ALACO DISPATCHES: Resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh dispute as distant as ever

ALACO DISPATCHES: Resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh dispute as distant as ever
Armenian soldier patrols in Nagorno-Karabakh.
By Jonathan Melliss of Alaco June 17, 2016

While the renewed international focus on Armenia and Azerbaijan may prevent further violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, prospects for a permanent settlement of the long-running conflict look increasingly dim. Ahead of a proposed meeting on June 20 between Armenian and Azeri Presidents Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, neither government has prepared their populations to make the necessary concessions for peace.

April saw the most serious outbreak of hostilities in the region since the 1994 ceasefire, with over 100 soldiers killed. The violence, occasionally referred to as the Four Day War in Azerbaijani and Armenian media, ended on April 5 with a ceasefire agreed between the two sides, although occasional skirmishes have continued. Since the latest round of fighting, media coverage has focused on the flurry of diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict.

There have been a series of meetings between the Armenian and Azeri presidents and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) co-chairs US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and France’s Secretary for European Affairs Harlem Desir. Reports emanating from Russian officials suggest the Putin-hosted talks expected June 20 in St Petersburg may deliver a “comprehensive settlement”. In spite of positive noises coming from the US and Russian camps, April’s four-day war has left both sides as far apart as ever, with any deal unlikely to amount to more than a stabilisation of the ceasefire.

Triumphalism trumps concessions

Of course, the high-level diplomacy undertaken to date is a positive step, but regional analysts, academics and journalists have been quick to point out that real progress is not possible without domestic pressure or courageous leadership, neither of which is much in evidence.

As academic Nina Caspersen pointed out in a recent article for the Washington Post, the April war has polarised attitudes on both sides, with Azeri triumphalism over its perceived victory met with Armenian counter-claims and reassertions of its commitment to the region. This suggests that neither country’s population nor government is ready to make the necessary concessions to secure a permanent resolution to the conflict.

There is little room for compromise in public discourse on the conflict in either Armenia or Azerbaijan, with the largely state-dominated media landscapes in both countries parroting their respective defence ministry reports of ceasefire violations, provocations and successful missions against the aggressor. Indeed, it is currently unclear what shape a more permanent peace agreement would take. The Basic Principles agreed in 2007 by the Minsk Group – which was created by the OSCE in 1992 to resolve the conflict – called for the withdrawal of troops from the seven territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and an interim status for the region itself, with a view to establishing a “legally binding expression of will”, presumably via a referendum, to determine its final legal status.

The chances of these steps being followed appear increasingly remote, as both Sargsyan and Aliyev are in considerably stronger domestic political positions than 10 years ago and less susceptible to pressure from any of the OSCE co-chairs, France, Russia and the US.

While often criticised in Western media as a malign puppet master in the region, it is far from certain that Moscow is in any position to dictate terms to either government. Russia is Armenia’s chief strategic ally, with a permanent military base in the country, although it has also been careful not to jeopardise ties with Azerbaijan. While Russian military sales to both sides are hardly helpful to the peace process, it would appear that Moscow’s interests are also best served by peace.

Lack of united front

Moreover, the relationship between the OSCE co-chairs has deteriorated, making any united front between the three highly unlikely. The rapid collapse in the relationship between Turkey and Russia, the major allies of Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively, has also further hindered the possibility of achieving an international consensus on the issue. The continuing drip of casualties reported on both sides in the weeks since the April war has led some to propose an international peacekeeping mission. However, precisely because of the continued violence and security priorities elsewhere, it is difficult to see which country would be willing to provide troops for such an effort, and whether it would be accepted in either Baku or Yerevan.

Despite the conflict, there has been significant economic development in both Azerbaijan and Armenia over the last decade, fuelled by high energy prices and increased diaspora engagement. But worryingly, this economic progress has stalled of late with protests occurring in both Baku and Yerevan within the last 18 months over rising prices and the decline in living standards. That potentially leaves Sargsyan and Aliyev facing growing instability at home, which may make both leaders more susceptible to ill-conceived notions of a decisive military victory in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Jonathan Melliss is a senior analyst at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.