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

New Players Enter Karabakh Peace Process

Will the involvement of the United Nations and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe help or hinder the cause of peace in Nagorny Karabakh?
By Thomas de Waal

A number of initiatives on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict are either adding life to a moribund peace process, or bringing in outside agencies with no expertise on the issue and making resolution more difficult – depending on whom you talk to.

In the last six months, the main mediators have become more active again. The diplomats of the three countries, which are the co-chairs of the “Minsk Group” of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (France, Russia and the United States), have revived regular meetings with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers. A series of meetings that began in Prague were not formal negotiations as such but the Minsk Group mediators hope they will lead to more serious talks next year.

At the same time, other international players have entered the field. Last month, Azerbaijan managed to raise the issue of Karabakh at the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in many years. Next month, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg will debate a draft resolution on the conflict. Earlier this year, the Pentagon even took a brief interest in Karabakh.

All this is perhaps not surprising, given that ten years after a ceasefire was signed between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, no final peace deal has been struck. In Azerbaijan, which continues to bear greater pain of the non-resolution of the conflict in terms of land occupied and people displaced, the sense of urgency is greater.

But the two parties offer very different views about what the involvement of other international organisations means.

Speaking at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London on December 13, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev said that Baku was trying to ensure that the world did not forget about the Karabakh conflict.

“International organisations - and not only the one which directly deals with this issue, the Minsk Group - such as the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations, can and should play a more active role,” the president said.

Aliev said that he was committed to a peaceful resolution of the dispute but issued what sounded like a veiled threat, saying, “We are committed to the peace process but our patience has limits.”

The new rush of activity has a lot to do with the appointment in Azerbaijan of a much more dynamic foreign minister, Elmar Mamedyarov, in April of this year. A fluent English-speaker like his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian, Mamedyarov has shown much more initiative than his predecessors.

Speaking to IWPR by telephone from Baku, Mamedyarov said that he had written letters to the UN, the Council of Europe and to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana amongst others.

“Azerbaijan has made it clear numerous times that we are committed to a peace process run by the Minsk Group and by the co-chairs,” the minister said. “But in the last negotiations we have been stuck in an exchange of views within the Minsk Group.”

“We want to keep this conflict within the eyes of the international community.”

Central to Azerbaijani strategy has been an attempt to get a new UN resolution on Karabakh, picking up on four resolutions that were passed when the conflict was active in 1993-94. The resolutions all call for Armenian forces to leave Azerbaijani territory – although they also contain calls on both sides to cease fire, which were not heeded at the time.

The Armenians have called the resort to the UN a “mistake”. Armenian foreign minister Oskanian told IWPR in written answers to questions that “Azerbaijan cannot try to negotiate on the one hand, and then on the other hand, try to isolate this or that aspect of the entire package of issues and push them individually in this or that international forum”.

While saying he did not wish to exclude any serious interest in the dispute, Oskanian sounded a warning note, saying, “We think we need to stay within the tried forums, where information and experience has accumulated, and focus on the real issue instead of trying to divert attention to side issues.”

The UN debate was postponed indefinitely on November 23 after an intervention by US ambassador Susan Moore on behalf of the three OSCE co-chairs.

In a November 22 interview with Radio Liberty, the US co-chairman Steve Mann did not explicitly criticise the UN initiative but implied he doubted it would help the peace process. “The important thing... is that this depends in the first instance on the parties to the conflict themselves. There must be political will in Armenia and Azerbaijan to settle this,” he said.

One spin-off from the UN initiative, however, is likely to be a fact-finding mission under the aegis of the OSCE to the seven “occupied territories” of Azerbaijan that are fully or partially under Armenian control and are located outside the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh.

The Azerbaijanis say they want to have reports that Armenian settlers are being settled in these territories checked. Oskanian said that he had no problem with this, saying, “We welcome this OSCE Minsk Group fact-finding mission and will facilitate their work.”

Armenians have also reacted sharply to a draft resolution due to be put before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe at the end of next month.

The resolution was drafted by its original rapporteur British member of parliament Terry Davis and finished by his colleague David Atkinson after Davis became secretary general of the parliamentary assembly in August. To the anger of the Armenians, the document currently views the dispute as it is seen in Baku - as an inter-state conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan - rather than the way Yerevan regards it: as a fight for self-determination by the Armenians of Karabakh.

The resolution states, for example, that “separatist forces are still in control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region” and warns the Armenians that “the occupation of foreign territory by a member state constitutes a grave violation of that state’s obligations as a member of the Council of Europe”.

In an interview in London last week, Atkinson told IWPR that he saw the PACE initiative as “introducing a parliamentary dimension” into the peace process, “on the grounds that if you involve the elected representatives of the parties concerned, practical politicians elected on the basis that we represent our constituencies, they can come forward and help in a process that has eluded resolution”.

Atkinson said the PACE initiative had not been coordinated with the Minsk Group, but that he did not want to undermine the OSCE negotiations. He added, however, that “I’m hoping that all sides meet and see a way forward where the Minsk process has failed”.

Atkinson, who took over as rapporteur in September, said he had made only one substantial change to the draft resolution, by adding Article 9 which “calls on the government of Azerbaijan to establish contacts with the political representatives of both communities from the Nagorno-Karabakh region regarding the future status of the region”.

Hitherto, the government in Baku has consistently refused to hold talks with the Karabakh Armenians and only negotiates directly with the government in Yerevan.

The rapporteur himself remains a lifetime vice-president of the organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, headed by British peer Baroness Cox, which has a long record of support for the Karabakh Armenians. He himself visited Karabakh on the Armenian side in 1992. He said the Azerbaijanis knew about this and had not objected.

The draft resolution was strongly criticised in a letter to Atkinson by Vladimir Kazimirov, the veteran Russian mediator who negotiated the 1994 ceasefire. It was dated December 3 and published by the Russian Regnum news agency on December 17.

Kazimirov said the draft gave a very selective history of the conflict and said it was clearly biased in favour of Azerbaijan and therefore harmful to the prospects of peaceful resolution.

“The Hippocratic oath, 'do no harm' to the negotiation process, is absolutely appropriate here, as each side will for sure use any bias in its own interests,” Kazimirov wrote.

An upsurge of international interest shows that the unsolved Karabakh conflict is at least not forgotten. The very polarised attitudes to the new initiatives suggest that progress in actually achieving a resolution remains as far off as ever.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor.