Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
In a development long on symbolism but short on substance, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have signed a joint declaration agreeing to work towards a peaceful settlement of the festering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, unless it leads to more concrete steps, the main beneficiary is likely to be Russia rather than those directly involved in the conflict.
The document, signed at a November 2 meeting that was orchestrated by Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, was the first to be signed between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan since the 1994 ceasefire agreement between the two countries.
The document itself is somewhat nebulous and contains no specific commitments for future action. It opens with a statement that the three presidents "will contribute to improving the situation in the South Caucasus and ensuring the establishment of atmosphere of stability and security via political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the basis of principles and standards of international law." Its five clauses also include an affirmation of the importance of the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs' mediation efforts, and an agreement to task their respective foreign ministers with stepping up the momentum of negotiations.
"We regard the agreement as an important symbolic step, but very short on specifics. In fact there are no specifics at all," says Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus project director at the Crisis Group. "It is only significant because both presidents have signed it."
Both Armenia's Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev were tight-lipped following their meeting. However, officials in both Baku and Yerevan commented with cautious enthusiasm on the development. Speaking to journalists in Baku, Khazar Ibrahim, press-secretary of Azerbaijan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: "We would be glad to see Armenia make more active its efforts towards quick solution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as we greet such intent. In respect to us, we will keep working on finding the conflict solutions."
The opening clause of the document has, however, already caused some to question whether is will be possible to find a solution that is both "political" and "on the basis of principles and standards of international law."
At the Baku press briefing, Ibrahim was quick to stress the international law aspect, noting that, "In all adopted international documents, territorial integrity is considered as a dominant principle, even Helsinki Final Act indicates that the self-determination principle recognized by Azerbaijan is to be solved within territorial integrity. All of the international documents put territorial integrity higher than self-determination."
Meanwhile, in an interview with RFE/RL, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry said that the signing of the declaration would "give a serious impetus to further negotiations, because it was stated that the conflict must be resolved by political means, within the framework of the Minsk Group and on the basis of the Madrid proposals."
Problem maker turns problem solver
The agreement between Sarkisian and Aliyev follows a lengthy process of diplomacy by Russia. A meeting between two presidents during the St Petersburg summit in June resulted in an agreement to meet again later in the year. This was postponed until after Azerbaijan's presidential elections on October 15, when Aliyev, as expected, retained the presidency.
It has seemed at times that Medvedev has virtually forced his recalcitrant counterparts in Armenia and Azerbaijan to the negotiating table. Certainly, to judge by the rhetoric coming from both Baku and Yerevan at times, it does not seem the rival regimes are softening to each other.
Azerbaijan has invested $4.5bn in its armed forces in the last five years, and the country showed off its military strength in July 2008 in its first military parade in 16 years. Aliyev's stance has been equally bellicose; two days before the presidential election he told a government session that, "As long as our lands remain occupied, the policy of a total offensive against Armenia will continue diplomatically, politically, economically, as well as in transport, military, propaganda and other areas."
Meanwhile, emboldened by Russia's intervention in the Caucasus in South Ossetia's defence, Armenia recently staged a military exercise in Nagorno-Karabakh that for the first time was offensive rather than defensive.
The political will, therefore, appears to be coming from Russia. After the war against Georgia in August, Moscow has stepped up its conflict resolution efforts, not just in the Caucasus but also by putting pressure on the breakaway region of Transdnistria to resolve its differences with Moldova. Medvedev's push for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh is widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to re-establish itself in as a force for peace in the South Caucasus, and redeem a reputation tarnished after August's war against Georgia. "The process has symbolic importance mostly for Russia, as a means to show the international community that it's not only a problem maker, it's also a problem solver in the Caucasus," Crisis Group analyst Tabib Huseynov told bne.
Other observers have suggested that the bid for security in the Caucasus is an attempt to create a stable transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian to Russia.
Whether the agreement will lead to any concrete progress is still uncertain. After a three-year war, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been "frozen" since the ceasefire agreement signed 14 years ago. Officially still part of Azerbaijan's territory, in political, military and economic terms it is a de facto part of Armenia.
While Azerbaijan has said it is willing to give the republic broad autonomy, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh insist on the right to self-determination. A major obstacle to talks on the republic's status has been Yerevan's insistence that the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic participate in any negotiations - a demand that has been fiercely resisted from Baku. The rift between the US and the EU on one side, and Russia on the other, will also make it more difficult for the Minsk Group to come together to mediate the conflict.
The war in Georgia also has wider consequences for the relationship between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. "The recent offensive operations in Nagorno-Karabakh signaled that Armenia was not afraid of possible Azerbaijani attacks and may even be prepared to attack. This is not conducive to the peace process," says Huseynov. "There is a feeling in Azerbaijan, Armenia and NKR that Azerbaijan is not going to attack, because after the war in Georgia they think that if Azerbaijan tried to retake Karabakh they would have to face Russia. This could be positive for resolution of the conflict, but on the other hand, it could lead to Armenian intransigence in the peace talks if they no longer fear an invasion by Azerbaijan."
The recent war in Georgia has certainly altered the dynamic in the southern Caucasus - whether for better or for worse has still to be determined. The very fact the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are sitting down together has created a window of opportunity for the peace process. The question now is whether this largely symbolic declaration can be translated into concrete progress.
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