Baku and Yerevan have a chance to re-consider the current post-conflict arrangements and potentially call for a more multilateral operation in Karabakh.
It is not just the “what” of the negotiations but the “who”. Since the late 1990s negotiations have been conducted between Baku and Yerevan, with the Azerbaijani authorities refusing to talk directly to Stepanakert. Some in Baku argue that as the conflict is “resolved” it is now an internal matter ad the Azerbaijani authorities should no longer be discussing the future of Karabakh with Yerevan. That logically implies they should be more open to talking to people it says are our its own citizens—the Armenians of Karabakh. But if the Armenians of Karabakh, which ones? Baku has launched criminal proceedings against the entire Karabakh Armenian leadership including Araik Haratyunyan, David Babayan and Vitaly Balasanian. For the foreseeable future one can only expect “talking about talks,” arguments over the shape of a dialogue mechanism, rather than actual talks themselves.
Uncertainty also hangs over the two other OSCE mechanisms which were established after the Budapest summit of 1994 to deal with the conflict and which, together with the co-chairmanship, constitute the other two “legs” of a three-legged OSCE stool : the mission led by Amb. Andrzej Kasprzyk and the High Level Planning Group. Neither of them have been abolished, but they are not referred to in the November 9/10 agreement.
The High Level Planning Group, which is mandated to plan for a peacekeeping force, has basically been rendered irrelevant by the deployment of the Russian peacekeeping mission. However it continues to exist and as its mandate is formally to plan for a mission that follows a final peace agreement it could still theoretically play a role in the future.
Much can be done by the mission led by Amb. Kasprzyk–who bears the awkward title of the “Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on the conflict dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference” as in 1994 none of the parties could agree on how to define the conflict.
As this mission is formally the prerogative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-office (in 2021 Sweden) it remains the main internationally sanctioned presence in the region. For more than two decades, its main functioning was to monitor the 1994 ceasefire line. The “Line of Contact” has completely changed and there is now a peacekeeping mission on the ground. However, there is now a much greater need for monitors along the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, since Azerbaijan recovered four districts adjoining Armenia: Kelbajar, Kubatly, most of Lachin and Zangelan.
This mission was originally conceived as more than just a monitoring mechanism and could now work to implement neglected parts of its 1994 mandate, without the need for new authorization. One of these is to “assist the parties in implementing and developing confidence-building, humanitarian and other measures facilitating the peace process, in particular by encouraging direct contacts.” Another is to “ Co-operate, as appropriate, with representatives of the United Nations and other international organizations operating in the area of conflict.” Both are highly relevant in current circumstances.
Amb. Kasprzyk has in many ways been the “fourth co-chair” of the OSCE for many years and provides institutional knowledge for the negotiation process. He or his successor could continue to play that role but to have a useful impact his team needs to expanded.
Everyone in the conflict zone could usefully benefit from a international civilian mission under OSCE auspices, analogous in some ways to the UNOMIG mission in Abkhazia which ended in 2008. This could be neutral “eyes and ears” to report on complaints and issues of people in the conflict zone, report on unauthorized or suspicious activities and mediate local disputes. This mission could also be a liaison mechanism for international organizations in the conflict zone.
International interest in the Karabakh conflict has always been intermittent. That war was allowed to break out again in September 2020 is a failure of the Minsk Group process and its inability to inspire support in Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. The fact that the war was halted by what was basically a unilateral Russian initiative is a blow to multilateral diplomacy.
Yet this is an Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and surely the hardest questions need to be put to Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who have fought it and who, after all, bore the greatest human cost of the conflict. These questions not only relate to the past: What could they have done to avoid bloodshed? They also relate to the future: What can they do now to forge a lasting peace, achieve a full normalization of relations and avoid the risk of another military confrontation?
Since 1988 one constant feature of the Karabakh dispute has been how the parties to the conflict have continually appealed to an external arbiter—usually Moscow—to rule on their behalf, “to solve the conflict for them” rather than engaging in direct dialogue with the other side to work out a deal that works for all. This has handed the initiative for conflict resolution to outsiders—in current circumstances to Moscow an outsider which has its own agenda for the region.
In 2005, Gerard Libaridian wrote, “Ultimately, a negotiated solution depends on three factors: the degree of urgency felt by the parties to the conflict to reach a solution; sufficient political capital held by their leaders to sell a compromise solution to publics used to hard-line rhetoric; and the combined and determined support of regional and international players to support such a solution. The two alternatives to a negotiated solution – a renewal of hostilities or a solution imposed through forceful action by the major powers – cannot be attractive to either party.”
In the end, the year 2020 saw not one but both of these “unattractive” scenarios which Libaridian described come to pass: first came a renewal of hostilities, then an end to the fighting imposed by an outside major power. To move towards a final resolution of the dispute that all sides will accept surely requires an entirely different approach. It requires direct dialogue and an international framework to facilitate that dialogue. The issues of the composition of the peace process and whether it is embodied in the OSCE or another international organization are less important than its ability to win the trust of different actors and articulate a vision that inspires both Armenians and Azerbaijanis.