The OSCE reenergized peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh is still underway, but faces obstacles to a negotiated settlement. What must be done to open the way for OSCE incident investigation mechanism and build trust for a comprehensive resolution?

Pictured: An Armenian soldier in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict area. Photo: RIA Novosti/Karo Saakian

The Russian mediator in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group triumvirate, Ambassador Igor Popov, in a rare media appearance on June 7, speculated that the “framework agreement” on Nagorno-Karabakh is not a remote possibility at all.

Adding even more complexity to the reenergized peace process, Popov also hinted at “individual Russian efforts” to achieve resolution, whereas OSCE experts are working on finalizing the implementation mechanisms of agreements reached in Vienna on May 16. The Russian Foreign Ministry came up with a short statement on the website on June 9 announcing a “trilateral summit” on Nagorno Karabakh resolution is being scheduled to be held in St. Petersburg “at the end of June”.

So what does all this mean for attempts to find a negotiated settlement for Nagorno-Karabakh?

Difficulties in finding a solution

To refresh, a pre-negotiation round convened by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, French Secretary of State for European Affairs Harlem Desir and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Vienna on May 16 ended with agreement (inked in a Joint Statement) on four basic points: to respect the open-ended 1994 and 1995 ceasefire agreements; finalize “in the shortest possible time” an OSCE investigative mechanism; expand the existing Office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office; and exchange data on missing persons under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Two of these points (honoring the ceasefire and exchanging data on prisoners of war and missing persons) are international obligations of any state engaged in an international dispute, so both Armenia and Azerbaijan did a favor only to themselves by agreeing to adhere to international norms of the civilized world.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, talking to a pool of journalists en route from Vienna, said Armenia was satisfied with the agreements reached and was ready to embark on their implementation.  

After a few days of silence and a brief demarche by the Azerbaijani presidential aide, Baku committed to all the above-mentioned bullet points within a span of 24 hours.

Azerbaijan, which has never been very much willing to adhere to the peace process (it views it as something Armenia and other peacemakers were using to prolong the status quo), admitted that a new meeting between presidents “was necessary” in order to use the momentum reached in Vienna. Since then, only single incidents of ceasefire violations have been reported.

Also read: "Independence for Nagorno-Karabakh: A hard dilemma for Yerevan"

In Brussels and Paris, respectively, on May 31 and June 2, Minsk Group mediators equipped the Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Ministers with “expert-level elaborated ideas,” or drafts, on the OSCE investigative mechanism and expansion of the existing pool of monitors within the mandate of OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Personal Representative (CiO PR) Andrzej Kasprzyk to chart the path for a high-level meeting during June.

The common narrative after the so-called “Four Day War” suggests that, without these two preconditions satisfied, the peace process would remain in deadlock. It would only be a matter of time before the next round of armed hostilities.

How to prevent a new round of devastating war in a region bordering Iran, Russia and Turkey (not to mention Iraq and Syria) – is the primary challenge before the mediators and parties involved.

Speaking at the OSCE Permanent Council meeting in Vienna on June 9, Russian Permanent Representative Alexander Lukashevich urged “to finalise at an earliest date” preparations for establishment of incident investigation mechanism and expansion of office of CiO PR Kasprzyk.

A few things are clear. Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises at the border with Armenia, conducted in Kars, are certainly not the recipe for a peaceful resolution. Neither is Ilham Aliyev’s claim that Armenia is “a historically Azerbaijani land,” or blaming German Chancellor Angela Merkel for sins before Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan just 48 hours before his own landing in Berlin.

To brainstorm for the interlinked elements of the OSCE investigation mechanism and expanded monitoring mission in Nagorno-Karabakh (especially if Kasprzyk’s mandate is staying the same), one will need to look into the recent OSCE experience in Ukraine following the Minsk Agreements.

OSCE: A marginal role in Ukraine

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine is vested with the mandate “to gather information on the situation in Ukraine in an impartial and transparent manner,” as well as “to document incidents… on a daily basis.” The SMM is also monitoring the implementation of the Minsk Agreements in general terms, including the withdrawal of heavy weapons and foreign military equipment and mercenaries from Ukraine, but “on a limited basis” due to personnel security concerns. The SMM also developed an online library of interesting reports on various issues – including gender and the justice system in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Frustrated with the limited utility of the SMM, Ukraine, Russia and other stakeholders are now mulling over introducing a lightly armed policing mission in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin is against the whole idea in principle, while Kiev argues that there should be “no Russian boots on the ground.” As long as neither party has demonstrated willingness to abide by agreements reached, the SMM will continue playing a marginal role in the open-ended peace process.

The financial cost of sustaining observation or monitoring missions, especially in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, is another problem. Back in 2012, Azerbaijan disabled the consensus in OSCE budget discussions for the allocation of funds for establishing incident investigation mechanisms.

For those familiar with the history of peacekeeping operations and international observation missions in the past few decades, the SMM in Ukraine has a sample mandate for a Cold War-era, state sovereignty-conscious mission that will only do reporting and filing with no effect on the conflict resolution, allowing the sides to exercise their political rhetoric.  

The age-old case that comes to mind is the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), established in Spring 1978, which played virtually no role in deterring (it didn’t have mandate to use force and stop) Israeli interventions in either 1982 or 2006. UNIFIL, too, as the SMM in Ukraine, developed a robust library of their activity reports.

Of course, proper and expert-level discussion of peacekeeping or observation mission mandates and specifics would require larger space and depth to elaborate, yet the recipe for Nagorno-Karabakh, in a nutshell, requires a more tailored approach.

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The OSCE investigation mechanism in Nagorno-Karabakh will either fall within the mandate of the CiO PR Kasprzyk (likely) or a special mandate established by the Permanent Council (unlikely). However, if Kasprzyk’s office expands within the existing mandate, what added value are they going to bring apart from producing a lot of paperwork?

On the positive side, for the purposes of advancing the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh, the deterrence effect of the investigation mechanism as such will overshadow the practical utility of the mechanism, if parties agree to this in principle instead of pro forma box ticking. And if the goodwill is out there to view this as a beginning of a longer journey, the six-hour blackout for leaking the incident to the media, as enshrined in the February 1995 document drafted by former Russian special envoy Vladimir Kazimirov and signed by all parties (Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan), will show not only consistency in mediation efforts in the past 20 years, but also allow for real work instead of abusing the whole arrangement by spinning narratives in the media.

And, last but not least, those who fought back in the Four Day War, shall have their say to this measure, as they are the real players on the ground, able to upset or veto any arrangement that negotiators will otherwise ink.

Without searching for nuances in the wording of the latest OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs’ press statement of June 3 or Popov’s interview of June 7, it is nonetheless clear that the thought-provoking documents delivered to Yerevan and Baku shall be, among other things, consented to by the “elected representatives” of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, too. This is because the main effect of these papers is well beyond the physical borders of Armenia and, in fact, of Azerbaijan – neither side has bodies of governance functioning in the yet unrecognized state, nor they ever had since the demise of Soviet Union.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.