Nagorno Karabakh: Getting to a Breakthrough
A preliminary breakthrough in the two-decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – a framework agreement on basic principles – may be within reach. Armenia and Azerbaijan are in substantial accord on principles first outlined by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group in 2005. A basic principles agreement, while only a foundation to build on, is crucial to maintain momentum for a peace deal. Important differences remain on specifics of a subsequent final deal. Movement toward Armenia-Turkey rapprochement after a century of hostility has brought opportunity also for ending the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate. Sustainable regional peace requires compromises on all the quarrels, but there is backlash danger, especially in Armenia, where public discontent could derail the Nagorno-Karabakh framework agreement. Presidents Sarkisian (Armenia) and Aliyev (Azerbaijan) need to do more to prepare their publics. The U.S., Russia and France, Minsk Group co-chairs, have stepped up collective efforts, but more is needed to emphasise dangers in clinging to an untenable status quo.
Although a deliberate military offensive from either side is unlikely in the near future, the ceasefire that ended active hostilities fifteen years ago is increasingly fragile. There has been a steady increase in the frequency and intensity of armed skirmishes that could unintentionally spark a wider conflict. Though the ceasefire has helped prevent return to full-scale hostilities, it has not prevented some 3,000 deaths along the front line – military and civilian alike – since 1994.
The official negotiations have also not significantly tempered the great scepticism and cynicism among both Armenians and Azerbaijanis about a possible end to the conflict. There is deep distrust of the mediating process, and many on both sides are suspicious that the talks are little more than window-dressing. Many also complain about what they perceive as the secretive nature of the talks. This gives rise to suspicions that a peace deal equates to surrender and that leaders who would take such action would be guilty of treason. These fears have been fuelled by years of official and unofficial propaganda on both sides, and particularly in Armenia, there is a growing sentiment that a change in the status quo could create new security threats. Notably, there is concern even among some government officials that Armenia is being pressured to give up something tangible – the occupied territories – in exchange for mere promises of security. These feelings are especially acute in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The presidents are believed to have broadly agreed on the need for an eventual pullout of ethnic Armenian forces from districts of Azerbaijan outside of Nagorno-Karabakh they currently control. Azerbaijan has also given indications that it is not opposed to a corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. There have been differences on a timetable for the return of ethnic Azeri refugees to Nagorno-Karabakh. The most contentious issue, however, is the region’s final status. There has been some movement towards defining an “interim status” for Nagorno-Karabakh, but Azerbaijan still insists that it must always remain legally part of its territory, while Armenia (and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities) insist that residents of the region have the right to determine their own status, be it as part of Armenia or as an independent state.
The Armenian and Azerbaijani governments should engage their populations in genuine debate about the options on the negotiating table, as well as the risks of letting the current situation linger. Civil society organisations involved in peacebuilding should revamp their efforts to facilitate constructive, wider discussion. International NGO projects have involved a miniscule percentage of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Often the same “experts” have been involved for over a decade in conferences that have largely failed to create the greater public awareness on issues, options and their implications that could diminish insecurities and so free the hands of the negotiators.
Furthermore, Armenia and Azerbaijan should gradually involve Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto authorities and the Nagorno-Karabakh Azeri representatives in the peace talks to secure their buy-in to decisions that would directly affect them. An inclusive and multi-layered format envisioning direct contacts between Azerbaijan and Karabakh Armenians as well as between the Karabakh Armenians and Azeris could help promote a more efficient dialogue.
The Security Situation on the Line of Contact
The ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh has held up since full-scale hostilities ended in 1994, despite frequent, but mostly low-intensity skirmishes with relatively moderate casualties. Nevertheless, while a deliberate resumption of full-scale hostilities is unlikely in the immediate future, a number of factors suggest that the status quo along the front line may be increasingly unstable and difficult to sustain.
The frequency and intensity of clashes have grown since early 2008. Although citing different figures, Armenia and Azerbaijan agree there was a record number of ceasefire violations that year. Lately, there have also been occasional reports of the use of mortars, noteworthy because most previous incidents involved only small arms. Both sides reportedly used these heavier weapons during deadly clashes near the Azerbaijani town of Ter-Ter, close to Nagorno-Karabakh, on 4-5 March 2009. İn 2009, the Armenian side accused Azerbaijani forces of using artillery for the first time since 1994. The opposing forces engage in trench warfare, gradually moving their fortifications and positions in the line of contact closer to one another. Today, the distance between some forward positions around Nagorno-Karabakh is just twenty to 40 metres. Most ceasefire violations occur in these areas of close contact.
There is an uneasy military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Having gained control over substantial Azerbaijani territories, including most of the strategic heights around Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian side holds a formidable defensive position. Azerbaijan would not initiate hostilities unless it was confident of regaining a significant portion of its lost territories. Analyses of its present military capability concur that a major offensive is unlikely to succeed.
However, a dangerous arms race is under way in which both sides are exponentially increasing military spending and have accused each other of violating their limits under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which limits deployments and materiel in the region. Baku has consistently claimed that if peace talks fail, it is entitled to terminate the ceasefire and use force in Nagorno-Karabakh as a legitimate exercise of self-defence to regain occupied territories. Yerevan and Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto authorities respond that in the event of resumed hostilities, Azerbaijan would sustain even greater human and territorial losses. Armenian forces have reportedly carried out five military exercises in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in 2009, an unusually high number. While the Armenian side prefers to preserve the status quo until a favourable peace agreement is reached, it has indicated a readiness to launch a pre-emptive strike if necessary.
Both sides have frequently complained about the ineffectiveness of monitoring conducted by the OSCE. There have been occasional calls in Azerbaijan to scrap the mission entirely. Its effectiveness is limited by a weak mandate that prevents it from conducting independent investigations into ceasefire violations and snap inspections. A stronger mandate would presumably be most opposed by Azerbaijan, which is unhappiest with the status quo on the ground. Nevertheless, the mandate needs to be expanded if the OSCE monitoring mission is to become reasonably effective.
A Window of Opportunity
In a rare demonstration of unified policy towards the South Caucasus, the Minsk Group chairs, France, Russia and the U.S., issued a joint statement on the margins of the July 2009 G8 summit calling on Armenia and Azerbaijan to “to resolve the few differences remaining between them and finalise their agreement on [the] Basic Principles”. This followed a year of vigorous shuttle diplomacy by the Minsk Group diplomats, who visited Yerevan and Baku – individually or as a group – as frequently as twice a month in an attempt to broker an agreement. It signalled a common commitment to bring an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem that contrasts, for example, with their serious differences over the Georgia situation.
Some observers noted that Aliyev has had much better rapport with Sarkisian than with the previous Armenian chief executive, Kocharian. The Minsk Group co-chairs praised both presidents for engaging in increasingly substantive and frank discussions. The intense diplomatic activity has raised optimism about a new window of opportunity to achieve significant progress in the next few months.
Russia views its mediation efforts over Nagorno-Karabakh as a means for promoting its influence in the region. It also sees an opportunity to mend its tarnished image by presenting itself as a responsible regional power. As a result, it brokered the Moscow Declaration of November 2008, signed jointly by its president and his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. It reaffirmed a “political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict based on the principles of international law and the decisions and documents approved within this framework”. Although lacking specifics, the declaration carried significant symbolic weight as the first document signed by the conflict parties since the 1994 ceasefire and the first on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict signed by the two presidents since their countries’ independence three years previously.
Moscow appears to reciprocate Western support for the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement – a high point of which was reached in August 2009 with announcement of two protocols on establishment of diplomatic relations. A critical deadline for Turkish-Armenian relations, and perhaps also for the success of Armenian-Azerbaijani talks, comes on 14 October 2009, when Turkey and Armenia play a second qualifier match for the football World Cup. After President Abdullah Gül travelled to Yerevan to watch the first match in September 2008, President Sarkisian pledged to return the visit. In late July, however, he conditioned his trip on Ankara demonstrating willingness to reopen the Turkish-Armenian border. To retain its close ties to Azerbaijan and avoid a nationalist backlash at home, Ankara has said that it will not act against Azerbaijan’s interests, hinting that the border issue is linked to progress on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Such progress may not have to be an actual start of Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijani occupied territories, as Turkey has insisted previously; it might instead be an agreement on the basic principles, a step that could be seen as striking a balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani positions.
The unexpected 31 August announcement by Turkey and Armenia on diplomatic ties injected an additional sense of urgency into the Nagorno-Karabakh talks. The six-week deadline that has been set to conclude the necessary measures for the two parliaments to ratify will expire not only days before the football match but also just days after Presidents Aliyev and Sarkisian are to meet in Moldova on the sidelines of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit. Whether that meeting further narrows differences is likely both to determine if a basic principles agreement can be secured in 2009 and if the parliaments will approve the normalisation protocols.
After two decades of conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia have moved closer to a preliminary “basic principles” agreement that would create crucial momentum towards an eventual formal peace agreement. Key differences remain, however, regarding the right of return of all displaced, the specifics of Nagorno-Karabakh’s interim status and, especially, a mutually acceptable process for determining its final status. The leaderships of both countries, particularly in Armenia, face significant opposition from political forces that are suspicious or outright opposed to even the broad outlines of a basic principles agreement. Both governments need to do more to counter years of hostile propaganda in their societies. International mediators should reinforce the message that the status quo is not sustainable, given growing instability along the front lines, steady increase in armed skirmishes and dangerous military build-ups in both countries. While the historic move of Armenia and Turkey toward rapprochement after a century of hostility is technically distinct, the processes reinforce each other.
Similar “windows of opportunity” have been missed before, falling victim to public hostility stoked by hostile propaganda and entrenched bitterness on both sides and a mutual lack of political will. This time, a large part of the impetus for progress has come from the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia themselves. Parallel to the efforts at the negotiating table, the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaderships and their international partners should work with the publics to bridge the gap in perceptions of the peace process, so that popular opinion reinforces, rather than challenges the political will of leaders to reach agreements. Key actors, including the Minsk Group, need to reassure both countries and their leaderships that a basic principles agreement would be the starting point for vigorous negotiations on the thorniest issues that still need to be tackled to forge a final and lasting peace.
 The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs said some 30 people were killed and 50 injured from both sides in 2008. “Statement”, 6 March 2009, www.osce.org/item/36664.html. There are no exact figures of casualties since 1994, but most observers agree that as many as 3,000 people, mostly soldiers, have died from both sides since then because of direct violations of the ceasefire regime. Crisis Group phone interview, Jasur Sumerinli, military expert, August 2009.
 Thus, in 2008 the Azerbaijani side reported 1,250 ceasefire violations, as opposed to 575 in 2007 and 220 in 2006. “Fifteen years pass since ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia” (in Azeri), APA News Agency, 12 May 2009. The Armenian defence ministry claimed the Azerbaijani side violated the ceasefire “almost 3,500 times” in 2008, which it said was 2.5 times more than the previous year. “In 2008 the Azerbaijani side violated the ceasefire regime in the Karabakh conflict zone almost 3,500 times” (in Russian), Regnum News Agency, 15 January 2009.
 Azerbaijan claimed twelve Armenians and four of its soldiers were killed, while the Armenian side claimed eight Azerbaijani soldiers were killed and two Armenian soldiers wounded during the clashes. Both sides accused the other of starting the fighting. See “Karabakh casualty toll disputed”, BBC News, 5 March 2008.
 Speaking in January 2009, Armenian defence ministry official Andranik Mkrtumyan claimed Azerbaijan fired twelve artillery shells during this incident. “In 2008, the Azerbaijani side violated the ceasefire regime”, Regnum, op. cit.
 Crisis Group interviews, Western military analysts, May-July 2009.
 Azerbaijan increased its defence expenditures from $135 million in 2003 to $1.85 billion in 2008, although it continues to spend a much smaller percentage of its GDP on the army than Armenia, whose defence budget was $410 million in 2008. See Crisis Group Europe Briefing Nº50, Azerbaijan: Defence Sector Management and Reform, 29 October 2008.
 See, for details, Crisis Group Europe Report Nº187, Nagorno-Karabakh: Risking War, 14 November 2007.
 Azerbaijan has circulated a document in the UN arguing its legal right to self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. See “Report on legal consequences of the armed aggression by the Republic of Armenia against the Republic of Azerbaijan”, annex to the 22 December 2008 letter from Azerbaijan’s UN ambassador to the Secretary-General, A/63/662-S/2008/812, 24 December 2008.
 Thus, the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh defence minister said on 10 July 2009, “the line of security of the NKR population lies not through [the] Lachin [corridor], but the KuraRiver [in central Azerbaijan]”. ArmInfo news agency, 10 July 2009.
 These exercises were carried out in February, March, April and May 2009. Azerbaijan claimed they were intended as intimidation. See, for example, “Karabakh Armenians hold fresh military drill”, Armenialiberty.org, 27 March 2009.
 Movses Hakopian, the Nagorno-Karabakh de facto defence minister, replied when asked about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike, “it can’t be ruled out that we will mount an offence if the situation calls for one”. “NKR defence minister: ‘We will attack if the situation so demands’”, Hetq.am, 23 July 2009.
 Crisis Group interviews, Baku, Yerevan, Tbilisi, July-August 2009. U.S. Minsk Group co-chairman Matthew Bryza also said in late 2008 the two presidents “seem to have developed some sort of personal chemistry and mutual respect”. www.armenialiberty.org/content/article/1598425.html.
 Thus, then co-chairman Bryza qualified the 7 May meeting of the presidents in Prague as “the most substantive exchange of views between the presidents so far”. See “Minsk Group sees breakthrough in Karabakh negotiations”, 7 May 2009. French co-chairman Bernard Fassier similarly said following the 17 July Moscow meeting, “we have never seen before how presidents speak so straightforwardly and frankly about difficult questions”, but added: “The closer you are to a resolution, the more difficult some problems become.” “Bernard Fassier: We continue our efforts to get approval of both presidents on the Madrid proposals” (in Russian), APA news agency (Baku), 18 July 2009.
 Text of the declaration: www.kremlin.ru/eng/text/docs/2008/
 On Turkey-Armenia relations see Crisis Group Europe Report Nº199, Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds, Opening Borders, 14 April 2009.
 “I will leave for Turkey if we have an open border or stand on the brink of the lifting of Armenia’s blockade”, Sarkisian said on 28 July 2009 in Yerevan, during a meeting with Serbian President Boris Tadic. See “Sarkisian reaffirms conditions for Turkey visit”, Armenialiberty.org, 28 July 2009. He was criticised by his domestic opponents for leaving a window open for a possible visit before the border was open. See, eg, James Akopyan, “Turkish dribbling and Armenian bodybuilding” (in Russian), Lragir.am, 29 July 2009.
 “We won’t take a step which will sadden our Azerbaijani brothers. They are being informed of the entire [Turkish-Armenian rapprochement] process … and it will go on as before”, said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Ercan Yavuz, “Davutoğlu pledges not to disappoint Azerbaijan”, Today’s Zaman, 16 September 2009.