Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Could France Play Key Karabakh Role?

Latest Russian-sponsored effort to resolve conflict comes to naught, but some wonder whether Paris is set to replace Moscow as lead mediator.
By Kenan Guluzade

Peter Eichstaedt

Kenan Guluzade
IWPR contributor

Hopes were so high before the late June’s meeting of the Azerbaijan and Armenian presidents that their failure to make progress in a deal over Nagorny Karabakh plunged many observers into depression.

Now the worst of the mood has passed, it is worth asking why we had such hopes in the first place and, more importantly, whether our despair is justified.

The meeting was chaired by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and he, along with fellow-mediators France and the United States, had suggested an agreement was near.

Observers wondered whether Medvedev might force Baku and Yerevan to accept the outlines of a peace deal.

No such thing happened. The meeting produced only a vague statement about their willingness to meet again. It seems strange now that we did not ask why Moscow would expend so much effort to secure a deal. For centuries, it has played off the nations of the Caucasus against each other.

Why should it scrap “divide and rule” in favour of “make peace and make friends”? If anyone did ask this question, they were normally satisfied with explaining it away by recourse to Medvedev’s character: that he wanted to go down in history as a peacemaker.

It also seems strange that we did not stop to wonder why we were so hopeful about the two countries finalising the basic principles underlying the peace process, as the three mediators put it. Even before the meeting, those basic principles did not appear close to finalisation at all.

The first version of the principles, which was put forward by the mediators in November 2007, had been approved by Azerbaijan, but was rejected by Armenia. A second version was prepared, therefore, and has been approved by Armenia, but not by Azerbaijan.

We know the basic components of the principles – the return of the territory around Karabakh to Azerbaijan, the awarding of an interim status to Karabakh itself, a guarantee of security and self-determination, the creation of a corridor between Armenia and Karabakh, the resolution of Karabakh’s final status by means of a referendum, the return of all refugees to their former homes, an international security guarantee.

But, according to various participants, there are between seven and 15 other conditions that have not been published, and that appears to be where the disagreement lies.

For now, therefore, we are stuck with the status quo: Armenian enforces control Karabakh and the surrounding territory; hundreds of thousands of refugees live in limbo; Armenia and Azerbaijan have no diplomatic relations.

The Armenians appear to think this situation plays into their hands, since the longer they control Karabakh, the harder it will be to take it away from them.

The Azeris, however, also think the situation plays into their hands, since they think they are economically and demographically outperforming their neighbours, so the longer the wait, the better their chances of winning any subsequent conflict.

But there will not be a war. Russia’s role is crucial here, since neither Yerevan nor Baku can be sure that Russia will not intervene against them. Azerbaijan also has close economic ties with several western countries, which it would not want to risk losing.

Russia has not given up on the process. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandyan in Moscow last week, then he visited Baku and Yerevan to meet top officials. Azeri foreign minister Elmar Mameduarov is expected to visit Moscow, while Lavrov will visit Washington for talks with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But the letter he brought to Baku and Yerevan contained Medvedev’s last proposal for the peace deal. In both capitals, he said that Medvedev expected replies soon, and Russian newspapers have reported that the Kremlin is close to abandoning the process if the replies are unsatisfactory.

That is why comments in early July by French foreign minister Alain Juppe, that he had “extra” proposals to make to Armenia and Azerbaijan, were particularly interesting. Azerbaijan’s foreign minister has already met him, and you have to wonder if France might not be set to replace Russia in its lead mediating role.

And, in fact, France has a strong record in the South Caucasus, and it could well prove to be a good intermediary. Firstly, it was Nicolas Sarkozy who stepped in to mediate between Moscow and Tbilisi to seal a ceasefire in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Secondly, although the Cold War ended two decades ago, America and Russia often need an intermediary themselves. So, perhaps France could not only mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but between the other mediators: and that might be what is needed to finally secure a deal.

Kenan Guluzade is a regular IWPR contributor.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

More IWPR's Global Voices