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

Karabakh Peace Process: Clutching at Straws?

The resumption of high-level Azerbaijan-Armenian meetings is seen as positive, but experts doubt 2014 will bring even incremental progress in the long-running negotiations.
By Yekaterina Poghosyan
  • Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan (left) meeting his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Vienna on November 19. (Photo: Armenian president’s website.)
    Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan (left) meeting his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Vienna on November 19. (Photo: Armenian president’s website.)

After a two-year lull, the prospect of a second meeting within four months between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan looks like progress, even if no one believes a breakthrough in the dispute over Nagorny Karabakh is in sight.

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan met in Vienna in mid-November, and this was followed by a January meeting between their foreign ministers in Paris. The two presidents had not held face-to-face talks since January 2012.

Mediators from the OSCE’s Minsk Group then set about persuading the two leaders to meet again, this time at a nuclear security event taking place in The Hague on March 23-25. The Armenian website reported this week that the secretary of Armenia's National Security Council, Arthur Baghdasaryan, had confirmed the meeting was set to take place.

A bitterly-fought war in the early 1990s ended with Nagorny Karabakh and some adjoining territories under the control of an Armenian administration, which continues to reject anything short of self-determination and de jure separation from Azerbaijan in any final settlement. The government in Baku insists that it must ultimately regain control over its sovereign territory. It refuses to deal with the Karabakh leaders, so the talks process involves only the state of Armenia.

The Minsk Group, chaired by United States, Russian and French diplomats, has tried to keep the two governments talking about ways towards a possible settlement. But since the Azerbaijani and Armenian views of what that might entail remain poles apart, little progress has been made over the 20 years since a ceasefire brought full-scale warfare to a close.

Predictably, the November summit between Sargsyan and Aliev did not point to a new way forward, but nor did it generate the kind of recriminations that would have killed the chances of further diplomatic moves. (See Azerbaijan-Armenia: No Meeting of Minds.) 

Some experts have suggested that 2014 might offer a rare window of opportunity for the two governments to engage in dialogue. Neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia has an election coming up, so political leaders on either side could conceivably mull possible concessions without being denounced as unpatriotic.

According to Masis Mayilyan, head of the Civic Council for Foreign Policy and Security in Nagorny Karabakh, “One might anticipate that, now that the major electoral cycle has ended and serious domestic political issues have been resolved, the [Minsk Group] co-chairs and the two heads of state will be forced to address the resolution of this conflict in a more active manner.”

In Azerbaijan, Kenan Guluzade, editor-in-chief of the Baku Post newspaper, remained sceptical about the chances of even limited progress this year.

“There have been plenty of these windows. This is not about windows; it’s about a lack of any will to resolve things,” he told IWPR. “I think that in the run-up to 2015, when Armenia will mark the anniversary of the tragic events in the Ottoman Empire, the likelihood of a compromise on Karabakh is going to be very slim.”

While the consensus among both Azerbaijani and Armenian experts is that substantive progress remains highly unlikely, Sergei Minasyan, deputy head of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, sees the dynamic of negotiations as essential.

“We won’t see any clear results based on actual compromises, since the two sides’ positions are too far apart. But the talks continue because they are the only way for the two sides to support the fragile ceasefire on the line of contact,” he said.

Dennis Sammut, director of the London-based organisation LINKS, which has worked on Karabakh peace-building and conciliation over many years, describes the November meeting between Aliev and Sargsyan as a “positive and useful development”, but cautions that talks for the sake of talks are not enough.

“There is a difference between talking and negotiating. You can talk around in circles for decades without actually being engaged in a constructive process of negotiation to resolve a problem,” he told IWPR. “Certainly, now is the time not only to talk but also to negotiate in good faith.”

The ceasefire both on the “line of contact” around Karabakh and along the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is indeed tenuous, with sporadic shootings that occasionally escalate to a point where many fear a slide back to war. The most recent bout took place in the second half of January (see this IWPR video debate on the implications).

For the duration of the Sochi Winter Olympics, there was a commitment for Armenian and Azerbaijan to hold fire.

“Good news. The Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan re-committed to respecting the NK ceasefire esp during Olympics,” Ambassador James Warlick, the US co-chair of the Minsk Group, wrote on his Twitter account on February 5.

On February 26, Azerbaijani media reported that an Armenian sniper had killed Sergeant Kerem Nokhbaliyev.

“Media report the death of an Azerbaijan soldier along the border with Armenia. What happened to the Olympic truce?” Ambassador Warlick tweeted.

The Armenians, too, reported that gunfire from Azerbaijani positions caused death and injury.

It has often been suggested that withdrawing dedicated snipers from front-line positions would reduce casualties on both sides and thus prevent sudden escalations in tensions. But the proposal is blocked by profound mutual mistrust.

“Removing snipers is not a solution,” Farhad Mammadov, director of the Azerbaijani president’s Centre of Strategic Studies, told IWPR. “It would benefit the Armenians, since they want to freeze the conflict and maintain the status quo.”

Over the years, upsurges in violence along the front lines have generally subsided into the “normal” level of tension. But Dennis Sammut warns against complacency.

“The situation around the Karabakh conflict remains volatile and we must not underestimate the potential of an incident triggering more serious consequences,” he said. “The year has not started well. There have been too many incidents on the line of contact.”

Yekaterina Poghosyan is a reporter for the Mediamax news agency in Yerevan. Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan country director.