Vladimir Sarkisyants explains why Azerbaijani and Armenian officials couldn’t even agree to meet again over a protracted conflict.
In the shadow of the unbaiting protests in Ukraine that stole the headlines, another event in the former Soviet space took place last month. On January 24, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan – accompanied by the mediators from France, Russia and the US – met to discuss the prospects of the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This long-standing conflict was the bloodiest of all the clashes shaking the dying Soviet empire two decades ago. Some of its recent history dates back to the early twentieth century and Stalin’s decision to place the predominantly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani jurisdiction.
The Nagorno- (meaning mountainous in Russian) Karabakh was carved out of the greater Karabakh, what Armenians call Artsakh. It took some creative border-drawing by the Bolsheviks to establish an autonomous minority enclave within Azerbaijan that had no physical connection with the neighbouring republic of Armenia. So long the USSR existed, the communists believed, the intra-state divisions mattered little. This was not really the case and Armenians kept petitioning Moscow throughout the Soviet period. Once Gorbachev’s glasnost was launched, Armenian grievances began to be articulated ever more openly and persistently. The goal of separation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan acquired a status of the national cause for the Armenians; determination to not let it go has likewise mobilised the Azerbaijanis.
The ensuing disagreements and collapse of the USSR in 1991, led to full-scale war in which some 30,000 perished. The Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, de-facto backed by republic of Armenia, prevailed, managing to push the advanced Azerbaijani forces back from most of Nagorno-Karabakh. They have also occupied Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, forming the so-called ‘buffer zone.’ In 1994, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have signed a ceasefire agreement which ended the period of hot war but did not bring peace. In the following twenty years a regional cold war set in and an arms race gathered pace. Lately, attempts at negotiations have ceased altogether.
The January 24 talks – a second meeting between the sides after a long period of inactivity – were therefore viewed as having a potential for re-launching the halted process of conflict resolution. The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan were supposed to have prepared the ground for a future summit of their presidents. There were some reasons to be cautiously optimistic, it seemed. Thomas de Waal, one of the most prominent Western area-specialists, noted the unusual ‘rhetoric ceasefire’ honoured lately by Yerevan and even more surprisingly by Baku.
Days before the scheduled January 24 meeting, however, the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clashed on the ‘line of contact’ in manner that went beyond the regular isolated cross-border shootouts. Some shootings also took place outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, along the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. These encounters have apparently resulted in several soldiers being killed as well as civilians allegedly injured on both sides and Azerbaijan reportedly scrambling its fighter jets. Typically, each side accused another of aggression.
Following on the heels of these events, the January 24 foreign ministers’ meeting did not bring about the hoped for renewal of the negotiations process. Moreover, the foreign ministers failed even to formally agree on the need to meet again, let alone announce the date of the expected presidential meeting. Instead, they shrugged their shoulders and stated, implicitly, using their standard formulae, that essentially no progress was made towards the resolution of the conflict. Both sides have reinstated their previous irreconcilable and mutually exclusive positions. This perhaps should not be surprising. Two decades of fruitless negotiations, interposed by periodical violating ceasefire skirmishes, testify to potential explosiveness of this supposedly ‘frozen’ conflict but also to a tacit satisfaction with the status quo.