Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Empty Words On Nagorno-Karabakh

I have complained before about the vagueness of the OSCE Minsk Group, its emphasis on form over substance, but the mediators of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process – Russia, France and the US - seem to have outdone themselves this time in empty diplomatese:

“The Co-Chairs presented a plan for the sides to put into action the joint statement made by Presidents Medvedev, Aliyev, and Sargsian on January 23 in Sochi.  Building on the two Presidents' joint commitment to accelerate reaching agreement on the Basic Principles, the Co-Chairs proposed steps to assist the sides in furthering work on the framework for a comprehensive peace settlement.”

It sounds like a lot to unpack, although most of it is hot air. The Sochi Statement was a fine example of addiction to process in the Karabakh conflict – “intensive negotiations allowed [the presidents] to register progress”; they “expressed readiness to expedite the process of reaching understanding with regard to the Basic Principles”; and so on. There was mention of a humanitarian dialogue involving intellectuals and civil society activists, but this is neither very new nor very significant in the grand scheme of things.

So preparing a plan, which must still be accepted, to ‘put into action’ a statement which contained no substance – this hardly seems worth a press release. True, the Co-Chairs reportedly requested the ‘further development’ of a mechanism to investigate incidents along the frontline, although this is not a ‘commitment’ in the Sochi statement, as claimed, but a vague intention.

In any case, no mechanism has been implemented for nearly two decades due to objections from one or both sides. OSCE monitoring visits are announced well in advance, so the observers almost never witness any of the Line of Contact’s regular and often fatal exchanges of fire.

Publicly at least, the Minsk Group never puts much pressure on Baku, Yerevan and the separatists in Stepanakert to permit a permanent or semi-permanent monitoring presence. Instead they fall back on that vague sense of heading in the right direction, in which the OSCE and the conflict parties meet, discuss, request, develop, and promote.

Of course, the argument against such frustration is ‘talking is better than nothing’. Maybe so, but talking has been going on for nearly twenty years with no end in sight. The current format allows everyone to blame everyone else for failing to make headway, usually with justification.

There is an increasingly strong case that the process should be based more on conditionality - allow us to deploy monitors or we will curtail mediation; agree on a preamble to the peace document or we will start on a new set of principles which neither of you may be happy with.

Last year’s threat to draw up a new blueprint came to nothing, which simply makes the Minsk Group seem weak. The OSCE’s levers of influence are admittedly limited, but this threat to start again from scratch might give Azerbaijan and Armenia a much-needed jolt. Russia, in particular, also has significant political and economic leverage which it can bring to bear.

In the absence of fixed conditions, the co-chairs could at least try some brutal honesty: they should state candidly that no achievements have been made, assign blame where it is due, and set out the options for the mediation effort. Perhaps this would not bring results: but it would at least remove the fig leaf of ‘progress’, which is used by all sides to justify the existence of this empty process.


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