2019 started off on an optimistic note in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On 16 January, Armenian foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Azerbaijani FM Elmar Mammadyarov met in Paris for the fourth time over the last nine months. The result was a rather upbeat press release by the OSCE Minsk Group mediating the peace process, stating that both parties agreed to take “concrete measures to prepare the populations for peace”.
Days later, on 22 January, Armenia’s PM Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev had an informal meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. This was their third informal encounter since the Velvet Revolution swept through Armenia in spring 2018 and brought a new popular leader to power. On the sidelines of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Dushanbe on 28 September 2018, the two leaders had agreed to reduce frontline tension and establish a ‘hotline’ between the sides.
The Velvet Revolution in Armenia has prompted many Caucasus-watchers to wonder whether it might be possible to bring some fresh air to the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Talks have been at a stalemate since at least 2011, while the four-day war in April 2016 has further aggravated the conflict’s security dilemma and pushed the societies further apart. No wonder then that a new round of meetings is generating expectations, especially for outside observers. Reactions from within Armenian and Azerbaijani societies remain more sceptical.
Keeping expectations neither too high nor too low may be the best tactics for the moment. There are enough reasons to be sceptical of the ongoing processes. After the April war, the so-called Madrid Principles, which offer basic parameters for the conflict resolution, have de facto been put off the table. Although it is hard to come up with new suggestions, it is also clear that the notion of ‘constructive ambiguity’ ingrained into the principles has not helped steer both parties closer to a negotiated solution. The past ten years have shown the Madrid Principles’ major problem: while they articulate clearly the fate of territories falling outside the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) (withdrawal of Armenian forces), they draw a rather vague roadmap for the solution of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, that is, the realisation of Karabakh’s right of self-determination. The result has been the constant threat of war, with Azerbaijan trying to replace the implied ‘territories in exchange for status’ formula with a ‘territories in exchange for peace’ one. The notion of Karabakh people’s self-determination has in turn been pushed out of most Karabakh discourses circulating in the Western analytical community.
The peaceful power transition in Armenia in 2018 may indeed be an opportunity to cultivate a more conducive environment for the peace process, if for no other reason than Pashinyan and Aliyev do not have a history of relations and can start on a positive note. Yet, both parties continue to hold opposite positions and are unable to reach a compromise.
Since he came to power in May 2018, Pashinyan has drawn Armenia’s red lines for the resolution of the conflict. First, he has argued that he cannot speak on behalf of Nagorno-Karabakh at the negotiations table, but only on behalf of Armenia – the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have no say in Armenian politics, hence they should be represented by their own de facto elected representatives in determining their own fate. Second, Pashinyan’s approach is that compromise is possible only if Azerbaijan shelves its war rhetoric and recognises Karabakh people’s right of self-determination. This is a hint that the prospect of a postponed solution on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is not acceptable for the Armenian side. Past Armenian leaders have voiced the possibility of withdrawal of Armenian forces from territories around the former NKAO, but Azerbaijan never reciprocated or hinted at equivalent concessions on its part.
Azerbaijan, in turn, seems to have cultivated certain expectations following the power transition in Armenia. Pashinyan has come to replace two consecutive Armenian leaders who were both originally from Nagorno-Karabakh. This has given way to the misperception in Baku that with a new, more liberal leader with no direct links to Karabakh, the traditional Armenian stance could soften – without Azerbaijan having to reciprocate.
The risk is that an ill-conceived peace process could end up driving the parties further apart. A case in point is the Armenia-Turkey rapprochement of 2008-11. Turkey’s major miscalculation that it could normalise relations with Armenia without inciting the wrath of its ally Azerbaijan backfired, leaving the Armenian-Turkish ‘football diplomacy’ in tatters: Yerevan-Ankara relations landed at a lower point than they were prior to the rapprochement process.
Misplaced expectations in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks could lead to a slide into war. Both parties have been there before. In 2015-16, a parallel process to the Minsk Group efforts known in the expert community as the ‘Lavrov plan’ generated high expectations in Baku that Russian mediation could land a favourable shift for itself. The subsequent disappointment contributed to the 2016 April war with heavy human losses on both sides.
This new stage of talks is certainly a welcome development. It is however important that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are benign in their intentions when committing to a new stage of the peace process. A breakthrough is not expected any time soon, but building confidence between the parties may be the first step. Public diplomacy was active in the early 2000s but was stifled gradually amidst growing threats of war. The space for people-to-people contacts needs to be reopened. In the mid-to-long term, there is no alternative to security-related confidence building: all efforts can easily be reduced to dust if the military option is not excluded. Last but not least, when entering a peace process it is essential that the parties share the belief that lasting peace can be achieved only through a win-win solution.