December 14, 2020
With the signing, by President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan, of the Russian-brokered statement on a complete ceasefire and the termination of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh the conflict has entered a new phase.
Could this 44-day war be avoided? Had the international community and the UN as its principal body lived up to their responsibilities perhaps. They did not. In 1993, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted four resolutions demanding Armenian withdrawal from occupied territories. In other words, not only from Nagorno-Karabakh but also the seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding it. Regardless, the three Minsk Group co-chairs (Russia, France, and the US), all permanent members of the Security Council and supporters of Yerevan in differing degrees, allowed the status quo to continue. Thus, they misled Yerevan. Because the people of Armenia gradually came to believe that not only Nagorno-Karabakh but those seven districts were theirs as well. The people of Azerbaijan could not allow that.
In earlier posts, I said the peoples of Turkey and Azerbaijan call themselves “one nation, two states” and Ankara’s support to Baku is only to be expected. I suggested that the Turkish government, while standing with Azerbaijan, should also keep a close eye on the diplomatic front because there would be limits to what can be achieved on the battlefield.
Last week, following their talks in Baku, Presidents Aliyev and Erdoğan held a joint press conference. The following is from the official website of the Turkish Presidency:
Drawing attention to President Aliyev’s proposal to form a six-party platform for the establishment of regional peace, President Erdoğan said that Armenia can also join the platform alongside Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Georgia. Should Yerevan fulfil its responsibilities related to such a platform, Turkey might also open its gates to Armenia, said the President, adding: “So long as these steps are taken, we don’t have any problems with opening our gates. That is so because we want to be the pigeons of peace. We want to take the steps of peace. We bear no grudges against the Armenian people…”
President Aliyev said: “We are fully prepared for the new era following the historic victory. Today, we exchanged views on the new era with my precious brother and we saw that our views overlap. We should form a new cooperation platform in the region. This can be a multilateral platform and all the participants may benefit from it… We are open to cooperation. We should close this chapter. We should put an end to this animosity.”[i]
Since President Erdoğan has for long been criticized for his strong language against friend and foe, this is a welcome statement. Hopefully, it represents a broad new approach to other regional conflicts as well. Because the opposite has only led to Ankara’s diplomatic isolation.
No doubt, the wounds of the 44-day war would take time heal for both sides. Yes, Azerbaijanis have recaptured the seven districts and Shusha, but they too have suffered loss of life. Armenians are not likely to put the bitterness of this last round of fighting behind any time soon. But they need to admit, in the not-too-distant future, that their long-term interests lie in regional peace and cooperation. So, Ankara and Baku should continue to put the emphasis on reconciliation. A negotiated settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh question, the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, the Lachin and Nakhchivan corridors would bring unprecedented economic prosperity to the region and turn it into more than a regional hub.
In an interview with the Iranian state television on Saturday Foreign Minister Lavrov reassured Iran and Turkey that the trilateral format leading to the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh was the choice of Baku and Yerevan, that they themselves expressed their interest in Russia’s mediation. He said, “Our position is as follows: when the countries that have the possibility to influence the situation in a particular crisis region (even if they advocate different approaches that do not always coincide) decide to help the conflicting parties stop the bloodshed and unite their efforts, this serves as a good example. This is the value of the Astana format.”
Indeed, so long as the parties to a conflict cannot move forward on their own, different formats become a last resort with inherent shortcomings.
At this point one has to take Mr. Lavrov’s Saturday remarks at face value. Armenia and Azerbaijan should be grateful for Russia’s mediation but from this point on, they should avoid giving others “the possibility to influence the situation”. To move forward, they must engage in direct negotiations. Dependence on the support of others under whatever other format would at best complicate the peace process and at worst result in their being assigned secondary roles. Now is the time for them to take charge of their destiny. Should they agree on a final settlement, broader formats can then be used to enhance regional cooperation.
Russia is undeniably region’s major power. Having brokered the cease-fire, it must allow for bilateral negotiations between Baku and Yerevan to take their course so long as the ceasefire remains in place.
The Biden administration would generally be supportive of Armenia but this is likely to fall short of the positions taken by Senator Biden in the past. But if the parties were to engage in meaningful talks, Washington can play an important role in advising Yerevan that it is time to bury the hatchet and move forward rather than getting bogged down in new rounds of recrimination either within the Minsk Group or other regional formats.
In brief, the world needs one, just one successful example of conflict resolution and hopefully the countries of the Caucasus would not prove a disappointment yet again.