Russia is playing an increasingly active role in mediating a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which continues to be a subject of deep controversy between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh army artillerymen prepare to open fire from a howitzer on positions in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, April 5, 2016. Photo: Vahan Stepanyan / PAN Photo via AP
For a different take read: "How Yerevan incident may affect the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process"
Russia appears to be taking a leading role in finding a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In June, at a trilateral meeting of the presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia, Moscow allegedly presented concrete proposals to the parties involved in the conflict. Then, in July, Russia followed up these proposals by hosting meetings with the top leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov probed Yerevan’s reaction to these new proposals during a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states, which was held in the Armenian capital in early July. A few days later, on July 11-12, Lavrov visited Baku, where he held intensive talks with President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. Ilham Aliyev admitted that this was the most dynamic period of negotiations that he was ever involved in concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Baku hopes that the negotiations will now focus on the essence of the problem. There are only two alternatives to it – military escalation or effective negotiations. No one needs a military conflict. So, that means every effort needs to be made to establish successful dialogue.
Such an active involvement of Moscow in trying to resolve the conflict is not coincidental. In principle, it has always been recognized as the most influential intermediary, facilitated by the proximity of the South Caucasus region to Russia, the presence of a Russian military base on the territory of Armenia, and close economic ties with the two republics.
Today Russia does not need this kind of “time bomb” at its border. It can lead to a large-scale explosion, which was clearly demonstrated by events this past April, when major clashes broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in what some have called the “Four-Day War.”
However, Russia now faces a difficult challenge. If previously Moscow could play and win by favoring the interests of Baku or Yerevan, now it risks finding itself between a rock and a hard place. In addition, a large-scale war in Nagorno-Karabakh might have grave implications for the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
In addition, if Moscow does not take on the role of “chief mediator,” others will take up this role. These other parties have never actually reduced their interest in the settlement of this conflict. OSCE Chairman and Foreign Minister of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently visited both Baku and Yerevan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh problem was discussed during talks between Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Moscow, during Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s visit to Azerbaijan.
The conflict was mentioned in the final documents of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, held at the beginning of July in the capital of Georgia, and at the NATO summit held on July 8-9 in Warsaw. Therefore, it is obvious that all Russian initiatives on the Karabakh problem are being carefully monitored.
The problem is that, despite all efforts, the positions of the parties remain diametrically opposed. However, on its side, Baku has the force of international law, which recognizes Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. Theoretically, this gives Azerbaijan the right to return its territories by military force. To avoid military action, Armenia should continue with the peace talks, although the “frozen” status of Nagorno-Karabakh satisfies Yerevan.
That is why the Armenian leadership keeps maneuvering. President Serzh Sargsyan regularly conducts negotiations with Bako Sahakyan, the leader of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), and keeps visiting the disputed territory. Armenia seems to be doing everything possible to slow down progress by trying to shift the focus to the expansion of the OSCE observation mission, the investigation of incidents in Nagorno-Karabakh and other problems.
Also read: "How Russia could succeed in Nagorno-Karabakh"
Of course, dealing with these challenges is very important, but it does not lead to the immediate resolution of the conflict. It will be relevant only in the later stages of the settlement, when Baku and Yerevan will be able to find common ground on the disputed territory.
However, the Armenian government finds it very difficult to come up with compromise, because Armenian society seems to be very intransigent in the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. The recent incident in Yerevan – the seizure of a police station by an armed group - is a warning sign. More than 50 people have been injured in clashes near the police station in Armenia's capital where armed men have been holding hostages for four days, with protesters having erected barricades on a nearby avenue. The group consists of a number of supporters of Jirair Sefilian, the arrested leader of the radical opposition movement New Armenia.
These radicals are unhappy with the results of the “Four-Day War,” as well as the reactions to it by CSTO partners and the OSCE Minsk Group, which consists of Russia, the U.S. and France [the Minsk Group was established in 1992 to foster the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – Editor's note]. They advocate that the self-proclaimed NKR become a part of Armenia and hope to incite the people to revolt.
Indeed, it is difficult to forget the events of October 27, 1999 when there was a shootout inside the Armenian parliament, which led to the deaths of eight people, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan and speaker Karen Demirchyan. The terrorist attack took place shortly before a planned OSCE summit in Istanbul, where the heads of Armenia and Azerbaijan were supposed to sign a statement or document involving Nagorno-Karabakh. However, on the other hand, there is no impressive popular support for the radicals in Yerevan, and therefore there will be no revolt, according to some Armenian experts.
Yet it is not only the Yerevan incident that is hampering the current attempts to resolve the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh peacefully. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the attention of other stakeholders and interested parties – including the U.S., France and Turkey – is diverted from Nagorno-Karabakh by other agenda.
In a few months, U.S. President Barack Obama will be leaving his post, and what the new American administration will think about this issue, no one knows. Meanwhile, French leader Francois Hollande is understandably busy with internal problems, after the bloody terrorist attack in Nice. At the same time, Turkey is puzzled by the attempted coup that took place last week: Ankara is mulling over the future of the country and, most importantly, its relations with the West.
If no new factors appear in the Karabakh conflict, then the settlement process may gain momentum once again. However, it also means that there is the risk of a resumption of hostilities. For that reason, Russia’s willingness and ability to be a mediator in the conflict is paramount.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.