Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Interpreting the Diplomatic Chatter on Karabakh

In advance of the Kazan summit in late June, when Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian met to discuss the deadlocked Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, there were rumblings among international mediators that this was the last chance. If the two sides failed to make headway on the current blueprint (the Basic Principles), the OSCE’s Minsk Group warned, they would go back to the drawing board and produce a new plan.

This announcement may have encouraged intransigence in Kazan, as both sides held out in the hope of getting a more beneficial blueprint – what Tom De Waal has referred to as ‘forum shopping’ – but more critically it put the OSCE mediators in a corner. They now have to follow through on their warning, and adjust or abandon the Basic Principles, or risk losing even more credibility in the eyes of cynical and wary officials in Baku and Yerevan.

Recent days have seen a lot of diplomatic chatter on the issue. On July 8th the Russian Foreign Ministry handed over its own proposal on the conflict to Baku and Yerevan. To date no details have emerged whilst the two sides study the proposal. According to the Russian daily Izvestia, the ‘interim status’ for Karabakh during the settlement process was the stumbling block during Kazan, so the new Russian proposal may seek to address this without overhauling the Basic Principles entirely.

There seems to be a slight thawing of the two sides’ positions since the Russian proposal was delivered, notably Azerbaijan. On July 13 senior official Ali Hasanov told an Azerbaijani newspaper that the OSCE-backed principles for peace “should not be viewed as aimed at providing an unambiguous victory to Azerbaijan or Armenia in the issue” and that mutual concessions were inevitable.

On the same day, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov seemed positive, saying that Baku and Yerevan should “continue negotiations with no hysterics and work on rapprochement of positions.” However, he also insisted that the Basic Principles should be used and that progress should continue “without waiting for the next phase of negotiations on basic principles”. This suggests that Azerbaijan, at least, is happy with them as they are. President Aliyev echoed this, insisting that the original Basic Principles drawn up in 2009 were acceptable, although the unspecified ‘new’ version is not.

Whilst the details and the effects of Moscow’s new proposal are unclear, other parties have been drawn into the peace-making arena. Firstly, high-level US officials have been undertaking one of their perennial rounds of telephone diplomacy. This is welcome acknowledgement of the problem for Azerbaijani and Armenian officials, but is never sustained or forceful enough to change the situation.

Secondly, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly may not be the most heavyweight organisation, but it has been taking a greater interest since Kazan under a new Special Representative, Joao Soares. On July 10 the PA adopted a resolution deploring growing tensions in Karabakh, and the Azerbaijani representative has been lobbying for greater involvement by the OSCE PA. This is probably just the usual empty statements, but it probably reflects growing frustration with the Minsk Group.

Finally the EU, long content to leave Karabakh to Russia and the OSCE, has also stepped up its calls for peace. Speaking on July 6 the EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton declared that the EU is “ready and committed to step up its efforts in support of the work of the Minsk Group Co-Chairs.” An EU official reiterated the message some days later, revealing that Brussels was talking to the OSCE about concrete ways to get involved and play a more active role.

And of course the Karabakh mediation underdog, Iran, has also weighed in, with a speech by Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani on July 2. Like an enthusiastic but not particularly welcome neighbour, Tehran regularly calls for a peaceful settlement, offering its own assistance and warning darkly of ‘distant powers interfering’. This is rather undercut by a recent Wikileaks cable (I can only find it through third-party sources) in which Armenian officials bluntly stated that Tehran does not really want a resolution of the conflict.

So does any of this mean a sea change in the mediation format? Probably not for now, but it suggests that the standard approach - occasional meetings coordinated by the Minsk Group, repetition of the same blueprint – is losing its appeal.

A more nuanced approach may be in the works, with unilateral Russian mediation (which has always been a feature) supplemented by greater EU assistance and some additional ‘soft power’ influence from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A revised or adjusted settlement blueprint might also be forthcoming, although getting both Baku and Yerevan to agree on a new formula will be a Herculean task.

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