After a seven-month gap, the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia are set to meet again on 23-24 January to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Once again, they will do so under the auspices of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev; once again, they will almost certainly fail to make any progress.
The last meeting between the two presidents was in June, in the Russian city of Kazan. There were high hopes in advance, with the OSCE Minsk Group (co-chaired by Russia, France and the US, tasked with mediating the peace process) warning that if the two sides failed to make progress on agreeing to the ‘Basic Principles’, the peace blueprint would be scrapped and a new one produced.
The Kazan meeting produced nothing beyond a bland statement that the two sides had reached “common understanding” on unspecified issues. There was no progress towards agreeing on the text of the Basic Principles, which have been circulating – in one form or another – for years now.
At the time I argued that, given the deadlock, the OSCE would have to follow through on this warning or risk losing even more standing in the eyes of Baku and Yerevan. But it seems that inertia is a stronger force than credibility. The Minsk Group made a number of statements throughout the latter half of 2011 but there were no real developments, the statements being pro forma declarations of the need for a peaceful solution.
The only point of note was in the Minsk Group’s description, in late November and early December, of the status quo as unacceptable. This was seized on by Azerbaijani analysts and politicians, who took it as a sign that more pressure would be forthcoming on Armenia to withdraw from regions surrounding Karabakh, as detailed in the Basic Principles. In a major speech on 17th January, President Ilham Aliyev said that this linguistic development was “an encouraging step” but one which needed further concrete action.
Hard to disagree there. But the status quo has been accepted for eighteen years and doesn’t look set to change soon. The upcoming summit, in the Russian city of Sochi, is around the ninth which Medvedev has hosted since becoming President in 2008. Holding these meetings without the other co-chairs has been criticised as Russian meddling, but frankly with the US disengaged and France deeply unpopular in Baku after its Armenian-genocide bill, anyone who can get things moving should be welcome.
But Medvedev is unlikely to have much success. For one thing there is just not much steam in the peace process at the moment. With the Armenian parliamentary elections coming up in May, nobody in Yerevan wants to make any unpopular moves on Karabakh. External pressures – from Europe, the US and Turkey – are weak at the moment. With Matthew Bryza now kicking his heels at home after being forced to leave the US Embassy in Baku (the result of blocks on his appointment by pro-Armenian Senators), the negotiation process has lost one of its most agile players.
The second reason is that Medvedev’s own term in the Kremlin runs out with the elections in March, when Vladimir Putin is universally assumed to return to the presidency. Putin has never expressed much interest in Karabakh and instinctively prefers pressure to dialogue, so under his watch, trilateral summits will almost certainly become less frequent.
With Medvedev on the way out, his diplomatic clout is much more limited. Neither Aliyev nor Sarkisian will be inclined to sign up to any initiatives which Medvedev proposes, in case Putin reverses them. Both will prefer to sit on their hands and wait until the summer – after the elections in both Armenia and Russia – before making any active effort on Karabakh.